Education

20 Tips to Get Your Kid into College…Legally

From choosing the right test, to crafting the perfect essay—here's how to hack the college admissions process without committing fraud.


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Get out of Town

Your son might want to stay as close to his high school buddies as possible, but splitting off from the pack can have admissions benefits. Colleges are always on the hunt for geographical diversity, so applying to the same schools as everyone else can actually decrease his chances of getting in. So aside from asking all of Junior’s classmates what their plans are (which we definitely don’t recommend), how can you can help him get an advantage? Have him do a little digging on college websites for admitted-student profiles, which many times will tell you the top 10 places kids are coming from—and get comfortable with the idea of going outside his comfort zone. “There are incredible liberal arts schools in the Midwest—Kenyon, Carleton, and Oberlin, just to name three—whose programs resemble popular New England colleges like Bowdoin, Middlebury, or Wesleyan, but that receive far fewer apps from New England kids,” says Don McMillan, of the Back Bay–based McMillan Education. “So you’ll improve your chances of being accepted at a comparable school by moving a bit farther away.”

Apply Early!

Want to boost your chances of getting into your dream school? Do yourself a favor and apply early decision. “It gives you a huge strategic advantage,” says Melissa McViney, a Hingham-based educational consultant. For one, there’s less competition. And because colleges are always looking to up their U.S. News & World Report ranking by increasing their yield—a.k.a. the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll—and early-decision applicants are legally bound to attend, they’re almost always more likely to get the coveted acceptance letter than those who apply by the regular deadline. “They’re locking you in, and that’s what they want,” McViney explains.

Percentage of Class Filled via Early Decision (Fall 2018)

Middlebury College: 63%
Bates College: 59%
Trinity College: 51%
Brown University: 45%
College of the Holy Cross: 44%
Brandeis University: 37%
Boston University: 35%

Source: Common Data Set

Pick a Test (or Don’t Pick One at All)

It’s the eternal question: take the SAT or the ACT? While each standardized test has its pros and cons, most college counselors agree on one thing: Students should take practice exams and sign up only for the one they score better on. And if they bomb both? With more than 1,200 schools now test-optional (including Emerson and Berklee locally), being a bad test-taker no longer disqualifies you from a solid college education. Looking for a quick way to figure out which exam is best for you? Sheila Akbar, of Signet Education, breaks it down with this handy quiz:

I am good at:
a. Understanding complicated reading.
b. Skimming.

In class, I am:
a. Quick to pick things up.
b. Not always the quickest, but work hard to get good grades.

Time pressure:
a. Terrifies me.
b. Doesn’t faze me.

When it comes to tests, I favor:
a. Abstract reasoning.
b. Cranking out straightforward problems.

Outside of class, I like to:
a. Read really tough articles or books slowly.
b. Devour entertaining, popular books.

Mostly As: Take the SAT. With fewer questions than the ACT but more abstract problems, this test is ideal for students who enjoy spending time working through brainteasers.

Mostly Bs: Take the ACT. Students who excel at more-straightforward questions and can handle a time crunch will likely score better on this exam.

Open Those Emails! (No, Seriously)

Your kid is cruising through her inbox when she spots a marketing email from one of the schools she applied to. She’s busy, so she doesn’t bother opening it. No big deal, right? Wrong. These days, colleges are using big data and logarithms to track every move prospective students make—and they want to know how interested you are in their school. “We talk about all the indices you’re evaluated on, the most objective being tests and scores,” McMillan says. “Now we add your demonstrated interest.” That translates to making sure your son or daughter friends top-choice schools on Facebook, reaches out to local admissions officers to show enthusiasm, and, yes, opens both personal and promotional emails quickly and responds substantively when necessary. McMillan recalls being invited to sit in the admissions “war room” at the College of the Holy Cross as they flashed student profiles across two giant screens; for one student on the cusp of getting in, a critical factor turned out to be whether he’d responded to an email asking him to explain a C+ grade in chemistry.

So what’s behind this Big Brother–esque behavior? In an era when colleges are obsessed with their yield, McMillan says, engaging digitally with schools assures them that you’ll say yes to their offer. Because at the end of the day, no one likes being rejected.

Don’t Half-Ass the High School Recommendation Questionnaire

We get it: Filling out forms is about as fun as watching paint dry. But if you don’t complete the questionnaire your guidance counselor hands out, how will the teacher writing your letter of recommendation know what to say? “Sometimes it can feel like you don’t have a lot of control over the admissions process,” McViney says. “Here is a point that you have some control over what will be said about you.” Think about it: Would you rather choose five adjectives that best describe you, or let your AP chem teacher come up with them himself? “A lot of students don’t understand the weight or importance of this seemingly minor task,” McViney says.

Perfect the Art of the Essay

Admissions interviews are out; flaunting your unique personality through essays (yes, there will be more than one per school) is in. Here’s how to make them sing.

Surprise Them

“Admissions officers don’t want to hear that you lost a big game and tore your ACL,” says Olofsson, of Gateway Educational Consulting. “They’ve heard that a hundred times.” Instead, she says, show a side of you that doesn’t come out in the rest of your application. Straight As in calc? Awesome. Write about your love of skateboarding instead.

Embrace Authenticity

Get comfortable with the idea of writing in your own voice—one that’s “authentically teenage,” McMillan says. “This isn’t a lab report; it’s a first-person, conversational essay, which is not exactly what you practice in school. Get it so you feel like this is a slice of your personality on the page.”

Don’t Tell Tall Tales

It should go without saying, but keep things in the realm of reality. “I’ve had some people ask me, ‘How will they really know if this happened?’” Olofsson says. “This isn’t meant to be fiction. Pick a true story.”

