Key Strategies When Building Your College List, Part 2

In this episode of TUN TV, Dr. Crystal Rose interviews April Paris-Joseph, founder of Paris Educational Solutions,  about the key strategies when building your college list.

Dr. Rose: Welcome to The University Network TV where we scan the globe to give students, their families, and educators the best tips for student success. I’m your host today, Dr. Crystal Rose, and in this college admissions video, we’re exploring the college admissions series entitled “Defining Your Fit and Strategizing Your List, Part 2.” 

Last time, we talked about three different fits that we’re looking for. We’re looking for a good fit socially, a good fit academically and a good fit financially. But there’s some other factors to consider and that’s what we’ll do today. We’ve invited back our very special guest, April Paris- Joseph of Paris Educational Solutions. She has the advice you want to hear.

Welcome back. April.

Paris-Joseph: Hi. Thanks for having me, Crystal.

Dr. Rose: How many schools do you recommend students apply to? 

Paris-Joseph: I find that a sweet spot is between 10 and 12 these days. I’ll be honest, I missed the days when I was growing up and it was 3-5. That was really lovely, but things have become more unpredictable so we do have to grow the list. So, 10-12 for me is a sweet spot. 

You hear about students applying to 21 and 25 schools and I always have to ask, “Why? What work did you not do up front to create this list that the student had to do 25 sets of supplemental essays?” I mean, honestly, I just feel like it’s unnecessary, and it’s a lot of stress on a young person to have to do that. 

So, that’s kind of my sweet spot. I do tell even my most high-achieving students with their high-end goals – it’s what I’ll call them – I have this analogy. And I actually just was talking to a lovely young lady today with a 4.0, 5 AP classes as a junior and taken APs earlier, who’s just in her list of extracurriculars. Oh, my gosh, I did say to her. I said, “Listen, if you went to your doctor’s office and you’re really sick, and your doctor said to you, ‘Hey, I’ve got this medication for you. It’s got a 97 percent fail rate, but it’s a really good medication, so you should just try this one. And if this doesn’t work, I’ve got 10 more medications for you with a 97 percent fail rate each. But we’re just going to go through and try all of them and we’re going to hope something sticks.’ ” 

And she just had this look of horror on her face and I said, “Well, that’s what it looks like when a student applies to eight Ivies, Stanford and MIT. That’s what you’re saying because 97 percent of the kids who apply to those schools are going to get turned down.” So, you need to just think pragmatically about what is going to be a successful application.

Students should have the right to be on the hunt based on what they’ve done – two or three of their 10-12 schools, but not eight. And not 10 of their 10-12 schools. It really needs to be more balanced and more focused on places where we strongly believe you should get in – we never know for sure, but we have all indications to say, “Yeah, this should work out and we have reason to believe it will.” Not a 97 percent chance that it won’t.

Dr. Rose: Wow. That really is eye-opening. With test-optional environments, more students are applying, more students are being rejected, or let’s say the admission rates are falling. What does an ideal list look like? 

Paris-Joseph: I come at it a little bit differently. I actually have four categories that I give my students. And I do it this way because in the new normal of college admissions, I feel like we’re all gambling a little bit. So, since we’re going to play poker, let’s play poker. You can have a safe bet, good odds, a lottery or a wild card. 

As we all know, you have one or two wild cards in the deck. For me, most students shouldn’t be applying for a wild card. Most of the time. If it’s a single-digit acceptance rate – I don’t care what your profile is – this is a wild card, and so we have to ask a lot of questions about why we’re doing this application and what is the probability that you would get into this school. 

Then, there are the lottery schools – 2-3 lotteries for most kids. A lottery is for me, “Yes, your application is qualified for this institution. You look like a good candidate, but the acceptance rate is 25, 20 percent.” And the thing that families and students need to realize is that 80-90 percent of the students applying have every right to believe they’re on the hunt to get into this institution. So, when you get declined, it really isn’t saying anything about you. It’s just saying more about what the school is looking for this year, and we can never know on our side of the desk. So again, those are lotteries. 

Let’s say, we took two wild cards and then we took two or three lotteries. Now, we’re up to five schools. Everything else is going to be good odds to safe bets. I want at least 2-3 safe bets in there. Now, we’re up to eight schools, and then we add 2-3 of the good odds to make sure that we can feel confident that the student is going to have a place to go and be happy.

