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REview and plan your strategy for the commonapp prompts

The CommonApp Prompts Are Out!

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

When making admissions decisions, some colleges consider the applicant’s ability to pay for college, and others do not. “Need-blind” schools, such as Brown University, admit students without considering their finances. They often commit in advance to provide scholarships to any admitted student whose family cannot pay the full tuition, and some even make it possible for all students to graduate without loans.

Unfortunately, not every school has the endowment funding to be so generous. “Need-aware” schools rely more heavily on tuition to fund their operations, and make admissions decisions that take into account how much each student is likely to pay. They may still offer generous financial aid to some students, but they also need to balance it out with plenty of students who can pay most or all of the fare. 

External scholarships tend to consider either need or merit, but not both. Remember, though, that these terms can be broadly applied. Given the high cost of college, even relatively high-income families can be eligible for at least some need-based aid, and there are a dizzying array of merit scholarships celebrating a wide range of achievements. Learn more about merit scholarships at Road2College.

Time is of the essence as your high school junior builds, researches, and narrows down their college application list. This might sound easy, but good research takes time. This winter and spring are the optimal times for juniors to tour colleges that they’ve already researched online. 

To make the most of your time on campus, be sure you and your student both know a college’s general offerings before you arrive. For example, if you have an avid skier who’s likely to study math or physics, they should know if there’s a ski club and have a general idea of the structure of the math and physics majors. 

Over a single vacation, we recommend visiting an area in which several potential schools are located. If you visit Pennsylvania, for example, you could visit Lehigh, Drexel, UPenn and Swarthmore, but only if they all offer the program in which you are interested. We find that it’s most effective to visit no more than two schools per day, because each info session and tour can take upwards of two hours. Taking in the information during the info sessions and walking around campuses is more tiring than you might think!

The information sessions are the college sales pitch. Listen carefully to what the guides say, and what they don’t say. Do they mention student life, study abroad, the diversity of the student body? Be prepared with specific questions to ask the guide, based on your interests and on research you’ve done about the school’s programs. As you walk around the campus, get a feel for the vibe. The college students are likely to be on their campuses during the high school winter and spring breaks. Try to talk to them — it’s entirely fine to ask them questions like “what do you like most about this school?”

Think about the size and location of the school. Is it walkable? Is it too flat or too hilly? Is there enough of a town or city around? What happens if you are studying late and want a snack? 

Above all, we recommend that you keep a journal or record of which school you visit, your thoughts and reflections on your time at that school. Take photos and tag the locations, and after each tour, make more notes or dictate voice memos. We have a journal template that we give to our students to help them stay organized with their reflections.

A student on a video call with a professor and a textbook.
Photo: Dylan Ferreira via Unsplash

By Simon Ginet

Restaurants are open. Parks are full. Masks have virtually disappeared. But the pandemic definitely still happened. As the world crawls back to some degree of normalcy (whatever that is), it is sometimes possible to forget that the better part of the years 2020-2022 even occurred. At times I have marveled that the whole experience seemed like a dream (an extended fever dream, perhaps), and that there is no way it actually happened.

But it did.

And it provides an explanation for why things that have come a little easier to an older generation may be puzzlingly difficult for a younger one. A significant consequence of the pandemic is the effect it had on students, students who are now looking towards college.

The college application process has never been particularly easy. There are essays, tests, recommendations, financial documents, plus the uncertainty of the process and the soul-searching of determining where exactly one wants to go. But at least when I was applying to school, we had a wired-in structure that put us on this track from the first day of 9th grade. Not everyone was talking about college at this age. I didn’t start thinking about it until 10th or 11th grade. But teachers were, counselors were, school administrators were, parents were, and the system was designed to move us along the path to college, whether we were thinking about it the whole time or not.

The concern of these educational figures did not disappear with the onset of the pandemic. But the daily structure did. And the question of “what do I want to do in four years?” was replaced with “what exactly is going on?” and “what am I going to do today?” This might explain why students are struggling with motivation, even confusion, with regards to their futures.

I was not exempt from the educational tolls of the pandemic. I spent the last 14 months of graduate school virtually. When the whole thing ended, I was not thinking about the future so much as getting through the present. This is the effect that a global crisis can have on the psyche. Slowly I started to put some pieces back together, make my way into the workforce, and take the time to think about what I wanted with my life and what my future might look like.

