What can applicants do to increase their chances of getting in to a good college? Colleges usually just tell applicants the same old generalities about wanting students with good grades and test scores and community service. But Peter Van Buskirk, a former admissions dean at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., has started spilling the beans about what really goes on behind those closed-door admissions meetings. Van Buskirk, author of Winning the College Admission Game, tells U.S. News how taking an extra test or community college course in the fall, for example, can make the difference between a thin and fat envelope the following spring.
Many high school students are torn between choosing easy classes so they will get A's and taking honors or Advanced Placement classes, in which they might get lower grades. What's your advice?
It depends on where you apply. The harder a school is to get into, the more you need to show that you are moving to the next logical level of rigor. It is quite a step from high school to college classes. If you take a "gut" in your senior year, you are not going to be at the top of your game. It's like if you've taken a year off of playing soccer. You're not in shape. If you're worried about your GPA, some colleges will recalculate it using weights that give higher scores to advanced or AP classes.
What if a high school doesn't have many AP classes? Should a high school student take community college courses?
Absolutely. From a dean of admissions' point of view, it is really cool to see kids step out of the norm. Colleges that are picky want to see what kids do when they don't have to do anything. We like to see kids have some passion for learning. If the student maybe runs out of math classes in high school, and chooses to go to the community college for math classes, that's pretty impressive.
What if the student doesn't do well on the SAT?
Many colleges—757 to date—are saying that such standardized tests are no longer useful and, to prove it, they have made the submission of test scores optional. Colleges that continue to require testing typically do so for two reasons. One, their volume of applications is such that they use test scores to help screen out weaker candidates. And two, they like big numbers. Even though these are not intelligence tests, the average test scores for a college's entering class are the most widely recognized metric for quality in that class.
So I encourage kids to take both the SAT and the ACT. The SAT is designed to trick you. So if you do well at puzzles, you'll do well on that. The ACT is a subject test. If you take both, you give the college admissions officer options. They can let you in based on your ACT score, if it is higher, and don't have to report your lower SAT score to U.S. News to consider in its rankings.
If students get a bad grade, or a bad test score, or some other problem, should they explain it in their application essay?
You don't want the admissions officer to just guess about what was behind a poor grade, because we tend to be cynical and think that the student was lazy or disinterested, not that something horrible happened in your life. This [grade or test score] is something that can be addressed in an interview as well as a note that is attached to your application. In addition, you need to make sure the teachers and counselors who write on your behalf are prepared to speak to these circumstances as well. As you tell your story, though, make sure you provide explanations and insight, not excuses.
You talk about résumé-building and how you can tell if it is phony. What extracurricular activities should students be involved in?
Kids need to follow their passions. I worry that there are a lot of young people right now who are being remade into the images of what somebody thinks a dean of admission wants to see, at the expense of lives well lived. The reality is that deans of admission are constantly looking for that something different in a young person that is genuine.
How can they tell if it is genuine?
Admission officers look to see if you have been involved with a particular activity over time, and if you've grown with that activity. If you've been in the choir for three or four years, well, clearly you like to sing if you've become a soloist , if you've become section leader, if you've become a student director, if you've become an officer in the choir, that suggests you are invested at another level.
Forming a club just so you can be president of it is pretty transparent. You have teachers and counselors writing on behalf of the student. If those things are not showing up in the recommendation, that is a good way for us to determine that the student is not terribly genuine about the interest.
Students stress over college application essays. But you've said they don't always make such a big difference to the application.
In my opinion, the essay is a missed opportunity for most students. Only about 20 percent of the submitted essays truly make a difference in who gets in. As an admission officer, you have two basic concerns: Is there evidence that students can write? Can they put words together to make sentences, and sentences together to make paragraphs? And then, of course, what do those paragraphs say? Can the students demonstrate some artistic ability? The faculty at a college or university really wants to make sure that I can bring them students who can write. So that is the primary focus.
The teenage tendency is to do something that is good enough. In that case, sure, you satisfied a requirement. But you have probably not produced something that is going to help you get in. It won't hurt you, but it won't help you. Essays that give the reader new perspective into who you are and how you think are the ones that can make a difference.
So how can you make an essay that will help you?
One of the best editorial tools out there is free. It is called time. T-I-M-E. If kids take time to develop an idea and let it become an essay, then they'll create something that can be very meaningful. The objective for the student is to create an essay that I will want to read. I am a busy guy. When I pick up an application, I have to get through it quickly, so I can go to the next application. If you can get me to get past the first paragraph to the second, third, and fourth, now you are making a difference in how your application will be perceived. If you take time to develop the idea so that I will want to read more, so I will want to share it with colleagues, then you win.
It is not a bad idea to start thinking about essays at the end of your junior year. Obsess on them? No. But start a journal. Keep track of your thoughts on a regular basis. The thoughts you find yourself coming back to in that journal are often thoughts you could build upon in developing an essay topic.
A lot of parents believe if that if they apply for financial aid, the student's chances of getting in are reduced. Is that true?
I believe that is the case. I would further say that it depends on where the student is applying. It is really important for students to put themselves on the right playing field. By that, I mean putting themselves into a competition that makes sense for them. Find the place that matches up with your ability to perform. Find the place that values you for what you do well. That school will make sure you get what you need in order to complete your education. The bottom line is that a student's ability to be self-supporting financially is an important credential at many places.
How about not applying for aid the first year, to give the student a better chance at admission, then, once the student gets in, applying for aid for the second year. Is that a wise strategy?
Colleges build their financial aid budget for the upperclass years based on the expectations or demonstrated need they see in the entering class. As a result, hiding your need for aid the first year is not a good idea. Colleges might say, if you looked rich when you got in but look poor in the second year: "That's your problem," because they didn't budget for the aid when they let the student in. They might just say, "Here are some loans." Better to apply to a school that values the student for who he or she really is.
You've said that people don't realize that colleges are making a business decision when they admit a student.
That is one of the things that have changed the most over the past generation of college-going. Institutions want to make sure that when they enroll a class of 500, or 5,000 that they are creating new and diverse communities. Each place in that community, they hope, will be filled by somebody who brings something different. They attach a value to each of those places. In the instances where they are giving financial assistance to somebody, they want to make sure they are getting added value for that place and that financial assistance.