By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
In a recent interview on the Smartless podcast, renowned scientist and MIT professor Max Tegmark was asked how he explains his job to people he just met. If he doesn’t feel like talking to the person asking, he explained, he simply says he works in physics, which is boring and confusing enough that there are typically no follow-up questions. If he feels like talking, however, he calls himself an astronomer, which usually leads to more interesting and entertaining conversations.
As someone with a job that people tend to have a lot of questions about, I understand and appreciate this strategy. If someone asks me what I do for a living, and I don’t feel like having a conversation, I tell them I am an education consultant, which most people neither understand nor care very much about. If I do want to chat, I tell them I work in college admissions, then get ready for more engaging questions.
If you are one of those people who would love to ask a college admissions expert questions about the process, this post is for you! I’ve compiled below the questions I have been asked most frequently by students, parents, and other generally interested parties, along with my usual responses.
Is It Just Impossible to Get Into College These Days?
Absolutely not. You may have heard that acceptance rates are decreasing from year to year at highly selective institutions, and that is correct. However, these lower rates aren’t as bad for students as they appear to be. Higher application numbers often mean students are submitting more applications each — not that there are more students competing for the same number of spots. Moreover, the heavy reliance on Early Decision plans (in which colleges only need to admit one student per slot, since admitted students are committed to enroll) also contributes to these numbers.
Most importantly, this trend of plummeting acceptance rates is mostly concentrated among highly selective colleges, which are not the only option, even for high-achieving students. There are literally thousands of high-quality institutions across the country that are accepting the same number of students as they have in previous years, if not more.
What Does It Take to Get Into a Good School?
The answer to this question depends on what you mean by a “good school.” If you are talking about the Ivy League or other highly selective institutions, your chances of admission are mostly determined by your academic performance in high school, your record of leadership and impact in the community, and a heavy dose of luck.
Your best chance of being accepted to college overall relies on your willingness to do your research and find a list of colleges that are strong fits for you personally, socially, academically, and financially. Having a strong school and/or independent counselor in your corner can help you identify the options that are the best for you and avoid a disheartening decision day.
What Do Colleges Want to See on a Student’s Resume?
This question always makes me nervous because no one is ever satisfied with the answer. Colleges aren’t looking for a specific set of activities or leadership roles to show up on every application — and even if they were, they can easily spot a student who’s adding activities they don’t really care about just to impress them. That means the extracurricular piece of this process is more art than science.
My advice to students is to reflect on their interests (what they enjoy doing), their talents (what they’re good at), and their passions (the impact they want to make on the world), then find the activities that exist in the center of that Venn diagram. Once you’ve found those activities, commit to them, pour your time and your energy into them, pursue leadership opportunities and elevate your impact from year to year, and see what happens. At the end of the day, colleges are looking to compile a group of students with diverse experiences and interests, so each student’s sole responsibility is to find out who they are and become the best version of themselves they can be.
Why Is College So Expensive?
There is a long list of reasons why college tuition rates have increased across the board over the last few decades. Unfortunately, those increases have led to a student debt crisis the likes of which our country has never seen. One of the primary reasons is a trend toward high tuition/high discount philosophies, which count on wealthier families to pay a higher price so that students who need financial support can receive it. Another reason is the higher education “arms race” in which students and families are asking for more on-campus amenities like newly renovated dorms and state-of-the-art fitness facilities, most of which are paid for with tuition dollars.
This does not mean that it is impossible to find and be accepted to a college that fits both your academic goals and your budget. Using net price calculators for each school you’re interested in can help you identify those that are within your financial reach before you even begin the application process.
How Do I Support My Student Without Taking Over the Process?
Okay, this isn’t so much a question I get asked frequently as much as a question I wish I got asked more. As parents, you know your student best, and I would never presume to tell any parent how much support they should or should not be giving their children during such a challenging process. I can say from experience, however, that students are usually more ready and equipped to navigate college admissions and everything that comes after than their parents think. I can also tell you that they will learn and grow much more from struggling — and even failing — on their own than they would from being closely watched and guided along the way.
As for how to support your child without getting in the way, my best advice is to talk to your student. Ask them what support they need and what support they don’t need and listen to their answers. And at least once a day, remind them and yourself that everything is going to work out just fine.
It’s natural to have questions about the college admissions process. Working with a dedicated college admissions counselor can help ease the stress and confusion. At IvyWise, we can help you identify the best-fit schools as well as craft a compelling and competitive student profile that helps your child stand out to admissions committees.