Admissions from an Expert: What You Need to Know About Getting into College

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Susan SchaurerStudents now face tremendous pressure to attend college. Graduates, on average, now earn more money, face less unemployment, and have more satisfying careers. However, the competition is fierce. And getting into a good school, or finding the right school, can be stressful. 

In a recent interview, Miami University's chief admission officer explained how parents and students should approach the college application process.

An extended version of this conversation originally appeared on the Reframe podcast.

What is the college admissions process like today? Has it changed in recent years?

Susan Schaurer: The college, the application, and search process has changed tremendously over the last five to ten years. Several years ago, students would hear word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family, or a high school counselor. They would put two or three schools on their list, go make some visits, apply to one to two schools, and then make a decision.

Today, there are more than 4,000 degree granting institutions across the U.S. and it has really become a consumer driven industry. Parents, students -- they are savvy consumers. And rightfully so. The cost of higher education has increased tremendously over the past 20, 30, 40 years. So families are making a significant investment in higher education. They're doing due diligence to ensure that they are taking a thorough look at colleges and universities before they even apply. So it is not uncommon today for students to do virtual tours. They may take advantage of live Twitter events or Facebook events in order to learn more. And it's not uncommon for students to apply to 8, 10, 12 schools. Then, once they are admitted, to go visit campuses.

It’s also changed in that parents and students are now thinking about the end result. It's a return on investment industry. Whereas 20-30 years ago, you said: What are the dorms like? What kind of food do I get? What kind of academic programs do you have?

Today, often the first questions we hear are: How long will it be before I graduate? What's the starting salary of the job I'll get? What are the job opportunities for students with a degree from your institution?

There are so many different factors to consider. There are grades, test scores, college prep courses, extracurricular activities, and more. Should certain things be prioritized?

Schaurer: That's probably the question we hear most from students. What is the highest priority? What is most important in making certain I'm admitted to your school? And unfortunately there is no right or wrong answer.

Just as there are more than 4,000 institutions across the U.S., most will have different processes. And most schools won't be putting the exact recipe out there in terms of how they make their decisions. Most schools are going to practice something called holistic review. And holistic reviews take into consideration the entire applicant. They're looking beyond just test scores, grades, or the type of courses students have taken. But they are looking at the essay, the letter of recommendation, leadership, work experiences, extracurricular activities, and volunteerism.

So academics, probably, are the key. Because we are looking to see that you are going to be successful at our institutions. But beyond that, it really is the entire picture. So while academics play a key role, we also want to bring in a great campus community. And every year, we're trying to determine what parts students will play in creating that dynamic campus community.

How important is the college essay? And what are you looking for in that essay?

students walking on campus in the springSchaurer: The essay is one part of a holistic review process. So it provides a great opportunity for students because it gives a personal statement. What is the student going to contribute to our campus community? What role will they play in the dynamic of their residence hall, or the classroom? The essay can be really important because it is the one glimpse we really get into the student's personality. So transcripts, test scores, extracurricular activities, or work experiences -- those things we can get from paper. But are you the class clown? Are you someone who is really dedicated to activism? What is your life's passion? What do you hope to accomplish? It really can be something that gives us that first glimpse of who the student is.

I always tell students, particularly who are on the bubble, meaning if you look at the academic profile of those who are admitted to the school you want to attend, and maybe it's a stretch school for you, the essay can be extraordinarily important. Most schools will have a practice they call “committee.” And committee is where the reviewers, those who are in the office reviewing applications, get the opportunity to bring candidates amongst the entire staff and really advocate for that student. And all the time, it's students whose essays they’ve read that have been impactful. So if you have a great story to tell, the essay is that opportunity to do that.

What should students avoid during the application process?

Schaurer: The application process is your chance to advocate for yourself. Oftentimes, many schools have more qualified applicants than they have spaces available. And while it's not about coming up with something that is just so extraordinary that you stand out in a crowd of 30,000 applications. It is, however, your chance to tell us everything we need to know about you. 

So try to avoid anything that may not present you in the best light. [But also] make certain that you share everything we need to know. Sometimes students falter in that they try to avoid oversharing. Students make assumptions that there's information that isn't of interest to colleges and universities. 

