Book review: From Home Education to Higher Education

From Home Education to Higher Education: A Guide for Recruiting, Assessing, and Supporting Homeschooled Applicants

by Lori Dunlap
(GHF Press, 2017)

Buy from an independent bookseller or Amazon.


By all accounts, homeschoolers tend to show up on campus as self-directed, self-motivated learners
who have a sense of ownership and personal responsibility for their learning and their lives.

—Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap’s enlightening and important new book is clearly aimed at two distinct but related audiences: (a) college admissions officers who want to better understand homeschooled applicants and (b) homeschooling families who want to be well prepared and positioned for college admissions. I would suggest that there are at least two more audiences that could benefit from reading this book: (c) families of students who have attended small, alternative (and perhaps unaccredited) private schools that do not produce conventional transcripts and (d) guidance counselors and administrators who work at those same alternative schools and want to help their decidedly nontraditional students find success in the traditional college admissions system.


Dunlap is an education and career adviser at Teach Your Own near Portland, Oregon. She has served as a career development program director, adjunct faculty member, and admissions committee member at Arizona State University. The book is informed by her professional experience in admissions; her personal background as a homeschooling parent; her analysis of multiple scholarly studies of homeschooled and unschooled students’ outcomes as college applicants, students, and graduates; and her own research, including recent surveys she conducted of both college admissions officers and homeschooling families.

Published last summer, the book begins with a straight-talking overview of contemporary homeschooling and homeschoolers. The author explains that there are as many approaches to homeschooling as there are homeschoolers, and she describes a continuum, from highly structured (also known as “school at home”) to unstructured (best known as “unschooling”), with most practitioners falling somewhere in the middle as “eclectic” homeschoolers.

Dunlap goes on to examine and debunk the most common misconceptions about homeschoolers:

  • Homeschooled children are unsocialized.
  • Homeschoolers are religious.
  • Only wealthy families can homeschool.
  • Parents cannot teach better than licensed teachers.

She also discusses the most obvious reasons for, as well as some likely underlying causes of, the rapid growth of secular (nonreligious) homeschooling in the United States. Paramount among these is dissatisfaction with the quality (and, with the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, the quantity) of meaningful learning experiences in public schools.

One category where homeschoolers tended to outperform their [college] peers
from other schooling backgrounds was campus leadership—homeschoolers were
significantly more involved in leadership positions for longer periods of time.

—Kunzman & Gaither 2013, “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research”
(quoted in Dunlap)

The book distills the findings of numerous studies that show homeschoolers to be just as successful in college “across all measures of success” as their conventionally schooled peers—and in some measures, such as leadership, even more so. This data is echoed in survey responses from admissions officers and administrators at colleges and universities small and large, public and private, including Ivy League and other highly selective schools.

These kids are the epitome of Brown students. They’ve learned to be self-directed,
they take risks, they face challenges with total fervor, and they don’t back off.

—Joyce Reed, Associate Dean, Brown University

Dunlap presents a set of “Common and Best Practices” derived from a series of interviews the author conducted with admissions professionals at a wide variety of colleges and universities in 2016. One of these recommended practices is the portfolio submission option, which is gaining in popularity for all types of students because it allows them to present a more robust picture of their abilities and accomplishments than the cold, hard numbers of test scores and GPAs.

The final chapter turns those best practices into actionable recommendations for admissions professionals. Dunlap’s suggestions include expanding admissions websites to include specific (and welcoming) instructions for homeschooled applicants, thoroughly educating admissions staff about the college’s policies and procedures for homeschoolers, designating a staff homeschool specialist, providing an online transcript template, and many more good ideas. The book’s appendices provide more details about Dunlap’s survey process and lists of helpful resources for both college admissions staff and college-bound homeschoolers and their families.

A personal note: This book couldn’t have landed on my desk at a better time for my family. As a parent of an alt-schooled senior in the thick of college applications, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to soak up Lori Dunlap’s insights. As an educational consultant, I look forward to displaying From Home Education to Higher Education prominently on my office bookshelf and recommending it to my clients.

Teri Sperry

College admissions for alternative schooled, homeschooled, and unschooled applicants (Part 2)

Guest contributor Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome and a highly experienced college admissions consultant, returns to the blog today with Part 2 of his extensive guide to college admissions for unconventionally educated students. You can learn more about Antonio and read Part 1 of this essay here.

