Admissions 100: Getting In

What Experts Say
Wendy Kahn, Gael Casner, Carolyn P. Mulligan, Heath Einstein

What are the most important trends in college admissions that students need to be aware of?

Wendy Kahn, Wendy Kahn College Consulting, LLC, Highland Park, Illinois (UCLA College Consulting Certificate, HECA*, IECA Associate Member):

  1. Colleges' use of "Big Data" to track demonstrated interest: It's no secret that in making admissions decisions, colleges value applicants who have "demonstrated interest"—students who visit the campus, attend the college's local reception, and/or meet with an admissions rep at the student's high school. In contrast, students whose applications are the first point of contact with a college—so-called "stealth candidates"—are often unpleasantly surprised to be waitlisted or denied by a school that should have been a safe bet.

    Now, colleges have a new arrow in their "demonstrated interest" quiver: Big Data. College admissions offices nationwide buy students' names and information from such organizations as the College Board and ACT, then e-mail students and track their responses. They can tell if a student doesn't open the email or follows a link included in it. Colleges are also using special software to track whether their institution appears on a student's list on the Common Application. These colleges will assign you "points" based on Big Data interactivity.

    Knowing this, you can use Big Data to your advantage. Place a college on your list on the Common App to demonstrate your interest, and then be sure to respond to the school's emails. Also "like" a college's official Facebook page, follow it on Twitter, or Tweet about it yourself. As a bonus, as you do all this, you'll learn more about what's happening on campus.

  2. Colleges' use of FAFSA data against applicants: Some colleges are using data included on the FAFSA, the federal application for need-based financial aid, to deny admission to applicants and reduce their financial aid awards.

    The culprit is the FAFSA section that asks students to list the names of up to 10 colleges to which they'll apply. The feds share all FAFSA information with the listed colleges, and the schools have discovered that the order in which a student lists institutions typically corresponds to that student's preferences: the further down the list a college's name appears, the less appealing it is to the student, and the less likely he or she is to attend. Some colleges—especially those that care most about "yield," the percentage of accepted students who enroll—are using this information against applicants. If a college is low on a student's list, the college may figure s/he is unlikely to enroll and so may waitlist or deny acceptance. Conversely, if a school is high on the applicant's list, the college may figure s/he will enroll no matter what and offer a weak financial aid package.

    Fortunately, there's an easy way to avoid the problem: List your colleges in alphabetical order, not in preferred order.

  3. Increased importance of SAT and ACT in the admissions process: High school teachers have been under increasing pressure from school administrators and parents to grade leniently—give out the "easy A." As grading standards become less reliable, college admissions officers depend on standardized test results to validate the student's transcript.

    Still, the most important elements of an application are strong grades achieved within a challenging curriculum. Beyond that, colleges will look for essays that help them understand who you are, evidence of your engagement outside the classroom, and recommendations that show your potential to succeed on campus.

  4. The ascent of the angular applicant: Highly selective colleges—those accepting fewer than 20% of applicants—used to look for "well-rounded" students, such as the Key Club officer who was also a member of the golf team and first-chair cellist in the school orchestra. Today, however, admissions officers at the most selective schools aim to build well-rounded classes by populating them with "angular" applicants—those who excel academically and demonstrate deep expertise, achievement, or talent in one or two areas, often at a regional, state, national, or even international level. Examples include applicants who have launched successful businesses, founded charities, conducted research and published papers in scholarly journals, or won significant academic or fine arts competitions. Beyond these select schools, well-rounded applicants are still prized, so long as they demonstrate consistent and meaningful involvement in several outside activities.

    Knowing your profile from the perspective of different schools can help you target the ones that will most value what you have to offer.

