If you applied to college 20 or more years ago, you may not have any idea of the intense anxiety and pressure that peak this month for students aiming for the country's most selective universities.
The application timetable has shifted much earlier than it was in the past. October is now the crunch month for students who want to make the Nov. 1 or Nov. 15 early application deadlines, which a growing number of students are opting to do. The early applicant pool generally has a higher admit rate than the general applications -- sometimes significantly so.
Unless they got a jump start during the summer, high school seniors are juggling the stress of demanding coursework and time-consuming activities while obsessing about their college applications.
At the schools that rank highest on the high-profile "best colleges" lists, last year's record-high applications led to the lowest-ever acceptance percentages. The admissions game has become so fraught that wealthy parents are willing to go to extremes for any advantage. The country saw high-profile examples of this in the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, but even ethical, rules-abiding college consultants can cost tens of thousands of dollars, with some charging as much as six figures.
It is precisely this high-stakes, inequitable, anxiety-inducing system that Becky Munsterer Sabky wants to counter. She spent 13 years working as an admissions counselor at Dartmouth College. In August, she published an insider's take: "Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College."
She decided to write the book after her essay in The New York Times about the most memorable college recommendation letter she received went viral. The letter wasn't from some high-profile name; it was from a high school janitor, who described how the applicant knew the names of everyone on the janitorial staff and thanked them regularly.
That letter highlighted more than a student's accomplishments: It revealed character and decency.
Sabky's book explores the process of who gets in, who doesn't, and why. Many factors are completely out of the student's control, she says, such as whether they are a legacy candidate, what part of the country they live in, or if they excel at a niche sport and the university happens to need their particular skill set. Sabky explains that schools are looking at how the applicant, if admitted, will enhance the college -- versus what the college can do for the student.
Sabky shared some helpful tips for those navigating the process without pricey consultants.
-- First, when filling out the extracurricular interests section, make sure not to use acronyms. Write out the full names and titles of any clubs and organizations. Don't assume admissions reviewers will know the shorthand of local abbreviations and acronyms.
-- Spend time on supplemental essays. While many applicants obsess about the personal statement, it's important to remember that other short-answer questions also count.
-- Bring your resume to any interviews with alumni. It will help jog the memory of the alumnus who writes the report.
-- To learn more about a college from home, read its online newspaper. Student op-eds can share a great deal of information about what currently matters to students at that institution.
-- Ask teachers for recommendations well before the due date. And make sure to thank them for their time, Sabky adds.
Perhaps one of the most powerful messages in her book is that there are plenty of paths to success -- the majority of which do not require a degree from one of the universities with the lowest admit rates.
Sabky herself was rejected from Dartmouth as a student applicant, and also from her next three choices. She says those rejections are among the best things that ever happened to her. In a chapter on what to do -- and what not to do -- while on the waitlist for your dream school, she recounts an interaction with an upset parent who called, pleading for her to reverse the decision and accept her daughter.
"You have to let her in," the mother begged. Otherwise, "she'll have to go to Colby."
"I went to Colby," Sabky replied.