Ask the grumpies: Has applying for colleges changed in the past 20+ years?

First Generation American asks:

How has searching and applying for colleges changed since we went? I am realizing my experience may not be relevant anymore and I don’t even know what the metrics are. Like this whole new trend of many kids not being accepted into their “safe” schools.

So, for us, we were right on the cusp of the common application revolutionizing college applications and early decision/early action were just starting out as things at top schools.  Weighted GPAs and more credit for AP and honors classes were also starting to catch on.  If you’re just a little bit older than us, then YES, the application process has changed a LOT.  If you’re our age or younger, then it’s like what you went through, just more so.

So what does that mean?

1.  If your kids are aiming for a top state school, look at your state laws/rules to see if they have a top X% rule.  IIRC University of Michigan got sued for affirmative action policies and that spurred some states to try automatic acceptance for people who are in the top % (initially top 10%, but that number has dropped in many states for their flagship universities) of their high school graduating class.  This change has caused some parents to move their (privileged, white) kids to lower income districts for high school or the last few years of high school in order to maximize the chance that they’re in that top X%.  I’m not sure if that’s overall a good thing or not.  Class rank is thus more important for getting into a top flagship school than it used to be.  Currently because that X has been dropped at most schools you can still get in if you’re cool in other ways, but when it was a binding constraint, flagships could only let in people who met that criteria because they took all available slots.

2.  Early decision/Early action is very important for selective schools.  This has basically moved when kids apply for colleges much earlier than it used to be.  (At the same time, a lot of lower ranked schools have been struggling and have rolling admissions, so you may be able to wait until May if you just want to go to any college.)

3.  If you’re aiming for selective schools, you’re going to want to apply to LOTS of colleges if the early decision thing doesn’t work out.  (And you may be applying to lots of colleges early action.)

4.  There are still some selective schools that require you to do their special application, but many let you just do the common app.  That makes it easier to apply to many schools, but also you get judged more on a single essay rather than having the chance to answer different questions and maybe have one of those stick.  Still, many selective schools now have add-ons to the common app.

5.  If you’re in a school district with weighted GPAs, you have to be careful about what classes your kid takes in order to keep their GPA up.  For DC1, it would have been GPA optimal to do marching band instead of orchestra because the first two years of both are 4.0, but marching band *also* counts as the PE requirement, whereas DC1 has to take another 4.0 PE semester which will drag hir GPA down even if zie gets 100% in it.  (The guidance counselor told DC1 to take a study hall instead of another PE so as not to hurt hir GPA further.)

6.  All the other stuff about having to be excellent at extra-curriculars and competitions, sports being helpful, being famous for something, your parents donating a building, etc.  All those things still help just like they did before.  I haven’t heard about students not getting into their safety schools, unless that means they’re not getting into the flagship state school because they’re ranked 10th percentile at a super fancy public school in a state where only the top 6 or 8% of each public school get in.  There are cases in the past where people have gotten into Harvard but not into Berkeley.  But maybe they’re misjudging what a safety school is (not uncommon in the past either!)

7.  One really big thing that is different:  before the pandemic a lot more schools were starting to drop standardized tests like the SAT/ACT in the hopes of encouraging more diverse applicant pools.  This process accelerated during the pandemic and subject tests are disappearing/have disappeared.  I don’t know if this is going to stick or if it’s going to continue, but for someone wanting to go to a selective school, you still want to maximize those SAT/ACT scores.  You’re still going to want to try for National Merit.  (And National Merit has gotten harder to get in many states because it’s been hitting ceilings.)  But DH’s relative’s kids can get into state schools now that they were prevented from getting in before because of low standardized test scores.

Otherwise, I’m not really sure what’s different.  We will find out in a couple of years!

Grumpy Nation– do you have any better knowledge?  Have any of you recently been through this process on either side of the market? Do you have any suggestions for new books on the process? I know that we have an occasional commenter who is an admissions officer at my alma mater…

17 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Has applying for colleges changed in the past 20+ years?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I think I am a bit older. There were no common application options and everything was filled out on paper and sent in the mail. I typed my essays on a typewriter. Computers existed but the word processor revolution didn’t really catch on til I was in college. It was unusual for a person to apply to more than 4 or 5 schools. Nowadays, kids are applying to a dozen or more and I now understand why that’s a thing if there is just one application they can shotgun to a bunch of places to see what sticks.