Four-year Colleges vs. Community Colleges

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

Community colleges are a fabulous higher education alternative for both traditional and non-traditional applicants who are concerned about the costs of college or the distance from home, or who may not be able to gain immediate access to more selective universities. Unfortunately, many people (especially in more affluent communities [and charter school networks]) seem to look down on community colleges as an option because they do not carry with them an air of exclusivity. However, while many applicants and parents may find themselves on the outside looking in after the college admissions season, for many top state universities, community college is an excellent end-around into school, with many offering automatic admission based on GPA.[2] Community colleges have particular leverage among many elite public universities, such as Berkeley and UCLA, where upwards of 20 percent of the undergraduates come from community colleges. Although the percentage of community college transfers at the University of Texas at Austin is lower than at the California schools, over 40 percent of transfer students into UT-Austin come from community colleges.[3]

When to Apply

Sooner is always better than later in the admissions game. While some recommend holding off until Regular Decision (historically January 1st or 15th) so that applicants can build up their bona fides, it is extremely rare for someone to add anything to their application in a couple of extra months that will seriously move the admissions committee. The cost of delaying until Regular Decision is missing out on the opportunity to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted Early Action. And the chances of admission at most schools are substantially higher for those who apply early rather than later.

Many counselors and consultants also advise applicants with financial need to apply Regular Decision because they believe that applying early locks them into a school with no opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This is also a misplaced argument. First, those with the most financial need are most likely to benefit from the free room, board, and tuition that is offered by the most selective colleges with the most generous financial aid (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford). Second, all schools allow their applicants out of a binding admission if they can demonstrate that they cannot afford to attend. Third, many schools are need blind during early admissions, but become need aware later in the admissions process, meaning those with need are even more disadvantaged by waiting to apply.

It is also worth noting that many applicants can have multiple bites of the early admissions apple. Early Decision (ED) limits applicants to applying to only one school, and they must enroll if accepted (or forgo college altogether unless they can be released from their commitment due to financial or other exigent circumstances). Some of the more exclusive universities that have ED include Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as some of the most exclusive liberal arts colleges, such as Amherst and Williams. However, some schools also have an Early Decision Round 2, which allows people who fail to earn admission to their first-choice ED school to apply to another ED school. Although this is no longer an “early” admission, it is binding. More exclusive schools with an ED Round 2 include NYU, Pomona, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wellesley.

Instead of Early Decision, applicants can choose to apply Early Action (EA), which does not bind them to the school should they gain admission. This allows them to apply with an increased likelihood of admission (although not as much of an advantage as ED) without taking away other potential college options. Some of the more selective schools with an EA round include CalTech, Chicago, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Finally, a small number of schools offer Restrictive Early Action (REA), where applicants can apply early and get a non-binding response but can only apply to one school early. This means that they can apply to either a bunch of EA schools, or one REA school, but not a mixture of the two. The four most selective universities in the country happen to offer REA: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Crafting a Story

Another tremendous advantage of applying as a non-traditional applicant is that it is remarkably easy to come across as interesting, accomplished, and intellectually curious to the admissions committee. Most conventionally schooled students simply do not have time to be interesting, accomplished, or intellectually curious. They are stuck in required classes in school for 5 to 7 hours per day for 180 days per year for 13 years of their lives, in addition to all of the hours they spend on expected extracurricular activities and sports, required service hours, and the many more hours of homework and studying needed to finish at the top of their class. There is a reason why most high achievers are perpetually exhausted: there is not sufficient time to sleep, especially for those who come from feeder high schools and the schools that wish they were feeder schools.

On the other hand, non-traditionally schooled applicants are able to lead remarkable, interesting lives. It is not a given that they will, especially for those who attend schools where they have little to no say over how they spend their time, or for homeschoolers who are forced to work though boxed or online curriculum. But when young people have the freedom and time to take learning down pathways that meet their needs, they get to engage in the type of deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that turn them from just another applicant with good numbers into someone who captures the attention of the admissions committee as well as future classmates. When those experiences are coupled with a level of intellectual vitality that rarely survives the K–12 schooling process (because of the coercive nature of schooling), colleges are eager to offer admission and bring these applicants onto campus.

