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Your Top 25 College-Admission Questions Answered

Advanced Parenting Series Part One

Old-timers often remind whippersnappers that life was harder back in the day. But when it comes to college admissions, it’s today’s teens who are climbing uphill both ways. So what’s a well-meaning parent to do? We consulted with admissions experts and seasoned moms and dads to answer your most pressing questions.

Face the Facts

1 What are the odds?

While there is a growing sense that college admission is a crapshoot, it’s primarily the already-selective colleges that are getting more selective; more than five hundred schools have an acceptance rate higher than 75 percent. At the most extreme, Stanford’s 2015 admission rate was 5 percent. BYU’s admission rates went from 85.8 percent in 1968 to 50.5 percent last year.

Admission to BYU is difficult partly because it’s the true-blue dream school of most of its applicants. The school has an unusually high yield rate, which means that most students who are admitted choose BYU over other offers—78 percent compared to the average 34 percent. The top rank for yield rate, or “popularity,” has gone back and forth between Harvard and BYU since 2008, when U.S. News & World Report began ranking the “most popular university.” Since then, BYU has held the No. 1 spot three years and the No. 2 spot four years and has tied with Harvard once.

2 Am I the only parent who’s stressing out?

Nope. Alum David Dorough, who graduated with a MAcc in 1996 and is now a controller at L.A. Turbine, describes what many parents feel: “I had good grades and was involved in band and other activities, so I felt pretty confident when I applied to BYU,” he says. Fast-forward to when his daughter applied last year: “She was more prepared and qualified for college than I was—yet I was more concerned about whether she would get in.”


3 How early should my student start worrying about college?

Though good study habits and a love of learning should certainly start young, the time that matters most begins in middle school. For example, many colleges expect students to take calculus their senior year, so students should be ready to take Algebra II by ninth grade. BYU Admissions recommends taking four years of math and English, two to three years of lab science, two years of history or government, and two or more years of a foreign language.

4 My high schooler has good but not stellar grades and test scores. Is she doomed?

In 2015 the average GPA for admitted BYU students was 3.84, and the average ACT score was 28.95 (out of 36). But a student with an ACT below 29 shouldn’t give up on applying. “The average ACT and GPA just keep climbing,” says Kirk Strong, director of BYU Admissions. “But we want people to know that’s not all we look at. We use a truly holistic evaluation, which means we combine objective and subjective data.”

Do the Honors

5 How much do colleges care about AP classes?

For college hopefuls, a high-school schedule packed with honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses is the new normal. In yearly reports by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, colleges consistently rank grades in these college-prep courses as the top factor in admission decisions.

Keep in mind that each college considers advanced courses differently on their applications. Some schools look at an applicant’s weighted GPA; BYU looks at unweighted GPA but gives applicants who take AP and IB classes extra consideration.

6 How many AP classes should my teen take?

It all depends on your teen: If he thrives on being surrounded by other academic-minded students, two or three AP classes per semester may be in order. But if slipping grades or a packed schedule are a concern, consider signing up for only his strongest subjects. BYU Admissions recommends not taking an AP or IB class unless the student can maintain at least a 3.3 GPA.

Above all, make sure your teen isn’t loading up on AP classes just because he thinks it looks good.

“I frequently saw kids with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades and a gazillion AP classes get rejected,” wrote Ben Jones, former director of communications for MIT admissions, in a candid blog post on the MIT Admissions blog. “Why? Because often these kids knew how to grind but brought nothing else to the table.”

7 Does the college credit make a difference?

In addition to allowing students to prepare for college, AP classes can help students to earn college credit, which saves hundreds of dollars per class at lower-tuition colleges and more than a thousand dollars at higher-tuition colleges. To avoid earning duplicate credits, check the websites of your teen’s top-choice colleges to see which course credits apply to each AP test.

To the Test

8 How much do test scores matter? How high should the score be?

Test scores are right behind grades in importance to college admissions offices. As for the actual number, it all depends on which schools your teen is considering. Simply search online to find the average test score of admitted students, and use that as a target.

9 Should my kid take both the ACT and SAT?

Many colleges now accept scores from either test, so it’s beneficial to focus on just one, says Fred Zhang, cofounder of PrepScholar, which offers customized online test prep.

To find the best fit, have your teen take an official practice test for both the ACT and SAT (available free on each test’s website). Compare the scores (the ACT website has a chart to convert from ACT to SAT scoring), and if one score is one hundred points higher than the other, go for the higher-score test. If the difference is less than one hundred points, see what matches your teen’s situation—the ACT is typically better for those with test anxiety, and the SAT is better for those with strong language skills. Keep in mind a new version of the SAT will debut March 2016.

10 What study resources are out there?

The ACT and SAT websites offer official test-prep materials that range from free to $70, and books on the subject abound. Personalized services like Kaplan, The Princeton Review, PrepScholar, and Magoosh range from $50 to $7,000.

