This week’s post is guest authored by Dana, an engineer and former US Army Officer,
and a close friend of Osbon Capital Management.
My spouse and I applied to college in pre-internet days. We now realize how much times have changed! With our oldest child a high school senior this year, and with two others on deck, we had to come up to speed on “College 2019.” Here are ten lessons learned about today’s college admissions process.
1. Absorb some eye-opening numbers
Acceptance rates at selective colleges range from 30% down to 5-6%. Some students applying to the most selective colleges are submitting 12-15 applications.
2. Know the application deadline(s)
While January 1st is common, there are many schools with earlier deadlines. Many public colleges in the West and South have deadlines of October 15th. The California state system has their own portal and applications close December 15th.
It’s also important to know when admissions open. Some schools have “rolling” admissions dates, so the earlier you apply, the earlier the decision. Many portals open September 1st.
3. Understand difference between Early Action and Early Decision
Early Decision programs require early completion of applications, November 1st or earlier. The application is binding, and students accepted under Early Decision are expected to attend. Early Decision candidates can be accepted, rejected, or deferred. My personal opinion is that only if your student is very sure of their choice should they apply Early Decision.
Early Action is more flexible. Early Action candidates can be accepted, rejected, or deferred. However if accepted, they do not have to withdraw other applications or commit until the May 1st date. Early Action can take a lot of the pressure off students worried about where they will be going; you just have to be organized enough to get the application in.
4. Have a plan
The summer before your student’s junior year is the time to start thinking about colleges. It’s a great time for campus visits, discussing with your child what they hope to get from their college experience, and developing the “Big List” of schools they’re interested in. It can also be a time to volunteer for service programs or work a job. Many students begin test prep.
- During junior year, most students will take the most common standardized tests (ACT and SAT) for the first time. Most colleges now take both (while some are removing standardized test requirements) so your child may elect to focus on one based on initial results.
- Plan campus trips well in advance as tours fill up, especially during school vacation periods. When in doubt, show up; there are often no-shows.
- A junior should also ask two or more current teachers for recommendations – and make sure those teachers know your student well.
Summer before senior year is still a good time for visits. It’s also the best time for students to begin writing the unique essays many selective colleges have as part of their application (even if most of the application is standardized through a portal). And, in case you are tempted: most College Admissions Officers can easily identify a parent-written essay, substantially harming chances of admission. It must be their work.
5. Know your target schools
The standard advice from most counsellors is to complete applications for six to nine schools: two or three each of “Reach,” “Likely,” and “Safety.” The list may grow if your child has interest in specific programs. The list should not grow because your parents want an acceptance to HYPS*.
Just imagine for a moment that your child is accepted to every single college they apply to, except their first choice. Will they know enough about the other schools on the list to make a decision? The answer is probably not. Take the time in advance to really learn about the schools you are applying to:
- How many undergraduates are there?
- How many of the students live on campus? What is housing like? Is it easy to get around?
- What are the most popular majors and programs? Does that align with your child’s interests?
- Are there club sports? Intramural sports? Other activity programs like arts, music, outdoor recreation or technology?
- Is Greek life (Fraternities and Sororities) a big part of campus life, and is your child interested?
- Has your student spent enough time with the students there to understand if they will fit in?
The answer to those questions will in many cases be “We don’t know!” – especially if you’re applying to lots of schools. With the standard acceptance window of April 1st to May 1st, you will not have time to revisit all those campuses! So step back, pick a smaller number of schools, and really get to know them. Be certain the school is a good fit, in all ways. Then, when you get accepted, go visit that first choice again and make sure.
6. Know your aid possibilities
Students not eligible for financial may still earn merit scholarships and this can make a big difference in out of pocket costs. They are often referred to as “President’s Scholarships” and the aim is simple: attract high-achieving students to a school that might not be their first choice. Many of these scholarships are four years: for example Boston University offers 15-20 “Boston High School Scholar” four year full-tuition scholarships each year.
Most aid offices can offer federal loans up to a maximum of $7,500 per year for undergraduates. These have a grace period of six months after graduation. The current interest rate is 5.05%. This can help reduce out of pocket costs, and you can pay off the loans when they come due and pay no interest.
7. Ask about advantages for veterans
Many state universities offer in-state tuition rates to veterans, regardless of legal residence. A few schools also extend in-state tuition to the dependent children of veterans. For example, University of Michigan. These programs change yearly with changes in other veterans’ benefits, but are worth the inquiry.
8. Know where to get help – and use it!
Most high schools have college advisors in their Guidance departments. It can be a challenge for often-overwhelmed advisors to help everyone: your child may not get much individual planning time and this can make a stressful process even more so.
They often provide students with access to Naviance, a software system that helps align the student’s aptitudes, interests and achievements with specific colleges. One downside is that Naviance may “funnel” kids to schools with high acceptance rates. If Naviance doesn’t have any data points for a particular school, that’s not necessarily bad.
Independent schools have a lot more college counselling resources and often begin college planning in 9th or 10th grade. Students generally have an individual advisor assigned by the fall of junior year. They have a lot more time for each student and will usually meet several times with parents. Their services are part of the tuition. If your child is at an independent, get in touch with the advisor and set up a schedule for communication about milestones.
There are for-fee independent college advisors who will help orchestrate the entire college process, from selecting target schools and deciding where to visit to creating a schedule for essay writing, standardized test tutoring, and application review and completion. The biggest advantage of using an independent advisor is that they will be very active with your child and keep them on task and on schedule during the crucial summer prior to senior year.
One of the best-known advisors nationally is the company we used, McMillan Education in Boston. There are also many individual practitioners: ask friends for referrals. Using a consultant can help maintain your relationship with your kids through this stressful process, while optimizing their applications for success.
9. Don’t downplay public universities
The shockingly high and ever-rising costs of private colleges have created opportunities for public colleges and universities to compete on value and other amenities. UMass Amherst is ranked Top-10 for college food as one example.
Even out-of-state tuitions at public schools are substantially lower than most private institutions. You can find lists of “Public Ivies,” but there are several advantages for the public colleges in general and the UMass system in particular:
- Most have Honors Colleges. Honors programs provide priority access for course selection, and may have special dorms and Advisors. Honors students can often take graduate courses as well.
- Combining Undergraduate and Graduate Majors. UMass schools often offer combined undergraduate/graduate programs, allowing the student to earn a graduate degree in five years.
- Industry acceptance. According to US News, the average starting salary of an Amherst College graduate is $55,700. For UMass Lowell: $56,300.
There are many professionals who believe that graduate education is key and where you get an undergraduate degree is relatively less important. For many majors this makes public colleges and universities tremendous bargains.
10. Ask Google
There are many websites now offering rankings and comparisons of colleges. The largest and most comprehensive online forum for all things college is CollegeConfidential.com. You can find specific answers to almost any question. The website is so influential that some admissions offices now assign interns to answer questions about their schools. Worth a look.
Good luck to your children!
* Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford
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