Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

University admissions stuff you might want to know.

...and they don't tell you because they don't (often) KNOW to tell you.

Anyway, this is stuff I've learned at the last minute, and I hope this helps someone. May it be imputed unto us as a righteousness.

This is primarily deals with getting those whom you've offsprung into very competitive universities. Relatively few schools fall into this category, so don't sweat it in EVERY case.


Start by selecting all the conceivable, possible places your kid would like to attend. Whittle that down by scratching out the ones you dislike. Then divide the list into "Dream," "Likely," and "Safety" schools. At Joey's school, they have a computer "scattergraph" that shows you, at a glance, the likelihood of your child being admitted to this or that university based on grades and standardized tests. These are the things we'll look at right off the top.

Now, if you're reading this blog, then it is likely that Catholicism (and particular strain thereof) features highly in your thinking. Here we run into a bit of an issue.

How important is a solidly Catholic identity in the decision-making process of selecting universities to which your child will apply?

There are many nominally Catholic universities in the top tier university ranks. The ones which are more solidly Catholic (by my definition, at any rate...and since this is MY blog, that's what counts) are -- and I shan't belabor the reasons why -- not yet in the same level.

I wish that weren't the case, but it is. By this I am not discussing the quality of education your child would receive there but, rather the perception by the general population. This has a great impact on employment and starting salaries and other economic factors with which your child will have to live. It'd be delusional to state that a degree from The University of Solid Catholicness has a comparable economic splash as one from Ye Olde Ivy League.

This is not to say that financial considerations trump all. But you should know what you and your child are facing.

In our own situation this has been a point of much deliberation and discussion.

Should a solidly Catholic education be paramount to you, fortunately at this moment these are not the most extremely selective institutions. However, if you want a combination of Catholicity and high academic standing you will have to:
a) put up with bouts of "They did what? Fund the XYZ University Livestock Molesters Club??"
b) figure out how to navigate the rocky shoals of cafeteria Catholicism to keep your child's faith intact, and you'll need to find spiritual directors there equal to that task.

In our case, at the few more mainstreamed Catholic universities we have considered, we have only done so because we know people there who we trust would be able to shepherd our son spiritually in a manner congenial to our understanding of Catholic identity.

Lastly, there are secular universities.

The advantage, perversely, is that nobody expects these to be anything but actively hostile to faith (any faith, except possibly those which feature explosives and decapitation) and political conservatism. Thus prepared it's easier to hold on to one's values when it's obvious others seek to strip you of them. It's when you THINK a school will uphold them and doesn't that things fall apart. (Incidentally, we ran into one secular university that impressed us with the fact the campus culture including the faculty skews center-right AND is academically very highly ranked. Unsurprisingly, the student body tends to be religious, although not obviously exclusively -- or primarily -- Catholic.)

Speaking ONLY of MY university experience (exclusively at secular universities) I'll say that uncompromising hostility to my worldview was a plus in strengthening my convictions. Your mileage may vary.


First, let's talk grades.

If you're lucky/smart you're reading this when your kid still has 3 or so years to start thinking of this.


I cannot overemphasize how much easier everything gets with a good grade point average. If you have to go all "Simon Legree's tiger mother" do it. Do whatever you have to, short of a felony, to get your kid to study and do well.

I've discovered, in the case of boys, that video games are the Anti-Christ, the sworn blood enemy of optimal academic performance. A little video game activity AFTER schoolwork and on weekends is fine, but if your son has a 75" HD TV with PS4, XBOX and Wii and surround sound, you have a very uphill fight. (Joey has none of these, Deo gratias.)

You'll have to check to see what assignments and tests are coming up, and make sure they are completed. In Joey's case, the magic bullet was making sure he studied for tests "the day before the day before." This puts the subject matter into long term, rather than short term, memory. This is key, because your average teenage boy has the short term memory of a goldfish entering rehab.

