Sure. The college admissions process is as shrouded in mystery as the road to college is full of twists, turns, detours, and, yes, the occasional pothole.

Still, there are some general observations that can be made about the process, and particulars that every college-bound student -- and his/her parents -- should be aware of.

Here are some thoughts -- and prudent pointers -- from the folks at

Introduction to How College Admissions Works

Photo courtesy Duke Photography
Students admitted to Duke University beat the odds in the school's rigorous and highly competitive admission process.

Planning for college can be one of the most exciting times in a young person's life. But it can also be stressful, because there's a lot that has to happen before you're actually moving into your new dorm room. The process of selecting a college or university and applying for admission probably starts around the time you take your PSATs and concludes (happily, we hope) by April of your senior year in high school when you're notified of your status (acceptance or rejection) at the college of your choice.

Whether you are a student or a parent, the entire college admission process can seem mysterious. In this article, we'll make the admissions process much more understandable. With the help of Duke University director of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag, we will use Duke University in Durham, N.C., as a real-world example of how college admission works in America.

Also noteworthy:

Remember that every college and university -- and there are many, many schools in the United States, not to mention abroad -- has its own admissions standards and processes. So, depending upon where you apply, your experience may be different from the rather rigorous one employed by nationally ranked Duke. However, you'll definitely learn something about what can be a somewhat mysterious process -- something that can help you gain admission to the college of your choice!

Let's start at the beginning: When should you begin to think about college applications?

Thinking About the Future

Where do I start?
"One of the things that continues to surprise me over the years is the randomness of student's decisions about which college to attend," Guttentag says with a grin. That randomness might include the flip of a coin, the decision to follow a girlfriend or boyfriend to college (no matter where they're going!) or a "gut feeling" they really can't explain.

But most of the time, high school students are influenced by:

  • Parents, who have significant influence
  • College choices of friends they look up to
  • Their own perceptions (however formed) of what a school is like
  • National rankings (and their own internal ranking systems!)
  • Campus visits
Are students attracted to colleges that have successful sports programs? While Duke applications rose significantly back in the mid 1980s when the men's basketball team began to reach the Final Four, that influence is not obvious today, Guttentag says. How important sports are to a prospective student should be part of that student's internal dialogue about social and cultural environment.

The subject of college comes up with most students when they take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, better known as the PSAT -- usually in fall of the 10th grade and no later than fall of the 11th grade. Even if you aren't thinking much about college yet, after the PSATs (which give you a good idea of how you'll do on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT), you might start to get information in the mail from colleges and universities.

How do they find you if you haven't contacted them? Colleges and universities can actually purchase mailing lists from the College Board (the organization that sponsors PSAT and SAT tests), the company that gives ACT Assessment Tests (another college admissions test) and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA). Guttentag describes the lists that Duke purchases as defined mailing lists -- lists of students who did well on their PSATs and who had good high school grades. Duke uses these mailing lists as a recruitment tool, according to Guttentag. It definitely has an effect -- about 25 percent of the undergraduates accepted at Duke each year come from these defined lists.

In case you or your parents are wondering, you actually gave permission for colleges to purchase a list with your name on it if you checked a box on your PSAT agreeing to participate in a "student search" program. There are several other ways you can get on a school's mailing list -- writing to them yourself, calling them, visiting the college and meeting admissions staff or attending college fairs. It's a pretty good idea to get on mailing lists for the schools in which you're interested. You can get a feeling through regular reading of their materials for the kind of place that school might be and what it might offer to someone with your background and interests.

So how do you know if a particular school is right for you? Read on to find out.

Selecting a College

So Many Choices
While there's no set formula to knowing how many schools you should apply to, Guttentag suggests that students apply to six or eight different schools (application fees run from $10 to about $60), including a couple of "safety schools" (places where you're almost certain to be accepted), two or three "target schools" (places where your chances of being admitted are about 50 percent) and a couple of "reach schools," schools you'd like to attend but aren't sure you qualify for. But remember, all of the schools you apply to should fall within the "comfortable and challenged" category.

