Gaining admissions to an elite college is a difficult process but it is definitely worth the time…if you understand why and how. Over the years, VHC clients have successfully applied to all of the Ivy League universities, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and many more highly selective universities. Learn how students can put together a competitive application, the pitfalls and benefits to attending a selective school, and how students maintain their sanity if they do. This is an academic, social, and financial fit workshop. This workshop is intended for parents and students.
My class of 2018 clients are currently working on their college lists and there is one thing that keeps coming up that drives me a little bit nuts. I call it “Las Vegas.” Here is what happens: students feel that their applications are super competitive so they apply to all of the Ivy League and toss in Stanford and MIT for good measure. I think they are trying to be one of these folks or are misguided and submitting more and more applications with the incorrect assumption that more apps to these colleges means more acceptances. This is why it is problematic:
1) In general, one school does not rely on admissions from another school. Brown doesn’t look at what Harvard is doing to determine what Brown does, and I think they would be annoyed that students don’t see them as separate campuses. It’s why those supplemental essays exist, in my opinion. Most of those questions are “why here” questions and I’ve seen a lot of students answer those with some version of, “I get bragging rights” and nothing to do with what the school could actually do for you.
2) In all honesty, there are only a few majors that applying to all the Ivy League actually makes sense. Most do not. I think the most obvious example is engineering. It’s not to say that they don’t all have engineering programs but there are more prestigious programs out there that are more supportive and have a higher acceptance rate. And the colleges are aware of where else you are applying.
3) These schools are selective, meaning they accept 4% to 7% of students with perfect grades and test scores, students who all invented stuff while playing varsity something and starting a non-profit and interning with her/his congressperson. The overwhelming odds are against the student so students should not be shocked when they are not admitted.
This brings me to “Las Vegas.” I realize the kiddos don’t necessarily know about gambling so let me break it down a bit. On the main floor, there are lots of slot machines and then there are tables. The tables have games such as blackjack, poker, and roulette.
Some people sit at one slot machine and put in coin after coin, waiting for it to hit. Other people occupy multiple slot machines and put in coin after coin in a few machines. The odds of these machines hitting are terrible. And also consider that one slot machine’s win doesn’t determine the next machine’s win. I also think people play slot machines because there isn’t much strategy involved; they are just putting coins in and hoping it hits. I think applying to all the Ivy League when your major isn’t quite in line with their offerings is like playing those slot machines
Sometimes in Las Vegas you see someone who is super serious about winning. That person plays poker, blackjack, and maybe even a slot machine. They want to win but they aren’t putting all their hopes in one method. The goal is winning, the outcome, not how they win. I think mixing up that college list and focusing on the true goal, is this. And it’s not say that one game is better than the other; they are all different and deserve different attention.
As you know, I have three goals for clients: graduate, in as close to four years, with as little debt as possible. So to that end, here are some schools you probably didn’t think about, that meet those goals, and are worth a second glance (and they accept more than 10% of applicants):
Engineering: Carnegie Mellon; Cooper Union; Georgia Tech; Illinois Tech; Lehigh Univ; Purdue; Rensselaer Poly; Virginia Tech; and Worcester Poly.
Business and Social Science: American Univ; Amherst; Bates; Clemson; Emory; Franklin and Marshall; Georgetown; Lafayette College; Northwestern; and Swarthmore.
There are more but you get the general idea. In short, play your odds by diversifying your list and really think about why you are applying to a school. If you can’t find tangible reasons, then you shouldn’t be applying there.
This is probably the greatest pet peeve that I have in college counseling and a critique of my colleagues in the college-counseling world. Thus far, I have talked about financial fit and how we think about race and gender fits in colleges and universities. This next consideration is about how marketable the degree is that the students earn. And this is essential.
With this being the time of year that students are hearing back from colleges if they submitted applications during the regular cycle, there is quite a bit of discussion around which schools are admitting what percentage of applicants. Last year, in 2014, when Stanford admitted a record low, there were some rumblings that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton wanted to the same bragging rights. This year, Stanford went even lower and Harvard and Columbia admitted record lows despite huge recruitment efforts to get more students to apply. This is because aside from bragging rights, universities are ranked by the percentage of students they reject.
It is probably one of the most messed up things in the entire system.
So there are these sort of elite college counselors that charge $400/hour or even $40,000/year and claim to get kids into the Ivy League. No problem. I am not super concerned with these folks because when I’m talking about name recognition it isn’t about getting someone bragging rights at the country club; it’s about finding good work. Every once in a while I see a student who could get into Stanford or Princeton and actually needs the generous financial aid these folks offer due to their large endowments and can leave there with a strong sense of self. But if I don’t encounter that student, I don’t take them through the process. And with the recent talk around the publication of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, I really leave that type of admission frenzy for a different set of kids.
But I don’t dismiss name schools.
