Where to get straight answers to your college questions

Here’s a fast way to get straight answers from your chosen colleges to questions like:

  1. What classes do you recommend I take in high school?
  2. How competitive is admissions (how many applicants apply, and how many actually get in)?
  3. What’s the average GPA of admits?
  4. What are the average SAT/ACT scores of admits?
  5. How much does each factor—grades, test scores, activities, etc.—count during admissions?

Type the college name into Google followed by the term “Common Data Set.”

The Common Data Set is a standardized questionnaire to which many colleges have posted responses.  I tried this with Boston University, Whitman College, University of Arizona, Colorado College and Haverford College—and found the responses for all five within the first 4-5 Google search results.

Two questions to ask college tour guides

Most college tour guides are students hired to give visitors a scripted presentation about the school.  I’ve never met a high school student who cared how many volumes were housed inside a college library or what year the oldest building on a campus was built, but still, good guide or bad guide, those are the kinds of factoids you get on the tour. 

You might have better luck getting a little honest feedback from your guide with these two questions.

1. What’s surprised you about this school?

This is code for, “What’s something you’re not telling us, something we can’t learn from the website or the college guidebook?”  Don’t let the tour guide get away with an answer like, “I was surprised how easy it was to get involved.”  Really?  You just told us there were 180 clubs and organizations.  You were surprised it was easy to join one?  You’re looking for the guide to get a little personal and hopefully share something that’s not obvious, like, “I’m an engineering major and I was surprised I don’t have to study as much as I thought I would.”

2. What’s something students here complain about but find a way to deal with?

No college is perfect.  There’s always something that’s a common source of student complaints, and it’s almost always something people deal with and find a way to love their college anyway.  That’s why the “…but find a way to deal with” is important—it lets the guides off the hook.  They can be honest about the common complaint, but also acknowledge that this imperfection isn’t a deal breaker.  They can tell you, “A lot of students go home on the weekends, but those of us who stay are never bored here.”       

Your results may vary, but it might be worth a try.

How do colleges encourage you to spend your summer?


While unusual activities may add a great deal to a student’s experience and have a profound effect on their world view, for some it just comes across as decorative, not substantive…I confess I often wonder why some students who live in areas that have many social service needs unaddressed will ignore the local situation but move to another country to perform a similar social service. Is it really a service trip or is it a summer vacation built for college admission purposes? It may be both and that’s not a penalty point, but it isn’t a bonus consideration either. Is the student whose family connections provided an internship at a high-profile organization more worthy than a student who delivered pizza or tended to family farm commitments? The rest of the application will give us the answer."  

Bruce Poch
Former dean of admissions at Pomona College
From The Choice blog

If you get waitlisted

Offering you a spot on a waitlist is a college’s way of saying that you were good enough to be admitted, but there just wasn’t enough room for everyone who was qualified.  If too few of the accepted students decide to enroll, the college will go to the waitlist and offer a limited number of those students a spot in the class. 

According to NACAC’s annual survey of colleges, nearly half (48%) of colleges used waitlists for the fall 2010 admissions cycle, up from 35% in Fall 2008.  And 42% of those colleges reported an increase in the number of students placed on the waitlist.  More colleges are placing more qualified students on waitlists than ever before, so it's important for waitlisted students not to second guess your application and wonder what you could have done differently. 

If you decide to accept a spot on the waitlist, make sure you use the time between now and May 1 to fall in love with a college that's admitted you.  I know it’s hard not to hold out hope for a school that’s making you wait.  But in fall 2010, colleges admitted an average of 28% of students who chose to take a place on a waitlist, and the most selective colleges admitted only 11%.  It’s hard to predict the outcome for a waitlisted student, and you deserve to celebrate the news from schools who said yes.  

MIT can help you study for APs…for free

I’ve written before about MIT’s free online courses as a great way to pursue an academic interest.  The featured course is currently Videogame Theory and Analysis, which is pretty cool. Don’t just tell a potential college you’re interested in video game design.  Actually start learning how to do it.

What I didn’t know until today was that the Highlights for High School section includes free AP exam prep for biology, calculus, chemistry and physics.  The website says the material is appropriate for students who are preparing for the exams, or for teachers who need additional material.

Reed gets it right

From telling US News and their college rankings to “shove it,” to proudly declaring what it means to be a Reedie, I love the way Reed College goes against the college marketing grain.  They’re more interested in finding the right students than they are in jacking up their number of applicants just so they can reject more of them.  And they’re not afraid to give straight answers to common questions, with a little Reed flair thrown in, like the interview FAQ section of their site.

Here are a few of my favorites:

What should I wear to my interview?
Clothes. We don't have a dress code for interviews, so feel free to dress in whatever is most comfortable for you.

What kinds of questions should I expect to be asked during my interview?
We certainly wouldn't want to give this away, so be prepared to answer anything from a description of your hometown to your favorite flavor of ice cream or even your ideal comic book hero.

Should I be nervous?
Not at all. Our interviewers are good people who are excited about Reed. Be prepared to have an awesome conversation.

Do I need to bring anything to my interview?
Aside from fourteen essays and an extensive resumé, you won't need to bring anything except a sense of humor and a willingness to chat. (Seriously though, there's no need to bring anything other than yourself).

College decision opportunities

Each admissions decision you receive from a college is an opportunity to do one or more of the following:

  • Celebrate good news with your family.
  • Be grateful for opportunities given to you.
  • Gracefully accept disappointing news and move on.
  • Offer heartfelt congratulations to someone who gets something you wanted.
  • Recognize and thank people who helped you along the way.
  • Be excited about your future.

Whether it’s good news or bad news, it won’t be the last time in your life that you feel this way.  Use the opportunity to practice how to respond productively and you’ll be even better at it in the future.  

And parents, remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how mature adults do all of those things.

More effort, less worry

You don’t get to control whether or not any particular college says yes.  You can influence it, but the actual decision is out of your hands.

You do get to control:

1) How much effort you put towards preparing for college.
2) How much time you spend worrying about what the answers will be.

The first one is guaranteed to pay off in some way.  Even if you don’t get the answer you want from your dream school, taking hard classes, studying, and committing yourself to activities you care about leaves you smarter, better educated, more aware of your talents, and likely to be even more successful at whatever college you attend.

But the second–worrying about which colleges will say yes–does absolutely nothing for you other than raise your blood pressure, make you lose sleep, and ruin what should be an exciting time in your life.

Take control of both.  More effort, less worry. 

Are you ready for your college adventure?

We love it when a student is excited about finding the right colleges.  Casey, who's working with Katie in our Bellevue, WA office, is planning a trip to the East Coast with her family to see colleges.  A self-described “organizational nerd,” Casey made a binder for the trip with all the details, maps, and spaces to take notes about the colleges.  That's a kid who's engaged in her college search.

Here's the cover:


We love that she's calling it a “College Adventure," which it will be.  And we love that she’s proudly got University of Maryland right there on her itinerary (never plan a college trip where you only visit reach schools). 

Good job, Casey.  Have a great trip!