PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 161 | A High Level Review Of The Current Admissions Landscape

Given that it's the end of the year, I wanted to do a high level review of the current admissions landscape to make sure that you're focused on the right things.


[00:00:25] Hello friends and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast.. I hope you had a restful holiday with family and friends and that you have a fun New Year's Day planned. In today's episode, given that it's the end of the year, I wanted to do a high level review of the current admissions landscape to make sure that you're focused on the right things, because the process has changed quite a bit, especially over the last two years or so. And I want to make sure that you're putting your time, your money, your resources and your energy in the right places. Now, if you're an avid listener to this podcast, some of these things will sound and should sound familiar. And that's by design, because we all need constant reminders of what's going on out there so that we can make course corrections if necessary. One caveat before I get started is that this advice matters more for students targeting selective programs, be they academic, athletic or military, where there is a lot of competition. That's not to say that the advice isn't relevant for students with less ambitious goals. It's just not as important. In other words, if your child is shooting for a top 20 or 30 college or university out of state private liberal arts, or they're considering service academies like West Point or the Naval Academy or for an ROTC scholarship, or they're interested in using athletics to help them get into a high academic college. Then these issues will be very relevant and very important.

[00:01:58] If, on the other hand, your child is tracking to go to a state school or a local community college or a less selective private school, these issues will still be important, but likely won't be the difference between getting accepted and not getting accepted. So the factors that I'm going to address today are number one grades. Number two, S.A.T. and A.C.T.. Number three, AP exams. Number four, extracurricular activities. Number five, writing. Number six, finance. And number seven, demographic priorities. These are the factors that I talk about every single time I have a private consultation with students and their families. We do a deep dove into all of them over and over again because they have become so important. And of course, these are also the hot button issues that I address every week in my online mentoring program called PrepWell Academy, because they need to be repeated over and over again. Let's start with grades. It used to be that grades in combination with the rigor of the classes that you took were the be all and end all of what colleges cared about. Colleges wanted to know about your transcript. Colleges wanted to see how students performed day to day in the classroom over an extended period of time. Grades, GPA, weighted classes, honors and AP classes. These were all a big deal. They would, in fact, set the tone for the rest of the application. Well, times have changed. Yes, grades and transcripts are important, but not as important as they used to be. Why? Well, since COVID hit and many schools around the country shut down for two years, the grading systems were thrown into complete chaos. You may recall that some schools decided not to give grades at all, or they converted classes from grades to pass fail.

[00:04:01] Or they simply gave everyone A's, or they allowed students to take as many tests as they needed to get up to an A. Homework was canceled. Teachers allowed students to do as much extra credit work as they needed to get their grade up to an A. There was no consistent practice among high schools across the country for handling grades. So grades, quote unquote, became a very dubious metric for academic performance. Colleges couldn't tell which A's were real and which A's were part of systemic grade inflation. And although COVID has since passed and schools are back to normal, the grading systems have not necessarily returned to their pre-COVID days. In short, many colleges no longer believe that grades are the best measure of student academic performance. They're important, but they don't hold as much weight as they used to. I talk to students all the time and I can't think of the last time someone didn't have a 4.2 GPA or greater. Now, obviously, I'm talking to a very narrow demographic, but this is the demographic that applies to the most selective schools. Is there really a difference between a 4.2 and a 4.3 and a 4.5? Not really. Not any more. Basically most of the students who will apply to these schools and these programs will get all A's or nearly all A's. And I feel bad for the students who are working extremely hard to get these grades when others are not or they don't have to, because those students aren't getting as much credit as they should. So the bottom line is that grades are still important, but they have become, to some degree, white noise at a lot of these high academic schools. They expect most applicants to have a four point something GPA and they aren't overly impressed.

