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Winning the College Admissions Game – A Shanghai Dad’s Experience

June, 2011
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I have to admit that I became one of those crazy parents who obsessed too much over his teenager’s journey into the hyper competitive world of US university admissions. Over the last several years, I bought way too many books on how to ace the SAT test or write that winning college essay. Most were never opened. I spent way too many hours scouring college admissions websites looking for those few golden nuggets of advice that just might help get my daughter that fat acceptance envelope.  To my daughter’s credit, most of the advice was acknowledged but not always taken. She often correctly reminded me that while she appreciated my help, that this was “her” process.

ycis-natasha-6e589afe69cacI guess a psychologist would tell me that I was trying to excise the ghosts of my own painful afternoon in the Spring of 1980 when as a middle class overachieving California teenager, I opened the mailbox only to see my dream shattered upon opening the contents of that thin rejection envelope from my top choice college.

So another college admissions cycle has passed and thousands of parents ask the same question. “Why didn’t my straight A, top of the class, well rounded son/daughter get a string of rejection letters from top college choices?”

Well first of all, the numbers for the Class of 2015 are more sobering than ever. Most of the top US universities experienced a record high number of applications and a record low rate of acceptances. Harvard and Stanford, two of the world’s most famous universities, received approximately 35,000 applications this year and accepted 6.2% and 7.1% of its applicants respectively. In reality, for most students, the chances even much lower as up to 50% of the slots at top universities are already reserved for so called “hooked” applicants (under-represented minorities/legacies/faculty children/recruited athletes and development cases).

Nevertheless, every year tens of thousands of highly qualified high school students around the world aspire to enter the top tier of universities in the US. The process these days are not for the faint of heart or the ill prepared parent or student. The process is more competitive than ever with top schools able to fill their respective entering classes several times over with little difference in the academic quality of the students who received offers and those who didn’t.

Having just gone through this process as a parent, there are a few good pieces of advice, weaned from other more experienced in these matters than myself, that are worth considering if your child wants to maximize his chances are getting accepted into a top school in his/her academic range.

1) Success in life is never defined by the pedigree of your university education.

While there is nothing wrong with encouraging your high achieving son or daughter to try to attend a highly regarded university that fits their academic and personal interests, it’s important not to judge your success in life by the US News and World Report ranking of your university education. It’s more important what you do with your education in real life rather than where you went to school. Many super successful people didn’t go to famous universities.

2) Manage your and your child’s expectations

Most of the top universities in the US these days are getting over 30,000 applications for roughly 1500 to 2000 slots. The applicant pool is already self- selective and most applying have great grades and SAT scores, which are a minimum in most cases to even be considered. When you account for slots reserved for underrepresented minorities, recruited athletes and legacy/faculty/developmental admits, barely half the class will be available for a normal applicant. The bar is even higher if you are Asian, given the recent success of this demographic in a system that is far from a meritocracy. I heard from a well known college consultant in the USA that if you are an  “unhooked” Asian with straight A’s and high SAT scores, your chances of getting into Harvard is far less than the average of 6.2%, it’s more like 1-2%. Make sure your son/daughter carefully selects reach schools, target and safety schools to maximize their choices at the end of the process.

3) Help your student find their academic and extracurricular passions

The key to success here is to distinguish yourself by creating one of more academic or extracurricular hooks to differentiate yourself within your demographic. These days, admissions officers at elite institutions are trying to create a mosaic of different students with different skills and interests that they can contribute to the overall “intellectual vitality” of the university. They are in effect putting a puzzle together. Your chances go way up if you have something to offer the university in terms of life experience or intellectual outlook that is truly unique. Frankly, admissions officers at top universities see thousands of applicants every year who are class valedictorians who played sports, did hundreds of hours of community service and were their high school student council president. While this might be an amazing accomplishment to you and me, it is wholly unremarkable for an admissions committee at a top school.

While stopping short of having hard and fast quotas, the fact is that your son/daughter might be competing with other international students in Asia in that particular demographic. For example, an Ivy League school might admit 10-15 local PRC nationals from a pool of several hundred local applicants and admit only 3 or 4 international school students from all of the Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan from a pool that also several hundred.

4) Start standardized testing early

If your son/daughter has the aptitude and discipline for academic excellence early in their middle school years, it might pay off later to get them used to standardized test taking. Even if he/she isn’t planning on going to boarding school, the SSAT is a great place to start getting used to the format, style and pressure of standardized testing at a young age. The fact is that for an “unhooked” applicant to even be considered for a top twenty US university, your SAT score needs to be within the top 1-2% of the applicant pool. Start with the SSAT in middle school years and plan to take the PSAT in both the second and third year of high school, as well as the SAT in the third and forth years.  SAT Subject tests should be planned out in advance during your high schools concurrent as much as possible for when your child has finished the relevant curriculum.

5) Help your son/daughter stayed organized in the college admissions process

This is probably the most valuable contribution that a parent can make to help his child prepare and succeed in the college admissions game. Besides preparing for and keeping track of testing requirements, the amount of research that is needed to review and select prospective schools is mindboggling and time intensive. Don’t wait until September of your senior year to start this process. Prepare well in advance and help your child start getting organized. When a final list of schools to apply to is finally selected, it pays to help your son/daughter keep the many bits and pieces of their application together. It will also will pay dividends to develop and invest your time in a healthy working relationship with your child’s school counselor. This will be a stressful time for your teen with college applications; AP/IB exams etc. and you can play a valuable role in providing the organizational backdrop that can increase the chances of success.

6) Give your kids active summers to develop their passions.

Many studies have concluded that one of the main differences between elite students and average students is the way that childhood summers are spent growing up. Young brains need to continue learning: whether in summer camp, getting work experience, doing research or just checking out extra books during the summer for reading. Sitting around watching TV or playing video games is a sure fire way to fall behind peers and get left behind. Sure, your child will need time during the summer to relax and enjoy being a kid, but make sure the mind stays active learning new things.

University admissions are keen to understand what makes a student tick intellectually. Many look for clues to this by analyzing what a student has done during their high school summers with the resources that he/she has available.


I was extremely fortunate to witness firsthand the pure joy of my daughter opening her acceptance letter to her “dream” university. It made all the hard work and sacrifice of 18 years of nurturing worth the effort.

Winning the College Admissions game is about finding a school that is the right fit for your teenager, academically and personally, where they will be happy and motivated. There are many schools that can fit this profile for your son/daughter. With proper research, preparation and expectations management, this story can have a happy ending.


By Mark Weaser,

A Shanghai based businessman and father to our Student Team Leader, Natasha Weaser (YCIS ’11, Stanford University ’15)

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