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College Advice

The College Admissions Process (Christine VanDeVelde)

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College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step

College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step

Get all you need to know about the college admission process. Robin Mamlet, former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence, and journalist and parent Christine VanDeVelde provide expert, comprehensive and compassionate guidance for every student and parent at each step of the college application process in their best-selling book “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step”.   Christine VanDeVelde shares her wisdom after talking to   over 100 additional experts, and 50 deans of admission on the college admissions process.

College Admissions: Keeping the Big picture

Before even beginning the college admissions process, it’s important to keep the hype about college in perspective. Christine VanDeVelde co-author of “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” reminds us that “there are more than 2,200 public and private four-year colleges and universities in the US to choose from. And the majority of those collges-79 percent- admit more than half the students who apply”.

As a parent of a Senior in High school, I know that the whole process can be nerve racking.  Based on my own experience, I’ve learned the importance of owning my own emotional baggage about college and separation anxiety. An interview with  Dr.Laura Kastner’s  about her book  “ The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life”  was a God sent to me. Check out a book summary of her book here For parents who want more parent coaching Also, check out: Getting into highly selective schools and the Neurotic Parenting Guide.

I know it’s hard to keep on top of the whole process, so I pulled my favorite sections from Christine VanDeVelde’s book. I’d highly recommend buying her book as I’ve found myself referring to it several times to get just-in-time advance on everything from start to finish. When possible, I’ve included links to websites she mentions in her book, or my own tips based on my real-life experience.

Ready to get started?

Where to Apply?

Finding which colleges to apply can be inspiring and daunting.  There are so many good choices out there. The good news is that there are a large number of great websites out there to help you find the school that is just right for you.

Our family combined college visits with summer and spring breaks. My son was able in a quick 30-60 minute walk around feel the vibe and whether a college was a good fit or not.  Plus, we talked to students on the quad and learned about their experiences, the long cold walks from the Freshman dorms and the social scene during the weekends.

If you can’t afford the time or expense to travel to many schools, then minimally try to visit a small liberal arts school and a big public university. It will help you figure out if you prefer big classes with 300 students or small discussion classes with 12 people .

Step 1: Creating an initial list

Coming up with your list of schools involves doing a bit of introspection. In “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” the authors offer a bunch of exercises to help you get clear with what you want.  You will find that websites can be helpful in screening schools once you have some ideas on geography, field of study, size, experiences (urban setting or college town, sports), comfort level (food, dorms, diversity), attitudes (politically liberal, values), and academic pressure (cutthroat, collaborative).  JD Rothman, a popular parent blogger suggested Fiske, Princeton Review books. My personal favorites include subscribing to social media feeds (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter).


  • 7:03 What are Christine’s favorite resources? Naviance Super Match,, CTCL, (
  • 8:59 How to make sure you have a good list of colleges to check out.
  • 19:35 How you narrow schools down to a realistic list?

Step 2: College visits and College Fairs

If you have the option to visit a college fair or college campus, then make the most of your experience.  Be prepared before you go to the fair with one or two questions from the list of questions below pulled from “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step”.  When you visit, make sure to sign your name in and for bonus points send a thank you note to the college representative. These extra steps show demonstrated interest, which some colleges track and use as factors in their admission process.

  • What type of student is most comfortable here? What’s a typical student like?
  • Why did you decide to go to school here?
  • How much time do you spend studying? Where do you study?
  • How hard is it to get the classes you need?
  • Why do students like the school?
  • What are the drawbacks to going to school here? If you could change anything about the school, what would it be?
  • How do you meet people? What is the social life here?
  • What do you like most about the school?
  • What was freshman year like? How difficult was the transition?
  • Who fits in here and who doesn’t?
  • What was your biggest surprise about the school?
  • What would you change about the school?
  • What do students do on the weekend here? Do most students stay on campus?
  • What do people do outside of the classroom? Are there opportunities for community service?
  • What is the teacher-student ratio? Are faculty remember interested in students outside of class? How big are the classes? Do students participate a lot in class?
  • How do you spend time with faculty outside of classroom?
  • Are residence halls coed? Do they have single-sex option? Laundry/kitchen?
  • How is the food?
  • Is the campus considered safe at night? Is their transportation available if you are studying late at night?


