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Insider tips on applying for college

Staff writer

The next few weeks will be crucial in helping determine the long-term success of many high school seniors.

Application deadlines for college typically come in the first two weeks of November.

Obtaining a degree from a four-year college increases a student’s expected lifetime earnings by $630,000 to $900,000, according to numerous studies.

Even discounting inflation and various demographic variables that impact earnings potential, the Social Security Administration has concluded that a college education more than pays for its cost.

Most students seeking college admission apply to between 7 and 10 colleges.

Admissions counselors recommend applying to two or three schools that might be a “reach” to get into, two or three “safety” schools that the student would accept if offered admission, and three or four schools that represent where the student actually would like to go.

Standardized test scores

Test scores help determine where a student is most likely to fit in. Typically, students should try to apply to colleges that have student bodies with test scores similar to their own.

Colleges most often report a range of ACT scores for their student bodies — the average score for the top 25% and the average score for the bottom 25%. Being at the midpoint between those scores helps ensure a good fit.

Among public universities in Kansas, here’s what those midpoints on ACT composite test scores are, according to various college recruiting guides:

MEDIAN ACT SCORES

University of Kansas 25.5

Kansas State University 25.0

Wichita State University 23.5

Washburn University 23.5

Emporia State University 22.0

Pittsburg State University 22.0

Fort Hays State University 21.0

These numbers vary significantly by major. Students planning to enter fields such as engineering and business typically will find the numbers much higher. Students should ask admissions offices for specific numbers for the major to which they intend to apply.

Although popular impression is that test scores are crucial in admissions decisions, most admissions committees tend to look more closely at another figure, which research has shown is a better predictor of a student’s success.

Grades in high school

How well a student has done in high school in comparison to others in the same school is typically the most telling number on a student’s application.

It’s not a student’s grade-point average that’s important. It’s the student’s class rank.

If there are 50 students in an applicant’s graduating class, being among the top five would be a good indicator for admission to a selective university, probably out of state.

Being in the next five would be a positive indicator for admission to a moderately selective university, such as the top two public universities in Kansas.

Falling outside those groups might make a student a better fit for one of the smaller public universities in the state.

High school curriculum

Admissions counselors also look at how challenging a student’s high school courses were. Consistently doing well in the most advanced courses a school district offers is a key factor.

In many cases, it matters less what those courses are. Big suburban districts may offer far more college-level courses than rural districts do. The key question is, did the applicant choose to challenge him or herself as much as possible?

Applicants from rural districts sometimes get an added advantage. Their applicants can be weighted more highly if they are from a school that does not often send students to the college in question or if they would be the first college student from their family.

Advanced-placement tests and college-level courses taken while in high school can be somewhat overrated.

While a student may earn college credit for something done in high school, most universities have found that this credit may not actually lead students to being able to safely skip required foundational courses in college.

Typically, a course or test completed in high school may earn hours but will not waive required courses because students with such credit do not do as well as others in courses that build on those skills.

Asking exactly what credits might transfer — and whether students who use such credits to skip foundational courses have done well in subsequent courses — is a key question applicants should ask of admissions counselors. The answer will vary by major.

College rankings

College decisions aren’t just about the student impressing the college. They also should be about the college impressing the student.

Serious students tend to care less about sports teams and social life and more about academics, but they can often fall prey to overreliance on rankings published by various magazines and websites.

Almost no one within the world of high education regards these rankings as meaning anything other than a public-relations boost for the colleges that show up well on lists assembled by dubious algorithms.

Still, a college’s reputation is important to consider. As tuition rises in response to reduced state funding, public universities with the best reputations are still seeing record enrollment while lesser universities have suffered significant enrollment declines.

Looking to a college with a growing rather than shrinking student body is one way to evaluate a college’s reputation.

How long to graduate

Rarely reported publicly but definitely worth asking for is how long the typical student at each college or university takes to obtain his or her bachelor’s degree.

Although they may not advertise the information, most colleges should have this data available. It will vary from major to major.

Colleges that typically take about eight semesters to obtain a bachelor’s degree generally are much better bargains than those that take 10 or more semesters.

If the average is eight semesters, that means as many as half of all students can complete their degrees in less time than that. A new feature at many universities are dual-degree plans, which allow a student — often in as few as eight semesters — to obtain both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, often in less time than it would take to obtain a dual major or a single major with a minor.

Application essay

Although movies often make it seem as if impressive admissions essays are necessary, except at highly selective universities essays are more about determining whether a student understands and would be a good fit for the major he or she is seeking.

Essays also are a place to explain something that might not look good on a high school transcript. Overcoming a personal or health challenge can be a positive factor and is definitely worth mentioning in an essay.

Extracurricular activities also are important to enumerate as they often demonstrate how well a student might fit in with his or her chosen major.

Most colleges have done formal or informal studies, attempting to determine the most common high school extracurriculars of successful graduates by major.

Some of these might be surprising. Working on a literary journal, for example, is not a good indicator of success for would-be journalism majors. However, performing in concerts and plays is. Having a leadership role in a civic group is not a good indicator for journalism but is for advertising.

Honesty is always the best policy. Except at extremely selective universities, these lists are less to impress and more to determine fit.

Large vs. small schools

Large universities can be intimidating for some students from small communities, and it’s true that some classes at these universities will have almost as many students in them as a student’s entire school district had in all grade levels.

What many don’t realize, however, is that large universities tend to offer many more highly specialized majors, with very small numbers of students in each major forming comfortably small peer groups within the larger community.

Community colleges and small liberal arts colleges can be an alternative, but students planning to complete their educational careers elsewhere should be very careful to make sure that whatever they do at a smaller school eventually will transfer to a larger school.

Some community colleges and small liberal arts college have excellent reputations. Some do not. If a student’s plan is to eventually transfer or enroll in graduate studies at a larger university, he or she should be sure to ask that university how past students have done there after transferring from the smaller school.

The writer is a tenured professor, former admitting dean, member of the Admissions Committee, and chairman of the University Senate Committee on Educational Policy at a selective Big 10 university with a median ACT score of 28.5.

Last modified Oct. 31, 2019

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