August 2012

Navigating the Admissions Maze

Bryn Mawr’s admissions team and alumnae offer up tips to help high school students–and their parents–find their way to the right college.

By Matt Gray

Illustration by Michael Newhouse

When Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association President Eileen Kavanagh ’75 went through the college admissions process, she applied to just two schools. In accordance with her Catholic parents’ wish for her to go to a Jesuit institution, the first was Georgetown University, where Kavanagh was accepted early admission. The other was Bryn Mawr. After one conversation with the College’s admissions office and a tour around campus, Kavanagh knew, despite her father’s protests, “I have to go here.”

Not counting the constant of parental pressure, students applying for college today face a far more intricate landscape of information and choices. An Internet search of the term “college admissions” yields 13.6 million results, and in the nearly 30 years since the U.S. News and World Report issued its first rankings of colleges and universities, a cottage industry of guidebooks, independent counselors, test-prep tutors, and rankings of every stripe has evolved to “help” parents and their children navigate the college admissions process.

To make themselves heard in all this noise, colleges launch direct mail and email campaigns to interested students who have elected to add themselves to the College Board’s Student Search database when they take their PSATs. According to the College Board, more than 1,100 colleges mine this data.

“The fact is, if you are an engaging and fabulous student you probably get as much email and mail as Justin Bieber,” says Maureen McGonigle ’98, director of constituency communications at Bryn Mawr.

So given this crowded terrain, how can students find their way to the right college—and how can their parents help them?

The Right Fit

During his college search, Kavanagh’s older son, Martin, was sure he wanted to go to a large, diverse, urban university. But Kavanagh, assuming that he wanted to play competitive sports in college and hesitant to tell him he would be unable to do so at a Division I school, took him to “every small school near as many cornfields as possible.”

When Martin made his wishes known again during a tour of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Kavanagh finally blurted out her reservations. Her son responded, “But mom, I’m not going to college to play sports; I’m going to college to learn.”

“Long story short,” Kavanagh says, “he found a perfect fit at George Washington University in D.C., and I learned my first lesson—[your kids] really do have a good handle on what they want to do. Listen to them!”

Chances are that as graduates of a top-tier liberal arts college, Mawrter parents have spent countless hours extolling the virtues of attending a school like Bryn Mawr. And liberal arts colleges do “continue to outperform just about every other segment of higher education in terms of overall student satisfaction, time to degree completion, graduate school placements, and employment,” says Laurie Koehler, dean of admissions at Bryn Mawr. But nationally, fewer than one percent of all students engaged in post-secondary education are enrolled at liberal arts colleges.

With increased competition for admissions and variation in funding from state to state, many students, Koehler says, are looking at state schools outside their home states. And community colleges, the largest and fastest growing segment of American higher education, already enroll more than 40 percent of all college students. “The rising cost of higher education and agreements that allow for a more seamless transfer to a four-year college have made community colleges a much more attractive option for many families,” says Christina Dubb, coordinator of Bryn Mawr’s Community College Connection—the College’s own transfer program with the Community College of Philadelphia and Montgomery County Community College.

With the range of institutions out there, “students owe it to themselves to investigate all of their options,” says Christine Pluta ’91, director of college counseling at Lycée Français de New York. She advises students to not place too much importance on the name value of a college and to consider instead what kinds of learning and living environments will allow them to be most successful as students. “I don’t believe in ‘fit,’” she says. “I believe in the capacity of students to decide for themselves whether or not they would be successful in any given learning environment, and I believe that there are a great number of institutions that will meet each student’s needs. I was the transfer coordinator at Barnard College, and I can tell you we were much more interested in students who achieved wonderful grades, leadership, and recommendations from a community college than those who earned average grades and recommendations from an elite university.”

The Research

Just about every college and university has an attractive website and glossy promotional material aimed at catching a prospective student’s eye, but it can be difficult to discern what’s marketing and what’s meaningful. “A good place to do some comparisons is the University and College Accountability Network,” says Jenny Rickard, chief enrollment and communications officer at Bryn Mawr. While U-Can focuses on private, nonprofit schools, its “Planning to Go” page provides links to resources for checking out schools of every type.

Rickard, who came to Bryn Mawr as the dean of admissions, also recommends visiting certain types of pages on a college’s website to glean information prior to applying. “If you know what you want to study, start with the departmental page,” she says. Other areas of a college’s website to check out are the news page and any pages devoted to strategic planning or the future of the college. “These things can give you a sense of what the college values and where it’s investing resources,” Rickard adds.

A lesser-known part of just about every college’s website is its Common Data Set, which is the information used by U.S. News and World Report and many other rankings and guidebooks. “The Common Data Set is going to give you virtually all the important information about admissions and financial aid that you’ll need to get an idea as to whether you’d be a competitive candidate at a given school,” Rickard explains. “And what’s nice about going right to the source is that you don’t have parts of the data being given more weight or somehow manipulated in the interest of selling magazines or creating controversy.”

The Visit

As important as research is, both Pluta and Koehler emphasize that campus visits are a must, especially because the amount of information available online can be confusing and often times conflicting. “These visits are probably going to be the biggest factor in the decision-making process,” Koehler says.

Back in Kavanagh’s day, students might have learned about colleges at the college fair held in their high school gym. There, they would get the opportunity to talk face-to-face with admissions officers from a range of schools. Today, with students going online for their initial round of research, college fairs have become less and less valuable to both students and colleges, Koehler explains. As a result many schools, including Bryn Mawr, have been paying more attention than ever to ensuring prospective students and parents get the most from tours and overnight visits. “Now,” Koehler says, “our student tour guides spend a lot more time talking about what it’s like to be a member of the Bryn Mawr community than pointing out particular buildings or going over facts that can be easily found on the website.”

