Amid this pandemic, my mind, like that of so many people, turns to trips I’ve taken. Years ago, after my father passed away, I took a trip to Varanasi, a millennia-old city on the banks of the Ganges river that Hindus consider sacred. The city is full of crowded, narrow alleyways and back-streets which wind like a maze. Street signs are few and confusing. Without a guide to help, it’s easy to get lost entirely. I had the good sense to get a coach who showed me around. That allowed me to focus on the beauty and history, and not stress about whether I was headed in the right direction.
In theory, the college admissions process should be straightforward, even if it’s not easy. Students select colleges based on their desired majors, cultural fit, size, and other factors. They send in applications which summarize their high school activities and accomplishments and receive responses promptly, either with acceptances, or explanations of why they weren’t a good fit.
But in practice, like a trip to Varanasi, applying to college is an opaque process: complicated and full of unwritten rules. And COVID-19 has complicated the process even more. Standardized testing is a challenge, and the admission process depends even more on unquantifiable factors. The complexity and the profusion of rules that only insiders know means that an experienced college admissions coach can be critical to help students and families navigate the process, set priorities, and achieve better outcomes.
The Complexity of the College Admissions Process
There are hundreds of decision points in the college admissions process, each with rules that aren’t written down in language meant for parents and students will understand.
A few examples of complexity
- Many universities, including the University of California system and Ivy League colleges like Cornell, have announced that they will suspend the requirement for students to provide SAT or ACT scores due to the pandemic. But test-optional admissions processes create additional decisions for students. Families have to decide whether to submit test results. Cornell, for example, says that test results “might still be a meaningful differentiator” for some students, depending on their circumstances. These choices create additional complexity.
- Most colleges have canceled college tours and visits. So it’s harder for a student to see a campus physically before they apply. Some colleges have also announced they will not use “demonstrated interest” for 2021 applications. Colleges still use tools like waitlists, early decision applications, and demonstrated interest to manage their “yield:” the fraction of admitted students who accept offers of admission. The use of sophisticated statistical techniques to decide which students to admit creates challenges for students. That’s because the admission decision isn’t based only on whether a student can do the work a college requires or whether a student would be a good fit, but based on whether a student will accept the offer of admission.
- The Common Application, used by over 750 universities and colleges, allows students to report scores on AP tests as part of their application. But will reporting a decent-but-not-great score (such as a 3 out of 5) impact adversely the chances of admission at a top university? Is a student better off not reporting it?
Answers to these questions are hard to find. At many high schools, the ratio of students to counselors, which exceeds 470:1 across U.S. high schools, means that the school counselor doesn’t have the time to research answers to these questions and help each student with their specific needs. That’s where a personal college admissions coach can help.
Colleges Weigh Competing Concerns
College officials have to weigh the competing goals of maintaining excellence, filling classes, and enabling students from traditionally disadvantaged communities to access higher education. And so nearly every aspect of the college admissions process has become involved – often in spite of the best intentions.
Perhaps unintentionally, the process now rewards those with the resources to access high-quality professional admissions coaching in the same way the tax code rewards those who can hire qualified accountants.
How a Great College Admissions Coach can Help
- College Selection: Amidst the profusion of data about colleges, parents and students who start going through the data can easily get lost. The challenge is knowing how to match students to colleges in a way that balances likelihood, cost, outcomes, and cultural fit. The data are a great start in the process, but doing it well requires expert help.
- Essays: Tools like the Common Application have aimed to standardize application processes, but colleges still require many essays. The average student might now end up writing well over 15 essays during the application process. Selecting topics, creating drafts, and revising them all require expert advice. Students need to try to stay authentic and honest while meeting the implicit (or explicit) biases of admissions officials.
- Financial Aid and Merit Scholarships: Even as the sticker price of college has soared in recent years, the amount many students pay can be much smaller, due to financial aid and merit scholarships. The financial aid process always starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but many universities also require an additional form called “CSS/Profile.” Filling these forms out correctly can make an immense difference in how much aid a student receives. And selecting colleges based on where students can receive generous aid packages can be critical in affording college.
- Early Planning: For students who aren’t yet seniors going through the application process, getting coaching can make a significant difference by enabling students to build their portfolio of work and select courses. The goal isn’t to turn a student into someone they’re not, but to help them emphasize their passions through a focused approach to selecting academic courses and extracurricular activities.
College admissions coaches, like tax accountants, should be unnecessary in theory but are critical in practice. They are an excellent investment for students who want to find the best-fit college and achieve an affordable, high-quality education.
NOTE: A version of this article appeared recently on the Edmodo blog, at this link.