Planning , Timing & Synchronizing

The admissions process usually begins during a student’s Junior Year when a student meets with a guidance counselor, selects some colleges, and perhaps visits a few campuses. During Junior Year (equivalent to Class 11th of the Indian system), or the summer vacations before senior year (equivalent to Class 12th of the Indian system) is a good time to finalize application plans and perhaps begin writing essays, decide whether to apply either early or regular decision and prepare for the SAT. International students may need to take tests showing English-language proficiency such as the TOEFL, IELTS or PTE Academic. Senior year (equivalent to Class 12th of the Indian system) is when students apply to colleges. The CSS (College Board’s College Scholarship Service) can be submitted by October first of the student’s senior year while the FAFSA becomes available on the web after January first. Decisions happen by April, and students are expected to reply by May unless waitlisted.

Selecting Courses / Colleges / Universities

Senior advisors suggest that it is wise to have a “four-year plan” with proactive planning. Some suggested against lightening the academic load during senior year because this may indicate less real interest in academics.

Selection of colleges – Rankings of Colleges & Universities

Counselors suggest one place to begin a search for colleges is to consult a ranking guide. Two well-known college and university rankings guides are the U.S. News and World Report and The Washington Monthly’s “College Rankings” issue, but there are many different groups that produce college rankings of U.S. schools based on different factors and using different methodology. Advisors stress that consulting a ranking list is only a beginning, and that much more research is needed.


The US News ranking generated much controversy when their map showed locations of its assessment of the top 40 colleges in the US in 2007, with many located in the northeast of US.

Rankings have been the subject of much criticism. Since much of the data is provided by colleges themselves, there are opportunities for schools to manipulate the rankings to enhance prestige. There have been instances in which school officials deliberately misreported statistics, such as an admissions dean at Claremont McKenna who falsified average SAT statistics, and a report that Emory University falsely reported student data for “more than a decade,” as well as reports of false data from the United States Naval Academy and Baylor University. There is considerable hypocrisy surrounding rankings: some colleges pretend to loathe the guidebooks that rank them, yet if they get a good write-up, they would lap up the opportunity. Media has criticized the “mindless pursuit of better numbers” by colleges to boost their college rankings as destructive and opined that families place too much emphasis on the rankings as a way to select colleges. Further, the US News rankings fail to take a college’s affordability into account or factor in the average student indebtedness after college as well as failing to measure how well colleges actually educated their students. The US News algorithm “favors schools that spurn more students.” College admissions counselors criticized rankings as misleading, and criticized the rankings inputs of peer assessments, student selectivity and alumni giving as being poor predictors of a college’s overall quality.

The rankings title “America’s Best Colleges”, prompted counselors to ask “best for whom”?

In 2007, members of the Annapolis Group discussed a letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the US News “reputation survey”. A majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting agreed not to participate, although the statements were not binding. Members pledged to develop alternative web-based information formats in conjunction with several collegiate associations. US News responded that their peer assessment survey helps them measure a college’s “intangibles” such as the ability of a college’s reputation to help a graduate win a first job or entrance into graduate school. An article by Nicholas Thompson in Washington Monthly criticized the U.S. News rankings as “confirming the prejudices of the meritocracy” by tuning their statistical algorithms to entrench the reputations of a handful of schools, while failing to measure how much students learn. Thompson described the algorithms as being “opaque enough that no one outside the magazine can figure out exactly how they work, yet clear enough to imply legitimacy.” One effort to systematize the compilation of college admissions data is the Common Data Set initiative.

Choosing schools by selectivity

Senior Advisors typically ask students to begin to see potential colleges in terms of four types:

  • Reach schools provide a slim chance of acceptance, such as a 5% or slimmer chance.
  • Possibles (or high matches) have greater chance of rejection than acceptance.
  • Probables (or low matches) have greater chance of acceptance than rejection.
  • Solid or safety schools seldom reject candidates with similar academic credentials.

High school counselors recommend that a safety school be one that a student would like to attend if rejected everywhere else. Counselors also advise having at least one financial aid safety school that is affordable even without financial aid. Another classification is “unlikelies” (5% chance of acceptance), “reach schools” (25% chance), “possibles” (50% chance) and “likelies” (80% chance).