Students generally find it easy to pick their reach schools, Guttentag says, but difficult to choose their safety schools. "That's unfortunate because they might wind up there, and there are many wonderful colleges and universities where you can have as enriching and rewarding experiences as you can at a more visible school," he says. (His favorite book about college admissions is "Colleges That Change Lives," by Loren Pope. The book looks at about 40 small schools and focuses on how they're preparing students to go out and make a difference in the world.)

Guttentag believes that a very important criterion for choosing a college should be the question: Will I be both "comfortable and challenged" there? He believes that these criteria should be applied to every college or university that you consider. He also advises thinking about these three kinds of college environments:

  • Physical environment - Is the college big or small, old or new? Which would you prefer? It's important -- after all, you'll be there for four years!
  • Academic environment - Does the college have the programs and/or major you want? Is it academically rigorous? What are the faculty's expectations of students? What's the overall academic atmosphere -- is it a grind or a party school?
  • Social/cultural environment - Is this university a rural school or a city school? Is it conservative or liberal? Is it religious? Again, we're back to the question: Will you be comfortable there? Guttentag encourages students to view diversity on college campuses as a good thing -- something between the homogeneity of high school and the wide diversity of the "real world."

Other considerations should include a frank look at the question: What are my chances of being admitted to this school? It takes some homework to get the answer, Guttentag says. Start with a school's Web site, checking to see if it includes a profile of the entering class or discusses the kind of students it is looking for. Another revealing way to learn about a school is to visit it! You'll get a pretty good idea rather quickly about what the school is like. In fact, a campus visit is very often the decision-maker in cases where students are accepted at more than one desired college. (Check out Collegiate Choice's Walking Tour Videos for a look at 330 universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.)

Of course, you and/or your parents will want to know how much the college costs per year. And that's certainly important. However, Guttentag urges high school students not to let cost stop them from applying to a school they'd really like to attend. "Don't let the 'sticker price' of a school keep you from applying. As a rule, the less you can afford a school, the more financial aid you can get there," he says. "You might be pleasantly surprised -- even without scholarships -- at what need-based financial aid can offer."

Once you have an idea about which schools you want to apply to, you have to begin the actual application process. Let's see how that works.

College Applications

Again, application forms vary from one institution to another (and some let you apply online). Some colleges have very brief forms for students to fill out, while others, like Duke, have comprehensive forms with several requirements:

  • Three letters of recommendation - Duke requires letters from two teachers and one counselor. These are extremely important, according to Guttentag, even though students seek letters from teachers they know will say positive things. There are real differences -- differences that matter -- in what letters reveal about students. When faced with several qualified applicants, admissions staffers will look to these letters for information that sets students apart.

  • One or two essays - Students are asked to write on a variety of topics, such as describing a significant experience or writing about someone they admire even though they disagree with that person. "We want to learn more about what students are interested in as well as the quality of thought and writing in the pieces," Guttentag says. (Check out these tips on application essay writing.)

  • Extracurricular activities - Students are asked about non-academic activities, including clubs, sports, community service and jobs.

    Guttentag likes to use a baseball analogy to describe how factors contribute to a student's advancement in the admission process. "Think of it as a baseball game. Everybody gets their time at bat. The quality of their academic work that we can measure (through test scores and analysis of high school courses) gets about 10 percent of the applicants to third base, 50 percent to second base and about 30 percent to first base. And 10 percent strike out," he says.

    Most students can be nudged toward "home base" by what they do outside of class -- especially if a student is a published writer, a national leader making an impact in some area or a championship athlete. In an overwhelming number of applicants, academic and extracurricular activities are pretty balanced, Guttentag says.

    So grades and outside activities definitely make a difference in whether you get accepted to a particular school. But what about those pesky SAT scores we hear so much about?

