Friday, May 1, 2015

Decision Friday

Today is the deadline for the college class of 2019 needs to make their final decisions about which college they are going to.  Our older daughter was fortunate to be accepted to her early decision school so we're avoiding this dance, but it is the end of a very long, very stressful, and very intense road for many high school seniors.  If you see one looking shell shock, give them a hug, and let them they did great, and that they're going to do great.  Congratulations to the class of 2015, and best wishes for a happy and successful college journey.

The College Application Process is Insane

I had heard from other parents how challenging the college application process would be, but honestly, I had no idea how crazy challenging (and crazy) the process would be.  Having really dug into it, it is clear that in the past 5 years (and as long ago as 10 years ago for some schools), things significantly changed, and it has created an arms race between schools and students and families.  It took us a while to understand the dynamic and figure out how to work within in.  

If you are about to start in on this journey, I hope those lessons are helpful to you and can take some of the stress and pain out of a completely irrational process.  I am far from an expert, but these lessons were helpful to me as we navigated this crazy process.  Your mileage will definitely vary, as will reality from what I have seen.  Our experience is also for elite colleges (say, top 50 in the US News rankings), where things are most crazy.  That being said, I wish I knew then what I know now.

So Why are Things Different Now?

For those of us of a previous generation, it is important to realize that the college application and selection process has become a data-driven business.  Universities are not just interested in selecting the best or most deserving students or students that best fit their culture.  In addition to the normal factor we all would expect (is this a good kid, can they contribute and take advantage of this opportunity, etc), every microdecision (who to persuade to apply, who to accept, who will graduate, long term income potential for each graduate, etc.) is managed and optimized to one of three factors:

  • Does this student bring supplemental or alumni income the university (football players, etc)
  • Does this student make the university more competitive and selective in the national university rankings
  • Does this student (and their family) bring the potential for current or future donations to the university

Basically, there is this important background focus on non-tuition revenue, and brand equity that can be traded for non-tuition revenue.  When applying to colleges, you need to be sensitive to this business side.

Every university and college has a sophisticated data-driven system to optimize against these parameters.  To be competitive in getting into these schools, you have to align what you do against these needs. 

If you were to chart the US News rankings for the top 100 colleges over the past decade, you’ll see this data arms race in action.  By hacking the ranking algorithm and stacking the deck on their metrics, many C level schools have become B level schools and are knocking on the door of A level. Other schools have fallen off because they neglected the new data-driven arms race.  At this point, everyone knows the game, and the competition is intense.

In chatting to admissions councilors, they have pretty much all reverse engineered the algorithm that is used for the major rankings like US News and World Report.  They actively and aggressively manage to these self-reported metrics to boost their rankings.

At the core of many of their data-driven objectives is “selectivity”: how many students with very high GPA and test scores apply? Of those, what proportion are given offers and what is the GPA/test profile for those students?  Most importantly, of those given offers, how many accept those offers? (yield)  

Every calculation they make during the admissions process is influenced by these major items (and many minor ones, like income level, ethnic background, etc)

For private universities, you need to think of the process as a two phase process: phase one is to have the hard metrics to get to the point where they will consider you (getting a fair read of your application).  Phase two is to have such a compelling story that the admissions dean will go to bat for you and advocate for your application when they get to selection committee.  Both are critical, but without the former, you won’t get the shot at the later.  You have to make sure you have a strategy to get a fair read of your application, then deliver on the subjective part of the application.

For the public universities, they are almost exclusively metric driven.  The read is relatively minor, and usually only impacts edge cases.

The net net of driving selectivity is that everyone wants their admission rate to be as low as possible (in the single digits now for the most selective schools), the quality of students to be as high as possible (test scores, GPA, etc), and their yield to be as high as possible (this drives all the games that happen with Early Decision, etc)  

The vicious cycle we're in means that the hyper low admission rates means that students have to apply to more and more colleges (15-20 is the norm now).  This causes the schools to ramp up their efforts on selectivity and yield and to be more data driven in screening applications because of the volume. Admission rates go down, and the cycle escalates. 