This group of college and workforce-bound students may not all be coming out of the blocks raring to go. The tolls on mental health are not insignificant. Students lost access to their friend groups, their sports, arts and their other extracurricular activities. This loss created a certain hole that bordered on (or crossed the border into) the traumatic. Students may not be war veterans, but having a significant form of clarity and structure dismantled so quickly does have a strong debilitating effect. This is especially true when loneliness and other mental health issues are at play.

What I know for sure from the last few years is that I never could have persisted through it all without the support of my family. I imagine it was difficult for my parents to watch me struggle, to hear about 6-hour Zoom classes, overwhelming assignments, and social confusion. They must also have sensed that absence of curiosity about my future. I imagine it is difficult for you to watch your children struggle, too. My parents showed up when I needed them, and shifted their focus from “what do you want to do after?” to “what would help today?”

Let’s take heart from the fact that we’re on this path, and on it together.

Keep working on the support. We’ll keep working on the essays. And we will work our way towards a future that we can share and be proud of, even if the students don’t see it yet.

For feedback on this piece or any questions about what it was like to be a pandemic student and a post-pandemic graduate, feel free to contact me at simon@astartingline.com.

A young woman walks into a college classroom holding books.
Javier Trueba via Unsplash

Most students should plan to apply to ten or twelve schools. If that sounds like an awful lot, it is!

Fortunately, most schools use the Common Application, a web platform that stores student information and sends it to schools when the student is ready to apply. The student can edit their Common App at any time, up until it’s submitted to schools.

Some colleges require supplemental materials as part of the Common App, but it’s still a lot more convenient than filling out an entire application for each college.

Some schools use the alternative Coalition Application, and a few states, including Texas and California, have a single application system for their public universities. Only a handful of colleges, most notably MIT and Brigham Young, use their own applications.

If you don’t want to complete so many applications, or if you’ve got a clear favorite, look into Early Action and Early Decision timelines.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen. 

A student walks past stone campus buildings.
Victoria Health via Unsplash

Once you’ve thought about your student and the kind of environment where they’ll thrive, it’s time to take a closer look at each school on your short list. Most students today apply to about eight or ten colleges, so your research list should have at least that many.

Students can connect with other applicants and current students using Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. However, all the usual caveats about social media apply. These sites are not always reliable, and any account or thread followed may contain misinformation. On these sites, students should follow several accounts to ensure they get a broad view of the schools that interest them. 

If possible, students should visit their top priority schools during the school year. An in-person visit during the semester will provide the most accurate view of life on campus. Your student should be sure to speak to both faculty and students.

Most schools also offer web-based virtual tours. Virtual tours made by students can easily be found on YouTube, TikTok, and Campus Reels. Keep in mind that a virtual tour created by a school is marketing material and tours created by students will be of greatly varying quality.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Man in a blue and white checked shirt looks out over a college campus.
Jason Rojas via Unsplash

The best advice parents and guardians can give their student(s) is to choose their colleges based on “fit” – how well colleges would meet their criteria, including cost. Perceived college prestige or rankings are not relevant to “fit” and arguably should not play a role in choosing a school. Students will excel at schools where they are challenged, supported, happy, and fulfilled. 

There are many online self-assessments that students can take to identify the types of schools best for them. Stephen Antonoff’s materials are generally considered among the best, and begin with a look at the student’s level of independence, enthusiasm for different kinds of work, and personality. 

Basic questions and the results of the self-assessments will kick off the search. As they narrow down the list, students and their family should consider if they:  

  • Have a preferred state or region 
  • Want a co-ed or single-sex college 
  • Enjoy an urban, suburban, or rural setting 
  • Prefer a small, medium, or large college
  • Have an interest in joining fraternities and sororities
  • How important athletics are to their college experience
  • How important student body diversity is to them
  • What student organizations they may want to join
  • Whether they want to study in a religiously oriented school
  • Financial aid availability (don’t just look at the sticker price

There are more than four thousand colleges and universities in the US, but you may be surprised by how quickly you can narrow down the list! 

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen. 