Write a Really Big Check

Even in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, one of the oldest tricks in the book still works. Got a couple million bucks burning a hole in your pocket? Many development offices are listening.

Contribute a Cash Gift

And don’t be shy about going over the admission office’s head to do it. “Generally when parents want to help out, I tell them to go straight to development,” says a local college consultant. “Development and admissions work closely together, so the idea is it gets back to admissions and it gets flagged.”

Bankroll a Position

Is your daughter set on becoming the next rock-star physicist or soccer champ? Go ahead and endow a relevant faculty or coaching position at her college of choice—but only if you’re ready to invest a hefty chunk of change (a named, endowed professorship at local colleges can run into the millions). “If you’re looking at a certain school or college within a university,” the consultant says, “and you can help them in any way, they’ll certainly be appreciative.”

Donate a Building

Go big or go home, right? Well, not so fast—even this tactic isn’t foolproof. “You need to do it at least a year or two before their application to the school, and then notify development that your child or grandchild is applying,” the consultant explains. “No guarantee, especially in this climate, but in the past I’ve seen it work!”

Consider the Transfer

With an acceptance rate of just 18 percent, Boston University isn’t an easy school to get into. But if you’re applying as a transfer student, that number more than doubles, to 43 percent—and BU isn’t the only college with higher admission rates for incoming sophomores. That means that if all else fails, it might not be a bad idea to wait out your freshman year at your second choice. “Go to a college where you can be a big fish and do really well,” McViney suggests—then make your move. Just be sure to sign up for classes that transfer easily (i.e., no basket-weaving 101).

Speak Up

High school college counselors are busy—help them help you by having this list of questions ready.

Is my school list realistic?

“There are so many students now who are all about applying to only the top 50 schools in the nation…it’s a big problem,” Akbar says. “The most important thing in college admissions is that students are targeting schools of fit. It’s really about listening when your counselor says that these are your target schools.”

What else do you need from me?

Counselors are responsible for sending reams of paperwork for each student, from transcripts and progress reports to teacher recommendations. Giving them plenty of lead time and gentle reminders, McMillan says, never hurts.

What is my high school’s track record for admission to my preferred college?

“I’ll sometimes ask clients I’m working with to talk to their guidance counselor about how many kids in the past few years have applied or gone to certain schools on their list,” McViney says. “Some high schools have longstanding relationships with colleges, so that can make a difference.”

Waitlisted? Don’t Just Sit Around and Wait!

You wrote an exemplary essay, rocked the SAT, and still got put on ice by your dream school. Guess what? It ain’t over till it’s over. There’s plenty waitlisted students can do to increase their chances of ultimately scoring a fat envelope in the mail, McViney advises. Start by sending an email to the regional admissions rep that includes any extracurricular, academic, or test-related updates and reiterates your continued interest in the school. Taking the time to visit campus again also shows commitment. The one thing you shouldn’t do? Resend your résumé. “That’s exactly what they’ve already seen,” McViney says. “You only want to bring to their attention any new information that will hopefully bring you to the top of the admissions pile.”

Get in Through the Back Door

Is it Crimson or bust for your future Ivy Leaguer? Here are three (tongue-in-cheek) tips for getting on Harvard’s secretive “Z-list,” a controversial deferred admissions program for just 50 to 60 lucky students per year.

1. Be related to a president or another well-connected politician.

2. Be related to a major donor.

3. Be related to someone who graduated from Harvard (bonus points for double legacy).

Sense a theme?

Go Deep and Narrow on the Extracurriculars

The days of volunteering in South America while simultaneously juggling football, the debate team, and the robotics club are over. Now, schools want to see exactly where your passion lies. “Colleges like to see commitment,” McViney says. “That way, they know what they’re going to get when you come to their school.” A music fanatic, for example, would do well to play in the school orchestra while simultaneously creating independent arrangements and volunteering at a community group that teaches kids how to play instruments. “The bottom line is, What kind of contributions are you going to make to the community, outside of the classroom?” McViney says.

Go the Recruitment Route

Think your skills on the basketball court could lead to a slam-dunk “yes” from your dream school? Don’t wait until it’s too late to get the attention of the right people. “As with many other things in life, it often comes down to who you know and who your support team is,” says Molly Elton, an admissions consultant at Signet Education who specializes in athletic recruiting. That means letting everyone from your coach to your counselor know you’re considering college sports as early as your freshman year and asking for feedback. They’ll eventually be able to walk you through the recruitment process, give you intel about tournaments and camps, and even communicate your interest to their college counterparts as necessary. As for those “prospie weekends,” during which promising seniors are invited to campus to hang with the team? Take advantage of them. “They’re just as important for students considering Division III” as Division I or II when it comes to ensuring a school is the right fit, Elton advises. Just be sure to be on your best behavior: “As with any other public event, [you] are being judged throughout the weekend by the coaches and other student-athletes on the team, so make good choices.”

Don’t Overdo It on the AP Classes

Sure, you want to show admissions that you’ve taken on a rigorous curriculum in high school, but any more than eight or nine APs on your transcript, and you may be sending up a red flag. With student stress levels at a record high, “colleges are not interested in overly anxious kids” who will be burnt out before they even reach campus, McViney says. Plus, taking on more than you can realistically handle could end up hurting your high school GPA as well as your ability to participate in extracurriculars. “How many APs isn’t as important as how well you do in them and what you do outside of that,” she explains. In other words, it’s all about quality over quantity.

Photos by iStock

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