So What Should We Do About It?

From a prospective students perspective, this has some very real consequences that no 16-18 year old should have to deal with, but they unfortunately need to.  Below are some notes on key things to keep in mind.  As you read these, remember that these are the unexpected surprises we learned targeting elite universities.  Your experiences will be similar or different depending on your student and the colleges you're targeting.

I can say unequivocally that every single admission dean I met and spoke to had a true passion about their students and their institution, and brought immense heart and caring to what they do.  To a person, they wanted to help everyone and give everyone the best chance they could have to get one of very few seats at their colleges.  That being said, they were all overwhelmed and being managed to hard metrics that were critical to their institutions success.  I have huge admiration and gratitude for the work these folks do, and the way they do it.  The list of lessons below reflect the non-obvious reality we faced, and not the character, mission, or aspirations of the universities we dealt with (across the board, awesome people that were dedicated to all the right things).
  • You will need to cultivate relationships with ~15-20 universities, and have targeted and relevant applications for each
    • You need to demonstrate enough interest that they categorize you as a high potential to accept if they give you an offer (yield)
    • You need the large number because admission rates for any given college are low (and how they will read your application is arbitrary)
  • You need to have a mix of A, B, and C schools, and attack each with the same passion (with 5-10% acceptance rates, you have to play the numbers)
    • It can actually be difficult for high level students to get accepted to C schools…they don’t want to give offers that they know are going to get turned down
    • You can apply to the same school 5 times with the exact same application, and you may only be accepted 2 times (depends on who is reading your application)
  • You need to spend time on the campuses, and better still, connect with faculty and be able to speak directly to why it is your life dream to go there and what you bring to the school (very hard to do for this many schools)
    • The schools will track every email you send, every campus visit and tour you go on, and every note they get from faculty and alumni that you have talked to them and expressed interest
    • When you visit schools for tours, do the research and find a faculty member in an area of interest…reach out to them to set up time while you are there.  Besides learning what they do, they will let the admissions office know if they were impressed with you (that carries a huge amount of weight)
  • You need to be hyper competitive on standardized test scores
    • Full time SAT prep over a period of months may seem crazy, but it can get you 200-300 SAT points (in San Diego, Summa is awesome)
    • Maximizing your test scores is the cost of even being at the table for top schools…strong test scores may not help you, but weak ones will hurt you (all competitive students will be do the same intense test prep…test scores are a big metric in selectivity rankings)
  • You need to aggressively manage your GPA and honors course work
    • Even a handful of Bs will push your metrics into a range that the most selective schools won’t want to touch…it will drive their rankings down
    • You will be measured against what your high school offers and historical grades for other students have have applied (if your school has 15 AP courses, you better be taking a lot of them)
  • For the University of California system, you need to plan your high school course work well in advance
    • For UCs the only grades that matter are sophomore and junior year - make damn sure you have the right ones and that you nail the grades
    • You need advanced courses to get the GPA boost, and avoid Bs! (note that the average GPA for UC schools are all north of 4.0) 
    • UCs negotiate with each individual high school to designate which courses get the "honors" GPA bump.  If you want to attend a UC, review this list before your freshman year and set up your course work so you can get to the right courses your sophomore and junior years, or your UC-GPA will suffer
  • The recommendation that really matters is your high school college councilor
    • For the selective schools, this is the most important relationship you can cultivate
    • They will be the one that calls the admissions dean for your high school and give them the list of students they really need to pay attention to, and they will lobby and pitch their favorite students for each school
    • Get your councilor to believe in your child, and be willing to do whatever it takes to get him in the right school…they are the “agent” in this process that is packaging and presenting your child to the premiere schools
    • If the college councilor has office hours, be in there every week building out your strategy school by school…get the face time, get them fighting for you (it makes a difference for private schools)