SAT Scores and Minority Students

It may come as a surprise, but most schools consider how you did academically in school to be more important than SAT scores. And most colleges don't have a cutoff SAT score. The way SAT scores are perceived has changed somewhat since, several years ago, colleges began to report scores differently. (To read more about the SAT and related issues, take a look at Secrets of the SAT from PBS.)

For example, many colleges now report the middle 50 percent of admits. An easy way to think of it is like this: If your SAT scores are in the bottom 25 percent of what the school reports, you have to be better than most other students the school admits in other areas to make up for that. If you're in the middle of the 50 percent, it doesn't matter much where your scores fall. "There's a very fine distinction between a score of 1460 and a score of 1410," Guttentag says. "Going back to our baseball analogy, it doesn't matter if you got your double by hitting a 300-foot shot to the back wall or whether you took what should have been a single and hustled extra hard and made it to second base. A double is a double, no matter how you get there."

Bear in mind, however, that it's all relative. If your SAT score is under 1000 and you're trying to get into a highly selective school that admits less than one-third of its applicants, you'll have to do some pretty fast talking to qualify!

There are other factors that can affect admission besides grades, scores and activities. A big question is whether the color of your skin or your heritage can actually make a difference when you're applying to schools.

While the debate about the role of affirmative action in college admissions continues around the country, Guttentag says he doesn't believe most selective schools (those that admit a third or fewer of their applicants) will admit students simply to make the school's minority numbers look better. "Most schools want students who are going to succeed there. To admit someone who isn't likely to be successful is not good for anybody -- not for the university and not for the student," he says.

So does race matter when it comes to college admissions? "Diversity matters," Guttentag says. "The working world in the 21st century is going to be increasingly diverse, particularly racially diverse. I tell students that the diversity of college is a transitional place between the homogeneity of high school and the diversity of the 'real world.'"

Again, he advises all students who are looking at various colleges to ask themselves the "comfortable and challenging" question and to think about something else, too: "A big part of college is having your assumptions challenged. The way this happens is through interacting with people whose values and backgrounds and experience are different from yours," he says. (If you have questions, check out the College Board's document responding to the Office of Civil Rights Resource Guide.)

Back to basics -- when do you actually start applying to these schools you've chosen?

College Admissions

Most colleges accept applications up until sometime between December 15 and February 1 for the next fall semester. (Some schools accept applications as early as the summer before a student's senior year.) NOTE: Deadlines vary. Be aware. Don't miss out!

Decisions, Decisions
If you go the "regular decision" route and get accepted by more than one school, you've got a decision to make. Go visit them all -- that settles the question with most students. Whatever happens, you're lucky -- you're going to be attending a great school.

Some schools have what is known as rolling admissions, which means that they will notify you of your status (acceptance or rejection) in about two to three weeks from when your application is received. Hard-to-get-into schools, such as Duke, usually have two deadlines -- early decision (for those students who have made the school their very top choice) with a deadline somewhere between November 1 and December 15, and regular decision, with a deadline somewhere between December 1 and February 1. Early acceptances reach students by mid-December, and a binding agreement between students and Duke is reached -- basically, if you get in "early decision," you're supposed to go there. (Early admission allows colleges and universities to go ahead and enroll 25 percent to 45 percent of the incoming class.) The remaining admissions notices are sent out by early April.

For more on this topic, check out

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Again, no absolutes here, and this general advice, to be sure, may not be applicable -- and should not be considered as the Gospel -- for any particular student applying to any particular school. It is also but the tip of the college application and admissions iceberg. Be aware that 75% of the whys and wherefores are still hidden below the surface.

Consult with your high school guidance counselor on a regular basis, as well as with your independent college planning counselor at College Connection, for the right (and write) moves at the right times.

Plan. Prepare. Prevail!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer, the authors of referenced articles and websites, and such guest bloggers as may appear.
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