I recently returned from 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 completely lost. With a guide, however, one can focus on the beauty and the history, and not stress about whether one is 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, or 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, the process of applying to college is opaque, complex and full of unwritten rules. 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 literally hundreds of decision points in the college admissions process, each with a set of rules that is not clearly written down in language parents and students will understand.
To provide just a few examples:
- Some elite universities such as Princeton and Stanford recently decided to not require the essay section of the SAT or ACT. Stanford announced that while it no longer “required” students to take this section of the test, it “highly recommended” that they do. If you’re wondering exactly what precisely the difference is between “required” and “highly recommended,” you’re not alone.
- Colleges now use tools like waitlists, early decision applications, and demonstrated interest to manage their “yield:” the fraction of students that are admitted who accept offers of admission. This has meant the use of sophisticated statistical techniques to decide which students to accept – not based 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 mostly private 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) adversely impact the chances of admission at a top university, or 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.
Nearly every aspect of the college admissions process has become complex – often due to the best of intentions, as college officials weigh the competing goals of maintaining excellence, filling classes, and enabling students from traditionally disadvantaged communities to access higher education.
And so, perhaps unintentionally, the process now rewards those with the resources to access high-quality professional help in the same way the tax code rewards those who can hire qualified accountants
Specific Ways in Which a Great College Admissions Coach can Help
- College selection: There is a profusion of data out there in terms of how to select colleges, and 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 in many cases.
- Essays: Even as tools like the Common Application have aimed to standardize application processes, colleges still require many essays. The average student might now end up writing well over 15 essays before the application process is done. Selecting topics, creating drafts, and revising them all require some expert advice as students try to stay authentic and honest while meeting the implicit (or explicit) biases of admissions officials.
- Financial Aid: 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. Both forms have many questions where the answers are not obvious, and getting them right can make an immense difference in how much aid you receive. 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 major 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 a great 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.