The campus visit is going great. Red and gold leaves litter winding paths; ivy-covered Gothic facades and handsome red brick dominate the landscape. The faculty seem both hip and approachable. Classes look intimate and rigorous. The students, enviably happy and confident, seem secure in their knowledge that they will one day be our future scientists, academics, leaders in business and politics. Even the food in the commons is … not bad. Now the campus tour guide opens it up for questions from the parents and prospective students, but the one question that hangs in the air, unasked, is the one you’re all thinking: Will I get in? No one at the admissions office or on the tour will give you a straightforward answer, even though it is by far the most universal and relevant question any parent or student could have. Why is it such a difficult question to answer?
As more and more students apply to college, the American college admissions process has become more obscure and labyrinthine. The variables seem endless: GPA and test scores of course, but also athletics and clubs, letters of recommendation, personal statements, curricular rigor and family legacy, to name a few. Although no one can tell you with absolute certainty whether or not you’ll be accepted, it’s possible to make an educated guess on what your chance of admission is to any given school. “The question is fairly answerable in that you can make some accurate predictions based on GPA and test scores,” explains ESM College Coach Lucas McAdams. That information can then be used to help create a list of “safety” schools, colleges you’re virtually certain to be accepted to, “target” schools, colleges you think you can get into but are less certain, and “reach” schools, colleges that are on the outer edge of your admissions odds. According to Lucas as well as our other ESM College Coaches, a better question for everyone trying to make his or her way through this process is not “Will I get in?” but “Am I happy with the diversity of the schools to which I’m applying?”
For nearly all students applying to college, curating a list of institutions that is diverse in terms of selectiveness is crucial. Think of this process as parallel to what the schools themselves are doing – mitigating risk by attracting a diverse portfolio of students who are likely to thrive. The perfect balance between safety, target, and reach schools will differ based on the individual student; some students are comfortable with one safety, one target, and many reaches, while other students will seek out a list of schools that fills each category more evenly (and ensures them more acceptance letters). All students, however, should have at least one school that falls into each category.
Just as important is making sure that you’ve found a great fit at each level, from your safety schools up to your reach schools. That less selective university that you think you have a great shot of being accepted to may lack some of the name recognition and prestige, but it should still offer you plenty of things to get excited about – whether that’s educational and professional opportunity, a vibrant social life, beautiful facilities and small classroom size. In fact, excitement is still a requirement for a safety school. Just being able to get into a school doesn’t make it a safety – you have to actually be interested in going there, or else it isn’t a very safe option at all. During this season of uncertainty, it may help to reframe the question so that we’re less fixated on “will I get in?” and instead wonder “will I be happy for the next four years?” The answer to that question goes beyond a student’s transcripts and statistics to a more holistic understanding of what kind of student you are and what you’re looking for in the next four years of your life.
There are several resources that ESM College Coach Katie Lawrence recommends to parents and students looking for more data than what is usually available on any college’s admissions homepage. If your school has Naviance (www.naviance.com), you have access to years of admissions data in geographical context (meaning specific to your high school and region), which can be incredibly helpful in refining and determining the likelihood of acceptance because it is similar to the data referenced by admissions officers. Another great and more universally available resource is Niche (www.niche.com), which compiles data on acceptance rates, costs, average test scores, majors offered, and much more. Two useful tools on Niche are the ability to search and filter schools by a multitude of categories, and crowdsourced reviews by students that score not only admissions and academics, but also student life. We get it. The college application process is undeniably stressful, and the lack of certainty doesn’t help. But there’s no need to panic. A rational and successful admissions season begins with reframing some fundamental questions and assumptions.
Rather than “Will I get in” (and the attendant existential question “Am I good enough?”), we encourage you to think carefully about what kind of student you are, as well as your needs and expectations. When you’re putting together your list of schools, think of the process as a two-way street. Just as you are competing for a spot in their freshmen class, they are competing for your time and resources.