Over the years, Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor at College Confidential and former admissions advisor at Smith College, has seen her share of complicated admissions cycles. Still, she's amazed by all the changes facing applicants this year.
Students in the high school class of 2017 are having to navigate a lot of changes this year, said Rubenstone, the co-author of three books including The Panicked Parent's Guide to College Admissions, which can be confusing - especially for parents who previously went through an application cycle with older children.
"Three major changes - the revised SAT, the Coalition Application and the prior-prior year changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)," she said, "are particularly creating confusion, even among admissions insiders."
To help parents and students navigate these changes, as well as other aspects of this year's admissions cycle, Rubenstone shared her insights about what they can expect.
What changes should test takers expect on tests like the ACT, SAT and PSAT?
The big and much talked-about changes are on the SAT that debuted in March 2016 and on the PSAT that came just before that. The good news is that vocabulary used in context has replaced the traditional litany of obscure SAT words. What's toughest to swallow about the new test is that the scoring system is similar but not identical to the old one. So, to see how their results will stack up against past scores, test-takers must turn to cumbersome concordance tables and converter tools. Not only is it time consuming to convert scores, but the scoring method is just close enough to the old scores to be confusing for students and parents. Parents with older children will have to realize that their current senior's seemingly high SAT scores might not get them as many acceptance letters come admission time. Changes to the ACT will be less noticeable. Expect minor tweaks like changes to the way scores are reported and new questions on the reading and math sections.
What is the Coalition Application and what should applicants know about it?
More than 90 public and private universities have teamed up to create the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success with the aim of drawing more underserved students to college. One big change is that the application has a "virtual locker" where students can add things starting in their freshman year that they want colleges to see such as artwork, videos, graded tests and homework. Due to concerns that some schools wouldn't have the technological infrastructure ready to roll out the application, many Coalition members will not use it this year. This has left many students confused because they were preparing for the Coalition Application and are now unsure if the colleges they'll be applying to will be using it. It doesn't help that some schools initially claimed they would be using it and then backed out at the last minute. The important thing to know is that only the University of Florida will be using the Coalition App alone, which means that students will have alternative application options at other schools.
How will the FAFSA changes affect the admissions cycle?
Previously, students applying for financial aid reported tax information on the FAFSA that came from the calendar year that spanned 11th and 12th grades. Many folks rushed to file taxes early to meet FAFSA deadlines and often colleges were selected, and applications submitted, before the FAFSA was due. This made predicting how much a family would actually have to pay difficult.
But now families can use prior-prior year figures on the FAFSA. This means that the taxes filed when Junior was still a junior will be the ones that Uncle Sam and college officials will use to determine aid eligibility. The new FAFSA can also be filed as early as October 1 of senior year rather than January 1, as in the past. So, while this new system may confuse parents with older children who already went through an admissions cycle, ultimately it's a good thing.
Do you expect applications to increase again this year and what can applicants do to ensure that they get into a good school?
Application numbers will continue to climb as high-end candidates fear single-digit acceptance rates at the most selective schools and many students apply to multiple schools hoping to get merit aid somewhere. The best way to ensure acceptance into a good school is to heed the wise words of Admit This! author, Dave Berry, who advises teenagers and their parents to "adjust your thinking." That means recognizing that "good" extends well beyond the Ivies. Students need to create balanced, realistic college lists from the get-go.
What will admissions officers be looking for this year?
As in the past, admission officials are looking for students whose grades and test scores are at or above the institution's median range. But they're also open to applicants who may have spotty grades or so-so test scores if they come from a disadvantaged or unusual background, show unique passion for an academic area or demonstrate atypical success in an extracurricular or a sport. More than ever before, admission committees will want students who want them. As the average number of schools each student applies to continues to go up, admissions officers will likely try to weed out students who won't end up attending. Participating in campus visits, interviews, recruiting events close to home and early decision applications are usually the best ways for students to show colleges that they care.
How important will early decision be this year?
Early decision is a great way to reduce stress by submitting a single application to a top-choice college. An early decision application, which requires a commitment to enroll if accepted, boosts admission odds because admission officials will often take a solid-but-not-stellar sure thing candidate over a stronger regular decision candidate who may not show up in September. One common early decision myth is that students who need financial aid should not apply early decision because they will not be able to compare their financial aid package to other schools. But if a student is accepted via early decision and receives inadequate aid, the student can withdraw from the binding commitment without penalty.
What changes will families see in the sticker price and net price of college next year?
As in the past, this will vary from college to college. Cuts to public education funding are going to raise costs to students and parents in some states. But even when the tuition and room and board figures appear to remain the same, don't overlook fees, which can greatly increase costs. In addition to tuition, colleges charge fees for things like student activities, technology, commencement, building upkeep or staffing the health center. These fees are often increased annually.
Choose the Right Schools to Apply To
Despite the big changes this year, Rubenstone believes that high schoolers shouldn't worry too much since good students will inevitably find a great college to attend. But she does caution that students be careful when choosing where to apply.
"While it's fine to apply to a dream college," she said, "students also need to identify realistic choices that they are truly excited about and then put as much effort into those applications as they do for the reach schools."
This, Rubenstone says, will ensure that they have some great choices to pick from come acceptance time.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.