Koehler advises students and parents to spend some time away from the tour group while on campus. “Most colleges are trying to give an authentic glimpse of their campus culture during the tour, but it doesn’t hurt to spend some time exploring on your own,” she says. “Go sit in the campus center for a while and talk to a few students.”

Pluta suggests coming to visits prepared with a range of questions. “Ask questions of your tour guide that might

help you understand better what it’s like to be an undergraduate there,” she says, “like what classes are you taking and how many students are in each of your classes? You might also ask, what kind of person would really like your college?  What kind of person would really not like it? Or, do you have an advisor? Do you see your advisor very often? Do you know your professors very well?’”

To get a better sense of the social life, Pluta continues, students might ask their tour guide what she did last night, or last weekend, and what she likes to do with her friends in her spare time. “You can also be direct,” she adds, “and ask if there is lot of partying here, or what kinds of drugs/alcohol people consume.”

The Application

In coming up with the short list of schools to send applications to, Pluta advises that every student start by choosing at least two “likely” schools, two “reach” schools, and three “mid-range” schools with the help of a guidance counselor or college counselor. “After you have this base,” she explains, “you can apply to more colleges in each category as you desire.  For instance, you may choose to apply to more colleges if you’re seeking financial aid or if you intend to apply to both art schools and traditional universities.”

As students prepare their application materials, Pluta has a few more words of advice:

  •  “Write your essay about something that’s already important to you. You know you’ve found a great topic if the words come to your fingertips easily.”
  •  “Don’t go into a meeting with a test prep consultant without doing some research. Ask your friends and neighbors how much money and time they spent with their tutors. Don’t be afraid to push back if you feel your test prep provider is asking too much of your child or your wallet.”
  •  “Extracurriculars matter. Get involved in activities that truly interest you. Invest yourself and you might find yourself a leader or notable participant in the activity by the time you graduate.”
  •  “Call the financial aid offices of individual colleges if you have questions about completing your forms. They are obliged to help you. Call the Free Application for Federal Student Aid help line [1-800-4FEDAID] and ask questions until you get the answers you’re seeking, even if you don’t know the first thing about financial aid forms.”

You Got In (or Didn’t)! Now What?

Whether you get into your first choice or not, Pluta advises, the key to a good outcome in the college process is to “keep in mind that every school you select, even those ‘likelies’ on your list, should have aspects that you love.” One of her favorite questions to ask students after their first year of college is whether their school of choice was what they expected it to be when they applied. “Most of the time, the answer is no,” she says. “They still love their colleges, but what you see as a prospective student is quite different from what you experience as an undergraduate. Keep an open mind.”

An open mind helped Kavanagh and her younger son, Colin, when it was his turn to apply to college. He had planned to play collegiate sports, but a high school sports injury “skewered his college search,” she says. He ended up attending a community college and transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia, where he earned a degree in international finance that launched his career at Deutsche Bank. “It might not have been what we had planned, but it turned out to be the right thing for him and an extremely valuable experience,” Kavanagh says. “There are so many ways to be successful.”

The Write Stuff

The best college admissions essays are about topics that are sincerely important to the writer, says Christine Pluta ’91, director of college counseling at Lycée Français de New York. We’ve excerpted a couple of the memorable essays written by members of the newest class of Mawrters.

I got more of the jokes in Dirty Dancing, but for two years I was essentially atheist. Until two Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my doorbell. I invited them in and we started talking. Suddenly they had me quoting passages from the Talmud I’d forgotten I’d even learned. We argued for four hours. Even then, the conversation only ended because they had plans. After that, I found myself cracking open some of the old rabbinic proofs.

Today, I’m not quite sure whether or not to identify as Jewish. I’m not Jewish culturally, and not particularly religious, but I do owe Judaism an insatiable hunger for debate. What The New Jewish Academy gave me was neither faith nor culture. But to be fair, I don’t think it aimed to; most students enrolled with an excess of both. It gave me a way to consider the world. In our house on Friday night, while the Shabbat candles remain unlit, the whole family clusters in our living room, with our Talmud or our Kafka open, debating into the night.

—Tempest McCabe ’16

Once the hubbub of questions about Pakistan diminished at our table, I responded. Yes, some women do wear burkas but not all and not everywhere; marriage is a choice in some cosmopolitan cities and arranged in others; we do have malls, but unlike in the U.S., they are mainly for the rich. A pause of surprise ensued, then another stream of questions were lost in a chaotic cacophony of sounds when 12 of them started talking all at once. I admired their curiosity and welcomed it. Amidst explaining the intricacies of a Pakistani marriage to an Irish kid, I was struck by a sudden realization. I wasn’t just another science-crazed student at NASA, here to win a competition. I was an “ambassador” of sorts, in a uniquely advantageous position to project a more rich and competent image of Pakistan through my individual effort and conduct.

… Hannah Arendt, one of the most astute observers of human life, believed that the fundamental quality of human life is its perpetual renewal and unpredictability. My generation will define the future in ways entirely unimaginable for preceding generations. It is this hope, the hope for a globally competitive, just, gender-neutral, economically viable Pakistan that I want to contribute to as a technologist of a future. It is with this hope that I seek to pursue my higher education.

—Mahira Ahmed Tiwana ’16


Comments on “Navigating the Admissions Maze”

  1. The first chapter of my book I CAN Finiish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide addresses one of the key points made here. It is hugely important to know who you are and to find the school that fits your learning style, social style and financial capacities. Trying to turn yourself into a pretzel to fit a school that is too big (or too small) or that forces you to take financial risks or does not offer the learning experience you want is a set up for failure. The advice here given by my good friends and colleagues is right on point.

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