The school counselor says our son is overreaching. Do we listen?

Question: My son was thinking about applying ED to Tufts. His guidance counselor told him that no one from his high school has ever gotten in with his GPA and his ACT score. He told him not to waste his early decision. What should he do?

Last week “The Dean’ started a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum (“Did your school counselor tell you NOT to apply to a “dream” college?”), which was prompted by a query much like yours. In that case, however, the counselor was practically forbidding the student to apply to a top-choice college, while it sounds like your son’s counselor is merely ringing a warning bell. But there are certainly striking similarities … and it’s a fairly common concern, as you can see from the comments on CC:

I suspect that this is the same counselor you wrote about in an earlier “Ask the Dean” question .. the one who provided some off-the-mark advice regarding cross-country running versus paid work, right? This raises a flag about the counselor’s reliability. But, on the other hand, “numbers” can be more important than most students (and parents) are willing to admit. I always tell my advisees to compare their GPA and test results with those of accepted students at target colleges. When their own figures fall at the bottom end of the median range (or even below it), the students must then ask themselves what they will offer that makes up for the shaky stats. Athletic prowess? Other special talents, achievements, or passions? Minority or atypical background? Legacy or VIP connection? When the answer is “None of the Above,” then the college probably falls into “Reach” … or even “Out of Reach” territory.

So when your son’s counselor cautions that past applicants from his school have been denied at Tufts despite higher test results and grades, your son definitely needs to listen. But he also needs to ask himself that same “What can I offer?” question. He must keep in mind that such qualities as “nice guy,” “good listener,” “great sense of humor,” “stands up to bullies,” or “steps over bugs on the driveway” are not usually highly valued admissions currency, as much as they should be.

Yet another consideration that may, rather ironically, work in your son’s favor is that if Tufts has taken few (or no) students from his high school in the past 5 to 10 years, then it’s possible that the Tufts admission rep who oversees your turf may lobby for a turnaround. If your son’s grades and ACT score are only slightly below those of past applicants, and if he brings some other pluses to the table, he might just get lucky. On the other hand, if Tufts does routinely accept students from this high school and all of these have profiles that are stronger than your son’s, then your counselor is probably right.

So here are a few routes you can take:

1) If your son’s stats seem low-end for Tufts and he can’t readily answer the “What else will I offer?” question, then follow the counselor’s suggestion and consider an ED application to a college that provides many of Tuft’s attractions but is somewhat less selective. (Brandeis? Trinity College? American U.?)

OR …

2) If Tufts is really a dream school for your son, he should go ahead and apply there ED I anyway. It may be an itch he just has to scratch. If he were to heed the counselor’s advice and never try, he’ll go through life wondering what might have been. (However, he should explain this to the counselor so he doesn’t ruffle feathers should the counselor assume his wisdom is being flagrantly ignored.) BUT … if your son is denied in the ED round or even deferred, he might want to have an application to an ED II college … one that is somewhat less selective than Tufts … waiting in the wings. (A growing number of colleges now offer ED II.)

OR …

3) Spend $150 on a College Karma Stats Evaluation to determine if the ED app to Tufts is clearly a waste of time and money and also a squandering of the ED “chit.”

CAVEAT EMPTOR: College Karma is a business I co-founded in 2008 with my College Confidential colleague Dave Berry. The Stats Eval–along with other College Karma counseling services–used to be provided by College Confidential. But when CC was acquired by Hobsons four years ago, we split into two separate enterprises.

You can read about the Stats Eval near the top of the page here: It’s $150, and I assure you that you will get your money’s worth. After your son completes and submits the Stats Evaluation form, he will receive an assessment of his admission chances at not only Tufts but also at all the other colleges he listed on the form along with suggestions of ways to improve those chances. The Eval report also provides the names of other colleges to consider that should meet his profile and preferences. College Karma can also provide suggestions for viable ED II options, should your son forge ahead with ED I at Tufts and then receive bad news.

I have never told a student flat-out to not apply to a dream college, but—like your son’s counselor—I have cautioned about wasting the ED admissions-odds-boost on unrealistic choices. There is often a fine line between those times when a counselor should say “Go for it” and when it’s ultimately wiser … and kinder … to say, “Go elsewhere.”

(posted 9/10/2012)