Typically counselors will suggest an applicant apply to a mix of the different types of schools, usually having at least two safety school, but the numbers of the others are up to students and families. Some recommend that a student apply to a minimum of two “solid” schools and two “probable” schools. Many high schools subscribe to an online service called Naviance which, among other things, can help a student gauge the likelihood of admission to a particular college. It is based on a student’s grades and test scores in comparison to the admissions results from students from previous years applying to that particular college. In addition, counselors can help a student consider different types of colleges, such as liberal arts colleges, research universities, and specialty schools.

The admissions system of the so-called best schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.

Former US Education Secretary William Bennett suggested college should be seen as a long term purchase with the return on investment (ROI) being the future earnings potential of a graduate. Schools have been compared financially by examining average costs, student debt, and lifelong earnings, to yield an effective average ROI. Bennett suggested that only 150 out of the nation’s 3500 colleges provided positive returns.

College ROI rank 2013
Harvey Mudd 1
Caltech 2
Stanford 4
Princeton 5
Harvard 6
Dartmouth 7
Duke 8
U. Penn 9
Notre Dame 10
Better fit or prestige

Prestige of colleges correlates with age, such that the oldest east-coast schools tend to have accumulated the most prestige by virtue of their longevity. There is widespread consensus that the fit between a student and a school is an important factor. Several reports suggest that “fit should trump prestige every single time,” and that it is better for a school to match a student in terms of social, cultural, and academic qualities and not be chosen simply because of a school’s prestige. Others see college admissions as essentially a choice between “price and prestige”. Elite colleges have been compared to designer labels, a valuable credential in the job market, and an entryway into top graduate schools. Some advisors specialize in helping students find a good fit—a suitable list of colleges—which helps students in the long run. They help students to explore their values and needs, and provide counseling to help both students and parents find a college or university program that helps students meet long term goals. Questions include thinking about life goals, which activities a person likes best, and what style of learning works best for the student. Evaluating personal preferences is important and can take time. One advisor suggests it is important for a student to think through what is best, and choose on this basis, and “do not listen to your friends” since they have different needs and wants. “One of the worst ways to make a decision about where to go to college is to follow a friend because he or she is having a good time at that school,”. Since “barely half” of students entering college as freshmen ever graduate from college later in their lives, getting the right fit is important for parents and students to avoid wasting money.

So what is a good fit:
The college that fits you best is one that will:
(1) Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs
(2) Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn
(3) Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation
(4) Offer a community that feels like home to you and
(5) Value you for what you do well.

A private admissions counselor elaborates: A school has to fit – academically, socially, and economically … Ask whether a college feels right … rather than is it best …

One admissions dean likens “fit” to a friendship:

I draw the analogy of friends to explain why fit is so important in considering a college. You like your good friends for some reason. It may not be an objective reason. It’s often subjective. There’s some sense of compatibility, a kind of intuition, a match, a common sense of values, what you like to do, how you think – those are the things that really bind people together. It’s similar with college. You don’t want to spend four years with a college who isn’t really your friend.
In addition, counselors can help less academically astute students find good colleges to help them pursue careers, and can point out colleges that are “gems” but relatively unknown. In some cases, choosing a college in a different part of the country can improve chances for admission, particularly if the college is seeking “geographical diversity.” One study suggests that the overall prestige of a person’s college is less important, overall, in predicting how they would fare in later life, and that personal characteristics, such as aptitude, are more important.

Selecting colleges by type

Different types of schools offer different educations: including engineering-oriented colleges such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, which emphasizes teaching, internships, and technical education.
Two-year county or community colleges, such as Union County College in New Jersey, are geared for students who live at home and commute to school, and can be a highly affordable alternative to many private colleges as well as public universities.

Some colleges focus on one particular area, such as the Juilliard School in New York City, which is highly selective, and specializes in preparing students for careers in dance, music, theater, and the arts.
Although most educational institutions in the U.S. are non-profit, some are for-profit. Colleges and universities in the U.S. vary in terms of goals: some may emphasize a vocational, business, engineering or technical curriculum while others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum. Many combine some or all of the above. Another consideration is the male-female ratio; overall, 56% of enrolled college students are women, but the male-female ratio varies by college and year and program. Admissions guidance counselors can offer views about whether a public or private school is best, and give a sense of the tradeoffs.

