09.26.12

Steve Cohen on the Three Biggest College Admissions Lies

Do SAT scores matter anymore? Will asking for financial aid hurt your chances? And does everyone get a fair shot? As application season kicks into high gear, Steve Cohen offers three hard truths about getting in this year.

“The check is in the mail. I gave at the office. And …”

There are too many bad jokes that begin “The three biggest lies are …” What’s happening in college admissions, however, is no joke. Three big lies are gaining traction with families as they embark on this year’s tougher-than-ever college-admissions sweepstakes. Believing some of these lies will cost families money. Others can make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.

Lie No. 1: Standardized Tests Are Less Important

Colleges today 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 applying to more colleges. And with little increase in the size of their admissions staffs, 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 numbers subterfuge to obfuscate what is really going on.

The SAT 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 percent 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 reasonably think that their 1300 SAT score gives them a fair shot at admission. Wrong. In reality, the bottom 25 percent, below 1280, is reserved for the school’s “special interests”: athletes, students of color, development (big donors). For example, Vanderbilt reports its 25th–75th SAT range as 1380 to 1550. In reality, most of its admittees had SAT scores above 1500.

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'Megan McArdle wonders whether college is really worth it.'

Ah, for the good old days—the days before the Great Recession. Back then, when a college said it was “need blind,” it probably was need blind.

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, if you don’t have a 700/700 score, you’re just not getting in—unless you have a very special hook. The 680/690 kid is a dime a dozen.

Cheating Goes Both Ways: In the past year, headlines have screamed about cheating scandals not just at Long Island high schools and at New York City’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,” says Ian Welham, a college-funding specialist with Complete College Planning Solutions in Springfield, N.J. “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 No. 2: Asking for Financial Aid Won’t Affect the Admissions Decision

Ah, for the good old days—the days before the Great Recession. Back then, when a college said it was “need blind,” it probably was need blind. That meant admissions decisions were made without the admissions staff knowing whether the kid was applying for financial aid.

Today, more and more college admissions 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 acknowledging that they can’t afford to be 100 percent need-blind. 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 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 be available only to families earning less than $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 who 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 at many colleges has doubled or tripled in the last four years.

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 three to four 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 No. 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 Chinese 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 admissions 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.

And while early decision really does improve one’s chances, there are caveats. Many of the early-decision slots are reserved for kids the school wants for athletic or other recruiting purposes. 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. So if a school is a “reach” for a student, the student should not apply early. His odds of getting rejected are greater. 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 there is a right-fit college for 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.

Instead of relying on magazine rankings, which reflect the subjectivity of the editors couched in often-meaningless statistical inputs or is based a single visit to a college that can be colored by a backward-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 hell of a lot cheaper than a poor fit.