    Your state school calculation does explain why one of the kids I know didn’t get in. He applied to the big state school and when I was his age, that school was pretty easy to get into. It’s always been a good school, though. He was in a fancy HS district (not mine but a bigger one). He did get into his first choice for robotics engineering but it is private engineering school and I am pretty sure they don’t qualify for need based aid. I wasn’t aware of this automatic in metric for state schools.

    We do have weighted GPAs in our current school district. The pandemic did negatively affect the older ones grades more than they should have. It’s odd how he actually got a better grades in English than math and science when he was fully remote. He blew off his “ easy “
    classes. But then I had another friend who claimed his son didn’t get into his in state choice because of mediocre English scores as an engineering applicant so maybe that’s a good thing that he didn’t blow off English instead?

    The school’s guidance counselor did say colleges look to see if you take the hardest offerings that school has to offer but not necessarily comparing my kid against the giant school district’s applicants. Not sure how true that is. We are in a tiny school (only about 60 students per class), so there aren’t as many offerings as a big HS with 3000 kids. But we do have AP classes in junior and senior year so that’s something. My kid is doubling up on math next year with AP stats and Pre-Calc. Then he can do AP calculus next year. The big HS in the next town has 14 AP offerings and we maybe have 1/3 that.

    Thanks for this article. I’ve already learned a ton. Can’t wait to see the other comments.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      About half my apps were paper (with either printing or typewriter) and the others were filled in online and printed. No online apps yet then! My younger sister didn’t need to use the typewriter at all and I think some of her applications were online.

  2. slnoonanj Says:

    We just finished round 1 with oldest; round 2 starts this year with youngest. There’s starting to be a movement away from early decision (which is binding). Lots of schools still have early action (not binding), but for the top of the top, they’ve realized this tends to lead to fewer students of color/first gen/lower income students applying. The top liberal arts schools still rely on ED, but I expect that this trend will accelerate in the next few years.

    Also, for some of the flagships, acceptance rates vary within the institution dramatically. If you’re applying to a competitive program, it’s sometimes worthwhile to put a less competitive program as a second choice as internal transfers are sometimes easier.

    We’ve heard stories of kids not getting in anywhere this year because things changed so much with test optional – it was a strange year all around. I suspect things will start getting more predictable over the next few years as test optional becomes standard practice in many places.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I imagine that some of the reduced acceptances are from all the deferrals last year– a lot of places have classes that are partly full from people who got in last year!

      I had thought ED was getting replaced with EA a while back, but I was surprised at how much ED there still is. How nerve-wracking it must be– you have to know where you want to go without any information like financial aid etc. AND you have to be willing to gamble to give up an ED slot at your second choice.

  3. xykademiqz Says:

    We did this three years ago with Eldest. He had state-level awards in music, a perfect GPA, and a bunch of AP credits. He only applied to this state’s flagship (where I teach) and the neighboring state’s flagship (there is a reciprocity agreement between the states, so in either we’d pay in-state tuition). In both schools, he had to audition for the Music School and got in; he got into both schools; he’s double majoring in music and a bio field, and is going here (he wanted to stay in the city and tbh both programs are better ranked here). So I don’t really know about safety schools because he didn’t want to apply to any other than these two, OTOH music and similar schools are a bit different b/c there’s an audition, and Eldest’s grades were high so wouldn’t have prevented him from being admitted once he passed the audition.

    However, I looked at that time at the acceptance rates at different colleges within the two schools. In general, within these state flagship schools, acceptance rates were much lower and the required GPA and SAT/ACT scores (and expectations for AP credits) much higher if you wanted to go study engineering than if you wanted to go into L&S, for example. As someone mentioned upthread, in a bunch of schools acceptance chances really do depend on the major if students are admitted directly to a specific college.

    During the time, it also came across loudly and clearly that nobody cared about people being well-rounded for the sake of well-roundedness. So there is no point in forcing a teen to waste time on extracurriculars they aren’t interested in; instead, one or two activities pursued long-term, seriously, with passion and, if possible, state or nation-level success, go a long, long way.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ah, if only my DC1 were willing to do competitions to demonstrate hir passions… I guess there’s still a chance zie will make an app that’s a huge hit next summer or something.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    “The guidance counselor told DC1 to take a study hall instead of another PE so as not to hurt hir GPA further.” – That is so sad. Actually, I guess all the GPA hacks are sad–like trying to take classes where you already know everything.

    On safety schools, after my #1 and #2 grad schools rejected me outright, I thought maybe I was too cocky and better find a “real” safety school. But then my safety school not only accepted me but gave me two years of support (one year of fellowships and one of TAships). It turns out they weighted GRE scores very heavily, which was my best thing, so it worked out for me.