Second, the SAT. Don't waste your time on prep courses. The SAT is, at its core, an IQ test and its answers have a "pattern." The easier it is for your kid to "spot the pattern" the more accurate his (or her, I don't discriminate) guesses are, and the higher the score. My suggestion? Find a whole mess of Official SAT Practice Tests. Have your kid take the first one WITHOUT TIMING and OPEN BOOK. You want him to see where he "guesses/answers wrong" and what the testmakers thinking is IN REAL TIME.

I cannot stress this enough.

Once your kid sees how a given test is "wired" when he comes to a question he can't answer correctly in a few seconds, he will know HOW to eliminate the other answers. I guesstimate this is worth +/-250 points.

Oh, and many top-tier schools will also ask your kid to take "SAT subject tests." I very strongly suggest your child takes a given subject test the summer immediately following having completed that course in high school. If your daughter took biology in 10th grade, that's the time to take the corresponding test. Why? Because the material is fresh in her mind and if she takes it mid-12th grade, she'll have to study a LOT for that test and her odds of doing well are nowhere near as good.

Next we come to the dreaded essay. If your child is applying to a top-tier institution, this could be worth as much as the SAT and/or grades. One Very Big Deal University admissions person told me that 95% of applicants "flat-out cannot write, of the remaining 5%, 3% can write, but just in a 'grammatically correct way' and only 2% can write both correctly and well. That 2% gets admitted pretty much regardless of grades or SAT scores."

Some douchebag unscrupulous parents will write their kid's essay for him, or worse, hire a ghostwriter. Don't. The people at the admissions office who read essays -- and most of them do nothing but read essays -- are keen spotters of the "voice" of a 12th grader...or "mutton writing as lamb" as it were. My suggestion? Have your kid write the essay WELL ahead of its due date. A week later, have him rewrite it and then you edit it. Make suggestions, check for solecisms, etc. Don't CHANGE anything, but, rather, send it back with your notes and markups. Let him change it. Repeat 2-3 or times.

The essay (and this is why the few kids who can nail it get in no matter what) has certain things it must accomplish:

1- It must address the question. ("What do you consider the most important quality in a 21st Century global citizen?" or whatever.)
2- It must be grammatically correct. (Skip the artistic license for now.)
3- It must be a very engaging read. If the reader forgets he's reading "an application essay" that's a win.
4- It must, very subliminally, underscore all of the points which the admissions office considers favorable. (More on this anon.)
5- OPTIONAL - If you wish to lay claim to one of the various demographic groups that are treated with a measure of advantage, look for an essay question (usually they have three) that has wording such as "your culture" or "heritage" or similar. The essay should subliminally touch upon one's favorable demography without beating people over the head with it. Similarly, if seriously difficulties have beset your family that can be plausibly assumed to have affected your child and his/her performance it should also be brought up subtly at this point.

After this, look over the application materials. If a given university is "on the Common app" AND they waive the application fee, apply to it...what the Hell. But be warned, about half of the top-tier schools are NOT on the Common app for a number of reasons of varying levels of reasonableness and validity. It is what it is.

When you are poring over these materials, especially from the top-tier universities, be on the lookout for the term "holistic admissions." This means "we'll let your kid in based on whether we like him/her and not on any objective criteria." Which is a positive if your child is in a desirable demographic category, not so much if not.

This is where we hit some serious turbulence. I am not here to argue in favor or against these factors in the admissions process...just to tell you what they are, how they may affect you and how you can navigate them to your child's benefit. So don't get your ideological undies in a twist.

In schools that specifically tout their "holistic admissions" sex and ethnicity matter a great deal. They will emphatically deny it, but -- and I can't tell you how I know this to be 100% true, you'll just have to trust me -- that is the case.

Female applicants in the "STEM" areas have a colossal advantage, for instance.

Most Hispanics* have an advantage over their Anglo counterparts, African-Americans have an advantage over most** Asian-Americans. It is what it is.***

In these cases, what "holistic admissions" means to applicants is (and this is a direct quote from an Ivy-league admissions type) "We want to let you in, please give us an excuse."

