Jay Mathews on "how to get into every college on your list"

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Jay Mathews on "how to get into every college on your list"
By Thoughtfulmom (Thoughtfulmom) on Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - 08:25 pm: Edit


I found this rather refreshing. I'm not sure if or when my younger one will apply to college (she's not convinced college is necessary, and I'm not inclined to push until she decides it is--she's only 14), but the idea of bypassing the unpredictable vagaries of the idiosyncratic admissions process at the superselective schools rather appeals to me. (My older one *did* manage to get into every college on her list, but we didn't spend that much time investigating the farther away ones until after she was admitted--because they were such longshots--and then I didn't really feel she had time to do justice to investigating all the possibilities in the very busy April before she had to decide. Although my older one had some schools on her list that were all the way across the country, we didn't encourage her to visit those until after she was admitted.)

The nice thing about deciding only to apply to schools where you have a pretty high probability of acceptance is that it then becomes worth it to schedule visits to all your schools well before you find out you've been accepted.

It makes the decisionmaking process much less frenzied--and of course also increases the probabiity of merit aid.

By Carolyn (Carolyn) on Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - 09:52 pm: Edit

This is an excellent article - thanks for sharing, Thoughtfulmom! I think the strategy this family used makes loads of sense - in fact, it's exactly what my daughter and I are talking about so it was good to see it confirmed as a realistic approach.

By Momoffour (Momoffour) on Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - 11:25 pm: Edit

I tried to open this and my computer crashed!

By Xiggi (Xiggi) on Tuesday, August 17, 2004 - 11:45 pm: Edit

Nice approach.

I'am glad he is going to Mini's recognized local alma matter: Whitman in Walla Walla, Washington. :)

PS Do the hooded sweatshirts come imprinted with WWWW?

By Easydoesitmom (Easydoesitmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 12:00 am: Edit

Any college - bound parent & students should read this article like a tutorial ! It is sensible stuff .............we took this approach with my daughter and she also got into every college on her list !

By Originaloog (Originaloog) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 02:19 am: Edit

This is the basic approach my son took. His SAT was 1420(took it once), ranked in the top 6%, had a 96+ gpa and graduated with 6AP's, one university class and numerous honors courses.

He did not desire to take any SAT II's(his way of raging against ETS he said), wanted to use the Common Appliation, and was looking for colleges offering significant merit aid.

He did his research and we visited Rochester, Rensselaer, Case, Allegheny, Wooster and Oberlin(which did not meet his finaid criteria but was a college he really liked during his campus visit). We insisted that he apply to the state university as a backup though the thought of going there distressed him.

Well, he completed the CommonApp and essay in two evenings and had his 6 application in by early November(he didn't like his Rochester visit and didn't apply). His Case, Rensselaer and Allegheny appliation fees were waived too.

He was accepted to all the collages and was awarded merit aid in excess of $375k. The entire process was incredibly easy and stress free because he was certain that he would have been happy attending every one of the colleges with the exception of the state university. While he did use USNews to generally screen colleges, he was not hung up on rankings.

We are taking him to Rensselaer on Saturday where he will be enrolled in the interdisciplinary Minds and Machines Compsci/psych program which will lead to a conentration in AI.

By Rhonda63 (Rhonda63) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 08:55 am: Edit

The kid in the article ended up at a great school. I think this is an excellent strategy for many people, but I would caution that I know some kids in my D's year who got into every school they applied to, and then regretted having not applied to at least a couple of "reaches," however they would define that term for themselves. Personally, I would urge adding a school or two to the list where you are a long shot.

By Palomino (Palomino) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 09:23 am: Edit

The moral here: don't aim high and you won't be disappointed.

By Soozievt (Soozievt) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 09:55 am: Edit

"The moral here: don't aim high and you won't be disappointed."

That is truly the moral of that approach espoused in this article/anecdote. But that is not a strategy that is best for all. You have the other extreme where you see kids aiming high across the board and feeling nothing else will do but "elite" college, or in some cases I see on the student message boards, Ivy or bust. That is one strategy, but not one I can relate to.

