College Admissions Secrets For Parents


college admissions secrets

College applications present students with a challenging and time-consuming project — perhaps the largest they have faced in their lives. As a parent, you can help your child manage the process, but you can also hurt their chances if you make the wrong moves.

Here’s a collection of college admissions secrets that can help you craft the ideal college list, get your child into schools they love, and choose one that you’ll be able to afford.


Use The Pick-Three Approach

Too often, a teenager gets their heart set on just one dream college. It’s that college or none in their view. But, if they don’t get into their dream college or can’t afford its price tag, it can lead to severe disappointment and even depression.

About a quarter of high school seniors do not get into their first-choice college. Of those who do get into their first-choice college, a quarter do not enroll. According to the American Freshman survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute in 2019, only about 55% of college freshmen said they were enrolled in their first-choice college. But that number increased to about 93% for those who were enrolled in their first-, second-, or third-choice college.


Instead of focusing on just one college, parents should encourage their children to pick three favorite colleges at different price points and apply to those. That way, students are more likely to get into a college that they want to attend and that their parents can afford.

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Assess Academic Fit


Academic fit measures the extent to which a student’s academic performance is typical for the college’s general student body.

Most colleges’ websites will include information about the 25th and 75th percentiles for their freshman class’s SAT and ACT scores. You can use that range to determine if a college is a match, reach, or safety school for your student. 

  • If your child’s test scores are between the 25th and 75th percentiles, the college is a match.
  • If your child’s test scores are below the 25th percentile, the college is a reach, and your child is very unlikely to be admitted.
  • If your child’s test scores are above the 75th percentile, the college is a safety school and your child is very likely to be admitted.

Craft a preliminary list of colleges that includes mostly match schools but also a few safety and reach schools. Don’t apply only to reach schools, as there’s a good chance your child won’t get into any of them. 

Related: How To Craft A College List For Academic Fit

Consider Financial Fit

Students too often apply to a college that is more expensive than their parents can afford, which will burden both the student and parents with too much education debt. But it’s actually fairly easy to determine if a school makes financial sense for your family.

Use a college’s net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of its one-year net price. The net price is the difference between total college costs and gift aid, which consists of grants and scholarships. That difference represents the amount you will have to contribute from savings, income, and education debt to pay for a school.

Once you know a college’s net price, you can determine if it’s a financial fit by using my college affordability index, which is the ratio of a college’s one-year net price to your total annual income. If the one-year net price is more than a quarter of your total annual income, your family will likely have to go into an unaffordable amount of debt to pay for the college.

A few other tips for keeping college costs down include:

Look At In-State And No-Loan Schools

An in-state, public college will often be among the least expensive postsecondary education options out there. Encourage your child to include at least one in-state college on their shortlist.

Colleges with generous “no loans” financial aid policies, which replace loans with grants in the financial aid package, are also among the more affordable options. But most of these colleges have a minimum student contribution or summer work expectation, which limits the amount of financial aid that low-income students will actually receive.

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Apply For Financial Aid For The First Year

If the college has need-sensitive admissions, don’t skip applying for financial aid and think you can wing it for a year. Often, colleges with need-sensitive admissions policies will not provide grants to students who didn’t apply for financial aid as freshmen unless the student can demonstrate a significant change in financial circumstances.

And apply to a few colleges that use the FAFSA for awarding their own financial aid funds, not just colleges that require the CSS Profile. There can be significant differences in the financial aid packages among the two types of colleges.

Apply Early; Avoid Early Decision

Too many students wait until the last minute to submit their college applications. But a lot of things can go wrong if a student waits until the deadline to submit. Submitting an application early can help your child stand out and demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in the college.

But don’t apply early decision to any college. Early decision commits your child to enrolling if they are admitted, and you should never commit to a college before you’ve even seen the financial aid package it will offer. If you discover that a college is genuinely unaffordable, you may be able to break the early decision commitment, but it won’t be a comfortable conversation with the admissions committee.

Strive For A Balanced Profile

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) runs an annual survey in which it asks college admissions officers about the most critical applicant characteristics they look for during the college admissions process.

These criteria generally fall into three groups:

  • The most important factors are typically a student’s grades, the strength of their high school curriculum, and their entrance exam scores.
  • Important factors include a student’s character and personality, essays, demonstrated interest, and recommendations from counselors and teachers.
  • Among the least important factors are usually a student’s class rank, extracurricular activities, interview, and work experience.

The purpose of assessing a college application is to determine whether the student is capable of academic success at the college. Students with good high school GPAs and high standardized test scores are more likely to graduate from college.

But, at the most selective colleges, the impact that a 1500 SAT score versus a 1600 SAT score will have on an admissions committee’s decision may be minimal. These colleges instead rely on non-academic factors to differentiate among their top applicants.

When two students have comparably strong grades and test scores, admissions factors that are normally considered less important — like who engages in more impressive extracurricular activities — suddenly become deciding factors.

But depth matters more than breadth. It is better to do one thing well for many years than many things superficially for a shorter period of time. So don’t spread your child too thin with their extracurriculars, and help them choose activities that they are passionate about and/or that can make a difference in your community.

Properly Prep For Tests

Entrance exams have a big impact on college admissions, especially at second-tier institutions.
Practicing can help improve a student’s entrance exam scores. It teaches them test-taking strategies and reduces the likelihood that they’ll freak out on the day they take the test. Diagnostic tests can also identify weaknesses, where a little practice can improve your performance and help eliminate careless errors. A gain of 50 to 100 points on the SAT is not uncommon with some practice.

Good study guides with practice tests include those issued by Barron’s and the Princeton Review. These books also teach test-taking strategies and approaches to answering particular types of questions. You can also get official SAT practice tests through Khan Academy. You can also hire tutors to help your student prepare for the entrance exams. 