Dr. Rose: Okay. I like this. So, you said two wild cards, two lotteries, 2-3 safe bets and then looking about the same for the good odds. Let’s talk about a situation for those middle-income families that are looking to send their kids to really good colleges that many colleges think they can afford, but perhaps they can’t. What should these parents do?

Paris-Joseph: It’s really tough because what happens is you do this FAFSA and then you get this number and they tell you this is what you can afford. I mean, I’ll be frank, what I tell my families when I send them to do this is, “Okay, mom and dad, make sure you have a drink in hand. And if you don’t drink, find something else because you’re not going to like what you get.” 

Last year, I actually had a mom call me and she said, “Well they didn’t give us the number. They gave us this code.” “So you got a code?” And she said, “Yeah. The code was 88965.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a number.” And she just started coughing and gagging. So, this is the problem. When colleges say they meet full need, they meet what they believe to be your need, which may or may not match with what your family has allocated. 

That’s why the financial conversation is so important up front and research and understanding can help you find the gap. A family has to go on and do that net price calculator, the NPC, for every school that they’re looking at. So that they really have a true sense of, “This is what the school says, ‘I’m going to have to pay.’ ” And how do you feel about that number? Does that number work for you? Do you have more children? And if this number works for you now, is it going to work down the line? Because, I promise you, the younger ones are watching and they see what you are willing to do for the first part and they’re expecting the same kind of support. So, families really have to do the math.

What I advise a lot of my family is in the middle. Whether they’re especially super-strong students that maybe have the right to think they can get into an Amherst or Columbia – or name the good school – I’m putting that in quotes because there’s over 3, 000 schools in this country. Many of them which you’ve never heard of are actually very, very good. But I tell those families, “You know, we can look for merit aid. There are lots of great schools where they are going to give merit aid to the students who have achieved at that level, and it really makes things more affordable.”

Jeff Selingo has a great book about this, and he has a whole concept of buyers and sellers. And having the student really look at what the school is looking for. Are they looking for me? Are they willing – it’s not real money – but are they willing to discount this ticket price for my family?

Dr. Rose: That is a really great topic to get into because when we talk about the rest of the colleges, not just the one percent but the 99 percent of colleges, a lot of that merit aid is really designed and decided upon not by the admissions counselor or from the financial aid director but from the enrollment manager. Now, should the stats or the school admissions really play a role in choosing which schools are a good fit?

Paris-Joseph: That’s a yes-no answer. So, yes. I think it has a role. But, no, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It really requires a dive down into the students and it’s more for the student. It’s actually more than just the profile everyone thinks about. It’s more than just the grades and the testing. It’s also the extracurriculars. You’ve got to look at the mission of this school. Do the student’s extracurriculars suit the mission of the school? 

A Jesuit school – any Jesuit school – has such a mission for service. Can this student really speak to their heart for service? What have they done to show service and to say that this is who they want to be and why they’re going there? If you have a school that has a pharmacy program, what have you done to show that you are a good candidate for this direct entry to the pharmacy program, for example? 

There are these nuances that have to be played into. I just recently – and this is tangential to your question, but I hope it illustrates the point – I recently pulled average high school GPA out of all of my students’ fields. They have a portal where they all share, and I just took that field away from everyone. And I did it on the call of one of them who kept referencing the high school GPA. I was like, “What are you doing? That data point, you have to understand it.” 

So, a 3.7 for a student who’s taking no honors classes and is in trigonometry as a senior is not the 3.7 for a student who’s taking four APS and is taking multivariable calculus. There’s a different 3.7. So, what happens is families, for good reason, want data that they can hold on to understand what’s happening and to predict. But it’s so much more nuanced than that.

Hope I answered your question. 

Dr. Rose: You absolutely have. It is nuanced, but we appreciate you sharing those distinctions today – these key strategies and recommendations to find your college fit and build your list of colleges for your application. Thank you so much for joining us, April.

Paris-Joseph: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Rose: Thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The University Network’s television show. I’m your host, Dr. Crystal Rose. Until next time on TUN TV.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

For more exclusive interviews with experts who share their insight to help students succeed, check TUN TV!


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