The college admissions process is definitely not for the faint of heart. Becoming invested in certain schools and putting yourself out there for potential rejection evokes anxiety, dread, and no small amount of self-doubt.
If you are informed enough to be reading this article, you or your teen are almost certainly assured of admission to some two-year or four-year program. Yet while that fact may provide some small comfort, your family probably has its collective eyes on a specific prize. This is where the distinction between uncertainty and risk comes into play.
Uncertainty indicates a lack of assured outcomes, a range of possibilities encompassing both success and failure. Risk, on the other hand, describes exposure to a chance of injury or loss. Seth Godin has deftly explained the difference between uncertainty and risk in college admissions as follows:
…the typical high school student applying to a range of colleges has very little risk of getting in nowhere. Apply to enough schools that match what you have to offer, and the odds are high indeed you’ll get in somewhere. Low risk but a very high uncertainty about which college or colleges will say yes.
That’s not risky. That’s uncertain. It takes fortitude to live with a future that’s not clearly imagined, but it’s no reason not to apply.
This is to say that the college admissions process is fraught with uncertainty but should involve very little risk if you apply to a couple of safety schools. Your challenge is to add certainty where your dream schools are concerned. If you truly want to, you will find a school that will be happy to have you (and your tuition dollars). But anyone focused on specific schools will find the lack of assured outcomes unsettling to say the least.
If you’re looking to add certainty to the admissions process, embrace three critical steps:
1. Do your research
Somewhere amidst the thousands of colleges out there is the right school for you… you just have to find it. Take advantage of online resources like Naviance and college websites to find high mutual-match schools. If the thought of interminable hours of college research makes your eyes glaze over, be advised that great college admission consultants–of which we know a few–bring not just insight and expertise but also enthusiasm to the search process.
2. Improve your grades and test scores
Test scores matter so much in the college admissions process because applicants are not the only parties subject to uncertainty and risk. You may assiduously assure every school on your list that you will enroll if accepted, but you and I and they all know that’s not true. Each college manages yield (the percent of students who choose to enroll after having been offered admission) as if its institutional life depends on it because, in a very real sense, it does. When too few students show up in September, the school has trouble making ends meet. Too many students lead to overcrowding and unhappiness. These calculations don’t even take the inevitable attrition into account. Your test scores add clarity to the admissions process, helping colleges understand more about your compatibility and likely commitment. Signal to a school that you are both certain to enroll if accepted and a low risk of failure once you arrive, and you’ll go a long way towards convincing your future alma mater to take a chance on you.
3. Improve the rest of your application
While you are identifying your target schools, you need to also take all necessary steps to improve your chances of admission. Class rank, course difficulty, extracurricular activities, application essays, recommendations, and more all factor into the admissions process. The admissions process may begin as a numbers game, but that’s just the beginning. Once you cross the quantitative threshold, you’ll be looked at as a whole person. Admissions officers want to know who you are, what motivates you, and how you’ll be contributing to life on campus. Make sure you present as the perfect addition to a vibrant college community.