12 Secrets College Admissions Doesn’t Want You To Know

By Sean | November 22, 2013

Most high school students thinking about going to college think that the “getting in” part is pretty simple: good grades plus high test scores plus a portfolio of impressive extracurricular activities equals admission.

After all, isn’t that what we’ve all been told?

Unfortunately it’s a lie.

OK. Maybe “lie” is a bit too harsh. All those things do matter when it comes to getting in to a highly selective college. It’s just that they don’t matter in the way you think they do.

To understand why, it’s important to understand the motivations of the admissions officer. Simply put, they want to admit students that are going to be a perfect fit for the school, graduate in four years (or less!), get high-paying jobs, and give lots of money back to the school when they’re a success…all the while crediting the college or university for their successful lives.

But that’s just the beginning. Admissions officers also have a lot of other forces influencing their decision about whether or not they’re going to admit you. Factors such as diversity, geographic distribution of students, student financial aid need, and even students’ legacy status (whether or not their parents went to the school) can also matter.

But we’re still not done.

Admissions officers are often working to improve factors such as admissions “yield” (how many people enroll in the school out of how many expressed interest or applied), SAT scores, and the average GPA of the incoming class. They also love rankings (such as those issued by US News and World Report) and often admit students who will help boost them.

The fact is that the decision about whether to admit you or not is not usually based on a simple formula, but on a whole combination of factors. Knowing the truth could help you beat the odds:

  1. Colleges often admit a higher percentage of students who opt for “early decision” programs. In some cases, schools admit as many as 70% of the students who opt for “early decision” because it helps them boost their admissions numbers early (making them look better to their bosses) while “locking in “ students in order to keep them away from their competition.
  2. Many colleges are switching to “express” (pre-filled or shorter) applications or turning to the Common Application in order to boost their numbers. Having more applicants allows schools to appear more selective because they can only admit the students they have space for. It also helps the admissions office (and marketing folks) look better when they have to report on the effectiveness of their recruitment methods to their bosses.
  3. While the test-phobic among us might see the trend to make standardized test scores optional for admissions as a blessing, they’re not doing it to be nice. Instead, admissions folks have found that making test scores optional is a great way to boost their “average SAT” numbers…numbers that make them more attractive to higher-achieving students. Why? Because students who did well on their tests are more likely to report their scores while students who did poorly will “opt out.” The result? Only the best scores get reported.
  4. Nobody pays sticker price. While the advertised cost of college has been rising, so has the “discount rate” (a measure of how much students actually pay to go to school, not including outside scholarships). In fact, according to this report, the average discount rate for a private college or university in 2012 was almost 40%. In other words, if tuition is listed as $25,000, most students are paying far less than that…an average of $15,000! Of course, 15 grand is still a lot of money, but it’s way less than what’s been advertised.
  5. Here’s a shocker: according to a number of surveys of employers, most employers don’t care that much about where you went to school. In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers  Job Outlook 2013 report, “school attended” was fifth on the list of attributes employers were looking for.  Keep this in mind when you’re looking at colleges…it’s probably better to pick one where you’ll shine than one with a “name.”
  6. First generation college students (those whose parents didn’t go to college) have a real edge when it comes to admissions. According to this excellent article, new government mandates are now pushing schools to admit students with no college backgrounds in their families.
  7. Besides the usual stuff (grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, and your application), one of the most important factors when it comes to admissions is “demonstrated interest.”  Making contact with an admissions officer, having an interview (whether it’s required or not), taking a campus tour, sitting in on classes, meeting with some professors…not only are they good ways to find out if a school is right for you or not, but they can also help make the kinds of connections that will put you over the top at selective schools.
  8. Your social media profile matters! By now you’ve probably been contacted on Facebook by some schools (over 85% of colleges now use Facebook to recruit students). But schools aren’t just using Facebook to sell you…they’re also using it to check you out. In fact, as of August of 2012, 22% of colleges reported that they’re checking out prospective students’ Facebook profiles as part of the admissions process. Maybe it’s time you deleted those party pictures or racy selfies. Just sayin’.
  9. Just because you get a letter that “encourages” you to apply doesn’t mean that the school wants you in particular. It’s called marketing and it’s simply used as a tactic to boost applications (see secrets 1 and 2).
  10. High standardized test scores won’t overcome bad grades. In fact, one of the worst combinations (in the eyes of an admissions officer) you can have is high test scores and low-medium grades. What that says, in terms that often appear on Kindergarden report cards, is that you’re one of those folks who has a hard time “living up to their potential.” Harsh? Yup…but if you want to get into a top school, you’d better get used to “harsh.”
  11. In fact, numbers matter more than ever. Large schools (especially large public universities) are relying more and more on hard numbers (grades and standardized test scores) to admit students. Due to the Common App, the ease of applying online, and the economic downturn, college applications are at an all-time high. More apps. Less people to review them. It’s not surprise that admissions offices are looking at easy-to-compare stats (rather than hard-to-compare and time-consuming-to-read essays) to decide.
  12. Finally, remember that getting you to enroll isn’t cheap. In fact, according to studies like this one, the average cost to recruit a new student is over $2,000 in the US. This means that while the top-tier schools might be more selective, many schools considered to be “mid-tier” are scrambling to enroll students and may be open to some wheeling and dealing when it comes to financial aid or may be less “selective” than they appear. Keep this in mind when building your list of schools…the numbers they report might not necessarily reflect reality.