Getting into college: Not as easy as it was, but not impossible

Getting into college involves positioning and packaging, says newly revised classic guide. (Dean Rohrer art)

Getting into college involves positioning and packaging, says newly revised classic guide. (Dean Rohrer art)

A friend wanted her fashion-forward daughter to consider a range of colleges, but when they arrived at a small, liberal-arts school in a pastoral Midwestern setting, the teen looked around and announced the campus would never suit her.

“Too many bad haircuts and students wearing pajama pants to class,” she told her disappointed mother.

Such snap judgments are common in the college search. My son ruled out a school based on the music streaming from dorm-room windows. Other parents have said their teens lost interest when they inspected the dorm bathrooms or took a tour led by a boring student guide.

Just because the decisions are quick doesn’t mean they’re wrong, says Steve Cohen, co-author of “Getting In!: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age” (Wiley, $11.99)

“Kids have a sense where they are more likely to fit in,” says Cohen, whose own son realized after 10 minutes that his longtime dream school in California wasn’t a good fit after all. “That initial reaction can’t be discounted.”

“Getting In” was first published in 1983 by Cohen, a publisher, college lecturer and now law student, and his Brown University classmate Paulo de Oliveira, who worked in admissions at Brown before becoming a TV producer. The update reflects the input of Michael Muska, a prep school college adviser, and Anne Dwane, CEO of Zinch, a website created by Princeton students to connect high school applicants with prospective colleges.

The practical guide has been updated to reflect the sweeping changes in the process, from the Common App that enables students to push a button and send the same online application to multiple colleges to the keen competition for slots at top schools due to the surge in U.S. applicants and foreign students.

One factor in the college crush has been the baby-boom echo, the children born between 1982 and 1995 to the original baby boomers. While the ranks of the echo generation are thinning, competition for name colleges will remain. In six of the eight Ivy league schools, fewer than one of 10 applicants wins admission.

In addition, a handful of Southern states, including Georgia, expect to see a continued rise in high school graduates, thus ensuring an ongoing scrum for seats at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. So, how can students improve their chances?

The book makes clear that there are two main determinants: Grades and SATs. It’s only after students meet those measures that their other accomplishments come into play.

The book addresses the oft-asked question by Atlanta parents: Is it better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular class? The answer: “It’s better to get an A in an AP class.”

The book also has a telling chart on the controversial practice of early decision, in which students commit to a school in exchange for an earlier admission notification. Most colleges take students at a higher rate under early admission, and those students often have slightly lower academic profiles.

High school counselors often tell kids that colleges seek a well-rounded student.

Not exactly, says Cohen. Schools desire a well-rounded class. They want math scholars, classical pianists, operatic voices and, as the book describes them, “really nice kids to organize hall hockey.”

The goal should not be an endless list of extracurriculars, says Cohen, but ones that show depth, expertise and commitment.

The same rule applies for community service. College admissions officers now joke about how many applicants spend their summers digging latrines or building churches in Central America.

What impresses them more is the student who returns home and holds fund raisers for the church or who comes back from the rain forest impassioned enough to launch school-wide recycling.

“Getting In” also debunks the assumption that more is better. If colleges ask for two letters of recommendation, flooding them with 10 won’t help, especially given the volume of applications today.

The book stresses the essay, saying it can make the difference between two similarly positioned applicants. A few suggestions: Write an essay that is memorable, personal and short. Use humor with caution since it often falls flat.

College today represents the second largest expense for most families, second only to a home purchase, notes Cohen. “This is a very significant investment, and you should be looking at it as an investment and spending time on it.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

49 comments Add your comment


September 17th, 2011
7:47 am

My son rejected a college that he had expected to love, because when we visited he saw students wearing t-shirts from other colleges. He took that as a sign that the school lacked unity. He chose a school that he visited on a whim, because when he got there, he “felt at home.” Go figure? You can’t underestimate the importance of VISITING a college.

I know so many kids who come home after their first semester and regret their choice because they chose a school based on rankings or scholarships. You will spend about five years at your college–it needs to be a good fit. You have to visit–not in the summer–during the school year.

