Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Year of Living Dangerously, or How I Survived the COVID Admissions Round

Often when I tell someone about my business, I end up having to politely listen to a detailed explanation of their child's incredible skill at playing the didgeridoo or doing the macarena. I jest, but in all seriousness, this year, I often get a “Wow!” and occasionally an “Oh boy!”. Why? Because to say we as a profession have been navigating uncharted terrain without a net, rope, lifejacket, or escape room would be the understatement of the year. 

Herewith is a brief explanation of why.

In early 2020, shortly after the lockdown began, ED deferred students were suddenly being admitted at higher rates than in the past. Why? College Enrollment Managers were likely panicking because students had been sent home in April. This meant the school had to refund a percentage of room and board for that semester. They may also have been told to make sure seats were filled by students who didn’t need institutional aid to attend and enroll.  So naturally, on my IECA message board and among the college admissions pundits (don't laugh; there are plenty), we all expected the next round to look very different. Dozens of canceled test dates for the ACT, and the SAT led to test-optional models for almost every school, except for the Florida public university system. They chose to require tests from every applicant, causing a sizeable drop in apps at all but UF, the state flagship. So with many families under substantial financial pressure, out of work perhaps, or caring for a loved one with COVID, we all mistakenly assumed app numbers would drop. Inability to visit, test, participate in many activities other than those purely virtual and families hunkered down at home all contributed to the belief fewer students would submit apps. WRONG! I take comfort in knowing that no one predicted the massive increase in apps. Not even the pundits. 

Untold numbers seized the opportunity to apply to colleges that would have been completely out of reach for those with test scores that didn’t even come close to the accepted student middle 50% from the previous year.  A few stats:

  • Brown University: 

    • 46,568 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 5.4%

    • Admitted RD: 1,652

    • Admitted ED: 885 

  • Johns Hopkins University: 

    • 40,837 total applications 

    • Overall acceptance rate: 6%

    • Admitted RD: 1,652

    • Admitted ED: 824

  • MIT

    • 33,240 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 4%

    • Admitted: 1340 

  • Colby College

    • 15,857 total applications

    • Overall acceptance rate: 8%

    • Admitted: 1,279

In a particularly telling data set, Tufts released the following info: 

  • Tufts received a record 31,198 applications-an increase of 35%-for the 2021–2022 academic year, with 51% from students of color. Forty-eight percent of U.S. students admitted via Early Decision are students of color, and 14% of admitted ED students are first-generation. This is a sharp increase from even just two years ago when 34% of U.S. ED admits were students of color and just under 10% of ED admits were first-generation. 

So while students from more affluent suburbs of major cities with perfectly polished profiles who could travel to test and benefitted from costly test prep didn’t see the outcomes they might have liked, another population benefitted from the uncertainty. Low-income, urban, first-gen, and/or students of color with lower than previously accepted student scores who might not have gotten a second look from a highly competitive school’s admissions staff were suddenly in demand. Without scores, they were suddenly competitive. Their strong academic performance, dual enrollment at local community colleges, family commitments keeping them from after-school engagements, caring for younger siblings, after-school and weekend jobs in family businesses, and attending under-resourced high schools were appealing to admissions officers. Colleges and universities finally had the chance to create an authentically diverse class. So they did. 

Students have also applied to more schools than ever before, according to the Common App. All those students who deferred for a year, especially internationals who weren’t even sure they would be allowed to come to the US, took some seats. So there are more applicants, more deferrals, and a ton of students in waitlist limbo as enrollment managers try to figure out how to assure each slot has a student in it. 

The hattrick of factors was the recognition in college admissions offices that testing isn’t necessary to craft a diverse, interesting class, students lobbing in apps because scores aren’t needed, and for schools that meet all need, giving those authentically diverse kids a spot. But we are all still asking WTF happened? The consistencies we based our projections on for years were suddenly out the window. Why was Jimmy denied at Columbia but admitted to Yale? Why did Michigan deny or waitlist anyone who wasn’t a legacy from a local high school that typically sends 15-20 students to UM each year? Why did so many schools send those notes deferring EA applicants and inviting them to move their app to EDII? It seems as if they were feeding off students’ panic over an ED deferral or denial. 

