How to Survive the College Admissions Process
Record applications, test-optional policies and competitive parenting have created a recipe for madness. Here's a sanity check for students and parents.
It’s a recipe for stressermaggeddon: Mix the complex process of applying to college with ramped-up pressure on students to apply “early decision” or “early action.” Throw in a dash of uncertainty about the “test-optional” policies that have given SAT and ACT scores less weight at most institutions of higher learning. Frost with skyrocketing numbers of applications that are overwhelming admissions offices and driving down acceptance rates at the most coveted schools. Then serve it all up in Northern Virginia, land of Type-A parents, some of whom literally run the country and expect the best for—and from—their kids.
“It is in the water around here,” says Melissa Sporn, a clinical psychologist based in McLean. “Kids start talking about colleges and wearing college shirts in elementary school.”
Many of us are guilty of feeding the beast, even if unwittingly. Sporn remembers driving north several years ago for a prospective campus visit with her husband and daughter (then a high school senior) when her husband asked whether the college they were visiting was a good school. She yanked the car over to the side of the road. “We don’t use the word good,” she admonished. “We’re looking for the right fit for our child.”
Her reaction may seem extreme, but Sporn has seen what the obsession with “good schools” can do to some kids. Anxiety and depression continue to rise. Meltdowns over college essays and waitlists are common. In severe cases, she’s even seen teens become suicidal when faced with curveballs they thought would jeopardize their chances of getting into a top-rated university.
The reality is that not every student is preordained to become a future Ivy Leaguer or the golden child who earns a spot at Stanford (which, like Harvard, has an acceptance rate of around 5%).
“There are 4,000 colleges [in the U.S.],” says Kathleen Otal, a guidance counselor at McLean High School who was named the 2020-21 Virginia School Counselor of the Year, “but especially in Northern Virginia, we focus on the top 200 to 300. It’s hard, as a parent, to divorce yourself from the prestige in that bumper sticker.”
Counselors like Otal spend a lot of time urging students and parents not to fixate on certain schools as a prerequisite for a happy and fulfilling life. A student “can be just as successful going to a school that’s the right fit,” she says, “and doing well at that school.”
“There are 4,000 colleges in the U.S., but especially in Northern Virginia, we focus on the top 200 to 300. It’s hard, as a parent, to divorce yourself from the prestige in that bumper sticker.”
Lately, however, finding that right fit has gotten a lot more complicated. Rachel Smith (not her real name) thought she had the college application process figured out after her first two kids headed off to the University of Virginia before the pandemic hit.
But when her younger twins applied this year, she found out just how confusing and capricious the admissions landscape has become. One son applied early decision and was admitted to his top choice, Northwestern University. The other, with a 4.4 grade point average and outstanding standardized test scores like his siblings, got wait-listed at several schools, including UVA, that he had assumed would be good bets. Out of eight applications, he received acceptances from James Madison University and William & Mary.
“It’s hard to know what went wrong and why it was easy for one [child] and not so smooth for the other,” says the Arlington mom. “It seemed really random on who got in where. If you’re on the wrong end of it, you feel jilted. He busted his butt all these years and ultimately it didn’t give him what he hoped for.”
Though her son was shocked and disappointed when he didn’t get into any of his top choices, he’s been stoic, Smith says. By summer he was busy choosing classes at William & Mary.
“It seems like the whole process has changed,” she says. “You need to be prepared for anything. It’s haphazard and random. Don’t take anything for granted. We assumed we’d have certain options we ended up not having.”
Most colleges have dropped their mandatory requirements for standardized test scores like the SAT and ACT (a trend that started several years ago and accelerated during Covid), leaving the question of “what do schools want” a bit more open-ended.
Only about 5% of colleges required test scores last year, compared with 55% before the pandemic, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that runs the SAT, Advanced Placement and other college readiness programs. That means many students are now applying to schools they previously might have assumed were out of reach.
