Our RSS FeedFollow us on TwitterLike us on Facebook


HOME » Timely Topics » College Search Error #2: Wishful Thinking

College Search Error #2: Wishful Thinking

Posted on 06/07/2022, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)

My father was a plastic surgeon whose practice included several cosmetic procedures. Occasionally, a patient would bring in a picture of a favorite actress and ask, "Can you make me look like Lana Turner - or Hedy Lamarr, Grace Kelly, etc.?" As you can imagine, the answer was generally no.  Early on, my father learned that the most satisfied patients were those who entered the process with realistic expectations, so his first task was to gently try to align each patient's wishes with reality.

Some families begin the college search like my father's patients; compiling a list of prestigious colleges that are clearly unrealistic, given their child's academic qualifications. Other families, like this next one, however, would be surprised to be labeled wishful thinkers. Their junior has earned A's in all her classes, including several AP courses. She's scored in the mid-1500s on the SAT, plays soccer on the varsity team, and is the first chair of the saxaphone section of her school's band. Her college list is composed of six of the country's most selective colleges. At the urging of her school counselor, she's added a public safety school that she has no interest in attending. What's wrong with this picture? The girl's academic qualifications are stellar; why shouldn't everyone assume that she'll be accepted to at least one of the elite schools on her list?

The answer is twofold. First, the overall academic and extracurricular accomplishments of applicants being accepted to top colleges today are far more impressive than the accomplishments of such students a generation ago, making it exceedigly difficult for even a great student to stand out in the applicant pool. And second, exceedingly low acceptance rates at such schools make admissions highly unpredictable.

The Consequences of Low Acceptance Rates

Colleges with low acceptance rates typically employ admission processes that are holistic; they look at many factors beyond rigor of course work, grades, and test scores (if submitted) - things like counselor and teacher recommendations, extracurricular and service activities, and often multiple essays. The evaluation of these personal factors is very subjective, and makes it impossible to predict a student's likelihood of being accepted based on grades and test scores alone. 

Even before the pandemic, acceptance rates at many elite public and private colleges were shockingly low, and test optional policies have increased applications to those schools, driving rates even lower. According to a CBS News article, Harvard and Columbia had record low acceptances rates in spring 2022 of 3.19% and 3.7% of applicants, respectively. Outside the Ivies, schools, like Rice and Tufts also reported record low acceptances (8.56% and 9%). When acceptance rates fall this low, it is generally true that the college has far more qualified applicants than places in the class. Looked at from another perspective, it means that even if your son is every bit as qualified as the typical student at the college, he may still be rejected. Here's an analogy I often use to explain why. Suppose I own a business that is widely regarded as being tops among its peers in compensation, benefits, and work environment. I advertise for a new CEO and receive resumes from 50 outstanding executives - every one considered an industry superstar. Regardless of their attributes, 49 of those superstars will be rejected - not necessarily because anything about their resume was deficient, but simply because I only have one job. Similarly, top colleges only have so many places in the freshman class, so if the number of highly qualified applicants exceeds that allotment, some of the academic stars won't get in. 

This is a disconcerting reality facing families of outstanding students today. I assure you that my purpose in reporting it is not to rain on your parade, but rather to urge you to bring an umbrella. Most importantly, emphasize early and often that your child should not consider an acceptance or rejection from any school(s) to reflect a judgment of his/her worth as a student or person. Next, embrace the more positive reality that there are a lot of great colleges that have healthier acceptance rates than the handful of "hot" schools that get the most media attention - and make sure to include some of those on your teen's college list. Right here in Virginia we have a number of such institutions. For the class that enrolled in Fall, 2021, the acceptance rate for all students was 37% at William and Mary and 56% at Virginia Tech. Better still, acceptance rates were even higher for in-state residents. For a more comprehensive discussion about how to compose a thorough college list, as well as advice on how to hedge your bets if your teen's list includes Ivy-calibre schools, read Compose the List.

Do An Early Reality Check

Perform the college reality check by comparing your daughter's GPA, rank, and test scores (if the latter two will be submitted) with those of previously accepted applicants. Such information is easily accessible and free on The College Board Big Future or Niche College Rankings. What if you discover that your daughter's academic credentials are not quite as strong as the typical student at her preferred colleges? The good news is that if you’re reading this in her sophomore year or earlier, there’s still time to strengthen them. If her grades are the limiting factor, discuss with her whether there are ways she might improve them, e.g. sharpen her time management skills or get a tutor for a problem subject. Similarly, if she plans to submit standardized test scores and they're not yet an accurate reflection of her abilities, she still has plenty of time to improve - by doing some serious test prep, retesting, or trying the ACT.

 If you find that your daughter's qualifications fall short at the end of junior year or later, you're more limited in your options. At this point your best bet is to expand her college list. There's no need to cross the reach schools off her list, as it's still possible she'll be accepted - just make sure to add some more realistic choices.

Even if the reality check for your son reveals that his academic qualifications meet or exceed those of typical students at the country's most selective colleges, round out his college list with some appealing schools that have healthier acceptance rates to protect him from the dangers described above for schools with very low acceptance rates. For a more extensive discussion of the admissions process at the country's most competitive colleges, I suggest you read my article on Ultracompetitive Colleges.

Composing a thoughtful, realistic college list - including some dream schools - is one of the best things you can do to improve the odds that at the end of the process your child will be happy with herself and the college she ultimately attends.

Share & Print

  • Print
  • Email

Posted on 06/07/2022, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments) « Previous Entry    Next Entry »




No comments yet... be the first to leave one.


Post a comment:

Screen Name: (Not real first and last name)

Email: (Will not be displayed)


Please be courteous. Comments are moderated, so will not appear immediately.

Notify me of follow-up comments?

For security, what is 1+1?

I am 18 years of age or older.