Applying to the Wrong Universities

Last night an old high school friend of my daughter’s came over for dinner. We hadn’t seen her in awhile because she now lives in Northern California so it was great catching up with her.
We were almost ready for dessert when Christina mentioned that her sister was applying to colleges. I hadn’t realized that her sister, I’ll call her Molly, was a high school senior. I naturally asked her where her sister was applying. Before I share her list of schools, I should mention that Molly is a bright girl. Before her junior year in high school, she had always been a 4.0 student. According to her big sister, Molly’s GPA slipped to 3.6  when she became overly involved in extracurricular activities.
I flinched when I heard the schools that Molly has applied to. Brown University, MIT, Boston University, San Francisco State and Cal State University San Marcos. Does this appear like a well-constructed list to you?

Wasted Applications

Molly has already received a rejection letter from MIT and I’m sure Brown will turn her away too. These were two wasted applications since her academic profile wasn’t strong enough to make her a realistic candidate.
San Francisco State is also a poor choice. Why? On the surface it looks like a cheap date. The tuition is less than $7,000, but the room and board costs are extremely high in San Francisco. Molly also wouldn’t be able to graduate in four years, which is a must for this blue-collar family with limited resources. The graduation rate at San Francisco State, which is one of the most overcrowded schools in the state system, is only 11.7%.

The Cost of Attending State Schools

I’ve talked to students attending San Francisco State that share heart-wrenching stories about not being able to get their classes.  Here’s just one example:  the son of my husband’s best friend, who is an art major tried to enroll in classes last semester and got absolutely NOTHING. And he began trying to grab classes at the very second that he was permitted to enroll online.  Through persistence and his dad’s intervention, he eventually got a mishmash of classes, but nothing in his major. I would not recommend San Francisco State to anyone.
Cal State San Marcos’s grad rate isn’t much better at 16.4%. It would be a hellacious daily commute for Molly to drive to this commuter school, if she had a car. Also, I think Molly should have aimed for a more academically challenging school.
That leaves Boston University. I’ve been leery about students, requiring a lot of financial aid, applying to — I hate to use this word – second-tier schools in cities on the East Coast. These schools, such as New York University, Drexel, American, George Washington, Northeastern, are extremely expensive and their aid policies are underwhelming. These schools can take advantage of the fact that students want to attend college in fun cities on the East Coast. They don’t have to be generous because they will attract tons of kids anyway.
I wrote about the pricing of these schools in a post earlier this year, which I’d urge you to read:

The Real Cost of Attending an Expensive East Coast University

While it’s late in the game to be applying to schools, I told Caitlin that I’d help Molly pinpoint a couple of more schools to add to her list that would be better academic and financial fits.
What’s the moral of this story? Be smart when you are putting together your  list of colleges. A hell of a lot is riding on it.

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  1. I’m not sure how you’re defining “second-tier”, but some of the schools you named, like NYU, are not much less competitive than the lower-ranked Ivies and schools like UPenn, based on incoming student stats and authoritative school rankings. Given the total number of universities in the US, I would more accurately say that such universities are maybe “second-tier” among the “top tier”, not “second-tier” per se. Nonetheless, I do agree that most of these universities are probably too expensive.

  2. The article presents a basic known suggestion in applying for colleges, but the deal is knowing what are the best colleges for the student, and this article just says what isn’t, and not what is the ten best ways to pick a great college. The main concept is not relevant to people across the country. Since San Fran’s State college may be over crowded, but Syracuse University and others may not have this problem. Boston University, if you apply for Fafsa student aid money would not be so expensive, etc.

    1. Hi Ava,
      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. My only response would be that since this is a blog, the entries have to be tightly focused. I can’t cover more than one topic in a post or it would be too long and people’s attention span (myself included) is pretty short.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Ugh, I see too many stories like this — students who shoot way too high and focus so much on those aspirations that they forget to carefully choose safeties and matches. Our valedictorian had her heart set on getting into a specific Ivy, so she applied to a bunch of Ivies and our state university (we only have one that’s a good school). Needless to say, even with a 4.0, she’s at state school. It was so so crushing for her and all of us, her friends, because with her stats, she had a solid chance at many of the second-tier east coast schools or even some NESCAC schools.

  3. Everytime I read your stuff it makes me smile. When we speak frankly to families, most don’t smile. They have been indoctrinated and disillusioned. Thanks so much for shedding such REALISTIC light on the subject of college admissions…

    1. Hi Lynn,
      Your book has been a real eye opener. I earlier thought that US News was the only dependable guide but after reading your book I understand the college planning process a lot better and strongly recommend your book to everyone.
      I know you have repeatedly said that ‘look for schools that are a good academic and financial fit’. The one question that I still have a challenge with is – how to find a college or university that is ‘a good academic fit for my son’. Can you share a primer on this?
      Any suggestions.

  4. No, it doesn’t sound like a well constructed list. Do you know what sort of advice she received from her guidance counselor? I’m curious as to what were her sources of college information and what role her parents played. I think part of the problem is that people don’t know what it means to be “smart” in putting together their college lists. She seemed to follow the popular advice: she picked two reaches, two safeties, and another school that would presumably be her match. I’m willing to bet these are all schools she’s heard of since starting high school. She picked them because she knew their names and more or less where they ranked in the US News Rankings and little else. I hope you’ve found her some alternatives.

  5. Thanks for this post, Lynn. Keep us posted on Molly’s what happens with Molly.
    Will you encourage small liberal arts colleges for her? My own daughter is a a junior who’s very busy with her extracurricular (music) activities too… I hate to tell her to give them up, either.

    1. Hi Lynne,
      I will keep you up to date. Yes, I will suggest that she apply to a couple of liberal arts colleges. Frankly liberal arts colleges tend to have better financial aid than universities. I don’t think people realize that.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy