Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

College Applications: Don’t Follow the Lemmings

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by.” – Robert Frost.

welcomelemmingsWhen any market, such as real estate, the stock market, or the college market, becomes so competitive that it is difficult to gain a foothold, the wise “investor” is best served by finding the less traveled path. Success means not following the lemmings, such as buying a stock when it has already skyrocketed, or a new home at the height of the market. Today’s college applicant needs to become an alpha consumer, a trendsetter who is savvy enough to get ahead of the curve by looking for the “next hot college.”

schoollistIn the Northeast, there are many excellent, and accessible, Common Application colleges that offer non-binding early action programs without burdensome supplementary essays such as Northeastern, Marist, and Fairfield. In addition, there are plenty of state universities with “priority application” and/or “rolling admissions” programs; for most Northeast applicants, a SUNY (State University of New York) school, Rutgers, Penn State, U Maryland, U Delaware, and U Michigan are probably the schools on their radar screens.

diceIs there anything wrong with applying to some of these “comfort zone” colleges during fall of senior year? While not too individually customized, it is a reasonable approach. Applying early does help one’s chances in “priority application” and “rolling admissions” programs. Early action programs, however, do NOT help one’s chances. Unlike binding early decision, which gives the institution guaranteed yield and therefore translates to an admissions advantage, EA does not help one’s chances.

In fact, as aggregate psychology drives thousands to apply to an attractive school’s EA program, it can overwhelm the admissions department and they may not get to all the applications before the holidays, forcing them to defer candidates whose applications they have not even had a chance to review.

chooseSo, if one of these schools is a reach, if everybody in your teen’s senior class is applying there EA, if your kid has not visited the school and does not particularly want to go there, does it really make sense to apply? I know it’s easy, so why not? It is nice to have one school “in the bag” before Christmas. However, it may not be in the bag, especially as more students flock to these EA options, driving up the competitive quality of the applicant pool. This year, in my practice, I noticed that some students, who would have likely been accepted to these EA schools in previous years, were deferred or even denied. Take a look at the following examples of popular EA schools with rising applicant pools: U Michigan, U Chicago, Villanova, and U Virginia.

interviewhandsomemanIs this a bad strategy, then? No, but it is better to zero in on EA schools realistic for one’s credentials, and visit or interview to prove “demonstrated interest.” Even better, if your family starts the process early enough so that your teen can comfortably commit, and if your financial situation allows you to enroll without comparing need-based or merit aid packages in the spring, apply Early Decision. Early Decision is not for everyone. However, if it is feasible to make a decision six months earlier, rather than prolonging indecision, enabling the applicant to get into a slightly more competitive college, why not consider this option?

mappuzzleI am a believer in geographic adventure. I understand that, as a practical matter, the three-hour radius around one’s hometown allows for inexpensive weekend trips home and allows you to skip the hassel of air travel. However, you only go to college once. Why be so insular and provincial that you believe you can only be happy in your own backyard? How will you ever branch out and develop as a human being? Applicants write sincere essays about study abroad, diversity and global citizenship, and yet so many are afraid to even visit a college outside the region of the United States where they grew up.

I am not saying that your son or daughter has a better chance of getting accepted to Case Western Reserve because its admission folks are so bent on getting such a magnificent New Jersey applicant. There are simply less competitive Northeastern students applying to many of the “harder to get to” colleges in the Midwest or Southeast.  Confirm this by a little self-directed U.S. News & World Report College Ranking research.

georgetownTake two national universities that U.S. News ranks at 21: Georgetown in Washington DC and Emory in Atlanta. Both are on gorgeous campuses adjacent to desirable cities, two hours plus from the NYC metro area, one by train and one by plane (similar price if traveling by Amtrak Acela). Both have great pre-med and pre-law (one has great year-round weather). Georgetown’s acceptance is 16 percent, Emory’s is 27 percent. Why the difference? There may be fewer Northeast high performers who are willing to venture forth beyond the cozy Northeast Corridor. Many other examples abound.

Jumbo_replacement_-_Tufts_University_-_IMG_0960Twenty-seventh-ranked Tufts has an acceptance rate of 17 percent, with its powerful Boston caché. Consider, however, beautiful Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, also by US News at 27, with 34 percent acceptance. The lemmings forgot to apply. Lehigh (ranked 47th) in Bethlehem PA, has a 34 percent acceptance, while Case Western, in Cleveland, is ranked higher at 37 and has a 38 percent acceptance. Consider two schools at the 60-rank level: Fordham University (rank 66, 48 percent acceptance) versus University of Pittsburgh (rank 66, 56 percent acceptance). Check the tuition price tag (Pitt is public) and recent press on the highly liveable, and yes, artsy, city of Pittsburgh. For equivalently ranked schools, how much is the New York caché worth?

Bemidji01Let me offer a few comparisons among the elite private liberal arts colleges. Bowdoin, in Maine, has a 4 ranking and 15 percent acceptance. Carleton, in Minnesota, has an 8 ranking but has 27 percent acceptance. If you have not heard of Carleton, chalk it up to Northeastern parochialism, and if you think it’s colder in Minnesota than it is in Maine, think again. Just like in the days of the California Gold Rush, to the adventurous go the spoils. So, alpha consumer about to spend as much as $250K, start looking for the next “hot” school. It’s right under your nose. It is probably an institution that is already highly ranked for academic excellence, but it might not be located in the “sexiest” city. Ask your adolescent to “stretch” just a little, suspend prestige-label consciousness, and visit at least one college that the lemmings have not found.

To offer further insights, I am sharing a segment from an interview I did a few years ago  on HomeTowne TV, a local access cable network based in Summit, New Jersey, hosted by Myung Bondy. You can find additional segments of this interview covering a number of college application topics on my YouTube channel.