“Raise your hand if you’re applying to Virginia Tech,” the speaker asked. A sea of hands shot up. “How about UVA?” Almost the same number of hands were raised.
“JMU? George Mason?” Nearly everyone in the room raised a hand for both schools.
Tim Lucas, director of school counseling for Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, watched as Rob Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review and author of numerous books on college admissions, conducted the exercise at one of the college nights the school held this fall.
The point, Lucas tells students and their parents or guardians, is easier for students to comprehend when they are in a large group. They can easily see all the other hands raised with their own.
“Everyone is applying to the same schools,” says Lucas. And those schools are not just in Virginia. “When you add national schools like Stanford and Princeton, a lot of hands are raised for those, too.” Students’ competition is all around them, Lucas explains.
Clearly, not all who apply will get in, simply because of the sheer number of applicants. On its website, Virginia Tech reports receiving over 45,000 applications for fall 2022, a record number. In fact, many students say they are finding greater success with out-of-state schools.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Virginia has 15 public four-year universities, yet the counselors we talked with say most students they work with have their hearts set on getting into the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, and James Madison University. Consequently, these popular schools are getting record numbers of applications, which lowers their admission rates and makes the highly competitive Virginia colleges and universities even more selective.
In recent years, many Northern Virginia families have opted to keep their students closer to home, both to see them more often and to save money, say the counselors we interviewed. They say George Mason has become one of the top schools seniors they work with apply to, in part because it’s nearby. More students have opted to live at home and commute to Mason to save on room and board costs.
The average cost of room and board (dorm rooms and meals) at public four-year institutions currently stands at $11,557, according to the Education Data Initiative. So living at home can save families a lot, even when you consider covering the cost of meals at home.
Mason’s soaring popularity has made the statistics of its admitted students soar as well, says Renee Foster, college and career counselor for Falls Church High School. “Just a few years ago, the average GPA for students offered admission was about 3.2; now it is up to 3.8,” Foster explains. The numbers have risen for all Virginia colleges because many students apply to numerous schools. Wide acceptance of the Common Application has made it easy for students to apply to multiple schools just by paying the application fee for each.
Broaden Your Horizons
Laura Cudahy, college and career specialist at Westfield High School in Chantilly, advises students to think beyond their “dream schools” to others they haven’t considered. “Think about what you want to do in life, and what you want to get out of the college experience,” Cudahy says.
Stone Bridge’s Lucas concurs. “Choosing a college is about finding a good fit for each student,” he explains. “Many Northern Virginia students are branching out to schools in states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Delaware. These schools know the quality of Northern Virginia students, and they often give them great financial packages that make it about the same cost as going to an in-state school.”
Colleges throughout the country — Virginia schools included — want diverse campuses, so they seek out-of-state and international students along with those from their own state. Students shouldn’t overlook smaller private schools that seem expensive either, Lucas advises. The higher the tuition, the larger their endowments often are, so they may offer more generous financial aid packages.
Testing Takes a Back Seat
One of the biggest changes to college admissions in the past few years is the trend toward test-optional policies at colleges. While a few rebel schools have always eschewed standardized tests, for years most have considered SAT and/or ACT scores and scores on AP or IB course tests, using them alongside GPAs when weighing the elements of an application.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of many such tests, however, resulting in more schools making them optional for fall 2021 freshman admissions. For the 2022–23 freshman class, most colleges continued the test-optional policy; some even made it permanent. After all, some students just don’t test well, whether due to nerves, problems focusing for long periods, cognitive difference or learning disabilities, or differences in language and culture that cause them to misinterpret questions.
Students should check the current test-submission policies of each school they apply to because they are not all the same. Virginia Tech, for example, extended test-optional admissions through fall 2025. Their test-optional policy explains that scores are also not necessary for financial aid or scholarship consideration, and test scores have never been reviewed for transfer students. However, scores from English proficiency exams like the Test of English as a Foreign Language or other accepted tests are still necessary for international student applications.
Helping Parents Adjust to Change
Test-optional policies lead to common misconceptions, questions, and confusion.
“Convincing parents, especially, that SAT/ACT scores are not as important as they used to be is difficult,” says Westfield’s Cudahy. “So many other factors go into application consideration — grades, course rigor, essays, extracurricular activities, and what else students do in addition to school.”
