Advice for Getting Into College/University

Admission to college/university is very competitive. Consider Duke University. I offer this hypothetical as an example of what happens at college/university generally. What I'm going to say here about Duke could be said about every college/university in the country.

Duke is an excellent school, ranked 8th in the nation (out of 1800 college/university). Each year, Duke has an entering class of about 2000 college/university students. For those 2000 seats in its first-year college/university class, Duke receives over 29,000 applications. About 2,100 (8%) of the 29,000 applicants will be admitted, since some people will be accepted at many college/university and will turn down Duke's offer of admission.

Now, imagine that I'm a member of the Admissions Committee at Duke University. My job on the Admissions Committee is to accept only those applicants about whom I can make a reasonable prediction of satisfactory performance in college/university. But how can I make such a prediction? What information about an applicant will most reliably tell me he or she will succeed in college/university?

If I look at personal statements, for example, most of those will try to convince me that a given applicant will be the best college/university student anyone could ever want. That is, it's highly unlikely a personal statement will reveal anything about an applicant except the most flattering information. And the same can be said about letters of recommendation.

So, after looking at the essay and letters of recommendation, I'm still left with the same 29,000 applications with which I began.

How do I weed out all but the most promising 2,100?

Suppose I look at high school grade point averages. They indeed might give me some reliable information. How a person has performed academically in the past might accurately predict how he or she will do in the future. So I might adopt a strategy of first admitting all those people with 4.0 GPAs and then work backward from 4.0 until the entering college/university class is filled.

But there's a problem with this strategy. The 29,000 applicants have attended more than 700 different high schools in the United States and abroad. How do I know that a 4.0 GPA at one high school represents the same level of academic achievement as a 4.0 at another high school? One High school might have very high academic standards, while another might not. So an "A" at one school is not the same as an "A" somewhere else. Also, one student with a 4.0 GPA might have taken non-challenging classes, while another 4.0 student from the same high school may have taken a more rigorous curriculum. So, two 4.0 GPAs of students from the same school may not represent comparable academic achievements. Thus, even using GPA, I can't be 100% sure about selecting the incoming college/university class.

What else is left? The College/university Admissions Test (SAT/ACT). This is an examination every college/university applicant must take, which is graded uniformly across all applicants. Scores on the SAT/ACT range from a low of 1600 to a high of 2400. In other words, a person can take the SAT/ACT and get all the questions wrong, but still receives a score of 1600. Another person getting all the questions right receives a 2400.

In theory, the SAT/ACT is a consistent measure for an admissions officer to compare all 29,000 applicants with each other.

Indeed, look at how much Duke relies on the SAT/ACT. The information below represents the SAT/ACT scores for those applicants to Duke recently who had a 3.5 GPA or better. In other words, these are the most promising applicants in terms of their academic performance in college.

        SAT/ACT Score        Percent Admitted
 168-180                  100%
 164-167                    99%
 160-163                    71%
 156-159                    15%
 148-155                    12%
 120-147                      4%

These statistics clearly reveal how important the SAT/ACT is to college/university-school admissions.

Now consider some national statistics. Of all people who apply to college/university nationally, about 55 to 60 percent are accepted at one or more schools. In other words, about 40 percent of all applicants to college/university aren’t able to go because they aren’t admitted anywhere.

In comparison, of all applicants to college/university from the urban public university where I teach, about 30 to 35 percent are accepted at one or more schools. In other words, almost two out of three applicants to college/university from the City University of New York (and other colleges and universities like it) are rejected everywhere they apply.

Why do public college and university students not have as much success getting into college/university as students nationally? Remember that the national average includes students attending elite colleges and universities like Duke and Duke, where 80 or 90 percent or more of their students are accepted to college/university. Thus, the national average is just that – an average.