Then there is the strategy of aiming high in life, going for it, but not feeling you can only be happy if you reach the "top" however you define the pinnacle. I believe in aiming high for your goals, but being realistic at the same time. As that relates to college, and if you have worked hard to get to this point, there is no harm in going for a high goal, a "reach" or challenge, but at the same time, being content with other fine choices that are easier to attain. I am not saying this is for everyone. Some are content to travel a path that involves less stress or risk. Others are of the type or want to achieve as high as they can, and keep going for it, with goals in mind or dreams, if you will. That does not mean those dreams cannot be achieved with easier paths or less risks, but certain types set high standards for themselves and strive for challenge and would not be content without having "gone for it". At the same time, they aren't so deadset that they MUST attain the "top" and can be satisfied with something a rung down from there as long as they tried their hardest. Some really like the challenge of taking risks or setting high goals. It is a certain kind of personality. I see nothing wrong with it, of course, as my own kids fit this situation. At the same time, I see great things about the young man's situation in this article because this path worked well for him and he was content and also found the process easier. That is the right path for many.

I think this child's story is of interest here because we observe many kids on these forums at the opposite end of the spectrum as I mentioned above, who are ONLY content if they can be admitted to elite schools and do not even want to consider other options. For me, I prefer the middle of those two paths, and I guess that is good, lol, cause that is what my kids chose! They are the type to aim high, take risks, crave challenge, have high standards for themselves, yet their self esteem does not ride on getting the "top" thing and they just like to go for it but can be content by just trying their best and whatever happens happens. But they do like to go for it. While not quite the same, it reminds me of their endeavors in sports and in performing arts auditioning....they strive to achieve as high as possible but when it sometimes does not mean success, they get up and do it again.


By Kiddielit (Kiddielit) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 10:12 am: Edit

I'm not sure the message here is "Don't aim high." It seems the message is to take a very realistic look at your own stats and to open your mind to other excellent schools besides the top 25. And if you are aiming for merit aid, this is really the only way to go.

By Garland (Garland) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 10:21 am: Edit

Great letter, Susan! I had a similar feeling about the article, but you put it into words better than I could.

In our case, my S applied ED to a school which is an acknowledged high reach for anyone. But before that, he applied rolling admissions to Umich (a match-safety for him), and knew he was accepted there before he got his ED acceptance. He would've been very happy to go to Mich, and may actually not have applied anywhere else if he were turned down ED. So, as you described, he negotiated a middle ground of reaching high but having a very realistic and totally acceptable alternative.

He couldn't've had a more relaxed application process!

AGain, I can see that in this young man's case in the article, it makes sense to follow his particular path, taking into account his personality and academic aims. And it worked out great for him.

By Northstarmom (Northstarmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 10:28 am: Edit

Other than possibly hoping for merit aid, I don't see the point in applying to just a bunch of match and safety schools.

If one is fairly certain that one is going to be accepted to one's schools, why apply to several? Seems like a waste of time.

If one basically is applying where the odds of acceptance are overwhelming, one could just apply to a match and -- just in case there's a fluke -- a safety. That would simplify the process even more. If the match were rolling admission or one qualified as an automatic admit, only one college application would be sufficient.

This seems like a good strategy for students who want to go to college with students who are either at their own level or are weaker. I would imagine that most people who are applying to college would like this. IMO few students really want to be challenged by being in classes with a lot of people who may be smarter than they are. Most people want to be at least above average in most situations.

By Thoughtfulmom (Thoughtfulmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 10:30 am: Edit

"The moral here: don't aim high and you won't be disappointed."

Actually, I see the moral here a little differently. I see the moral more as, "Focus your search on non-lottery schools, so you have lots of time to research your actual options and make a thoughtful decision after extended reflection over a period of many months."

I'm not suggesting it's the right strategy for everyone. It wasn't the right strategy for my older daughter, but I'm hoping it will be for my younger one.

My older daughter had pretty specific academic needs, which were--unfortunately--really only available at the lottery-type schools. (She had already done very advanced undergraduate and graduate-level coursework while still in high school, so there were very few schools that could offer her four years of courses in her major that would challenge her. And all of those were lottery-ticket schools.)

We knew that admissions at the schools where she was applying were quite unpredictable, and we wanted to avoid spending a huge amount of money on cross-country college visits to places where she might not even be admitted (or to places where the net-of-financial-aid cost might be prohibitive.)