A woman looks at a budget document on her laptop.
Sincerely Media via Unsplash

The good news about the eye-watering tuition prices you see on college websites is that fewer than half of families pay the full sticker price.

There are two types of financial aid: merit-based and need-based. Merit-based aid is given by the school and is based on a student’s performance in high school. Colleges will offer merit aid to the highly qualified students they want to enroll. Need-based aid is given by schools based only on demonstrated financial need, not on merit. Generally, the more selective the school is, the more likely it is to offer only need-based aid. Some schools give a mix of merit and need-based aid. 

Most schools will use information submitted by the student via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); a few use the College Scholarship Services (CSS) profile. Both will require the submission of tax returns and a great deal of other information. The FAFSA will produce an estimated family contribution (EFC), the amount a family can be expected to pay for college costs, according to the government’s algorithm. However, this number is not a guarantee of aid. It is simply a data point used by colleges when calculating a financial aid package. Each college will have a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their website that provides the most accurate information on a family’s expected contribution. Unfortunately, there is no standard NPC: each college has its own. If families need to take loans to cover a gap between the financial aid offered by the school and what they can actually afford to pay, they should think very carefully about how much debt they want to take on, and what type of loan would be best. Financial aid award packages can be appealed if families do not think they are accurate.

The college your student attends will be the largest source of aid. There are other sources, including thousands of private scholarships, but they are typically small, difficult to find, and time-consuming to complete. Some students may decide that the time it would take to find and apply for private scholarships is not worth the relatively small amount of money they might receive if they win. Scholarships from a state for its public colleges can be substantial, so if financial aid is a major concern, be sure to look into state schools.

Most state colleges also offer lower prices for residents, and many have regional reciprocity programs for residents of nearby states

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Notepad surrounded by crumpled up discarded drafts.
Steve Johnson via Unsplash

The personal statement can be intimidating. For many students, it’s one of the first times they attempt expository writing about their own lives and ambitions. And it’s not a low-stakes matter: how you approach the essay really does matter. 

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an excruciating process, and can even be enlightening. Remind yourself that it’s not terribly different from any other writing assignment, take a deep breath, and follow your writing process:

    • Brainstorm: Some students may feel like they “don’t have a story” to tell in their personal statement. However, diligent and creative brainstorming will always uncover rich, interesting topics. You can write it down or talk it out, you can use whiteboards or sticky notes, but do not neglect the brainstorming.
    • Draft: Let that rough draft be rough. Editing too early, or worrying about phrasing and spelling when you’re still trying to get your ideas down, is something even professional writers struggle with, but it’s worth it. 
    • Revise: Students should expect to revise and polish their essays repeatedly. Six or eight revisions are common. It can help to have a friend, family member, or one of the coaches from A Starting Line review and make suggestions. We also recommend reading your essay aloud, to make sure you know it sounds like your voice.

As you choose your topic, be sure to consider why the college is asking you to write this essay, and what your response shows (not tells!) about the kind of student you’ll be.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Corkboard calendar
Monica Sauro via Unsplash

In addition to deciding what colleges to apply to — and how many — you’ll also have to choose among several different possible timelines, including regular decision, early decision, and early action. The most common, of course, is “regular,” but there are two different ways to apply early that students and their families should consider.

Early decision (ED) plans are binding — a student who is accepted as an ED applicant must attend the college to which they’d applied ED. Students may apply to only one school for ED: acceptance by that school is a binding contract and students must withdraw all other applications when accepted ED. The decision to apply to a school ED is a decision that must be made carefully. Most students do not apply ED to any schools because they are not ready to commit so early in the search process. 

Early action (EA) plans are nonbinding — students receive an early response to their application but do not necessarily have to commit to the college(s) until the normal reply date of May 1. Students may apply EA to as many schools as they wish. Deadlines for ED and EA are typically a month or 6 weeks before the regular decision (RD) deadline, usually between October 15th through January 15th. 

Should I Apply Early?

One of the chief advantages of applying ED and/or EA is getting admissions decisions earlier. Students applying ED or EA to schools with November 1st deadlines may know by New Year’s where they will be going to college, which makes it a lot easier to enjoy the second half of senior year. 

