Some Numbers Lie

Numbers are supposed to be straightforward and easy to interpret. 2+2=4, 9>5, and a triangle’s angles always add up to 180 degrees. Yet, in the world of college admissions statistics, some numbers lie.

One of the biggest instances involves the country’s most selective colleges. I often have parents insist that their child will get a significant admissions advantage if he or she applies early to a school, “Look! Harvard admits 14.5% of the Early pool and only 3.8% of the Regular pool. My daughter has to apply Early to get an admissions advantage!” While that is true for most schools, it is not true for all, including Harvard. Yes, I can read the numbers, and I see that 14.5% is greater than 3.8%. The difference between you and me is that I know what lies beneath those figures. Go grab a coffee and let’s chat for moment.

Prestigious institutions like Georgetown, Stanford, and Yale base their admissions decisions on an entire system of “hooks,” which determine who gets shown in through a side door, and who is left waiting outside. One of the biggest hooks, which determines who gets in early, is being a recruited athlete. That’s right. Coaches have been traveling around the country over the last year (or more) extending provisional offers of admission to those young sports stars whom they want on their teams. That means that a large portion of that 14.5% won’t go through a normal application process, like your child is likely doing. Those student-athletes have been secretly promised spots long before they started filling in their Common App. Children of wealthy donors, qualified legacies, and celebrities are also ushered in similarly during the Early round, so don’t fool yourself. It is actually often more difficult to get into an elite school as an Early applicant. You should apply Early, however, to show interest!

A second way in which numbers lie is through state school admissions. Public universities, which tend to rely less on hooks and much more on residency, often have two sets of academic criteria: those for in-state students, and those for out-of-state students. Typically speaking, it is much easier for an in-state applicant who falls within the admissions averages to get into a public school than it is for an out-of-state applicant. “Why?” you might ask. Because those institutions were created to serve the tax-paying residents of their state. That’s why the University of California system has been reducing the percentage of non-Californians entering their schools over the last few years, and why the University of Texas at Austin reserves 90% of each class for Texans. So if you’re looking at some of those public gems out there, like the University of Michigan or the University of North Carolina, understand that your out-of-state child will have to possess near-Ivy League numbers to stand a chance of getting in.

Determining a student’s general chances of getting in anywhere is also fraught with mendacious numbers. Each year, when I help students put together their college lists, I tell them which schools are Safety Options, Target Options, or Reach Options. I base my judgments on past years’ data, because, unfortunately, the actual numbers relating to their own applicant pool won’t be available until sometime in the future. So, when a college massively alters its admissions practices (like American University did last year), significantly increases its marketing efforts (like Emory University did this year), or wins a national sports championship (like Clemson University did this year), you may find that my predictions of your chances of getting in will be less than accurate.

One last way in which the numbers lie is when you don’t understand how the two different admissions systems work. Most families get caught up in the holistic process used by selective and highly selective colleges. Through it, students are judged on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to: letters of recommendation, essays, and extracurricular achievements on top of great test scores and GPA. In that system, there is more of a game to play; however, in the matrix system, students are judged solely on their GPA and ACT/SAT scores. If you look at the University of Missouri’s admissions website, for example, they have clearly outlined what minimum test score you need to correspond with your GPA. If you meet it, you’re in; if you don’t, you’re not. Published averages, thus, become meaningless. Missouri’s average ACT score may be 26, but you could get a 19 with a 3.4 GPA or above, and still get in.

Like I said, some numbers lie.

Posted on April 30, 2017 at 8:10 am

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