    • Other recommendations are important to reflect your character and paint a picture of you, but you won’t get to that stage in the process unless your councilor has gone to bat for you
  • Start visiting colleges now, tomorrow, and the day after
    • It is so important for the student to get a sense of what is important to them, but it is even more important for the college to see you’re making the effort (yield)
    • Build a profile for each school as you visit and do research; you will need this when you go to write up your application to make it relevant to the values of the school (believe me, they all blur into each other after you've visited your 5th school)
  • If you or your spouse attended a private university, consider what it takes to leverage that alumni relationship (legacy really matters at some of these private schools)
    • They all have local alumni that do college interviews…find out who those people are and form a relationship 
  • Start early with testing and the application process
    • Your child should be taking all the standardized tests your sophomore year to get a baseline and get experience
    • Leverage the summer before your junior year for intense test prep and take the test in the fall your junior year before your course work gets too crazy (your junior year courses will be your toughest, and you'll need to get the best grades that year...those are the last grades and courses the admissions folks will see when they make their decisions)
    • If you think you can get a boost, study again the summer before your senior year and take it again in the fall (even 100 extra points can make a huge difference in making the cut for a good read)
    • Start with your common app essay and key public school essays starting in junior year, then hit them hard summer before your senior year (these take hours and hours and hours) Try to have rough drafts of all your essays before your senior year starts (these are very very very hard to write and for the first few, will require 10+ drafts to get right)
  • Keep detailed check lists and calendars for deadlines
    • Between supplements, apps, recommendations, tests, subject tests, etc, the logistics are crazy (there are no second chances for being late)
  • When the time comes, spend time to really understand the game theory behind the Early Decision process (this is crazy making, but hyper important)
    • For some schools, early decision acceptance rates can be 3x regular decision
    • Top schools love early decision to juice their numbers and avoid competing for the best students: You can only apply to a single early decision school (interest), and if accepted, you have to attend (yield)…huge statistics games around this that you can use to your advantage (for example, my daughter's school admits 48% of their freshman class through early decision)
  • You are competing with everyone else at your high school for the same schools
    • Only so many from your high school will get accepted to the more selective schools
    • This creates huge competition among the top students at your high school…something to be sensitive to
  • Colleges have deep statistical profiles on your high school and pretty much every other high school that they draw students from
    • They know the history of offers and acceptances for students from your school, GPAs, test scores, how they do at that college, etc
    • They will discount or boost your child's application based on these metrics
    • If you’re really interested in a particular college, find out who got accepted and went there from your high school and reach out to them for guidance (get copy of application, what the school is really like, etc)
  • Paradoxically, the better your high school, the higher the standard you will be held to
    • It is actually tougher to get in from better high schools, not easier
    • You will be measured against the opportunities you had and how you (vs your peers) took advantage of them
    • At the best schools, this makes the internal competition among fellow students even more intense
  • College is crazy expensive, so talk about realities early and often
    • Public universities are basically $30k/year for instate and $45k/year for out state
    • Private universities are basically $65k/year 
    • Most scholarships are needs based (most selective schools are actually the most generous…it may be cheaper to attend Brown than a 2nd or 3rd tier private school)
    • 2nd and 3rd tier private schools can be aggressive with academic scholarships for students that will help them raise their selectivity ranking (this is basically a discount off retail)
    • Every public university system is in deep financial distress…don't expect any handouts there, and they are swamped with applications because they are so much cheaper
    • 4 year graduation rates really matter…having to spend an additional $65k for a 5th year is crazy making so pay attention now and factor that into your decision
    • If you or your child is taking on debt for college, urge them to pay close attention to what kind of job they'll get with their degree (burdening a student with $250k in debt for a degree that makes $40k/year should be criminal, but it is shockingly common)

