How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Reader John J. read my earlier article about the increased number of applications colleges are receiving, in which I reveal that the average student applied to more than a dozen universities this season. He asks a question I hear frequently from students:

It seems like colleges are becoming more selective with their applicants because each of them are receiving a lot more applications each year. Does this mean I should apply to even more colleges? My counselor recommended that I apply to 3 reach schools, 3 good matches, and 3 safeties, but I'm afraid that 9 isn't enough. Does this sound like a good number? Can schools see how many colleges you've applied to? Do they care?

Hi, John. Great questions. I'll start by answering your last ones first.

Yes, colleges are able to see how many schools you have applied to. They can do this by looking at your FAFSA -- the form you filled out for federal financial aid. Because you have to list all of the universities you may potentially attend on the form, admissions officers have figured out that looking at your list will reveal how many and which other colleges you are applying to. And, yes, some do care.

Choosing the number of students to accept in any given year is a difficult art for admissions committees. They must make sure to accept enough students to make up for the fact that many will decide to attend a different school, but not so many as to over-enroll the university. As a result, they like to minimize their risk as much as possible. They do this by selecting qualified applicants who also seem likely to attend the college. If an overqualified student applies to their school and also to 20 others, the admissions officers may decide that the applicant is not worth the risk and deny their application. This is why some students experience rejection from colleges they thought were "safeties".

Put yourself in their position: would you ask a girl out on a date if you were almost certain she would say 'no'? A college doesn't want to take that risk either.

Your counselor gave you good advice. However, applying to 9 colleges should be the absolute maximum. I generally recommend about 5-7: 2-3 reaches, 2 good fits, and 1-2 safety schools. However, you have to be realistic in your categorization of colleges. In other words, Harvard is never a 'safety' no matter how good of a student you are.

Stick to those magic numbers and you are very unlikely to be penalized for over-applying. It might be tempting to send out tons of applications, especially since it's easy to apply online to most universities. However, resist this temptation. Pick the 5-7 colleges that interest you the most and focus your attentions on them. Your time is better spent refining those specific college essays anyway.

Good luck!

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Why You Must Grab Attention on your Application, and How

I once asked an admissions officer at a large, public university for a candid answer about how much time they actually spend reading an application. The answer surprised me. "About one minute," the officer said. It is somewhat disheartening to know that an application you have spent countless hours on is captivating for only a single minute, but it does highlight the importance of making sure you grab a reader's attention quickly and give them a quality -- albeit short -- experience.

Ivy League-focused IvyClassified.com finished its two-part series on "The Time Factor" yesterday, and offered some useful tips. As to why it's important to grab attention, IvyClassified said this:

Admission officers love reading some applications. They want to get excited, but it is your job to get them going. Time pressure leads to a trade-off between applications, and the you cannot expect the reviewer to dig through details to find something they want. You have to make something pop out at them.

The solution for how to 'pop' is a difficult one. I have previously discussed the risks of overdoing application flair and advise students to avoid 'clever' ideas like chocolate sculptures or Scrabble boards. IvyClassified agrees in its second post, saying:

[U]nusual acts make it seem as though you do not take your application seriously, so why should the admission officer? [In addition, y]ou will notice that most applications warn against sending extra materials. Admission officers don't have the time and experience to evaluate the unusual.

A better solution IvyClassified offers, and I agree with, is to "spend your time perfecting the large amount of materials you already need to submit." An admissions committee is attempting to compare your qualities as a potential student with the qualities of other applicants. If you send them things they haven't asked for, it becomes more difficult to compare you.

Colleges already ask for a great volume of information that they believe is sufficient to make these comparisons. If they thought they needed more, they would have asked for more. So instead of trying to stand out with unusual materials, try instead to grab attention with what you are already sending. Offer an unusual anecdote in your personal statement, or highlight an atypical job in your resume. Whatever it is that makes you unique, emphasize it to show your strengths. You might also find my article on how to express diversity in the personal statement helpful if this applies to you.

In the end, remember that you could have only one minute to convince an admissions officer to accept you. Try to read your application as they would and make sure your packet pops.

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Two Readers’ Questions: Can My Admission Be Revoked After Being Accepted?

I have two questions that I wanted to answer related to a similar subject: colleges revoking admission after already accepting a student. The short answer is that a university may cancel your acceptance for any reason they see fit. The longer answer, though, will explain why this situation can be rare and what you can do if you're in danger.