  • 29:50 How many schools should you visit? What is demonstrate interest and why does it matter? Which schools do you absolutely have to visit?.
  • 25:06 What is your best strategy for college fair and visits to demonstrate demonstrated interest? What is you miss a college fair?

Step 3: Turning your initial list into application list

After you come up with your list of 15-20 colleges, the next step is parring this list down to 8-10 schools both to keep the costs down and to enable you to do a quality job on supplemental essays.  The college experts in my son’s school and the authors of “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” suggest picking a range of schools with a range of likelihoods of getting accepted.  They suggest picking

3 probable schools, 2-3 possible schools, 2 solid schools, and 2 statistical reach schools, which are defined below:

  • Statistical reach: A school you would like to attend but where your chance of acceptance seems slim. Nevertheless, because each student is unique and schools are looking for unique things. There may be a fit (e.g.- Harvard, Stanford, etc).
  • Possible: A school where your chances of being rejected are higher than your chance of being accepted. However, some students with your credentials like yours have been admitted.
  • Probable: A school where your chances of being accepted are better than your chance of being rejected, though there is no guarantee of admissions.
  • Solid: A school that seldom rejects candidates with your credentials. There are often percentages 25% are lower, 50% fall thin a range, and 25% are higher. If you find yourself is above the range (upper 25%) then it would be a solid.

How do you determine how your school fits within these categories? Christine suggests finding information on the colleges websites by finding their Freshman profile for the most recent year or looking for the college data set. The sections below explain how to interpret the information you may find on these sites. Check out the videos for detailed instructions on how to use Christine’s approach.

Note: For more information about researching colleges and how to determine your foundation schools, please see Chapter 8, “Creating an Initial List of Colleges,” and Chapter 10, “Turning Your Initial List into Your Application List: The Eight to Ten Colleges Where You Will Apply,” in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step.


  • 13:02 How do you create the right mix of schools to apply? Look for the common data set or Freshman Profile for the most recent year under counselor section.
  • 19:35 How you narrow schools down to a realistic list?
  • 21:49 How accurate are the websites that offer predictions on getting into a school? Where do you get reliable information?
  • 28:03 Is it harder to get into public university if you are out-of-state?

How do you read a 25-50-75 list?

Your college’s website may have a 25-50-75 chart like the one below from University of California, Berkely. Christine explains in the video how to read one of these charts?

  • 17:05 What does the 25-50-75% mean?

What is a scattergram?

While there are several websites that offer scattergrams, Christine recommends students get information from the original source as it’s the most reliable. Christine explains why in the video 23:25. However, if you do choose to use a website scattergram make sure you understand the data set it’s pulling from.

How does the college admission process work?

There are so many factors that go into the college admission process; grades, standardize testing, and more. Based on Chrsitine’s experience working with many admission officers and co-authoring a book a former dean of admissions at Stanford, they offer the following inside scoop on what happens behind the scenes.

College admissions: What are colleges looking at?

  • 1:47 Is there a common process that universities use for college admissions? How do public universities screen for test score and grades? What schools view students holistically?
  • 3:28 What is the range of requirements for schools? Why it’s no longer just about getting an SAT/ACT score?
  • 5:11 What market research has found are most important factors in admissions? What is a rough weighting of importance of the different components of the common application (e.g.-SAT -40%, Grades- 30%, ExtraCurricular -15%, Essay -10%, Teacher -8%, Alumni Interviews 2%)?
  • 7:39 How do admission offices normalize grades and account for grade inflation? How do they account for hard teachers who never give A’s?

