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Easing college admissions anxiety

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By Marian Wilde

Trends in College Completion

Students take longer to graduate.

Students in public colleges are now taking an average of 6.2 years to graduate, instead of the traditional four years. Their private college counterparts are taking slightly less time - 5.3 years.

The United States falls behind in college completion.

The Measuring Up 2006 report shows that the U.S. has fallen from the number one spot in the world to seventh in the proportion of 25- to 34-year olds holding college degrees. Even worse, the U.S. is in the bottom half of all developed nations for rates of college completion.

Two factors account for these concerning statistics. One, while the United States made rapid progress in sending its citizens to college between World War II and the 1990s, the rate of college participation has leveled off since then. Why this is so is not clear, although the drop in college affordability probably plays a major role. Secondly, other countries, such as Canada, Japan, Korea and Finland, are making rapid progress in improving their rates of college completion.

Trends for Selective Colleges

David Montesano, director of college planning at College Match, a Seattle-based college placement firm, identified these trends for highly selective colleges, the target institutions for many of his clients:

  • According to NACAC, the main college application essay is valuable, and in some cases it may be worth more than class rank, minority status and letters of recommendation. The number of colleges saying that it is important to the process has doubled in the last 10 years. The most important thing to remember when writing the essay, according to College Match Writing Associate Naren Murthy, is to make an emotional connection with your reader. Most readers are bored with essays in which students "tell" admission officers what to think. Instead, Murthy recommends applicants "show" them a moment in their life by using creative writing techniques, including language in the first person and present tense, and using dialogue wherever possible to bring the admission officer into the story.
  • College visiting is on the increase. Once a mostly optional choice for college applicants, the college tour has become more of a requirement for many students. U.C. Santa Barbara logged a record 38,000 visitors last year, a number that requires three full-time staff members and a squadron of 60 undergraduate tour guides.
  • Students have less than a 5% chance to get into top tier colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. According to Montesano, "Chances for admission are very unlikely for most candidates who don't have a 'flag' or 'tag' in the admission process. 'Flags' and 'tags' represent varying degrees of admission importance to colleges and include sought-after athletes, under-represented minorities or legacies."
  • Merit scholarships have become more common as colleges award money to applicants for academic, artistic or athletic merit, rather than for financial need. Says Montesano: "High-quality, yet slightly less selective, colleges such as Allegheny and Lewis and Clark, routinely offer top students modest scholarships to help offset the cost of attendance."
  • West coast colleges have become more attractive to applicants. "West coast universities and liberal arts colleges now feature more prominently in the admission picture and often overlap increasingly with Ivy League and Little Ivy (Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams) applications. 'West coast ivies' include: Caltech, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Occidental, Pomona, Reed, Scripps, Stanford, USC and Whitman," says Montesano.
  • There's a movement toward a "holistic" admissions philosophy, even among larger public universities, where GPA and test scores are not the only major determining factors. College admissions officers, faced with an avalanche of qualified applicants, now increasingly use personal essays and other factors to get a more holistic picture of the applicant.