College fees are expensive, but they’re not supposed to be this pricey.
Dozens of wealthy parents in the U.S. were indicted this week for illegally paying up to millions of dollars to buy a place for their children at prestigious universities. The scandal has pulled back the curtain on a process that has often frustrated applicants and their families pursuing higher education. Trying to wrap your arms around it is like trying to catch fog.
So what do students need to do to get accepted into U.S. colleges and universities?
Don’t wait until your senior year of high school to prepare for college. The first steps start freshman year. Grade-point averages, or GPAs — which carry the most weight in acceptance — start being calculated the first day of a student’s freshman year.
Most schools require applicants to submit an official transcript of coursework from her or his secondary school. The transcript includes the student's GPA, which is determined by a calculating the value of a letter grade with the number of course credits. A 4.0 GPA is considered the highest ... sort of. High-achievers who take additional classes or college courses can bump up their GPA to above a 4.0 if they earn top grades.
According to Prepscholar.com, the average GPA for Yale applicants is 4.12, at the University of California, it's 3.73, and at the U.S. Naval Academy, which does not charge tuition and is known for its academic excellence, it's 3.94.
Parents who are financially able can send their child to an independent, private or boarding school that can funnel the student into a system that offers guidance, connections, rigorous academics and testing assistance. Some college counselors, however, caution that children who come through an exceptional public or private secondary school might not distinguish themselves as much as a child who emerges as an exceptional student from an average or below-average high school.
Grades, however, do not guarantee entrance. Most colleges and universities use what’s called a holistic approach to assembling a freshman class of new college students, taking into consideration abilities and skills such as athletic participation, creativity, leadership and innovation. Colleges assemble a freshman class much like an orchestra: An applicant might be the best flautist in the world, but the school orchestra might need a French horn player.
Admission officers look for applicants who have the discipline to get up early every morning to practice swimming or another sport. They look for students who can lead others, not by force but by example and persuasion, in athletics, student government and service. They look for service to community that can be verified by mentors or others who can affirm the effort was reality, not just an exercise written on paper.
While not everyone needs to write an exemplary essay — STEM students, for example, need more to write in numerical or coding language — those personal statements show character. A student who wrote about the effect a parents’ divorce had on them used to get an admission officer’s attention. But today, having cared for an ailing or older family member is a more popular topic.
For a fee, many private agencies and tutors are available to help students prepare their application. But advice and guidance from U.S. colleges and universities can be found for free online as well.
But that, too, might not be enough or might not be the “right fit,” an expression that guidance counselors and admission officers explain to hopeful applicants and their families over and over.
“Many talented, accomplished young people who will be outstanding leaders in the future will not make it to the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Yale,” wrote Natasha Warikoo, associate professor of education at Harvard. “There simply are not enough places for all of them at those universities.”
“So looking for explanations for why you did get in or whether some groups are favored over others misses the broader picture of the lack of clarity on what gets anyone into elite colleges,” Warikoo wrote.
Applicants are encouraged to study an institution’s course catalog and department to see the skills of professors and programs.
If an applicant wants to study international relations, study abroad programs are an important consideration. If an applicant wants to study engineering, she or he should apply to engineering schools that offer their desired discipline: computer, mechanical, civil, chemical, aerospace or petroleum.
Many parents say interviewing with an admissions counselor from a preferred school is a popular strategy. That way, the applicant gets to impress an admissions counselor with personality, questions and answers in a face-to-face meet. It shows a school you are interested enough to go beyond a college tour. Tip: A common question from a college officer is, “What books do you like to read.” Be prepared.
Explainer: College Admissions
Applying from abroad
International students who apply from overseas can access assistance and guidance for free from 425 student advising centers through the U.S. State Department’s EducationUSA offices at consulates and embassies in more than 175 countries.
EducationUSA will demystify the application process and help arrange admission to U.S. schools. It will explain and counsel applicants about the admissions process and standardized testing requirements, how to finance a U.S. education, the student visa process, and preparing for departing to the U.S. It organizes school visits and college fairs, virtual and on location; shares information about scholarship programs, and connects applicants with U.S. and foreign institutions, according to its website.
One final word from Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman president of Harvard University, who spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2014.
“We could fill our class twice over with valedictorians,” she explained. “So we look for other kinds of characteristics, as well. Character is another one. Those recommendations from teachers, employers, who this person is matters a lot because that’s going to say how they are going to interact in our community.
“We also look for people who are going to be interesting, interesting members of the community to which they contribute. A combination of what they can take and what they can give. So I would say, make your children interesting. Or encourage them to follow their passions and their directions that will excite them, and therefore, excite us," Faust said.
Asked by David Rubenstein, who founded the private-equity firm Carlyle Group: “If somebody is a valedictorian, perfect scores on their SATs, captain of the football team, president of student government, are they guaranteed to get in?”