So although she applied to schools all over the country, she did not visit the faraway (and expensive-to-visit) schools until after she was admitted.

In the end, she did get in to everywhere she applied--and then she didn't have time to visit every place in April or to think over her options really thoughtfully. I think she'll do just fine where she's going, but I think it would have been nice to have had the time to really carefully visit all her options and reflect on them.

I think my younger daughter's academic needs may be better served by attending a different sort of college, one where admissions is more predictable and less lottery-ticket in nature. So it will make sense to invest in visits to faraway places long before she's actually admitted, because she'll have a realistic sense about her options long before April rolls around.

By Thoughtfulmom (Thoughtfulmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 11:05 am: Edit

Northstarmom: Other than possibly hoping for merit aid, I don't see the point in applying to just a bunch of match and safety schools.

If one is fairly certain that one is going to be accepted to one's schools, why apply to several? Seems like a waste of time.

Financial aid packages seem to differ a lot from school to school, both needbased and "merit," so that seems like a pretty big reason to me. The article posted above says that the kid was offered a total of $375K in merit aid. It sounds like he was able to choose among some pretty attractive offers. He even wound up getting significant aid at the one slightly-long-shot school, despite his parents' income of $130K.

If colleges posted their actual prices in advance(rather than just their sticker prices), it might be different. But, in general, there's no way to get an actual price quote until one has gone through the admissions process.

The reality is that most of the non-lottery admissions schools engage in significant "tuition-discounting" to fill their freshman classes with the mix of students they want.

For marketing/prestige reasons, most of them seem to have pretty high sticker prices, and then generously discount to attract students.

By Northstarmom (Northstarmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 11:29 am: Edit

I agree. I should have said that "If finances aren't a consideration and if a student wants to be in a class of other freshmen whose stats are similar or weaker than the student's," then there is no a reason to apply to a lot of safety/match schools.

To me, safety schools mean schools that students know they can afford, and can afford to attend -- regardless of whether they get financial assistance from the college. Too often, students and their families forget about the finances when it comes to selecting safeties.

By Jamimom (Jamimom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 12:36 pm: Edit

I think the strategy of applying to schools that are realistic picks is excellent, but I would not give up going for the dream schools either. The biggest problem comes when the kids are fixated on the big name schools to a point where they ignore the realistic picks and safeties and jeopardize their chances at those schools. They also build their expectations for getting into the lottery ticket schools to a point where they become ever so disappointed when they do not get in. I see this happen many, many times.

The truth of the matter is that you do not need to demonstrate alot of interest for HPY. The number of applications they get and kids doing everything but standing on their heads and doing headstands to get the adcoms attention is distracting to them and certainly is not going to improve your odds. The quality of ECs and accomplishments they get in their applicants is such that for most kids it is better to list your activities in the most advantageous light but don't ply them with extra material. Remember when considering to send that cello tape of you playing that they have had Yoyo Ma. Kids will visit Dartmouth 3 times and give Carlton a cursory visit if that, and then wonder how they were deferred or rejected from the latter. when you start fixating so much on certain colleges, you can start convincing yourself that you HAVE to go there. You tell everyone you have applied there, you read up on the school, you fantasize, you do all sorts of things that you are NOT doing at the schools that are realistic picks to a point that they are not in your thoughts or life at all. You wrinkle your nose and refer to these schools as an after thought or as "God, I'll probably end up at XYZ" if you do not get into those dream schools where the chances are not very good even if your stats are well within range.

But to cross them totally off the list is going too far, I feel. Give it a go. You certainly are not going to get in if you do not apply. There was a parent who was posting about strategizing ED by picking a very slight reach as the ED school instead of the dream school to get the true boost from ED. Well, the idea is quite sound, except you are not giving yourself the best shot at the school you really want when you do this. And I have seen borderline kids or kids without a hook get into HPY, enough to feel that it is worth a shot for anyone who really wants to give it a go.