Early Decision Really Matters

As a reminder, most of the private schools have a program where you can apply early decision. The deadline for these applications is usually early November, and you hear back in December. The wrinkle is that you are only allowed to apply to a single school as your Early Decision school, and if you're accepted, you are obliged to attend that school.

This creates a fairly complex game scenario for schools and students. Schools are incented to admit a very high proportion of their class Early Decision (100% yield, 100% of applicants are demonstrating significant interest). It also allows them to lock up students they want before they have to compete with other schools. This means that acceptance rates for these schools are much higher for early decision than regular decision, with a non-trivial percent of the open slots being allocated during early decision.

By way of example, here are 2014 admission stats for a couple Ivy League schools and a premiere liberal arts school:

Admit Rate
(Regular Decision)
Admit Rate
(Early Decision)
% of class admitted
(Early Decision)

For students, ideally the strategy is to apply to your dream school, which you would attend no matter what.  Because of the huge differences in acceptance rates, students start to worry about where they would have the most advantage by applying early, rather than where do they most want to go. Do you apply to a second choice school early decision to have a better chance of getting in?  But that means that you won't have a chance to even apply to your other schools. 

Also, they worry about the message it sends to schools for regular decision if they don't apply early decision. If I don't apply to school X early decision, how can I tell them in my essay that they are the perfect school for me?

Complicating this decision is that public universities don't have early decision options (generally).  If you apply early decision and get accepted, you won't have a chance to see if any of the UC schools accept you (better to wait for Berkeley at $30k per year or lock in Brown at $65k per year?)

Balancing these factors makes the choice of early decision school surprisingly stressful and strategic.

My advice is that if there is a dream school that offers early decision, make sure to apply.  Even if chances are low that you get accepted, it is still better than regular decisions. It will also force your student to get their Common Application polished for their dream school early, which will leave more time for regular decision schools if they weren't accepted.

Lastly, your Christmas break senior year will be infinitely nicer if your student is accepted to their early decision school (submitting 10+ applications by the January 1 deadline would be very unpleasant).  

Any Other Advice?

Gone are the days that you apply to two schools over a weekend like I did.  You will be applying to 15-20 schools (because of the numbers game), and each will require 5-20 hours of intense work, with a heck of a lot of investment before hand for campus visits, research, etc.  You can have a perfect GPA and perfect test scores and you will not get accepted to premiere schools unless you put in the time and it shows.  This is a very unnatural act for any teenager, mainly because you need to start a year before things are due.  

I highly recommend that you consider getting an experienced college application coach to help organize the process and get you as a parent out of the process.  The strain of being both a parent and a coach during this process can be pretty intense (they need you to be supportive and loving during a very stressful time, not cracking the whip to get application 13 done and doing prep for the SAT math subject test).

Get to know the SAT stats for your schools of interest, and figure out where you child ranks.  Unless you’re a recruited athlete, a legacy student, or from an underprivileged background or school, you better be in the upper half of the SAT range and have a competitive GPA.  If not, still go after your dream schools, but don't bet everything on getting in.

Speaking of dream schools, don't get too passionate about schools too early (this is really really hard).  The first goal is to get acceptances.  Once you have acceptances, you then decide which is the best school for you.  Until you have acceptances, the standard should be "if this were the only school I was accepted to, would I be happy attending here?" Focusing too early on a single dream school will make all the work for the other 14-19 schools much harder to do.

This is an insane process, and will only getting more so as the numbers game ratchets up.  I have been universally impressed with the people and mission of all the universities we visited: they really care and are deeply connected to their responsibilities to their students and their communities. The business realities are influencing what they do, but they are not defining what they do. Be sensitive to them, work with them because you have to, but don't be defined by them yourself.  These are noble people at noble institutions doing a great service for civilization. The metrics distort, but they haven’t destroyed.  Make it easy for them to do the right thing and they will do so every time.

Closing Thoughts

College is a gift, an opportunity. It will provide the foundation of skills, knowledge, and character that will define the rest of your life. Don't confuse what you need to do to get that opportunity with why you are doing it.  Remember (and help your child to remember) that any one of these schools is a remarkable opportunity, and that they will do great no matter where they go.  Choice can create stress and challenges, but having an opportunity to go to college and better yourself is a gift that was unavailable to most through out human history.  Do your best, make the best choice from the options you have, then do your best to take advantage of every opportunity given to you to better yourself and make a difference in the world.

Good hunting to the class of 2019.  We're all very proud of you, and can't wait to see how you'll change the world.

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