Mom of Average Student

September 17th, 2011
8:16 am

Every time I read one of these, I get depressed. My daughter just started high school and is a wonderful, pleasant child. However, she is academically average, gets B’s in class and doesn’t take AP classes. In fact she was told she couldn’t take an honors class because she had earned a B in 8th grade instead of an A. Do only the super high achievers get a shot at college these days.


September 17th, 2011
8:27 am

There are many different colleges. You might not make GA Tech, but Kennesaw, Southern Poly Tech, or West GA might be a good fit. You do not have to be an A student. Look at all the good solid average students in high school. AP classes do not make the majority of the kids.


September 17th, 2011
9:28 am

To Mom of Average Student– I feel for your situation. It’s a shame that a bright kid with a B average can’t go on to good college of her choice. However, as oldtimer reminds us, there are plenty of other colleges out there, and some of the more popular ones are overrated anyway.

I think many of the nonacademic requirements, such as community service, while noble, in fact leads to “overload” kids’ time. I think the university system is asking too much of kids today compared to the past. I speak from experience all the anxiety and pressure this puts on the family. Kids are already doing so much homework, then have to rush here and there. There’s no time to enjoy youth anymore–it’s all about the future and getting ahead–never enjoyment and reflection.


September 17th, 2011
9:38 am

In 1970 I selected my university, sight unseen.

Fast forward to 1995, when my eldest daughter went to college, after visiting about 10 colleges over the 3 years previous. How did she choose? She knew within 20 minutes of walking on campus that she BELONGED.

My son became interested in his college, which we had not planned to visit, after we went to one that it was obvious would not be a good fit. He suspected it was THE ONE because of the CARS IN THE PARKING LOT! (old vw buses, carmen ghias, etc) After touring the grounds with a student whose name might have been “Moon Unit”, he was convinced by the sign over the entrance door to the biology building–You MUST wear SHOES in the Biology Building! (Another building, the convocation center, had a sign that said, “Do NOT wear shoes on the roof of this building!” Also, when we went into the Admissions OFfice, we were met by a dog and we were INTRODUCED to the dog.) True story!

My youngest knew her school by the traditions that were evident as students went to and from class. She ended up transfering (because of a boy) and still has regret for that decision.

Parents, you want your child to FINISH, so it is important that they identify a place where they will want to and be able to do that.


September 17th, 2011
9:42 am

BTW, my kids had the grades and SATs to go about anywhere, and had “grown up” on the campuses of FSU and UGA, but never considered those fine places, perhaps because they had seen how impersonally the students were treated there.


September 17th, 2011
10:04 am

There are plenty of colleges out there that will take anyone, some don’t even require SAT scores, so don’t be discouraged if you/your child isn’t the brightest in their class. The college world that I recently entered into seems to accept anyone. The thing I would caution students about, is realizing what they are capable of. I see a lot of students who get into college with C’s from high school and then expect to go to medical school. While it isn’t impossible for those students to turn around, make better grades, and eventually get into medical school it is very rare. Decide to major in something you are talented in, not something that has a high appeal factor like future jobs with great earnings. Something I have always told people is that even if you are making several hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you aren’t doing something you love your life will be miserable and its not worth any amount of money to be miserable. So don’t worry if you really want to go to college, you just have to look and you will find the college for you. Just realize that you can’t expect to get a free ride everywhere.


September 17th, 2011
10:12 am

Students should try starting out at a 2-year college such as GA Perimeter. It has 5 campuses, the tuition is much cheaper than other colleges, and it gives students a chance to get their grades up and then move on to a 4-year institution. If you keep your grades up, you are guaranteed admission to many colleges – The class sizes are smaller, and remedial courses are offered in math, reading, and English.

I sure wish...

