Guess it is time to address some of the annual media hype surrounding college admissions. Every fall we see news stories trying to hook readers with a new or shocking angle. This week’s highlight comes from “Business Week” and features a former hedge fund manager who “guarantees” he can get your child into an Ivy League school for a mere $600,000.
The story is shocking. The problem is it is also highly misleading.
1. There are restrictions in the fine print.
In order to meet the Ivy acceptance guarantee, a student must meet certain “metrics.” In other words, the guarantee will only apply to students with suitably high grade point averages, standardized test scores, and other unspecified measures.
You don’t need to pay me half a million dollars to tell you that most Ivy League students graduate in the top 5% of their high school classes. They have SAT and Subject Test scores in the 700’s per section. Additionally, these students have excelled in one or more activities or areas of interest.
This high dollar consultant isn’t guaranteeing admission for just anyone. He is limiting the field.
2. Money doesn’t buy admission, but it helps.
Yes, we’ve all heard the old joke that if a building on campus bears your family name, and the significant donations given to build it, you are a shoe-in for admission. I can’t say that at some level money doesn’t play a factor. But admissions officers are not selling off places in the entering class to the highest bidder.
While money isn’t a guarantee of admission, it can help. The family that can afford to pay the $600,000 consultant’s fee can also pay for high quality schooling, top-notch tutoring, any enrichment activities they desire, and more. While other applicants make due with the classes, activities, and resources available in their schools, communities, and families, the extremely wealthy candidate will have every privilege money can buy. (Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that money may not be enough to buy into the Ivy League.)
3. College admission doesn’t work on a formula.
Everyone is looking for the magic formula for college admission. “If I have a 4.0 GPA, what scores do I need to get in?” “What activities does she need to do in high school to look good for college admission?”
In reality there is no formula. Yes, we can look at numbers as guidelines, but every counselor can tell you there are exceptions. I’ve had clients gain admission to schools I thought would deny them and I’ve also seen rejection letters from institutions I felt strongly would admit a particular candidate. I’ve also seen one student, using the same application for each, get accepted by Harvard and rejected by Brown and Yale. (Go figure!)
What this article, this consultant, and some others are trying to do is distill a subjective process into a basic formula. Doing so plays well in the media and satisfies a client’s natural desire to have a firm answer, but it is misleading.
4. Sensationalized stories distort the reality of college admissions.
I think this is the worst part of articles like the one from “Business Week.” Families around the country get bad information on how the college admissions process actually works.
Worse yet, many students and parents read the media hype and feel defeated. They give up on certain colleges and universities because “we don’t have that kind of money, influence, status, etc.” I’ve seen too many applicants resign themselves to community college or state universities unnecessarily because they felt that was the best they could hope for.
What you won’t hear in the media this fall is that a majority of applicants are actually admitted into one of their top choice schools. Most colleges and universities admit a majority of their applicants. And even students with below average grades and standardized test scores can get into, and succeed at, major four-year schools. These facts don’t garner media attention. Good news doesn’t sell magazines.
How can you avoid the hype?
Become informed. Tour campuses, listen to admissions presentations, ask questions, and be suspicious of the person who is trying to sell you something that sounds too good to be true.
There are plenty of high quality school and independent counselors willing to help students with the college admissions process. Yes, some charge higher fees and I don’t have a problem with clients paying more for a consultant’s experience and education.
Shy away from slick-talking salesman and companies offering guarantees. This applies to college admission, athletic recruiting, scholarships & financial aid, fine arts auditions, test preparation, and all aspects of the college prep process. No one can guarantee student performance, admission, or scholarships. Read the fine print very carefully if you find yourself persuaded by this type of language.
I’ll end my mini-rant with the response to the “Business Week” article written by the president of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), an organization of which I’m a member.
As President of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the organization focused solely on independent college counseling, I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Ma’s assertion that, “with enough data, nothing (in college admission) is subjective.”
College counseling is an art, not a science. There are no formulas that can fully predict a student’s admission to any college or university. As a former college admission officer, I can safely say that there are multiple non-quantifiable factors that go into a holistic review process – talent in a specific area, demonstrated interest, filling institutional needs, showing potential to succeed, and the list goes on. True, some colleges and universities utilize index charts (measuring GPA and test scores or class rank) for automatic admission, but most leave room for professional judgment – that good, old-fashioned belief in an applicant.
What Ma’s approach does is precisely what professional consultants aspire not to do: create a standardized approach to college admission. This oversimplification of the college admission process proclaims a one-size-fits-all model guaranteeing one perfect, predictable path to gain admission. Yet, what matters most in the application process, regardless of a college or university’s selectivity, is the authenticity of the student, especially the authenticity of that student’s activities and voice within the application. The reliance on a formula, or criteria that one must check off in order to be an acceptable candidate creates cookie cutter automatons that are non-distinguishable to colleges and universities. Instead, a good counselor concentrates less on the “getting in” aspect of college admission and more on helping students examine their strengths and interests, empowering them to think critically and make well-informed decisions about their future educational experiences.
The unfortunate fact here is that many families do not know what to ask or which qualifications to seek when hiring an educational consultant. Families should seek consultants with demonstrated experience in the field of higher education, are dedicated to ongoing professional development, and belong to professional organizations that adhere to clear standards of ethical practice. These include two organizations dedicated to independent education consulting, the Higher Education Consultants Association and Independent Education Consultant Association, as well as broader organizations such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling and its regional affiliates.
Such organizations, and the professionals belonging to them, strive to help students and families navigate the complex issues and reduce the stress inherent within the admission process, not capitalize on fears and misguided desires in order to line their pockets.
President, Higher Education Consultants Association