College myths: busted

Urban students have a variety of perceptions about college, ranging from “they only care about the SAT/ACT scores” (Olive Rynberg-Going, ‘18) to “it’s just a stream of constant pain until all the applications are done” (EZ Singer, ‘19).  However, considering that students continue to apply to and attend colleges year after year, and that enrollment rates are increasing, it is likely there is more depth to the system than meets the eye. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.5 million students enrolled in American colleges in 2016, up from 5.2 million in 2000. To shed light on the process, recent Urban School graduates, the Executive Director of a private test prep firm called Compass, and a University of San Francisco Admissions Officer shared their experiences with college applications.

  1. What do colleges actually look for?
    1. April Crabtree, USF Admissions Officer: “I do think that for every college or university, our primary responsibility is to deliver the faculty a group of committed, engaged, motivated, capable students.”
    2. Crabtree: “There used to be this mindset that more is better for extracurricular activities. And that’s not necessarily the case. Extracurriculars are really about what a student cares about and what they’re interested in. So if you’re doing 15 things, you’re probably not doing them all well. So it would be much better to see a student who has two or three things that they really care about, that they put more time into.”
    3. Crabtree: “I was really pleased to see more emphasis put in the common app about work and family responsibilities. So especially at USF, a significant number of our students have responsibilities to their families….Also, many students work just to have the extra money to buy what they want, but some students work because it supports their family….So we’re looking at how a student spends their time, and we’re not looking for anything in particular, just some sort of commitment.”
    4. Bruce Reed, Executive Director of Compass Education: “While I don’t think getting into college is more difficult than ever before, I think it’s become more difficult to predict who gets in where, and why. Colleges have become more concerned — and in turn more sophisticated — with managing their yield. That is, they are getting better at determining who will likely accept them back, so we hear more about so-called demonstrated interest playing a role. Of course, even that can be gamed which defeats the purpose. But in some cases, it can make a difference, all things being equal, if a student demonstrates a sincere interest in a certain school. But everything gets factored into a decision — including some variables entirely out of your control.”
  2. What part of the process should I stop worrying about?
    1. Sam Denton, Urban class of 2016: “I worried a lot about different scenarios of which schools I would or wouldn’t get accepted and I wish I had just gone through the process knowing it would work out.”
    2. Crabtree: “Figure out what you have control over –you have control over the application, you have control over when you hit the submit button, you have control over the essay– but once you hit the submit button you just have to let it go. It’s super hard.”
    3. Crabtree: “I think wondering when is hard. Get yourself organized. Figure out ‘I’ve submitted these six applications, this is the release date, is it coming by mail, is it coming by email, ask in advance. Most of us plan and know when we’re going to put decisions in the mail. Calling earlier or emailing is not going to make a difference.”
    4. Ehryn Ortega-Thurman, Urban class of 2016: “Not being good enough. I went into the process believing myself to be mediocre….and that quickly translated into me prematurely coming to terms with all the reject letters I was sure I was going to receive. Suffice to say that was not the case in the least.”
    5. Izzy Goldberg, Urban class of 2016: “I think I would have freaked out less about my essays. In fact, I think I would have had an easier time of writing my essays if I had spent less time thinking about them. I got really stuck! And I send my eternal thanks to Greg Monfils for helping me get unstuck, and helping me think about the whole process of application writing in a way that was more generous to myself, and more fun.”
  3. How important is the SAT/ACT?
    1. Crabtree: “So I think that it’s been very interesting to see how these schools have been continuing to go test optional as we talk about the inherent biases with the SAT and ACT once you factor in things such as race, racial background, factor in gender, factor in socioeconomic status, factor in whether or not you’re a first or second language speaker….So the work that you’ve accomplished over 3 or 3 ½ years, to me, is more important than what you’ve done in one Saturday for 5 hours.”
    2. Reed: “As imperfect and incomplete as they are, standardized test scores are useful to colleges because they are indeed standardized. They are a measure of relative standing that allows colleges to consider a given score within a predictable and symmetrical distribution of other scores — a distribution that doesn’t change much over time. Unlike GPA, for example, identical test scores are in fact identical regardless of where or when they occurred. Scores in the middle of the curve are the most common, so outlier scores are meaningful and, to a limited extent, predictive.”
  4. What can I do to improve my application experience?
    1. Ortega-Thurman: “I went on overnights and interviewed with the admission officers.”
    2. Denton: “I recognized early in the process that there was going to be a lot of work and did what I could to stay on top of applications without falling behind. I think making the college process gradual makes it feel much more relaxing.”
    3. Denton: “I didn’t take [Columbia] seriously at first because I thought it wasn’t a realistic choice for me and it seemed much more fitting to my brother than for me. I realized that there is no harm in applying because at every school there is a place for you to thrive.”
    4. Crabtree: “We get really tied up in numbers, and they can be very deceiving. Instead of doing that, focus on the experiences piece. You can go to somewhere that you feel like is a very visible, prestigious school, but if you don’t do anything with that, what’s the point?”
    5. Goldberg: “Seeking support from friends, family and teachers was hugely important for me during the whole process. It’s easy to feel like your worth is going to be defined by your ability to succeed in the silly, imperfect and arbitrary process of college admissions. Being open with the people I was closest with really helped me get through the whole ordeal.”