In addition, acceptance rates for ED and EA pools are generally higher than those of the RD pool, mostly because colleges believe that early applicants are highly likely to enroll if accepted. If you have a clear first choice college, early applications are a great idea and could even boost your chance of getting in.

They have their disadvantages, however. First, students need to start a lot sooner to meet those early deadlines. That can be a stressful rush, especially if you’re not quite sure which colleges you’re interested in attending yet. 

They can also be quite a commitment, especially ED. Even with EA, families may need to make an acceptance decision before they get complete financial aid package information from other schools, so they won’t be able to compare the exact cost of every school.  

Regular and Rolling

Regular decision is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s by far the most common choice. Deadlines typically start as early as October 15 and run as late as April 1. Generally, the more selective the school, the earlier its deadlines will be. Applying RD gives the student the most time to complete their application and the advantage of being able to compare all their financial aid offers before choosing a school.

Rolling admissions, typically offered by public colleges and universities, provide the most flexibility. Students can submit their materials when they feel ready, and schools will usually respond six to eight weeks later. The earlier the application is submitted, the sooner the student will get the decision. Deadlines are often late – in May through July – so students will be able to assess their RD acceptances before deciding whether to apply to any rolling decision schools. However, the earlier you apply, the better chance you’ll have at getting some aid. Apply later and there might not be much aid still available.

Different colleges will have different deadlines and application options, so be sure to check school websites and the Common Application to help you plan your schedule.

Adapted from an article by A Starting Line coach Karen Droisen.

Colleges are looking for students who demonstrate leadership. But what does that even mean?

Leadership is a surprisingly slippery concept and there’s no end of books and guides and seminars about how to lead and why. Johns Hopkins even offers a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership

Fortunately, you don’t need an advanced degree to develop your leadership skills. You don’t need to win a student government election or even be the president of a club. Instead, think of leadership as a practice and a skill, something you do every day and get better at as you go. 

Our favorite way of looking at student leadership comes from The Student Leadership Challenge, which describes five things that student leaders do: 

  • Model the Way: Lead by example, and demonstrate the behaviors and attitudes that you want to see in others. Don’t just talk about doing good, but take action to set a positive example.
  • Inspire a Shared Vision: Motivate others by helping them to see a shared vision for the future. Be clear and specific about your vision, and it will be something that others can believe in and work towards.
  • Challenge the Process: Question the status quo, and actively seek out ways to make things better. You may need to take risks to create change. 
  • Enable Others to Act: A leader facilitates the work of the whole group, and provides the resources and support that others need in order to achieve their goals.
  • Encourage the Heart: Recognize and appreciate the efforts of others. Celebrate successes and help others to feel good about their contributions.

You can do those things in ways both big and small. Whether you’re leading formal organization — or starting your own — or just being kind to others, leadership is something we can do every day that helps us improve ourselves and the world around us.

Early on in my career, I learned that when someone asks you a question, it helps to find out why they want to know before you start to answer. That gives you the context you need to provide the best possible response.

This is especially true when you consider college application essays. Why does a college want to know about a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure? 

The answer, of course, is that they want to know how you’ll respond to challenges, setbacks, or failures when you get to college. 

I think of it as an unasked question hanging in the air around every prompt: “… and why does that make you someone we want to have on campus?” 

Why would Stanford want to see a letter you write to your imagined roommate? They’re looking for students who can live well with other people.

Why would Princeton want to know about a new skill you want to learn in college? They’re looking for students with concrete and specific personal growth goals. 

That’s not to say that you should just try to tell the admissions office what you think they want to hear. Far from it. 

Instead, when you’re brainstorming, keep that unasked question in mind to help you identify good topics. If you want to learn how to type, how to do a new TikTok dance, and how to meditate, which one is going to be more interesting to admissions? If you have ten ideas for things to tell someone you’ve just met, which of them are likely to lead to a polite and fruitful conversation?

Are Test Scores Relevant

Should I Submit?

The pandemic has definitely changed the way admissions look at standardized tests (SAT and ACT). During the pandemic, colleges and universities pivoted to test-optional or test-blind (UC). There are currently very few schools requiring a standardized score; MIT is one of the few outlier schools requiring a student to take and submit a score. A student’s chances of being admitted to a highly selective school are much different now than they were two or three years ago. As more and more schools were becoming test optional, so the numbers of test takers increased.