Applications to the nation’s most competitive schools have shot up as a result, with applicants attempting to stack their odds by applying to more and more schools. The College Board reports that applications to its member universities increased by 21% from the 2019-20 school year to 2021-22.
In Arlington Public Schools, seniors in the Class of 2022 reported submitting a total of 10,583 college applications, according to APS tracking data, up from 8,239 in 2018-19. That’s a 28% increase over a four-year period.
Ann Dolin, founder and president of Educational Connections, a tutoring and college counseling firm based in Fairfax, says that highly selective colleges and universities—ones that already granted admission to fewer than one-third of applicants—have been inundated with applications since the test-optional policies went into effect.
The University of Virginia, a holy grail for many in-state students, is telling. After shifting to test optional, its admissions office saw applications increase from 41,000 in 2020 to 48,000 in 2021. Though UVA’s acceptance rate for out-of-state students remains at about 15%, in-state acceptances dropped from 33% to 28% of applicants, according to Jeannine Lalonde, UVA’s associate dean of admissions.
In March, a story in the university’s Cavalier Daily newspaper reported that UVA accepted a record-low 19% of the 50,962 students who applied this year.
Closer to home, Marymount University is seeing a similar phenomenon. After adopting a “test blind” policy for its most recent admissions cycle (meaning it no longer accepts standardized test scores), the Arlington university saw a 40% jump in applications, from about 2,500 in 2021 to 3,500 this year, according to Evan Lipp, associate vice president for enrollment management.
But the shift to test optional also has upsides. Guidance counselor Otal says it’s been beneficial for some applicants—like strong students who don’t perform well on standardized tests. It’s also made the playing field more equitable for students who can’t afford private tutoring and test-prep services.
Seniors looking at colleges may notice the average test scores for certain schools trending upward, she says, but that’s purely a function of admitted students who didn’t submit scores (which likely were lower) not being counted in the averages.
Only about 5% of colleges required SAT or ACT scores last year, compared with 55% before the pandemic, according to the College Board.
When is it in an applicant’s best interest to submit their SAT or ACT scores, if applying to a school that is test optional? Amber Cobb Vazquez, a student success coach with Tutoring Club of McLean, takes the guesswork out of it: Submit your scores only if they fall within or above the college’s average range for accepted students. (The Fiske Guide to Colleges and many college websites make those numbers publicly available.) Otherwise leave them out. They really are optional now, she says, and omitting test scores won’t be seen as a red flag.
Compounding the stress for applicants is mounting pressure to apply early decision or early action—a timeline that requires students to figure out where they want to apply before the end of their first semester senior year. Many fear that applying “regular” decision (which usually means a deadline in January, versus November) will decrease their chances of acceptance if colleges are selecting greater percentages of their incoming classes from early applicant pools.
It’s not an unfounded concern. Dolin says she is seeing more schools pushing for early decision, with incoming classes comprising larger numbers of those applicants than they did only a few years ago. “At a lot of schools, your acceptance rate is doubled with early decision,” she says.
Vazquez encourages students to submit at least some of their applications in the early part of the cycle (ahead of the regular admissions deadline), but cautions that early decision is only a smart move for the student who has a dream school that supersedes all others. Early decision applications are binding, whereas early action provides more flexibility. She worries that committing to one college immediately may affect a student’s options for financial aid, as doing so forfeits the ability to leverage one school’s offer against another’s.
Lalonde adds that the numbers can be deceptive—at least at UVA, where offers of admission are divided equally among early decision, early action and regular decision. Early isn’t always better, she says. Some students might benefit from having one more semester of good grades on their transcript, or just a bit more time to polish their applications.
Roughly a quarter of U.S. colleges and universities offer rolling admissions, meaning that decisions are made as applications are received. Marymount University is one such school. Students can begin submitting applications as early as October and will typically hear back within about three weeks of applying.