It is not sufficient to have a great story, however. An applicant must also be able to tell a great story, and that is where the college essays and recommendations come in. Telling that story in a way that will move an admissions committee that reads tens of thousands of applications is challenging. It is why a select number of college admissions consultants charge over $20,000 to their clients. But non-traditionally schooled applicants typically have ample essay fodder to work with, and they typically have a sense of purpose or a mission in life that allows them to string that essay fodder into a powerful and compelling personal story.

Decision Time

The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin

Almost as stressful as the application process is the decision process once the offers begin to roll in (if an applicant is not bound by an Early Decision offer of admission). Non-traditional applicants have a tremendous advantage over their traditionally schooled peers in picking a college and in taking advantage of the resources available to them at the next level. This is because traditional school applicants have been fighting to get to the top of their high school class, because ranking ahead of peers is deemed necessary to success, and now they are moving on to 13th grade with a vision of climbing to the top of their college class as well. To too many traditionally schooled students, education is about satisfying teachers and competing against peers, as opposed to learning.

Non-traditionally schooled young people have more likely seen education as a collection of experiences that have allowed them to understand themselves and to grow as intellectuals and humanitarians. Education to them is an opportunity, not a competition, and because of that perceived opportunity they are more likely to choose the college that is the best fit for them, as opposed to obsessing over college rankings. They are also more likely to take advantage of the many opportunities at college that they can use to continue to grow, as opposed to being worried about going down the same path as all of their pre-med and Goldman Sachs–bound peers.

Good luck to all the non-traditionally schooled young people out there who are heading into the college admissions season. You have tremendous advantages in the admissions game, but more importantly, you will have tremendous opportunities to make the most of your college experience.

Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.”
—Frank Bruni

Far more significant than where you go to school, however, is why and how.”
—William Deresiewicz

      2. For example, the University of Virginia is one of the most prestigious public schools, often considered a “public Ivy,” and offers Virginia community college graduates who meet very reasonable standards a guaranteed admission into UVA.

     3. Conversation with UT-Austin admissions office, August 1, 2017.

Antonio Buehler

College admissions for alternative schooled, homeschooled, and unschooled applicants (Part 1)

Antonio Buehler is the founder of Abrome, a private K–12 school located in West Austin between West Lake Hills and Bee Cave. Antonio has over 13 years of college admissions experience as an admissions consultant where about 75 percent of his former clients gained admission into a Top 10 school, and about 50 percent of those who applied to Harvard and/or Stanford were accepted. Antonio previously volunteered for the West Point admissions office and currently serves as an alumni interviewer for Stanford University.

Antonio no longer provides admissions consulting services, but as a guest contributor to the Alt Ed Austin blog, he is here to explain the college admissions process from an alternative school perspective. This is Part 1 of his two-part guide, and it’s packed with helpful information for aspiring college students who’ve educated themselves in unconventional ways. Visit the Abrome website to learn more about Antonio and Emancipated Learning, and come back here tomorrow for Part 2.

Today, the Common Application goes live, and with it the college admissions season is once again here. And today, hundreds of thousands of rising high school seniors begin transitioning from the thrill of imagining themselves in a variety of university settings as they flip through college websites and view books to the anxiety of filling out applications and wondering if they will get into a college that is prestigious enough for their parents to place a sticker of that college on the back of the family car(s). While students who were able to opt out of traditional (public and private) schools so that they could go to a progressive alternative school, be homeschooled, or unschool themselves were able to avoid much of the stress associated with the ever-present college admissions arms race that has fully permeated the high school experience, they are often less sure of the next steps forward because they do not have a clear understanding of the application process or how they measure up against other college applicants. This essay serves as a brief primer for these applicants moving forward.

Start Early

Harvard University

Harvard University

Ideally you (or your children) are not applying this year, and instead are planning to apply several years down the road. Those who begin earlier rather than later have significant advantages because they can be more thoughtful about building an interesting and relevant transcript, conduct meaningful research of their target schools, prepare for standardized tests, manage potential recommenders, and endlessly edit their essays until they near perfection. Additionally, those who understand that the college admissions process is a game can turn the game on its head by leading a remarkable life over a period of several years, as opposed to trying to package themselves in the 11th hour (see “It’s a Game” below). Some of this advice will be geared toward those who start earlier, but even those who wait until the summer before applications are due to dive in can benefit from a better understanding of the admissions process and what they can bring to it.

