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The Many Contradictions in College Admissions

A few days ago, I was going back and forth with a parent in my Application Nation - Class of 2022 Facebook group about why some colleges view summer programs as a privileged opportunity, and thus, not as ideal as many families believe.

It was then that the mom pointed out that attending a private high school is a privilege, yet colleges have been admitting students from private high schools at higher rates for decades. It seemed like a major contradiction to her. She asked, "Am I missing something?" No. Not at all.

The college admissions process is plagued by contradictions. In fact, colleges have many unspoken rules that they rarely share, which makes it difficult for students to know what can help or hurt them in the admissions process. I am here to break down the policies and give you clear advice when it comes to these mixed messages.


1. High School Favoritism

For years, colleges held tight to the 'old school' relationships that started back in the early part of the 20th Century when deans of admissions and headmasters would collude about who was going to be admitted each year. The numbers of admitted students and acceptance rates at private schools were significantly higher than public school numbers and acceptance rates. Nowadays, colleges are trying to distance themselves from this practice. To think high school favoritism is completely dead is foolish. But if a student is truly special, they will stand out no matter what high school they attend. 
And I have one more note about the public versus private school debate. Many colleges will list the percentage of public school and private school students in each freshman class. However, that is very different than what the actual acceptance rates are between the two groups. Unless the colleges start sharing more data, we will never know if high school favoritism is truly a thing of the past. 

2. Pre-Screening of Athletes

Almost every recruited athlete applying to a selective college gets an early evaluation and feedback before he or she applies. The admissions office reviews the student-athlete's transcript and standardized test scores months before an application is even available to be filled out or submitted. This gives student-athletes a chance to make adjustments and frankly know how competitive they will be in the applicant pool. With fewer colleges providing information on acceptance rates and average test scores, students are having a heck of a time right now knowing if they should add a college to their list or if they have a shot of admission. Wouldn't it be great if all students got a "pre-read" too? 
It seems unfair that only certain students get an early evaluation on their transcripts and test scores. If families aren't able to get this extra "service," then I encourage them to pay close attention to overall acceptance rates when putting together a college list. Sometimes no matter how strong a student's grades, curriculum, and scores are, it is nearly impossible to get admitted to certain colleges. Knowing, for example, that Harvard's acceptance rate was under 5% last year (and will most likely drop lower this year), is an important data point that often doesn't get fully absorbed by families when building a college list.

3. Pay-to-Play Summer Programs

A summer program on the college campus of the student's dreams seems like a perfect way to increase the odds of admission and show interest. "Sign me up—no matter the cost." But in fact, attending a pay-to-play program can actually hurt a student's chances of admission at some colleges. If a college sees on the application that the student attended a summer program at a competitor, the admissions officers will assume that is where the student wants to attend college. And, if you attend one of these programs because that college is your first choice, be careful. If it's an elite college, that can disadvantage a student just as much. Why? Because the cost of these programs is typically out of reach for most families, and the admissions office keeps a healthy distance from the campus' summer program.
Instead of doing a pay-to-play program this summer, consider doing something at zero cost to you. Roll up your sleeves and get a manual labor job or create your own academic project, which will be a whole lot more respected.

4. Share, Just Don't Share Too Much

One of the most popular essay prompts for the Common Application is the following: "The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure." Or my favorite: "Some students have a background, identity, interest that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story." 
Share your story. It is a clear directive, right? Yet I often tell students that you want to be very careful choosing your topic for your main essay. Believe it or not, there is still subtle and harmful discrimination going on behind closed doors in admissions offices when it comes to learning differences, the student's own mental health (even if fully recovered), or being Jewish. These topics are risky for a student.
I am all about a student sharing their story, but not all colleges deserve to know certain stories.

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5. Reporting All Test Scores

Only a handful of colleges require a student to report all test scores, including AP scores. Most colleges don't make this a requirement, but they sure would like to know every last score if you provide them. When I tell a student they don't need to provide a lower score unless a college requires it, they often feel like they have to. This is when I liken their scores to the admissions office data points of a college. For example, most colleges will provide the overall acceptance rate on the admissions website. But wouldn't you want to know what the acceptance rate is for the early program versus the Regular Decision round or the acceptance rate of those who submitted test scores and those who didn't? Colleges only share what they want; students are permitted to do the same!
Two years after the admissions scandal broke, it is more important than ever for colleges to be clear about their policies. Families need guidance. Instead, students and parents are often sifting through mixed messages or no messages at all. My goal is to make sure that contradictions are eliminated so that students don't have to play by different rules than the colleges themselves.