September 17th, 2011
10:28 am

…that back in 1971 I had had more foersight into where I was going to go to college – I pretty much just went to play football at a very small school in North Carolina and hated every single day for 4 years – and I could have gone to GT, but chose the small “Ivy League of the South” instead. I did not know back then that you needed to study a field that would prepare you for a job – I just thought that if you went to college you would get a good job. That liberal arts school from which I graduated did not prepare me (or any other grads) for anything other than to go on to graduate school! So I went to graduate school and still did not realize that I needed to study business in order to get a job – now, 36 years later, I still hate those first 4 years and I still do not have a job…- I was like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” – BIG MISTAKE

And, today, I could not even get into UGA, GT, or probably any other “big name” university, based on my SAT scores from 40 years ago…

Parents, please advise your kids wisely…

40 yr educator

September 17th, 2011
10:37 am

There are plenty of colleges that accept students without advanced placement courses, however, some high-end majors favor advanced placement and it is an advantage for the student. Students that are not ready for the 4-yr colleges should enroll in colleges such as Atlanta Metropolitan, GA Perimeter, or one of the colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia to get their feet wet!
Parents should also track the Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding labor market demands to make sure their children select majors that are not on the decline in the labor market.


September 17th, 2011
10:39 am

I took my kids to visit multiple campuses, and they all seemed to identify THE one by how much they felt they ‘belonged’ there. Two of my three got into their first choice, and they both happily went – and both left, one because he finally came to realize that it cost more than it was worth and the other because she discovered that huge classes taught by limited-English professors were not conducive to learning. They have both re-considered and entered community colleges, taking new majors (healthcare) more suited to the economy, and they both much prefer the environment of smaller classes, more adult fellow students and professors who want to teach the classes and do not resent the time away from grants and graduate students. My youngest daughter did not get into her Ivy League first choice and has gone to UGA instead, where she is offsetting the hugeness of the campus and some of the classes by taking mostly honors seminars and, this semester, going with a small group to study at Oxford.

From that perspective, I have to say that the amorphous sense of “belonging” did not make up for less than ideal classroom opportunities (something that most high school juniors and seniors pay little attention to), and that despite ending up somewhere your child didn’t think he or she would, the value they get from it is a reflection of the opportunities they seek out and the energy they put in.


September 17th, 2011
11:00 am

@Mom of Average Student, please don’t be discouraged. I had a friend in high school that was an extremely hard worker. She graduated with a 3.5, however her SAT scores were not high enough to get her into the schools of her choice. She was accepted into Emory. Today she is a highly successful attorney.

Sure, RJ...

September 17th, 2011
11:10 am

…not saying you embellished your story, but if “her SAT scores were not high enough to get her into the schools of her choice. She was accepted into Emory”, you may have left out the part about it was Emory at Oxford, and not THE Emory University where only Ivy League type SAT scores get you accepted…and, good for her for excelling and becoming an attorney (and, hopefyully, not the scum bag type)…


September 17th, 2011
11:47 am

For some good alternatives pick up the book “Colleges that Change Lives.”

@ Sure, RJ

September 17th, 2011
12:25 pm

My daughter and I went on a tour at Oxford in Covington so I must correct you. First of all, Oxford is Emory University. In fact it is the original campus until the Coca Cola donations came rolling in. It seems that Asa Candler’s son attended Oxford. Long story short, the beverage became popular at Oxford FIRST.

If my daughter gets into Oxford she would be very pleased… why? The campus boosts 900 students and very small class sizes. The only drawback is that ALL students must learn how to swim and my daughter is apprehensive about swimming.


September 17th, 2011
12:30 pm

Unless one is a prodigy and plans on pursuing a professional career in academics, science and the like the undergrad college choice is not all that critical.

For most kids college mainly buys a few extra years to grow up. Once you’ve landed that first real job your employer usually couldn’t care less where you matriculated.


September 17th, 2011
12:31 pm

Good point Eric! I am glad I received my educational opportunities when I did. Not sure how I would do under the current admission’s process.


September 17th, 2011
1:41 pm

@Kacey – I agree 100%.


September 17th, 2011
2:24 pm

My son rejected UNC-Chapel Hill because some of the bicyles in the racks were stripped. They probably had been there forever.