Let's start with Kristen S who has this concern about her latest ACT result:

I took the ACT in February of Junior Year (I'm a senior now), and I got a 30. Last fall I was waitlisted by a lot of schools, so I took it again in December. Today I got the results. I went from a 30 down to a 26 somehow. Are colleges I already got into (and the one I plan to attend) going to revoke me? I'm really scared! What's gonna happen to me? Their admissions council is EVIL and I'm scared they will change their minds...

Don't worry, Kristen. The great thing about the ACT (unlike the SAT) is that you get to choose which scores to send. In other words, if you have a bad ACT score, you can choose not to send it to any college and they'll never know about it. As evil as their admissions council may be, what they don't know won't hurt you.

However, even if the college did receive the lower test score, I am not sure this would influence them at all. A higher test score could be a way to bump yourself out of a waitlist, but I don't believe that a lower one will hurt you. At least, I've never heard of a student who has later had his or her admission revoked on the basis of a poor test score after acceptance.

Revocation after a poor semester of grades, however, is another matter. Refer to this question from Shaun M:

I was accepted to a college already, but I'm failing a lot of classes this senior year. I've asked around about being rejected because of my grades and some say yes you can get rejected and others say not to worry about it. So I want a real answer. And also they said a final transcript is needed and I'm wondering what will happen if i just dont send it. Thanks!

To start, if you don't send in your final transcript, the college will likely put an "academic hold" on your record, which means you will not be able to sign up for classes. The school needs proof that you actually graduated from high school, and will not allow you to be a student without your final transcript. You must send it in.

As for the policy on post-acceptance rejection for poor grades, it varies from college to college. Check your acceptance letter and look for a clause that says something like, "your admission is contingent on your continued successful performance." While they will likely forgive a very slight slip in grades, multiple F's sends a message to the admissions committee that you may not be ready to attend college yet.

I highly recommend you contact the college directly and ask what their policy is, what will happen, and what you should do. The admissions office is there to help you and will do their best to figure out a way to keep you admitted if it is possible. Ignoring the problem and hoping the college won't notice will not work. If you are proactive in trying to work with the university to find a solution, you may be able to avoid getting your acceptance revoked.

Thanks for your questions, Kristen and Shaun. If any readers have questions they would like me to answer (either privately or on the blog), feel free to use my contact form.

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Standing Out in a Sea of 121,000: The UC Admissions Game This Year

According to a preliminary January 4th report and subsequent data collected over the past month, the University of California system is reporting receiving 121,005 applications for Fall 2008, breaking its own record for the fourth consecutive year. Applications have increased by 9 percent over 2007.

Most interesting, out-of-state applications increased by 14.4 percent, and international applicants by 25.2 percent. As each UC continues to grow, the nationwide and even worldwide recognition grows along with them. Continuously ranked as the #1 public schools in the country, the Universities of California command a staggering, but very well-deserved growth rate.

With the number of applications so high, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be accepted to a UC. Consider these three tips to help your odds.

  1. Apply to multiple UCs. Though each school is individually ranked by college guides -- with Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego always topping the charts -- all offer a very high quality level of education. The lower ranked UCs like Irvine, Santa Cruz, Riverside, Davis, and Santa Barbara may receive less attention than juggernaut Berkeley, but they are still fantastic schools which carry more prestige than most other public and even private universities. Applicants apply to, on average, 3.6 UCs, so follow the trend to increase your odds.
  2. Consider community college first. The UCs actively recruit students from California community colleges. Most have a program of guaranteed acceptance called TAG or Transfer Admissions Guarantee that will allow you automatic admission if you meet certain minimum criteria. While Berkeley has no such guarantee, UC San Diego offers this TAG program, and UC Los Angeles offers preferred, though not guaranteed, admission through its TAP (Transfer Alliance Program). If you have your heart set on a UC and have been rejected, take advantage of these transfer programs. Not only will you get the same degree as the freshman admits, but you will also save money by paying much less expensive community college tuition for two years.
  3. Establish residency before applying. If you are an out-of-state student, try to establish residency in California. Since UCs strongly favor in-state applicants, you may find yourself accepted with the same exact credentials simply by establishing residency first. For tips on how to do this, read my article about paying in-state tuition as an out-of-state student and scroll down to the heading, "Establish Residency".

While standing out in a sea of 121,000 other applicants is difficult, the UCs work hard to ensure access for any qualified student. For school-specific tips, consult the university you are most interested in and ask for guidance for your particular situation.