Beginning just before the pandemic, admissions offices had begun to view the tests as inequitable because they have been shown to highlight the disparity between test takers who come from educated, affluent families who can pour money into test prep and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, thus further creating a lack of diversity on college campuses. It became common knowledge that the tests created an unnecessary barrier for low-income students.

This year, College Board released results of a study among 51 test-optional public and private colleges. Applications were up across the board, but at the highly selective private colleges, more than half of applicants didn’t submit scores. These schools also did not increase the number of seats to meet demand, creating very low acceptance rates – something they relish as it ‘looks good in the rankings’. Highly selective schools saw their numbers rise among Black, low-income, and students with high GPAs.

When is it beneficial to submit a score? 

Parents and students should understand that a test score is highly predictive of how well a student will do in college, more than a GPA can predict success.

Jeff Selingo writes, “While a 1350 would have been considered a good score in the past at those {less selective} schools, now, when the only applicants submitting scores are mostly those well above the average, the expectations of admissions officers have risen with the scores — especially for applicants from wealthy academic” high schools. Students are now submitting scores only when they tend to be at the top of the range or even exceeding the range of scores.”

Selingo goes on, “In the spring, Hannah Wolff, a former college counselor at Langley High School, a top-ranked high school in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, D.C., heard from admissions counselors at several public universities that a few Langley seniors who were rejected might have been admitted if they had not submitted their SAT scores, which were in the 1350 range.” More attention might have been paid to the rigor of classes, the student’s activities and the essays. The lower median scores ultimately would bring down a school’s test score range in the rankings.

When should you not submit a score?

 Charlie Deacon, Georgetown University’s admissions dean since the 1970s is very

 unapologetic about his support for the tests. He believes a test score is a necessary benchmark for evaluating applications from high schools with varying degrees of rigor. “It’s not a score cutoff we’re looking for but one that’s high enough that you think, Well, maybe the student can do it,” Deacon said. “We don’t want people coming in for whom that is a real question. The really low test score is a warning signal.”

Basically, if a student is applying to any mid-range to top tier colleges, they should only submit a score if it’s very close to or above the median score for that school. 

What does this mean for you?

As the acceptance rates continue to decrease at the top tier and top mid-range schools, families will need to cast a much wider net in the college search.

 


 

Need Test Prep?

A Starting Line offers test prep with one of our experienced staff. We also partner with a highly regarded test prep center. 

 

Pandemic Effect on Students

 

The difficulties we are facing with this year’s students reminds me of a story I once heard, told by meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach. The story concerns a white tiger named Mohini who lives at a zoo. 

Mohini was put in a 12 foot by 12 foot cage upon arrival at the zoo, and lived much of her life in this prison. She spent years of her life pacing out the dimensions of her cage. Eventually, zoo staff were able to construct a larger habitat for the tiger, with much more open space. However, when they set Mohini free in the new space, she found a small corner of it and resumed her pacing, tracing out a 12 by 12 box in the grass.

Our current seniors spent a significant amount of their high school careers “boxed in,” like Mohini, in the confined space of their parents’ homes, with little exposure to the outside world and social exposure to no one but their parents. It is no wonder that now, even when restrictions have been lifted, a psychological cage remains. Being psychologically boxed in can leave one afraid to take risks and go outside of the comfort zone, which is also reflected in less-than-stellar essays. Perhaps a lack of boldness and daring in the writing is a symptom of a pandemic that asked an entire generation of enthusiastic students to put their adventurousness on hold. 

Our puzzle is how to encourage this generation to rekindle the inner adventurousness that makes for bold, standout essays. It is likely that we, too, have a bit of that psychological cage around us. The story of Mohini often elicits compassion from listeners. Can we hold that compassion for ourselves and our students, being patient as we slowly find our way back into the open grass? 

Simon Ginet, a college essay coach at A Starting Line, joined the team last year after getting his Master’s Degree in Education/Counseling from Boston University. He’s worked in the mental health field with trauma survivors around the same age as the students we work with, and has studied psychology as a student and layperson since 2009.

by S. Ginet
The college application process offers students an incredible opportunity to demonstrate their strengths, both academic and character, as well as maturity. And while most students do not have a clear picture of their college future at age 14, they may at this age begin to develop a keener understanding of their interests, unique talents, and values.