Academics: SAT/ACT Test Prep

  • 2:50 What are findings from DePaul University’s long-range study show about testing and college performance?
  • 5:40 How can you prep for SAT test? Why a high price tutor is less important than taking practice tests?
  • 9:35 How do the SAT subject tests weigh into equation?
  • 9:53 How much can college prep realistically help in raising your scores? How much time you would allocate during the Summer or school year to raise your scores?
  • 12:23 Let’s say you want to take the SAT in January of Junior year. When is the best time to start taking one of these classes? Are there big score differences if you take the test say Nov/Jan of Junior year versus June of Junior year, or Oct of Senior year?
  • 16:42 Why being a professional test taker is a waste of time?
  • 0:59 Why some schools are going test optional? How AP’s or graded paper can act in lieu of a ACT or SAT test? To get a full list of test optional schools go to:

Applying- Regular, Early Decision, Early Action, Rolling admissions

Once you come up with your list of 8-10 schools, you will need to decide when you want to apply. The authors of “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step” break the application choices by non-restrictive and restrictive plans, which are describe below.

Non-Restrictive Plans – These plans place no conditions on students. Applicants are free to apply to other colleges and are not required to commit to a school until May 1st.

  • Regular– Some time in January students apply and receive decision between mid-March and mid-April.
  • Rolling admission (RA)– Student’s applications are reviewed by the college as they are submitted. Some colleges send students a decision as soon as possible, usually within 4-8 weeks, depending on the school and the size of its applicant pool. Other colleges release decisions on a few specific dates These schools have no one set deadline for submitting an application. Applications continue to be accepted as long as spaces are available in the class. If a school on your list offers rolling admissions, consider applying earlier rather than later.  Since a school with RA makes decision as applications arrive, spaces in the class can fill up, resulting in qualified applicants being denied as time goes on.

Restrictive plans: These decision plans place conditions on students, restricting them from applying to other schools or committing them to enrolling. Before applying to a restrictive plan make sure to look at admit rate under regular decision and early application to see if there is an advantage.

  • Early action (EA): Students apply by a deadline that is earlier than the regular decision deadline and receive a decision earlier than the regular response date, usually November (Round 1) or January (Round 2). Students may be accepted, denied, or deferred. If deferred under EA, students are placed in the regular admission pool. If accepted, students have until May 1st to inform colleges whether they will enroll. I
  • Early Decision: Students apply to only one ED college and sign a binding commitment to enroll if accepted. Applications are submitted early usually in November and notification usually occurs in Dec. If the student is admitted, applications to any other colleges submitted under regular decision, rolling admission, or early action must be withdrawn.  Students who apply ED are not relying on first-semester senior-year grades and November scores to boost their candidacy.  Also, special-circumstance groups- such as athletes or legacies may be steered toward the early pool, which can skew the statistics. There are three outcomes, students are either accepted, denied, or deferred. If you are deferred, you will be reconsidered with the regular pool. If you have been deferred, make sure to update your application with new information on grades, testing, achievements, or extracurricular activities.  If you are denied, then you are not reconsidered.
  • Restrictive early action: Student are restricted to applying early to only one college. Think of this as early decision without the commitment to enroll. Applications are submitted early usually in November and students are notified early, usually in December. Students are not bound by the acceptance and have May 1st to decide.

Video Answers

In the video Christine Vandevelde shares the factors would influence your decision. Are there any downsides of applying early action? How about early action?

  • 38:48 Applying: Let’s say that you have good grades and SAT’s and you get denied in early decision. Is there a penalty for early decision and a chance you would have gotten in during regular decision?
  • 40:07 Why early decision can be the most competitive time to apply?
  • 42:09 How do you interpret the case when you are aren’t accepted early decision and not denied but rolled over for regular decision? Does this mean that you are more likely to get in during regular decision?
  • 44:39 What about transferring into the school of your dreams? Are transfer admissions harder or easier?
  • 27:56 Should you apply early if your school has rolling admissions?
  • 30:05 Why apply early action? What are some downsides? Why if your grades need improvement why it may be better to wait for regular decision pool?
  • 32:48 What is early decision? What is difference between early decision 1 and 2? Why are there two rounds?
  • 34:34 What is restrictive early action?