It’s a Game

College admissions is not a meritocracy; it is a game. Sadly, it is a game that weighs heavily on applicants and parents, and it is often seen as a decision that can make or break one’s future prospects. Even more sad is that college admissions decisions have little to do with merit, and much to do with class and privilege. It is essential for applicants to recognize that the college admissions process is not fair, and that the decisions that colleges make in favor or against an applicant have absolutely no bearing on the academic or personal worth of that applicant. Easier said than done. But when an applicant recognizes that college admissions is a game, and they know the rules of the game (and how to hack it), they are more likely to be successful at the game. And an applicant who opts out of traditional schooling has a huge leg up in the admissions game.

Building a Transcript

Stanford University

Stanford University

Hopefully, most young people who are alternatively schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled know that a high school degree is largely worthless. No reputable college or university in the United States requires a high school degree. However, all colleges will want to see a transcript, and this is one area of several where non-traditionally schooled applicants have a sizeable advantage. The time and effort that typical high school students put into their transcripts usually end with a verification that they are hitting all graduation requirements (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits) and a quick calculation to determine which honors and AP classes they should take to boost their GPA relative to their peers. But young people who are responsible for their educational pathways have the opportunity to walk admissions committees through a unique journey that was tailored to the applicant’s needs, goals, and interests. The best way to do this is to celebrate how the applicant spent their time engaged in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, without trying to conform it to a standard academic transcript (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits).

Additionally, letter grades or percentages are meaningless on a non-traditional transcript unless it shows anything less than a perfect GPA, which would hurt an applicant. Those who opt out of the traditional schooling system should never introduce the rank ordering aspects of grading that pull applicants down. [1]

Standardized Testing

Another benefit of opting out of traditional schooling is that young people get to avoid the relentless testing that is required in the classroom and for the state (e.g., Texas STAAR, New York Regents). Testing serves as a means for lazy politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and teachers to assess and sort students, at the expense of students. Hopefully, the first time any young person takes a test is if they opt into it for their own benefit, such as taking the PSAT or an AP exam. However, one of the very few downsides to a non-traditional education is that many colleges will lean more heavily on standardized test scores during the admissions process. While the SAT or ACT most often serves as a disqualifier for top private colleges and universities (and as an automatic qualifier for many lower-ranked private or state schools), non-traditional applicants may have a more difficult time overcoming a poor SAT or ACT score than a traditionally schooled applicant who has a perfect GPA and ranks at the top of their class might.

The good news for non-traditional applicants is they should have ample time to prepare for the tests without being burdened by the unnecessary time requirements associated with traditional schooling (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandatory classes, homework, studying, testing). And for those who do not perform well on standardized tests even with plenty of prep, there are now over 900 colleges and universities that do not rely on or require standardized tests in the application process.

It is worth noting that the most exclusive schools also require or “recommend” applicants submit SAT subject tests with their application. Non-traditional applicants should treat SAT subject tests as required if a school “recommends” them, and as recommended if a school “considers” them. Similar to the SAT and ACT, these tests can hurt an applicant’s prospects if the scores are low, but are unlikely to substantially help since so many applicants score in the high 700s or 800 on these tests.

Building a College List

Yale University

Yale University

Traditionally schooled applicants typically have an easier time than non-traditional applicants in zeroing in on schools to apply to because (1) they are more likely to focus on college rankings as a guide for constructing their list, and (2) based on their class rank and GPA at their particular school, combined with their standardized test scores, they can lean on their guidance counselor or Naviance to help them identify the highest-ranked schools where they have a chance of admission. Unfortunately, this approach results in a high volume of applications to a wide range of schools, lower-quality applications, excessively high rates of anxiety, and very often a failure to identify best-fit colleges.

Non-traditional applicants can more easily overcome the aforementioned challenges because they are more likely to “understand thyself” thanks to years of self-directed learning (or less-coercive schooling) and reflection, and therefore are more likely to be drawn to colleges based on what opportunities and experiences the colleges can provide the applicant in accordance with their needs, as opposed to being drawn to colleges based on their rank. This process will still lead many of these non-traditional applicants to elite, private research universities such as Harvard and Stanford, but others may find that the flagship state school or even starting out at a local community college may be more advantageous for them, while many others may be drawn to liberal arts colleges that are less selective than the elite research universities but that arguably provide the best college education of all.

