College admissions over - Ask me anything

Posted by: mithawk

College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 07:51 AM


It's been a few years since I have been active on this site, but I wanted to stop back in and see if this topic is of interest to the community.

Both my kids applied to and were accepted by elite colleges. If anyone has questions about the process, please let me know and I will share what I have learned.
Posted by: llg12j

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 08:30 AM

Thanks for offering to share your experience. Do you have any insight as to why you think your kids were accepted to these particular schools? I've heard many parents describe the process as a lottery outside of having a "hook". I know of some very good students accepted to outstanding schools while seemingly even more qualified students (at least academically) are passed over without a second glance.

My family will be embarking on this journey in the not too distant future so I'm hoping to learn what I can from those that went before us!
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 09:45 AM

When it comes to unhooked kids, I think of elite college admissions not as a lottery, but as weighted dice. The right set of accomplishments and recommendations can make your odds much better, but there are no guarantees for any particular place. My son applied to Princeton Early Action this last October and was deferred in December. But last month he received a "likely letter" from Yale which, all things being equal, should have been more difficult to get than admission with Princeton during Early Action. This uncertainty is part of the reason for the increased number of applications.

It's useful to think of elite colleges as really having the following different tiers, and admission becomes significantly easier as you go down a tier.

1. Elite Early Action: This is Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT (HYPSM). They are confident enough in their status that students can apply to them early, get admission, but are not required to attend. Caltech is also an early action school, but it's tiny and always in the shadow of MIT.
2. Elite Early Decision: This consists of the remaining Ivy league schools, plus schools like UChicago, Duke, Hopkins, and Northwestern. UChicago also has Early Action, but the admit rate is pathetically low and the only people getting in that way are those who would qualify for one of the HYPSM schools.
3: Highly selective: This category is roughly the remaining top 25 schools. It includes very solid schools like Rice and Vanderbilt, and the strong publics like Berkeley, Michigan, and UCLA. The private schools tend to be ED with only a couple of exceptions.
4. Selective: This is roughly #26-50 in USNWR. Every one will provide a solid education but admission is considerably easier than in tiers 1-3.

An important thing to know about the Ivies is that less than 1/2 the student body is selected based upon merit. There are a number of preference groups that have an easier time in terms of admissions, and the most common preference groups are Legacy, Race, Athletes, and Children of Faculty. It's not that the kids who get admitted under these preference groups are weak, but that the ones without preferences have to be superlative by comparison.

Second, for tiers 2-4, there is a significant advantage to using Early Decision relative to Regular Decision. Your application will get read more carefully, and there are fewer of what I call "filled quotas". By this I mean that every college has target numbers for various groups, whether that be geographical distribution, race, SES category, choice of major, etc. By the time RD gets to your application saying you want to be a CS major, they will look at many how many CS majors they have already admitted and think "we really don't have space for another one" and move on.

Next, we should talk about stats. The most important thing to understand is that when it comes to tiers #1 and #2, stats won't get you in, but will keep you out. Solid stats are expected, and unhooked kids should be at/above the 75th percentile on the SAT or ACT. If you are not, then barring something else really desirable about your application, your chances are slim. Likewise, excellent grades are also expected.

What is often given little attention is the high importance given to recommendations. You want your kids' junior year teachers to love them. That means they pay attention in class and are active in class discussions.

What you really need for tiers 1 and 2 are extracurricular activities that makes the admission committee take notice of you. It could being nationally ranked in your activity, excelling in very hard tests like USAMO, being a truly outstanding musician, published research, etc.

The key thing about the extracurricular activity is that it had better be something your child enjoys, because they will be working on it for a long time. For one of my children, that was art, and for the other, research. A really good book that explains how to do this part well is Cal Newport's book "How to be a high school superstar".
Posted by: llg12j

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 10:58 AM

Congratulations on your son's acceptance to Yale. We have a local friend who was accepted EA and plans to attend this fall as well. My own DYS attends a high school where students matriculate to that university in above average numbers (lots of students are children of faculty and/or alumni). So I can attest that your son will be in good company and I wish him lots of luck there.

Many thanks for your detailed response. I have tried to emphasize the importance of EC's to my DYS and he is just now starting to get it. I'm sure your book recommendation will be very useful to him!
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 01:46 PM

Thank you, he is thrilled about Yale.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that I think that everyone applying for the elites should have some non-holistic schools they can apply to. Anyone applying to top 25 US schools should also apply to schools like McGill or U of Toronto which admit based purely on merit. If you are top-10 material and are willing to go overseas, there's also Oxford and Cambridge.

