Three big lies are gaining traction with families as they embark on this year’s tougher-than-ever college admission sweepstakes. Believing some of these lies will cost families money. Others can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.
There are three big lies making the rounds:
- Standardized test (SAT and ACT) scores are less and less important
- Asking for financial aid won’t have an impact on the admission decision
- There is a level playing field in college admissions
So what’s the truth behind these misperceptions?
Lie #1: Standardized Tests are Less and Less Important
Today, colleges are relying on standardized test scores when making admissions decisions to a far larger degree than they have in years. One reason is that the number of applications at most top colleges is soaring. That’s not because there are more 18 year-olds graduating from high school. It is because more kids are each applying to more colleges. And with little increase in the size of admission staffs at most colleges, schools are using SAT and ACT scores to make a fast, easy cut of the applicant pool.
Of course, no college is going to admit this. Colleges love a big applicant pool; not just to craft a more attractive class, but to show the ranking services just how selective they are (in the perverse rankings world, more rejections equal a higher ranking). Instead, colleges are using several forms of subterfuge to obfuscate what is really going on.
The Three Card Monte Test Score Range – Almost every college publishes the range of SAT scores that kids in the last entering class achieved. The schools call this the 25th to 75th percentile range. In other words, 50% of last year’s entering class had scores within this range.
So if a kid sees a school’s 25th-75th range as 1280 to 1430, the student might reasonable think that their 1300 SAT score gives them a fair shot at admission. Wrong! In reality, the bottom 25% (below 1280) is reserved for the school’s “special interests”: athletes, students of color, development (big donors). “To have a real shot,” says Muska, “you really have to be at the upper end of that range.”
For example, Vanderbilt reports its 25-75 SAT range as 1380 to 1550. In reality, most of its admittees had SAT scores above 1500!
Score Choice and SuperScore – Score Choice refers to your sending your highest scores – from among the several times you took the SAT or ACT – to a college. SuperScore refers to the school considering just your highest score. Most colleges explain their policy on their website. Unfortunately, students aren’t the only ones who benefit from these beneficent policies; the colleges do too. Colleges like to report higher test scores for a very simple reason: it raises their ranking in US News and World Report!
Test Optional Doesn’t Always Mean Test Optional – A number of very good colleges have a “test optional” policy. For kids who have good grades but test-anxiety, that can be a real blessing. Are test-optional colleges adopting a kindler-gentler approach to admissions? No, they’re chasing rankings. Think about it. When a school declares SAT scores optional, which students report their scores? Only students with high test scores. This boosts the average SAT scores at the college, and the school moves up a rung on the rankings ladder.
The Magic 700 – At the very selective colleges and universities, there is a very scary reality: if you don’t have a 700/700 score, you’re just not getting on the table – unless you have a very special ability of some sort. Unfortunately, the 680/690 kid is a dime-a-dozen.
Cheating Goes Both Ways – In the last couple of years, headlines have screamed “Cheating Scandal!” not only in Nassau County and at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, but at colleges. Both Claremont-McKenna and Emory admitted to playing with test scores in order to make them look better in the rankings.
Standardized test scores are just as important on the money side.
“It’s pretty simple,” notes Ian Welham, a college-funding specialist with Complete College Admission Solutions in Springfield, NJ. “If you want more money, increase your test scores. Regardless of what the college tour guide or the glitzy brochure says, the kid with the 800 in math will get the money over the kid with straight A’s.”
Lie #2: Asking for Financial Aid Won’t Affect the College Admissions Decision
Ah, for the good old days – before the 2008 stock market crash. Back then, when a college said it was “need blind” it probably actually was need blind. That meant admission decisions were made without the admissions staff knowing whether the kid was applying for financial aid.
Today, more and more college admission officers want – and need – to know whether the kid can pay full-freight. And if there is a choice between two virtually-identical applicants – one who needs financial aid and one who doesn’t – the fat envelope is going to go to the kid who can pay full tuition.
Some very good schools – such as Wesleyan – are coming forward and admitting that they can’t afford to be 100% need-blind. “More than a handful of schools are not being honest, however,” states Muska. “Families need this transparency from colleges.”
Similarly, some of the most selective colleges are quietly moving away from their “no loans” financial aid policy. Pre-2007, many of the nation’s wealthiest and most selective colleges said that they would eliminate loans from the financial aid packages they gave students. Today, there is a family income level that must be met before a no-loan financial aid package is offered.
Cornell University recently announced that no-loan financial aid would only be available to families earning under $60,000 a year. Similarly, Dartmouth and Williams announced that their no-loan policy would be limited to students at the lowest end of the income-distribution scale.
There is good news, however, for families that can afford to pay full tuition – and especially out-of-state tuitions. Acceptance rates at top state universities for out-of-state applicants reached an all-time high last year. And the number of foreign students accepted during the college admissions process has doubled or tripled in the last four years. Because they, too, pay top-dollar.
But not all well-heeled parents are willing to write the big checks. Welham, the college-funding adviser, reports a trend he’s seeing among his clients. “There used to be a certain percentage of parents who told us, ‘I want my kid to get into the best name school, I don’t care what it costs.’ Now, take a family with 3-4 kids. Even upper-income families are balking at paying $750,000 to $1 million for college. Instead, they’re telling us, ‘Show us some options where we don’t pay sticker price.’”
Lie #3 – It’s a Level Playing Field
Let’s go back to the foreign student situation. It should be no surprise that many foreign students applying to American colleges have very high SAT scores. Colleges love that! Unfortunately, a shockingly large number of foreign applicants also lie about their English abilities and academic transcripts. And colleges are pretending they don’t know this. That combination of high scores and full tuition is simply too enticing to ignore.
The worst-kept secret of college admission is that colleges are looking for the well-rounded class, not the well-rounded kid. They want some real scholars for every department; some superb athletes; some great musicians and actors; a few rich kids whose parents can build a library wing; and some legacies to keep the alumni happy. The applicant who is attractive but not really special in any one category is going to have a much tougher time getting in.
Early decision really does improve one’s chances – but you better be in the ballpark. If you look at the admission rates at selective colleges, a kid has a much better chance of getting in via early decision than through the regular admission pool. But there are two caveats to that overall pronouncement:
“Many of the early decision slots are reserved for kids the school really wants for athletic or other recruiting purposes,” explains Muska. “Top athletic prospects…are told by the coaches to apply early. Second, the early decision applicant pool typically has higher grades and SAT scores than the regular pool. There is a self-limiting element to who is applying early. Which means, if a school is a “reach” for a student, the student should not apply early. His odds of getting rejected are greater by applying early – the early decision applicant pool is simply better-credentialed.
A last truism: it is often said that there is a college for everyone. That is certainly true. What is more elusive – but equally true – is that there is a right-fit college admission available to everyone. But most kids and their parents never find that school because they are too caught-up in trying to get into the “best” school rather than the right school.
“The average student takes 5.6 years to graduate, according to the latest figures. That’s a lot of poor fits,” says Welham. “If your child attends a $50,000 per year college and takes an extra year and a half to get out, that’s a $75,000 mistake.”
“The sad part,” adds Muska, “is that most such expensive mistakes can be avoided. Instead of relying on magazine rankings – which reflect the subjectivity of the editors couched in often-meaningless statistical inputs — or on a single visit to a college that can be colored by a backwards-walking student tour guide, students really should do smarter research. It takes a bit more effort, but kids should sit in on a college class. They should spend a night on campus. Sure, it’s tough and expensive to arrange such trips. But it is a lot cheaper than a poor fit.”
Steve Cohen, Forbes Magazine