I hope that families will learn from this oh-so-challenging year that their children are not defined by the schools that denied, admitted, or waitlisted them or offered them a Jan admit or fall semester in London. They will be defined by how they embrace their choices and what they make of the opportunities provided. I hope parents understand that most students find their place at the school they choose. Sometimes it takes a little time. Also, parents should keep in mind that of every ten transfer students I work with, six are hoping to leave the school to which they were admitted ED. It isn’t where you go; it’s what you do while there. Kids with the luxury of privilege, resources, parental support, and access will succeed no matter what is written on their diplomas. Grieve a bit, lick your wounds, then move on!

Monday, March 26, 2018

All About Transferring...

Each year a handful of students contact me about transferring to another school. Each student has a reason for wanting to complete his or her education at an institution other than the one at which he or she started and can include:  

  • Wanting a bigger/smaller student population
  • Seeking a more/less urban/rural/suburban setting
  • Changing area of interest e.g. less pre-professional and more liberal arts oriented or vice-versa
  • Seeking more intellectual engagement
  • Financial reasons- concerned about mounting student debt
  • Finding the workload unmanageable
  • Social reasons: the student is struggling to find his or her people
  • The party scene is too intense or perhaps not intense enough!
  • Hoping to be admitted to the favorite school from which the student received a denial ED
  • Change of area of interest or the original school did not have a certain major or focus
  • Wishing to be closer to or further away from home
There are a couple of considerations to think through when evaluating transfer opportunities. Students should absolutely look up the Common Data Set for each school to which he or she is considering transferring and see the section on transfers. How many apply each year, how many are offered admission and how many attend? That data is readily available and much more useful than marketing materials produced by the college PR squad.

Also, if a student is considering transferring, he or she should have a list including a few to which that student will likely be admitted, not just that elusive dream school. Of course, students do NOT have to attend if admitted as a transfer and can view it as an option. Many students submit transfer applications and end up finding their way at the school at which they began their undergraduate studies. 

The Common Application has made submitting several transfer applications at once a whole lot easier. Most require one essay addressing why the student wants to transfer, and more competitive schools require supplemental essays explaining what future plans might be and may offer a place to upload a resume. Please note that while it isn't wise to advertise that the student is planning on transferring, a transcript and recommendations will be needed so a conversation with the advisor or registrar is required before apps are submitted. Also if a student is planning to apply to transfer for the sophomore year some schools will require high school transcripts and test scores so getting in touch with the counselor or registrar at the high school attended may be necessary too. 

For the main essay, while applicants should be upfront about why they wish to transfer it is not advisable to list all the things wrong with the school at which the student is currently enrolled and rather focus on the opportunities the school to which the student is applying would present. Complaining about lack of adequate partying opportunities, lame Greek life, not receiving a bid for a preferred fraternity or sorority, no school spirit, bad/boring/uninspired faculty, or not making any friends are not good reasons to explain a desire to transfer. It is preferable to express some of these reasons: a desire for more diversity, a preference for a more rural setting or alternatively, a more urban one, a change in major that is not offered at the current school, a smaller/larger student population, or even a more intellectually challenging environment if the student was not a strong student in high school and could not be admitted to said school based on the high school profile. Overall, positivity is a priority. Nobody wants a Debbie (or Danny) Downer on campus! Remember that any institution to which a student is applying as a transfer will not hold it against the student to have changed his or her mind about course of study. It's hard to imagine a 17-year-old being absolutely sure about what it is he or she wants to do career wise so that is an area that can be explored appropriately in an essay. 

