What makes a score “high enough?”

What makes a score “high enough?”

Note: I originally published this piece in 2011, but with the addition of the August SAT, it seems particularly relevant. Whereas the October SAT was the make-it-or-break-it test for a lot of seniors in the past, the possibility of just one more retake in October might now seem very appealing. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re trying to decided whether to make one last go. 

If your scores are borderline, how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go all out for a school or simply let it drop? In other words, at what point is it truly worth writing that supplement and shelling out $75 for an application? 

That is of course a slippery question, especially when someone is being urged to aim high. When a school gets 30,000 applicants and accepts fewer than 10% of them, it’s easy to feel that winning admission is somehow akin to winning the lottery and that it’s always worth it to throw in an application because maybe, just maybe, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite work that way. College admissions may be notoriously unfair, but it is not nearly as random as it may appear from the outside. The people who get in are chosen in no small part because they fulfill a particular institutional need, be it athletic, monetary, extracurricular, or social. 

To be sure, test scores play an important role for everyone, but for “unhooked” candidates, they are an even more significant factor. These are the people that the committee can afford to be even choosier about. Unless they are truly accomplished in a particular area, they are the ones who can’t afford a serious weakness in their scores. Admissions officers need a way of eliminating applicants, and if an otherwise undistinguished applicant has scores that clearly aren’t up to par, he or she is almost certain to be rejected.

Think of it this way: Princeton has 25th-75th percentile score ranges of 680-760 (Verbal) and 700-780 (Math). It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people with scores below that level fulfill a significant institutional need or have a justifiable weakness in a particular area: for example, an international applicant with a 650 Verbal who has never gone to an English-speaking school but who happens to be a top-notch math student (international-level awards) might have their verbal score regarded as something less than a deal-breaker. Same for an inner-city Hispanic student who’s the first in her family to attend college.

If, on the other hand, a run-of-the-mill valedictorian from a decent suburban high school somewhere on the East Coast were to present with that same 650 Verbal, they would probably be rejected pretty quickly. In other words, it’s about context. But while one score that’s 100 points below the 50th percentile can hurt a lot, two scores that are just a little on the low side might not have quite the same impact. A student who has straight As in very hard classes, an SAT breakdown of, say 720/730, fantastic recommendations, a standout essay, and a high level of achievement in an unusual extracurricular area is still going to get looked at seriously. Even thought the overall score isn’t particularly noteworthy by Ivy League standards, it’s still high enough in that particular case. 

So to sum up, for unhooked applicants:

If your scores are a tiny bit below average but are counterbalanced by another element that makes your application exceptional, they will be considered high enough. If they’re average or a little below and there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, your scores might not be the deciding factor, but it is unlikely that you’ll be accepted anyway. In my experience, students with scores just below the super-high range tend to get rejected because they aren’t standout candidates overall — their scores are simply one more confirming factor, not the confirming factor.

If you have some scores at the mid-high end of the range and a couple below average, AND there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, it is also pretty unlikely that you’ll get accepted at the most competitive schools. That isn’t really about scores, though. 

If your scores are all significantly below an institution’s average, there’s probably very little you can say in your application that will make a difference.

If you’ve got scores at the top of the range but nothing else, they may help a bit, but they’re absolutely no guarantee of anything. Even a perfect score only raises your chances to about 50% at the most selective schools. By definition, “holistic admissions” means that factors other than your scores will be taken into account. 

And no, it’s not worth retaking a 1550 to try to get a 1600 or a 35 to try to get a 36 — at that point, you need to stop taking tests and start worrying about the rest of your application. If you have a 1480 or a 33, though, and want to be as competitive as possible at the most selective schools, it might be worth it. But again, those aren’t scores that will get you rejected on their own. You also need to consider how realistically you’ll be able to raise them; your scores could go up, but they could also go down. 

To be clear, I’m not trying to dash anyone’s hopes here. If you don’t have tippy-top scores but have dreamed about attending Princeton or Stanford or MIT or fill-in-the-blank super-competitive school since you were twelve, then by all means go for it. But be realistic, too. A couple of reaches are great, but try to avoid having 10 or 15 of them. Throwing in more applications does not increase your chances if your application isn’t truly competitive to begin with.