College essay: What are colleges looking for in the essay?

In addition to their book, the authors also have several blogs.  Here’s a blog post on college essay writing (Ssource:  Get a whole video and blog post with Ethan Sawyer from the best selling book on college essays “College Essay Essentials“.

 “As you work on finishing up your essays, don’t psych yourself out by thinking the essay has to do all the heavy lifting in a college application. It is only one of many pieces. Keep in mind the two things that colleges are looking for when they read your essay:

First, can you write? Colleges want to know if your ability to write meets the academic standards of the college. They want to see that you can take a thought and develop it in a clear and organized fashion, using proper grammar. No typos, please. Your ease with language and ability to write in an engaging and thoughtful way shows them that you can express yourself effectively and that you possess the intellectual ability and readiness for college work.

Second, who are you? Admission officers want to hear your voice and know more about you when they have finished your essay than they did before they started reading it. Above all, they are trying to learn what impact you will have on their community. Will you make their school a better place simply by being a part of it — whether that’s in the classroom, chemistry lab, a residence hall, or theater program. Colleges look for who you are in the application as a whole and the essays are one place in particular where this can be seen most clearly. So tell a story only you can tell”.

For more on essays, including developing a topic, getting feedback, and advice from deans of admission at Georgetown University, Northern Illinois University, Sarah Lawrence College, and more, please see Chapter 13, “Essays”, in College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

My son is now on his fifth draft of writing his common application essay.  Here’s a realistic look at how long it may take to get from original draft to final edit.  The big takeaway is that it takes time and for some can take up to sixteen drafts.  Here are some tips from “The College Admissions” book (p210):

  • Draft 1: Write for 20 minutes and don’t stop.
  • Draft 2: Is this about you? Does this feel like the right topic? Is it written straight from your heart? Is it your voice?
  • Draft 3: Does it tell a story. Is beginning compelling? Are there things that don’t support your story? Does it flow? Are there good transitions? Do they make sense? How and why?
  • Draft 4: Fresh pair of eyes and see whole. Voice-tone, style, attitude. Activte tense.
  • Draft 5: Details that make the story come alive. Show don’t tell.
  • Draft 6: Did I answer prompt? Did I convey info that I wanted to? Did I convey my passion? What has the reader learned about me? What impression am I having? Is this really who I am? Have I mady myself vivid? Does this sound like me? If someone ho had never met me read this, what impression would they get?
  • Draft 7: Get input. Does opening draw you in? What do you think I’m trying to say? How do I come across as a person? Is there any point that you became confused? Is it clear why this story is important to me? Where do I need more detail? Where were you bored? Which parts did you like best? Could anyone have written this essay.
  • Draft 8: Final polish.

Video Answers

  • 33:12 Essay: You suggest writing your essays the Summer of your Junior year. Are the application questions available by the Summer?  Are the prompts generally the same year-to-year? Are there certain questions that are usually included?
  • 36:16 How important are essays?
  • 37:42 What is role of college essays in admission process? How much do they matter?
  • 38:12 How essays are used for determining whether college is a good fit?
  • 38:58 What NOT to write in your essays?
  • 40:18 What essays do admission officers remember?
  • 45:48 What are colleges looking for in the “Why us” essay? Why is it important to talk about majors, character of students, and majors? Why optional essays are never optional?
  • 48:12 Why are diversity essays so important?

Financial Aid -What to consider?

Get tips on financial aid from Christine in these video clips.

  • 51:25 Why you need to talk about financial aid in coming up with your list of schools? Why it’s so important to apply for financial aid even if you aren’t sure you’ll get it?
  • 54:18 What is a net price calculator?

