Admissions

Ask the Dean Live Event Recap: Part 2

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During College Confidential's recent "Ask the Dean" event, I responded to questions from the community on a variety of college admission-related topics. During Part 1 of the subsequent article series, I highlighted some of the answers from the event, and today I'm sharing several more. We'll be finishing off this series with Parts 3 and 4 next week.


Email Responses from Admission Reps

Some admissions reps are very responsive to my daughter over email and others respond as if they didn't read the update she sent. The college she was deferred from didn't acknowledge her email with requested update and materials. Does this mean anything? Is she unlikely to be admitted if a rep doesn't respond? Is she likely to be admitted if a rep is very responsive?

Today's college-bound students are constantly being warned to "Demonstrate Interest" at their target colleges, or these colleges won't be interested in THEM. It's sound advice, and a strong student whose interest comes across as lukewarm may indeed be denied by a school that routinely accepts less able applicants. But this clarion call has also created a monster. Admission officials are besieged by emails from well-meaning, interest-demonstrating teenagers. And they simply don't have time to answer them all ... or the answers they DO send may not reflect past information that the applicant has shared, such as in your daughter's case.

While sometimes a VERY responsive rep can indicate that the applicant is being courted by the college and thus implies good news ahead, this could also merely mean that the college has exhorted admission staff to appear effusive in order to encourage more applications. And a rep who seems to have retreated may be on the road 24/7 or plodding through hundreds of files into the wee hours, but may not be indifferent to an applicant's potential.

So try to shift your concerns onto the back burner. Don't view admission office correspondence — or a lack thereof — as a harbinger or good (or bad) news to come. And do suggest to your daughter that, while demonstrating some interest is a smart plan, at this late date she probably shouldn't be writing to her admission reps at all unless she has truly pressing questions or concerns or until she learns she's landed on some waitlists and wants to express continued interest.

Does Class Rank Matter?

Does class rank matter in college admissions? I might be in the top 10 percent, but for people who aren't, do you still have a chance of getting into a top school? What would be exceptions for them (higher test scores, hooks, etc)?

A growing number of high schools are not ranking their students these days, which can lead to apples versus oranges comparisons in admission offices at decision time. But rank CAN still play an important role in admission verdicts for those applicants who attend schools that do include one. Particularly when admission officials are not familiar with a high school, the rank can help to put an applicant in a helpful perspective.

However, admission officials never consider the rank in a vacuum. They look closely at HOW the student got there. For instance, is a high-ranking student taking a lot of easy classes at a school that doesn't weight APs? Or did a lower-ranked student have a pretty lousy freshman year but then earned only A's in tough classes from then on? Did a student transfer in from another high school with an unusual grading protocol which threw a monkey wrench into the whole ranking system?

While the most selective colleges don't routinely admit ranked applicants who fall beneath the top decile, there are always exceptions. Hooks, as you've suggested, are big ... especially when the applicant is a recruited athlete or hails from a disadvantaged or very unusual background. And the ranking process at some high schools can more or less render it fairly useless. For instance, at a tiny high school (say one with 20 seniors), only two will be officially in the top tenth. So a student with all A's whose GPA is just a couple fractions of a point below number one could land in the second — or even — third decile — just by following a passion and taking one unweighted class. Likewise, there are crazy but not uncommon situations where a straight-A student who takes eight classes in a semester will end up ranked below another straight-A student who took only six. This can happen if both students elect six AP's, but the student with the extra classes added orchestra and ceramics (not weighted). So this is why admission committees examine a rank in context.

When I advise students regarding their college lists, I always tell them to see where their rank — if they have one — fits in with the college's published admission statistics. If the rank falls at the bottom end of the median range (or even below it), I ask them what might explain it ... or make up for it. Then, depending on the response, I'll encourage these students to apply anyway or to set their sights elsewhere.

Test Scores Vs. GPA

Do colleges like Brandeis take into account GPA and a student's high school transcript as much as their SAT/ACT score? If a student receives an SAT score lower than what is the average from accepted students at the school, could a high GPA or good high school transcript help the student still receive an acceptance?

Colleges look most closely at a student's transcript ... this means the grades and the rigor of the classes. SAT and ACT scores often play a more starring role than admission officials will concede, and can serve as a tie-breaker between similarly qualified contenders, but applicants ARE evaluated holistically. So if test scores aren't up to snuff, the admission folks will ask, "What ELSE is strong?" If the answer is "Grades in tough courses," this will be a big plus.

The admission committees also consider extracurricular accomplishments, diversity factors (race, nationality, geography, etc.), essays, recommendations, and whether the student meets any other institutional priorities (e.g., does the school need more future physicists or art historians, and does this kid fill the bill?)

At colleges like the Ivies and their uber-competitive peers with acceptance rates in the single digits, low SAT scores can definitely be a deal-breaker unless an applicant comes from a disadvantaged background or offers some other "hook." But at places on a par with Brandeis — i.e., very selective but not HYPER-selective — an impressive transcript can definitely eclipse so-so SAT scores, as long as the SATs aren't SO low that they suggest that the student might struggle if accepted.

Acceptance Based on Location

How much does the location of a student factor into the decision process when they are applying to more prestigious colleges? If two students with very similar applications applied to a prestigious college and one was from out of state and one lived near the college, would the further-away student have a better chance of being accepted?

College folks do like to boast about their geographic diversity, but this mainly means that they're trying to get as many states (and countries) as possible represented in their student body. It DOESN'T mean that they simply want students from far away. It really depends on exactly where these kids are coming from. My son's alma mater, for instance, is Tulane University in New Orleans. Tulane's student body includes loads of Californians. So I suspect that the admission officers at Tulane might be more excited by applicants from nearby Arkansas than by yet more Angelenos.