Sarah Tursi, a licensed clinical social worker in McLean, says she usually sees the stress ratcheting up among her patients during junior year, when cumulative grade point averages are released. To temper the anxiety, she urges students to apply to at least a couple of schools with rolling admissions to increase their chances of having an acceptance in hand in the fall of their senior year.
“It soothes people to say, ‘I’m definitely going to college,’ ” she says. “Then they don’t feel panicky they’re not going to get in anywhere.”
Every college has its own opaque formula for weighing the different parts of an application. Most schools look intently at the rigor of an applicant’s course load (including AP, IB and honors classes) and grade point average, as well as essays and extracurricular activities. Some also take note of demonstrated interest—applicants who have shown enthusiasm by visiting campus, meeting with an admissions officer at a college fair, attending virtual information sessions, scheduling alumni interviews, signing up for emails from the school and/or applying early.
Lalonde says the secret decoder ring of what a college is looking for is usually right there in the application instructions. It’s implied in what the school asks to see, and what it does not. Even before UVA dropped its SAT/ACT requirement, grades and course rigor were more important than test scores, she says. “We’ve always been more concerned with sustained classroom performance than one four-hour exam.”
For context around a student’s transcript, she looks carefully at what types of courses are offered at the applicant’s high school, how grades are weighted and other policies specific to that high school. She is quick to debunk the notion that UVA has quota limits on how many students it will admit from a given high school, county or school district. Fairfax County supplied the largest share of UVA’s first-year class for 2022-23, she says, with 3,514 students.
Applicants often agonize over how many AP courses they must take in high school to be competitive. The magic number, says Eleanor Monte Jones, a former admissions officer at Georgetown University, is however many they can manage while still having time to enjoy high school and keep excessive levels of stress at bay.
Jones, now principal at Rigby, a college and career consulting business in Fairfax County, says a good rule of thumb is for students to take the harder class—AP or honors level—only if they have an interest in the subject and believe they can get a B or better. She hopes the pandemic will have a cooling effect and reset expectations about AP course loads.
“This has to be more realistic,” she says, noting the high rates of burnout she sees in so many high school seniors. “What’s the big-picture goal beyond college? Well-adjusted individuals who can support themselves, be good citizens, and be content and challenged in life.”
Otal repeats a similar refrain to the seniors who land in her office: Get enough sleep and don’t sacrifice friendships and the things you love during the application process. “Try to turn off the noise about what everyone else is doing,” she advises.
Among the most panic-inducing portions of college applications are the essays. Although the Common App (which is now used by some 900 colleges and universities) allows students to submit a single essay of 250-650 words with their digital application, many schools also have separate writing requirements that are specific to their needs.
Virginia Tech, for example, ignores the Common App essay and instead asks applicants to respond to a series of its own writing prompts, with an emphasis on service. (The school’s motto, “Ut Prosim,” translates as “That I May Serve.”) Factor in each school’s idiosyncrasies and a student applying to 10 schools may end up writing 20 essays or more.
The upside is that essays are where applicants can show off their personalities and what makes them unique. “That’s where they get to show the admissions committee they are three-dimensional human beings,” Vazquez says. “It doesn’t have to be ‘In 10th grade I found the cure to cancer.’ It can be something small, but it needs to show who they are as a person and how they would fit on that campus.”
Lalonde of UVA agrees. “If you’re trying to make grand sweeping statements, you’re going to run out of time and space,” she advises. “Go small.” Focus on a singular experience or personal passion that speaks to who you are and what you care about, she says.
How many colleges should a student apply to? Jones recommends five to seven. Otal says six to eight. Vasquez advises eight to 12.
There really is no set number, provided a student’s list includes a range of “safety” schools (ones the applicant has a good chance of getting into); “target” schools (that are on par with their grades, course rigor and test scores); and “reach” schools that are long shots.
But there are points of diminishing returns. “I feel like there’s a bit of an arms race,” says Mindy Leblond, an Arlington mom of two whose older daughter, Mathilde, applied to 15 colleges and wrote more than 30 essays during her senior year at H-B Woodlawn. Mathilde was accepted by her dream school, University of California Berkeley, only to realize it was too expensive. She’s now heading to Georgia Tech this fall to study engineering.
