College-bound high school sophomores and juniors have started, or will start to receive, attractive and colorful mailings from colleges and universities. Some will be college admissions marketing materials designed to help students consider a school, with more subtle messages to “look at our school, too.” Other college admissions marketing materials are likely to take a more direct approach: start your search now, and take a look at us.
I pick up the college admissions marketing materials at every school that I visit. Some are very good. They answer practically every question that a parent or student might have about the school. Others fall far short.
What would I like to see in every college admissions marketing piece?
A listing of the most popular majors.
I don’t suggest that students and parents choose a college for the major, but I like to know which majors draw students to complete a degree from the college. I have heard of schools that offer challenging majors in science or mathematically-related subjects. However, while employers are quite interested in interviewing these students, the number of students in the major is low.
I would like to know that, for example, if my target school graduates a lot of teacher candidates, those candidates receive the support that they need to find jobs. The same is true for accountants, engineers, computer programmers, journalists and the like. At the same time, if I am not remotely interested in these majors, I would like to consider schools where more students share my academic interests.
Tuition and fee, room and board increases that were put in place for the students in the sophomore though senior class at that school.
Were they steady, the same percentage every year? Or, was there a very large increase one year or two? I have not seen a college admissions marketing piece that told me, if I was a parent, about the price increases that I might be in for, and possibly why. It’s also nice to know about merit awards. More and more families will be price conscious, thinking about four years versus only the first one.
How campus-based is the college community?
Most colleges do a good job with this, especially those that are located in large cities. But they could do better. I have visited schools where virtually everyone lives on campus; the college community, including the Greek system, organizes and manages the major events. I have also visited schools where students begin to move off campus after their freshman year; the college community will be less engaged with its upperclass students.
There are 17-18 year old students drawn to the idea of a community, others drawn to the idea of living independently. A good college admissions marketing piece should help a student to decide who s/he is and where s/he would find the out-of-classroom experience they want.
What does it take to get into the school?
When I was a junior and senior in high school I got a pile of materials from schools that I believed were likely to offer me admission, even though I did not have stellar SAT scores. Today, college-bound students receive materials from exceptionally-selective schools where the odds are far from being in their favor.
I could spend a lot of time explaining why these schools do this. Quite frankly, I wish that they wouldn’t, unless their yield rate (the percentage of accepted students who deposit) has been ridiculously low. That’s certainly not true of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and probably not Cal Tech, Chicago, MIT or Stanford. At the same time, there are colleges that have higher admissions standards for some majors than they do for others. That information, including grades and test scores, should also be in the marketing material.
There are different ways to deal with aggressive college admissions marketing practices. I wish that I could say ignore them and throw the materials into the trash can. But that’s far from the right approach.
If you are a college-bound junior with excellent grades in a rigorous academic program, my suggestion is to put these materials into a box until after you have taken the ACT or the SAT for the first time and received your scores. Then sift through the college marketing materials to find out:
Which schools admitted students with similar (or lower) grades and the same scores?
Here you presume that either you might not want to take the test again or that you are not likely to score higher the next time that you take them. Obviously, if you score high you will have a larger choice of schools. Then whittle down the pile based on what’s important: academic programs, location, student body size, among other things. Use the remaining college admissions marketing materials to help you to consider similar schools that have not sent you a glossy brochure.
For example, suppose a student from the Midwest who is interested in engineering receives a very nice brochure from Case Western Reserve University. Case is an excellent school. it is no where near as selective as Northwestern or Washington University in St. Louis, but you’re likely to receive “as good” an education, and probably have a shot at the same job and internship opportunities. You might want to take a shot at Northwestern and Wash U as “reach” schools with Case as a “target” school. But you also want to find other schools like Case: small/mid-sized, offering the major, in the Midwest. You might also like a school such as Butler University in Indianapolis. Or you might consider opening your options to include Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Which schools admitted students who scored 100 points higher on the SAT or three points higher on the ACT Composite?
Admittedly, I’m cynical about tutoring practices that claim to raise SAT scores over 100 points, unless they turn a totally unprepared student who literally walked into the test cold and scored poorly into a prepared one. A student who scored, for example, between 1100 and 1200 the first time is not likely to drive their scores up towards 1400, even with the best of help. College admissions tests are not like tests in high school where you can work your way to 100 percent with the best of motivation and help. A 100-point improvement is achievable with good tutoring and preparation for the next test.
If you sifted through the various college admissions marketing pieces to find more “exact” matches on grades and test scores, then go back through the schools that were not exact. Are there any where the mean or median scores on the separate sections, the Critical Reading and the Math on the SAT, are 50 points higher, or less than your scores? On the ACT did you come within two or three points on the different sections? Hang on to the brochures for the schools that you like that fit the score profile. These schools, if you visit and like them, could be your reach schools if your scores do not go up by much.
What if an exceptionally-selective school that admitted freshmen with median SAT scores more than 200 points higher than yours or ACT Composite scores more than four points higher than yours has sent you material, and the school is not test optional?
Reality is that most schools that require the ACT or the SAT, and attract students with high scores, have very little latitude to admit students who score much lower than their average. The Ivy League, as one example has an athletic index–the recruited athletes cannot score dramatically lower in the tests than the average admitted student–as do the most selective liberal arts colleges. Maybe you will find a 1100 SAT student playing basketball for Duke. But how many young men are offered that opportunity each year?
Unless the school’s athletic coaches have been recruiting you seriously as a sophomore, or you have another outstanding talent in another area that is heavily valued on campus, such as music or theater, then throw the brochure away.
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