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One of my students in California has a classmate applying to 34 colleges. A New York city girl told me about a friend with 28 schools on her list. This year, I watched a list grow from 12 to 17 colleges and another from 16 to 24. What’s going on?

Before the 2020 pandemic, I offered one Standard package for up to 12 colleges. That year’s economic downturn motivated me to add a Limited Package of up to 8 colleges; spending less and applying to fewer colleges made sense for many families. 

Then the test optional admissions policies driven by the pandemic (it was impossible to test) required adding a PLUS package of up to 16 colleges. Many students began to gamble, figuring “why not try?” It is my job to help them, but to be honest as well.

College enrollment managers are gambling-averse strategists, focusing on yield. The institutions that easily fill their classes ten times with full pay students responded to the admissions deluge by issuing more deferrals each year. Students and families responded with anger and frustration. Applying became more stressful as decisions grew more unpredictable. I stopped using the term “target” (based on GPA and test score matching) because students were outraged about “targets” deferring them. “Possible” became a more precise alternative.

Some admissions deans told us to expect fewer deferrals and more outright denials this year. Students would know where they stand, rather than live in hope. It certainly simplifies the process for colleges. Let’s see.

A smart, balanced list of 5 to 12 (or 16) likely, possible, and reach colleges still makes sense. Gambling ratchets up stress because extra colleges are generally “unlikelies.” Too often, those 17th through 25th colleges simply tempt with “prestige,” and are “unlikelies” for every applicant, including valedictorians, competition winners, and published researchers.

While I wish that all my students are admitted to every college they'd be happy to attend, that’s based on my knowledge of the best fit. I wish them (and their families) the wisdom to believe that they drive their success–not the bumper sticker.


Scott Anderson, the Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, wrote this advice in November 2015. Each year, these words become more important as the pressure of the college admission process grows for families.

“This week, as you gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, be mindful of the high school seniors seated at the table. Odds are they don't want to talk about their college applications any more than you want to talk about work.

Questions about college aren't inherently bad. In fact, most of them come from a place of caring. What people really want to know is how the kids are doing, what's going on in their lives, how they are managing stress, what they are thinking about their future. 

Teens are thinking about college but don't necessarily want to talk about it over mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. It's infinitely more supportive to ask them about the things they love to do and the challenges and ideas that intrigue them than it is to inquire about what they plan to major in, how they intend to make a career of it, and what that career will be. It also invites them to ask you the same kinds of questions, which creates a space for real conversation, not one-directional interrogation--or the perception of it.

So please do the high school seniors in your life a favor. Help make the Thanksgiving table a college-free zone. Redirect the conversation. Ask questions that show you are interested in them, not their applications. Share stories about your own path. They are going to be fine.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all!



Every year, I hear a story about a student “who got in nowhere.” Sometimes, it’s just untrue. When it actually does happen, there was a bad college list, usually one based on rankings.

The truth? No ranking is a reliable indicator of the experience a student will have in college or after graduation.

College rankings are simply designed for marketing and profit of the third parties that publish them, not students or colleges. Using a mostly twisted “objective” methodology, the information runs from true, skewed, or blatantly false.

What’s true? The dry data provided by IPEDS ( IPEDS is usually a year behind and colleges must provide the numbers to the government in order to receive federal aid. What’s mostly reliable? The Common Data Set, but it too is a collaboration among Common App, Peterson's, and USNW. This last source is particularly skewed.

Who participates in the USNW rankings? It’s students who love their colleges and want to boost their rankings. College presidents, deans, provosts, and a small sampling of high school counselors give the “peer reputation” on US News and Forbes charts, which is based on the arbitrary question: “Tell us which are the best US colleges.”

The faculty source data is tilted towards wealthy schools with small class sizes. Professor quality has real value, but often “having the highest degree in a field” is misleading. Some may have a Ph.D., but aren’t teaching a course in that field.

“Financial resources per student” is generally based on the one or two institutional priorities where money was recently spent, such as a science building or a gym. While that may be a boon for a biology major who works out, it has little value for a business or history major who doesn’t set foot in those facilities.

With regard to financial factors, Forbes considers pay scale (self-reported by alumni). Statistics on Fulbright winners and those earning Ph.D’s are impressive, but impressive students can accomplish this at many colleges. The private colleges and elite public colleges that top the rankings have the highest tuition (especially for out of state students) and are the least generous with non-need based aid, too.

While rankings are enticing, basing a college list on them implies that the institution is the source of success, not the student. That sends our students the worst possible message.

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