A Starting Line offers coaching to ninth grade students and their families to lay the foundation for a successful and meaningful high school career. We encourage self-inquiry and introspection, guiding students towards greater levels of self-awareness and confidence.

An introspective 9^th grader becomes a self-reliant senior, and encouraging students to do inner work from a young age provides them with the tools they need to become successful college applicants and healthy young adults.

Allison Barchichat, owner of East Cobb Tutoring Center, offers some sound advice for our students wanting to apply for scholarships…

Over the last twenty years, I have served on several scholarship grading committees. Who decides the winners and how? How can you maximize your chances to win scholarship money? 

Follow the directions.

I know, I know. How basic is this? Seriously though, in every committee I’ve served on there have been students immediately disqualified for not following directions. For example, one scholarship application required the winner to be a member of the school PTSA. Three students were immediately rejected because they never joined the PTSA – the rest of their application packets were complete, with thoughtfully written essays. But ultimately, they didn’t follow the directions and their hard work was for naught.

Read on for more vital information.

Although college may seem like a far-away concept for many high school juniors, the optimal time to begin the college application process is in the spring. One task that can be easily accomplished before the CommonApp even opens in August is to write a personal statement. Getting this one looming task done eliminates the stress of trying to write it during the hectic fall semester of senior year when you’re still narrowing your college list, focusing on keeping up your grades and still participating in extracurricular activities.

The prompts never change dramatically, so take a peek at the 2022-2023 prompts and begin thinking about them. Allow yourself time to really reflect on each; maybe even free-write a few sentences in response to each prompt. What do you want the schools to know about you? How will you show them your strengths?

Use this reflective essay with a maximum word count of 650 to strongly show who you are. If you begin in the spring and give yourself time, you will be able to strategically craft an interesting, vivid personal statement.

By the way, this is the optimal time for high school sophomores to begin a strategic plan for applicaitons. We recommend not waiting until the last minute scramble entering senior year.

 

We at A Starting Line love data, and we analyze all kinds of data to help our clients be strategic in college planning. But, it is very important that we are selective in what data we take into account and how we incorporate it into our strategy.  

Some of the publicly available data that you may be familiar with include US News and World Report rankings and Naviance (if your child’s high school subscribes to this tool).

A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Why Don’t Elite Colleges Expand Supply?” finds that top colleges care more about prestige as measured against their peers than any other factor when it comes to setting their enrollment numbers.

The four colleges that appear at the top of the annual U.S. News rankings—Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale (HPSY)—increased their enrollment by only 7% even as their applications skyrocketed, especially as the schools have gone ‘test optional’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the past 40 years, the freshman class at Yale has increased by only 14 seats; however, the number of applications has increased 300%, from 9,331 in 1979 to 30,932 in 2015. For the Class of 2021, 32,900 students applied to Yale.

This is not unique to Yale. In fact, the top 20 schools have found ways to increase their number of applicants while at the same time keeping enrollment constant over the years. This is how prestigious schools lower their yields, thus making the school seem more prestigious. The lower the yield, the higher the school sits on some of the most well-known ranking lists.

What does this mean for your student?

We like to say that the top 20 schools are ‘lottery’ schools. Even if Naviance indicates that, based on your child’s test scores and GPA, they are plotted on the Naviance scattergram into Harvard or UChicago, the likelihood of admittance is extremely low.

Scattergrams give data points for each student from a specific high school who has applied to a particular college in the past few years. The data points represent the students’ standardized test scores and GPAs based on your school’s scale. The points also indicate whether the student was admitted, waitlisted, or denied at a particular school. 

The key words here are “data points”. This data is collected from the school over the course of several years, therefore making the data old.

Another point to consider is that if 43 students from your child’s school apply to a lottery school, from the school’s perspective, only a very small percentage from the school will be admitted, assuming that they even qualify, because the university wants a well-rounded freshman class.

We always suggest a variety of schools since not every top tier college is well-suited for a particular student. We want to ensure that a student will find their course of study at a school that is a ‘just right fit’ for them

 

The Ivy League colleges have a long history of being ultra-selective, and many exceptionally-qualified candidates get turned from their doors. Why is that? Let’s take a look into Harvard’s admissions process and find out.