Please note that financial aid for transfers varies greatly from school to school so a generous package at your first institution may not be replicated or matched by the school to which you would like to transfer. If you are considering transferring, please feel free to call or email me for some helpful info and tips at 914-282-5701 or

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Three Most Frequently Asked College Admissions Questions Answered!

I recently added a new element to my available college advisory services.  College Conversations or Everything You've Always Wanted to Know about College Admissions* (but were afraid to ask) can bring the college admissions process into the light for those new to the experience. Families with students about to dive into admissions who may not want to incur the expense of a college advisor gather with friends in a home, and I come and speak for about 45 minutes. At $100 per family for up to five families, this is the most cost effective way to get those pressing questions answered. My introduction to the nuts and bolts of the admissions process is followed by an hour of questions from the families.  I have done 7 of these sessions so far in the three months since I began to offer this service and here are the 3 most popular questions and my responses:

  1. Do colleges prefer a high GPA with less challenging classes, or a lower one with more rigor? This may well be the most pressing issue for many families trying to do some academic planning early in high school. Say your student is selected for the most rigorous math track at your high school. Earning top grades in that class may be very tough and the slightly less rigorous class might be one in which he or she could earn a good grade without too much difficulty. There are variables of course, like if both would yield a completed AP or equivalent calculus class before graduation, but the bottom line is colleges like rigor. They want students who are not afraid of pushing themselves intellectually, and work hard to achieve goals. As we know, some of the biggest state flagships may not have the luxury of time for a close examination of transcripts so may not appreciate a 3.6 with a lot of rigor versus a 3.8 with less rigor so that is a consideration.
  2. What extracurricular activities do colleges like to see students engage in? I like to say that the karma of admissions dictates that phoniness is easily detected. If your student doesn't care deeply about Tibetan independence, he shouldn't join the Free Tibet club. If she isn't interested in robotics, joining the Robotics Club because she might want to apply to engineering programs is just silly. Depth and consistency in interest is what is viewed positively. Example: A student who is interested in medicine should volunteer at a local hospital, join the local volunteer ambulance corps if available, or work with a NGO that raises money and collects supplies for a rural clinic or similar. For a student interested in photography, photo editing for a school based publication, displaying work at a local nursing home for the benefit of the residents and interning with a local photography studio are all consistent with having photography classes on a transcript. This depth and passion is what colleges like to see. They want to build a class with diverse interests and passions. That makes campus life better for all. Be sincere and genuine and your student's unique profile will be hard to miss.
  3. How important is the application essay? I often tell students that if he or she is a highly qualified candidate, a boring essay probably won't get him or her denied, and if he or she has stats significantly below the middle 50% of accepted students, a brilliant flawless essay may not get him or her admitted. That doesn't mean a student shouldn't commit to creating a thoughtful well-constructed essay that isn't a regurgitation of the extracurricular list. Tell the admissions officers something they don't know about you! Make sure it makes for compelling reading and watch out for typos especially after you have pasted your essay into the Common App. Commas can move, spacing can disappear and paragraphs magically merge together. Take the time to brainstorm, ask parents or friends to help you be a little introspective and don't pick a prompt first. That comes later!
The conclusion I drew from these first several meetings is that both parents and students hear lots of misinformation about the process, what's involved and why students gain admission to or are denied by their top choices. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

This admissions round was a frenetic one for me, and likely frenetic for admissions officers too, given the increase in numbers of apps at most schools. NACAC reports that more than three-quarters of American colleges and universities, and almost all of the 100 schools with the lowest admit rates, reported a marked increase in applications over the past five years. This can affect who is admitted in more than the obvious ways; deferrals of highly qualified candidates, many admitted but just a little later in the admissions round, are commonplace, more so far this year than in recent years.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, it's time to start thinking about the Class of 2017! The Common App admins recently made their annual pronouncement regarding the essay prompts for the 2016-17 admissions round. I also have some thoughts about the report released a few weeks ago by Harvard's Graduate School of Education regarding how admissions officers should be evaluating applicants in the future. I will address that topic and the related interest in the idea of having students build an application portfolio next week.

