College admissions officers try to position their colleges as selective by spouting statistics that make acceptance seem elusive. They may tell you, for example, that the university received 12,000 applications for 1,600 openings in its freshman class. You may assume that the university has an acceptance rate of 13.33% but your math (though reasonable) would be wrong. I’ll tell you what college admissions officers won’t tell you and more.

What college admissions officers won’t tell you (unless you ask) is that in order to fill those 1,600 openings, they had to extend 6,000 offers. So the acceptance rate rises from 13.33% to 50%, still competitive but not as elite as the college or university might have you believe.

My husband and oldest son, a soon-to-be rising high school freshman, attended a college admissions forum a couple of weeks ago and heard that story. Speakers represented UNC-Chapel Hill, a state university ranked #1 among 100 Best Values in Public Colleges by Kiplinger, and Texas Christian University, a private one. Here are the best of the tips:

  • Take advantage of what your high school and community have to offer but realize that a state-supported university is unlikely to penalize you for limited choices. However, if there are AP classes, take at least some of them. According to a college admissions counselor and former head of a private school, one to three AP courses in junior and senior years are sufficient to show academic prowess. Take what is challenging but not overwhelming. 
  • Good grades (As and Bs) throughout high school are preferable but if you stumble in your freshman year, don’t give up. Admissions officers appreciate improvements in grades over four years, showing your advancing academic capabilities. A decline in grades, especially during junior and senior years, is considered a sign of lack of interest in learning.
  • Choose 2 or 3 extracurricular activities in which you can be deeply involved. Having your name on the roster of a bunch of clubs will indicate superficial involvement.
  • Write the college essay in your own voice. Tell a story that differentiates you from other students, even if you have to ask your friends what they are writing about so you can avoid common topics. And, it’s okay to have others critique your work and then edit your essay.
  • Diversity in thought and action is valued. Colleges and universities want to encourage intelligent, informed dialogue among students with unique perspectives. Being different, though possibly not conducive to an active social life in high school, is attractive to admissions officers.
  • SAT scores may have less weight than you think. According to one admissions officer at a selective university, essay scores are not considered because they do not give more or better information than critical reading scores as an indicator of college success. And just last week, Wake Forest University announced that SAT scores are now an optional, rather than required, part of the admissions process.

Now, I am not necessarily encouraging high school kids to suddenly embrace diverse thought in order to conform to the desires of a certain college or university. But it is nice to make informed choices, and realize that the activity your parents think will boost your chances at the college of your choice may actually detract from your attractiveness, giving you license to focus on what you love. 

For more insight into the college admissions process, see NPR's series The College Admissions Game  and the student section of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  

Note: Admissions' policies vary among colleges and are constantly changing so check with the college or university of your choice regarding selection criteria.