How Do I Get Accepted to College or University?

Straight Answers That You'll Never Get from Your Guidance Counselor


1.  Does applying early decision improve my chances of admissions?


Of course it does.  Guidance counselors are obligated to preach about seeking your calling, finding the ideal fit, etc. (all true, but…), the truth of the matter is that early decision clearly improves your chances of admissions at highly selective colleges. 


Early decision greatly benefits the colleges in numerous ways, in spite of the self-righteous criticism of college presidents and the confusing back-and-forth changes between early decision and early action among the top Ivy League schools.  So, colleges will continue to use early decision, and they will not stop doing so until all their competitors stop using it, which is not likely in the foreseeable future.


Because early decision improves your chances, you should apply to a college that is somewhat above what you would have otherwise been able to gain admissions to based on your SAT’s, grades and other attributes.  But if you aim too high, or aim for a college that is too popular, you risk being deferred, and then face statistically much worse odds in the regular admissions process.  But don’t lose hope if you are deferred: I know personally two people who were deferred on early decision but eventually got into Harvard, including one off the waiting list.


The other advantage of early decision is that if you do get in, you can basically relax from early December on, and have a great senior year.  You practically must commit a felony in order to have the early decision admission withdrawn. So, you are then able to do all those (school) extracurricular activities that you did not have time for previously.


On the other hand, you give up choice and that “you-never-know” factor.  In other words, you sacrifice that stretch school that you might have gotten into, but didn't apply to because you were accepted on early decision.  If you believe in luck, then don't apply early decision, because it is an undeniable fact that college admissions decisions are often quite random, without reason and based on luck. 


2.  Do SAT preparation courses help?


Of course they do.  Many years ago, the Educational Testing Services (ETS), which administers the SAT's, used to put out the propaganda that preparation does not help.  So, when I took the tests, in the distant past, although I did not take an SAT course, I prepared for them on my own using Barron's.  Since many of my fellow students believed the ETS propaganda and did not prepare for the tests, the competition was much less intense when I took the SAT's.


Subsequently, ETS was forced by law to disclose its previous tests (they used to be secret, so preparation courses like Kaplan's had to send in memory experts to take the tests and memorize the questions).  Now, even ETS admits that preparation does help (Duh…).


But the result of this is similar to the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  If everyone else is either taking an SAT course or preparing for the SAT's, then the overall level of competition rises.  As in Alice in Wonderland, you must keep running just to stay in the same place.


However, for parents shocked by the statistic that the number of applicants to Harvard who had a perfect score of 800 exceeded the number of places in the freshman class,  note that ETS rescaled the SAT scores in 1996.  Therefore, an 800 score, which was extremely rare before 1996, is now relatively common. 


Princeton Review is quite good.  The courses offered by suburban high schools vary in quality, ranging from even better than Princeton Review or Kaplan's, to relatively ineffective.  Because the SAT's are undergoing major changes, it is probably even more important to take a preparation course this year, as the courses are likely to have the most current information on what the new tests are going to look like.


3.  What books about the application process should I buy?


Michele Hernandez’s “A Is for Admission” is an eye-opener and indispensable. Some of the information in the book is outdated, however; for example, she states that Cornell does not give special consideration for early decision, which is definitely not true any longer.  Hernandez wrote another book, “Acing the College Application”, which is a less useful sequel with many of the same ideas. 


James Fallows’ exposé on the early admission scam and other articles in the Atlantic Monthly are quite informative.  Nick Lemann's book on the SAT, "The Big Test,” is a fascinating read, but not useful as a practical aid. 


For general descriptions of all the top schools, “The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College” and “Fiske Guide to Colleges” are useful references which conveniently gather all the nuts-and-bolts information in one place.


4.  Guidance counselors and advice books tell me that the best way to decide which colleges to apply to is to talk to my fellow-students and friends, is that true?


Man is a herd animal, and high-school seniors are no exception.  A simple illustration: I know someone this year who got into Harvard and Stanford, but was rejected or waitlisted by Georgetown, Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.  Go figure. 


In other words, for reasons that are mysterious, certain schools have become extremely popular, and therefore, receive an overabundant number of applications.  These include the schools named above, as well as NYU, Tufts and other urban schools.  Conversely, schools in less urban settings such as Dartmouth have become less popular.  


Well, the reasons are not that mysterious.  First, schools like Duke send out recruiters who go around the country whipping up enthusiasm among seniors and getting them to apply, and then proceed to reject them in order to improve its statistical ranking.  Second, TV shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and popular culture in general have glamorized urban living. As a result (and also because its neighborhood is no longer a slum), Columbia has climbed to the top of the Ivy rankings, just below the top three.  Schools such as Tufts and Johns Hopkins have also become quite popular.  Similarly, Brown receives a disproportionate number of applications, especially from women; thus, I know personally a senior who was accepted this year to Harvard, but rejected by Brown.


