If you’ve been following us for any period of time, you’ve probably heard about our “From Home Education to Higher Education” research project. (If not, you can find more information here). We’ll be releasing the initial results of our research next month (more on this soon!), but we’ve already begun sharing some of the great ideas, recommendations, and insights from college admissions officers around the country through our recorded interview series. Our most recent interview was with Falone Serna, Director of Admissions at Reed College here in Portland, OR. You may be familiar with Reed through some of its famous former students like Steve Jobs, but I’ll bet there’s a lot more you don’t know about this rigorous liberal arts college here in the Pacific Northwest, including why it could be such a good fit for many homeschoolers!
Other interviews in our ever-developing library include Shimer College and Antioch College, along with an interview with Mark Corkery, College Admissions Counselor at College Advance. If you’ve got questions for college admissions officers, we’ve probably asked them — and have the answers! You can tune in to any of our interviews any time for free. And if you have any particular colleges or universities you’d like to hear from, let us know!
When most of us parents of high school-aged kids were applying to college ourselves, the checklist for what we needed to do was pretty clear:
- Get good grades,
- Get a good SAT score,
- Write an essay about why University X was the only school for you,
- Choose three schools — a “stretch” school, a “likely” school, and a “safety” school, and
- Fill out (by hand) your three applications, and include the same essay (making sure to change college “X” to “Y” or “Z”) with each one.
Then, just drop each application in the mail with a $35.00 check for the application fee included, and wait by the mailbox for the “fat envelope” to (hopefully) arrive! We knew, or thought we knew, that the decision criteria the nameless, faceless members of the admissions people would make about whether or not we would get the “fat envelope” were based strictly on some mathematical equation calculating our various numbers. And, in the case of a “tie”, the passion expressed of our essay would hopefully push us over the top into the “admitted” category. Simple, right?
Given that these were the days before the ethnic diversity of the student body was much of a consideration, and before there were AP classes in every possible subject (history and Spanish were it in my day), and certainly well before anything remotely resembling social media existed, I think it’s fair to say it was a simpler time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the changes that have taken place since then — equality and broader access to information make life better. However, as we help our own teenagers begin their college searches and application process, we need to be aware of some of the complexities that the latter (specifically, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) have introduced, and plan accordingly. In short, it’s not 1988 anymore.
So what do we need to do?
First, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the college admissions officer and understand some of the big challenges they face:
- Number of Applications: Applications these days are submitted online, usually using the “Common App”, so it’s much easier for applicants to apply to more universities, which creates a bigger workload for admissions folks. The upside is that they have more candidates to consider; the downside is that they have more candidates to consider.
- Retention: This has become a much-discussed issue in the higher education community in recent years. In short, university officials want to reduce the number of students who enter their programs and then leave before graduating. There are lots of good reasons for this, and this isn’t the time to delve into all of them, but in short we can say that it usually isn’t good for the student (as they’ve probably racked up some student loans and don’t have a degree to show for it) or the university (which now has an empty seat in that class).
- Rankings: The US News & World Report has been ranking colleges and graduate programs since 1983, filling an information void for parents and students interested in understanding and comparing their college options. Over time the “rankings game” has become a real issue, however, that many schools and admissions professionals have had to learn how to play in order to best represent their school. Some play it well and by the rules, and others, well…. let’s say that maybe they don’t follow the rules as closely.
Colleges and universities that need to attract, select and retain the most highly-qualified students possible have had to adapt. What are some new methods by which they do this? And what can our students do to improve their chances of admission?
#1: Let Them Know You’re Interested Before You Apply
“This is the kind of stuff that savvy parents, students and college counselors know about.” — A Dean of Admissions
University admissions officers want to admit applicants who are likely to attend their school if they are offered admission (called “yield” in the admissions world), and then be successful and graduate from their program. This is so important, in fact, that some schools have developed a system in which “all potential students are assigned a probability, from zero to 100 percent, of whether they’ll enroll…”. In order to decide who those likely students are they consider a variety of factors, and have found that “How interested an applicant was is heavily correlated with the student who is going to be a good fit and stay on past the first year.”
So, the key step for homeschoolers (or any applicant, really) is to determine which schools you’re most interested in well before you apply, and then connect with those schools in every way possible — registering on school web sites, following their Twitter accounts, registering for college visits, and attending college fairs are a few of the ways you can do this. Some schools, like Reed College, have the option for prospective students to “ask a Reedie”, providing an email address where you can ask a current student anything you want about the school. (For more about Reed College, check out my recent interview with their Director of Admissions here.) In short, connect!
Also, keep in mind that once you’ve signed up, admissions officers from those schools will probably be following you, too! This means you should make sure that anything you post on your own social media sites are in good taste and highlight who you are as a potential student. For more details on this topic, check out this article: Colleges Shift to Using “Big Data” in Admissions Decisions
#2: Understand the Implications of “Test Optional”
When I heard recently that George Washington University was going “test optional”, I was very excited. I even shared an article about it on the Teach Your Own Facebook page with, if I remember correctly, a “woo hoo” or two thrown in. Not much later, however, I read about The Real Reason Colleges Go “Test Optional” and started to reconsider my initial excitement. Here’s why…
Lots of us homeschool because we’re fed up with all of the testing our kids were subjected to in public school (or that we’ve heard about from other parents), and we tend to remain a little skeptical about “high stakes” testing and its merits. So, when we hear about colleges that are “test optional”, which means they don’t require SAT or ACT scores for admission, it seems as if these schools are interested in evaluating our kids on something other than numbers. Great, right? Well, maybe not.
If we take a step back and think about it, more students are likely to apply to these schools, especially those who don’t test well or have low test scores. This is good for universities because high numbers of applications show strong demand for their school. They can only admit a certain number of students, however, so their actual acceptance rate goes down, making them appear more selective when they report these numbers for college rankings. So going “test optional” can be good for the university, but what does that have to do with our students?
Well, more applicants equals more competition. Some students, especially those who test well and have high test scores, will still submit their scores for consideration. This means that for homeschooled students who want to submit the most competitive application they can should probably plan to take the SAT or ACT (especially if they think they can do well), even if they’re applying to a “test optional” school. And for those students who don’t think they can test well, you’ll need to make sure you really stand out in your references and essays!
Deciding where to apply to college is a project in itself — there are so many options, so many decisions to make, and that’s before you begin filling out the application and writing your essays! In an effort to help reduce your research time, here are some of the top college information sites recommended by college counselors around the country. Even if you’re not ready to begin applying, these are fun to browse (just make sure to bookmark them for later!)
- College Results Online: College Results Online (CRO) is an interactive, user-friendly Web tool designed to provide policymakers, counselors, parents, students, and others with information about college graduation rates and admissions statistics for nearly any four-year college or university in the country.
- College Majors 101: If you have an idea of what you want to study, but aren’t sure which colleges offer your major, this is the place to start. What’s more, you can find a detailed description of what your major entails (classes, skills), trends in the industry you’ll be entering, and employers who are hiring in your field.
- Unigo: This is a broad search site that provides overviews of each college and university, including campus descriptions, key statistics and, best of all, student reviews!
- College Navigator: This is the site maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). It’s pretty vanilla, but a good place for basic information and some helpful links to federal financial aid sites and forms.
- GoodCall: Search over $25 million in scholarships. Enough said, right?!