[00:05:55] So keep working hard in school, but don't overestimate the value of your Straight A record. Grades are still important, but not as much as you think. There needs to be more. And speaking of more, let's move to the S.A.T. and A.C.T.. Because of the widespread adoption of, quote unquote, test optional policies across the country during COVID, where you were no longer required to submit an asset or an HCC score, many people assume that SAT and ACT scores have lost their luster. Colleges must not care about these scores anymore if they're still optional. Otherwise, wouldn't they have reversed the policy by now? Well, except in some very specific cases, no. They have no incentive to reverse this policy. In fact, colleges have grown to love the test optional policy for reasons I don't have time to address here. But just because they love the test optional policy doesn't mean that they don't care about your SAT or A.C.T. score. In fact, many think it's quite the opposite. Many colleges care, maybe more than ever, about A.C.T. scores again. For most demographics, especially in light of how much less credence colleges give to grades, as we just discussed. If colleges can't trust the grades on the transcript to reflect true academic performance and they don't have an SAT or A.C.T. score because it was optional, how can they possibly differentiate the high academic performers from the less high academic performers? Staring at 10,000 applications from students who all have GPAs between 4.1 and 4.6, and no S.A.T. or A.C.T. scores is a colossal waste of time. They have no idea what they're looking at. They have no idea how to separate the wheat from the chaff. And it's extremely frustrating. Everyone gets thrown into the same pool.

[00:07:56] So what happens? Only the students who submit strong SAT or A.C.T. scores will end up separating themselves and everyone else will be left in a pile of questionable. Obviously, if you want to be competitive at these schools, again, depending on your demographic profile, you don't want to be on the pile of questionables. If you're on the pile of questionables, as the admissions officers have to assume that you either one were too lazy to take one of the tests two, you didn't study and got an uncompetitive score or three, you studied really hard but just didn't have the intellectual horsepower to do well on the tests. Is that the brush that you want to be painted with? I don't think so. The bottom line here is if you want to compete at the more selective academic colleges, the S.A.T. and A.C.T. tests are your friends. A strong score on one of these tests may be one of the few opportunities to prove your academic credentials. And while we're on the topic of opportunities to show academic strength, let's discuss exams. Before COVID students who took AP courses would uniformly take AP exams at the end of the year. This was never really a question. If you took AP US history, you would take the AP US history final exam. Your teachers job was to prepare you for that test, and the test indicated your mastery of college level material. That was a given. Now. AP exams have always been optional, even five, ten, 15 years ago. But no one ever decided not to take the AP exam until COVID hit and until the SAT and ACT became optional. That's when students caught wind that taking AP exams was not necessarily a requirement for the class. It wasn't a requirement for colleges either.

[00:09:58] It was more of an expectation. Well, with the push toward optional testing, many students have decided not to take the AP exams at the end of the year. After all, if colleges don't require AP exam results, why should I bother? Well, you should bother because it is one of the very, very few objective academic measures, along with the fact that will show colleges how well you can perform compared to other students around the country. AP Exam scores represent a rare opportunity for you to prove to the admissions officers that you have mastered college level material and that you're competitive among your peer group across the country. Does anybody out there remember what used to be called SAT subject tests? Probably not, because they've been discontinued as of a few years ago. These were a series of 60 minute exams in about 20 different subjects that allowed students to show their mastery of high school material. Students who wanted to compete at the selective colleges would take as many of these SAT subject tests as possible to build their case for their academic horsepower. Well, that opportunity was taken away from students when they discontinued SAT subject tests. Again, I'm not going to discuss the why of that right now. And shall I remind you that the once mandatory essay section of the SAT has also since been eliminated, taking away yet another opportunity for students to differentiate themselves. The college admissions process appears to be doing its very best to eliminate as many objective academic measures as possible. Why are they doing this? Well, once again, I certainly don't have time to address this question today. There are some pretty obvious answers, but it would take too long to get into right now. Suffice it to say that if your child wants to be in the conversation at the more highly selective colleges, they should do their best to secure a competitive SAT and score, as well as fourth and fives on as many AP exams as possible.

