College: Rankings and Beyond

We can’t tell you how many times kids tell us they want to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc… but when we ask them why, they have no specific reason. Colleges want to know WHY you are applying—are you impressed by their world-famous chemistry program? The well-known English department? The art history department with a specialty in Renaissance art? Oftentimes students with particular interests do themselves a disservice by not bothering to check if the schools on their list match their academic interests. For example, if you like ancient languages, you’d want to apply to a school that at least offered classes in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Sanskrit and the like. You may find that schools that you’d barely considered before end up being top in the country in particular areas.

Choosing a college solely based on its overall US News and World Report ranking is often misleading. Sure, US News has spent a lot of time devising a precise formula for what they believe are the most important factors on which to evaluate a school. You can read an extended version of their methodology here, but essentially, they use a formula that “uses quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it’s based on [their] researched view of what matters in education.” They separate colleges by their mission and their region, then evaluate them on sixteen indicators of academic excellence, including assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, and alumni giving. We’re sure you can agree that, while a school may rank highly based on high scores in each category, whether or not alumni give to the school is likely not going to tell you whether that school has a fabulous planetary science program, with the most distinguished professor in the country in the area of Martian cratering studies. Going with our planetary science example, a student might originally be gung-ho, dead set on attending this year’s number one ranked schools, Harvard or Princeton. If that same student is passionate about planetary and earth sciences, they may not realize that the number one ranked school in that academic discipline including graduate studies is actually the California Institute of Technology; Harvard is ranked #8 in that discipline, and Princeton #9. (http://www.usnewsuniversitydirectory.com/graduate-schools/sciences/earth-sciences.aspx).

How can you check? First, it’s often helpful to consult the graduate rankings in a publication like US News and World Report, although keep in mind that sometimes graduate programs and faculty are separate from the undergraduate, sometimes shared. Once you have that list, comb the web sites, course guides and published info from colleges to see if they are strong in your area(s) of interest. Finally, call the school or visit and speak to professors, visit the library, check out the holdings—in short, make an INFORMED decision about where you are applying and why.

Score Optional Schools

Standardized testing is not every student’s strong suit and some students are not strategic in their planning of test dates, not allowing enough time to apply early or retest for strong scores. There are some great schools that are “score optional” schools, meaning that they do not require applicants to submit standardized testing scores to be considered for admission. Many technical and arts schools do not see the ACT and SAT as good indicators of future performance, and now many larger universities and liberal arts schools are recognizing the limitations of testing. For instance, some schools believe that using the SAT and ACT in their admissions decisions give unfair advantage to students from schools or families that can afford courses in or tutors for test preparation. Other schools believe doing away with standardized testing will help “enhance intellectual and demographic diversity,” says Bob Schaeffer from FairTest (the National Center for Fair & Open Testing), a non-profit group that supports score optional choice. From a less public-spirited standpoint, becoming score-optional may also help schools raise their rankings with such institutions as US News and World Report – presumably, if students choose not to submit scores, their scores are likely on the lower end; if those students’ scores were not counted, the school’s overall standardized test scores would be raised, which, in turn, helps to increase their rank. 32 of the top 100 colleges on the U.S. News & World Report liberal arts college list, including Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Hamilton and Smith, no longer require every applicant to submit an SAT or ACT score. But, many of these score optional schools gather scores from all students after enrollment, including those who did not submit scores for admission, and submit inflated scores to US News and other organizations that don’t include scores from students who did not submit them during the admissions process. A slightly sneaky way to up their rankings?

We urge our students to send scores that are strong even to those score optional schools to which they apply. For students who do not have scores they wish to send, there are a good number of excellent schools across the country that do not penalize you for submitting an application without standardized test results. We just want to give you a complete picture of the score optional scenario – warts and all. Jay Matthews, a reporter for the Washington Post wrote an interesting piece about the topic: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle/2009/07/what_the_sat-optional_colleges.html. But, then again, the Washington Post owns Kaplan – one of the largest test tutoring companies. So, was Mr. Matthews incentivized to bash anyone who dared to do away with Kaplan’s bread and butter? One’s mind spins.

The following is an abridged version of the list of SAT score optional schools compiled by the FairTest website. This list includes accredited, bachelor-degree granting colleges and universities that de-emphasize the use of standardized tests by making admissions decisions about substantial numbers of applicants who recently graduated from US high schools without using the SAT or ACT. See http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/OptionalPDFHardCopy.pdf for a full list SAT score optional schools.