I always give an example of a student that I recruited several years ago. I had worked with him as a high school junior all the way up to the time he was at Miami. He worked in our office, and his junior year here he made mention of the fact that he was a manager at McDonald's when he was in high school.

I said, “Oh my gosh, I never knew that about you. I don't think you've ever shared that.”

He said, “Well, no, I didn't share it. Why would I have done that? I wanted to come to college so I could avoid flipping burgers for the rest of my life.” 

And I said, “You were a manager at a part time job. That speaks volumes to us in terms of time management, that you were identified as a leader.”

So students should avoid making assumptions about things that would be of importance, or would not be important to us. 

Do you have advice on how to start the college search process?  


Today, we've become such a marketed-oriented society. Students get bombarded with college mailings, brochures, with emails. Sometimes it's so overwhelming they just disregard a lot of it. 

And I think the best way to start the college search process is to give those communications some due diligence. You're not going to have time to give every brochure the full time and attention maybe it deserves. But really do leaf through those publications. Garner a sense of what speaks to you. What kind of experiences are you looking for? Which colleges seem like they would be a place that you could call home for the next four years? 

I would also encourage students to really seek the advice of their college counselors and high school guidance counselors. These are valuable partners in this process for us. They know their students really well. They know what types of institutions students flourish at [and] which ones maybe aren't the best fit. 

And then, my biggest bit of advice is to visit campuses. You really can't get a sense of what type of school really appeals to you unless you're out there, on the college campuses.

Is it important to apply early?

students on campus looking at signSchaurer: One of the things that has changed in the application process over the last several years is the introduction of this priority consideration deadline. Most schools will now have priority consideration dates for admission, for scholarships, for competitive programs, and those dates can make or break a student's admissibility to a certain program or scholarship.

I was just serving on a panel with some of my colleagues and we talked about how you could have two students who look identical on paper. One applies by your priority deadline of November 1. The other one applies December 5th. One could get full tuition scholarship [or] half tuition scholarship. The other applicant could get nothing, just because the date by which they apply for admission. So, now more than ever, those priority dates are very critical.

What if students don’t know what they want to do? Is it better to choose undecided for your major and risk looking like you don't have a direction? Or is it better to select a major even if you may change it? 

Schaurer: It really depends on the institution, and on the program. That's a question students and parents are going to want to ask in the college search process. Is it a negative in the review process if I'm undecided? What happens if I decide later I really want to go into a particular major? Am I penalized? Is there access to that major once I'm a sophomore? How many of your students come in undecided? Or how many switch majors once they're here and still graduate in 4 years?

A lot of times you're going to want to ask those questions and make certain that college admission reps can talk about that with ease. That's going to give you a sense of: Is this a school that allows room for students to explore?

Sometimes, students focus on a particular major and they only consider schools that are really strong in one major. And they may do that not being 100% certain in what they want to do. So, unless students have great certainty -- they have had their mind set on a particular profession for years and years and they know 100% what they want to do -- I would recommend that students avoid not considering schools that maybe aren't the top in a certain program. Because you do want some flexibility. That's what college is all about. Exploring new majors, finding out what lies beyond in terms of careers and professions, what really interests you. 

Does the school district or the specific high school matter? If a student does not live in a highly-rated school district, should they stay there and be in the top of the class? Or is it better to transfer to a stronger, highly rated private school?  

Schaurer: That is a great question and one we often hear. And one of the questions we advise parents and students to ask as they visit schools is: Ask if students are reviewed in the context of their high school? 

At Miami, we seriously consider the school the student attends as part of the review process. We don't penalize students who go to schools with great opportunities. But likewise, we don't want to disadvantage students who go to underserved high schools that may not have the funding that other districts have.

students relaxing on campusSo, for us, we are very aware of the courses that are available at each and every high school from which a student applies. We're going to know for each school: Were there 3 AP courses available? Were there 26 AP courses available? Were there no AP courses available? Are there honors courses? So we look at the context of the high school. We look at the grade point average for that particular high school, and the grading scale. All of those things are taken into consideration.

Some schools, in order to put every student on an even playing field, will recalculate GPA. So they'll take a look at a student's transcript and will calculate an entirely new grade point average based on core academic coursework. That's not something we practice at Miami, but it's something that other colleges and universities do.