Some kids apply to a scattering of match safety schools because by the time the deadlines arrive, they still have not been narrow down their search. They feel by applying to a bunch of schools they like and are likely to get in ,they can do the picking at a more leisurely, stressless pace. It does work well with some kids. And if you don't have the burning desire to apply to HPY and your stats are borderline at best for that category of school, then why go through the trouble of applying when you can come up with a list of schools that perk your interest. I know my S did not get into the process until very late. I pretty much pushed him into picking and applying to a batch of schools and when the apps where out, he started getting interested in colleges and was finding some that he like that he did not apply to. So he ended up applying to another batch all of his picking and he did do those all by himself as I was through with the process and with him at that point. He was lated in applying to some of these schools--past the deadlines, and though the schools told him to go on ahead and apply, I would not have wanted for him to have gone this route as his sole venue--the earlier apps were sent out well in advance. His clock just was not in synch with the college's schedule and I really did not want him shut out so I forced the issue prematurely. He ended up at a school in the batch he chose, a school where he applied much after their deadline.

Now as an oldtimer, I somewhat feel that for most kids, applying to a group of schools is going to generate some schools of interest and it is not so important to indulge every whim of these kids. In my day, you did not apply to very many schools, did not visit and many of us picked in the dark and were perfectly happy with our choices. And there are many kids today who pick their colleges very carefully with ample visits, discussions and thought, and still end up with a mismatch. so like Northstarmom, I do feel that there is not the need to apply to too many schools, as it really is not that earth shattering to most people where they end up going within certain categories. But when we can, we tend to indulge our children in this process, and choice is a big deal these days. If you can afford this indulgence, then by all means, enjoy.

By Thoughtfulmom (Thoughtfulmom) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 02:10 pm: Edit

In my day, you did not apply to very many schools, did not visit and many of us picked in the dark and were perfectly happy with our choices

In my day (over 3 decades ago), sticker prices at top private schools were on the order of $3K per year and median family income was on the order of $10K per year.

Minimum wage was $1.60 per hour back then. If a student chose poorly and flunked out after a year, he could--in principle--move back home, take a minimum wage job, and pay his parents back the entire cost in about a year of fulltime work, even at minimum wage.

Nowadays, sticker prices at top private schools are on the order of $40K per year and median family income is on the order of $50K per year.

Minimum wage is now $5.15 per hour. If a student chooses poorly and flunks out after a year, it would take roughly 4 years of fulltime work to pay his parents back!

In my day, financial aid at private colleges was almost entirely need-based.

Nowadays, university administrators at all but a handful of private schools engage in "tuition-discounting" for enrollment management purposes, that is, offering "merit scholarships" to entice students to enroll. Even some top-tier schools like Caltech, Duke, Chicago, and WUSTL, and the practice seems even more widespread in the next tier.

College is a big investment of time and energy for the student--he or she will be the one doing the work to get the most out of a college education.

It is also a huge financial cost, for students and their families. It seems to me that students and families ought to have the time to consider their choices carefully, in order to make the best possible use of their time and money.

The current system, under which students do not learn about the outcome of the lottery-admissions-process or about the actual net cost of their college options until a month before they need to make a choice, is unfortunate.

Indeed, I know of a student who didn't get the final round of financial aid information until 2 days before the May 1 decision was due. He also had 4 AP exams the week after the decision was due, so he felt he was making a decision under less than ideal circumstances.

I think it will all work out fine for him--as it does for many students. As the saying goes, 95% of students are at their "first choice college" by October of their freshman year--meaning that most students feel, after the fact, that they've wound up in the right place, no matter how it shakes out.

But I do think there are ways to make the process easier on all concerned.

It would be nice if students could know their options and the likely net cost of attendance more than a month before they need to make a decision.

Food for thought:
chronology of college expenses

By Carolyn (Carolyn) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 02:12 pm: Edit

Whitman is an excellent school, on par with Pomona and Williams in terms of academics - this student will not be going to school with people who are less qualified than him. And, as the article states, Whitman WAS a reach school for his stats.

Actually, all of the schools on his list were great schools - perhaps not well known, but still schools where even a student at the top of the admissions list would probably feel challenged. I think that was the key to the article - there are plenty of great schools out there that may not be on everyone's radar. Finding those excellent schools and matching them up carefully to your stats is going to become VERY important over the next few years as college applications soar.

By Rhonda63 (Rhonda63) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 03:17 pm: Edit

I think it's a stretch to say Whitman is on par with Williams. Perhaps the academics are as tough, but in terms of selectivity and academic prestige, I think Williams is considered better.

