I am hoping some people here with a son or daughter who went through the college application process last year can provide some guidance. We have been doing research on US News, Niche, Unigo and other sources, and there appears to be a disconnect between what different sources say are the chances of a student with a given set of grades and test scores being admitted to specific colleges or universities. I don’t know what source to trust, and given the current environment - COVID lockdowns, students deferring admissions, massive spikes in applications to highly rated schools, colleges moving away from standardized tests, and yes, the general trend for schools to base admissions on immutable characteristics rather than academic record - I don’t know if the old rules apply.
My son has a strong academic record, and he is interested in a STEM field - either Mech E or BioChem. He is pulling a 3.9 GPA UW, and is taking AP Physics, AP BC Calculus and AP Econ as a Junior. His Senior year he is scheduled to take AP Chemistry, AP Biology and AP Statistics. For electives he has focused on STEM classes like Microbiology & Genetics, Computer Programming and Engineering Design. His HS is #4 in the state (MI) and has a strong STEM curriculum. On the SATs he scored 770 math, 750 language and 6/8 essay. He is scheduled to take the ACT in June. Based on parent teacher conferences, he would receive glowing recommendations from almost all of his teachers, including his Physics and Calculus instructors.
His extracurriculars are not as strong as some other applicants, but he has not engaged in resume padding (no, he did not start an alpaca shearing club just so he could put “Club President” on an application.) He is in his third year on his school’s Robotics team (First Robotics is big in SE MI), was Varsity the first year he was eligible, and he leads a mechanical engineering team this year. He has a lot of community service with a local food bank, tutors underclassmen in math, and made NHS his Sophomore and Junior years. He has also helped a local business with product design, website design and survey design.
We started our search by building a matrix of schools based on their ranking by department in US News. We focused on schools that are within a reasonable drive of SE MI, that are strong in Mech E, BioChem and/or BioMedical E. Happily, several Big 10 schools fit the bill, and we live 1.5 hours from UofM (in-state tuition is our friend). We learned later that we were missing some great schools just because they did not offer PhDs and did not pop in our initial US News search. We have since added Rose-Hulman (more on this later). If schools still pay attention to legacies, my wife and I are alumni of Carnegie-Mellon, UIUC, Michigan State, and University of Indiana.
Below is a list of schools, along with a score for “probability of admission” based on US News and Niche “Would I be admitted” and “How do I compare” functions (since Niche allows one to enter a major, I selected “engineering” since it is more selective). A ranking of one is “almost guaranteed admission - safety” and five is “almost guaranteed rejection - reach”. These scores reflect results of Niche and US News, not necessarily what I think intuitively. Here goes nothing:
University of Michigan 2.5
Michigan State 1
University of Pittsburgh 2
Case Western Reserve 2
Wisconsin Madison 1
Carnegie Mellon University 3
I also ran the “match college” function at Unigo, which produced very different - and discouraging - results. According to Unigo, Purdue, UIUC, Rose-Hulman, Case Western, WI-Madison, and Pitt would all be “reach” schools with less than a 50% chance of admission. He would, however, be accepted at MSU. I knew, intuitively, that the US News/Niche results were too optimistic, but Unigo’s results were a surprise.
Based on the Unigo results, reports of applications to quality schools being up 400%, and anecdotes on forums about students with perfect grades, 1600 SATs, AP classes galore, multiple varsity letters, and a couple patents (ok, I’m exaggerating) not getting into very good, but not elite schools (think UIUC not MIT), I am starting to worry. Based on the current environment, I’ve adjusted our application strategy. First, revise expectations downward. Second, don’t assume my son will get into the school that we once considered a safety, and have multiple safeties. Third, increase the number of schools to which he applies. Fourth, apply early to the schools in which he is really interested. And finally, make the effort to show genuine interest - school visits, interviews, etc. - rather than simply use the Common App to litter the countryside with applications.
Back to Rose-Hulman… our son is going there for a HS STEM program this summer where he lives on campus and works on a team project like designing or bridge or building a hovercraft under the supervision of a professor. We are looking at this as an internship where he can see if he wants to attend the school, and they can see if he would be a good fit there. So far, we have been very impressed with RHIT, and if he likes it after this Summer it would become his top choice.
So, I am reaching out to parents with kids who went through the application process under the current crazy conditions to get a feel for what is really happening. Any guidance would be welcome.
Increasingly Worried Dad