The Fight Against the US Admissions Rat Race

Other than the already sky-high and still increasing tuition, another concern I had about sending my own kids to universities in the US was the high-stress admissions process. I believe that high school should be used to explore interests and find out what really speaks to you. Instead, college-bound students in the US are often pressured to spend high school performing and producing in order to look good to colleges. The film, Race to Nowhere, spoke to the incredible pressure put on high schoolers these days, many of whom are encouraged to take as many AP classes as they possibly can, resulting in 6 hours of homework a night in addition to the clubs and sports they participate in. Speaking of clubs and sports, instead of exploring different clubs, sport and activities in an attempt to find their passion, students are encouraged to “demonstrate depth of involvement in extracurriculars as opposed to breadth” 

Are acceptance rates important?

The reasons for these pressures are real. It’s no longer just the elite Ivy league that have the incredibly low acceptance rates. The list of the 100 schools with the lowest acceptance rates from US News had a number of surprises.  Schools I hadn’t even heard of were on the list, like College of the Ozarks (MO) and Alice Lloyd College (KY). Both of these schools had an acceptance rate of less than 9%, which was lower than Brown, University of Chicago and CalTech. I was also surprised by the number of state schools on the list including a number of CUNY schools, USC (18%) and UCLA (18.6%). Race to Nowhere noted that the college admissions process is like “going through the eye of a needle”.

The challenge with SATs and ACTs.

There are all these other admissions based stress enhancers like prep courses for the ACT and SAT and the Naviance scattergrams that compare a student’s grades and test scores to past applicants to help determine their chances of admissions. Really though, we’ve all heard stories that point to the seemingly arbitrary nature of college admissions and point to the crap shoot it has become. Frank Bruni put it well in his book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, “The admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit”. And yet so many of us do…


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College admissions filters out great students.

My son would not be a good player in the game of college admissions. He has good grades, but nothing else that would really stand out on applications. He’s works out, but he’s not an athlete. He’s more of an introvert so doesn’t enjoy clubs and such. He’s interested in international relations, knows more about the specifics of the issues in the Middle East than most people I know, and is an avid reader. While those are qualities that I personally value and think are important indicators of college readiness, they don’t look good on a college application. Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that the admissions systems in Europe are different.

European colleges are different.

The first thing to recognize is that, in Europe, the schools don’t use admissions rates as an indicator of, well, anything. The reputation of the school is not generally linked to how selective it is. Let me tell you about this incredible process used at many schools that is so different from the processes here in the states, that many people have trouble understanding it. It’s called “non-selective admissions”. At many universities, there are a set of criteria that international students must have to apply. This might be a certain ACT/SAT score, a set GPA, a certain number of AP courses, or as little as a high school diploma that would qualify them for higher education in their own country.  Students who meet these criteria are accepted. Period. It doesn’t matter if they have a higher GPA than the one required, more AP courses, etc. They aren’t being compared to the other applicants, rather they are being assessed to see if they have the qualifications needed to enter the program. Highly ranked universities, such as the research universities in the Netherlands, use non-selective admissions.

Rolling admissions are a gift.

Even schools that use selective admissions will seem like a walk in the park compared to the US. First of all, these programs often use rolling admissions so if you meet the qualifications and you apply when there are still spots in the program, you will be accepted in short order. Again, rolling admissions means that applicants aren’t being compared to the other applicants as much as they are being assessed based on their own qualifications. Motivation letters are usually used instead of essay prompts. As opposed to using the letter to sell yourself or answer some strange/creative questions like in the US essay prompts, the Motivation Letter is used to assess whether you and the program would be a good fit. Admissions counselors want to learn through the letter (and sometimes through a Skype interview) not only what you bring to the table, but why you think the program at their university would best suit your own needs and future goals.

Which European college should I choose?

Finding a “best fit” school is a crucial aspect of the selection process. College in Europe will not be right for everyone. The academic and social life is quite different than that in the US and students need to be comfortable with an experience unlike the one their peers from home will have. That said, with over 11,000 English-taught bachelor’s and master’s programs to choose from, it’s likely several will appeal to students who are interested in avoiding the US admissions rat race, saving thousands of dollars, and spending 3-4 years exploring Europe. Beyond the States can help you find the school that is your Best Fit and get you started on your way to an adventure in Europe.

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