Caveat Emptor – College Admissions Edition

I’ve been crazy busy with many different constituencies since the beginning of the year and though the spirit was willing and eager to write every few days, the flesh was too exhausted.  Today is another snow day in NYC, though (YAY!!! I think I must be the only person in this City who loves snow except for personal trainers who live for skiing on the weekends), so I finally have the bandwidth to put some words out into the ether.

Here’s another lesson in College Admissions Is A Business.  I share this with you because I want you to know the rules of the game you are about to play so you and your child have a better chance of making good decisions.

Colleges are sending their Search mailings now and it’s worth a column or two because it’s where the college admissions process begins and where truth begins to go off the rails.  Wonder why your child is beginning to get mail from colleges?  Here’s the skinny: colleges buy the names of students based on the PSAT score ranges and other demographic information desired by those individual schools (a process called Search).  A selective liberal arts college in the NorthEast, for example, might buy the names of males (under-represented in liberal arts colleges) with PSAT scores of 60+ in Critical Reading, 65+ in Math, 60+ in Writing.  That school might target students on the West Coast if it wants to bring in more Californians or target certain zip codes if it wants to reach out to more full-pay applicants.  Colleges can parse these parameters in many ways to fill or balance up their needs because this is the first big net they cast to scoop up lots of potential applicants.

The Search mailing is very important and is a large line item in the admissions office budget.

Once the names are purchased, the mailings are sent.  Yes, mailings.  As in, brochures and viewbooks large and small.  Colorful.  Glossy.  You might wonder in this age of virtual everything why colleges would continue to invest in paper (and such costly paper at that) when an email or tweet might do.  The simple answer is – parents.  If colleges did their Search outreach to students at this point, most of their efforts would be wasted because communicating with a teenager is notoriously difficult – kids have these nasty habits of ignoring email and most social media, actually.  They live in their own worlds and they rarely come up for air.  The point of sending a colorful publication through the US mail is for the parents to see it – get the full visual hit – and feel warm, happy and appreciative that this college has reached out to their child and thinks their child is special.  The parent will take it from there, nudging the poor kid to look at that school and maybe even apply.  Sadly, this is where parents begin to develop unrealistic expectations about their child’s chances of admission to some of these colleges because colleges know they’ll end up admitting just a fraction of the students who respond to the mailings.

Rule 1:  Just because it sent your child a seductive mailing out of the blue and is encouraging them to apply, doesn’t mean that college wants to admit them.

The whole point of the mailing is to encourage the application because that college lives and dies by its application numbers.  Remember the Holy Trinity of the college admissions business:  high number of applications, low number of admits (called the admit rate), high number of enrollees (called the yield).  These are 3 of the 4 aspects of the 17 aspect algorithm of the USNWR ranking system that the admissions office has control over and these three numbers matter.  A lot.  (oh, BTW, did you know that 25% of the algorithm is based on the opinions of peer institutions, utterly and completely subjective?)

So when the mailings come in by the boxload, remember that what the schools are really looking for is an application, not you or your child.  With this filter in mind, now go read through the material and see how it feels.  Fore-warned is fore-armed.

Never let your child fall in love with a college that won’t love them back… that’s called unrequited love and it hurts.