Costs of College Education (Only tuition fee discussed here)

Sticker versus net price

The general pattern is that most colleges and universities, particularly private ones, have an artificially high and unreliable sticker price while charging most students a discounted price that varies considerably. Some people compare college prices with “airline tickets” since “everybody pays a different fare”.
Another report agreed: Sticker price is the full price colleges list in their brochures and on their websites. Net price is the price students actually pay. Net price accounts for the fact that many students receive grants or scholarships. So it can be considerably lower than sticker price.

Priciest colleges 2012-2013
tuition, room, board, books
School Cost
New York Univ. $61,977
Harvey MuddCaltech $61,760
Bard $61,446
Rensselaer $60,779
Sarah Lawrence $60,656
WesleyanHarvard $60,2146
Dartmouth $60,201
U. Chicago $60,039
Bard-Simon’s Rk $60,003
Trinity $59,860

Discounting began in the 1970s and was dramatically expanded in the 1990s, according to one report. Discrepancy between sticker and average net prices can vary substantially. Estimates vary, but show a consistent pattern of sticker prices being much greater than real costs, sometimes more than double, sometimes only one and half times as high. Estimates are that 88% or 67% get some form of discount. Generally, the sticker-to-net price discrepancy is greater at private colleges than public universities. For example, in 2011-2012, the average sticker price for tuition, fees and living expenses at private colleges, was $38,590 while the average actual cost was $23,060; at public colleges, the average sticker price was $17,130 and the average actual cost was $11,380. Another estimate was that the average full-time undergraduate gets $6,500 in grant aid along with $1,000 in tax-based aid to offset tuition and fees. There is widespread consensus that the most cost-effective college option is community colleges, which charge on average only $3,000 for full-time tuition.

Colleges use high sticker prices because it allows them wide latitude in how to use funds to attract the best students, as well as entice students with special skills or increase its overall racial or ethnic diversity. The most sought-after students can be enticed by high discounts while marginal students can be charged full freight. Further, the high sticker price is a marketing tool to suggest the overall worth of a college education, along the lines of encouraging people to think that “schools that cost more must provide a better education.” A report by the Pew Research Center found that while there was growing concern about escalating college prices, most Americans believed that their personal investment in higher education was sound. But discounting adds complexity to decision-making, deterring some students from applying in some instances based on a false sense of unaffordability.

Net price calculators
In the fall of 2011, colleges were required by federal law to post a net price calculator on their websites to give prospective students and families a rough estimate of likely college costs for their particular institution, and to “demystify pricing.” A student or family could go online, find the calculator at a college’s website, and enter the required financial and academic information, and the calculator should tell them an estimate of the likely cost of attending that college. The first online calculators were started by Williams College. The online calculators look at financial need and academic merit to try to estimate the likely discounted price offered to a particular student from a particular college, using information including details from tax returns, household income, grade point averages and test scores. Schools vary in terms of their pricing formulas; some consider home equity as a factor while others disregard it. We recommend that families shopping for colleges go to a college’s website and use the net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of cost.

Sticker versus net price
Family income $48K-$75K, Total annual cost, Selected colleges 2012
School Sticker
Net price
Lafayette 53020 19800
Cornell 55501 27400
New York University 57858 40300
SUNY-Binghamton 20026 19400
U. Chicago 56716 28500
Reed 54800 29400
Berkeley 29027 24300
Swarthmore 54400 20000
Georgetown 55110 26400
Harvard 52652 10600

There are numerous potential problems with the calculators. Some are difficult to find on a college’s website; others require specific financial numbers, possibly leading to errors by parents or students; some are difficult to understand and use; some may be manipulated by schools to increase applications or to make it seem as if a college is “more affordable” than it is. Accuracy of calculator estimates may vary considerably from college to college. Ultimately aid decisions will not be made by calculators, but by humans in the admissions offices.

Types of financial aid
Advisors can help students and parents decide whether to choose private universities or public ones, including state-subsidized schools as well as community colleges, and to help students and parents understand different types of financial aid.

