Seven Last-Minute Ways to Boost College Admission Chances

on November 2, 2017

It’s crunch time for high school seniors across the country who are submitting their college applications.


If you’re knee deep in applications, here are some last-minute ways to boost your admission chances.


1. Take full advantage of each application essay


You should use each application to reveal something new and important about yourself at every opportunity. There is not enough room in an application to be repetitive.


Treat all optional application essay prompts as though they are required. Submitting optional essays suggests that you are interested in an institution, which can boost your chances.


Colleges, which are worried about their yield rates, only want to accept qualified students who are likely to enroll.


Optional essays can signal to a college that you actually want to attend. A common essay prompt is a variation of this: Why are you interested in attending this college?


“While it is a relatively generic and rather dull question, students should not be lulled into delivering an equally generic and dull answer,” advised Andrew Belasco, a college consultant in Georgia and the author of The Enlightened College Applicant. “They should refrain from offering superlatives without specific evidence to back up their praise.”


In answering the Why this college? question, include reasons that show that you actually have researched the college.


2. Decide if you should go the test-optional route


The number of colleges that don’t require applicants to submit test scores continues to grow. These institutions typically allow students to skip submitting test scores and rely on their other qualifications such as grade point averages, rigorous coursework and class rank.


Going the test-optional route can boost admission chances for students with a strong GPA, but a weak ACT or SAT test score compared to a college’s applicant pool. For some teenagers, it will be obvious whether to withhold their scores, but for others the decision could seem like a toss-up.


One way to resolve the issue of whether to submit test scores is to contact the university and ask. If available, contact a college’s admission rep for your region.


You can also use Cappex’s “What Are My Chances?” feature to compare your GPA and test scores with an accepted student pool.


3. Decide if you should take last-minute SAT Subject tests


Only four institutions require SAT subject tests from all of their applicants (CalTech, Harvey Mudd, MIT and Web Institute).


That, however, doesn’t leave you off the hook. There are plenty of elite institutions that still recommend them or appear to do so.


The more competitive the applicant pool, the more likely that you should submit subject test scores. (AP test scores also help, if they are at least a 4 or 5.)


Your last chance to take SAT Subject tests is on December 2. You can check out what tests are available on that date and register here.


Learn more about SAT Subject Tests by reading:


10 Things You Need to Know About SAT Subject Tests


4. Think twice about being a stealth applicant


A stealth applicant is the nickname for applications that colleges receive from teenagers that they are completely unaware of. Many colleges don’t like being surprised by applicants not in their system.


In fact, for some colleges, not showing interest before you send your application is a deal breaker.


Rhodes College, for instance, is one of the institutions that takes demonstrated interest quite seriously. When applicants have had no contact with the Memphis college before submitting their applications, they are routinely wait listed or deferred.


If a college values demonstrated interest, make sure the institution knows you exist before sending in your application.


You can learn how you can express interest by reading this article:


Demonstrated Interest Can Help You Get Into College


5. Don’t blow the interview


If you’ve arranged an interview with an admission representative or an alum, be careful how you frame the conversation.


“Too often when I interview students for my alma mater, they talk about what the college will do for them, but not about what they will do for the college,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 


This should help you get into the right frame of mind — think of a college interview as a job interview. Why should the college want to admit you?


6. Decide if you’re going to apply early 


If you apply early, you are more likely to land a spot at your dream college.


Colleges often favor students who apply early decision because these applicants promise to attend if they are accepted. And that’s true even if a financial aid package is not adequate.


Here are some examples of how early-decision applications can boost admissions:



Acceptance Rate

(Early Admission)

Acceptance Rate

(Regular Admission)

American University



Skidmore College



College of the Holy Cross



Connecticut College



Oberlin College



Davidson College



University of Pennsylvania




If you can afford to take this risk, it’s important to check acceptance figures before applying because this strategy is hardly foolproof.


For instance, I exchanged emails with a mom this week whose daughter was contemplating applying early decision to Bennington College in Vermont. The mother, however, was worried that with an ED application the family would be locked into the college with a price tag of $72,000 even if their financial aid package fell short.


Students who applied ED to Bennington had an acceptance rate of 65 percent, but it wasn’t considerably more than applying regular decision (60 percent). For a family worried about finances, it didn’t seem like the ED advantage was worth taking a risk on.


I pointed out another option for the family. Bennington also offers Early Action, which doesn’t require a commitment to attend. The EA acceptance rate was the highest at 67 percent.


That option seemed like a no brainer because the acceptance rate was not only higher, but it would allow the family to compare different financial aid offers.


Keep in mind that the higher acceptance rates for early admissions students might be because of a higher quality early application pool, as opposed to any real admissions advantage.


7. Consider throwing a wider net  


Too many students think they are a shoe-in for an elite college based on their grades and test scores. But, once you have an academic performance that is good enough, great grades and test scores will not make much of a difference in admission odds.


Seriously evaluate your chances at the most competitive colleges. A cookie cutter application with two sports, two musical instruments, two volunteer activities, two hobbies and two clubs is boring unless you've had a lot of depth or demonstrated excellence. Colleges are now looking for students who are or will change the world, make a difference and who demonstrate initiative. 


What you don’t want to do is limit yourself to the most elite institutions and then get shut out. Or be left with unacceptable choices.


Consider adding some last-minute colleges to your list to provide you with more ultimate choices.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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