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College Connections: Trends, tips, and tasks

By Charlene Aguilar, director of college counseling

As we head into the new year, I will summarize mid-season good news for the Class of 2012 and share some of the admissions trends we are seeing on the national level. I’ll close with tips and tasks for seniors and juniors including reminders about key upcoming events.

By Charlene Aguilar, director of college counseling

As we head into the new year, I will summarize mid-season good news for the Class of 2012 and share some of the admissions trends we are seeing on the national level. I’ll close with tips and tasks for seniors and juniors including reminders about key upcoming events.

Well done, Class of 2012:
As of mid-January, seniors have submitted close to 100 percent of their college applications and about a third of them have been accepted to schools under early admissions programs, some with multiple offers. Winter break was a flurry of work for seniors and Lakeside college counselors as students wrapped up application essays and supplements to meet early January deadlines.
Now as some seniors turn their attention to scholarship applications, juniors begin their college work with us and look forward to evening forums in January and February geared especially to them. (More on those in a moment.)
Admissions trends
Here are several of the important national admissions developments unfolding, with a look at how they may affect Lakesiders in particular. Note that parents and guardians will hear more on trends at our January 26 “Ask Admissions” forum with speaker John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College (details below).
Trend: Students are submitting an increasing number of applications. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reports that, of the freshman class of 2010, nearly 77 percent applied to three or more schools, an increase of 16 percentage points over the last 20 years; 25 percent submitted seven or more applications. The ease of applying electronically is considered the key factor.
The result is that 73 percent of colleges reported an increase in applications for fall 2010, and about 75 percent of colleges have seen increases each year for the past decade.
NACAC calls this new reality “the applications arms race.” As students sense the unpredictability of where they will get in, they apply to more schools, which make colleges market themselves all the more widely. This larger group of applicants includes students who will have little chance of being accepted, which leads to more rejections. The result is that anxious students want to hedge bets by applying to even more colleges.
Lakeside take: Our students send an average of about eight applications. Our message to students is to make sure their college lists are carefully balanced in terms of both “fit” and quantitative factors as they apply to solid, target and stretch schools to increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.  We caution against over-applying. As rewarding as it can be, the college application process is also very demanding. Each application requires research and personal reflection. What are my goals? What does the college offer that appeals to me? How will I contribute to the college community? Authentic personal and reflective narratives take time to write and colleges often require additional essays or fill-in-the-blank questions. There also may be required or recommended interviews. It is difficult to do all this well if students are applying to too many schools.
(You can read a bit more of my advice on this subject cited in College Admission here.)
Trend: College acceptance rates are slightly down. After remaining stable for three years, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges and universities declined by 1 percentage point to 65.5 percent compared to fall 2007 through fall 2009 figures, NACAC reports.
The number of high school graduates in the U.S. reached a peak of 3.33 million in 2008-09 after more than a decade of steady growth. The number of graduates will continue to decline through 2014-15, and will remain below 2009 levels through at least 2020-21. Yet even as the number of high-school graduates declines, more students are seeking higher education.
And the most selective colleges remain more difficult to get into than in the past, often with single-digit acceptance rates.  U.S. Department of Education data from 2001-2008 used to analyze patterns in selectivity show: 
  • Private institutions, on average, accepted about 2 percent fewer of their applicants each of those years. Some analysts suggest this rate impacts some applicants more than others. They suggest that the admission rate for a student without a “hook” such as being an athletic recruit, significant legacy, potential major donor, or first in the family to go to college is lower.

  • At publics, the median acceptance rate declined 7 percentage points overall, or an annual decrease of about 1 percentage point.