Online, check out video tutorials by the Khan Academy. Also useful are the blogs of college consulting firms like PrepScholar, IvyWise, Magoosh, and Noodle—their posts are packed with insider tips and timely analysis of admissions trends.

11 How much time should my teen spend studying for the tests?

Forty hours total is a good baseline for test prep, Zhang says, and ten hours is the absolute minimum to make it worth taking the ACT or SAT. For students who struggle with test taking or who want a super high score, closer to one hundred hours of study is in order. That may seem like a lot, especially for an overscheduled teen, but Zhang argues that test prep has the highest ROI of any college-prep pursuit.

“Students spend thousands of hours on getting good grades and hundreds of hours on extracurricular activities, but PrepScholar data shows that students who spend even just ten hours studying improve their SAT score by an average of 200 points—which can make a big difference in admission to competitive schools,” Zhang says.

12 How many times should my teen take the ACT or SAT?

Students should consider taking the ACT or SAT two to four times, Zhang says. In 2014 nearly 60 percent of students who retook the ACT increased their composite score. Another trend that’s helping students: about one hundred schools (not including BYU) now practice superscoring, which means a college takes your best score on each section across every time you took the ACT or SAT to create a combined, stronger superscore.

Extra, Extra

13 How can my teen stand out from the crowd?

If you comb through the admissions criteria from dozens of schools, a pattern becomes clear: colleges are looking for how students have contributed to their community in the past and how they might contribute to the college community (and its reputation) in the future.

“We really like students who make a contribution,” says BYU’s Kirk Strong, “because to us that’s part of the university education—that you are involved in clubs, teams, and wards, and that you’re going to share your gifts and talents.”

“Students should consider their interests and how they could apply them to serving the community,” suggests Sari Rauscher, the college counseling director for the Waterford School, a private school in Sandy, Utah. For example, one Waterford student with an interest in phlebotomy organized several blood drives at the school.

14 How can I help my kid be well-rounded?

When it comes to extracurricular activities, a well-rounded student has long been considered ideal, but many colleges in recent years have focused on creating a well-rounded student body. The new sought-after breed of student is labeled “pointy” or “well-lopsided”—“with demonstrated excellence in one particular endeavor,” as Harvard’s admission guidelines define it.

15 How can we prioritize all these to-dos?

The key to success is to focus on what interests your teen. Joan Johansson of Troy, Michigan, who attended BYU from 1982 to 1983, has had two children go to BYU and three go to BYU–Idaho. She says each of her kids found their own path. Their local high school was competitive, and many students only chose activities that would build their résumé. “Our kids have kind of taken a step away from that,” Johansson says. “They first focused on schoolwork, and then they carefully chose the extracurricular activities that brought them the most happiness. They were not so focused on the future that they didn’t enjoy the present.”

Words Count

16 Do colleges really pay attention to the essays?

YES! Essays follow grades and test scores in their importance, as rated by college admissions offices.

17 What are colleges looking for in the essays?

“I talk to the kids a lot about how the essay is your only chance to show you are a real person,” says Melinda Pickett, a 1988 BYU grad who is the college-application maven of Roseville, California. She’s helped dozens of kids in her stake—including two of her own—apply to BYU and University of California schools. “The essay is your chance to show something other than that you checked the exact same boxes as every other kid who went to seminary, got good grades, and served on a church youth committee.”

As with extracurriculars, colleges like to see in the essay how a student’s individual gifts and background will benefit the school community. At the same time, they don’t want to feel pandered to. “It becomes obvious when the student is not writing from the heart,” Strong says. “They’re approaching it with too much of a technical writing focus and trying to figure out what we want them to say. It’s so refreshing when they just write about themselves and their feelings and interests.”

18 What should my teen write about?

There aren’t necessarily right or wrong essay topics; “I had a student who wrote about wearing purple tights!” Rauscher says. Above all, it’s essential that the essay is true to the student’s voice. That means you (and any other adult) should be fairly hands-off in the writing process; you can proofread and help brainstorm but not rewrite. Students should start writing essays at least four to six weeks before the deadline to allow time to revise.

The Right Course

19 How does my teen narrow down which schools to apply to?

Perhaps your teen has no idea where to start or is simply looking to add a few more options beyond a dream school. Begin a discussion by asking what she is looking for in a college experience. For example, what program or major is she interested in? Is a diverse student body, a strong sports program, or a particular element of campus culture important? Does she want to stay close to home? You’ll probably have strong opinions about what you think she should do, but take time to listen before doling out advice.

Once your teen can answer those questions, unleash the college search engines. Popular options include Cappex, Noodle, the College Board’s Big Future, and College Confidential’s SuperMatch. (If you or your teen prefer to do your own data-crunching, you should use DIYcollegerankings.com as your guide.)

If you don’t have the time or budget for a campus visit, fret not: you can still glean information from the school’s website. Make sure to examine both the soft data—descriptions of student life, locale, and academics—and hard data, like the school’s graduation and placement rates and average alumni starting salary.

