Why are Colleges Getting So Competitive?

There are fewer students applying to college now than there were 5 years ago. Does that surprise you?

University of Pittsburgh

How can it be that colleges are getting so much more competitive now than in the past when there are fewer students applying to college? Because the number of applications that some students are submitting has been increasing significantly. And most of these additional applications are being sent to just a handful of colleges.

The reality is that for the vast majority of colleges, they are no more selective now than they have been in the past.  In fact, most colleges accept most of the students that apply to them.

Is there anything you can do about this increased selectivity to a small number of colleges? No, I’m afraid not. But what you can do is broaden your idea of what is a good school. Don’t assume that because a college rejects most of the people that apply that it is a better college than one that accepts most of those that apply.

In deciding where to apply don’t worry about artificial rankings or the number of students that are rejected by a college. Neither tells you whether a particular college might be a good choice for you and your needs.

And that is all that should really matter to you.

Is it Safe to Attend Dartmouth College?

Dartmouth College is a popular choice for many of my students to apply to. It is a good school academically. However, Dartmouth has always had a reputation as a party school. The movie Animal House was based in part on stories of fraternity life at Dartmouth.

Dartmouth College

But, it appears that things have been getting out of hand at Dartmouth. The President of Dartmouth, who is also an alumnus of Dartmouth, has called for an end to the high-risk and harmful behavior that has been occurring on campus.

Specifically there are concerns being raised about sexual assaults on campus, high-risk drinking and the lack of inclusion of minorities into campus life. In fact, Dartmouth is under federal investigation for its handling of sexual misconduct claims.

InsideHigherEd has an article on this issue reflecting on the history of those who have tried to change the climate at Dartmouth in the past.

I hope that the new President is able to clean up these problems. But the story goes beyond Dartmouth. Things like this occur everyday on campuses around the country. Just because a college has a good academic reputation doesn’t mean that there are no problems on campus.

It is your duty, in investigating colleges to apply to and attend, to get to understand what daily life is like for students on a campus. Read the school newspaper if you are on campus. Many colleges will even put them online if you can’t get to campus. Look at the crime statistics being reported by a college. Colleges are required to report these under the Clery Act. Actually talk to current students and ask them what concerns there are on campus.

Going to college is about getting an education. But you want to be safe at the same time. Do your homework and keep yourself safe.

Are BS/MD Programs Getting More Difficult to Get Into?

Every year it seems that getting into college is more difficult.

BS/MD Programs are hard work

The past few years, the number of colleges that each student applies to has increased greatly. Although there are actually fewer students applying to college in general compared to 5 years ago, the number of applications has actually increased at the most selective colleges. This has artificially made it more difficult to gain admission each year.

With a number of colleges now having admit rates less than 10%, my students have been calling up asking if BS/MD programs are also getting more difficult to get into.

The answer generally is no.

BS/MD programs have admit rates ranging from 1% to 8% so they are already the most competitive college programs in the country.  If you have the qualifications to apply to one of these programs,  your chances are about the same as it was last year or 5 years ago. The reason is that while there are very few spots available for BS/MD programs, it does not appear that the number of applicants each year has changed much.

Moreover, what programs are looking for in deciding who to admit has really not changed. I will be putting up a post soon about the colleges where my current class of students were admitted to but the bottom line is that it is not significantly different from prior years.

If you are considering a BS/MD program you already know that it’s is going to be incredible competitive. Don’t worry about it since worrying won’t help anyway. Instead, make sure you are the strongest possible candidate by doing everything necessary to show you are a great candidate for these programs.

ACT or SAT. Does It Matter Anymore?


When students start preparing for college admissions tests, one of the first issues is what is the best test. The ACT or SAT? Does it really matter any more which test you take?

The quick answer is NO, it doesn’t make any difference.  Virtually every college in the country will accept either the SAT or ACT. They really do not care what test you take.

