Advice for high school parents based on the 2023 admission cycle

It is the time of year when students are turning in their course selections for next year, trying to build a schedule that will get them into college. I personally think students should take what they need to graduate as well as some courses that interest them. But in this day and age of highly selective admissions, whether right or wrong, it’s often not good enough.

While the 2023 admission cycle is not yet over–highly selective colleges are still releasing their Early Decision 2 and regular decisions–the news so far has not been good. Despite the number of high school graduates being on the decline in most parts of the United States (the birth rate has been down since the early 2000s and continues to trend down), most highly selective colleges are reporting application increases. This is because students, desperately wanting to get into a top school, are applying to 15-20 schools (which is TOO many). But most have been denied early admission or deferred to the regular pool.

Why do schools defer students? Basically, they want to see what their overall applicant pool looks like. They want to be able to shape a class that has geographic, major, gender, and ethnic diversity. They are balancing athletes and legacy admits. Some that are need-blind consider how many students need financial aid and how many students can pay something (because colleges do have to cover the salaries of faculty and staff, keep up building maintenance, pay for those rec centers and new science labs, etc). They are trying to build an interesting community–so activities, interests, and experiences are all analyzed. But the most important factor is the courses students took in high school and the grades they received.

  • There are 4000 colleges in the United States.
  • 1200 are four-year colleges.
  • 200 are “highly selective”.
  • There are over 27,000 high schools.

Students are fighting for admission to these 200. Most of these highly selective are smaller, with first-year classes of around 1200-2000 students. Cal Tech takes one of the smallest–around 250. Michigan and University of North Carolina are larger with 4,000-9,000 first year. Even if they took an average of 3000 first-year students there is space for about 600,000 high school graduates in those top 200 schools. That means 22.5 students from each high school might find a spot at one of these schools. But some schools–like elite boarding schools and top privates and publics in wealthy suburbs are sending more than 22.5. While other schools may see 1 get into a top school. And at highly competitive high schools, many students are applying to the same schools–making it challenging to get in as colleges are not going to take large portions of their class from one high school.

If you look at the profile of who is getting in, excluding legacies and athletes (althought many fit the profile as well), most took all five core subjects–English, Math, Science, Foreign Language and History, for all five years. Most took Calculus. They took the most rigorous coursework their high school offered. Colleges look at how many APs your high school offered and how many did you take. Many who submitted test scores had SATs in the high 1500s and ACTs 34 or above. They showed intellectual curisoty through indepedent research projects or mentored research. They lead or founded clubs. They did meaninful volunteer work at not-for-profts where they could reflect on what the experience meant to them (this isn’t just racking up hours for national honor society but truly finding an issue you are passionate about and making a contribution to an organization or cause). They had part-time jobs. They played a sport. They used their summer wisely by interning, working, taking a course, doing research, or volunteering. They were able to articulate in their essays why this was the right college for them, sharing their personality and vunerability.

So as the class of 2024 starts their applications later this spring and summer, builid a balanced list. Find schools that select more than 50% of their applications and fall in love with a few. Have 1 or 2 reaches but know your future is not defined by what college you attended. People accomplish amazing things graduating from all 1200 four-year colleges and the other 2800 two-year and technical schools. Don’t wrap your self worth in attending one brand name place. It may not be all you think it will be. Protect your mental health by going into the admissions process with a realistic view of what could happen.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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