Parenting a New Generation Through the College Admissions Process

05/19/2017 10:25 am ET

If I applied to my alma mater now, I would never get admitted. It is a fact that most of us can say with a sense of pride. We know what we got out of our undergraduate experience, and it's only gotten better since we graduated. This is, in part, why many parents want their children to go to the same college where they attended. We want our children to take advantage of educational experiences that none of us could have ever dreamed. That is, of course, if they can get admitted.

So much has changed since I applied to college. What worked for my generation won't necessarily help today's kids when they apply to college. Selective colleges have significantly changed the way they read and evaluate applications. They are also looking for different types of students.

We can sit back and hope for the best. Or we can embrace the changes and guide our kids to the kinds of colleges where we know they will thrive. That might be a different set of colleges compared to where we applied, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Here is a "then and now" approach to college admissions.

The Competition: Then and Now

In the early 1990's when I applied to college, there was a dip in the number of students applying. Selective colleges, including the Ivy League institutions, received about a quarter of the applications that they currently receive. The freshman class sizes at most colleges were exactly the same as they are today. That meant that a good student had a decent shot of getting admitted to a truly elite college.

For argument's sake, let's use the admissions statistics of a well known university in the Ivy League. In the early 1990's, they received about 10,000 applications a year. If they admitted 4,000 of them, their admit rate would have been around 40%. Fast forward to 2017, that college still has the same sized freshman class, yet they now receive over 40,000 applications a year.

Compounding the competitiveness is the fact that selective colleges are now more desirable than ever. The yield rate reflects a college's desirability. It is the percentage of students who accept the offer of admission. A high yield rate allows a selective college to admit fewer students, thus lowering their admit rate even further. That elite university mentioned above now admits fewer students than they did when their applicant pool was a quarter of its current size. In turn, their admit rate is now in the single digits.

It is important that our kids set their sights high and apply to great schools, but we need to make sure that they apply to a balanced list of colleges. This should include just as many target and safety colleges as reach colleges. Getting students to visit target and safety colleges can be challenging. It is much more exciting to visit a college of their dreams.

However, visiting target and safety colleges is often even more important as most of these schools consider a student's interest in them as they make an admissions decision. College admission professionals call this "demonstrated interest." It suggests a higher likelihood that the student will enroll if admitted which can increase a college's yield rate and ultimately allow them to lower their admit rate (and become more selective). While elite colleges shy away from using demonstrated interest in the admissions process, most colleges need to employ this strategy to be able to enroll a class on target. Being inclusive when thinking about a college list can encourage our kids to think broadly about the types of colleges where they can succeed.

The Well-Rounded Student of the Past vs. the Well-Intentioned Student of Today

Back in the day, we were told to be "well-rounded" students if we wanted to get into a good college. We were "joiners." We joined every club imaginable because it filled up our extracurricular activities list on our applications. Some of us were leaders; some of us were not. Both groups got into college because we were "involved" in our high school community.

Nowadays, students are dissuaded from doing a lot of activities. Why? Because they can't make a significant impact when they do. Colleges want the specialized student. They want to enroll students who have made a tremendous impact outside the classroom, and the more distinctive the activity and impact are, the better.

This is not a bad thing for our kids, though. Exposing them to a wide variety of activities in middle school and even at the beginning of high school can help them figure out what they are good at and what they are passionate about. This new approach of being the well-intentioned student rather than the well-rounded one means that they don't have to do everything. They can hone in on a few activities and make a more meaningful contribution.

Not following the crowd is highly valued in the college process these days. In fact, it is celebrated because students who are passionately pursuing something unique and specialized end up becoming the innovators, trailblazers, and transformational leaders of the future.

Perfection Is Overrated

Remember those kids we went to high school with who had perfect grades and perfect scores? They stood out because there weren't many of them. Now there are more students with 4.0 GPAs, more Advanced Placements courses taken, and more "perfect" SAT and ACT scores. Being perfect is not a distinguishable trait anymore. Instead of trying to keep up, our kids can keep it real.

Students should take challenging courses because it's important for self-growth and development. If they are struggling, they need to take stock. And, excelling in a rigorous curriculum doesn't necessarily mean that they will get into their dream college.

Not all students are ready to commit to this path in high school. Academic and social maturity are realized at different times for each student. If we are being honest with ourselves, some of our kids need a little more time, a more welcoming college environment, and will be better served at a school outside the Ivy League where they can shine.

Being Different

A lot has changed since I applied to college. The demographics are different. The truly elite schools are remarkably harder to get into, and a spot at one of these institutions is out of reach for many high school students. This shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. It is simply a change that requires applicants to adapt, pivot and evolve.

A shift in mindset and approach can be transformative. When a student is forced to adapt, pivot, and evolve sooner, they see opportunities that others will miss. Distinguishing themselves from their peers and following different paths than their parents will lead this next generation to view college as the ultimate bridge for realizing their dreams. This evolution in how applicants present themselves and where they apply inevitably allows every college-bound kid to find their very best fit.

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