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College Search Error #2: Wishful Thinking

Posted on 06/05/2023, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 7th and 8th Graders, Parents of 9th Graders, Parents of 10th Graders, Parents of 11th Graders, Parents of 12th Graders (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 his 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 schools that is poorly aligned with their child's academic qualifications. As you can imagine, this approach frequently doesn't end well, so as you help your teen put together a list of schools, make sure to start with a reality check.

Do an Early College Reality Check

Perform the college reality check by comparing your daughter's GPA, rank, and test scores (if she intends to submit them) with those of previously accepted applicants. This information is available by virtue of the Common Data Set initiative, a data-sharing collaboration between colleges, the College Board and publishers like Peterson's and U.S. News & World Report. The Common Data Set (CDS) includes a standardized series of questions on college admissions that each participating college completes. Many colleges post their CDS answers online, and you can often find the CDS for a university by Googling "College X Common Data Set 2021-22" (most recent year available). Once you find the Common Data set, click on the link for First-Time, First- Year Admission. The complete CDS for a specific college will give you the most comprehensive data, but if you can't find a certain school's CDS online, or prefer the convenience of a website that has pulled excerpts of CDS data from multiple colleges, here are two options.

  • College Navigator, a free site maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics. Search for a college and then click on the Admissions tab. Two interesting data points provided are the acceptance rates for men vs. women and the percentages of students who submitted the SAT and/or ACT.
  • U.S. News & World Report: To get access to detailed data, e.g. in-state vs. out-of-state acceptance rates at public universities, along with GPA distributions of applicants and average test scores, you need to purchase a Compass subscription for $39.95.

What if you discover that your daughter's academic credentials are not as strong as previously accepted applicants 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 ways she might improve them - sharpen time management skills or get a tutor for a problem subject. Similarly, if she plans to submit standardized test scores and they're not where she'd like them to be, she still has plenty of time to improve - by doing some serious test prep and 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. There's still time to do another round of test prep and testing, but you should also plan 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.

Applying to Ivy-Calibre Schools: Proceed with Caution

According to a Forbes news article, Harvard and Columbia had acceptance rates this spring of 3.4% and 3.9%, respectively. Outside the Ivies, Rice and Northwestern accepted a mere 7.7% and 7% of applicants. Even schools that were once more accessible than the Ivies have joined the ranks of the ultraselective. For example, acceptance rates at NYU and University of Southern California were 8% and 9.9% - down from 40% and 52% twenty-five years ago (as reported in the 1999 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges).

When acceptance rates are this low, it's generally the case that the college has far more qualified applicants than places in the freshman class. Unfortunately, this means that even if your son has done everything right - and is every bit as qualified as the typical student currently attending the college, he may not get in. This is a disconcerting reality facing families of outstanding students today. What can a parent do to help her teen navigate this process without it doing serious damage to his ego or mental health?

First, 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 child's college list. In particular, look for likely and safety colleges that are similar in size, locale and general feel to the reach schools. In other words, if a kid is pining for a place at Washington and Lee, the University of Mary Washington might make a better safety school than JMU.

Composing a thoughtful, realistic college list that includes dream schools, but isn't limited to them, will improve the odds that at the end of the application process your child will be happy with herself and the college she ultimately attends.

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Posted on 06/05/2023, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)




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