So we don't advise on this matter of where parents should send their students. Rather, we want to assure them that we are giving every consideration to every applicant, and we're making decisions based on the context of the student’s high school. 

What if someone is borderline or even slightly below the admissions criteria? Beyond the essay, are there other things that could help swing the student toward acceptance?

Schaurer: You’re right. I talked about the bubble students earlier with the essay. And again, I can't underscore enough how much that essay can help students on the bubble.

Another thing is that recommendations from your high school counselor can mean a lot to us. Oftentimes, these are professionals that we have long-standing professional relationships with. They have counseled of hundreds of students. We've had decades of interactions with these individuals and we greatly value their opinion. It's not uncommon to get a call from a counselor advocating for a student. So students and parents really should value the insights of high school counselors.

For students on the bubble, demonstrated interest can also play a key role in the decision factor. Demonstrated interest isn't something Miami University uses but, certainly, it is a growing trend. For some schools, demonstrated interest may mean a physical visit to that school. So you’ve participated in an information session and a tour. Other schools are a little broader in their idea of demonstrated interest. It may simply mean you participate in a Skype interview or Facebook live event. It may mean that you engage in an email conversation with your admission representative. 

Another thing students overlook is, particularly, if you had a rocky start in high school . . . let us know that. We hear from students all the time, “Well, I really struggled my freshman year.” That is completely normal. It's a big jump from junior high to high school. And we tell students, “Let us know that.” Those are things we’re looking for. How did you react in the face of adversity? Did you give up? Maybe the second semester of your junior year, you kicked it in? Did you have a tough freshman year and then, from that point forward, we saw a subtle and continued increase in your grades? 

[If] we can see that you were making gains, that you continued to work hard -- those skills and those attitudes and characteristics are things that we know will make a student successful once there are on college campuses. 

Of course, it is best to start thinking about college early, to prepare as far in advance as possible. But not everyone may be in that position. Do you have advice for anyone who is behind and would like to catch up? 

students walk away from the camera on campusSchaurer: That is the great thing about living in the digital age. So even if you're a high school senior and it is July, it’s August, you haven't given thought to it, there is an opportunity for you. There are 4,000 colleges and universities out there. And while, maybe thoughtful planning might mean that a couple of those schools are out of reach for you, there are still ample colleges and universities that would be good fits for any student. 

So, you wake up tomorrow, you're behind in the process. So what? Start looking at the web sites of colleges and universities you've heard of. Start asking questions. Start seeking the advice of people you know. Talk to your high school counselor. Tell them, “Maybe I haven't thought about this, but I've recently decided that college is what I want to do.” Whether it's an associate's degree, a 4-year degree, close to home, you commute, you live on campus. Truly, there is an opportunity out there for everyone.

What are the biggest misunderstandings or misconceptions about college admissions?  

Schaurer: The one bit of advice that I give students and parents is to keep in mind that there are thousands of colleges and universities out there. And just because a student isn't admitted to one school, it doesn't mean they're not admissible. It doesn't mean that they aren't a great fit for another institution. It simply means that student isn't what that institution is looking for.

Colleges and universities have different priorities and goals each and every year. Some years they may be seeking many education majors. Other years, they may have an overage of education majors and they’re now looking towards engineering. It is impossible for students and parents, even high school counselors, to know what those goals are each and every year.

It's really important to keep that in mind. Particularly, when we hear all this publicity about it's harder than ever to get into schools, and admission rates that are below 10%. That's at just a handful of institutions. Most institutions have acceptance rates that are above 50%. There is an opportunity for every student.

And I think, as adults, we often have dream cars or dream houses that we want. We still have great lives that we live, in houses that aren't our dream house. We get from point A to point B in cars that maybe weren't our dream car. College is a vehicle to get you on the journey of life's path, and there are many options that are going to get students to their future. And while we want you to have a dream school in a place that you're aspiring to be, don't let a decision by a college or university determine who you are, or let you make an assumption about what you have to contribute to any college or university.

And students should also enjoy the process. The college search and application process really has gotten the stigma as overwhelming, daunting, mysterious, and extraordinary stressful. But I like to remind families it really is the prelude to what should be four of the most exciting, transformative years of a student's life. Keep that in mind. The end result is going to be a wonderful opportunity.