Jul 13, 2022

College Admissions: 6 Strategies for Success

Jul 13, 2022
Leigh Shimamoto – JD, CFP®
Wealth Architect
Navigating the complex college admissions process can feel overwhelming and stressful for students and parents. The effort that goes into academic planning, financing and applying to schools is often accompanied by feelings of pressure and anxiety.

These feelings may be further intensified for students who have their sights set on attending an ultra competitive institution, such as an Ivy League, with acceptance rates as low as 3.9 percent.¹ The reassuring news is that the majority of US colleges admit most applicants,² with the national acceptance rate for the 2021-2022 school year averaging just over 57 percent.³

By communicating openly with your child, educating yourselves and taking the time to properly prepare, the process will not only be more manageable – you might actually enjoy it! This is a major milestone for you and your child and one of their first steps into adulthood. From that perspective, it can be a very tender time: you get to be alongside them, guiding them and cheering them on.

Below we explore how to effectively tackle six key areas of the college admissions process, based on insights from experts Dr. Bruce Neimeyer, Founder & CEO of Global College Associates, and Sherie Gilmore-Cleveland, Dean of Admissions at Saint Mary’s College of California

1. Academics & Extracurriculars: Set Yourselves Up for Success

Academic preparation extends beyond GPA. By sophomore year, your child should start thinking about which colleges they may want to attend and look into their application requirements to inform course selection and ensure they are on track. If the student has a specific major or career path in mind, they should also be thinking about how their course choices are building toward that area. When an applicant’s extracurriculars and coursework share a common theme, that can help underscore their passion for a certain subject. What’s most important, however, is that the student pursues activities that are truly meaningful to them, without worrying about what other students are doing, what their parents want, or what they think will impress admissions officers. 

Extracurriculars give admissions officers a more holistic view of the applicant: their interests, time management abilities and leadership experience. Extracurriculars encompass more than sports or the school play. Take a look at the extracurricular dropdown menu in the Common App to see all the other categories considered extracurricular, such as community service, employment, music and software. 

2. Narrowing Down the Schools & Deciding When to Apply

When determining how many schools to apply to, Dr. Neimeyer and Dean Gilmore-Cleveland agree that the sweet spot is around 6 to 8. These schools should be carefully researched and include two “safety schools,” to which your child can reasonably expect to be admitted; some 50/50 schools, where they have a fairly good chance; and some more selective “reach” schools. To help your child finalize their list, consider visiting the campuses. Associate Wealth Architect Will Boscacci suggests shadowing.

“It was very important to me that I experience the campus community firsthand, beyond the guided tour,” says Boscacci. “I reached out to students who I knew at the schools I was interested in and shadowed them to get a feel for what a day in the life looked like as a student there.”

Once your child has their short list of favorite schools, they can begin application preparation. They’ll need to take note of each school’s application and financial aid deadlines and determine if they want to apply early decision (binding), early action (non-binding) or regular. Regular decision gives applicants an extra semester to showcase themselves, which can be helpful if they predict an upward trend in achievement; however, applying early has become very popular, as it can significantly boost a student’s chance of acceptance–sometimes even doubling their odds.

3. Standardized Tests: To Submit or Not to Submit?

Parents often ask Dr. Neimeyer what to do if their child struggles on standardized tests. He says there are two options: 1. Invest in a test prep coach to improve their SAT score (by about 50-100 points on average, but no guarantees); or 2. Find another way to demonstrate their knowledge and commitment to a certain field, e.g. by taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) or participating in relevant volunteer work.

Colleges love seeing evidence that an applicant is committed to building and applying their skills in an area of interest, especially when it aligns with their intended major. Focusing on this, rather than a modest bump to the test score, may be more worthwhile, especially as many colleges (including the UC system) move toward “test optional,” no longer requiring students to submit standardized test scores. Only 40 percent of applicants submitted a test score for the 2021 school year, down significantly from 73 percent in 2019-2020.⁴ In short, if a student’s test scores support or strengthen the rest of their application, consider including them. If not, consider leaving them out.

4. Exploring Your Financial Options

A college education is a huge expense and student loan interest rates are on the rise. Wealth Architects works with clients to figure out the best approach to paying for college and develop strategies tailored to their circumstances, financial goals and child’s educational wishes. For some families, paying for college might extend the parents’ retirement age or take the place of other aspirations, so it’s critical to find ways to save through vehicles like a 529 college savings plan, earmarking funds in their portfolio and applying for financial aid.

Dr. Neimeyer encourages just about everyone to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, whether or not they think they’re eligible for need-based aid. The FAFSA is a zero-cost insurance policy and, should the family’s finances take a downturn, you can appeal for additional funding. Note that not all institutions meet need to the same extent; some cover 100 percent of the need, others only a portion. Your child might also qualify for merit-based scholarships or aid from other sources, such as a community organization. They should research and discuss these options with their college advisor.

Talk with your kids about your values and expectations for funding college. This is an opportunity to open up to your child about your financial standing and create a learning experience for them – calculating the net cost of different schools, mapping out loan repayment options after graduation, and so on. If you haven’t had real-world money conversations with your child before, now is a great time to start.

5. Alternative Educational Paths

Attending a traditional four-year college is not right for everyone. Many community colleges offer reputable two-year vocational programs, such as firefighting or advanced manufacturing. If a student is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree but could use more time to make the transition–to mature or build up their academic profile–they may thrive in the smaller, more intimate classroom settings of community colleges, especially for the general education courses taken in those first two years. Community colleges also offer greater school-life flexibility for those who wish to balance their education with other things, such as family obligations or an apprenticeship. Lastly, community colleges often have partnerships with prominent four-year institutions that essentially guarantee a student admission as long as they meet the GPA requirement.

“A college education, regardless of where you start or eventually attend, is what you as the student make of it,” says Associate Portfolio Analyst Justin Mazzon. “Community college can provide the right student a more affordable and flexible beginning to their college experience.”

An undergraduate degree abroad appeals to some students, such as those with an international background or a desire to study another culture or language. Surprisingly, international schools are often more affordable than a four-year domestic college, as they are typically only three years and many accept US federal financial aid, too. Notably, international institutions often don’t have a student life component (such as an enclosed campus or student housing). They likely have different academic prerequisites than US schools. Therefore, if interested in going this route, a student should look into the schools’ requirements before their sophomore year so they can prepare accordingly.

6. Empowering the Student to Drive the College Admissions Process

Give your child an opportunity to own this process and practice advocating for themselves – this is a great time for learning and growth. Encourage them to conduct research and contact admissions officers at the schools when they have questions. This gesture demonstrates the student’s interest and some schools even keep record of prospective students’ engagement, such as outreach to the school and opening emails from the school.

Students should also take advantage of the interview option, if offered, says Dean Gilmore-Cleveland. It’s not just about winning the school’s favor, but sincerely learning more about the school and evaluating if it’s a good match.

As a parent, really listen to what your child has to say about their educational desires. The ultimate goal is to find the best fit, which is different for everyone. What does that look like to them? Open dialogue and active listening between parent and child can make this experience that much more successful, positive and empowering for your child.

This article is based on Wealth Architects’ webinar “A Fresh Look at College Planning.” Listen to the full conversation here.

¹ https://www.quadeducationgroup.com/blog/ivy-league-acceptance-rates-vs-other-schools
² https://www.pewresearch.org/
³ https://www.univstats.com/corestats/admission

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