Day 5: Estimating Your Chances of Admission (and Money)
Free Email Video Series – Day 5
Here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll learn in this video.
Nothing causes families more consternation in the college process than the prospect of calculating a student’s chances of admission.
The existence of quantifiable criteria like grade point averages (GPAs) and standardized test scores give the process a veneer of objectivity.
But because admissions decisions are made behind closed doors, and because every family has heard horror stories of “unqualified” students being accepted while “super qualified” students are rejected, we know intuitively that there is a lot of subjectivity in these decisions.
Nevertheless, it makes sense to try to understand one’s chances of admission.
We want to play the admissions game as best we can in order to maximize our own advantages in a game that is created by colleges to advance their own interests.
In this lesson, we cover a lot of different factors that play in to admission decisions.
1. Test scores
One of the most obvious ways to gauge whether a student might be accepted to a given college is to compare her scores on the standardized tests (ACT or SAT) to the scores of students who recently have been accepted.
We focus on the “mid-50%” of these scores, which reflects the mid-range of scores presented by the previous class.
If we know the mid-range, we can also discern the top and bottom quartiles, too. The closer the student’s score to the top end of the range, the better chances of admission.
Similarly, a student whose scores are in the bottom quartile of previously admitted students will have a lower chance of admission. So test scores are a place to start, but they are hardly determinant. Other factors play a role, as well.
2. GPA and high school performance
One’s grade point average might seem a useful measure of admission.
However, it is a relatively weak statistical measure, because the US has no standardized way of calculating GPAs from one school—or one district or one state—to the next.
Schools are relatively autonomous institutions that are able to offer their own curriculum, their own grading scales, and their own reporting mechanisms—all of which muddle our ability to compare GPAs.
So this number is unhelpful within the application pool. However, the GPA is helpful in gauging a student’s relative performance within her school. It helps admissions to understand how well the student stacks up against her peers at her school.
Again, colleges want to understand whether the student is a top student within her peer group or is more average (or below).
Whether or not a high school “ranks” its students’ performance numerically based on their GPA, the college is trying to discern how well the student performs compared to her current peers.
And colleges—especially the most selective ones—have piles of historical data that can help them put an individual student’s school transcript and GPA into a more helpful comparative context.
Additionally, college admissions representatives are divided into territories, and individual reps are responsible for understanding the idiosyncrasies of high schools within their territories.
While the GPA can give us some direction in calculating chances of admission, by itself it is a relatively poor predictor.
Colleges are businesses, and they act in their own interests.
As institutions, they do have interests above and beyond the strict academic criteria of school performance and test scores. Colleges and universities play host to athletic teams.
They create diverse communities that offer students opportunities to grow and explore and expand beyond purely academic pursuits. And they need to consider their long-term financial health as philanthropic, not-for-profit institutions.
Thus recruited athletes, members of American ethnic minorities, and those whose parents attended (and now donate) the college all are given preferences within the admissions process.
However, these “hooks” are not universally applied.
This is especially true when it comes to legacy status: not all universities give legacies a preference. It is important to understand how each individual school emphasizes (or doesn’t emphasize) these “hooks.”
4. In-state vs. Out-of-state
Public institutions tend to favor in-state students, in large part because the citizens of that state pay taxes to support these public institutions. (However, it is important to note that public taxpayer support for higher education has plummeted in recent decades, with taxpayers contributing only small slivers of the overall budgets of our state colleges and universities).
Because of this home-state preference, the admissions statistics may be skewed slightly, depending on the mix of in-state and out- of-state applicants and admitted students.
In some states, the vast majority of students accepted to a state university may come from the home state.
This is true of places like the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
However, admissions statistics are aggregate figures: colleges do not publish different acceptance rates for in-state vs. out-of-state.
So when looking at average test scores and GPAs, keep in mind that your own chances of admission may be different depending on which school—and which state—you are considering.
5. Safety schools
At its most basic, a safety school is one to which the student will easily be granted admission.
But I often find that students have no interest in attending this so-called safety—because they don’t find the school desirable in any way, other than the relative ease of admission.
My approach to a safety school is this: the school must not only be easy to get into, but it must be a perfectly desirable school for the student to attend.
It must “tick the boxes” and meet the criteria established during the college search.
Often the safety school is the most difficult to select in this process.
All of us prefer to dream big and focus on those “reach” schools, and we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find that one school onto which we project all our hopes and our expectations.
While the safety school is much less fun to think about, it is absolutely vital that students identify a “last resort” school that is not only easy to get into, but wholly desirable in every way.
Of course, the “reach” schools may be more desirable.
But the safety must be one that matches the student’s needs and preferences and offers the opportunity to grow and excel throughout the higher education experience.
Once you have viewed this section of the course, please go through the exercise to identify both the objective and subjective factors that make you a good candidate for admission anywhere you might like to attend.
Also be honest with yourself about any negative factors that may have an impact on your admissibility. We all want to be hopeful, but we also need to temper that hope with a healthy dose of reality.
After all, we know that colleges often make admissions decisions that do not seem—from outside the admissions office—to make a whole lot of sense.
If you clearly understand your own strengths and weaknesses as an applicant, you can approach the application process with a greater sense of power and confidence.
As a special offer to you for going through my email video masterclass, I’m offering you our Roadmap Planning Session, normally $450, for only $375—a $75 discount.
So if you’re not sure how to assess your chances of admission (and financial aid) at schools that interest you, sign up for the Roadmap Planning Session. We can review your profile and figure out whether your list of colleges is realistic given your preferences, ambitions, and pocketbook.
Next time, we’ll talk more about how to pay for college.
PS: Don’t forget to ask your questions and share your concerns in the College Admissions Experts Facebook group.