Three childhood education psychologists answer your biggest college admissions questions

by Farah Harajli

Here at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, we’re fortunate enough to work alongside the talented professional staff who facilitate CTY’s Study of Exceptional Talent (SET). These gifted education experts — some of whom have been with CTY since it was founded by Dr. Julian Stanley in 1979 — understandably receive hundreds of questions about college admissions from the families they counsel each year. We asked them just five, hoping to get to the heart of this eventful and often emotional process. Their insightful answers, applicable to students of all backgrounds and their families, are below.

Do you feel our current era — of online resources, globalization, and more extracurricular and gifted opportunities for children — has improved or challenged the college admissions process for families? Why or why not?

Linda Brody, Ed.D. (Director of SET): Clearly, there are many more opportunities for students to be challenged, to develop their interests, and to have strong academic records by the time they leave high school. The educational community — particularly educators who work with gifted students — has worked hard to create such opportunities, and we encourage students to take advantage of them. One result is that it has raised many students’ expectations with regard to the level of college they aspire to and are qualified to attend. These students truly are prepared to meet the standards for admission to our most selective colleges, but the colleges have not expanded comparably in size, and thus the competition for coveted spots has become very intense.

Michelle Muratori, Ph.D. (Research Psychologist and Counselor): Yes, it seems many of the students we work with at CTY all want to attend the same 20 or so colleges. And because they (and often their parents) are worried about being rejected, students apply to a lot of them, further increasing the number of applicants per school and making more rejections inevitable for the group of candidates overall.

Carol Blackburn, Ph.D. (Research Psychologist and Counselor): On the positive side, the Information Age has made the process of actually finding appropriate colleges to apply to much easier. College websites provide an incredible amount of information about majors, faculty research, and student life to help students make informed decisions about whether specific colleges will meet their needs.

Linda: Many students also have access to software that matches them to colleges that offer what they are seeking and where they are likely to be accepted. This can help students generate a list of colleges that will meet their needs and where they can reasonably expect to be accepted.

Michelle: The Common Application also makes it easier to actually complete the applications, though students should still not underestimate the time required for college applications and for essays to be well written.

Is there a secret formula for getting into Ivy League schools or similarly competitive ones?

Linda, Carol, and Michelle: No.

Michelle: There are clearly many more highly qualified applicants for our nation’s most selective colleges and universities than can be admitted. All students can do is present their strongest attributes and hope for the best.

Linda: Every college is seeking a diverse community in terms of where students are from, what personal attributes they offer, and what they can contribute to the college community. They need students who will meet departmental needs, fill athletic teams, staff the student newspaper, and contribute in a variety of ways to making the college a vibrant community. Whether you fit that bill very much depends on who else applies and who you’re competing with — things that you can’t control.

Carol: A lot of the students we work with think internships during high school are a ticket to admission, but this isn’t necessarily the case. If an internship meets your personal needs and you can get one before you leave high school, it’s a great experience. But in the interest of diversity, no college will be looking only for students who did internships. You should pursue opportunities to extend your learning in high school beyond the classroom, but then decide as an individual where that goal should take you.

How important are AP [Advanced Placement] courses?

Michelle: Selective colleges generally expect students to take the most rigorous program available to them, though they know offerings vary in different high schools. Overall, there are many more AP courses available in most high schools than in the past, as well as other advanced options like International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment with colleges, and selective colleges will look for evidence of students taking advantage of these options.

Linda: In spite of the growth of the AP program, there is a large range in the number of AP courses available to students in different high schools. In addition, some private schools have chosen to replace AP with their own courses that they believe are more advanced than AP courses, but colleges are aware of those policies. So, in terms of AP courses, there is no magic number of how many students should take. But, to restate what Michelle said, colleges do expect you to try to find a way to take a challenging course load within the constraints of what your high school offers.

Carol: It’s important that students who pursue AP courses also take the relevant AP exams. Colleges will want the assurance that the work was mastered at a high level, not just that the student enrolled in the course. But it’s not just for admissions — it’s helpful for you to know the degree to which you have mastered AP content compared to a national sample of students before you choose courses in your first year of college.

If a student applies to several notoriously competitive target schools, including the Ivy League, and they don’t get into any, what can families do to best help them move forward?

Michelle: Hopefully the student has also applied to other schools where they do receive acceptances. It’s important that students apply to what we call “safety” schools, where they can expect to be accepted and that they are all colleges the students would be happy to attend.

Carol: Yes, they should take the time to evaluate what might constitute a “safety” school before completing the application process. Often, the school counselor can be helpful in predicting where a student might have success because they know where other students from that high school have been admitted in the past. Also, they know how strong their current college-bound seniors are in comparison with each other.

Linda: If any students truly are not accepted anywhere, they should immediately speak to their school counselor to identify colleges with rolling admissions that may still be open to them with a late application. It’s also possible that the counselor could make inquiries to see if some colleges might be interested in a particularly strong applicant who did not apply during the regular timeframe.

Carol: Of course, a gap year is another option and one that is becoming increasingly popular, not just for this reason, but to give students more time to mature and identify their goals before going to college.

Michelle: It’s important that parents help students understand that rejection doesn’t mean the student did anything wrong or that the application wasn’t good enough. Really, it’s mostly a matter of too many applicants, and the student should not become despondent over the loss but should move on in a positive way.

What would you say is the most important thing that a student and their parent(s) can keep in mind during the admissions process?

Michelle: Breathe! This is a long process, and you need to pace yourself. Students should not procrastinate in preparing their applications, as that will add to the stress. Try to be as organized as possible, and definitely meet all deadlines during the application process. That includes not waiting until the last minute to ask teachers, mentors, coaches, etc. for letters of recommendation. Be respectful of their time and ask them well in advance of the deadlines. They are busy people and will appreciate it.

Carol: Students will want to choose colleges where they have a realistic chance of being admitted, maybe including a few less realistic ones (“reach” schools), but with a definite focus on realistic admissions. This, along with understanding that there is a great deal of unpredictability in the admissions process, will help take the pressure off.

Linda: Families should remember that there are plenty of fantastic colleges that could serve any student’s needs. Students should try not to fall totally in love with one college to the exclusion of others. Instead, they should identify the attributes that appeal to them in a particular college and work to find this attribute in several others. However, if students truly have a first choice and aren’t too dependent on financial aid, applying Early Action or Early Decision can be an advantage.

Michelle: Parents should also be cautious about expressing strong preferences as students apply or too much disappointment if there are rejections, as it may lead to students feeling they let their parents down in some way. Also, parents should be upfront early in the process if financial considerations must affect the final choice.

Have a question about the college admissions process, or an experience to share? Let us know in the comments, or join the conversation in CTY’s Parents Group on Facebook.

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