To narrow down your college list, ask yourself this one simple question

To narrow down your college list, ask yourself this one simple question

As regular readers of this blog may know, I occasionally browse College Confidential to see what sorts of issues college applicants and their parents are grappling with. A few days ago, I was glancing through a “what-are-some-realistic-schools-for-me?” thread started by an excellent student seeking academically strong realistic and safety schools. One poster suggested a well-regarded but not obscenely competitive East Coast university that seemed to be a clear match for the student, and that he would likely be accepted to without too much difficulty. 

The student’s response was something to the effect of, “But it’s not on the Common App, so why should I waste my time?” 

My immediate thought when I read that was, “If you can’t be bothered to apply to a school because it’s not on the Common App, then you shouldn’t be applying there at all.” 

It’s possible that the student was so convinced he/she was a shoo-in for very top schools that it seemed unnecessary to spend the time filling out an extra app. That is, of course, more than a little risky given how thoroughly unpredictable admissions can be. Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, many students don’t fully understand the odds at top schools until the rejections start coming in. But it’s always a shame when students who would likely be admitted to outstanding schools just below the Ivy/Stanford/Duke/Chicago level of selectivity end up at their absolute backup school because they couldn’t be bothered to research places like, say, Lehigh or Emory. 

But back to my original point. 

As I’ve written about before, most colleges have a perverse incentive (in the form of USNWR rankings, among other things) to keep their applicant pools as artificially high as possible. Accepting the Common App is one easy way to do that — after all, if applicants can apply with the mere click of a mouse, who’s to say they shouldn’t? 

As a result, the onus to decide whether a long-shot application to a particular school is really a good idea gets shifted more towards the applicants. (I know that Harvard has like a 5% acceptance rate, but really, it’s like a lottery, so I might as well just thrown in an application just to see what happens. It’s easy enough…)

But after reading that exchange on CC, it occurred to me that one way applicants can wrest back some control over the process and prevent themselves from getting seduced into submitting applications to schools that probably aren’t a good fit anyway, is to ask themselves one big question: if this school didn’t accept the Common App, would I still apply? 

Basically, the amount of work you’re willing to do to apply to a school is a direct indicator of how willing you are to attend. Admissions officers also pay attention to your level of demonstrated interest, which includes the “Why this college essay?” If you’ve clearly done your research and can discuss specific aspects of a school that make it a good match for you, your application is much more likely to get a favorable reception. 

And it should go without saying, although I feel obligated to reiterate it here, that you should only apply to schools that you would genuinely consider attending. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy, and probably your parents’ money. If you’re only applying to a school you’re not really interested in because you can do so easily, I have some advice for you: cross it off your list.

That includes safety schools, by the way: ideally, you should have one, maybe two, schools that are good fits academically, socially, and financially; that you would be happy to attend; and that you can easily gain acceptance to. 

Schools need to protect their yield rates, so given the choice between academically/extra-curricularly equivalent applicants, they’re going to say yes to the one who’s more obviously enthusiastic about attending (aka, “Tufts syndrome,” whereby schools wait-list top applicants who are clearly using their university as a backup). 

If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered to type your name and various other personal info into a separate website, and maybe write an additional 250-500 words for a school that would be an excellent fit for you, that’s a pretty good indicator that you haven’t seriously considered what you’re looking for (or that you have seriously unrealistic expectations about how easily you’ll be able to waltz into a school with <20% acceptance rate).

So take your time, do your research, and yes, be willing to spend a few extra hours if doing so will help you get where you want to go. You don’t want to give yourself too many options just for the sake of having options, but at the other extreme, you never know where you will — or won’t — get in, and having good options is something you don’t want to cheat yourself out of. 

The college search: 5 things parents must know

The college search: 5 things parents must know

The following post was written by a friend and colleague whose son recently went through the college admissions process. I asked her to share her insights into the experience, and she was generous enough to write this post. So for all you parents of smart B students who would rather be playing World of Warcraft than writing their college essays, know that there is hope. Spoiler alert: the writer’s son got into college, no one had a nervous breakdown, everyone is still on speaking terms and, perhaps most importantly, no one will have to go into permanent debt to fund his education.


Do you remember your own college search? Perhaps like me, your 17-year-old self probably got very little guidance from your parents. Did you take the SAT once or twice? I took it once. Did you get test prep? I didn’t. I was pretty passive about the whole thing. However, let me ask a question that is even more revealing of the difference in generations… Did you use a typewriter to do your applications? Even if your 17-year-old self would have appreciated the convenience of the online Common App, I bet he or she would look at the high school senior standing in your living room and be totally aghast at all the sturm und drang. (more…)

How to write those pesky “why this college” essays

Ah, Christmas break… A whole week to sleep late, hang out with your friends, and stuff yourself with leftovers. Unless, of course, you’re a senior trying desperately to finish your college applications. Even if your main essay is done, you might still have a bunch of supplements waiting to be done. And if that’s the case, then chances are some of those supplements include the perennial “why this college?” question.

