How to Get into College
(Without Losing Your Mind)
Really, that's what this step is about. You've already determined what college is right for you. You've come up with a list of schools that might be your perfect college match. You've ranked them to your own specifications according to your own specific needs.
Now comes the moment of truth. Yes, my approach to the college admissions process is different than that of many other college coaches: I take a holistic approach to the college search process and that's what the steps so far have been about. But eventually, cold, hard numbers come into play. Which brings us to Step Four: How to get into college. It's the step where dreams meet reality.
Before we get into that, a quick discussion about
How Not to Get into College
(While Possibly Losing Your Mind)
You’ve probably read articles—or seen headlines—that tell of elite colleges’ ever more competitive acceptance rates. As of this writing, Harvard’s acceptance rate is down .4% to 5.3%, and Stanford’s has plummeted to a jaw-dropping 5%. What those articles also reveal is that colleges are doing some finessing of their own perceived competitiveness. Each year, they send their eye-catching brochures to thousands of prospective students—even students who have no chance of getting in. Each year, more students—both qualified and unqualified—apply. And each year, these schools’ acceptance rates drop.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t apply to the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and MIT. Believe me, I’m not here to dash anyone’s dreams. If you have a compelling story to tell about yourself, including the grades, test scores, and extracurricular accomplishments that make you a stand-out candidate, then you certainly stand a chance of getting into one of those places.
But I will say that you need to look carefully at your profile as a prospective student and select a variety of institutions that “match” that profile. And not just in terms of school feel, learning environment, academic and extracurricular offerings, and brand appeal. You also need to look at your grades, scores, and the types/level of classes you’ve taken and factor those into your list as well.
The problem is that too often, students and parents are so focused on these ultra-elite schools, that they fail to remember the most important guiding principle of college admissions:
You’re perfect for the school that’s perfect for you.
How to Get Into the College
(Without Wondering If It's the Wrong College)
When I made this point to a parent of one of my students, she said: “You’re saying we need to get real?”
Well, yes. But not in the way that many people mean it when they say things like, "time to get real." To me, "getting real" doesn't mean "lowering your sights." It means assessing your strengths and matching them with the college that is most likely to bring out your very best.
After all, college is a means to an end; it should never be "the end."
Let’s take the example of one student I worked with, who had some very unique and interesting extracurricular accomplishments. She had a well-honed story to tell about herself and about what she would bring to any college that accepted her.
But there was a problem. She had a B+ average and no AP classes. In fact, her entire high school transcript seemed a little…thin. She’d only taken one honors class—in a foreign language—and she’d gotten an A-, not an A.
A deal-breaker? Not for some schools, but definitely for others. So we organized her college list with her fine—but not outstanding—academic credentials in mind.
Using the list of schools we’d already compiled, we turned to each college’s raw stats: Average SAT scores, percentage of students in the top 5% of their graduating class, and the college’s acceptance rate. We used this data to divide the schools on her list into three categories:
Likelies, Target schools, and Reaches.
It's true: Some college coaches focus on the most competitive, most glamorous names in higher education. But I like to make sure my students always have a "sure thing" in their pocket. So for this student’s “likelies” category, we included schools that had acceptance rates above 60%. Although nothing is ever a given with the admissions process, based on the nature of this student’s overall profile, anything above 60% felt like a pretty sure thing.
For this student’s “target” category, we included schools that had acceptance rates between 30% and 60%. These were schools that I felt she had every reason to get into, although I realized that certain factors—like her not-quite-A average—might weigh against her. Still, these were schools that offered a level of competitiveness that my student liked and felt comfortable with.
Finally, into the “reach” category went schools accepting below 30% of their students. Realistically, for this student, we didn’t include any schools that had below a 20% acceptance rate—not just because, from a purely raw data basis, her chances for admission at a school like that were so slim. We also bottomed out at 20%, because during Steps One through Three of our process, she hadn’t found any “matches” that fell below the 20% mark. Her most competitive school on our finalized list accepted 22% of its applicants.
So how did my student’s application process shake out? She was accepted into all of her likelies and offered several significant merit scholarships. She was accepted into all of her target schools—including her top choice, where she decided to attend. And of her three reaches, she was accepted at one, wait-listed at another, and passed on by the third. But she was happy: She’s going to her first choice college, which turned out to be the best match, both in terms of her talents, and her transcript.
This student found success in the college admissions process because she and her parents were willing to diversify her college portfolio. To use an example from the world of financial planning, you probably don't want to put all your money in high-flying stocks from Silicon Valley. Nor do you want to park all your hard-earned cash in a low-interest bearing CD. You want a balance of investments that offer aggressive growth with higher risk, and lower risk with lower growth.
The same thing goes for the schools on your college list. Pick Stanford, or Duke, or Cornell if it seems like a match. Pick several schools in the most competitive tier if you have the scores, grades, classes, and accomplishments to make those schools a fit on every level. But diversify. A range of colleges that you’re happy with will not only spread your application “risk” around. It’s also a way of assuring that your admissions process will be successful—meaning that you’ll end up at a school where both you and the institution feel like you’ve found a match.