From a strategic perspective, fewer schools are better than many in the college applications game. By focusing on only the most selective schools as opposed to the best-fit schools, many applicants are driven to apply to upwards of two dozen colleges that may each have single- or low-double-digit acceptance rates. In doing so, they undermine their chances by stretching themselves thin on supplemental essays, applying to schools that their applications will not resonate with, and failing to help recommenders (especially optional recommenders) tailor their letters to a targeted group of schools. Applying to a bunch of schools also costs a lot of money.

Many counselors and consultants recommend applying to 6–10 schools, but we would recommend applying to no more than 5 schools. We have advised applicants to only apply to schools they would be thrilled to attend because of what they could make of the experience, whether it is Harvard, Stanford, State Flagship University, or Directional State U. We highly recommend against applying to “safety” schools as something to fall back to if best-fit schools do not work out. We also recommend against applying to any schools that do not require supplemental essays beyond what is required in the Common Application or Coalition Application, unless the applicant feels that the school is a great fit for their needs. Schools that do not have additional essay prompts often benefit from having large numbers of lazier applicants apply because of the marginal effort required (an application fee), making it more difficult for a non-traditional applicant to drive home their unique story to the admissions committee. [The author of this essay applied to only three universities: West Point for college, Stanford and Harvard for business school, and Harvard for education school. The author has never been rejected and attributes much of this success to being able to submit a near perfect application on the factors that he was able to control or have considerable influence over (e.g., essays, recommendations).]

[Join us back here on the blog tomorrow for more advice from Antonio in Part 2. —Ed.]

     1. Grading also undermines the learning process. Any school that grades its students fails its students. There is never a reason for an alternative school to engage in this destructive practice.

Antonio Buehler

The heart of the college application

Guest contributor Laurie Filipelli is a writer and writing coach who holds an M.F.A from Indiana University. She is the author of two collections of poems, Elseplace (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013) and Girl Paper Stone (forthcoming in 2018 from Black Lawrence Press). In her work as a college writing instructor, high school English teacher, writing programs manager, and writing coach, she has guided students of all ages to tell their own stories and to become stronger writers and more creative thinkers. Laurie specializes in leading college application essay writing workshops as well as coaching individuals. Learn more at and Facebook/MightyWriting.

The college application process can be complex and at times downright frustrating, and it can also be an amazing opportunity for teenagers to step into their future selves, to prepare for college, and to safely practice for the many decisions they’ll face independently as adults. As parents, counselors, and coaches we could nag and nudge and overreach in our efforts, or we could choose to encourage and allow.

Last March, the New York Times ran an enlightening piece called “Advice College Admissions Officers Give Their Own Kids.” The words of wisdom shared by these officers may make the difference between a highly stressful and a deeply meaningful year ahead and can easily be summed up with two simple phrases: engage from the heart, and start early.

As a college application essay writing coach, I can attest that nowhere is the wisdom of this advice more vital than at the heart of every college application—the essay.

Juniors stand at a threshold; writing can help them cross. Composing personal narratives  requires putting meaning to experiences, defining your beliefs, and setting goals for the future. It’s a monumental and potentially life-changing task.

And like all such tasks, it requires tenderness and courage and time.

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He advised trying new things and honoring inspiration. His advice wasn’t original, even in 1841. After all, it was Plato who coined the expression “Know Thyself,” the gist of which is now the basis for a whole industry of self-help books and sports equipment. But while it’s one thing to quote a pithy saying, it’s another to trust our teenagers to take inventory of their own experiences and dreams, and to find an authentic path.

If you have a high school junior, now is the time to make space among myriad commitments, to ask open-ended questions, and to allow whatever answers come. The Common App essay prompts may be available, but trust me, no one needs them . . . yet. What juniors need is freedom to explore and find what lights them up.

Explore Writing

In writing, exploration means reading and drafting freely. Whether your junior loves reading or not, chances are they haven’t read many personal essays. I direct my students to NPR’s archive of essays by everyday folks at This I Believe, or to David Sedaris, or to the Modern Love column in the New York Times. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT read college application essays. They’re bound to cause creative paralysis.

