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Admissions 104: What Colleges Don't Tell You
by Claire D. Friedlander

Over this past year, many parents and teens who had believed that their college search would be a clear-cut, well-defined process have learned otherwise. Following the “right path” has not always led to the anticipated results.

Indeed, a number of recent trends, interacting together, have complicated the college admissions landscape. Here is what you need to know now.

The Applications Spiral

Even though the number of U.S. high school students who are ready for college is declining, the number of applications flooding into college admissions offices is increasing every year. Why?

First, students are applying to more schools because the technology has made it relatively easy to do so; you can copy and paste application responses from one college to another without much effort and just hit the “send” button.

Second, more colleges are sending unsolicited publicity materials encouraging students to apply (see “Selectivity and Image” explanation below). Some students will then interact with the school, feel confident that “This school really wants me,” and apply there “just to be safe,” even if the college didn’t make their short list. As college outreach activities increase each year, so do the overall number of applications.

Selectivity and Image

Colleges are committed to raising their standing in the marketplace of higher education through such indicators as popularity and selectivity. To do so, they are encouraging a larger pool of applicants while maintaining the same size incoming class, which lowers the percentage of students they admit and makes them appear more selective.

International Applications

More applications are also coming from abroad, increasing the competition for admittance. A number of schools, such as Vassar College, are actively recruiting internationally as well as nationally. This has led to significant increases in the number of international student applications—1200 such applications out of a total of 8,000 applications for 660 Vassar seats last year.

The “Legacy” Factor

In the past, legacy applicants (the sons or daughters of alumni) would swell the applicant pool almost exclusively at private schools. But in today’s economy they are also applying to state schools, where they have an edge over other applicants.

Meeting the Challenge

College rating books or computer college selection programs are unlikely to tell you about these new admissions trends. The challenge, therefore, is finding up-to-date, accurate information to help you add or delete specific colleges from your list early on.

In this more competitive environment, your best course of action is a realistic assessment of your admissions chances, keeping in mind that you will now need higher SAT/ACT and GPA scores than the published data indicates. If you make smarter applications choices, you’ll be more likely to be accepted by those schools eager to engage a student with your qualifications and interests. And consider a “Gap Year” if you believe it will increase your chances of acceptance to your favorite school(s).

Rise to the challenge—you’ll be glad you did.

Claire D. Friedlander, college consultant to Jewish Family Service in the greater Stamford and Westport areas of Connecticut; college advisor to the Jewish High School of Connecticut; formerly vice president of Temple Sinai in Stamford 


Union for Reform Judaism.