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