How to Get into College:
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
It’s difficult to give hard and fast rules for diversifying your college list, since every student, and every student’s qualifications, are so unique. However, if you’ve followed Steps One through Three, you should already have a list of colleges that are a more general “match”—offering academics, extracurriculars, and a social environment where you’d feel comfortable.
Now it’s time to factor in those raw numbers: grades, test scores, and academic record (number of AP/IB/honors classes). Online, and in college guides, you’ll find score ranges for each college, representing the average test score (SAT and ACT) breakdown among accepted students. In many cases, schools will often note how many of their accepted students were in the top 1%/5%/10% of their graduating high school class. And often, by talking to an admissions officer, you can find out what the admissions committee is looking for in terms of the number of AP or IB classes a student “should” have taken.
Using those numbers as your guide, you can see where you fall in the pool of accepted students. Combining that information with your extracurricular prowess and other achievements, you can now look at the acceptance rates of the colleges on your list and better approximate whether each of those schools is a “likely,” a “target,” or a “reach” school.
Even with my highest-achieving students, I like to keep likelies in the 40% acceptance rate and above range. That may be conservative, but every student needs to feel like he or she has a couple schools that are pretty much a lock. For students whose qualifications aren’t as strong, likelies should have acceptance rates that are even higher. For one of my students, whose grades had suffered because of a series of illnesses, and whose test scores fell solidly in the “average” range, we looked for “likely” schools whose acceptance rates were in the 70%+ range.
Some people think of schools on the “likely” list as schools that force a student to settle. But in fact, if you do your research well, I’ve found that the likely list is often the place where you turn up some unlikely gems. Sometimes, it’s precisely because these schools are less well-known that they’re able to offer programs, faculty relationships, and other benefits that you just wouldn’t get at a school with more name recognition.
Consider Isaac Kinde, who turned down Stanford for what he must have initially considered a “likely”—University of Maryland, Baltimore County. At UMBC, Kinde says, he found a program with exceptional support for minority students with an interest in science and engineering. He went on to get his M.D./PhD at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. A testament to the fact that picking a college that’s a match—even if it’s on your “likely” list—can definitely lead to success.
Target schools fall squarely in the middle. Their acceptance rates should feel competitive without being terrifying. And the student who’s applying should have scores and grades that fit in well with the averages provided by the college—on the upper end of some, in the middle of others.
Of course, scores and grades aren’t the only factors that come into play when determining a target. Perhaps you’re a strong athlete. Or have a fantastic artistic portfolio. Whatever the case, the point is that your targets should be schools that will also be interested in your other accomplishments. For your targets, you should come across as an all-around appealing student. A likely “match.”
As with likelies, target schools are hard to define explicitly, because college admissions officers have so many factors to consider. But a good rule of thumb for determining the schools in your target category is to look at your choices with an eye toward colleges that have a decent level of competitiveness (for whatever kind of applicant you are) and where other aspects of your portfolio may help sway an admissions decision in your favor.
For example, one of my students had limited extracurriculars, but those she did have all pointed to her interest in nursing. Applying to schools with strong nursing programs was a given, and her limited—but focused—extracurriculars helped get her both into a school that was perfect for her, and into that school’s honors program.
With targets, you want to have both a mix of realism and optimism—and then sort your schools accordingly.
The toughest of the tough. The cream of the crop. But not necessarily the best match for everyone. I advise all of my students to apply to at least two reaches—especially if they express a strong interest in one or more competitive schools. Some end up enrolling in the toughest school they get into. Many, perhaps surprisingly, do not. Either way, this is about diversification. So don’t be afraid of those schools with seriously competitive acceptance rates; but don’t get your heart 100% set on one, either.
As with the other two categories, reaches are different for everyone. But for the large majority of students, anything with below a 20% acceptance rate, and certainly those schools below 15%, are definitely in the reach league.
In this category, perhaps more so than the other two, you’ll need to be a really stand-out candidate to even catch an admissions officer’s eye. You’ll need to work to “sell” yourself via your essay, and your application as a whole. (More on that in Steps Five and Eight.) And in some cases, you’ll need something truly spectacular—a business you started yourself, an unusual and completely unique achievement, or (real talk) a family legacy—to push you over the edge into acceptance land.
But like I said: For the sake of diversification, no harm in applying to some reaches, even if they seem like a stretch. That’s why we call them reaches!
With these categories in mind, organize your schools, taking care to add to those categories that seem sparse, and to eliminate schools in categories that are overloaded. (You really don’t need to apply to six reach schools. Really.) Once you’ve done that, you’ll have—more or less—a “finalized” list of schools to work with. Which means it’s time to move on from the search phase to the next stage of the college admissions process: The application phase.