The Elusive College Admission Process (and Some Current Trends)

Posted by Neal Schwartz on November 13, 2017

what do colleges want?

It used to be a lot easier for students to apply to college:  Get an application by mail, fill it out, and mail it back.  Early decision and early action were not significant players in the process. Even the most selective colleges were “less” selective.  Harvard’s acceptance rate in 1985 was 16%.  Stanford accepted 31% of their class in 1974.  Today, Harvard and Stanford both only accept about 5% of their applicants.  But what if your son or daughter are not planning to apply to these top schools?  What are their odds, and how can they increase their chances of admission success?

I spoke to a prospective college-bound client and his family the other day.  They questioned me as to my process but were pretty sure that college admissions really came down to the luck of the draw.   That sounded pretty defeating to me.  Certainly, the odds make one think that it is often just random, but after reading hundreds of essays and reviewing the non-essay application elements, I believe that the acceptance business is more than just dumb luck. 

Let’s work under the premise that most students applying to their schools have already used tools like Naviance to determine whether they are a good fit for a particular school and have the accompanying qualifying metrics (GPA and ACT/SAT Test scores).   The recent New York Times article, “What They Want,” gives an excellent, balanced analysis of what is going on, highlighting some different perspectives on what and who gets colleges’ attention.  Since all colleges are inherently different in their make-up & philosophies, when combined with the multitude of student differences, the permutations and combinations of admission scenarios are endless.   At the end of the day, students and their parents only care about their list of schools and how to get accepted.  

So, why do some students get accepted, while others don't?

  • Some colleges literally need to fill specific “seats” during an admission cycle.
    1. Maybe they need English or Philosophy majors
    2. Maybe certain extracurricular spots need to be filled (piccolo anyone?)
  • Overall Application must be strong and balanced
    1. Supplemental essays must be as strong as the main essay
    2. Extracurriculars are based on passions not resume building
  • Best use of Early Decision and Early Action for each student
  • Demonstrated Interest
    1. Not all schools view this the same way
    2. If the college visits your high school, did your son/daughter attend?
    3. Did the student visit the school and follow up?
    4. Do you know your college’s local representative?
  • Other factors
    1. Videos
    2. Live Audition
    3. Portfolio
    4. Resume


trend towards non-written distinctions-think "zeemee"

Some schools are looking for a little more, suggesting that students send in videos.  With today’s iPhone technology and other resources, it is not that difficult for students to show their distinctiveness and creativity.  Sure, many students may test well, do their schoolwork, and succeed in their extracurriculars, but how many are confident enough in their abilities to express all that in a genuine, powerful expression that a college can watch?

To stand out, students need to find ways to differentiate themselves from their peers. This is particularly hard, especially when cottage industries have sprung up to literally hand students their community involvement experiences.  Using video tools like Zeemee can help students stand out by capturing a  collage that really depicts them as an individual, showing their energy and drive.  If their presentation is compelling (and maybe even fun) and they are comfortable with whom they are, then this will leave a lasting impression on the admissions representative and can help seal the deal.

For some, the college process will continue to appear brutal, hopeless, and unfair.  But there is a way to see the process as hopeful and reasonable, even with the number of students who are applying.  The answer lies in students not just showing how much they can do but how comfortable they are in communicating their true selves.

If you have a high school student and want to get started on the right path, contact us at 914-273-2353, or visit us at: 


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Topics: college admissions, admission advice, zeemee, admission trends


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