Cracking the College Admissions Code: Increase the Odds of Getting Your Children into Their First-Choice Schools

Article excerpt


WHEN SCHOOLS DENY STUDENTS' APPLICATIONS FOR admission, the letters they send will often mention the highly competitive pool of qualified applicants that made it hard to decide who got accepted. However, for the valedictorian and the average student alike, there are factors affecting the outcome of an application beyond grades and test scores. Most would-be collegians are unaware of this because these things aren't featured in a school's brochure.

For 17-year-old twin sisters Alex and Lauren LaBat, the application process began long before any papers were submitted. So far, they've attended college fairs hosted at their high school since sophomore year and have already visited about six colleges with their parents.

This past summer, Alex and Lauren, now high school seniors, attended a four-week, $1,500 Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) summer business institute at Stanford and Northwestern universities, respectively. The LEAD program is designed to expose high school students considering business careers to the courses, college professors, and industry professionals they can expect to encounter as they pursue higher education. But the benefits of this and similar summer enrichment programs go beyond providing participants with a college experience.

"You hear all the stats about how competitive it is out there. Not only was this a great opportunity to expose them to campus life, I'm hoping they may be looked upon favorably when they do decide to apply to these schools;' says Stan LaBat, the twins' father. "My goal is for them not to be anxious or to panic, to ease some of the anxiety that a lot of seniors have."


The competitive nature of the college application process, and the pressure and stress experienced by the parents and students who must negotiate it, have increased in intensity. Despite the efforts on the part of many of the schools to reduce the strain of the admissions process, getting into the school of your choice can be tougher than ever. Experts point to two major contributors to this problem. First, driven by record numbers of students graduating from high school each year and the near-universal awareness that a college degree is all but indispensable in a knowledge-based, 21st-century economy, the number of college applicants has skyrocketed, particularly at many of the nation's best-known schools. A second causative factor is the adoption of the common application, a relatively uniform application requiring a minimum amount of school-specific information, by nearly 350 of the nation's colleges and universities. The "common app," created by the nonprofit organization The Common Application (, makes it easier for a prospective undergraduate student to apply to 10, 15, or more schools, using the same essay and other information for all applications. These two factors add up to more applications per student, per school, forcing schools to reject and/or wait-list more students to avoid over enrollment.

The result: Achievements that once guaranteed a spot at most universities, such as graduating in the top 10% of one's high school class, having high GPA and SAT scores, or participating in plenty of extracurricular activities, are no longer enough. Even outstanding high school students are suffering the shock of being wait-listed (see sidebar, "What To Do If You're Wait-listed") or--God forbid--rejected. And for parents of average students, or kids coming out of poor or mediocre school systems, the odds against getting to that dream school can seem overwhelming.


While the anxiety of the college application process cannot be entirely avoided, there are things parents and students can do to reduce their stress levels and to increase the odds of being accepted. On the following pages, you'll find our latest bi-ennial listing of the Top 50 Colleges for African Americans, as well as the unspoken rules and expert strategies your sons and daughters can use to increase their chances of being admitted to the college of their choice. …