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New Game, New Rules “TOP College” Competition

New Game, New Rules “TOP College” Competition

Parents with school-aged children know that just thinking about the prospect of getting your child into a top college can induce palm-sweating anxiety. After all, we want to see our budding scholars get into a college that will give them the greatest advantage in a competitive job market.

It turns out there’s good reason to be concerned.

Hair styles and fashion are not the only things that have changed dramatically since we were in college. According to statistics released for the incoming class of 2017, college admission rates have dropped to as low as 5.6 percent for the first time ever.

A 2013 New York Times article reports: “Applicant pools are growing larger; the University of Southern California received more than 47,000 applications this year. That’s 10,000 more students that just two years ago, when this year’s applicants were sophomores. Colleges are also becoming more selective. The Ivy League reported an admit rate that dipped to 5.79 percent at Harvard this year. Stanford accepted 5.69 percent of its more than 38,800 applicants. The University of Chicago accepted only 8.8 percent of its more than 30,300 applicants.”*

Closer to home, Steve Orlando, senior director of UF Media Relations, said, “Ten years ago we saw 18,000 to 19,000 applicants a year. We now see close to 30,000 students applying for roughly 6,400 freshman spots. As a result, the academic profile of the freshman class has risen.”

With so many smart and talented students being denied admission to top colleges, how can a parent help her child get a leg up in the selection process? Obviously, good grades and high test scores are a must. But with so many thousands of high-achieving kids, it has become more important than ever to help your child find his “hook” — that quality, activity or positioning that sets him apart from the rest.

Orlando explained, “UF uses a holistic approach to admissions … grades and test scores are only part of the picture. We are interested in the entire student and their life experience and what they bring to the table. A student who has demonstrated initiative, a student who has thrived despite a personal setback or challenge — those are some examples of what we look for. In addition, we are interested in the academic rigor of the courses the student has taken.”

Before you start loading up your child’s resume with extracurricular activities, keep in mind that colleges today are more interested in the well-rounded class than a well-rounded individual. This means that being a superstar in some area carries more weight than belonging to every school club and sports team.

“Leadership is important,” Orlando added. “For example, if a student won the science fair, that’s fine; if a student received a patent for something he or she invented, that’s better. If a student was in the marching band, that’s good; if a student was a drum major, that’s better.”

Jenny Li, who graduated this year from Buchholz High School and will attend MIT, provided similar advice. She said, “When applying to top colleges, you have to be aware that basically every single other applicant will have good grades and test scores. To get in, you need to differentiate yourself from the crowd — which people usually do through extracurriculars and awards. I didn’t join every single club in high school just to fill up space on my resumé. Instead, I chose only a few clubs so I could devote more time to each. I was on the Buchholz math team, Future Business Leaders of American and Key Club.”

Li added, “I committed a lot of time into these three clubs and eventually became president of the math team and FBLA. This showed colleges that I could balance schoolwork and extracurriculars while maintaining good grades.”

Li may also have gained points by applying to engineering programs, one of the few remaining fields of study where women are underrepresented.

Students in Alachua County can find college preparation programs at both private and public high schools. Counselors at Eastside High School, Gainesville High School, and Buchholz High School help students develop four-year curriculum plans and invite college representatives from all over the country to visit and talk with students. Oak Hall School provides counselors who are active members of national college admission organizations and attend national and regional admissions conferences, which allows them to advocate effectively for their students. Also, school counselors get to know students closely so they can write compelling letters of recommendation and steer them toward a college that fits their needs and interests.

Chris Beckmann, head of college counseling at Oak Hall School, said, “Our size, and the individual attention we can offer each student, allows us to suggest colleges for consideration that ‘match’ the particular child. This point speaks directly to our departmental mission as we, working in partnership with our families, seek college experiences that will best ‘fit’ the young college aspirant. ‘Fit’ is a popular buzzword in college admissions these days but our approach, our size, our student knowledge allows us to reach that goal with most of our young men and women.”

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Some good news is there are plenty of excellent colleges that are attainable for hard-working students. Our kids just need to make sure when the time comes that they expand their college searches and keep an eye on the high-achieving ball during all four years of high school, particularly during the first three.

As parents, we need to keep in mind that college admission is a complex, unpredictable process over which we have limited control, but every good student has a place somewhere. And after it’s all said and done, our next big adventure begins: How to pay for college? But that’s another palm sweat-inducing story…


Jenny Li, 2013 graduate of Buchholz High School, will attend MIT this fall.
Jenny Li, 2013 graduate of Buchholz High School, will attend MIT this fall.

Angela Bagley Foote is a freelance writer who resides in Gainesville. Her son, Davis, recently graduated from Buchholz High School and will attend University of California Berkeley in the fall. 

By Angela Foote  |  Photography Courtesy of Jenny Li


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