There’s No Gaming the System: A Parent’s Journey Into The World of College Admissions

February 6th, 2014

College Fund

This summer I took my high school junior son on a New England college mini-tour, and had such an interesting experience that I decided to share it with other parents and students who might be in the same interest group. Disclaimer: I won’t name the colleges we visited, because in the end this article will look at some of the common and more general takeaways from our visit, rather than specific information to each school.

Before we talk about admission criteria and financial aid, I’d like to propose an exercise that has given me a helpful perspective: List the first five adults that come to mind. Do this now. They may be family members, celebrities, coworkers, etc. It doesn’t matter. For each of them, look back at the information you have on where they went to high school, college, graduate school, etc., and where they work now.

Whenever I do this exercise with other parents, invariably there will be someone on that list who went to the greatest schools and is now seriously under-employed, a very successful entrepreneur who barely finished high school, and all sorts of in-betweens. It’s useful to keep this in mind when you let yourself be dragged into the mania of college admissions and as you try to “game the system” so that you or your child can get into the most prestigious school/s. In the end, I strongly believe that it’s what one does with the education and opportunities they receive that makes a difference, not so much the opportunities themselves. I know that Malcolm Gladwell will disagree with me, and here’s what I have to say to him: yes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen got their start with computers because they had great access in high school. But whatever happened to all the other kids in that school who also had access?

Choosing a School

First of all, both my son and I are very glad we did this a bit early. You might think I’m writing this article encouraging you to relax about the process, while I myself am getting an early start. To my defense: we live on the West Coast, and my son was finishing up summer camp in Vermont. I figured, since he would already be on the East Coast, it would be cheaper for me to fly and meet him there than for both of us to have to fly back next spring or summer to visit schools. So we did it the summer of his junior year. And, like I said, I’m glad we did, and here’s why.

As a junior in high school, he’s not yet sure what he’d like to do in life. He knows he likes math and sciences, and he feels at ease in those classes. But he’s also interested in music, theater and sports, though he doesn’t particularly excel in any of those disciplines. He’s a good student who hasn’t yet found a passion that occupies his every spare minute. So for him the world is wide open – which can be a good feeling, but also a bit daunting when faced with thousands of options. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 there were 2,774 four-year colleges in the US, a number that is likely to be higher today. How do you even begin to make a wish list?

Visiting seven of these college campuses started to give him a better sense of the kind of environment he’d like to be in after high school as well as the types of people he’d like to be with. It was surprisingly easy to see, from the very first moment we stepped onto a campus, if that particular school would be a good fit or not. And whatever you think about academic focus and opportunities, the truth is, the impetus to join a particular school will end up being as temperamental as choosing a car: you do all the research, compare prices, decide how you’re going to haggle with the car dealer, and the minute you step on the lot you see that red car and it’s all over. One story that we heard from a friend we visited during the tour was of their son, who only applied to Yale because his dad made him, though he refused to go anywhere near New Haven on his college tour. Once he got in, he went to check it out and fell in love with the school immediately. He is now a fresh graduate, working for a successful start-up in NYC.

There are many factors that will influence a student’s decision to join a college. While the final choice has to do with the feel of the school, some preferences may be predictable, such as distance from home (mommies, get used to the idea!), year-round weather in the area, location, reputation, access to sports, music or other special interests, whether it’s in an urban or more remote area, etc. As such, it was useful for us to see different settings and figure out what my son gravitates toward.

Let’s talk about admissions. All universities we visited had an admissions information session that lasted a little over an hour. Led by an admissions officer, they covered topics related to courses and teachers, admission criteria, financial aid and living on campus. A campus tour led by students usually followed these sessions.

Here are some things we took from listening to the admissions officers:

Undecided Major

Some schools recognize that students may not know what they want to study when they first apply. Some even assume that 75% of their students will change area of interest in the first two years. So they base their basic bachelor’s requirements on this and encourage students to take a variety of courses in all areas of study. In some schools this is harder to do, as choosing a specific track, such as engineering, will prescribe a set of courses that will make it hard to switch majors halfway through. I think that, left to their own devices, some kids (my son included) might try to avoid taking any classes that challenge their weak spots, depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn some skills that might come in handy later in life. Not to mention, they’ll miss out on getting a well-rounded education. So I was partial to schools that encourage or even require their students to participate in all departments.

AP Classes

As far as what they look for (keep in mind we went to mostly private schools, so this may be different for state universities), the one thing they all had in common was the “holistic” approach to admissions. First, they look at the student’s grades in high school. And the holistic aspect has to do with their keeping the information in context: what classes did the student take from the menu offered at their particular school? How many Honors, AP or equivalent courses did they take of what was offered? If the school offered ten AP classes, and the student only took two, they wonder why the student didn’t challenge herself more and, ultimately, will this student take advantage of the multitude of courses offered by this university, or will she coast for four years? So they maintain that they look at each student individually and only measure them against their own abilities and opportunities.

A mother sitting next to us asked at one school: “Would it be better for my child to take an AP class and get a B, or for him to get an A in a regular class?” The answer was pretty much: “It would be best if they took the AP class and got at least a B+.” I appreciated the honesty of the answer. And again, this was at one of the top schools in the country, the answer may be different from school to school. Some went into detail about weighted/non-weighted GPA, class ranking, etc., but I did not pay too much attention to that because I felt I’d already gotten the idea: do well in school, take challenging classes, do well in school, be involved in the community, do well in school. The universities we visited admit five to eight percent of their applicants, so you can imagine that, at that rate, they can have their pick of the high-achieving kids.

The Essay

Which brings us to the second-most important admissions criteria: the essay. I was surprised to see that, for many schools, this ranked above the SAT/ACT scores. They all talked at length about wanting the essay to give them a deep sense of who the student is, as a human being. One admissions officer explained: “In an ideal world, someone from our office would spend a week with each applicant, following them around every minute of the day, going to school with them, doing homework with them (“not for them, hahaha!”), shadowing them at their sports practice and extra-curricular activities and at parties, just to really understand who this person is. But we don’t have that luxury, so we have to base our understanding on the essay.” From what I gathered, the topic of the essay is not as important as the tone and truthfulness that comes through. They all couldn’t stress enough that something like “from my [fill-in-the-blank-activity] I learned about hardship, perseverance and success” would not cut it. “It’s really easy to write a bland essay about climbing Mount Everest,” one of the speakers quipped. “Please write about what matters to you in your own voice, don’t try to guess what we’re looking for.” Another added: “If you should lose your essay, unsigned, people who know you should immediately recognize it as yours.” They also warned about too many people helping with editing: “It’s immediately visible when an essay has been worked over too much.”


As you can imagine, the standardized test scores matter a great deal, and all of them were looking for either the SAT or the ACT with writing and two subject SAT tests. Some super-score, some don’t. According to, “Most students take the SAT for the first time during the spring of their junior year and a second time during the fall of their senior year.” As for the subject tests, they advise: “In determining if Subject Tests are right for you, you should consider that SAT Subject Tests are the only national admission tests where you choose the tests that best showcase your achievements and interests. By taking one or more SAT Subject Tests, you have an opportunity to highlight your unique strengths or areas of interest (mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, history, literature and foreign languages).”

Extracurricular Activities

As for other special interests and abilities, the speakers we heard mentioned that they do look at the student’s extracurricular activities, but it was not a topic that got wide coverage, for whatever reason. My son remembers them saying it was important, “something that helps define you.” I remember they again stressed that they hoped students did something that excited them, rather than something that would look good on the application.

Financial Aid

I discovered through my three nieces that most students are unaware of the opportunities available to good students who don’t come from high-income families. One girl feels she doesn’t want to cause financial hardship for her parents and didn’t even think of applying to any top schools in the country, or even outside her homestate of Florida, because she didn’t think that – even with only A’s, and countless AP courses under her belt – she would qualify for any substantial financial aid. I think this is a tragic flaw in the college-counseling departments of some high schools.

The universities we visited boast that their admission criteria is need-blind and that they try to meet all of their admitted students’ financial limitations. “Need-blind” means that the admissions office does not get to look at the applicants’ financial records, and simply accepts students based on merit. They then send the list of admitted students to the Financial Aid office, which has to find a way to bring all those students to the school in the fall. So it would seem there’s lots of room for getting help, much of it free, especially from schools with large endowments. The message is: Do not be deterred by your financial limitations.

I don’t know how this works with state schools. But I do know that many states have great incentives for keeping good students in the state education system. California has the Middle Class Scholarship that’s just getting going this year and will increase each year until 2017/18 when it will cover up to 40% of qualified students’ tuitions if they attend a UC or CSU school. I believe Florida has a similar program, and you can probably easily search for what your state has to offer in this area.

College Tours

Many counselors suggest that the spring of junior year is a good time to visit colleges so that you begin to get an idea of what attracts your student most. When you visit the schools you’ll also begin to delve into the finer merits of “early decision” vs. “early action,” which we’re not yet schooled in, but might follow up with later in the year. As the time of testing drew near, my son grew more and more antsy and either scolded us for not making him study harder for the SAT or ignored our demands that he work. He’s sixteen! He’s actually a very good student, and I can see how the pressure is mounting around him – at home as well as at school. There was great buzz when some of his older peers received their “early decision/action” notes, and I could see that it made the whole application process even more real for the juniors.

We all admit that “things were easier in our time” and that this college admission process “has really gotten out of hand”. We are all willing participants, in one way or another, and I hope that my notes helped more than hindered. I look forward to your comments, and would like to hear what your experience has been or is still, and if you’ve found ways to get through the process stress-free.

Good luck to us all!

Thea Mercouffer


Thea Mercouffer is a documentary filmmaker. Her latest project, Rock the Boat – Saving America’s Wildest River, is an award-winning film about Los Angeles, the little river that could and one man who changed their relationship forever. Thea lives in Venice Beach, CA, with her husband, two children (16 and 9) and their dog, Moxy. She may be reached at

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