College Interviews

Some schools offer on-campus interviews or interview with alumni.  Before you go on these interviews check out Christine’s video tips on how to get prepared 42:44.

Questions to ask alumni:

  • What kinds of students are most successful here?
  • Most colleges have a specific personality that goes beyond its academic offerings. How would you describe the personality here?
  • How did going to this school change your life? How did this school shape who you are today? What are some questions that you should be prepared to answer? What are some tips for answering questions? What are some questions you should and should not ask?

Questions to prep for:

  • Why are you interested in this college?
  • What do you hope to get out of college?
  • What is your favorite subject and why?
  • What is your least favorite subject and why?
  • What is important to you?
  • What did you do last summer and what did you gain from the experience?
  • How do you choose to spend your free time?
  • How do you think your friend would describe you if you were not in the room? Your teachers?
  • What are you reading for pleasure these days?
  • What event going on in the world right now has most caught your interest and why?
  • Tell me about your favorite teacher. What makes the person’s style good for you? How about your least favorite teacher?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Which of your activities mean the most to you? Why did you start? Why do you continue?
  • Where do you hope to go with it? Do you see yourself continuing this activity in college?
  • What are you really excited about doing in college that will be new to you?
  • What are your apprehensions about college?
  • Do you have brothers or sisters? What role do you play in your family?
  • Do you feel that your grades and test scores are an accurate reflection of your ability? Why or why not?
  • Do your studies come easily to you or do you have to work hard for the grades you receive?
  • Which subjects come more easily than others?
  • Tell me about a class project you have had where you knocked yourself out. Why did you work so hard on that project?
  • If you had a year off from school and you could choose to do anything at all, what might you do?
  • When you think about the “college you” how do you imagine yourself.
  • Note: I always ask interviewees the process they used in making their list of colleges and how they will decide.

Wait List- Should you Wait?

Before you decide to stay on a wait list, Christine suggests you call the admissions office to better assess your likelihood of getting in.  She offers a few questions for you to ask the admissions office:

  • How many students do you anticipate will be on your waitlist?
  • Do you rank or tier your waitlist? And if so, where do I fall?
  • What is the likelihood of being admitted from the waitlist?
  • Will financial aid still be available if I am admitted off the waitlist?
  • Will housing still be available?
  • Is there anything that I can do to improve my chances of being admitted?
  • When do you expect to inform students you are admitting from the waitlist?

More on wait list strategies (video)56:11 What are some wait list strategies? Why it’s important to respond to be on the wait list?

Christine Van De Velde – Journalist and Writer

christine vandeveldeChristine VanDeVelde is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, including USA Today, the Wall Street JournalNew York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and magazines, including SelfParenting, Home & Design, and Chicago. She writes most frequently on college admission, education, parenting, and children’s literature.

Basically, Christine spends her day doing pretty much what high school students spend their day doing — researching subjects, learning about them, and then writing about those subjects so that other people can understand them.

That’s not as easy as it looks — as any high school student can tell you. In order to write about something, you have to first understand it. And you won’t have any idea how much you don’t understand something until you sit down to write it so someone else can understand it. That’s true whether your subject is the Russian revolutionGossip Girl, the physics of the curve ball, or the Common Application.

When Christine isn’t writing, she likes to hike with friends, hang out with her family, and read. Some of her favorite authors are M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin, Michael Connelly, Faye Kellerman, Joan Didion, Ellen Gilchrist, Theodore Dreiser, Robert Parker, Beverly Cleary, Margaret Wise Brown and — the list goes on. She is secretly addicted to reality television (just a few shows) and quite public about her love affair with artisanal yogurt, the iPad, and shoes.

A graduate of Boston University, Christine lives in Chicago with her husband. Her daughter is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University and working in her first job in Manhattan. You can read Christine’s essay on her daughter’s college admission process that appeared in I’m Going to College — Not You! (St. Martin’s Press 2010) here.

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