  • The most selective schools (roughly measured by where students had the highest SATs, 1260 or higher on the critical reading and math components), saw acceptance rates decline every year, with the median decline for 2001-08 of 13 percentage points.  Another more sophisticated analysis for the National Bureau of Economic Research (“Playing the Admissions Game: Student Reactions to Increasing College Competition”) that charted 1986 to 2003, estimated the drop in acceptances for the most selective colleges was 25 percent but was smaller for students who tested at the highest quintile (4.8 percent drop at selective publics, 17 percent at selective privates).
Lakeside take: As we’ve experienced the past few years, we expect Lakeside students will continue to have admission success at both private and public institutions. And as we do each year, we will carefully track admission decisions. Our office will be gauging whether there’s a fundamental shift in priorities taking place at the most highly selective colleges.
We know already that two of the most highly selective, high profile universities, Harvard and Princeton, added an admission option called Single Choice Early Action. (Apply to us, but not to other colleges early. We will give you a decision in December, and you may apply to other colleges in their regular process. Yale and Stanford have offered this restrictive early option for many years.)  With declining rates in admission, we suspect that this group of universities will focus on special institutional priorities when choosing students from the Restrictive Early Action pool—admitting those compelling candidates who also have a significant “hook.” In the words of one dean of admission, “We’ve seen a dramatic shift in our early admission pool the last five years. With a 10 percent increase in applications, wonderful students are denied.”
Trend: Colleges seek students who stand out from the crowd. NACAC reports that once again the top four most significant factors in admissions are, in order of importance: grades in college preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, standardized admission test scores, and overall high school grade point average. 
  • More selective colleges attributed greater importance to strength of curriculum and grades in college prep courses than did their less-selective counterparts. They also placed more emphasis on factors outside of the top four, including: the essay, teacher and counselor recommendations, extracurricular activities, work, and portfolios.
  • Between 25 and 31 percent of colleges rated race/ethnicity, first-generation status, high school attended, and alumni relations as at least moderately important.
  • More selective institutions attributed more influence to almost all of the “student contextual factors,” including race/ethnicity, gender, first-generation status, state or county of residence, and alumni relations.
  • Larger colleges rated first-generation status and state or county of residence as having more influence, while smaller colleges rated ability to pay, alumni relations, and gender more highly.
Legacies still have an advantage, though not as much as in the past. A June report in Economics of Education Review by a Harvard researcher who recently examined the impact of legacy status at 30 highly selective colleges concluded that, all other things being equal, children of parents who attended a school as an undergraduate saw a 45 percentage point increase in the probability of admission. However, The New York Times noted in reporting this news, “Over the long haul, though, legacy enrollment has declined. In 1980, 24 percent of Yale’s freshman class had a parent who had attended, but in the class of 2014, 13 percent were legacy students. At most Ivy League schools, 10 percent to 15 percent of those who end up enrolling are the children of former students. And with college enrollment at an all-time high, admittance has become tougher for everyone; acceptance rates are far lower than a generation ago. An applicant from the Harvard class of 1985 would have faced an admission rate of 16 percent, compared to 6 percent for the class of 2015.” (You can read the Times article here, and another from the Chronicle of Higher Education here.)
While colleges are looking for students who stand out in the deluge of applications, admissions officers report that it’s a challenge to ferret out quality when they receive so many applications and when some of those students seem less authentic in interviews or essays, increasingly coached by parents or paid help. In a recent story in The New York Times, several representatives from top colleges said this made teacher and counselor recommendations more important than ever.
One admission dean mentioned the importance of “demonstrating humanity and three-dimensionality” and that “public service is a baseline; we’re trying to find people who make others around them better.”  Another cited, “modesty and resourcefulness” as the qualities she most associated with an ideal candidate. A third dean closed with advice to future applicants. He observed that students advocate best for themselves when they “loosen up.” (You can read the story here.)
Lakeside take: Our students are interesting, authentic young people who communicate effectively and have tremendous talent. They possess the intellect and character to make a real impact on our world. We will continue to support each and every member of the senior class as they make their way through this college process.
And now to those tips and to-do lists for seniors and juniors.
Attention, seniors:
With most college application deadline dates complete, some seniors have now turned their attention to meeting mid-February deadlines for federal and institutional aid. We want to underscore that admission and financial-aid decisions are made by separate offices at most colleges and universities, a reason we strongly encourage all Lakeside families who have a need for aid to apply for it. The “Statement of Principles of Good Practice,” adopted nationally by colleges and universities, guides their admission and financial aid practices:
“College and university members agree that they should admit candidates on the basis of academic and personal criteria, rather than financial need, as a consideration in selecting students.”    
That said, the economic downturn has placed more colleges under pressure, and some colleges may offer financial aid packages that do not meet full need, a reason the Lakeside college-counseling team encourages seniors to apply to a range of colleges, including those we know have offered generous merit scholarships to our students.
Attention, juniors: 
Prior to the holiday break, we mailed the October 2011 PSAT Score Report to juniors. While PSAT scores, in part, serve to give some students access to scholarships through the National Merit Corporation (find FAQs about that here), the primary purpose of the PSAT is to give students a preliminary sense of the test format prior to taking the SAT.
We will distribute copies of Lakeside’s 2012-2013 College Handbook for students and families in the Class of 2013 at the February 2 evening program. (See schedule below.) At that time we’ll also preview Lakeside’s college-counseling process so that junior families better understand our timeline for the coming months.
Our college counseling team possesses a wealth of experience.  As seasoned educators invested in each of our Lakeside students, we will support and challenge students to take ownership of their college processes. Along the way, we will relay consistent and confirming messages to the Class of 2013 that echo the following statement: 
The best preparation for college is to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities at Lakeside—within and beyond the classroom. Develop skills, pursue your interests, discover your passion and commit to something larger than yourself.  Along the way, learn to strike a balance between all these things and explore what you hope to accomplish on your life’s journey.
College Counseling Presents...
And now, mark your calendars for the following Forums for Families.
Please note that all events will be at St. Nicholas Hall, unless otherwise stated.
Ask Admissions
January 26, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Keynote speaker is John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, a nationally respected expert who will discuss trends and offer insights into the selective college admission process. This forum is open to interested all parents and guardians in the Upper School.  
College Kick-off Night: College Night for Junior Parents/Guardians
February 2, 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
At this evening just for parents and guardians of the Class of 2013, come meet the college-counseling team, find out specifics about the Lakeside college process, and get your questions answered.
Seattle Gap Year Fair
February 12, 1 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Part of a national circuit of events, this fair is designed to provide students interested in taking a gap year exposure to a broad array of programs and a chance to speak with people who work in the field with reputable organizations that focus on education, service, and personal growth. This year the fair will be at The Northwest School. Find more info here. 
Please be sure to check the college counseling section of the website for reminders and updates:

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