Falls Church High School’s Foster agrees. “Many students in Northern Virginia have family responsibilities outside of school. They may care for younger siblings or have a job so they can contribute monetarily to the household.” It’s important for students to give colleges a complete picture of who they are by including all of these important details.
Yet many parents still want their students to excel on exams and submit scores even when they are optional. Some may have gone through the admissions process with an older child just five years ago and assume situations are the same.
College counselors at area high schools and private admissions advisers, however, are in tune with what different colleges currently expect. They talk with admissions representatives from the colleges regularly.
“Some Virginia schools, like JMU, will look at test scores if students submit them, but others won’t,” says Cudahy.
While most colleges have test-optional policies at least for the 2022–23 admissions cycle, some colleges have other forms of testing submission options. Even schools that have test-optional policies in general may still require certain types of scores for some majors, like nursing or engineering.
Don’t be surprised if colleges start requiring standardized test scores again. Some colleges and universities have already gone back to requiring test scores to be submitted, says Lee Styles, owner of AdmissionStyles LLC in Leesburg, which advises students throughout the process of choosing schools and applying. “Virginia is mostly still test-optional, but (the Universities of) Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, for example, have all gone back to requiring test scores.”
Another Side of Testing
Whether students are required to, or choose to, submit standardized test scores, taking the tests has benefits beyond getting admitted to college.
“Testing is not all about strategy to be used to bolster an application; testing also improves grades,” says Julia Ross, owner of Professional Tutoring LLC, which helps high school, college, and graduate students prepare for admissions exams and guides them through the application processes. Ross recommends that students take tests multiple times to improve their scores.
Ross also advises students to take the toughest high school courses that they can earn at least a B in. Above all, be authentic, she says. Every student is an individual, and they stand out on college applications by showing their interests and passions.
For years, students have wanted to load their résumés with clubs, volunteer work, and leadership roles, but admissions reps say they want to see the individual come through in their applications. If students have a passion for something and have worked to pursue it, that carries more weight than a list of clubs they joined but didn’t stand out in.
The Rise of Two-Year Colleges
Two-year or community colleges are becoming a more popular choice, often to help reduce the cost of getting a college education, the counselors say. Students can complete a two-year program, which typically costs less per year than a four-year college’s tuition, and then transfer the credits earned to a four-year school. Students will have earned an associate’s degree or certificate and can go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in two more years.
Community colleges commonly have less rigorous admissions requirements as well. Many students who do well during two years of community college — typically with a 3.5 GPA or higher — can get accepted to a competitive Virginia four-year college. Each college may have different GPA requirements and courses that will transfer, so students should be sure to research each school’s specific transfer policies and deadlines, rechecking them multiple times while completing their associate’s degree because policies can change.
Tips From the Pros
The college admissions process can be a head-spinning experience. A good first step for high school students is to visit their school’s college counselors in ninth and 10th grades to get pointed in the right direction. Attend workshops and events that high schools throughout Northern Virginia hold, which will explain everything from applications to financial aid.
School systems hold college fairs that bring representatives from hundreds of colleges together in one place. Students can visit with schools they are interested in, introduce themselves, ask questions, and gain information. College fairs are also a great place to broaden students’ horizons and learn about schools they hadn’t considered or maybe had never even heard of before.
Individual high schools also bring college reps to school. “We had three or four reps visit almost every day throughout September, October, and November,” says Lucas, “for a total of 76 colleges this year.” Juniors and seniors can get an appointment pass to leave class to attend sessions with reps from schools they’re interested in.
“Students and their families think it’s next to impossible to get into college, and that’s just not true,” Foster says.
‘You Are Not Your Test Scores’
The pressure-packed college admissions process can take away from the joys of high school if students and their parents or guardians get wrapped up in being accepted at a handful of extremely selective schools. Across the board, counselors remind their students, “You are not your test scores.”
Tests may come in and out of favor, but a student’s grades in high school courses — and the strength of the courses taken — will always matter. While tests measure a student’s ability on one Saturday morning, high school transcripts reveal how well they applied themselves every day for four years.
Still, rejection is a part of the college admissions process for most students. “Not getting into JMU or Virginia Tech or any school is tough, but students need to remember that it has no connection to their worth,” says Lucas. “It just means that school was not right for them at that point in time.”
“Discovering what you want to do for the next step in your life should be fun and exciting,” says Foster. “I tell my students to take a deep breath and enjoy the process.”