September 17th, 2011
3:49 pm

@ Mom of average student… Stop focusing on the fact that your child isn’t an outstanding scholar and the schools she probably won’t get into. Focus on how hard she works and what she IS accomplishing. Choose a school based on HER abilities and interests. If only outstanding scholars with nothing but AP classes went to college, the colleges would be EMPTY…

My daughter was the outstanding scholar with tons of AP classes. She is now a junior in the academically challenging college of her choice and it fits her. But she looked outside the box and choose a small liberal arts college in the Midwest BECAUSE it fit her.

I also have a B+ high school junior who works his tail off to get low As and high Bs and will probably take only one AP class in his entire high school career. He will get into the college of his choice because we will help him pick a school that fits HIS abilities, talents, and interests.

Ole Guy

September 17th, 2011
4:12 pm

Once again, we seem to be thrashing over yet another non-issue. If the kid wants to go to college, the first thing on the agenda is GOOD-TO-DECENT GRADES…likewise the ACT/SAT (am I aging myself with reference to the ACT?). Funding the whole enchalada is another issue which appears to be an overwhelming ordeal for a generation which wants it all; wants it all “rat now”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with part-time attendance at a small (what used to be refered to as a cow college) institution of higher learning. Too many kids seem to want nothing short of the best: full-time attendance at the best universities in the land. hell wants ice water to, but there’s a minor inconvenience we, on Earth, refer to as REALITY.

Then again, for a generation which, for the most part, seems to be just a little short on gumption, determination, and B _ LLS, there’s always the USMA at West Point. Their “tuition” is something which this current crop of crybabbies, whiners and complainers will probably never know. (Now have I pissed off enough people to get you all to stop with the “woe is me” stuff, start addressing the problems du jour, and GET WITH IT?!?)


September 17th, 2011
4:46 pm

You are not aging yourself by talking about the ACT. Once you get off the East Coast, many schools in the East and MidWest consider it primary. GPA and number of AP courses count more at UGA and GA Tech than they did several years ago. One or two Bs can keep you out of Tech even if your 2-part SAT is high 1400s.


September 17th, 2011
4:56 pm

Schools desire a well-rounded class. Get in where you fit in (better).

Getting a GA student to go to a GA school is like locating red clay in a yard. No big deal at all. Once you get beyond the state discount and HOPE options, a good GA student is probably more attractive to a college not close to here (geographic diversity of class). It’s not the worst thing to be a few states away. The school may even show the family a little more appreciation.

Atlanta mom

September 17th, 2011
6:29 pm

If your child has a math/science bent, I’d advise that you get the student into a summer program at a school he/she might be interested in attending. It puts your student on the school’s radar, but it also gives your student a good look at the culture of the school.

Really amazed

September 17th, 2011
7:41 pm

So, I guess go to a local public high school that will inflate your grades to a 4.0. Forget the private challenging high school that WON’T give extra credit, extra points for showing up etc. Get A’s in AP classes, to hell with getting a B and making a 4 or 5 on the ap exam as long as you have that A. This is sooooooo sad. but yet, very typical of GA.

Just a mom

September 17th, 2011
8:46 pm

So what about the slacker student who is there for the social life but has big dreams??? How do you motiviate him?


September 18th, 2011
2:15 am

Mom of Average Student: The easiest way to get into UGA is to go to Gainesville for 2 years. Making good grades there is not hard at all for a B student who tries while completing his or her General Education requirements. The requirements for transferring are not as high as they are for entering freshmen. The same is true for many hard-to-get-into schools. It is also way cheaper.


September 18th, 2011
2:16 am

Just a mom: turn off the money tap.


September 18th, 2011
3:23 pm

Just a Mom… I agree with OTOH. Turn off the money and make them get a job. Hopefully it will be a really crappy one that will motivate them. My husband took a “motivational year” after high school and worked at a sanitary landfill. Truly an eye-opener for him. One year later, he started his college education with a real ambition to make good. That was 35 years ago and he has lived up to his ambition.

In high school...

September 18th, 2011
5:50 pm

…my first “real” job at age 16 (summer employment) was as a garbage collector for Dekalb County. The next summer I worked for the Dekalb County as a ditch digger for their water department, a job which I did for all my summers while in college. There was no where for me to go but up after those job exepriences. Accordingly, I was real motivated to do well in college, and I chose to go to a very difficult, small, liberal arts college in NC; from there I attended graduate school so that I could get an even better job.

