Why do college applicants make this mistake?

fb How To Become anIncomparable Applicant*Mini-Rant Alert*

I spoke to a mom and dad last month, Our older daughter is at [state university], she didn’t get in anywhere else she applied.  We have another son, you made one comment that will help prevent a second disaster.

Before I share what I told them, let me give you a little back story.

I see this mistake ALL the time.

Kids – and parents –  go all loopy in 11th grade

They’re inundated with SAT and ACTs, daily barrages of emails and “snail mail” brochures from colleges they never heard of, incessant, hyper-stressed chatter from peers and other parents who may or may not be attempting to psych you out under the false belief that you’re competing with each other (Sooo….are you sure you’re ED’ing to Penn?)

My reactions fall somewhere along the continuum of bemused to depressed when I hear how kids – and parents – choose their college lists.

How do kids pick schools?

Here are some of the factors that affect kids’ college list composition:

[Warning:  the following contains explicit TRUTH.]

Sports.  The year following a deep run in “March Madness” (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament) or a strong college football bowl appearance, applications spike at those respective schools.

We in the biz call this the “The Flutie Effect”, which put Boston College on the map.  I can still recall exactly where I was watching the “Miracle in Miami” game – at my friend Ben’s house, upstairs.  (Not sure how I feel about this, especially because I have no idea where I was when Reagan was shot, when any Supreme Court decision was announced or where Pearl told me she was pregnant those four times.  It’s all about priorities.)

Rank.  When US News & World Report publishes its latest, hot off the presses “Best Colleges” edition, schools at the tops of the 89 or whatever categories see more application action, and in turn rush out new marketing materials to brag to easily impressed kids and parents (“Named to the Top 100 Fastest Growing South-Southwest Colleges That Start With The Letter ‘P’ for Two Consecutive Years!”).

Spoiler alert:  US News does not consider items like quality of education. But they do factor in peer reputation, alumni giving and, of course, selectivity.  (If so many people want to go there, it must be a great school!)

Recruiting.  Kid/parents get suckered by overtures from admissions officers whom they encounter at college fairs and high school visits.  Job Number 1 for them is to get applications submitted, even if means minimizing or obscuring the truth about chances of getting in.  I know you have a 22 on the ACT, but your Etruscan National Honor Society honorable mention mitigates your score and makes you a strong candidate!

Finally, there’s guidance counselors.  I’m bracing myself for a slew of hate mail (I do read them, so bring it on!), but I warned you I was going to be truthful.

Is there a reason why they recommend the same 25-30 “Rear Window Sticker” colleges to 90% of kids?

There are several, but I don’t have space to discuss them.

But I have time to point out one problem – over-reliance on Naviance.  This college selection software helps you match up your grades and scores against other kids from your high school who were previously admitted to the colleges on your list.

But there’s one teensy problem. Actually, two.

#1. Grades and scores count, but only approximately 60% of the admissions decision.

Naviance ignores 40%.

What’s in that “yuge” chunk?  Everything else, including

Your essays

Your extra-curricular activities

Your recommendations

Your volunteer hours

What “special” category you fall into – e.g. underrepresented minority, international student, legacy, recruited athlete.

If you’re curious why kids with lesser grades and scores get into top colleges at the expense of more heavily credentialed applicants, this is why.  Or, let me put it another way:

College is not a meritocracy

Colleges admissions officers reserve anywhere from 67-80% of their incoming classes for special categories.  That’s not a typo.

If you don’t fall into one of these groups, you have to work even harder to get in, because the special group kids tend to have lesser grades and scores, which drag down the averages published by colleges.  You need to be at the top end of the range to feel good about yoru chances.

The second “fatal flaw” with Naviance is that you are not competing with kids in your high school – there’s no quota.  I know that may not make sense, but it’s da truth – I swear by the College Board.

You’re competing with kids all over the world. But Naviance couldn’t care less.

For several years now, most colleges have been aggressively recruiting international students from China, other parts of Asia and the Middle East to 1. Diversity and 2. Get paid full price (most international students don’t get any aid).

If you’re wondering why yesterday’s “joke” colleges are today’s “Dream Colleges,” it’s largely because there are about the same number of seats available, but more students competing for them.

Even if someone suggests building a wall around Asia and the Middle East, this trend will continue.

Colleges need cashola.

Failure to understand how admissions really works is why guidance counselors, and Naviance, give a false sense of security when you assess which colleges are safeties, targets and reaches.

It’s the main reason why “Admissions Armageddon” plays out for tens of thousands of high school seniors each January.  I predict that last year’s Targets will be next year’s Reaches.

My favorite basis for choosing colleges

But the reason I’m most fond of, or most frustrated by (depending on my mood, bipolar much?):  It just felt right.

Uh huh.

What “felt right?”  The tour (sales pitch)? The information session (sales pitch)?

The way the buildings were laid out (close, far, not too close, not too far, close yet not invasive of your personal space)?

A $250,000 good feeling.  Please.

Then comes the summer, college applications and essay questions that read as if sadistic psychologists from the local asylum, or university administrators, huddled to create a list of prompts to confound teens (What sets your heart on fire?  How will you “community?”  Seriously.)

Anyhoo, I have a solution to this mess.  Think of it as a clear path.

Pearl and I are hosting a show on “How To Become An Incomparable Applicant” next Thursday as part of a promotion for our product, The Incomparable Applicant Toolkit and (application only) The Incomparable Applicant Coaching Program.


You will discover:

  • How to choose a college list strategically, not based only on brochures featuring smiley, clear-skinned multi-ethnic coeds frolicking on the quad or “Rear Window Sticker” appeal

  • Questions to ask, people to see on college visits beyond the cliche overly caffeinated tour guides and solicitous, eager beaver admissions officers

  • You have the same grades and scores as 5,000 other competitor applicants – now what?  Tips to distinguish yourself – the right way – on your applications

  • How to write a college essay that “Sells,” not “Bores”

  • Naviance on ‘Roids – the proprietary system our clients use and trust to create a balanced list that accurately reflects chances of admission

  • Overlooked sources of scholarships

There is no charge to attend. It is a training class.  It’s not an infomercial.

As noted, we will be offering the opportunity – discounted – to enroll in either our Incomparable Applicant Toolkit or apply for our personalized Incomparable Applicant Coaching Program.

I will go over details of each at the end of the webinar only for people who are interested (so please don’t reply to this email asking about them – I’m keeping a lid on things. So there :).

Oh, what was the advice I gave to those parents?  I told them that their son should engage in “Atypical Teen Activities,” meaning don’t just do the same old, same old stuff that everyone else in high school does.

Take one, max two, things that he enjoys and “plus” it – accentuate them to almost an extreme level.

I’ll give a couple examples on the webinar.  

Speak soon,

-Andy “College Rants R Us” Lockwood

P.S.  Please forward this to anyone and everyone who needs this info!

P.P.S. Our presentation next week is geared toward “rising senior” Class of 2017 families, but Class of 2018 are welcome to join too. The earlier you start learning this stuff, the more choices you’ll have when it comes down to college nitty gritty!