Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The College Application Process Now

Harvard University
Even if you are a recent graduate, the college application process has changed radically for teens today. For starters, a majority of selective colleges use the Common App. However, most "realistic" young adult novels that I read/review get the process wrong. Hopefully this post will clear up some confusion.

Misconception #1: colleges snail mail admission responses.

These days, most colleges inform students of acceptance decisions online. When applying, a student creates an account with a password on the college's website. On the decision day, the student logs in to get the result. Following online admission, the college will snail mail a big packet to accepted students. Standardized test scores are also released online to the student.

Misconception #2: all applicants take the SATs and high test scores guarantee acceptance. 

Traditionally, students in coastal states took the SATs while those in the Midwest took the ACTs. These days, students from anywhere can take either standardized test and most colleges accept both. Some colleges allow you to skip standardized tests altogether. The most selective colleges may also require SAT IIs (subject tests). In 2005, the SATs switched to a 2400 point system: 800 Reading, 800 Writing, 800 Math plus an essay. In 2016 the SAT will revert to a 1600 point system: 800 Reading +Writing, 800 Math, and an optional essay.

The more selective colleges tend to accept students with higher test scores, but high scores and GPA aren't enough on their own to guarantee admission. Also important are the application essay (and sometimes an interview), teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities/supplements. Large state universities are more likely to place greater emphasis on test scores and GPA. Standardized tests are weighted more heavily for homeschooled kids who usually don't have an academic transcript/GPA.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology releases admissions decisions on Pi Day 3/14.

Misconception #3: kids apply early to multiple schools.

There are three types of early applications: Rolling Admission, Early Action and Early Decision. Many state universities, especially honors programs, have Rolling Admission: qualified students are accepted in the fall through the spring until the class is full. The most selective private colleges often have non-binding Early Action, but applicants may only apply early to one selective college along with state schools. Other colleges have binding Early Decision, which means you can only apply to one school and you must attend if accepted (as long as your financial needs are met.)

Early action and early decision applications are usually due in early November, and the students will hear by early/mid December if they are accepted, rejected or deferred (ie to be considered along with other applicants in the regular pool at a later date.) At that point, ED students must accept the offer, but EA students have the option to apply to other colleges as well. Some schools have a second round of binding Early Decision in January.

Most kids don't apply early. They may not be sure of their first choice and prefer to wait for regular decision, which frequently has a January 1st deadline. Students often apply to ten to twelve schools at regular admission time, a combination of likely, target and reach schools. Regular acceptances are posted in late March to early April. The accepted student's decision is usually due May 1st, and after that, other kids may be accepted off the wait-list. There are financial considerations too, explained below.

Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in rural Vermont.

Misconception #4: the smartest kids always go to Ivy League schools.

The Ivies aren't the best choice for everyone. Small liberal arts colleges focus exclusively on undergraduate education and offer top-notch teaching. State universities can be excellent too (eg UC Berkeley). There are schools that specialize in the arts (often requiring auditions and supplements) or technology. Some kids choose local community college so that they can work part time. Others pick ROTC programs.

Financial aid packages vary and some are need-based while others are merit-based. Many applicants don't apply early decision (binding) because they want to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools. This year a boy from Tennessee turned down all eight Ivies and Stanford for Alabama State University's Honor's Program so that he'd have more money left for graduate school. However, elite private colleges which accept need blind often offer bigger financial aid packages so it can be cheaper to go to a private college than to a state university.

The process is different for foreign students and for American students studying abroad. International students often receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree which is recognized in many countries.

A tip on writing realistic YA fiction: beta test your manuscript on teens the same age as your characters. They may flag other things that have changed since you were a teenager.


Stacy said...

I sense this has been a large part of your life this year. :)

A Cuban In London said...

Lots of useful tips here. Above all, do a lot of research, a piece of advice many future writers will appreciate. Thanks, great post. :-)

Greetings from London.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I spent a sunny Saturday touring Agnes Scott College with a friend's daughter who just got accepted there. Her first choice. Her excitement was infectious. xo

Donna said...

I've been wondering about how the college admissions process is different now than it was for me back in the late 90s. It's changed quite a bit in some ways which is in part reflective of changing technology and increasing standards of achievement. I don't think I would have gotten into some of the schools I got into based on the test scores I got back then and what they require now!

Speaking of which, what you wrote about the Ivies is true. Smart kids go there for sure, but there are so many smart ones who don't. I'm a so-called smart kid who did go to an Ivy but I was close to turning it down for a variety of reasons. I liked Penn a lot but I think I also would have really liked a small liberal arts school tucked away in a bucolic setting somewhere. The College of William & Mary has been calling my name ever since I saw it on vacation a few years ago!

tina said...

It's a very different process now. I do like the electronic notification as that is pretty cool.

troutbirder said...

Well considering Eisenhower was President when I was a Young Adult....:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Stacy, so true! It’s a big relief to have one kid at college and another going soon. Living practically on campus, college will always be part of my life.

ACIL, sorry to focus only on the USA. It would take another post to explain how O-levels are now GCSE’s and how A-levels have changed. I had to research that for my British YA, which I’ll be revising soon.

Pamela, congrats to your friend’s daughter!

Donna, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Like you, I went to an Ivy, but I have a new perspective from being married to a Bowdoin College professor. Our kids looked at Ivies, state schools and small liberal arts colleges before choosing Middlebury. William and Mary is a good school too.

Tina, I highlighted the electronic part because YA books still have scenes with admission envelopes. The online notification is less stressful since everyone hears at the same time and nothing gets lost in the mail.

Troutbirder, my master’s thesis advisor at MIT had worked in the Eisenhower Administration as a science advisor in earlier years.

thecuecard said...

Thanks for all the college app info. It seems so competitive these days for getting into decent schools; isn't it?

cynthia newberry martin said...

It does change so fast...

Amanda Summer said...

Boy does this bring back memories. I take it your daughter is on the threshold of this process. Good advice, Sarah, and good luck to her.

Rose said...

I don't have to think about this anymore, thank goodness, but I do appreciate your last tip. My granddaughter was accepted at many schools, including our large state university, but chose a small liberal arts college I wasn't even familiar with because of the financial aid they offered. It was the best decision she ever made--instead of being a small fish in a big pond, she is a "big fish" and has blossomed in this setting more than I ever would have thought. I am a big fan of small LAS colleges.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cue and Cynthia, it does seem harder and more stressful these days.

Amanda, thanks!

Rose, congrats to you granddaughter! She sounds very sensible. I’m pleased to hear that she’s thriving at a small school. Thanks for sharing her experience.