Bard College                                                        Ohio State Universities
Bates College                                                      Oregon State University – Corvallis
Bowdoin College                                               Pitzer College
College of the Atlantic                                    Rollins College
Concordia University                                     Smith College
California State Universities                        South Dakota State University
Denison University                                          Susquehanna University
Dickinson College                                             Texas A&M
Drew University                                                University of Alaska
Franklin and Marshall College                     University of Arkansas
George Mason University                              University of Idaho at Moscow
Gettysburg College                                           University of Kansas at Lawrence
Goddard College                                                University of Maine
Goucher College                                                 University of Minnesota
Hampshire College                                            University of Mississippi
Hobart and William Smith Colleges           University of Montana
Kansas State University                                  University of Nebraska
Knox College                                                        University of Nevada at Las Vegas and Reno
Lake Forest College                                           University of Texas
Lewis and Clark College                                   Ursinus College
Middlebury College                                           Wake Forest University
Mount Holyoke                                                   Washington College
Muhlenberg College                                          Western Kentucky University
Nazareth College                                                Wheaton College
New School                                                           Wittenberg University
Northern Arizona University                       Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

Write an Academic Personal Essay – with a Hook!

Application essays offer an invaluable chance for you to present yourself to colleges—and they are the one piece of your application over which you have total control. Regardless of your grades, scores, or extracurriculars, essays give you the flexibility to show who you are and what you care about. An original, thoughtful, genuine essay can delight and impress admissions officers. In an applicant pool full of students with great — but identical — grades and test scores, the essay could even be the one element that sets you apart from your fellow applicants.

College essays are an unusual genre: they are intensely personal, but have specific purpose and a specific audience. Your goal is to express who you are, but in a way that tells colleges that you are a good fit for them intellectually, emotionally, ethically, and otherwise. The essay must also convey your ability to write and think clearly.

The Common Application Personal Essay is the most important essay you will write. College is about academics, so make this essay about your scholarly focus and offer the reader a sense of what you’re going to bring to the classroom. If you write about how you like to help save sea turtles or read all of Jane Austen, that’s fine and it speaks well of you. But a conversation about merely liking turtles or being obsessed with Jane Austen can only go so far. No one cares if you’re in love with Mr. Darcy—Mr. Darcy isn’t reading your application. But if you bolster your essay with descriptions of the research you’ve done on ocean pollution or on the ways that Jane Austen’s work affected notions of romance and social graces in her time and in our own, then you’ve presented something that can spur curiosity and interest from an admissions officer.

Also, spend some time working on your opening line – it matters! You want a hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

BAD HOOKS:

  • I had no idea how poor people in Africa were until saw them when I went on safari in Kenya last summer.
  • College holds vast potentialities for the optimization of my intellect and ability to succeed in the personal financial arena.
  • I was up late last night trying to figure out what to write for my college essay when the idea finally hit me!
  • Like Proust and his madeline, I remember the day I found my passion for molecular biology.
  • I didn’t think I’d ever make the squash team.


GOOD HOOKS:

  • I am my own favorite fictional character.
  • Every October, the dry winds arrive, the sky clears, and at night the hills above my house cut a black profile against the stars.
  • I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn.
  • Every afternoon my bike ride from school to work takes me past the remains of the steel mill, which shut down two years before I was born.
  • Anyone who says you can’t iron shirts and read a book at the same time hasn’t tried hard enough at either.

ACT with Writing

After the transcript, colleges give most weight to test scores. At schools like Dartmouth and Columbia, the average verbal SAT score is about 730, and the average math is 735. That’s typical at all the top schools, although Cornell and Brown can be a bit lower, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can be a bit higher. Clearly in order to get into this top category of schools you MUST have strong test scores. Typically on SAT Subject Tests, most students aiming for top colleges earn over 740 on three SAT Subject Tests. All the non-hooked students we have worked with who have gotten into Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale have tended to have 740 and up Critical Reading, 730 and up in Math and 730 and up in Writing.

Some schools, however, will accept the ACT with Writing in lieu of SAT Subject Tests.

We think that taking the ACT with Writing benefits the majority of applicants. Since the colleges will take your highest scores on either the SAT I or the ACT with Writing, you can let them choose your best score. Also, it can offset a weaker writing SAT I score if you take the writing section of the ACT with Writing. Since the ACT with Writing is a bit less aptitude-oriented, some students do better on it than on the SAT I. Plus, it’s shorter than the SAT I so those who have trouble concentrating for four hours have an alternative.

There is no guessing penalty, which means you can fill in every answer instead of figuring out which ones to leave blank.

Some colleges (you have to check each one individually) will accept the ACT with Writing in lieu of SAT Subject Tests, so that is often a very convenient option. In short, you have very little to lose, but could have a lot to gain by taking the ACT with Writing.

College Counseling

Make use of your college counseling office early on in your high school years. Go through materials in the office such as college catalogs, books with test prep info, etc.