Now, 36 years later, I am unemployed after being laid off by a huge international company, following being laid off by a prior huge international company, the second time in 8 years after having excellent work ethics and contributions and job promotions. Now, after trying for 11 months to get re-employed, I have no job prospects because I am old, over-qualified, and made too much money in my prior jobs to “really be serious about the jobs for which I have applied”, as in – you will not stay here for what we want to pay so we will not hire you even though you said you will accept what we are willing to pay.

Further, I am not insurable now for either health nor life insurance, so I guess I will be a parasite on society for the rest of my natural days. I am not eligible for Social Security for 3.5 more years, and I cannot draw a pension from my last employer until I am 65 (a whole $750 a month).

So, college ain’t necessary for everybody so as not to be in the same boat as the dregs of society, of which, I, now, apparently am one…


September 18th, 2011
6:05 pm

“thus ensuring an ongoing scrum for seats at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech”
Maybe I didn’t go to college long enough to understand, but what does ’scrum’ mean?

Rik Roberts

September 18th, 2011
6:11 pm

IMHO, college should be about one thing: future employment. I have always counseled my children to go straight to college only if you know definitively what you want to do. I am hardly in the position to pay for my children to “find themselves” in college. That said, so far they know what they want with one at GT and another at SPSU.

My new challenge is my youngest because he has his sights on MIT and as a high school sophomore quit band to take an all academic course load including two AP classes and five honors classes. He is trying to decide whether it is better to go to the KSU early enrollment honors program for 11th or stay in high school and maximize an AP course load.

Rik Roberts

September 18th, 2011
6:12 pm

Scrum is a rugby term akin to a dog pile.


September 18th, 2011
6:59 pm

Don’t forget that you can transfer to the Georgia Tech and UGAs out there if the young adult (NOT A KID!!) can get into a Kennesaw or Valdosta State type school. And there is nothing wrong with that. In the end, it’s about what you do in college and, 6 months out of school, what you do in your career.


September 18th, 2011
7:13 pm

We are fortunate to live in a state with so many good options in terms of colleges and universities. I would obviously love my kids to attend UGA or GT based on in-state tuitions and quality of education. However, by the time they are ready to make that college choice, I firmly believe that Georgia State, KSU, Georgia Southern, and some of the other growing universities will also offer a great education and value. I see no point in sending our kids out of state unless the are 1) recieving a hefty scholarship, 2) going to an Ivy League school.


September 18th, 2011
7:46 pm

@catlady: If this were Jeopardy, I’d say, “What is UC Santa Cruz?” I have to know, what school had those signs.

@bill: If I hear our HS principal pushing “Colleges That Change Lives” one more time, I’ll scream. Pretty much every college is going to change lives.


Atlanta mom

September 18th, 2011
8:05 pm

I highly recommend you send your child to MIT for a summer program. After my child went, she would not even apply to MIT (even after the director of the program send her an email in December asking where her application was). She has just started her graduate studies, and once again, would not apply to MIT.


September 18th, 2011
9:09 pm

Liberal Arts Colleges or majors at medium enrollment size or larger institutions are where one can be educated. Medium size or larger colleges and universities are where one usually attends to be trained or taught specific skills or become acquainted with knowledges deemed necessary for a specific career(job) or career area.


September 18th, 2011
10:26 pm

Dear Mom of average student,
my son earned a B in his eighth grade English class because he decided he was more interested in girls than learning. I requested and was granted a waiver which allowed him to take the class without a reccomendation from his eighth grade teacher. The one caveat to doing this is if your child does not do well in the honors course, they will not allow the child to drop back to a lower class. My son did this in 9th grade, made an A in the class.

Mad APS Dad

September 18th, 2011
11:23 pm

As an instructor at a research university I’ll offer my perspective. Most of the students I encounter have been pampered for so long that very few, if any, of them seek opportunities to challenge themselves academically. Just like most of their activities, they expect everything to be pre-planned and void of “true life” experience where failure is indeed an expected outcome if you put forth minimal effort towards success. They have been overly praised for the most meager of accomplishments and view expectations (deadlines, attending class, effort) as being optional and subjective as it relates to an evaluation of their performance. If these are the young people to which I am entrusting the future of our country then God help us all.