5.  I am a ninth grader in public schools; should I transfer to a private school to improve my chances of admissions?


In general, no.  The applications for early decision are due by November 1 of the senior year, and by January 1 for regular admissions, so the most crucial years for an applicant are 11th grade and 10th grade, in that order. It is of utmost importance that the applicant be in the top 10% of her high school senior class.  It is an arbitrary cut-off point, but college rankings are based on it.


Because of the generally superior academic level at private schools as opposed to public schools, it will take time for you to catch up and adjust after you transfer to a private school.  If you want to go to a private school, you should transfer earlier, say, 7th grade.  Otherwise, you will work your tail off trying to catch up, and still end up in the middle of the class in your senior year.


On the other hand, private schools tend to have much better guidance departments.  They can probably guarantee that, by hook or crook, they will get you into at least a decent college, just below the very top tier.  That is sort of the implicit bargain that you (and your parents) strike with the private school, and what they are paying the tuition for.  And, of course, you are likely to get a much better academic education at a private school (public schools are good for other reasons), but we are talking about chances for college admissions here.


6.  Do athletes have an advantage in college admissions?


Of course they do.  But that fact in itself is not particularly useful, because by now, you already know whether you are a talented athlete good enough to be recruited by colleges.  You either are, or you're not.  


What is much more significant is the impact that athletic recruiting has on the overall statistical odds of admissions, especially for smaller colleges.  Each college needs a certain number of athletes in order to field varsity teams (and the back bench) for the major and minor intercollegiate sports.  So, a smaller college that wants to be competitive in intercollegiate sports needs to reserve a much higher proportion of places in its incoming class for recruited athletes.


For example, a study by the former president of Princeton showed that at Williams, 40% of the undergraduate men play in intercollegiate sports.  The percentage is 22% at Princeton, 14% at Stanford and 3% at the University of Michigan.


In other words, at smaller selective colleges, many more of the places in the incoming class are taken up by recruited athletes.  After subtracting the places reserved for the children of alumni and big donors, there are not many chairs left, making the statistical odds of getting in illogically difficult.


7. Is the Ivy League mystique overblown?


Yes and no.  The Ivy League schools have maintained their reputation in part because they mostly have strong graduate schools.  For example, U. Penn has climbed up from the bottom of the Ivy rankings on the back of its strong Wharton business school (and shameless use of early decision).  Cornell has grabbed recent headlines with its domination of the Mars Rover project. 


Ivy League schools also tend to have hefty endowments.  For example, Harvard's endowment is over $18 billion, whereas Tufts' is $677 million and Georgetown's is about $650 million.  The Ivy League schools also have been around longer, since at least the time of the Civil War or much earlier.  Thus, there are simply more graduates, both living and dead.  Among other things, that means more graduates to give you a first job after college, or a break in a job interview. 


Whether it is fair or not, an Ivy League degree is still a tangible advantage in the real world, whose benefits you reap from the day you are admitted until the day you die (and even after, because they may mention it in your obituary).


On the other hand, with the whole world becoming more brand-conscious and gravitating to brand names like Gucci, Prada and Ralph Lauren, Ivy League admissions will likely become even more competitive in the future. 


But like Gucci and Prada, they are just that, brand names.  In fact, you are likely to get a much better education at a small liberal arts college, where the faculty is nurturing and really cares about undergraduates.  I cannot honestly say that about most of the Ivy League schools.  


8.  I want to be the President of the United States; should I go to an Ivy League school?


It is an odd coincidence that an inordinate number of recent presidential candidates have gone to Yale.  The reasons are complex, but probably trace back to the public-minded ethos promoted by then president, Kingman Brewster and university chaplain, William Sloane Coffin. 


But the opposite way to look at this is: college constitute probably the most formative years of your life.  James Barber, the political scientist, wrote an entire book on the character of the presidents based mostly on their college experience.  Presidents Reagan and Nixon, arguably the two most influential presidents in recent years, went to Eureka College and Whittier College, respectively.  At these tiny colleges, each of them was a "BMOC,” that is, big man on campus, or another way to put it, big fish in little pond.     


In contrast, I knew, from my first week as a freshman at Harvard that I was not the smartest person in the world--as I had thought when I was in high school.  There were classmates who were twice as smart, maybe ten times as smart, as I was.  This changes your world view.  You are a very little fish in a very big pond. 


And although I was lucky enough not to be among them, I had close friends who were in the bottom quarter of the class.  By definition, one quarter of the class must be in the bottom quarter of the class.  It is not pleasant to be in the bottom quarter of the class, at any school.  And the experience will change your view of the world, of yourself and of your place in it.


Of course, there are the counter-examples (from another, less meritocratic, era), of George W. Bush, who received a gentlemen's C at Yale, and Dick Cheney, who was basically kicked out of Yale. George Bush's SAT scores were: 566 Verbal, 640 Math. 


So, yes, there's still hope.