    Finally, best of luck to DH’s relative’s kids.

    I have very little better knowledge–the closest I’ve come was to find job openings in Admissions at my local flagship university and decide that no, I was not going to apply for it. The job description said they did look at applicants in the top whatever percentage they have to accept, because just because you’re accepted doesn’t mean you get into the college (major) you want. (And based on what I overheard from academic advisors, it’s best not to assume you’ll get an internal transfer. If I already knew my major, I would definitely go for the university that accepted me for my major rather than risk having to try transferring to another university, which generally means not getting credit for some of your classes.) Also they made it sound like a preponderance-of-evidence situation, and like they would train staff to be able to give the same scores to different candidates.

    Oh, also, our biggest flagship university has virtually the same number of students now as it did when I was first looking in 1978. They refuse to make it bigger, and no one will admit that there are other equally flagshippish schools, yet the state population has more than doubled in that period, so that alone makes it twice a hard to get in.

  5. Sarah Says:

    My child is starting at a new (independent) school this year. The school does not have grades until 10th grade, offers no AP courses, and has no ranking; most of the kids are getting into their top first or second choice school (think: Stanford, UofC, Michigan, etc). All this to say, I don’t understand how the universities are making decisions and how the college admissions team is getting the kids into top schools. Personal essay and extracurriculars? All the parents seem to trust the process…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We went to a public magnet school that didn’t have AP classes or ranking. It was competitive to get into. Not everyone went to top schools after but many people did. It did offer a broad array of difficult classes, required 80 hours/year of community service, offered internship/research during the school year, and had a large number of college counselors.

  6. EB Says:

    My daughter, a strong but not stellar student, was advised after the fact (in 2002) that she should have applied to the Ag school at our flagship. Much lower requirements, because otherwise they would not have been able to serve the population they were designed to serve — future farmers. Those kids come from small high schools with limited offerings and were not the type to be manically competitive about AP History or test prep classes. My daughter (who actually did want to pursue a career in animal science), did not know this (nor did the HS counselor know it) so the applied to LAS and didn’t get in. All ended well (except financially) because she did get into the neighboring (and even better) flagship for Zoology.

  7. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    I’m guessing that I’m younger since I’m pretty sure that I only used a typewriter before high school and even then it was an electric precursor to shifting to computers. I didn’t bother applying to many colleges, lacked the ambition and was too afraid I suspect to risk getting in or risk the pain of rejection? and since my parents were immigrants who didn’t truly understand the process and knew they didn’t have the money to pay for school, they didn’t push either. I’ll have to ask my younger cousins what the process was but they were so academically brilliant (hard work and talent both) I think their experience will also be less applicable for our kids. I know it’s early yet but they were more like the caliber of JB’s friend who was speaking three languages at age 3 and doing age 5 type math for the sheer love of thinking. JB is an indifferent learner, by contrast. Which is fine! If they are, they take after me. But I also know that I had to work a hell of a lot harder to get acceptable grades in high school and if I HAD wanted a selective school, that would have been really tough. It’s not the end all be all and I don’t want them thinking their biggest achievement in life is going to be what college they get into, but I do want them to work hard enough to build a decent work ethic and create some choices for themselves.

    The study hall rec over PE makes me sad for how things revolve around GPA. More PE should be a good thing for their health! I would have been sad to lose PE too early.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC1 doesn’t mind!

      I honestly believe you should talk to your therapist about how to stop putting down your academic achievements. Hard work is important for everyone and you have accomplished a lot (imagine what you might have achieved if you *weren’t* working to support your family) and JB is only in first grade– there’s a long way to go! I know I’m just a person on the internet and shouldn’t be an armchair psychologist, but I suggest you give your therapist a copy of this comment and similar things I’ve seen you write before and ask about cognitive restructuring. You might also enjoy Mindset by Carol Dweck.

      • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

        Huh, you may have a point! You’re a person on the internet that I’ve talked to for a lot of years so if you’re noticing a pattern, that’s not nothing! Your observation does align with a lot of the stuff we’ve been working on discussing, so I appreciate your pointing it out, I hadn’t noticed it as being part of the stuff I have where I diminish what I have done. :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Good luck! Don’t forget you’re awesome!

  8. An ongoing conversation: opening old wounds and self examination « A Gai Shan Life Says:

    […] Nicole and Maggie got me thinking about why it is that I keep running down my academic history. They referred to them as achievements, actually, but when I started writing, I caught myself saying they weren’t achievements. It’s a long-running habit, I now realize. But why? […]


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