The Common App admins have decided to keep all the prompts from last year's round. Almost 50% of those who submitted a Common App selected the first prompt: "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story." 22% chose the 5th prompt: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family" and less than 5% chose the third: "Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?"

While I am glad the admins have elected to keep the prompts from last season, I think the reason the first prompt is the most frequently chosen is that some students feel compelled to use the essay to provide more information about a specific accomplishment because there is inadequate space elsewhere in the app, especially in the extracurricular section. Forced brevity in the EC list section requires students to leave out what might be compelling details. A student who participated in a science research project and wishes to share details about that work but also unwinds at the end of a stressful day by constructing buildings with Legos will have to choose one to write about. I think bringing back the 250 word essay on the most meaningful extracurricular activity would free up students to write about something a bit more personal in the main essay. The essay is not meant to regurgitate elements found elsewhere on the app. Rather, it is meant to give students a chance to share something that sets them apart from the other thousands of applicants with the same scores, rigor and GPA.

Students need to stop thinking of themselves as "boring", or that they "haven't really done anything interesting." Everyone has a story to tell. It's just a matter of finding it. So, I am happy to have the same familiar prompts with which to work this next round but if I could change the Common App in another way, I think it would help students enormously with showing all their facets. I wish the Common App didn't require students to try and capture 17 years of life in such a limited space. There's always next year...

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Must-read While You Shop For College This Spring

Two and  a half years ago, when I dropped my 18 year old son off at his new home, a small liberal arts college in a town known for its "cows, colleges and contentment" on the prairie in Minnesota, it was a leap of faith. I had a feeling that the community he would become part of was unique and special, but wasn't sure why. I promote my business on the premise that fit matters most, but until last Friday, I had no tangible proof that this fit wasn't just a good one, it was an extraordinary one, for my son and for me.

As any reader of my blog and my Spotlights in WilsonPrep's newsletters knows, great schools can come in many shapes and sizes, can be found in many settings and can offer many different experiences and opportunities. College isn't just for getting an education. It is also for growing up, learning to screw up and then fix that screw up without a parent's help, and managing life's challenges more independently. It's also for having fun, making lifelong friends, falling in and out of love, and as I discovered last week, can also include grieving and loss. Amazing, life changing communities can be found at many different schools. A giant student population doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of remarkable communities within. A tiny school doesn't guarantee a wonderful cohesive community either. Finding that right fit, regardless of name or ranking, that element of the college search that is so very important, should be every student's number one priority. 

Last Friday, three young men in my son's class were killed and two were critically injured on their way to the airport to fly to an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. The details are irrelevant except that this tragedy did not involve alcohol, recklessness or a fool's errand in the middle of the night, but instead an icy road and an 18-wheeler in the middle of the afternoon. Carleton has only 2000 students so you can just imagine how close each class of 500 becomes over four years or even in just the first month. Over the past two weeks, I have had a taste of just how amazing, unique and remarkable the Carleton community is- parents, students, faculty and administrators- and have been moved to tears many times by the generosity, love, concern and compassion demonstrated by every single member of that community. 

The college immediately arranged a vigil the following day in the Chapel with the campus clergy- rabbi, minister and priest- present. Carleton has a parent listserv comprised of current students' parents, some faculty and administrators, and a surprisingly large number of parents whose kids have already graduated. That group immediately shared information on the accident, began collecting funds for memorials, offered lodging, food, and transport to the families of the students in the hospital, and  shared feelings of tremendous sadness and grief, and concern for how we can help our Carls, as Carleton students are known, cope with their pain. The other college in town, St. Olaf, sent flowers to every Carleton student as well as notes and cards. Professors, who prefer to be addressed by their first names by students, reached out any way they could to get their students through a very rough patch. Graduates the world over wrote notes of support on Carleton's Facebook page, and reached out in other ways to this community that is clearly still dear to them.