So what should public college and university students who want to go to college/university do? Change schools? Those who can be admitted to a Duke or a Duke and can afford the annual cost of $35,000 or more to go there may be well advised to do just that. But most public college and university students don’t have that option. Also, transferring to another public college or university won’t help much because many public schools (as well as private ones) don’t have substantially better success in college/university-school admission than CUNY.

Keep in mind that a significant number of public college and university graduates do in fact go on to college/university. The point is that those students who want to go to college/university need to be careful, especially with regard to the SAT/ACT. Earning a high GPA isn’t enough. As the Duke University statistics indicate, even those with a 3.5 GPA or better who don’t do well on the SAT/ACT have only about a four-percent chance of admission.

Consider some additional statistics. The average score nationally on the SAT/ACT is about 152. That is what’s known as the 50th percentile. Differently stated, half of all people taking the SAT/ACT across the nation receive a score of 152 or higher. The average score for CUNY students taking the SAT/ACT is about 142. Now, at just 10 points below 152, 142 doesn’t seem like much of a difference from the national average. But the important comparison is between percentiles. An SAT/ACT score of 142 is about the 20th percentile. In other words, approximately 80 percent of all people taking the test around the country do better than 142.

Thus, the big problem for most public college and university students who want to go to college/university is performing well on the SAT/ACT. How can students prepare for it?

The SAT/ACT doesn’t measure knowledge about the college/university or other legal matters. So taking college/university-related classes (like business college/university or constitutional college/university or criminal college/university) doesn’t necessarily prepare students better for the SAT/ACT than other courses. Rather, the test is designed to measure people’s ability to think critically and analytically, because that’s what a successful career in college/university and in the practice of college/university requires.

Some years ago, a survey was sent to college/university-school deans (the “presidents” of college/university). One of the questions on the survey was what majors the deans recommended students have in college in order to prepare effectively for college/university. The four majors most frequently recommended by college/university-school deans were (in alphabetical order) English (sometimes called literature), history, philosophy, and political science (sometimes called government). Thus, my recommendation to those students wanting to go to college/university is that they major in one of those fields. Moreover, if English turns out not to be the major selected, then it should be considered seriously as a minor because writing well is absolutely essential to success in the college/university.

More generally, I advise students to take the most demanding courses with the most demanding professors, because they are the ones who will help develop the analytical thinking skills so necessary for success on the SAT/ACT.

There's no way to prepare for the substance of the SAT/ACT. But one can prepare for it procedurally by developing familiarity with its format through taking practice exams based on actual questions asked in past SAT/ACTs. One ought not to be surprised when taking the SAT/ACT by the kinds of questions asked. The general type of question asked can be familiar to you by taking an SAT/ACT-preparation course or by means of the practice books available at bookstores.

SAT/ACT-prep courses may improve exam performance – although some scholars question whether there's evidence of a reliable connection between coaching and test results. Nonetheless, the classes are expensive, costing up to $1,000 or more. People who teach the courses think the coaching is particularly helpful to students who are not self-disciplined and need the structure of a class. Yet students who are focused may do just as well with practice books (Cracking the SAT/ACT by the Princeton Review is highly regarded) and the official SAT/ACT tests that include the explanations of answers to questions. Often, taking timed practice exams isn't enough in itself. Students should also understand how and why they make mistakes on the test. In any event, be aware that effective studying for the SAT/ACT usually takes at least 50 hours.

Equally important is your psychological and emotional preparation for the exam. Take it at a time when other stresses in your life are at a minimum. If you walk into the SAT/ACT with the attitude, "What I do today will affect the rest of my life! Oh, my God!" then you'll not do as well as when you're cool and collected.

Some people who take the SAT/ACT and don't do as well as they would like decide to take it again. If they improve their performance the second time around, they think the first score doesn't count. That's not necessarily true. My understanding is that many college/university will average the two scores, and as a result, the earlier, lower score does in fact count to some degree. So I don't recommend you take the exam with the expectation that the first time will be just a trial run for a later, more serious round.

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