In addition, admission officials often tend to bend over backwards to accommodate local students. There may even be special scholarships for applicants who grew up in the town, city, or maybe state where the college is located. So familiarity doesn't always breed contempt!

Almost all admission offices have "institutional priorities" that are rarely advertised but will help determine admission decisions. Sometimes these priorities can be geographic, if the college number-crunchers notice that students from, say, the Southwest are falling off. Thus, in such cases, geography might tip a borderline candidate into the IN pile.

But when it comes to the most sought-after institutions (the Ivies and their ilk), SO many students apply from SO many places that it takes a pretty obscure home town to turn an admission officer's head. All things being equal (and they rarely are), a candidate from Wyoming probably has a better shot at Yale than one from Long Island, and North Dakota will beat out New Jersey. But there are many other factors that are considered well before zip code when admission decisions are made.

Best Way to Transfer into a School?

My son was accepted into UNC Chapel Hill for this coming fall. He is considering going to a local community college and reapplying next year. He is contemplating this to save money. He has looked at all the courses and can find enough to transfer. He would have 57 credits after one year of community college, including the courses he took in high school (all appear to transfer. He had a 1450 SAT with near perfect Math, he was a Drum Major in addition to participating in many extracurricular activities, and he had a 4.0 unweighted GPA. He is not first generation or a minority. What can he do during the next year to increase his chances when he reapplies? The transfer-in rate looks like about 35 percent of applicants. Do acceptance chances increase as a sophomore or a junior?

Your son should send these questions to a UNC Chapel Hill admission official. He can start with his current "regional rep" (the staff member who oversees applicants from his high school) but he may be handed off to a transfer liaison, which is fine. Granted, all UNC admission officers will probably have a hidden agenda ... which is to encourage your son to enroll NOW (because colleges like to protect their "yields" by enrolling as many accepted students as possible). So, to some extent, you should take the reply with a block of salt. But, on the other hand, a Chapel Hill admission officer can provide more school-specific information than I can.

Explain to this admission official that cost is the factor that is spurring your son to consider a two-year college. He or she may have some thoughts on how to wangle additional scholarship money or how to keep costs down if your son decides to enroll as a freshman (e.g., he could apply to be a Resident Advisor in his sophomore year or take summer classes close to home in order to graduate early).

Also ask how the major your son plans to pursue will affect his transfer admission odds. At most large public universities, there can be a lot more room for transfers in some majors than in others, so this is a very important question to ask. You can find a lot of information about transferring to UNC on the university website, including these very detailed "pathways" to an anticipated major. However, this will not give you any sense of how competitive each major is for transfer applicants.

Do you live in NC, and thus would he be attending an in-state community college? My guess is no or you would have said so, but maybe it's yes. If your son WILL be at an in-state community college, this will significantly boost his chances of being admitted as a transfer. UNC is committed to enrolling North Carolina community college transfers and even offers a program called "C-STEP" aimed at low- and moderate-income community college students which facilitates the transfer process.

If, however, your son will NOT attend an NC community college, he will be "competing" with C-STEP students at transfer time. Last year, nearly 45 percent of transfer students entered via C-STEP. In addition, when admitting transfer applicants from out of state as well as in-state, many highly selective colleges like UNC will give priority to students from first-generation and/or disadvantaged backgrounds ... those who probably wouldn't have found their way to Chapel Hill straight from high school as your son did. So even if you don't feel that your family falls under this heading, if your son does decide to apply as a transfer student, I suggest that he emphasizes in his application that it was cost that led him to turn down his initial offer.

In addition to adhering to the suggested academic pathways, if your son decides to take the transfer route, he should try to make a mark on his community college through participation in campus activities and perhaps via a leadership role in student government. He can choose to continue some of his high school activities or try new ones. In either case, his aim should be to show transfer admission officers that he did more at his two-year school than just go to class.

Moreover, if UNC did already offer your son some grant money, keep in mind that he might not get the same deal if he enrolls as a transfer, and that could take a bite out of whatever you expect to save if he heads to the two-year school.

Finally ... here's yet another option to consider: Your son could defer his enrollment for one year. UNC does allow this.

He could live at home and work full time to accumulate money to put toward his four years at UNC. This wouldn't lower the cost of his UNC education, but it might take off some of the financial pressure when he finally does enroll, and he won't have to worry about applying as a transfer and possibly not being accepted.

I realize that this is a tough choice and is probably keeping you up at night. But it sounds like your son has been very successful in his endeavors so far, and I suspect he will continue to be, wherever he lands in September.

"Checking in" With Colleges

Does it hurt my chances of getting admitted to check in with colleges on my status, whether they got my documents, when they'll be notifying, etc?

If your colleges provide a portal that allows you to see that your application is complete, and it IS, then you should NOT check in to ask if your documents have arrived. One main purpose of such portals is so that admission folks don't get thousands of annoying phone calls or emails asking if an essay, recommendation, test scores, etc. have gone astray. But if there's no such portal (and you aren't notified of a completed application in another way, such as via email) then it's actually important that you DO follow up to make sure all of your application components showed up safely.

It can often take admission offices a couple weeks to update portal information, and it can be scary to see that your material seemingly didn't arrive when you know for sure it was submitted. So don't freak out right away if your portal is indicating that materials are missing. Instead, wait about two weeks after all materials have been sent before there's any need to follow up ... or to worry.

As for asking about the notification date ... most colleges publish this on their websites or include it with information sent to applicants. But if you really have no clue when you'll hear (and if you've made an effort to find out online), it's okay to contact the college to ask.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please send it along here.

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