However, which test you take can make the difference between getting accepted and rejected at many colleges.  How can those two statements both be true?  While colleges don’t care which test you take, you should care which test you take because you only want to take the test you do the best on.

Some students do better taking the SAT and some do better taking the ACT. Your job is to figure out which test is the best for you and then focus your effort on getting the best score possible for that test.  I have talked before about how to figure out which test is right for you.

Ready to start preparing for the test? Start by figuring out the right test for you.

Parent Over Involvement Hurts Chances for Admissions

Parents, this post is for you. I know you love your kids and want the best for them. You want everything for them that you didn’t have. Good for you.

But, being too involved in the college admissions process, and with BS/MD programs in particular, hurts your student. It doesn’t help.

I have worked with several families over the years where there has been parent over involvement. Now let me make this clear. I regularly have parents that listen in on every phone conversation and participate in every skype call. That is not the problem.

The problem is when the parent starts writing the essays. The problem is when the parent is the only contact person a college has ever heard from. The problem is when the parent is choosing which colleges to apply to, not the student.

All colleges are concerned about the maturity of the students they are admitting. The students maturity is a big factor in BS/MD admissions. Having the occasional phone call  from parents on procedural issues like scheduling a visit is no problem.

But parents calling and asking a BS/MD program details about their admissions, calling and asking them about interviews and what is covered is a BIG red flag for most BS/MD programs.  Almost always this is a parent that is too involved and when the admissions people suspect this, the chances for admissions can disappear almost over night.

Once in a while these students will get in but in my experience their chances of admissions is less than the student who personally handles all, or most,  of the contact with admissions.

Don’t be that mom or dad that says in April when there are no BS/MD admissions coming through, what did my kid do wrong. It may have nothing to do with your kid, it may have to do with you.

Does Grade Inflation Help Getting Into Medical School?

While there are a number of factors used to determine who to admit to medical school, the two biggest are the GPA and the MCAT scores. So if a high GPA is good to have does that mean that going to a college with high grade inflation will make you more competitive for medical school?

The answer is no.

Let’s take two well known colleges as an example. Harvard is the poster child for grade inflation. The most commonly given grade at Harvard is a perfect A. The average GPA is something like a 3.8.  Princeton on the other hand used to have grade inflation like Harvard. But a few years ago they changed their grading policy to be more in line with reality and overnight the average GPA dropped to about a 3.3.  Are Princeton students dumber than Harvard students? Of course not.

But more importantly, does Harvard have the best success rate in the country for medical school admissions. No. There are many colleges that historically place more of their students that apply into a medical school than Harvard.

Conversely, did the acceptance rates into medical school drop when Princeton realigned their grading? By all appearances the answer to that is also, no.

The admissions officers at any medical school, law school or graduate program are not stupid. They know that different colleges have different average GPAs that have nothing to do with how talented the students are. That factor is taken into account when deciding on who to accept.

It is true that generally, the higher your GPA the stronger candidate you will be for medical school. But it also depends on the average GPA is of the college you attend.


Questions to Ask College Students While Visiting the College

You are getting ready to go visit colleges. You have already scheduled a tour and information session. But you just read my post that says you should talk to some actual students while you are visiting the college. What do you ask them?

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. How difficult is it to get an appointment with a professor?
  2. If you are not doing well in a course are the professors willing to talk to you about how you can improve?
  3. How would you rate the teaching skills of your professors?
  4. What was your favorite class your first year? Why?
  5. What was the biggest class you took your first year?
  6. What was the smallest?
  7. Were you able to get enough individual attention in the larger classes?
  8. How easy is it to get into the classes you want?
  9. How much time do you spend doing homework each night?
  10. How many papers and tests do you have in a semester?
  11. What did you do last weekend? Do most students stay on campus during the weekends?
  12. What is the most important social event of the year?
  13. What type of individual would not be comfortable at this school?
  14. How do you like the food?
  15. Do you and your friends feel safe on campus?
  16. What are the residence halls like?
  17. Do the students take an active part in the discussion in class?
  18. What other colleges did you apply to?
  19. Why did you decide to attend this college?