What Is A Test-Optional College?

A test-optional college considers standardized test scores if provided, but doesn’t require them. That’s different from a test-blind college, which does not consider standardized test scores, even if they’re provided by the student.

Students who have a good SAT score or a good ACT score (or both) have an advantage with test-optional college admissions committees. 

Demonstrate Interest

Colleges don’t want to accept students who aren’t sincerely interested in attending their institutions, since that lack of interest may negatively affect a college’s yield (the number of students who ultimately enroll). Just as students get nervous about whether they will or will not get in, college admissions officers get nervous about whether their admitted applicants will or will not accept their offers of admission.

Demonstrated interest provides the college admissions office with a way of predicting whether a student will enroll if admitted, as students who interact more with the college are more likely to enroll.

Some of the best ways to demonstrate interest include: 

  • Visiting the campus, e.g., going on a campus tour, staying overnight in the dorm, or sitting in on classes
    Using the college’s website and following the college on social media
  • Participating in virtual events
  • Asking questions at college fairs and financial aid nights

Sending thank-you notes to admissions officers also helps. But don’t overdo it.

Speak-Write The Essays

If your child has trouble writing essays, have them answer the essay prompt aloud while recording the answer, then transcribe the recording. This works because most people speak at about 100 to 200 words per minute but can write or type at about 40 words per minute. So, the act of writing interferes with the flow of thought. Answering the question aloud will yield a more fluid and passionate essay, making it more interesting.

After you’ve transcribed the recording, create an outline from the transcript. This will help organize your child’s thoughts and add structure to the essay. Keep the following in mind while developing the outline.

Lead With The Best Stuff

Admissions committee members have just 10 minutes to go through a student’s entire application, and they may not read more than the first paragraph of a student’s essay. So, the reader’s attention needs to be hooked early on.

When creating the outline, go through the transcript and pick out the most important and thought-provoking points that were made. Use the inverted pyramid style of writing and present the best content at the beginning of the essay.

Related: Can College Admissions Detect ChatGPT?

Keep It Specific And Personal

Make use of narratives in which the student had an impact on other people, and other people had an impact on the student. This makes the essay personal and will help your child’s personality shine. Construct the narratives with specific examples, not generalities. The admissions reader can use those examples to champion your application. 

Make The Right Impression

Never write about a mental health condition, a serious illness, or bad behavior. Don’t give the admissions reader an excuse to reject your application. Focus on the positive, not the negative.

And proofread your essay multiple times before submitting it. Print it out and then read it aloud. Mark any place you stumble, because that may be a sign of a problem. 

Seek Recommendations Selectively

When considering whom to approach about a letter of recommendation, think about teachers who can both write well and write well about your child, specifically. And don’t have your child simply ask their teacher to write a letter of recommendation. Instead, have them ask their teacher if they can write a great letter of recommendation. This gives the teacher an out if their letter will be less than enthusiastic.

If you find a great educator who’s willing to provide a letter of recommendation, keep in mind that you want that letter to align with the rest of your child’s application. Give the teacher a copy of your child’s accomplishments resume that lists some of your child’s honors, awards, hobbies, sports, student activities, volunteer activities, jobs, and summer activities. This will provide the educator with facts that they can weave into their recommendation to make it seem like they know your child better than they do. But be selective in what you include in that resume, and keep it to just one page.

Be Professional

If a college admissions committee is on the fence about a student’s application, its members may visit that student’s social media accounts.

Before you submit a college application, preemptively review your child’s online presence and ask them to delete any inappropriate or offensive material. Eliminate any signs of bad judgment, drug and alcohol use, or a negative attitude.

When your child communicates with admissions staff, remind them to use a professional email address based on their name, not based on an inside joke or innuendo.

Back Off A Bit

Parents too often try to relive their college years vicariously through their children. They then become overly involved in the college admissions process and may be perceived as “helicopter” or “bulldozer” parents by the admissions committee. This can cause the application for admission to be rejected.

Just as you need to learn how to say “no” when your child picks a college you can’t afford, you also need to learn how to say “no” to yourself.

Back off.

Let your child demonstrate their maturity and take the lead in the application process. Remember that sometimes it’s best to simply play the role of chauffeur and checkbook and that you should only intervene if you have truly serious concerns.

During the campus visit, let your child go off on their own. Don’t tag along, and don’t look over their shoulder. If you want something to do, go to the cafeteria and offer to buy a random student lunch if they will tell you about their experiences with the school, both good and bad.

Most importantly, listen to your child, comply with their boundaries, and avoid these mistakes:

  • Don’t write or rewrite the essay yourself.
  • Don’t edit all the personality out of the essay.
  • Don’t ask the student’s teachers for recommendations. That’s the student’s job.
  • Don’t speak to college admissions staff yourself.
  • Don’t try to game the system. 

Create A College Decision Matrix

If your child is admitted to a number of colleges, creating a college decision matrix can help you choose which offer to accept. A college decision matrix is a one-page chart with each college in a column and its important attributes in rows. Gathering all this information on a single page will make it easier to make a decision.
Among the attributes you should consider including in your matrix are:

  • Affordability criteria, such as net price and average debt at graduation
  • Outcome measures, such as graduation and job placement rates
  • Academic match criteria, social match criteria, and environmental match criteria

Assign points to each row based on the importance of each attribute, and allocate them to each winner. Or use red, yellow, and green highlighters to mark each cell in the matrix and count the number of wins for each college. The totals will help you rank the colleges and make a final decision that’s right for both your child and your finances.

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Final Thoughts

Your role as a parent is to help your child stand out from the crowd and guide them towards making a good decision. It’s important to be knowledgeable about the college acceptance process and to stay involved. But remember that it’s their decision in the end.  

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