Exploration also means pre-writing, that wonderful phase in which we bumble and make mistakes without pressure. I ask the juniors to make lists, to ponder photos, to reflect on the day’s news, to take note of the objects they cherish, and to discuss their fears and their convictions.  For this to begin to happen, you may need to get out of the way. If they don’t want to talk to you, help create opportunities where discussions can flourish with mentors, or youth groups, or other family members.

And then what?

Support Healthy Risks

I once had a student come to me deeply dejected. She told me she wanted to write her application essay about World of Warcraft. Her counselor, her parents, pretty much everyone she knew warned against it, but she clearly couldn’t let go of the idea. So I asked, why not write a draft that proves them wrong?

And that’s exactly what she did. Her essay turned out to be a smart and lively romp—from her life on a farm to sewing her own Halloween costume based on a Warcraft character—for which an admissions officer personally commended her. Warcraft was the vessel, and her life filled it up. The same goes for the Harvard student who wrote about her love of Half Price Books, and the Barnard student obsessed with Lauren Bacall. And of course, many of us know about the student who wrote about Costco. Last year she made news when she was accepted into multiple Ivy League schools. Again, I insist you don’t share it with your college-bound junior, but you might enjoying reading her essay here.

As you’ll see, it was about far more than Costco. It was about her heart’s joy.  For this, there is no formula. The best you can do is to create ideal circumstances for such creativity to flourish.

Note: The kind of heartfelt writing I recommend is not the same as highly emotive therapeutic writing that reveals a heart’s pain, or an intense  struggle with emotional challenges. Writing a purely therapeutic essay may very well be an important and healthy part of the process of self-discovery;  however, submitting such an essay as a final product is an inadvisable risk.

Start Early

Despite claims about the power of pressure, very few of us write best in time-sensitive, high-stakes situations. Ideally, essays are done (or well underway) in August,  before senior year starts.  My Warcraft student drafted her essay in May.  

For now, I suggest that juniors simply put systems in place—a Google doc with a list of schools, a notebook to track ideas. And, that they hone the craft of writing. The author of the Costco essay clearly prepared for that essay long before she began to compose. She started with a love of words. She read.

It’s a long journey toward college admissions, but it doesn’t have to be onerous. The advice you can give your own child is simple: Trust your heart, read, and write. And take that first step now.

Laurie Filipelli

College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game.

Antonio Buehler is a college admissions consultant and cofounder of Abrome, a unique online learning community based in Austin. With degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and West Point and experience working in top-tier admissions, he has plenty to tell you, especially if attending a highly ranked college or university is your child’s goal. Many thanks to Antonio for sharing these valuable and timely insights.


College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game. Those who know how to play the game began years ago. They’ve donated consistently and substantially to their alma maters, they’ve provided their children with ample opportunities to stand out in the admissions game through their experiences, they’ve provided the support necessary for their children to get top grades, and they’ve paid for SAT prep courses.

The college admissions season is nearly one month in; the Common Application went live on August 1. Those who know how to play the game have already paid an admissions consultant to help their children craft their essays, and their kids are cozying up to their recommenders and getting ready to submit an application to their dream school (or their strategic reach school) via Early Action or Early Decision. If your child (or you) plan on attending a highly selective college or university next year but have not started the application process, you’re already behind the curve.

This past year, only 2,145 out of 42,167 (5.1%) of Stanford’s applicants were accepted.  Of Stanford's applicants from 2008 to 2012 with SATs of 2400, the highest score possible, 69 percent didn't get in. Over 24,000 of the applicants vying for one of Stanford’s 2,145 offers had a 4.0 or higher GPA.

The odds at Harvard weren’t much better; only 2,048 out of 34,295 (6.0%) of the applicants were accepted. It is said that Harvard rejects four out of every five valedictorians who apply, and this past year over 3,400 applicants who were vying for one of the 2,048 slots were ranked first in their class. While most colleges don’t have the benefit of having 20 applicants for each available spot, even state schools such as the University of Texas now reject more applicants than they accept.

Many guidance counselors will claim that the admissions process is random and that every applicant who wins a spot at one of these coveted institutions is extraordinarily qualified for admissions, but that is a lie. There is nothing random about admissions, and the process is not fair.

