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8 top tips for applying to college

Marlene Kern Fischer

Most college admissions decisions have been made and it was another rough year for a segment of the population who have their eyes on smaller, elite private colleges and universities and certain public flagship schools. In fact, it was even rougher than previous years. In my own town, some of the best students did not get in to their top choices.

A decade ago, when my oldest son was applying to college, the prevailing wisdom was that his would be the most competitive year because the number of high school seniors was at its peak (the “baby boomlet”) and things would get easier for each subsequent class.

The opposite has proven true.

Out of the top ten percent of my youngest son’s senior class, which is an academically exceedingly strong class, fewer than half got into their Early Decision schools. And with some selective colleges now admitting up to half of their freshman class through Early Decision, for those not accepted early, the chance of getting in regular decision diminished even further.

This is a cautionary tale for parents of younger high school students who are starting the college search and application process. But take heart — all is not doom and gloom and my purpose is to guide, not scare, those of you who are making preliminary lists and scheduling college tours.

Having taken this journey with my own three sons and observing current trends, there are strategies I recommend to future applicants to up their odds of getting into college.

1. Choose schools where fewer students are applying.

Many students at my son’s high school applied to the same schools. And although a number of those students were qualified, they weren’t all equally qualified. There is no way a top tier school will accept 12 or 14 students from the same small high school when they are considering applications from talented students all across the country (and the globe). 

It’s important to zig when everyone else is zagging. There are amazing schools that get fewer applicants because they're not “hot.” A school’s popularity will wax and wane — make sure you are applying for the correct reasons. Don't be dazzled by a name. Consider schools that may not have been on your radar initially.

2. Cast a wider net.

There were several students who got in to just one school out of the 8–10 to which they applied. These days there should be more safety schools and fewer reach schools on everyone’s list. Again, think about including some schools that aren’t on everyone else’s radar. Expand your idea of what a “dream school” looks like. Don’t forget about state schools — not just as safeties but as research universities that have a lot to offer almost any student.

3. Aim lower.

By lower I do not mean worse. I do not believe there are “worse” schools. A good education can be obtained at any institution — learning is up to the individual. But expecting an acceptance from an Ivy League school these days is almost certain to lead to heartbreak for even the most stellar candidates. By choosing a school that’s lower in the national rankings but still academically appropriate, the chances of being offered admission will go up — and merit aid may be offered as well.

As for those rankings, remember that they have lots of biases built into them and don’t necessarily tell you a whole lot about what it’s like to actually be a student there. Plenty of good schools aren’t on the best known list (U.S. News & World Report) or may be regionally rather than nationally ranked.

4. Listen to the professionals.

I have no idea what conversations took place between guidance counselors, students and their parents at my son’s school this past year, but it seems like someone wasn’t listening. When the professionals say a school is a reach, believe them.

Don’t be fooled by gorgeous marketing materials. Colleges want more applicants because more applicants make them look more selective. It’s as simple as that.

5. Don’t rely on Naviance.

Prior acceptances are not necessarily indicative of your chances of being admitted to any given school. Naviance does not indicate personal accomplishments, legacy, legacy with money, athletic status, the fact that the dean was an applicant’s uncle, etc. When you see that someone with a 3.8 GPA and a 31 on their ACT was accepted to The Most Amazing University, you do not know what the back story is or who they knew to get in.

The data can be very misleading. The recent admissions scandal sheds light on how admissions decisions are rarely determined in a straightforward fashion based on numbers, résumés and recommendations.

6. Apply early.

Even if you aren’t positive which school you want to attend, pick a school at which you think you could be happy and apply Early Decision. If that doesn’t work out, many schools now have ED2. Consider also putting in some Early Action (non-binding) applications. Lots of schools want to feel you really want them and not that they are there as a safety net or a sixth choice. These options are an important part of an application strategy.

Applying early obviously means getting your application materials organized early and this is an excellent goal in general to save you tons of stress. You may hesitate to apply ED if you hope to compare financial aid packages and this is a valid consideration. By using net price calculators, you can get a pretty good idea of what kind of aid to expect, and you can meet with the college’s financial aid office as well.

7. Don’t be fooled by gorgeous marketing materials.

Colleges want more applicants because more applicants make them look more selective. It’s as simple as that. They will woo you with letters telling you they want you and that you are a perfect fit for their warm, diverse, brilliant community. They may offer to waive your application fee or entice you in other ways. One college sent my oldest son its huge course catalog in an effort to get him to apply, which he did. He was not accepted there.

8. Understand that certain majors can be more competitive.

Some schools within a college, as well as majors, may be more competitive than others (and, conversely, some may be easier). Be aware of this when you apply and recognize that you may need to be a stronger candidate for a desired program than for the general applicant pool. It’s worth researching whether it will be an option to transfer schools or take courses within the more competitive/desirable program once admitted to the college. In truth, how many 17-year-olds really know what they want to do when they are applying and how many end up changing majors two or three times (or eight, like my oldest)? This may not feel like the most “honest” approach but it could work to your advantage.

The good news is that with a realistic perspective and a solid game plan your student (and you!) will survive the admissions process. Even if they don’t end up at what they think is their “dream” school, they’ll be surprised by how much they end up loving the school they do attend.


Follow Marlene on Facebook, and read more of her wonderful stories on her CollegiateParent author page and her blog, "Thoughts from Aisle Four."


Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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