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More on the Dangers of Personal Statement Coaching and Editing

On Tuesday, I wrote a new article for parents that touched on the dangers of parents helping their child to write the personal statement (see point 6). On the same day, The Boston Globe published an article warning that college applications can be too good. I thought it would be a good idea to expand upon what I suggested for parents in my own article by generalizing the advice to cover these so-called "College Application Consultants" or "Personal Statement Coaches".

The Boston Globe cautions that, "[a]s college admissions officers sift through thousands of application essays [...] they increasingly encounter writing that sparkles a bit too brightly or shows a poise and polish beyond the years of a typical teenager." They suggest that such essays are known around the admissions office by the pejorative nickname 'DDI', for 'Daddy Did It'. Further, they reinforce my assertion that colleges are increasingly cross-referencing the SAT or ACT essay with the personal statement to ensure that a student's voice, word use, and syntax are consistent. It also becomes obvious that something is amiss when the level of polish varies dramatically between the short answer responses and the longer essay.

The importance of the application essay is well-known, and I see more and more students each season turn to professional services which offer to edit and sometimes even write the personal statement for you. College admissions officers are wise to these services and are employing even more techniques to spot and punish cheaters in the admissions process.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is to remember that while universities do want to see some level of polish, they still expect you to write like a 17- or 18-year-old. Some minor mistakes are good, and make you seem real and personal. If you do decide to hire a professional essay editor, make sure that none of the changes alter your own personal voice or the authenticity of the essay. Take this tip from admissions director at MIT Stu Schmill, who warns against penning a 'sanitized' essay: "[t]he best thing [you] can do is write from the heart."

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College Application Purgatory: What you Must Do if You’re Waitlisted

The wait list is certainly the most stressful position during the college application season. Many applicants with deferred admissions offers in hand are left wondering what to do. As to what you have to do, the answer is easy. Sometimes you can do nothing and remain on the waitlist. Other times, you simply check a box indicating your interest and mail the latter back. But the question of what you should do if on the wait list is more complex.

Being added to a college's waitlist should put you back into action mode. Hope is absolutely not lost because universities almost always admit many applicants from their wait list in an attempt to keep the incoming student body of an expected size. Your goal now is to stand out amongst the other waitlisted candidates. Your foot is already in the door, so the trick is to make sure that the admissions committee opens it for you and not someone else. Try one or more of the following tips:

  • Indicate your interest. If you don't have to do anything to remain on the wait list, do something anyway. If you only have to check a box, do something more. Personally call the admissions office to indicate your continued interest in the college and ask if there's anything they would like you to send in to help them make their decision. They're already interested in you as a student, otherwise they would have just rejected you. So make sure you make it clear that the interest is mutual.
  • If they don't ask, send it anyway. Several months have passed since you sent in your application, so let the university know all the good things that have happened in the meantime. If your GPA has gone up, send in an updated transcript. A quick report on your new awards, honors, or club presidencies should be sent as well. Anything you believe could have helped you the first time around should be shared.
  • If you have nothing new to send, make something. Staying the same guy or gal they wait listed the first time isn't going to get you accepted the second time. Work as hard as you can in your classes and let the school know that you anticipate a GPA increase. Sign up for a college prep class at a local community college to show initiative and preparedness. Shoot for leadership opportunities or community involvement. You need to add to your application in some way to make yourself more attractive to the university. And, of course, let them know all about it.
  • Understand why colleges defer applicants to the waitlist. One of the hardest things for admissions committees to do is to make sure they select the right amount of students. This includes complex calculations regarding their typical yield (or the percentage of students they accept who actually attend) and the likelihood that certain applicants will accept an admissions offer. The more sure they can be about you, the more they will like you. So if you're waitlisted at your top-choice school, tell them that they're your top choice and that you will definitely attend if they accept you. If you're less of a risk, you're a better choice for them.
  • Find an advocate. If you want to be a college athlete, contact your sport's coach and let him or her know that you've been wait-listed and see what he or she can do to help you. Somethings the athletics department has some sway over who gets to come off the waitlist. If you're not going for sports, find any other contact. A professor, an advisor, or even an admissions officer all make great advocates. If you have someone at the school who likes you and wants you in, you have a much better chance.

The wait-list can be an uncomfortable place to be, but keeping your hopes up and continuing to play the admissions game is the trick to getting accepted off the waitlist. The majority of deferred candidates will do nothing -- they will not call, update their application, or show that they care. By being different, you will stand out and have a decent shot at acceptance. Don't pester the admissions office of course, but do make sure they know that you're interested.

The wait list is never the end of the road, but just a beginning to a new one. Good luck.

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