The closest thing to a merit-based top 25 school in the US is Vanderbilt. At least a few years ago, there were very clear demarcation lines in terms of SAT and GPA as to who was admitted and who wasn't.
Posted by: Portia

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 01:47 PM

Thank you so much for your generous offer. Congratulations on your son's acceptance. DS has his heart on a Tier 1. He is on track for the SAT scores and grades. The big question I have at the moment is the balance between APs, college courses, and just educating at large without the credit (ex; MOOCs, self studies of select theories, etc). To be honest, the better educational opportunities are those that do not give credit. The challenge is that when we try to take something interesting at the university, they want the credit history. We can spend a year getting the credits without really learning anything or we can go in a different direction in which no credit will be given, but the depth of education would be more intense. I guess the question is - how important is the credit to Tier 1?

ETA: DS has seen the admissions rates of DreamyU and has a backup plan in place.
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 02:33 PM

The elites want to see a certain number of APs, but after that number, they don't care. My D (now at UChicago) had 7 upon graduation, and my S will have 8. School systems that don't offer very many are not penalized as long as the student can show that they are ready for the rigor of college. The exception are places like Georgia Tech, which I consider elite for engineering, which care a lot more about the number of APs. But let's leave that aside for now.

I fully understand your concern re undergraduate credit vs learning opportunities. But IMO college admissions staff really don't know how to evaluate these learning opportunities, unless they are already well known, and therefore won't give it much "credit".

The way to get around that is to take these learning opportunities and then have your child put that learning to demonstrated use. For example, if it's a science course, follow that up with a research project in the same field.

It's been a number of years since I read Cal Newport's book, but one of the key points is that you want your child to build up a talent that is extraordinary for a high school student and that makes the admissions committee say "Wow!". This is why it's so important for the activity to be enjoyable.

I would also caution against applying for Tier 1 as an unhooked student unless you really know you are at the very top of your game. One of my son's friends this year is a 2xUSAMO qualifier and a Physics Olympaid Bronze medalist and attending one of nation's elite prep schools. He was deferred from MIT. It is brutally tough in Tier 1 in terms of pure merit.

That was the reason why we went with Tier 2 for my D. She had the grades and test scores, is a very talented artist and had multiple years of research as a lab assistant. But she never got a publishable result out of the research (in large part because it is a multi-year research project). Without that tangible thing that the admissions staff can point at, it was too big of a risk. Now, it turns out that she really did love UChicago, and by the time of her applications, it was her #1 choice so she went in for ED without hesitation.
Posted by: Portia

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/02/20 03:06 PM

Thank you very much for your insight.
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/03/20 04:24 AM

One clarification. I meant to say:

I would also caution against applying for Tier 1 EARLY as an unhooked student ...

Applying for Tier 1 for RD is fine of course.

Another way of saying this is that it is very important to judge correctly what tier a student is, and apply to that tier for the early application(s).
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/03/20 04:22 PM

thanks.Very useful. But a technical question. I thought the Early Action were single choice? so did you DS apply EA to Princeton and then got a likely letter to Yale based on his RD app? Just trying to understand how that worked. I know you can get likely letters for athletics. But that is usually before EA.
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/04/20 04:58 AM

Short answer: Yes.

Of the HYPSM schools, all are single choice early action except MIT. As my son applied early to Princeton, he could not apply early to any other private school. He did however apply early to Michigan and was accepted there. After being deferred from Princeton, he applied to many schools as part of the regular decision process. The application to Yale was submitted near the end of December.

As you said, most likely letters are for athletics. They are given almost a year before the student joins college (like say September 2019 for a student joining college September 2020). The student-athlete then applies early action fully expecting to be admitted.

Most and perhaps all Ivys also send out a smaller number of non-athlete likely letters as part of the regular decision process. Depending upon the college, these get sent out anywhere from near the end of January to early March. The goal is to get the recipients to think highly about this college before hearing about all other college decisions later in March.

As we recently learned, Yale generates about 100 likely letters specifically targeting STEM kids, and follows that up with a Yale Engineering and Science Weekend (YES-W) where they bring in these kids and try to get them to fall in love with Yale. Apparently STEM is where Yale wants to strengthen its student body.

In contrast, I have heard that Stanford sends its likely letters to humanities kids, as it has plenty of strong STEM kids already. Harvard sends its likely letters out in mid-February. It doesn't target any specific set of majors for its likely letters, but sends them out to whoever they think will best strengthen its student body.
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/04/20 03:13 PM

Thanks. I did a google search after I wrote the question, but it was good to get clarification from you. From the athletes I have talked to though, the likely letters are Aug/Sep of the year of application. They do the whole recruitment dance through junior year and you need your scores for the likely letter. But it could be just the athletes I have talked with.
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/04/20 05:40 PM

Originally Posted By: Wren
From the athletes I have talked to though, the likely letters are Aug/Sep of the year of application. They do the whole recruitment dance through junior year and you need your scores for the likely letter. But it could be just the athletes I have talked with.