Many people mistakenly believe that where the process is the least fair is that athletes and underrepresented minorities have an advantage in the admissions game. Schools need to balance the need to field winning sports teams and to ensure that their classes are sufficiently diverse, but athletes who are among the best in the country (e.g., Stanford football or tennis, Harvard crew or squash) and also are outstanding students can hardly be considered unworthy, and while underrepresented minorities get a small benefit in the admissions game, the ones who are admitted are typically well qualified. The average SAT score of black students in the Harvard class of 2017 was 2107. (Diversity is measured in many ways, not just along ethnic or racial lines. Diversity can also come in the forms of family circumstance, socioeconomic status, geography, nationality, religion, sexual preference, life experiences, and academic and extracurricular interest.)

Where the process is less fair is in the advantages it offers children of professors and alumni. These connected students are essentially double dipping, having benefited from their parents’ education and/or source of income, and then receiving the added bonus of gaining admission to elite schools over better-qualified applicants. However, where the process is least fair is in the benefits that underqualified children of the very wealthy, corporate elites, and the politically connected receive. This benefit is so large that “[r]esearchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.”

So what can you do, now that it is almost the eleventh hour, to play the game well and ensure that your child gets into her dream school? Sadly, if you haven’t been giving your child the opportunity to lead a remarkable life by allowing her the space to dive deep into areas of interest, to develop and demonstrate her intellectual curiosity, to attain excellence in ways that are relevant to her life, you are behind the eight ball. However, I have specialized in helping students who are behind that eight ball get into top colleges and universities for years, and there is plenty of gaming that can be done even at this late stage.

First and foremost, your child must be able to tell a story that convinces the admissions committee that he has led a remarkable life filled with excellence based on what he has experienced. He may not have started a company, done graduate level research, or started a social movement, but he should have unique interests that he can speak to. The process of doing an audit on one’s life experiences and then organizing and presenting those experiences in a compelling way through the essays is time-consuming but necessary. In the admissions game, packaging is as important as substance; without either, the chances of getting into a top school are zero, but with one, there is a chance.

Second, applications to the elite schools must be as perfect as possible. GPA (if the student goes to a traditional high school) is set, and SATs are unlikely to shift much. However, the candidate has full control over her essays (her story) and significant control over the recommendations. Those essays must be perfect because they are the most important part of the application. Unlike law school, where a perfect GPA and LSAT will get you into Harvard, a perfect GPA and perfect standardized test scores are no guarantee that you will get into a Top 5 undergraduate program. The story that comes through in the essays (and to a lesser degree in the recommendations) must accompany the numbers in a way that convinces the admissions committee members that they need a particular applicant in their incoming class. That story is much simpler for the children of senators and Fortune 500 CEOs than it is for a middle-class or upper-middle-class child, but not even Harvard or Stanford can completely fill its incoming class with development cases, legacies, children of professors, recruited athletes, and diversity candidates.

Third, your child must begin working on her applications today. Creating those perfect essays and ensuring that the recommendations are just right takes time. It is not uncommon for my clients to do up to 20 turns of an essay before they are ready to submit it. Every single word must add value to one’s story, even articles and conjunctions. And the candidate must begin today because she must submit an Early Action or Early Decision application this fall, before she submits the bulk of her applications by the regular decision deadline for most schools.

Those who play the game know that the chances of admission skyrocket through Early Action and Early Decision. At Harvard, for example, a candidate had a 21 percent chance of being accepted through Early Action, but only 3.1 percent of regular admissions candidates (which included deferred Early Action applicants) were accepted. Stanford, meanwhile, accepted 10.8 percent of their Early Action candidates, compared to only 4 percent of regular admissions candidates.

The time to act is now if you want your child to get into Harvard, Stanford, or another top program. The time to act is now, as well, if your child wants to attend a competitive state school or a more local private college such as those listed in the table above. If your child is applying this year, he should be working on his essays each day, working with his recommenders, and continuing to excel academically and at extracurricular activities.

However, if your child is not applying this year, and has several years to prepare, then she can play the game by simply focusing on living a remarkable life, today. Those clients are the ones who are always the easiest to get into top programs.

Antonio Buehler