 

First, it is important to note that certain groups get preferential treatment in the admissions process. At Harvard, family members and friends of donors get flagged by the Office of Development for special consideration. While this flag doesn’t automatically mean that the student will be admitted, it does substantially tip the scale in the student’s favor.

 

Similarly, relatives of alumni, called legacies, have an advantage over non-legacies too. In fact, legacies are admitted at a 33% acceptance rate, a gigantic leap from the 5% acceptance rate experienced by non-legacies. Ultimately, about one in every seven Harvard students is a legacy.

 

The last group that has a significant edge over other applicants are athletes, particularly ones who play sports generally favored by the more affluent American population, like sailing, squash, fencing, and crew. Recruited athletes are accepted at an astonishingly high rate of 75%, but about 70% of these admitted athletes would not be considered qualified when compared to other applicants in the pool.

 

So what can you do to boost your chances of getting into an Ivy if you do not meet any of the above criteria? 

 

Fortunately, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Harvard does not look only at academic scores, but instead assigns each application a personal and extra-curricular rating, as well as an academic one. Among this criteria, the academic rating has the least weight, because in reality, most applicants vying for spots at the top schools are academically qualified.

 

To stand out then, it is necessary to come across strong in the other two categories, the personal and extra-curricular areas. When writing your application, consider all of the aspects of what makes you YOU, and weave them together to create an effective narrative. Use the supplements to focus on an aspect of yourself that you didn’t reveal in the common app essay, and spin the whole picture. By the end of reading your application, admissions officers should be able to feel like they know the entire you!

 

To read more, check out this article, written by Jerome Karabel in The American Prospect.

 

We recently heard a heart-breaking story. The father of a graduating senior came to us seeking guidance and insight after his child graduated and applied, mostly unsuccessfully, to universities. This family was NOT our client. They didn’t understand why, with a 3.9 GPA and 1560 SAT, the student was rejected from over 15 US schools. We explained about how some schools want to see demonstrated interest. Other schools are looking for non-academic activities to round out their incoming class. But it seemed to fall on deaf ears. The parent repeatedly, in a mixture of disbelief and denial, came back to the scattergram which plotted his child’s theoretical admittance to most every school. We want to emphasize that each student is more than a combined GPA and test score, and that those scattergrams show data that is at least one year old.

Equally important, and usually understated, is having passion and showing passion. It is demonstrated in various ways. It’s not enough to focus on summer and holiday classes and competitions. Yes, that math olympiad competition is a passion, but it is only as a participant that a student contributes. And it’s yet another academic endeavor. Not every student is cut out to be the president or captain of various teams and clubs. Therefore, it’s important to find the passion and show potential colleges (and employers) how that passion has been realized. It’s something you do for the sheer joy of it, and the love of what you are doing outweighs any other considerations.

If a student’s  passion is math, then show us the passion. If the student can’t be THE leader of the math olympiad team, then it’s important to find individual ways to show a passion for math. How about tutoring and mentoring younger students either in the community or inner city, or even internationally via zoom? Or organizing math related games for neighboring children over the summer?

Identifying one’s passion is an exercise in emotional growth and maturity. It takes fortitude and a real evaluation of beliefs and perceptions, something generally new to teenagers,  to find out what makes a student truly light up, excitedly coming up with tons of ideas.

Essentially, a passion project is a first-hand experience with the innovation process, of bringing a service or product to life. It should have benefits for and also  impact upon other people. Showing us your passion will help the chances of being admitted to the dream school. And this process is also transformative and transferable to life.

And about the father’s child…the good news is that the student was accepted to one prestigious school – an international school that only looks at the hard numbers rather than the person.

Amy Garbis

Partner-Consultant

Engaging customer experience so that as an end result, we be CMSable. Leverage below the fold and finally gain traction. Generating bleeding edge and creating actionable insights.

Marcus Abbott

Brand Expert | Mantell Design

Generating best in class in order to improve overall outcomes. Inform outside the box thinking and finally target the low hanging fruit. Repurose big data and possibly gain traction.

Lucinda Johnson

Support Staff | Gerwyn Financial