Creating your child’s college list means interpreting her odds of getting into a given school. Online tools offer students the chance to see the admissions results for past applicants from their school and place themselves in that pool based on GPA and test scores. Your child might see, for example, that past applicants from her high school with similar grades and test scores overwhelmingly gained admission to a school (making it a potential safety), did not generally get in (making it a reach), or fell somewhere in between (making it a target). These online platforms, however, do not take into account the subjective and transactional elements of college admissions— elements that breathe life into a process that would otherwise comprise only dry, numbers-driven calculations. Selective colleges and universities go far beyond the formulaic in their admissions deliberations.
Your first stop in thinking about the level of challenge a school presents for your child should be the school’s college counselor. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a good counselor will know both your child and the college landscape. Top 50 schools invest in building relationships with high schools around the country. They often know which college counselors—even which teachers—write recommendations in which they can place confidence. A letter from a teacher or counselor who has earned a reputation with admissions committees for writing strong, substantive recommendations can go a long way. These are only some of the intangibles that make it difficult to gauge admissions chances based on the numbers.
That said, numbers will tell you something, in the context of who your child is and where she goes to school. Remember, in admissions, context plays a critical role in evaluating your child as an applicant. When I make my own assessments of a student’s chances, I look at several variables simultaneously:
- I get a qualitative sense of who a young person is.
- I consider any possible hooks that a student has at a particular institution.
- I compare her academic transcript and test scores with the averages for the entering freshman class.
- I look at the percentage of its applicant pool that a college or university accepts.
Let’s look at these criteria.
Understanding an applicant beyond the numbers
Getting a qualitative sense of a young person comes from reading teacher comments on progress reports (a window into what they might say in a letter of recommendation), looking at student work, reading drafts of college essays, and understanding how she spends her time. Teacher comments that make a student stand out include vignettes, powerful and active language, and words that convey warmth and personal connection. One client showed me her teacher comments and told me she had asked her history teacher to write for her; however, the history teacher commented on her diligence, preparation for class, and consistent performance. Her English teacher, on the other hand, used words like “compelling prose,” “interpretations that spark active discussion,” “a powerful mind.” I asked why she had selected the history teacher over the English teacher and she explained that everyone in her class had asked the English teacher to write a letter. She did not want to follow the crowd. After we spoke, she changed her mind and asked her English teacher to write for her. That shift made a significant difference in how admissions committees perceived her.
Looking at hooks
A hook, in admissions, means simply that your child possesses a quality that a particular college or university is seeking. A hook could mean that you come from an under-represented population, based on race, ethnicity, gender, geography, socioeconomic status. It could mean that you have a meaningful skill or talent: You are an athletic recruit, you play an endangered instrument (such as upright bass, oboe, viola) at a professional level. At some institutions, children of alumni (“legacies”) have a hook.
What does having a hook mean in practical terms? Colleges and universities, like other major organizations, have institutional priorities and strategic plans that typically come from the president’s office or the Board of Trustees. They may want to increase enrollment from a particular part of the country or world or improve gender balance. They may be developing a new major or department and be looking for students with strong interest and background in that area. An athletic team may be losing key players to graduation. An orchestra may need a bassoonist. Having a hook as an applicant means that something in your child’s profile responds to a college’s institutional need or priority. As a result, hooked candidates generally get a closer look than those without a hook. Keep in mind that hooks vary by institution given that needs and priorities vary by institution.
Reevaluating the numbers in context
Whether or not your child has an admissions hook should influence how you view her grades and test scores in the context of a school’s freshman class profile, as well as how you interpret the school’s acceptance rate. A hooked student may not need to have test scores at or above the mid-50% range, while an unhooked student might. Similarly, a school may have an overall acceptance rate; however, that acceptance rate may differ based on geography, gender, and more. Some institutions, for example, struggle with gender imbalance. One Top 15 liberal arts college with an overall acceptance rate of 23% actually admits 35% of the men who apply but only 19% of its female candidates.
You and your child can do this analysis on your own or with the help of the school’s college counselor. Doing this kind of legwork increases the odds that your child will have an array of high-quality choices when decisions arrive.
Please contact me if you and your child would like support putting together an individually tailored college list.