Take time to get to know your college counselor. Remember, your college counselor will be writing your college recommendation letter and if he/she doesn’t know who you are it will show. He/she provides an important piece of the puzzle for college admissions officers. Your counselor is the “voice” of your school, summarizing how you stack up next to your classmates in the academic competition. They are also your official advocates throughout the college admissions process, even if you use an outside counselor. It’s never too early to set up an appointment to introduce yourself and to keep him/ her updated on your latest accomplishments. Prepare a short summary of all your extracurricular and academic accomplishments, especially if they took place outside of school. How else will your counselor find out the necessary information to support you? They are your strongest ally besides teachers, so USE them to your advantage throughout your four years of high school!

One of the best tools available for determining your odds at a particular college is Naviance. This is software many high schools have added to their college counseling services. If your school is not yet on Naviance we urge you to advocate for the addition. Naviance will show you exactly where you are (using your GPA and tests) in relation to other students who have applied to specific schools. The scattergram is a graph with clear indications of past students results and where you fall in that rubric. If your school has Naviance, use it. If not, advocate that they add it ASAP. One thing to point out, however, is that Naviance does NOT show if a student has a hook (minority, development case, athletic recruit), so the information can be a bit skewed.

If your school provides stats on college acceptances in a report style, study it carefully. It might show GPA, as well as scores, and indicate if a student was accepted, rejected, wait-listed at colleges. That way, you can compare yourself directly with other students from your school and get an even better impression of how you stack up. Knowledge is power so use the data available to become informed.

Rising Seniors

We are working this week with rising seniors in our 2nd Application Boot Camp session. You can create your own focused Boot Camp by setting aside time NOW to complete your applications. It can be an overwhelming process so take it step by step. We’re here to help.

Once again we are indicating samples of application options. Our newsletter last week included an outdated schedule, we apologize for our error.

Types of Applications*

Application Deadline* Sample Schools
Rolling
Nonbinding
September onward University of Wisconsin
Penn State
Early Action
Nonbinding
November 1 University of Chicago
UNC
MIT**
Notre Dame
Restrictive Early Action
Nonbinding
but may not concurrently apply to a binding Early Decision program, although may make multiple Early Action applications.
November 1 Boston College
Georgetown
Single-Choice Early Action
Nonbinding
but unable to apply Early Decision or Early Action to other schools
November 1 Yale
Harvard
Princeton
Early Decision
Binding
November 1 or November 15 Dartmouth
Bowdoin
Early Decision II
Binding
January 1 or January 15 Vanderbilt
Vassar
Regular Decision
Nonbinding
December 15-January 1 All schools

* Double check application deadlines as they can vary year to year
** MIT’s Early Action Program is available only to citizens and permanent residents of the United States.

More Early Explanations:

Single Choice Early Action: Means you can ONLY apply to that school early, no ED schools or other EA schools. You can, in some cases, apply to your state, public university.

1. Yale: Single Choice Early Action: http://admissions.yale.edu/faq/single-choice-early-action

2. Stanford: Restrictive Early Action (but should really be called Single Choice): http://stanford.edu/dept/uga/application/decision_process/restrictive.html

3. Harvard: Single Choice Early Action: Not up on their site yet, we have: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/02/early-action-returns/

4. Princeton: Single Choice Early Action: Not up on their site yet, we have: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S29/85/15K32/index.xml?section=topstories

Restrictive Early Action: You can apply Early Action to other schools but not Early Decision except for Stanford which calls themselves Restrictive Early Action but is really Single Choice Early Action

1.Georgetown: Restrictive Early Action http://uadmissions.georgetown.edu/applying_firstyear_earlyaction.cfm

2.Boston College: Restrictive Early Action: http://www.bc.edu/admission/undergrad/process/tips/s-applyingearly.html

Early Action:
UVA is regular EA now.

 

Check Early Policies

We are often asked to explain the many application options. It’s confusing and changes every year. In 2007/2008 UVA, Harvard, and Princeton all dropped their early admission policies. The year before that, Yale and Stanford, switched from early decision to early action. As a result, both schools experienced a HUGE rise (44% for Yale) in early applications since students did not have to commit. To add to the confusion, many schools like Georgetown, Yale, and Stanford are “single-action early action” which means that unlike what students have done in the past, now it violates the rules to apply to one school early action and another early decision. Now, as you probably know, UVA, Princeton, and Harvard have gone back to an early option and those students this year can apply early to UVA (non-binding) or they could apply with a restricted early action to Harvard or Princeton (meaning they couldn’t apply to other early schools). You do not want to get caught violating these policies so be sure to read the fine print at each school. Here is a quick reference list of the main types of early policies:

Types of Applications*

Application Deadline* Sample Schools
Rolling
Nonbinding
September onward University of Wisconsin
Penn State
Early Action
Nonbinding
November 1 University of Chicago
UNC
MIT**
Notre Dame
Restrictive Early Action
Nonbinding
but may not concurrently apply to a binding Early Decision program, although may make multiple Early Action applications.
November 1 Boston College
Georgetown
Single-Choice Early Action
Nonbinding
but unable to apply Early Decision or Early Action to other schools
November 1 Yale
Harvard
Princeton
Early Decision
Binding
November 1 or November 15 Dartmouth
Bowdoin
Early Decision II
Binding
January 1 or January 15 Vanderbilt
Vassar
Regular Decision
Nonbinding
December 15-January 1 All schools

* Double check application deadlines as they can vary year to year
** MIT’s Early Action Program is available only to citizens and permanent residents of the United States.

More Early Explanations:

Single Choice Early Action: Means you can ONLY apply to that school early, no ED schools or other EA schools. You can, in some cases, apply to your state, public university.

1. Yale: Single Choice Early Action: http://admissions.yale.edu/faq/single-choice-early-action

2. Stanford: Restrictive Early Action (but should really be called Single Choice): http://stanford.edu/dept/uga/application/decision_process/restrictive.html

3. Harvard: Single Choice Early Action: Not up on their site yet, we have: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/02/early-action-returns/

4. Princeton: Single Choice Early Action: Not up on their site yet, we have: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S29/85/15K32/index.xml?section=topstories

Restrictive Early Action: You can apply Early Action to other schools but not Early Decision except for Stanford which calls themselves Restrictive Early Action but is really Single Choice Early Action

1. Georgetown: Restrictive Early Action http://uadmissions.georgetown.edu/applying_firstyear_earlyaction.cfm

2. Boston College: Restrictive Early Action: http://www.bc.edu/admission/undergrad/process/tips/s-applyingearly.html

Early Action:
UVA is regular EA now.

The moral of the story is, the rules have changed and it is your responsibility to read the fine print carefully and stay within the guidelines for every school you choose.

We do, however, urge students to apply with an early strategy. In case you haven’t noticed, the general trend has been that MORE kids are applying not just to Ivies, but to Ivy overflow schools like Middlebury, Connecticut College, Haverford, etc… If you love a school, apply EARLY. Middlebury, for example, fills 40% of its class early. Keep in mind that the top liberal arts colleges are experiencing the same rise in applicants as top Ivies and bigger schools. You don’t want to be in the regular pool – especially at the Ivies as admissions drops to under 10% in regular – see our chart below! So at a school like Penn you’d have a 26% acceptance rate in ED – in regular, it drops to 9.9 – for Dartmouth, 25% versus 8.4 – see what we mean?

Ivy League — Class of 2015

Summer Stuff

Colleges care a LOT about how a student does in the fall of senior year. They’re looking for consistently strong students to maintain their grades, and they’ll be looking for up-and-down students to begin their year on an upswing. Plus, usually students are taking a very rigorous course load senior fall (and if not, you should be), and they want to see how well you perform in your AP level classes. But, if you save all the applications until fall, you’ll find they take up all your time and you won’t have energy to do well in your classes—and THAT is shooting yourself in the foot!

For 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, summer should be a time of 1) READING; 2) keeping a vocab notebook; 3) doing SAT prep, especially if you’re a rising junior since this will be the last time you have time to really prep before the PSAT and SAT will follow! 4) pursuing one of your passions in depth.

Summers are strategically important—they are really the only time most students can get anything done since school often takes up all of their time during the school year. Do not squander your summers. By all means have some rest and relaxation, but make sure you have a good book with you.

Don’t Forget to Say WHY

You’ll notice that few colleges (and none that use the Common Application, unless they have a supplement) ask anywhere on their application WHY you’re interested in their college in the first place. That’s too bad because they really do want to know. Between two kids with similar scores and profiles, they will always pick the student who offers specific reasons behind his choice. They figure that the enthusiastic student will be more likely to accept an offer of admission, and colleges care very much about their yield.

You’ll want to add a paragraph to your main essay (or just append a short WHY paragraph) about why you are applying, but don’t fall into the trap that many students make in which they offer only generic reasons for liking the school’s location or campus or, even worse, simply recount the school’s virtues from their brochure. Focus instead on specific programs or academic opportunities rather than simply saying you like the campus or the outdoors. Show them that you’ve done your homework and that you know what makes their school unique and different—and about how those differences relate to your interests, personality, and goals.

When you visit each campus, try to connect with a professor in your area of interest so you can then leverage that info in your WHY paragraph. Again, feel free to add a short paragraph in one of your essays that details why you are applying and why that school is one of your top choices. If you’ve had a chance to visit, mention what impressed you the most. Again, be specific. You’ll find yourself with many more options come decision time.