Gael Casner, College Find, Greenbrae, California (UC Berkeley Certificate in College Admissions and Career Planning, creator of "College Find Newsletter," HECA president 2013-14, NACAC*, WACAC):

Admissions trends important to keep in mind include:

  1. The overall "yield rate"—the percentage of accepted students who send in a deposit, thereby committing to attend that college—is dropping at many schools. Despite the nuanced formula colleges use to predict their yield, it is becoming increasingly hard to know who will commit. Consequently, colleges pay particular attention to students who display genuine interest in their school. This is good news—as you will increase your chances of being accepted—if you're willing to "go the extra mile." Use research and then reflect on how and why a college would be a good fit. Specifically, name and describe two courses you'd like to take and list at least one club, extracurricular, or community service activity you'd explore if you attend that college. Be specific: Why do these courses, professors, and activities appeal to you?

    Communicate these enthusiasms to college officials so they can gauge your impact in and out of the classroom. Try to visit and connect with a college's regional representative via email and by interview if offered.
  2. Very selective colleges are admitting larger numbers of students who apply early decision (ED) and agree to attend that school if selected. ED often gives students an advantage. As The New York Times reported in May 2013, Duke accepted 26.6% of students who applied ED, compared to just 10% who applied regular decision; at Brown it was 18.5% ED vs. 8% regular decision. Not all U.S. colleges offer an ED option. Of those that do, the overall acceptance rate in 2013 was 62%, versus 52% regular decision. So consider applying early decision to the school that holds the top spot in your lineup.
  3. An increase in Early Action (EA) applications, an option whereby a student receives a decision in advance of a school's regular reply date but without the obligation to accept until May 1. Not all U.S. colleges offer EA either, but if your school does, this is a good choice, because your chances of acceptance are better (71% EA verses 63% regular for all U.S. schools offering EA), and because it relieves stress to receive an acceptance early in the process. So if your ninth through eleventh grade transcript looks strong and your ACT/SAT tests are solid, plan to complete your EA applications by late October or early November. This will require you to work on essays over the summer before your senior year, define your list of schools in early fall, complete applications as they become available (often in August), and give your teachers at least a month to submit their materials.
  4. Colleges are shifting more students to their waitlist, yet selecting fewer of them in the end. So don't put your hopes on getting accepted from the waitlist of your dream school; choose a school that wants you on campus.

Carolyn P. Mulligan, Insiders Network to College, Summit, New Jersey; Board of Counselor CATS for the University of Arizona (IECA*, NACAC, NJACAC, HECA):

Two significant admissions trends are:

  1. The increasing importance of student responses to the supplemental essays: Admissions representatives say that essay specialists and tutors have so influenced students' primary Common Application essays, they are no longer in a student's "authentic voice" and a good representation of each student. Therefore, smaller supplemental essays present an opportunity for students to showcase their strengths and passions to admissions committee representatives while simultaneously describing why a given school is the right fit for them.
  2. The increasing number of international candidates: Students from China, Korea, India, Pakistan, and now Brazil are competing with Americans for the same spots—and making the process significantly more competitive because all foreign students pay the full price. More than 102,000 international students applied for undergraduate enrollment in 2012–13, vs. 84,500 in 2011–12, a 12% increase (Institute of International Education). To compete, keep your grades in the top 5–10% of your class, take the most rigorous high school courses you can, and show passion and persistence in your extracurricular interests.

What are the most notable trends in college offerings?

Gael Casner: Imagine the excitement of receiving a fat acceptance envelope from one of your top schools, only to discover you've been asked to begin in the spring. This growing trend of spring matriculation is a means for colleges to fill the extra beds made empty by typical attrition as well as the increasing number of students studying abroad part-way through the school year. (It's also used to better control the admission statistics reported to US News and World Report and the College Board since only fall cohort statistics are required.) At some schools you'll be asked to check a box on the application indicating whether you would consider a spring option; in other cases you will be assigned the spring date.

Currently, no central resource lists all of the colleges offering spring admission, so your best bet is to check each school's website or ask the admissions office if spring matriculation is an option and how many students begin at that time of year. Although rare, a few colleges, such as Northeastern and Skidmore, offer a fall study abroad program, a good option if you are set on beginning in the fall.