This doesn't mean that if your child is a WASP from a nice suburban school he has no chance; not at all. But he or she should "compensate" with the other things mentioned herein.

Another crucial factor is "interest quotient" which is not merely "how badly does this applicant want to attend this august institution?" but "How is this applicant's seriousness of interest evidenced?"

Your child should start communicating with the admissions office and any persons affiliated therewith. Some have "student ambassadors" who sit in the admissions meetings and offer whatever insight into a given applicant and, although they have no vote, their input is taken very seriously and can often sway the decision. Your child should be in email conversations with these folks, asking about student activities, internship and practical-experience opportunities, asking questions about campus life, etc., etc.

A campus visit, if at all possible, should be scheduled and followed up with email conversations.

This will be helpful also should the university in question require an interview. (The further up the top-tier you go, the likelier this will be.) In the matter of the interview, you should conduct a few mock-interview rounds with your little darling. No so much that the responses sound "canned" and rehearsed, but so that the answers are fluid and devoid of the "" and "you know" and "like." The metric for success is that the closer this comes to a conversation the better, and the more it becomes an interrogation with monosyllabic answers, the worse.

Like in the essay, this conversation should touch upon "the good stuff" as noted above and as will follow.

The last thing to shore up are the extracurriculars. Ideally (and in the case of top-tier schools, it's practically an unwritten "must") your child will have:

1- An athletic activity (croquet, baseball, whatever)
2- A community service.
3- A leadership component (this, incidentally, is NOT the same as joining the Leadership Club)
4- A personal interest (the Kite club, the Astronomy club)

Regarding items 1, 2, and 4, the more years doing this your child has, the better...especially as it shows commitment. This is key.

There can be some overlap, of course (being elected president of the croquet club, for example) and where there is no ideal activity for your kid, have him/her start one, showing both the interest and the leadership.

Lastly, if you at all have ANY "ins" at a given university, it's okay to deploy these, but NOT HEAVYHANDEDLY.

Hope this helps someone!


* Cubans are, for the purposes of university admissions, the "wrong" kind of Hispanic. In those applications listing these as multiple choice and given that 90% of Cubans have family in Spain or Latin America, I suggest ticking the box that says "Hispanic/Latino Other."
** Filipinos, for the purposes of university admissions, are the "right" kind of Asian
*** Because some surnames are not obviously of a given ethnicity or someone may have one Anglo and one "ethnic" parent, it will be an OPTIONAL question on the application to state one's "ethnic self-identification."


  • At 4:18 PM, November 16, 2014 , Blogger gnelson said...

    It seems kind of crazy to me that such a song and dance must be undertaken to get into a good university. But that is coming from a lady who entered college after junior year high school, and so did a different song and dance, I guess. :)
    Also, I can't believe those stats about kids not knowing how to write. Why doesn't anybody know how to write? You'd think with all this "teaching to the tests" someone would teach to that portion of the test (or application). Or maybe they do teach writing, it's just that nobody's paying attention?

  • At 8:17 PM, November 16, 2014 , Blogger JMG said...

    Not so much to get into a good university, as optimizing the chances. The number of top-tier university spots has grown a whopping 8% in the last 40 years, but the number of HS seniors has increased by almost 30%, so the competition has gotten keener.

    Students with perfect GPAs and off-the-chart SATs are not especially rare. So finding and exploiting any possible edge is key.

    Especially in times of economic uncertainty, one of the biggest hedges against downdrafts in the economy is a degree from a top-tier university. The difference, 10 years after graduating, between one of the top tier universities and a "pretty good state school" averages almost $75K per year.

    Anyway, the problem with both tests and teaching thereto is the standards via which success is declared. What's "Wow, awesome!" on the state test may only be "meh" in the offices of the admission committee at Ye Olde Ivy League University.

    Then one has to grapple with the worries of how to have your child hold on to the faith and values.


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