Every member of this community was touched by this tragedy. Even those who had never met these students felt the weight of a terrible loss. Those who were close to the students who died and were injured were drawn into the protective embrace of the entire community. It was a remarkable response, in so many ways. I still receive daily updates on the injured students' conditions and offers of help still stream in.

Some schools close ranks when a tragedy occurs on campus for fear of bad press or assumptions about bad behavior, a too stressful environment, or lax alcohol policies. I believe schools that choose that route do their students a disservice. Carleton chose to do the opposite and while the community will never ever forget the loss of these three young men, destined to change the world, the community will eventually heal and move forward. They will be able to do so thanks to the willingness of this community to embrace the sadness, grief and gravity of such a loss. So, remember when you visit and consider, evaluate and ponder and eventually decide where to apply, this new home for you (or your student) should provide good educational value, and a chance to grow up and embrace new challenges. Many schools can provide these things, but only some can offer a  community that can support and embrace its students when tragedy strikes.  Picking up the pieces for an entire student body is no small feat. Find a school that can do that and you will sleep better for it and so will your kid. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Deciphering Your FinAid Offers-CAVEAT EMPTOR!

Students will be receiving their financial aid packages soon from schools to which they submitted a FAFSA (and possibly the CSS Profile, depending on the school's requirements). Comparing the dollar value of your package requires a close examination and comparison of several factors.

Cost of Attendance (COA): this number is what it will cost including tuition, room, board, transportation, books and miscellaneous student fees for one year.
EFC: this is the amount your family will be expected to contribute based on the FAFSA figure calculated from your family income and assets.
Pell Grant: a federal grant to extremely low income families. It is a grant and need not be payed back.
Institutional grant: Money from the college's coffers that need not be repaid. It is not a scholarship, which is based on other factors, like merit or athletic talent.
Work/Study: a federal program that requires students to work on-campus for the college and payments are typically sent directly to a student's account to fulfill a component of the package.
Federal Student Loans: Provided by the Federal government to the student, these loans are available to everyone who files a FAFSA, even if they do not qualify for aid.  Currently both subsidized for students with demonstrated need and unsubsidized loans for students with no demonstrated need carry an interest rate of 3.86% when disbursed between 7/1/13 and 7/1/14. There are maximum and yearly limits. A good source of info is available here: Federal Student Aid

PLUS Loans: These loans are also provided by the Federal Government but are made to parents, not the student. They are also available to students in graduate school. The current interest rate is 6.41% and there are also maximums and limits. Parents must also have a good credit rating as these loans consider credit history when evaluating applications, unlike loans made to students which do not consider credit history.
Perkins Loans: These are for students with significant financial need only. These loans are made by the institution, not the federal government. The interest rate is currently 5%.
Scholarships: This money, which need not be repaid, is made from the school's coffers and standards are different at every school. Some schools require students maintain a certain GPA, or expect participation in an activity. The NCAA oversees the requirements and rules for athletic scholarships. Many schools will offer merit scholarships to attract the best students and those with test scores and GPAs above the typical admitted student's. Merit money can make attending a certain school a more attractive choice.
State Aid: Some states offer loans or scholarships for students and require attendance within their home state. For New York State residents, more info is here: NYS Higher Ed Services Corp

While many expect that public colleges and universities will be cheaper than privates, if there is significant demonstrated need as evidenced by FAFSA and CSS, a student may find a private a better deal. Why? Private schools with more competitive admissions often have large endowments from which they draw money for grants for students with need. This money which does not have to be repaid can replace loans in an aid packages and often allow students to graduate with no debt. Unfortunately the list of schools that can meet all need without loans is shrinking every year. That list is here: Princeton, Davidson, Amherst, Harvard, Pomona, Swarthmore, Haverford, University of Pennsylvania, Bowdoin, Stanford, Wellesley, Columbia, Claremont McKenna and Vanderbilt.
Williams, Dartmouth, Yale, Cornell, MIT and Carleton have recently modified their no loans policy to include modest loans in packages for students with household incomes over $75k or so.