Progressive Humanist

September 18th, 2011
11:33 pm

EC- There are some substantial differences even among the universities you mentioned. While Georgia State is not considered a prestigious university based on its national reputation, it is a national research university and produces world-class level research in fields such as cosmology, history, psychology, and education, without even considering its well respected business and law schools. Kennesaw State and Georgia Southern are regional colleges that are not at that level.

hryder- I don’t think you can say the quality of the education is based on the enrollment size of the school. Harvard, the top rated school in the country (which is arguable), has an enrollment of about 6700 students, which makes it a very small school that’s about the same size as North Georgia College & State University. Princeton and Yale have even fewer students (just over 5000 each). There are teaching schools and there are research schools. I’d like to send my daughter to a small, strong teaching school for her undergraduate degree and then to a strong research university for her graduate degree, if she chooses to go that far. It really depends on the degree the student is pursuing and their ultimate goals, not the size of the school.

Snellville Mom

September 18th, 2011
11:42 pm

This is a real eyeopener for me I appreciate everyone being open and I must I have to save all the conversations for my records.

Susie Watts

September 18th, 2011
11:45 pm

As a private college consultant, I am most interested in helping students find schools that are a good fit for them academically and socially. Some students are interested primarily in an academic challenge while others want a more balanced college experience. There are no right or wrong schools and there are plenty of schools for high achievers, as well as those who may be more average and even for late bloomers. The important thing is to help students find colleges that will provide a good academic and social experience where they will be successful.

College Direction

Jimmy From "The Bottoms"

September 19th, 2011
12:45 am

I graduated in the top 1% of my class and opted not to attend a campus with a renowned space program. I decided to help Chief Gillespie and Virgil Tibbs instead.

[...] In time for all those fall college visits, the author of a classic college guide talks to me about changes to the application process. [...]

Glad I can afford to send my children to Pvt School

September 19th, 2011
9:38 am

I graduated from a Name university and don’t see that they have the same value they had 45 years ago when I graduated. The southern schools have improved so much there is very little difference in the education a Harvard gives and the education from UGA. Our 2 sons were born 15 years before our daughter, graduated from UVA and I think my daughter’s UGA degree has an equal value to theirs. As for picking a school my wife & I both went where our parents told us to go, our sons went where their mother wanted them to go, the Daughter went where she wanted to go.

As for Emory @ Oxford, we live near to the school and I know a lot of the staff. I would not hesitate to trust the first 2 years of a good student to them. When we were doing the Emory main campus tour the dean of students told me that on a whole students from Emory @ Oxford did better than studenrs who started at the main campus.

Sorry, folks...

September 19th, 2011
2:31 pm

…but getting accepted into Emory @ Oxford just ain’t the same as getting accepted into Emory University – just compare the SAT scores and ACT scores for acceptance at either institution – and, yes, I know the Oxford students can transfer into the “real” Emory, but to compare the two as “equals” is just not comparing “apples to apples”

Ole Guy

September 20th, 2011
3:49 pm

Mom, motivating kids is a tough nut to crack. You can talk till’ your blue in the face, receive all the “right” answers and, in the end, you feel like you’re right back where you started. My “motivation” came from a hitch in Uncle Sam’s “Boy’s Club”, flying helicopters in the unfriendly skys. It was the best thing that ever happened to me; following my release from active duty, I went back to college; made mediocre grades at first, but finally “saw the light”. It also opened up a fine career, but that’s another story at the bar!

Good luck, Mom!

Benjamin Leis

September 23rd, 2011
10:54 am

The University of Miami is the fastest rising University in the US News & World Report rankings top 50 having moved up 29 spots in the last 10 years. Provost Thomas J. Leblanc will be presenting “Accelerating Ambition,” the strategic plan for the University in Atlanta on October 4 in Buckhead should anyone wish to attend and learn more they can visit