We are in agreement. For athletes, a likely letter in Aug/Sep of the year of application is about a year before college starts, which is what I wrote above.
Posted by: Kai

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/04/20 05:42 PM

Am I the only one who thinks that Ivies recruiting athletes is totally ridiculous?
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/05/20 04:12 AM

Sorry Mithawk. I misread. Recruiting athletes is not ridiculous when it comes to fundraising. So if you want all that financil aid, you need the football team.
Posted by: cricket3

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/05/20 05:09 AM

Sorry, but that in no way justifies all the kids recruited for cross country, fencing, sailing, equestrian, squash, skiing, softball... I could go on and on, including what happens once these athletes are matriculated, but no need. I think most people get it.
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/05/20 02:38 PM

MIT recruits for sailing. But as other schools of that ilk, they have to recruit kids that can do the course work. You cannot get in MIT for sailing without being able to do the coursework. And the schools want extracurriculars. They want people who don't just sit in their rooms and study. They play tennis, they run track, they play in the orchestra, start businesses -- like FB or Microsoft. Starting a business is a hook. I know a kid that got into Harvard last year framing that on his CV. All these kids have great scores. It is not that they cannot do the coursework and excel. They just differentiate themselves. Do some kids on the football team get on with weaker scores than most, I would bet on it. But the kid that gets recruited for fencing is going to have great scores. I have done a lot of work on this. I heard from a mother whose daughter got recruited by 2 ivys. She is at one. She is not a top track star. She is a really good, disciplined track competitor with top scores from a private academic feeder school. And when I say recruited, most athletes at these top schools initiate contact with coaches. They send their athletic CV with a scholatic score sheet showing they could get admitted based on scores. You cannot get athletic recruitment without submitting your academic scores. And 25% of athletes submitted for recruitment get turned down because of scores were not high enough.
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/05/20 02:40 PM

I take back one thing. I do know that girls in hockey can get into Harvard without top scores. Probabaly Dartmouth et al also. But they have to be decent scores.
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/06/20 03:55 AM

And, I checked out the Harvard girls sailing roster. 7 out of 10 were walk ons. No sailing experience. They did not recruited. And only of the remaininng 3 had a decent sailing CV. Hence, no one is going out of their way to recruit these kids if they didn't have decent scores. So they have great scores but they also have a hook of being pretty good at their sport. Disciplined, competitive. Things that generally make a successful person in life.
Posted by: ruazkaz

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/10/20 09:01 AM

A previous post discussed an issue our junior will face and I wonder how you, or others, factored it into admission decisions?

As many users of this site we supplemented what was taught at his public school as we did not want to homeschool. Also, he now goes to a high school that does offer advanced STEM courses, MVC, DiffEQ, Lin Alg, etc., which has been wonderful. As we understand, if luckly enough to get into MIT, etc., then their Lin Alg course will be challenging even if it was taken before? However, if he attends unis lower down the list, it will not necessarily be the case.

For instance, GT would make him repeat all courses that are not AP or DE. Our instate unis will accept some of these courses, not all though. Hopefully, he gets into a tippy top and if so maybe not an issue, but if he does not he currently prefers the instate option as opposed to going to a school that makes him repeat a course that he knows already.

I have read that some unis will allow you to test out of a course and select another higher level course instead which would be much better. Does anyone have experience with this and how did you go about figuring it all out? His current plan is to apply to around 10 unis and then after acceptances are out, begin the process of contacting them to see what is possible.
Posted by: cricket3

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/10/20 09:14 AM

I can only speak to the college my DD attends, but a placement test was used for math, as well as for several other subject areas (off the top of my head, foreign language, music theory, biology...and these were just the few DD was interested in, I suspect it was very common). I suspect it is the norm at most selective places, though if it’s important to you I would check.

The math placement testing was left up to individual students before they had to choose classes. The information was sent at some point over the summer, and most of the placement stuff was done online (I seem to remember DD having to go to a scheduled placement test during orientation on campus, but that was an exception). They also gave placement opportunities based upon AP results (though no credit- this was true for foreign language as well). So kids could take the placement test and to a certain extent, place themselves (I’m sure if there were questions you could ask for advice, but it was pretty clearly outlined). For DD the decisions included whether to take a compressed/accelerated class which essentially combined two classes into one, so even within her level of achievement (which was not advanced beyond her HS offerings) there were different paths open to her. (She did choose the compressed class, and was very satisfied with the pace of instruction- finally!). The breadth of possibilities was amazing, and at least where she is, there were no perceived obstacles, just guidance on what would work best for each individual.
Posted by: ruazkaz