This isn’t meant to be an all encompassing list of questions but hopefully it will get you started. And enjoy your visit.

Do College Tour Guides Really Tell You What a College is Like?

Princeton UniversityLast time we talked about when to tour colleges and in the past I have talked about why touring a college is a good idea. But today’s post is a cautionary tale.

Imagine that you are on a tour at Prestigious U. And you are told that students love each other and that no one worries about GPA’s. You start to smile because you are happy that it is not competitive once you get there. That simple statement clinches it that this is the college for you.

But what if the tour guide was lying to you? Well, maybe lying is too strong a word. Misleading you? No, lying was the right word.

In reality the students are very competitive with each other. Does that change your thoughts on that campus? Would it make you question everything the tour guide is saying?

Unfortunately, this is not a theoretical exercise. A current Princeton student wrote an article about tour guides at Princeton and disclosed a few things that Princeton doesn’t really want you to know.   Things such as students do care very much about their grades, there are bad dorms on campus and all of that research that students do doesn’t actually occur.

Make no mistake about it. This isn’t just about Princeton. Princeton is a great school for many students and I often have students considering it. But college tour guides are employed by the admissions department. And the vast majority are following a very careful script to best reflect their college.

We all want to show our best side. That is natural and there is nothing wrong with it. However, as a prospective student you need to be aware of this slant and not take everything that the tour guide tells you as absolute truth. If you tour enough colleges you will also find that some tour guides are more open to telling it like it is than others.

Take the tour. Listen to the tour guide and what they have to say. But after the tour stop and talk to some students not employed by the admissions department and ask them some questions about their college. This will likely give you a more accurate view of life at that particular college.

Next week I’ll talk about some questions to ask students on campus.

When is the Best Time to Visit a College?

College ToursI have talked before about visiting colleges.  But when is the best time to visit a college?

There are two basic options.

Before Applying

The advantage of visiting a college before applying is to figure out if the college is a good choice for you. You can read all of the reviews and guide books on a particular college but until you actually get on the campus you can’t be sure if it is a good fit for you.

Only when you have a chance to talk to students and professors can you really know whether you would enjoy spending four years at the college. If you are able to visit before applying you can narrow down the colleges you are applying to by possibly eliminating those that were not a good fit for you.

Summer is a popular time to visit because you have time off and your parents will often take time off as well.  However, because you ideally want the chance to talk with current students and professors, visiting in the summer is not the best option. The spring of junior year is often the best time to visit.

After Applying

Visiting a college after you have been admitted is also a great time to visit because now you are looking at the reality of attending a particular college. Many colleges will hold admitted student days when all admitted students are invited to come visit the campus. The purpose of these visits is to encourage students that this college is a best option for them.

If you attend during admitted student days you can also see who your potentially future class mates will be. Do they look like a group of people that you would like to spend four years with?

The best option, if money is no object, is to visit both before applying and after being accepted. That will give you the best feel for which colleges to apply to and then actually attend. But if you have to make a choice, I lean toward the college visit before applying.

It takes a lot of time and effort to apply to different colleges.  If you can narrow the list of colleges you are applying to down a few colleges you will make less work for yourself.

Small Schools are Among the Best for STEM Majors

I have often talked about the strength of small liberal arts colleges in the sciences and how they often do a better job than bigger universities in preparing students for graduate and professional schools in the sciences. A new study is further confirmation of this fact.

The study, entitled “Strengthening the STEM Pipeline: The Contributions of Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges” found that students in smaller colleges are more likely to complete a STEM degree in four years and more likely to attend graduate school than students attending larger colleges.

In almost every math and science field the smaller colleges were producing a disproportionate number of STEM grads and PhD’s in these fields.

Smaller colleges are not the best option for everyone, but if you are considering getting a degree in a STEM field or considering a PhD or professional degree in the sciences, don’t discount the smaller colleges. You might be making a huge mistake.


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