How Your Hometown Could Affect Your College Prospects

US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
September 10, 2018

In-state applicants to big-name state schools often have an edge over out-of-state candidates.

While in-state applicants tend to have an admissions advantage at public colleges and universities, the opposite is often true at private schools that typically value geographic diversity, higher education experts say.

“Most public schools want to have students from their state,” says Mandee Heller Adler, the founder and president of International College Counselors, a Florida-based admissions consulting firm. In contrast, private undergraduate institutions are often receptive to applications from regions where they rarely recruit students, Adler says.

“If you’re the only student from your (high) school and maybe county applying there, that’s a huge advantage,” she says of those applying to private colleges far from home. “So colleges do know that if they attract a couple of students from a school, a lot of times the spigot opens. So if you can be one of those first (students to apply from a lesser-recruited area), you have an advantage.”

Ambitious college applicants who want to maximize their chances of getting into a highly ranked private college should consider applying to a prestigious private school that doesn’t tend to attract many applicants from their region, Adler says. If you apply to a private undergraduate program that’s popular within your community, you’ll reduce your admission odds because there are so many local competitors, Adler says.

Adler also cautions that college applicants from states like New York with an abundance of high-achieving students often struggle to stand out to admissions officers at nationally renowned undergraduate institutions.

Allen Kenneth Schaidle, a higher education consultant with graduate degrees in education from Oxford University and Columbia University, suggests that rural college applicants highlight their countryside upbringing in their college application materials.

College admissions officers are increasingly welcoming toward applicants who live in remote regions, far away from either cities or suburbs, says Schaidle, who grew up in a bucolic section of central Illinois. “So I would encourage students that have rural roots and really aspire to attend institutions outside of their region that might be more prestigious to really discuss their rural upbringing and the importance of rural America in their application.”

Zach Wielgus, a college counselor at the IvyWise admissions consulting firm who previously worked as a senior director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, says that the importance of geography in the admissions process varies according to school.

“Where you live could provide you a small boost in the admission process, or it could be completely irrelevant,” Wielgus wrote via email. “For instance, public universities often seek to comprise their incoming class with a specific percentage of in-state students, often a majority level. This can mean less strict admission standards compared to out-of-state students….On the other hand, small universities and liberal arts colleges can value coming from a distance.”

Christine Chu, an IvyWise college counselor, says that someone who grew up near his or her dream college has a competitive advantage when applying to that school. “I don’t think colleges lower admissions standards for regional affirmation, but, all things being equal, they may take more top students from top local high schools,” Chu, a former assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Yale University in Connecticut and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, wrote via email.

However, college admissions experts say that while geography is a factor in private undergraduate program admissions, it is not weighed nearly as heavily as academic credentials. They recommend that college applicants focus first and foremost on showcasing their academic promise and their long-term career potential.

“I believe most admission departments look at students that are capable of the rigor of their school and are interesting and would be an asset to the student body of the campus,” said Judy Marrazzo, president of GoCampusing, a college touring company, via email. “Once that pool of candidates are selected they then look at what they want the freshman class to look like, ethnically, demographically and geographically.”

“Geographic diversity often suggests a diversity of thought and perspectives that has value in the classroom,” Leila Labens, the director of strategic recruitment in the office of undergraduate admission at Tulane University in New Orleans, wrote via email. “This is the virtue of [Tulane] being a global university. It is not, however, the most important element in the application review process, nor should it be. Attracting the highest quality students, who are passionate about their education and engagement to the community, and want to be here, is most important.”

Generally speaking, geography is a minor factor in the decision-making process of college admissions officers, Chu says. “All things being equal, it may be considered, but colleges are significantly more keen on a student’s academic and extracurricular profiles, essays, and recommendations,” she wrote. “No student will be admitted just because she/he comes from [an] under-represented state.”