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/10/20 10:55 AM

Hopefully as DS gets a bit farther along in the process, we will find that many of the colleges that accept him have the same approach as the college your DD attends. Thanks!
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/11/20 04:04 PM

how common are placement tests?
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/11/20 06:43 PM

My daughter had a math placement test at UChicago. She also didn’t have to take an additional language course due to her Spanish AP score.
Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/12/20 04:01 AM

Do you have to have a 5 in AP language to get the credit. DD is taking AP Chinese through self study. They don't offer it at her school. Just found tutors online.
Posted by: cricket3

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/12/20 05:08 AM

I think every school is different, and it may vary by department/language as well. To be clear, my DD didn’t get any credit, she was exempted from taking a language (ie, met their requirements for graduation). This also grated her access to upper level language classes, but I think a placement exam would have done the same. But again, our only experience is with this one college, the language was German (one needed a 5, I believe).

I believe one of the reasons there were so many placement tests is that there is a huge variability with the HS preparation kids arrive with, even when they have super high GPAs and test scores. Not all kids have access to high level classes, and even when they do, not all kids take advantage of that, or feel comfortable with how they did in those classes. And some kids prefer to “re-take” classes they took in HS anyway, to boost GPA (though thankfully DD has not seen much of that).

DD was surprised at how many kids she’s met who had not taken calculus, for example. And some kids, despite taking foreign language through HS, were unable to gain an exemption and have to take more coursework to fulfill that requirement. Certainly the athletes from our HS who attend elite colleges are not taking AP coursework, or at least not as much of it- they probably don’t have time, for one thing. This is also true of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. It doesn’t mean they are not smart kids, but they have not had the same preparation, for the most part. Even in the required freshman seminars there were two levels, one of which was intended to provide more intensive writing support.

Posted by: Wren

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/12/20 02:28 PM

saw this and wondered if it gets slightly less competitive as a result:

More Chinese and Indian students are going to British universities

According to Inside Higher Ed, applications from Chinese students to British universities rose 30% in 2019, a development that could portend a continued decline in international applicants to U.S. colleges. Indian applicants represent a smaller number than Chinese applicants—19,760 vs. 6,210—but, they too experienced an identical 30% bump last year. Various theories behind the shift include rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric in America, the trade war with China, and the diminished value of the pound which makes a British education more affordable. Presently, over 300,000 Chinese students come to the U.S. to study at American universities, so it isn’t as though a small change would be catastrophic to the higher education system as a whole; however, many institutions have come to rely on Chinese students who pay tuition price. Definitely a trend worth tracking throughout the coming admissions season.
Posted by: aeh

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/12/20 03:16 PM

Interesting thought. It might even have a trickle down effect on private secondary institutions, which likewise often depend on international students' tuition (often triple or more the price tag, plus all kinds of fees for hosts and extracurricular add-ons or chaperoned travel), as some of their clientele choose them for their perceived value in the US college admissions process.
Posted by: amylou

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 02/14/20 10:34 AM

I am a long-time occasional poster and we are now 2 years past college admissions, so I am adding our experience here.

Our 2 kids are twins and now sophomores in college. In K-12, they were never grade accelerated but were subject accelerated in different combinations of math, cs and physics, attending a great public university nearby for these subjects later in high school. They had very high GPAs and test scores, and went to a large public high school with lots of AP courses, and they had great extracurriculars.

They applied to ~10 colleges each, with some overlap between the 2 on their selected schools. One strongly interested in engineering and the other physics. They got into ~half of the schools they applied to, with some really surprising rejections/waitlists. However, both got into one of the very top STEM schools and both accepted their admission offer from that school.

Both are absolutely thriving in the "drinking from the fire hose" learning environment at the school. And the engineer, who was always less extreme on the public school assessment scores throughout K-12, is at the top of his class in what is considered one of the toughest majors.

So, 2 conclusions from our experience. 1. College admissions depend on many factors other than ability to succeed academically - where you get in is not a measure of what you are capable of so don't take it too seriously! 2. If you are parent to an HG kid with siblings, the siblings may surprise you!

College has fulfilled our desire for challenge and stimulation for our kids in a way that K-12 generally didn't. It was worth the wait!
Posted by: mithawk

Re: College admissions over - Ask me anything - 03/29/20 08:33 AM

Just circling back on this thread now that we have received all decisions. In order of acceptances received, my son was accepted to Yale, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Stanford and a few other match/safety schools.

Obviously the vast majority of credit goes to him, but I think I have a really good understanding of what elite colleges look for. Offering again to answer any questions and willing to read/critique essays for next year.