  • Need-based aid is offered according to the financial need of a student. Generally colleges at the “top of the pecking order” dispense aid solely in terms of need using “fairly predictable formulas”. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that elite colleges had made little progress in helping poor students get need-based aid, and that less than 15% of undergraduates at the nation’s 50 wealthiest colleges received Pell Grants in 2008-2009, which are offered on the basis of need to promising yet less affluent students. According to one source, about 30 elite universities have “coffers deep enough to meet all student need” and consequently only offer need-based aid.
  • Merit-based aid is scholarships and grants awarded to top academic performers or others with special talents. One report suggested that academic scholarships tended to be few, and were usually awarded by the admissions office and are “highly competitive”. Another report suggested that most colleges use merit scholarships, based on high scores or grades or other accomplishments, to lure students away from a competing college.
    One view is that most colleges award aid using a mix of both. Further, student loans can lessen the immediate difficulty of large tuition bills but can saddle a student with debt after graduation; in contrast, grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back.

Schools trying to climb the prestige ladder use merit based scholarships to attract top students to boost their rankings in the US News guidebook. As a school’s “stock” rises, high performing students start attending in greater numbers, and consequently the college can “ratchet back on the merit aid to wealthy students” and shift funds towards “need-based financial aid”. Elite schools such as the Ivies don’t give merit scholarships, according to two reports. Another tool is to use the College Board’s expected family contribution calculator that can give families an idea of how much college will cost, but not for any particular college.

Families think their sons and daughters are awarded a merit scholarship because of the fact that they are wonderfully smart and talented … The primary reason for awarding a non-need-based merit scholarship is to change a student’s enrollment decision from another institution to our institution. That’s why colleges do it.

Applying for financial aid
The FAFSA website is and is free. There are many websites that like the official FAFSA website, but are deliberately misleading.

There are many reports that many applicants fail to apply for financial aid when they are qualified for it; one estimate was that 1.8 million students in 2006 who would have qualified for aid did not apply for it. Applying for financial aid is recommended by almost all college admissions advisers, even for middle-class and upscale families applying to private colleges.

Each college has its own criteria for determining financial need and loans. One advisor counseled against letting the sticker price of a college dissuade a student from applying, since many of the top colleges have strong endowments allowing them to subsidize expenses, such that the colleges are less expensive than so-called “second tier” or state colleges. College advisors suggest that parents keep financial records, including tax forms, business records, for later use when applying for financial aid, and complete the FAFSA online early in January of their college-bound student’s senior year. The earliest that the FAFSA form can be filled out is January first of a student’s senior year; in contrast, the CSS Profile can be filled out earlier during the preceding fall. There are reports that many parents make mistakes when filling out the FAFSA information, and mistakes include failing to hit the “submit” button, visiting an incorrect FAFSA website, leaving some fields blank instead of properly entering a zero, spelling names or entering social security numbers or estimating tax data incorrectly.
Since FAFSA formulas assume 20% of a student’s assets can be used for college expenses as opposed to 6% of a parent’s assets, advisors recommend moving funds from student to parent accounts in prior years, including moving funds to a parent-controlled 529 plan tax-advantaged account. Filing taxes early is recommended, but using estimates for FAFSA from previous years is possible provided the numbers are updated later after taxes are filed. There are no fees for applying on the FAFSA site. According to one source, the best time to begin searching for scholarships is before senior year in order to meet deadlines. Several reports confirm that it is important to file aid forms such as the CSS Profile early in the school year.

In addition to cost factors, increasingly colleges are being compared on the basis of the average student debt of their graduates, and US News has developed rankings based on average student indebtedness.

US News and others suggest another factor overlooked in terms of financing college, which is the length of time it takes to earn a degree. Finishing a year early (in three years) lops off a substantial portion of the overall bill, while taking five years compounds the expense and delays entry into the workforce. Jacques Steinberg suggested that many college-bound students calculate how much debt they were likely to incur each year, and he suggested that debt for all four years of college should total less than the graduate’s expected first year’s salary after college, and preferably under $40,000. A handful of schools have “free tuition” policies for low income students, so that they graduate loan-free.

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