How To Get Into College In Today’s Uber-Competitive World

Peter Ratzan is a long-time South Floridian and the owner of College Funding Specialists, Inc.

In case you didn’t hear, 2011 was officially the ‘Most Difficult Year for College Applicants Ever’. I can assure you that a) this is true ‘statistically’ (nearly every school saw an uptick in the sheer number of applicants. And even those that didn’t , admitted fewer students as a percentage of applicants than they did last year.); and b) anecdotally, it feels to many like it is disproportionately affecting professional, responsible, ‘middle class’ Americans.

The results shouldn’t surprise – especially as more and more schools have begun accepting the Common Application. This past Fall, more than 2 million online applications were filed – about 20% more than last year. Other drivers of ‘application inflation’ and the decline in the ‘admit rate’ include supply & demand – the largest number of high school students applying to college ever, vying for the same slots at socalled ‘hot’ schools (thank you US News & World Reports); cold winters that made Southern schools like Vanderbilt more geographically desirable than ever; fatigue (of the admissions officers reading more applications than ever), and state schools that intentionally accepted more out-of-state students to raise their average net revenue. There are more reasons, obviously, but I want to spend some time telling you what to do about it.

What I have seen is, that despite technology or perhaps because of it, college admissions — which includes not just who gets in, but what price you’ll pay (list v net) –is a very ‘personal’ process, managed by real people who are moved by emotion and subtleties that are not reflected in scores, GPA or class rank. What separates two seemingly identical students on paper are intangibles like the student’s demonstrated interest in a school, expressed career aspirations, potential contributions on campus, their ability to move the needle on the school’s competitiveness, etc.

So, in a crowded field – as this year will most definitely be – the importance of niche positioning cannot be underestimated. What I mean is that instead of defensively submitting more applications to ‘cover your bases’, even if technology makes it enticing to do so, it’s far more efficient to build a targeted list of 8-10 schools that you know in advance will consider your demonstrated financial need, find value in your student (be it academically, socially or even geographically), and meet your student’s academic, social and aspirational desires… and then focus your family’s energies on demonstrating those things to those schools.

The irony is that while there is now more information available than ever – including various school rankings, net cost calculators, ROI estimates, etc., the process is becoming more daunting and confusing than ever. The best advice I can offer is to go for depth over breadth, look beyond the obvious to identify great schools where you’ll be able to leverage your student’s strengths, and to have an integrated admissions strategy that is driven by both the scholarly and the financial, preferably by the time your student is in 11th grade.

Peter Ratzan is a long-time South Floridian and the owner of College Funding Specialists, Inc. A former teacher and counselor, and a certified college funding advisor, Peter publishes a college planning blog— — with free advice and resources for families trying to navigate the complex college admissions and funding process. He will be conducting a free community workshop on Effective College Strategies for the ‘Forgotten’ Middle Class at the Pinecrest Community Center on June 23rd. For more information or to register, visit

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