[00:12:14] Okay, let's move on from the objective academic measures to something more nuanced, and that would be essays or extracurricular activities. I could talk about ECAS for hours and hours and hours at a time. But for our purposes today I want to touch on the highlights. Essays are what your child does outside the classroom. They are things like sports, music, student government, theater, hobbies, jobs, internships, and the like. I like to say that your easy profile tells the admissions officers a story about what your child cares about and has cared about and where they've chosen to spend their time, their money and their energy. So for students who aspire to be competitive at selective colleges, it would behoove them if their ESEA list had a direction or a pattern or an overarching theme, how do all of their activities tie together? Where have their interests led them? Does their extracurricular history align well with their intended major, for example? The more coherent and aligned and directed, the better. Now, is this always possible? No. In fact, it's pretty challenging to build a three year body of work that all comes together into a nice, tight, well-thought out presentation. This is probably where PrepWell Academy helps students and families the most, because in my private consultations and in my online mentoring program, I discussed this topic at length to students and families in ninth and 10th grade. Because waiting until the middle of 11th grade or the end of 11th grade, as most students do to think about their extracurricular body of work and how it's holding together is often too late. If there is no forethought to the clubs and sports and volunteer work and summer experiences that a student gets involved in over time, and they just go with the flow during ninth and 10th and most of 11th grade, it's likely that their extracurricular activity is sporadic and unrelated and random.

[00:14:20] This can be an issue for students looking to compete at the more selective schools. This is a rich topic with a lot of room for discussion and strategy and planning. If you have a child who may want to target these types of schools or competitive programs or scholarships, I strongly suggest that you think about their long term plan ahead of time. Enroll them in prep academies online program starting in ninth or 10th grade so they're aware of how this will play out over time. Spend some time with me in a one on one session so we can brainstorm ideas to get them on the right track. Do something, do anything other than ignoring this very important facet of the application. Because remember, even if your child gets excellent grades and gets a strong SAT score and for that matter, fours and fives on their AP exams, there will be many other students who have done the same thing. And so the extracurricular activity list will be the next best place to differentiate themselves. Let's move on to writing ability. I've harped on this quite a bit over the last few months, particularly in episode 159 titled Can Your Child Write A Coherent Sentence? So I'm not going to dwell on it here. In short, I've seen a market decline in students writing ability over the last two or three years. In some cases, it's pretty scary. I've received college essay drafts from students that I begin to edit that are 95% unusable. And by that I mean there are only a few sentences in a one and a quarter page essay that could stand on their own with no corrections. The rest of the sentences are incoherent or run ons or fragments often riddled with grammatical errors.

[00:16:10] Misspellings. Subject verb disagreements and random parenthetical inserted all over the place. If this is news to you, please listen to Episode 159 for a full rundown of what I've been seeing of late. Suffice it to say, that writing ability, and in particular college essays are yet another area where your child can separate themselves from the crowd. Great writing can very easily be the deciding factor from a sea of students with similar GPAs and SAT scores and extracurriculars. Unfortunately, there's no quick fix for this. It's difficult to turn a rising senior whose writing skills are lacking into a strong writer in a matter of a few months before their applications are due. So this is one of those things that needs to be addressed early in the process. Another reason why I start my online program in ninth grade, because if students and families don't recognize gaps like this early enough, the window will close quickly and you'll be out of luck. And lastly, one of the best ways to predict whether a student will be a good writer or not is if they are an avid reader or not. So if you have a son, for example, who has a list of 200 things that they'd rather do than pick up a book and read, like swiping on Tik Tok or playing video games, you should brace yourself for what type of writer they will become in a few years. Now I'd like to switch topics for a quick second away from the applications themselves to address the issue of financing college education. And if you're interested in a deeper dove into this topic, I suggest listening to Episode 73 The Financial Tipping Point. If you haven't yet looked into the cost of college, here's the reality check.