In order to compare the real cost of attendance including debt incurred, be sure to consider the money you may have to borrow to meet the cost of attendance. While your aid package may show a number that matches the COA, be sure to read closely how much of the package is student loans, PLUS loans and private loans which can be very costly and should be a last resort. Incurring debt over what a student might expect to make his or her first year out of college can be a costly mistake so borrow judiciously. Student loans are not dismissed in bankruptcy either. Be wary of private education loans too as many begin accruing interest when they are disbursed, not upon graduation. And lastly, if your package is not generous enough to attend but a small increase would make it so, call the financial aid office and ask if you can discuss the package. Many schools will find the additional dollars to make up for a shortfall, especially if you call as soon as you are admitted. Do this earlier rather than later as most schools have finite resources for financial aid and you want to appeal before they exhaust their budgeted amount. Any questions? Drop me a note at 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Post-season Wrap Up, Sort of...

Now that the last RD deadline has passed, I have time to sum up what this application round was like. I worked with 63 students, from as far away as Canada, Mexico and China, on essay development and editing, and walked many students through the complexities of the new and purportedly improved Common App, a challenge all its own, as if the admissions process isn't stressful enough! I also experienced the sheer pleasure of hearing students I worked with were admitted to their first choices. One especially grateful student sent me an orchid! I also helped a lot of students find that one last likely school just to make sure every sleeps well between now and April. All in all, it was a VERY busy six months, but I loved almost every moment of it. I loved meeting so many super kids, many of whom focused their energies on writing thoughtful essays and meeting deadlines, staying on top of all the details that needed to be attended to, and never hesitating to ask a question if they just weren't sure. I was also happy to field more than a few phone calls, emails and texts from nervous parents, and help them find some measure of peace!

So, as in the past few years, the schools with the lowest admit rates were even more selective this year. ED/EA/REA/SCEA acceptance stats dropped again for the Ivies, Stanford, UChicago and their peers. Those with slightly less competitive admissions also saw increases in their numbers of ED/EA applicants, and lower admit rates. Overall, the top 50 or so schools all saw increases in the number of applications, even those that had seen slight declines last year.  As predicted, admissions are not getting any easier at the higher ranked schools and are getting even more competitive at the less competitive schools.

The Common App was a major headache for hundreds of thousands of students. I received many panicked phone calls, texts and emails asking me why PDFs were blank, why the Common App was crashing or not recognizing previously used login info, and that Naviance was not showing any recommendations or transcripts had been requested or sent! I spent hours sitting with students as they filled out the Common App, if only to assure them they were doing it right. I suggested filling everything out and setting the alarm for 4 AM to submit, hoping that less traffic on the site would enable proper submission. Almost every school that had an ED/EA/SCEA/REA deadline extended it for a week or more in recognition of the problems students were having. Many also extended their RD deadlines, aware that there is even more traffic the days before 1/1/14. Let's hope that Eric Furda, UPenn's Dean of Admissions and the incoming President of the Common App will sort out these issues before the next admissions round!

Here are the lessons learned from this round of applications:

  • Do NOT wait until the night before the deadline to submit your Common App!
  • Start thinking about and drafting your essay in August before you are overwhelmed by the start of school
  • Finish your junior year with the best grades you can muster!
  • Ask your favorite teachers, or those for whom you have produced great work, if they will write you a letter of recommendation BEFORE the end of the year, instead of in September, so they have time over the summer to think about how they can highlight what makes you an outstanding applicant. 
  • If your standardized testing outcomes are disappointing, check out and see how many great schools do not require SATs or ACTs. 
  • Take advantage of your counselor's relative free time now and make an appointment to review your plans for next year. Remember they will be writing a recommendation for you too!
  • Start visiting if you haven't already! Make a list of your possible schools and do some day trips and plan an overnight or two.
  • Create a list of your ECs so you have something to work from when completing the Common App next fall. It goes live on 8/1!