In a recent NPR interview, the interviewer raised the point that for low-income students where you go is who you’ll be. I appreciated her placing that tremendous asterisk on the claim because without a doubt, social justice college counseling is about getting low-income, migrant, and first generation students and students of color into as good of a school in name, reputation, and scholarship as they can afford…or better, as can afford them, because they absolutely should be giving those particular students full rides.
And therein lies my real critique of the majority of college access programs that work with these demographics. Going to a college is not the same as graduating from a college with a degree that will more likely mean getting a better job straight out of college or even better, getting into a better graduate program. I am not saying that it is not possible from the schools no one has really ever heard of BUT it is tremendously easier when you have that recognition. And for students of color, low-income students, and first generation students who are dependent on that degree to change their families and communities, name matters. And the research agrees.
When I talk to a lot of college access programs, they will be a bit nonchalant about the actual college access portion of their program. “We talk about college,” they’ll say. “But have you talked about which one?” I’ll respond. I have looked at the transcripts and high school resumes of a students and pointed out the quick tweaks that could be the difference between community college and transferring one day to some school or going directly to a Georgetown, fully-funded, let’s say. The first version is certainly easier, just like it is way easier to go to DeVry after high school; but which one will get that student closer to her passion? It may sound harsh but I think we need to be more honest with ourselves about what gets people where without using anecdotes or anomalies to defend the less fruitful path. That other degree is not “just like” that other one.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think all schools are good schools and I have plenty of friends who are excellent professors at schools that many people have unfortunately never heard of. But if I have a student who would like to study business and wants to work towards opening small businesses to pump some money into his community, knowing that in that case networks are especially important, if he can, I’m looking directly at the schools that would provide those opportunities inherently in the degree and the experiences of being at the school.
It seems strange to me because we seem to see this easily when it comes to athletics, especially for students of color. We’ll say, so-and-so has a great basketball talent and Duke is offering a full-ride. So-and-so will have great chances at the draft after being there so that’s where he should go. But when it comes to academics and money, we’re quick to say, but what’s wrong with Such-and-Such State University at Random City? When it comes to marketability, name is as important in athletics as it is in academics especially for under-represented groups.
Just sitting here, I am thinking about all of the students of color I have encountered over the years and the places where they went to school. I was really critical of some of the choices that were made for them in the selection process as many ended up attending schools that cost less than the super elite high school that they attended. There are urban tales about these students, wandering the streets of their hoods with the same job that their friends who barely graduated from high school have. Meanwhile, I think about the other students in that same position, who thought maybe they could if they just tried, and they’re thriving at USC, Tufts, Gonzaga, Redlands, and Pitzer, among others. Not Harvard but schools with enough name recognition to help them get to where they have been dreaming of going.
Many of you may have already heard about the student from Oakland Tech high school who earned a 5.0 and admissions to top universities. The young person has the enviable dilemma of having to choose between a few Ivy Leagues and Stanford, among others. You may have also heard about the young person who managed to gain admissions to all eight of the Ivy League universities, something that happens close to never. Both young people attained a feat only few can imagine.
And both are Black males.
As families, students, and college counselors talk about what the two young men have managed to do, often the commentary returns to both being Black: “Well, they are African American so…?” (shrug, wink, nudge). I can’t speak to where the young man in New York went to school as well as I can to the young person from Oakland Tech, having worked in Oakland Unified for a number of years and public schools in the Bay Area for even longer, so I would like to take the opportunity here to discuss the “so…?” for this young man.
1) Oakland Tech is one of the better public Oakland high schools and if I am living in Oakland when my son is high-school aged, I would probably send him there. But when we are talking about rankings and test scores, violence and urban schools, access and college admissions, OT doesn’t quite get up there, especially compared to its private school counterpart down the street. There is a major difference between a school culture where everyone is saying “I will definitely go to college” versus one where *shrug* “I might do that one thing one day”.
2) OT doesn’t offer AP or honors courses until the 11th grade assuming a student is taking the standard course-load. That means that in order for this student to earn a 5.0, he would have had to take every AP and honors course available in the 11th grade, something that the College Board (the committee that creates the AP courses) doesn’t recommend since it is too rigorous and can’t be done to fidelity.
3) His 5.0 also means that he would have needed to take the prerequisites for those AP and honors courses. Some schools allow students to take AP and honors if they want to; OT isn’t one of those schools. Students have to qualify. I am a fan of either option but either way, it isn’t easy. I am a heritage Spanish speaker who took five years of Spanish in middle and high school before the AP Spanish Literature Exam and I still found that to be impossible. I believe there were about ten students in my high school who attempted it that year and that was all they could attempt. As a teacher of AP US History, I know that how difficult that curriculum is to master. And my students who are taking multiple AP and honors classes are slightly…unpleasant…with their lack of sleep and social skills. So for that young man to manage the course-load and not get jumped or kicked out of his house or be an all-around jackass is a feat in itself.
This young man managed to get the grades, complete the prerequisites, and create his own college-going culture, despite everything around him doing and saying something different. That is nothing short of amazing. And shame on anyone who thinks otherwise.