In some cases, you may not be able to answer entirely truthfully (I needed another safety school, my parents are making me apply), but even assuming that you actually want to attend most of the schools you’re applying to, this question can be hard to get started on.

If that describes your situation, this post is for you.

The first thing to understand is that “why do you want to attend x university?” is not a trick question. Admissions officers are not looking to be flattered, or to be told how prestigious their institution is. They genuinely want to see what appeals to you about the school, and whether your interests and needs are aligned with what it has to offer.

They also want to know whether you’ve visited, explored the website, read the course catalogue, etc. (Don’t worry if you live too far to visit, or couldn’t afford to – as long as you’ve shown sufficient interest, it won’t matter.) Just how seriously are you taking your application to their school?

This is not just about judging applicants, by the way; it’s also about managing yield. As soon as colleges send out their acceptance letters, the balance of power shifts, and colleges must anxiously try to woo students away from their competitors. The percentage of admitted students, known as the yield rate, affects their rankings. So it’s in their interest to try to identify the students most likely to attend. A student who seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a school will therefore have an edge over comparable applicants with lukewarm or general statements. Your goal, in part, is to persuade the admissions committee that there is a real chance you will attend school x if admitted.

But if you’re not sure how to go about actually generating an essay, here’s a roadmap.

The key to writing a successful “why this school essay” is to be as specific as possible.

In general, you want to avoid clichés such as “rigorous courses” or “renowned faculty” or “stunning campus.” Pretty much every school has the first two, and when a school has third, they’re used to applicants mentioning it – a lot. Instead, focus on explaining how the school is a good match for you in particular, and vice-versa.

A good way to check whether you’ve accomplished this is to plug in another school’s name and see whether the essay still fits. If it does, chances are you’ve written something way too generic.

That isn’t to say you can’t come up with a general template that you adjust for each school, but the essays should not be interchangeable.

So start by thinking about the subjects you’re most likely to major in or, if you’re not sure, think about which classes you enjoyed most in high school. Was there a topic or unit you particularly enjoyed (e.g. genetics in Biology, the Civil War in History)?

Was there a paper or a project you were particularly proud of? Is there any field you’ve had a little bit of exposure to but couldn’t study at the high school level (e.g. archaeology, sociology)?

Do any of your academic interests carry over into your extracurriculars (e.g. computer science and robotics club)?

Go on the website of each school, find the relevant departments (the main page will usually contain a link to “academics” or “departments and programs”), and look through the undergraduate classes.

Are there any courses that sticks out as interesting or unusual? Anything that makes you think, “Wow, that sounds really interesting?” Make a note of those classes, and write a few sentences explaining why they’re so appealing to you.

Are you interested in doing an internship, working in a lab, or studying abroad? See what the options are for those things.

If you’re applying to school in a city, look into what sorts of opportunities there are for local businesses. Don’t just say you want to be in an exciting/dynamic/diverse urban environment that will expose you to different kinds of people. Talk about what companies might like to intern with, and how the school in question can help you gain practical experience in a field.

Remember that at some schools, research can be difficult for undergraduates to get involved in; the best opportunities tend to be reserved for graduate students. If a school makes it easy for undergraduates, especially freshman, to conduct research from the start, that’s something to talk about.

What about the structure of the curriculum? Are there distribution requirements, or is there an open curriculum? Maybe you like the fact that a university cares about ensuring that its students gain competence in specific areas, or maybe you’re the sort of intensely focused, self-directed studier who would excel in a more open system.

Next, look at housing and extracurricular activities.

Is there anything unique or unusually appealing about the housing system? (One former student of mine wrote, for example, about a school’s system of pairing freshman roommates that he thought was “brilliant.”) Is there a residential college system? Special-interest housing?

Look at clubs. What activities have you enjoyed the most in high school and want to continue participating in during college? Or maybe you’d be the most enthusiastic member of the school’s quidditch team.

Finally, choose one memorable/interesting/quirky (but not too weird) thing that sticks out about the school for you. It can be very small – maybe you were just impressed by how open and welcoming all the students you met on your visit were – but it should be unique to that school.

