Okay, so I lied. Or if you’re looking to be more gracious and generous (which doesn’t seem to be the norm these days) I was flat wrong. Back in March 2018 I wrote a two-part series titled “That’s Not How It Works!” (You may remember my lackluster attempt to proliferate #TNHIW, but like Gretchen Wieners with “fetch” in Mean Girls— it really didn’t take.) Regardless, my exact statement was, “There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.”
I should have known this day would come. The truth is there have been many things I said I’d never do—wear buck oxford shoes, get a pedicure (in my defense it was a date with my daughter, but I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoyed it), and the granddaddy of them all… own a minivan (initially painful but man, the sliding doors and TV are sweet). Professionally, this is also true. “We’re not going to the Common App…” “We’ll always release EA decisions before the Winter Break…” “I’m not a bow tie guy…”
So if you want to know who is going to win the Super Bowl, I’m not your best resource. Or if you hear me say, “I’m definitely not going to start wearing skinny jeans,” it’s understandable if you give me a sideways stare with a raised eyebrow.
Here’s the thing about college admission: it’s cyclical. The original two-part #TNHIW series was written in the spring, when we dealt with topics like the waitlist, depositing, financial aid, and appealing admission decisions. All still valid and helpful information if you want to check it out later, but it’s not as important to you right now.
Since I’ve been on the road presenting and fielding questions from prospective students, as well as talking to students on campus, I thought I’d address a few of the common misconceptions admission officers often hear.
“Our son goes to X high school. We’re a big feeder, so I’m concerned it’s going to hurt him because I know you only take a certain number from each high school.”
Well… that’s not how it works.
The truth is colleges do want to diversify their class. They work hard to recruit an applicant pool with qualified students from a wide variety of backgrounds—geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and so on—in order to insure their entire first-year class is not made up of students from only one county or state or nation. Ironically, what irks people in the admission process (“you don’t take as many as you should from my school”) is ultimately one of the aspects of campus life students (and alumni) love and appreciate (“I met people from all over the state/country/world, and not only learned from them but built a huge network as a result”).
Because there are not quotas, in any applicant pool, colleges can typically point to high schools with a 100% admit rate (granted the n of that varies) and others from whom they did not admit a single student.
Don’t believe me? (Understandable given this blog’s preface.) I point you to the data. Our office frequently gets calls like, “I got transferred by my company and we are buying a house in Atlanta. What’s the best school for my 7-year old to attend if she ultimately wants to go to Tech?” Since we are not real estate agents, and because it keeps us (okay, me) from asking something like, “I’m sorry, sir, did you say 7 or 17?” we developed and published admission snapshots so families and counselors can see admit rate variance from school to school or state to state.
While not all universities capture or publish this granular data, most of their publications show lists or maps of their applicants and students. They also all have institutional research offices that keep this information (there are even conferences for research folks, which I’m sure are a real hoot). Go check out some of the tables, records, fact books, and common data sets and you can see a varied admit rate and lack of quotas. Or just go ask your school counselor. Often they track this data or can show you variance in your high school from one year to the next. What you’ll likely see and hear is most colleges admit different numbers and percentages of students from your school each year. “But last year you took seven from our school and this year only five?” Exactly. No quotas… because #TNHIW
AP vs. IB vs. Dual Enrollment (vs. whatever your school calls challenging)
“You like to see AP more than IB, right?”
“I’ve heard you prefer IB to AP.”
“Just tell me the total number of APs I need to get in.”
“I was thinking about designing my own curriculum. Which sounds better, IP or IA, because you know AI is already taken and I don’t like the idea of having a ‘B’ in there, you know?”
Well…that’s not how it works.
First, if you are applying to or planning to attend a school with a 60%+ admit rate (and remember they make up the majority of colleges in the country), the odds are if you have good grades and take generally challenging courses, slight curriculum differences and course choices are not going to be of great consequence. In fact, many schools openly publish their academic parameters online so there is absolutely no mystery in whether or not you’ll be admitted.
Instead of worry about the type/name of a course- or the exact number of rigorous courses you have taken- here’s what you should be asking: “What’s my goal?” Is it to be as prepared as possible for the pace and depth of the classes you’re going to take in your major or college in general? If so, choose the path that is in line with those goals and aspirations. Look at the kids a grade above you or the seniors who just graduated who wound up at some of the schools you are interested in attending. There are no guarantees your outcomes will be identical, but at least you have some evidence of a viable path. Talk to your counselor now about the colleges you are interested in attending. They can guide you and, hopefully, provide you a bit of solace in your deliberations.
If your ultimate goal is simply to “get in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 3,000+ colleges), then regardless of what the classes are called, you need to take the toughest ones available and do very well in them. Which classes are those? You know better than I do. What does “do very well” mean? Again… you know. Selective colleges are agnostic when it comes to what the course may be called- they just want to know that you have chosen rigor and responded well to it, because when you arrive on their campus, professors will have high expectations of your knowledge, and you’ll be surrounded by peers who are both prepared and eager to be challenged and stretched in the classroom.
Take some time to ask yourself if the reason you want to go take English or Calculus at the college down the road is really because your high school’s teacher is known to be really tough, or if it is because that is actually the best choice to help prepare you when you arrive on a campus full-time. If your school offers both AP and IB and you have a choice of one over the other, no college is going to say one is preferred in all cases. Instead, they’re going to evaluate you in context of your school. Which one attracts the best students in your grade? Ultimately, “ducking rigor” is not going to fly in the admission process at a college that admits one of every three, five, or 10 students.
So is the reason you want to take Spanish because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester? Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford, or those receiving premier merit-based scholarships at our nation’s top schools will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class. I’m not saying that is the way it absolutely should be. I’m just telling you how it works. And while I kind of hate to be the one to say this so bluntly, someone has to.
Ultimately, my advice is to forget the titles. Start by asking yourself why you are taking each course on your schedule. Is it to protect your GPA? Take advantage of state funded dual enrollment programs in order to save money and earn course credit? Provide time and balance for other pursuits inside or outside the classroom? To avoid a certain subject? Be honest about your goals, understand the pros and cons of each decision, and go from there. That’s how it should work.
Now, I’ve said my peace. Other than Rocky, Harry Potter (and arguably Star Wars depending on where you start counting) there is no need for a fourth edition of anything, so while I’ve learned my lesson to “never say never,” don’t expect another #TNHIW. And seriously, I’m drawing the line with skinny jeans.
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