After witnessing her older child’s stress—including much fretting over an application hiccup at a university that she ultimately turned down anyway—Leblond plans to encourage her younger daughter (a rising junior) to apply to fewer schools.
“There is a college for every student,” assures Sporn, the clinical psychologist. She urges applicants and their families to be open-minded about what different schools have to offer. Kids who were their high school valedictorians are a dime a dozen at Ivy League universities, she says. A safety school might offer more scholarship aid, smaller class sizes, a specialized degree program or more research opportunities.
Though some stress is unavoidable, college shopping can be fun.
Elizabeth Hale, a McLean mother of two, remembers visiting colleges as “some of the best times we’ve had with our kids.” The road trips were great for bonding and exploring new places, and they usually invited a current student at each school (often a neighbor or a friend’s kid) to lunch for an insider’s perspective on campus life.
“Most kids will do anything for free food,” Hale jokes. She now has a senior at Virginia Tech and a sophomore at Christopher Newport University.
Campus visits can help prospective students figure out what they don’t like as much as what they do like, adds Natalie Stoss, a mom of three whose oldest will begin her first year at the University of Richmond this fall. She says her daughter scratched one school “in the middle of nowhere” off her list after seeing it in person and realizing she felt happier in a city.
Tursi, the McLean social worker, takes a different tack. She advises students to wait and visit schools after they’ve been accepted. Doing so saves time and money, she says, and eliminates the heartbreak of falling in love with a campus that may not pan out. Plus “at that point your senior is looking more with adult eyes.”
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all college that’s right for everyone, Jones says every part of the application process needs to be tailored to the individual.
“You will have 100 opinions on how to do it,” she says. “In reality, it’s a very personal decision about where a student will excel, figure out a career path, make friends and have academic and extracurricular opportunities along the way.”
Are you trying to help your student through the college application process? A few pointers on keeping the stress monster at bay:
Don’t let college dominate every conversation. “When you say ‘college’ to a high school junior or senior, it’s like tasing them,” says clinical psychologist Melissa Sporn. “It raises their cortisol level.” To keep the topic from becoming all-consuming, consider setting up weekly meetings to talk about applications, test prep, essays and campus visits.
That includes conversations with other people’s kids. They don’t need the added pressure of everyone asking them where they’re applying. “It’s so easy to get spun up in all the hype in talking to other parents,” says Natalie Stoss, a mother of three. “We live in a competitive area. A lot of parents forget the process is about the kid.”
Beware of AP overload. Today’s high school students may feel compelled to load up on AP classes to improve their chances of getting into elite colleges. Parents don’t need to fuel that fire. Kids are melting down under the pressure, says Kathleen Otal, a guidance counselor at McLean High School. “Accept your child for who they are and let them guide the decisions. Be a consultant to the process, not a boss.”
Empower your child to make their own choices. Backing off and giving your student more responsibility will help them build confidence and a sense of control over their own future, says Sarah Tursi, a therapist whose oldest is a freshman at the University of Central Florida. “It starts with alarm clocks, financial conversations, allowing them to make decisions and holding them accountable for the decisions they are making.”
Be vulnerable. Talking about your own mistakes will help teens realize they don’t need to be perfect. Elizabeth Hale, a mother of two, recalls fessing up to her kids about the D-plus she got in economics her freshman year of college after skipping too many classes. Seeing how others have bounced back lets students know they can make mistakes and survive.
Make mental health a priority. It’s important to build in time for fun between college talks and campus visits, Sporn says, whether you’re taking a detour to go zip-lining or blocking out a Saturday afternoon to go shopping. “Mix in the serious with the ridiculous. Our job is to ground our kids and help them feel peaceful.”
Tamara Lytle is a freelance journalist who will soon be helping her high school juniors through the college application process.