Another campus trend: STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and math) in such areas as bioengineering, biometrics, cyber security, health informatics, environmental sustainability, and computer game design are hot, hot, hot and growing. The word is out that graduates in these areas earn good money (see for listings of average and mid-level earnings), making STEM majors very competitive, especially at top schools, where it takes more than good grades to be accepted. Students who aspire to attend these selective programs need to strategize how to build the school's interest through internships, research, and/or advanced coursework.

When does emphasizing your Jewish identity and activities become a plus on a college application?

Wendy Kahn: To decide whether to make a Jewish story the subject of a college essay, ask yourself the same question you would in deciding whether to showcase any other component of your identity: Will this story give a group of strangers a small "snapshot" of who I am and how I became that person? If a meaningful, transformative experience happened to you in Talmud class, while preparing for Shabbat at Jewish summer camp, or during a visit to Yad Vashem, it's a fitting subject for a college essay.

That said, avoid controversial, potentially inflammatory topics, such as how borders should be decided between Israel and a Palestinian state. You don't know the religion, politics, or life experiences of the person sitting on the other side of that computer screen, and you want him or her to be in your corner.

Heath Einstein (Director of Freshman Admission, Texas Christian University; Former Director of College Counseling, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester):

The college application is the tool with which students distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace. Therefore, emphasis on one's Jewish identity will have its greatest effect on applications to colleges with smaller Jewish communities that are seeking students who are likely to lead services, organize pro-Israel rallies, participate in youth groups, and pursue other Jewish activities on campus. At schools with established Jewish communities, these qualities carry no more or no less weight in the admissions process than playing a varsity sport, serving food at a homeless shelter, or performing in school musicals.

What are the possibilities for students and parents for whom the high costs of college present a formidable challenge?

Heath Einstein: Here is some advice for prospective students:

  1. Apply to at least one college to which you know you will be admitted and that you can afford.
  2. Apply to colleges that offer attractive financial aid packages—those which maximize federal and institutional grants (gift aid that is not repaid) and minimize loans (money that ultimately needs to be repaid). Colleges have discretion over their own monies and distribute federal funds such as Pell grants. Since few financial aid packages do not have a loan component, seek out subsidized loans (where interest does not begin accruing until after graduation) before unsubsidized ones, and pay close attention to loan interest rates.
  3. Apply to colleges that incentivize enrollment with merit scholarship programs and at which your grades and test scores exceed the profile of the average admitted student.
  4. Utilize the net-price calculator every college is required by law to have on its web site. Before you ever submit an application you can get a sense of what it would cost you to attend after factoring in scholarship and financial aid.
  5. Consider enrolling in online coursework or attending a community college to satisfy a college's general education requirements (such as English composition or Psychology), which, much like coming in with Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate credits, may reduce the number of semesters you spend on campus.

For students who cannot afford a traditional college experience, online courses have become an acceptable alternative; fewer employers balk at that path. Nevertheless, there is nothing technology can do to replace the experience of living in residence halls, sharing pizza with roommates at 2:00 am, and spending untold hours in the library with classmates preparing for a final exam. This is a special time in a young person's life, and students should do everything in their power not to forego this coming-of-age event.

* Key to Consultant Organizations

HECA: Higher Education Consultants Association
IECA: Independent Educational Consultants Association
NACAC: National Association for College Admission Counseling
NJACAC: New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling
WACAC: Wisconsin Association for College Admission Counseling


Jewish Studies: The HUC/USC Option

Students seeking a Judaic studies program at a private university may wish to consider the University of Southern California, where the Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies offers classes in cooperation with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—the only such arrangement in North America. Courses cover antiquity to modernity, biblical Israel to the contemporary United States, literature to linguistics. The Hebrew program offers four semesters of language instruction. For more info, visit or, email, or call the Louchheim School Office, (213) 765-2113.