[00:17:57] Generally speaking, because there are always exceptions for your average family, the cost of college education comes in three flavors reasonable. Absurd. And unthinkable in the reasonable category. A community college, local, junior college, or some state schools may cost between zero and $10,000 a year. Then, as we move up the chain to the absurd category, we will find selective in-state colleges and universities that ring up at close to $50,000 a year. And then we ratchet up to the rarefied air of Ivy League schools and most other selective private out of state liberal arts colleges. And we're in the 90 to $100000 a year category. In case you missed that, let me repeat it. The cost of a college education in the next few years will fall into roughly three categories. $10,000 a year. $50,000 a year. Or wait for it $100,000 a year. And there's very little in between these buckets. Let that sink in. Now, of course, these costs assume no need based financial aid, no merit aid, and no athletic scholarships, just the sticker price. So, yes, there will be exceptions. But don't let your perceptions of the cost of college or what you've heard from your neighbor or seen on Facebook or talked about in the break room, be clouded by these exceptions because who knows if you'll be the beneficiary of one of these exceptions. The biggest exception comes in the form of need based financial aid, and that may be realized if your family makes less than, say, $180,000 a year in W2 current income. If that's the case and you're looking at schools with extremely generous need based financial aid packages, then the tuition, room and board numbers may get a little bit less scary. However, if your family makes more than 100 and 5070, $580,000 a year in W2 current income chances are these full freight costs will be pretty close to reality.

[00:20:09] And I want to stop here because there are so many particulars that drive these numbers and these issues. It does get hard to generalize. But the bottom line is this. Understand what lies ahead. Be aware that college prices have gone through the roof. And if you make decent money, there's really no where to hide. Now there are ways to get around this issue of cost applying to service academies, which are free, applying for ROTC scholarships, which pay the lion's share of the cost of college, getting a legitimate athletic scholarship, which often pay for all four years of college. But these scenarios are rare, and they need to be prepared for well in advance. These are not options that you decide you want to pursue the summer before your senior year. It takes planning and preparation and knowledge and strategy. And lastly, demographic priorities, also known as institutional priorities when it comes to getting into highly selective colleges. The factors we discussed earlier do play a big role. GPA, AP scores, extracurriculars, intended majors, college essays, writing ability. However, being in a favored demographic class can often trump any and all of these factors. What do I mean by that? These days, colleges and universities are under extreme pressure to meet certain institutional or demographic priorities dictated by their administrations. These priorities include admitting students from very specific communities or backgrounds. They include LGBTQ plus first gen college students. That is students whose parents did not attend college. People of color. Underrepresented minorities. Those with nontraditional sexual identities. Children of faculty members. Heads of state. Politicians. Celebrities. Children of big donors. Recruited athletes. ROTC candidates. And other subgroups. So if your child falls into one of these favored categories or multiple favorite categories, their chances of being admitted may go up sometimes significantly.

[00:22:17] Despite having less competitive applications. Otherwise, if, on the other hand, they are in a disfavored demographic group, a low priority group, their chances of admissions get even dimmer. So in order to manage your child's expectations, you may want to size them up early. Think about whether they are in a favored or disfavored demographic and consider how this might impact their chances of admission to the most selective colleges and universities if they're in a disfavored demographic. I hate to say it, but there's very little room for error. So if they're dead set on being competitive at the highest levels, I certainly encourage them to enroll in PrepWell Academy as early as possible. Engage with someone like me early on to help you set the table and to be very strategic about their high school careers, because it's only going to get worse in the years ahead. Well, that about wraps up my end of year list of important things to remember about college admissions. I hope you learned a few things or that I re-emphasize things that you had forgotten about or brought your attention to something that you'd been wondering about. If your child is not yet enrolled in PrepWell Academy and they're in ninth or 10th grade, please sign them up. They and you will learn about all these things and more on a weekly basis instead of in all, one big sitting. If you're interested in a one on one private consulting session with me for any reason at all, and they run the gamut, please reach out to me and we'll make it happen. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for the continued support and happy new year. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

[00:24:08] Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in prep academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman and sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or a sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind. Go to and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this episode helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating if you get a chance. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a wider audience. Of course, if you have questions, comments or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email, DM or Instagram. Check out our blog Facebook page. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week. Goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing. This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your ninth or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact. Or I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game to get these valuable lessons into your child's hands. Please head over to and enroll your child today.

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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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