I do agree Whitman is a good school, though, and the kid in the story should be very happy with his result.

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 05:01 pm: Edit

Susan hit the nail on the head. This is a strategy for non risk takers who don't want dissapointment. That's fine, but I hope parents don't read the article and tell their kids not to go for a dream school that looks just a bit out of reach.

By Mini (Mini) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 05:19 pm: Edit

Out where I live, Whitman definitely has more prestige than Williams, significantly more. Which doesn't say much: more people have heard of Whitman; virtually no one knows what Williams is. Whitman networking out here might help you some; Williams not in the least except among a very, very small number of law firms in Seattle. There are, however, large numbers of Whitman graduates who attended U.Washington law school. (And I say this as a Williams alum in a capital city that doesn't know a single other alum living within 25 milies.)

And up here, if you say "Pomona", most folks think "Cal Poly".

Whitman is in a MUCH better town than Williams. What Williams has, which Whitman definitely doesn't, besides the three art museums, is a juggernaut of a football team, and an NCAA championship basketball team.

They are both great, great schools. Prestige depends on who you know and where you live. As to selectivity, move Williams to Walla Walla and you have Whitman. Move Earlham to Williamstown and you likely have something akin to Yale (because of its differences from other eastcoast LACs. Who knows?)

By Shennie (Shennie) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 05:45 pm: Edit

I have to say that we ended up being 6 for 6 in the process for our #2 son and had merit offers from all of them. We live in the midwest and for most kids who don't want to go to State U, the world is an open door. They don't usually have a preconceived notion about what is a good school or what is a poor one. This was the case with my son. So he came up with his perameters, we found several schools that fit those pretty closely and went from there. All of the schools he applied to were excellent schools although only one was US News top 50. We visited all schools before applying and he had time to think about which ones he was most interested in. We weighed financial aid offers and he will be headed off to Lewis & Clark next week. I think it will be a great match for him.

He probably could have come up with some reaches if we had pushed him but the he wasn't interested in other schools. I also need to point out that I did not point out selectivity to him. I told him that he would have a harder time getting into a super elite because of his lack of ECs but he should feel free to apply to those schools that he was most interested in. I think a big part of the problem a lot of people have is that they think there is only one perfect school, or they think that prestige is the most important factor. If you rid yourself of those 2 fallacies, then the college admissions process can become much easier and relaxed.

By Originaloog (Originaloog) on Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - 07:56 pm: Edit

I couldn't agree with you less Mom101 with your statement that, "This is a strategy for non risk takers who don't want dissapointment". I doubt that this is the motivation for many students. I suggest that it is often a healthy choice that many high school students make early on.

Newsweek reports this week on the mental health crisis that exists at colleges and universities, "In January 2004 the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, published a widely discussed five-part series which concluded that "an overwhelming majority" of Harvard undergraduates experience mental-health problems, and that the university's shortcomings in helping them were creating "a pervasive mental-health crisis" on the campus". I suggest that the seeds of this crisis were sown during many of these students' HS years. Knowing that only the most extraordinary student resume will cut it with adcoms at our elite colleges, many students are forced to become stressed out hyperachievers. Parents who are involved in the HS know who these students are. They are students who begin taking their SAT's in junior year, who take the SAT review courses, who load up their schedules with academic AP classes, run for countless student offies, belong to an endless list of clubs and rarely get home before 7pm on a school nite. Is it any wonder that these students bring emotional problems with them to college? When parents are complicit in this, it can only make things worse.

We encouraged our son to enjoy himself in high school, pursue his interests, develop socially and learn some self-disipline. Two years of Spanish when three would look a lot better on the transcript-Okay! Zero preparation for the SAT which he would only take once-Okay! Zero home study for his AP tests-Okay! Only one club activity because he needed rehersal time for his ska-reggae bank-Okay! He had a wonderful 4 years in HS, had a great circle of friends, had a band that opened for The Slackers on their national tour, challenged himself academically in areas that were of interest to him, and never felt the need to grovel for gpa points.

That was his choice and I know it was a healthy one for him. Was he avoiding disappointment? No. He merely wanted to be a happy teenager, aware that these choice would probably affect his college options later on. But he is heading off to college on Saturday excited to begin a new chapter in his life.

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