If focus on these things, you should have no problem churning out 250-300 words pretty quickly.  

Why you shouldn’t always trust college essay books (just say no to community service trip essays)

If you’re a senior still in the throes of writing your college essay, or if you’re a younger student/parent of a younger student trying to get a jumpstart on the college admissions process, you may be in possession of book entitled something like 100 College Essays that Worked, or 50 Successful Harvard Essays.

In general, I have no particular bone to pick with such compilations. I think they often provide a helpful glimpse at a variety of topics, styles, and structures that successful applicants have used in their essays.

Just as importantly, they offer clear reassurance that students need not demonstrate they have imbibed a thesaurus in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams.

So yes, for a student who isn’t sure how to get started, these books provide a highly useful service.

However. From time to time, when I happen to be browsing the test-prep section of a bookstore, I pick up college essay books just to keep abreast of the latest trends. Many of the essays in my favorite such book, 100 Successful College Application Essays, date from the mid-80’s, but as they say, times change… In this case, not necessarily for the better.

The most egregiously awful advice I’ve come across, in America’s Best Colleges for B Students, is that students should structure their essays in standard English class five-paragraph format.

That is so wrongheaded in so many ways, but we can start with the fact that the essay is called a personal statement for a reason. You are not supporting a thesis; you are discussing something or someone important to you as a person. Provided the essay reads well, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the College Board has also produced a college essay guide (which contains almost no examples of actual college essays – go figure that one out) that gives similar advice. While there is, in an extremely broad sense, a case to be made for certain approaches to reading and writing emphasized by Common Core, there are also instances in which such an approach would constitute an absolute, incontrovertible disaster.

This is one of them.

Following this type of advice could push a borderline applicant without a knowledgeable adult monitoring the process into the “reject” pile at a moderate reach where he or she might have otherwise had an actual shot. So if the College Board is actually trying to improve the college prospects of disadvantaged applicants — those least likely to have a knowledgeable adult monitoring, or even aware of, the application process — they have an awfully funny way of showing it. 

Most books, however, at least emphasize that a personal essay is, well, personal, and that the rules of English class don’t apply.

And to be sure, plenty of the essays these books include are perfectly serviceable. Most are well-written; a handful are genuinely moving.

One problem, however, is that it is impossible to really tell from a standalone essay how much of a role that essay actually played in a student’s admission.

In the absence of a transcript, test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, information about “hooks”, and actual adcom notes, the only thing that can be gleaned with certainty is that an essay was not so poor as to result in a student’s being rejected.  

Furthermore, there is one section some of these books that is consistently, even dangerously misleading. That is…. the infamous “community service trip to a third world country” essay.

For the record, the worst offenders I’ve found so far are the Fiske College Essay Guide (Malawi/Africa) and 50 Successful Stanford Essays (the Dominican Republic).

At this point, I feel obligated to proffer my annual warning about this genre of essay: if you’re thinking of writing something along these lines, don’t.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just find another topic and let this one quietly fade into oblivion.

Any essay you write about your community service trip to an impoverished third-world country, during which you discovered how privileged you really are and realized that the poor people there are really better off than the materialistic people in the United States because they’re happy with their subsistence lifestyle, is bound to come off as (at best) naive and condescending.      

It doesn’t matter how shocked you were by the poverty, or how charmingly rustic you found the locals, or how grateful people seemed for your efforts to build a school/hospital/community center, etc.

Committees slog through tons of these essays every year; you don’t need to add another one to the pile. Pretty much every admissions officer you ever ask will tell you to avoid this topic like the plague.

That’s not to say all community service essays are bad. It is, however, to say that the topic is so overdone, and the possibilities for cliché so ripe, that you should proceed with a healthy dose of caution.

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, both of the guides listed above provide pitch-(im)perfect examples of this type of writing. (Just flip to the “Community Service” section.)

To be honest, I’m really surprised they were included at all. Using them up as examples is at best irresponsible and at worst actively misleading. All I can say is that the Stanford applicant must have been stellar in every respect otherwise.

If you’re looking for some good examples of essays that worked, I’d recommend the sample essays Johns Hopkins posts on its admissions website.

They’re not cliché, but they’re not too far out there either. Most of the writers come off as smart and curious and interesting and thoughtful – people you’d like to get to know.

Wouldn’t you like the person who reads your essay to think that about you too?