For parents of college-bound children, figuring out how to pay for college can be daunting enough. But there’s more to the equation than that. There are important decisions to be made about which schools to apply to and how — each of which comes with its own costs in terms of time, money, and stress.

In his recent book, Who Gets In and Why, veteran journalist Jeffrey Selingo pulled back the curtain on what can be a mysterious process. Selingo got a seat at the table as admissions officers at three universities made decisions about thousands of applicants. In addition, he talked with high school seniors and their parents as they moved through the application process.

He discovered that colleges aren’t the meritocracies you might envision.

The playing field

The good news, according to Selingo, is that it’s “never been easier to get into college.” The average four-year school accepts 60% of applicants. For high school students who want to go to college, he said there are plenty of schools that offer a quality education, have high acceptance rates, and offer a decent amount of financial aid.

The not-so-good news is that the more selective schools are increasingly difficult to get into. In the 30 years since 1990, the acceptance rate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore fell from 53% to just 11%. At the University of Pennsylvania, it went from 38% to 9%, and at St. Louis-based Washington University, it plummeted from 62% to 14%.

Those lower acceptance rates are due to the growing number of applicants. A combination of factors — from increased university marketing and brand-building, to the ease of applying online, to decreased transportation costs that have made going to school out of state more viable — has led more students to apply to more schools. In 1995, 10% of high school students applied to 7 or more schools. By 2016, some 35% did.

This increasing number of applicants has necessarily led to lower acceptance rates, and a low acceptance rate is what makes a school “selective.” It’s a metric that schools manage by spending millions of marketing dollars, but that high school students and their parents spend too little time considering.

Some parents see a selective college as a type of “luxury good,” and their views filter down to their children. One high school student told Selingo, “You pick up on the reputation of colleges from people around you. You can see it in their facial expressions when you tell them where you’re applying.”

An ill-informed view of what makes for a “great” school, along with misinformed assumptions about financial aid, can leave families spending time and money pursuing schools their children stand little chance of attending. Selingo told several stories of students who pursued “dream schools” and got accepted, only to end up somewhere else when faced with the actual cost.

Buyers and sellers

Selingo said universities fall into one of two camps. Some schools are “buyers” and some are “sellers.”

  • Buyers are the “have-nots.
    Without strong name recognition, these schools must recruit students and “buy” them with generous financial aid packages. One such school hit its 640-student enrollment target in 2019 only by offering discounts averaging 70%, taking the $48,000 sticker price down to $14,000.
     
  • Sellers are the “haves.”
    These schools have something people want and they attract many applicants whose families are willing to pay full-price. But many families — even upper middle class and wealthy families — can’t pay the sticker price and that’s where a hard reality sets in. They pursued seller schools with the assumption “that every school offers a discount (they don’t) or that every financial aid package is negotiable (it isn’t),” Selingo wrote.

His advice for households that make too much to qualify for need-based aid: “If your family can’t easily write a $21,000 check for the average in-state public college or $49,000 for the average private school — and do that for four years — be sure to have a few ‘buyers’ on your list where your chances for merit aid are better.”

Determining which camp a school is in isn’t easy, but you can get a sense by looking up the percentage of a school’s accepted students who go on to enroll (a lower “yield” number means the school is more likely to spend money on merit aid) and the “percentage of institutional aid given without respect to financial need” (the higher the percentage, the better your chances of getting a discount). Selingo has a spreadsheet containing this information for nearly 500 universities available for free on his website.

Once you’ve built a list of schools that’s grounded in financial reality, the next step is for your children to give themselves their best shot at acceptance.

Improving the odds

Selective schools tend to attract large numbers of academically talented students. To give an extreme example, of the 26,000 domestic applicants to Harvard in 2019, 8,200 had perfect grade point averages and 3,500 had perfect SAT scores. That’s a lot of academically “perfect” students vying for just 1,700 slots.

While the criteria and methods of ranking students vary among schools, Selingo found that the starting points were the rigor of classes taken by applicants and how well they did. In fact, he said, “The most important thing teens can do to improve their prospects at selective colleges is to take the toughest courses they can in high school.” Even then, all Advanced Placement classes are not viewed equally. Taking and succeeding with AP calculus is “the strongest signal of preparedness for an elite college,” whereas AP environment science is unlikely to impress.

Less important are ACT or SAT test scores. For schools that consider test scores (some have gone test-optional), they’re looking mostly for continuity between the scores and how well the student has performed in the classroom.

With many schools receiving many more applications from similarly talented students, they have to rely on other factors to make their decisions, and that’s where the process becomes more subjective. Selingo wrote about one student who was ranked third in her high school class of 1,000 students and had an almost perfect SAT score, but was viewed as “too one dimensional.”

He found that extracurricular activities matter. Admissions officers want to see that a student stayed with something over time, and they want to see leadership, not just membership.

While students (and their parents) often labor over applications for hours, they may be shocked to find out that admissions officers at many schools spend very little time reading them. The number of applications is just too overwhelming. The University of Washington received 46,000 applications in 2019 yet it has only 17 full-time admissions officers. The school hires grad students and retirees to take the first pass through the applications, requiring them to process seven per hour. That’s less than nine minutes per application.

(A well-written essay can help an applicant stand out. However, with less than two decades of life experience to draw from, Selingo said many students cover the same familiar ground — how they persevered through a sports injury or what they learned about themselves or the world on a trip.)

Another important factor is a student’s “demonstrated interest,” or how likely they are to enroll if accepted. Some schools track how many of their emails a student opens and how quickly, whether they follow the school on social media, show up when a school rep visits their school, participate in a summer program at the college, or have taken a campus tour.

A final factor that can tip the application process in a student’s favor is applying “early decision” or “early action.” Both types of applications often receive “a more forgiving and leisurely read” than those reviewed during the rush of regular decision.

Not all schools offer these options. For those that do, the applications usually are due by November 1. Early decision is a binding agreement. If accepted, the student has agreed in advance to withdraw all other applications and commit to that school, usually in December. Early action is more lenient, allowing students to consider other offers and wait until spring before committing. But both early decision and early action indicate a stronger intention to enroll in the school than applying via “regular decision.” Generally, a higher percentage of early decision and early action applicants get accepted than regular decision applicants.

Final advice

Clearly, there are many moving parts to the college-search process. Selingo found that the students who were most satisfied with the school they attended were those who embraced the ambiguity of the process instead of fixating on one or two dream schools. He also had some recommendations for parents: Encourage your children to embrace the search process as a learning experience and, “Stop using the college where you want them to end up as a trophy for your parenting.”