20 How do the CES options compare?

Church Educational System (CES) programs exist to provide higher education in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. CES schools are also consistently ranked for offering a high return on investment. “I would encourage all of our applicants to take a look at the full spectrum of CES institutions,” Strong says.

Here’s a quick rundown of what each school offers:

BYU in Provo is the oldest and largest of the CES institutions. It offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the academic achievements of its faculty and students are nationally recognized. BYU also offers fifty-five study abroad programs and nineteen Division I sports teams that excel in national competitions.

BYU–Hawaii in Laie, Hawaii, is the most diverse of the CES schools (and one of the most diverse universities in the United States). Its strengths include international business, hospitality and tourism, cultural studies, exercise science, and biochemistry. The nearby Polynesian Cultural Center offers many work opportunities for its students.

BYU–Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, offers both two-year and four-year degrees in a variety of majors. The school also offers a hybrid of online and in-class learning. The Concurrent Enrollment program gives high-school juniors and seniors the opportunity to begin earning BYU–Idaho credit online, and the Pathway program offers a flexible and low-cost college experience through online courses combined with local gatherings.

LDS Business College in Salt Lake City focuses on quickly preparing students for careers. Its programs include social media marketing, computer programming, interior design, health, and business and paralegal studies. LDSBC also offers small class sizes and generous scholarships.

You can read more about each of the CES institutions at besmart.com.

21 How do we figure out which schools we can actually afford?

It’s easy to both overestimate and underestimate the real cost of college. One helpful tool is the net price calculator, which any college accepting federal funds is required to provide. Search “net price calculator [college name]” to find it. The purpose is to calculate the cost of attendance minus financial aid, based on what similar students paid in the past. Schools are allowed to choose how detailed to make their calculators, so consider the results an estimate, not a guarantee.

22 How important is “demonstrated interest”? Does early decision help?

As colleges are flooded with higher numbers of applications, a student’s demonstrated interest in the school has become more important—three times as important as ten years ago, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

If your teen is set on one school, he should consider applying early decision, which means an applicant is committed to attending that school if accepted. According to IvyWise, early decision applicants are 20 to 70 percent more likely to be accepted.

Another important way to demonstrate interest is through the “Why this school?” application essay, which is sometimes optional. Encourage your teen to consider it mandatory and to research how the school would be a good fit.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

23 What if my teen doesn’t get into her dream school?

From the start parents should teach kids that a particular school is not the only gateway to success—and that success can take many different forms.

“In so many ways it doesn’t matter where you go; it matters what you do when you get there,” says Rauscher of the Waterford School, adding that most students who don’t get into their top-choice school end up realizing a second-choice school is a better fit.

Alum Wendell Williams, a partner at Lombardia Capital Partners who graduated with a MAcc in 1995, says he vividly remembers the day his daughter found out she didn’t get into BYU—and the tear-filled days that followed. “It was crushing,” he says. “Her older sister, my wife and I, my wife’s parents—we all went to BYU. We said to her, ‘You have a different path. And that’s OK.’”

24 What are our options when the first choice falls through?

Ideally a student could opt for a backup school they applied to, but there are always alternatives if that isn’t an option. Students can apply to colleges with later admission deadlines, take classes at a community college (just make sure they’re transferrable), learn new skills with massive open online courses, join a national service organization, get a job, or start a small business.

Williams’s daughter was able to gain acceptance at Utah Valley University and will soon be applying to its nursing program. “She loves it,” Williams says.

True Grit

25 Sigh. Why does it all have to be so hard?

Yes, it is hard. And certainly the system could be improved. But as your teen (with your constant encouragement) sticks to doing hard things like test-prepping and essay-crafting and flute-practicing and community-serving, she’s gaining one important characteristic: grit.

In a buzzy TED talk, psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth introduced grit as the most important predictor of student success—more than IQ, social intelligence, or any other factor. “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth said. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out. . . . Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

That grit can help your soon-to-be-grown-up teen forge success in college—and beyond.

What Matters Most to Colleges

Grades in college-prep courses 81.5%
Strength of curriculum 63.7%
SAT/ACT scores 58.3%
Grades in all courses 51.5%
Essay or writing sample 22.2%
Student’s demonstrated interest 20.1%
Counselor recommendation 15.9%
Class rank 15.2%
Teacher recommendation 14.1%
Extracurricular activities 9.6%
Interview 7.8%
Subject test scores (i.e., AP, IB) 7.5%
Portfolio 6.4%
SAT II scores 6.0%
State graduation-exam scores 3.4%
Work 2.6%

Source: 2014 State of College Admission Report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling

Want to learn more about the specifics of applying to the BYU Marriott School of Business? Visit marriott.byu.edu/apply

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Written by Holly Munson
Illustrations by Scotty Reifsnyder

About the Author
Holly Munson is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism and lives in Philadelphia with her family.

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