Behind the Curtain of College Admissions

In 2018, Harvard College admitted only 4.5% of its more than 40,000 applicants. The United States Naval Academy accepted a little over 8% of its 16,000 applicants for the same year. While there is no shortage of colleges to enroll students overall, there is a growing perception of scarcity for admission to ivy league and top-tier schools. And even for highly esteemed but less selective institutions, admission is competitive. How can you best prepare as your child ventures into the unfamiliar landscape of choosing and applying to college? Our college counseling department gives families an insider's look with Peter Van Buskirk’s “The Admission Game.”

What are Colleges Looking For?

“People want to think admissions decisions at elite institutions are always made on the basis of merit,” Darrell M. West states in a recent article about ivy league admissions. But these decisions are based on a wide range of factors — merit is only one of many. Schools vary in selectiveness and each has their own goals for acceptance and enrollment. We can assume that all schools want students who are bright, motivated and high-achieving but when a sea of applicants all share these qualities, admissions teams dive deeper, weighing some factors more heavily than others.

Did you know that “demonstrated interest” is a factor widely considered by colleges when making a decision? They want to see that the applicant opened links in emails, visited campus or took advantage of resources offered by the school. In comparing two students with similar qualifications, the one who demonstrates interest will likely have an advantage.

For many families, there is a gap of knowledge between basic guidelines — extracurriculars, test scores, athletics and GPA — and more nuanced factors like “demonstrated interest." To bridge that gap Severn’s college counseling department invited college-planning expert Peter Van Buskirk to bring some transparency to this otherwise mystifying process.
“Our community is savvy. They need something more than just basic information and that’s what we are here to provide, not only through Mr. Van Buskirk’s presentation but in every interaction we have with our students. Severn has so many wonderfully qualified students — it’s important to understand how admissions officers evaluate those who appear to be evenly matched. It may not be a fair process, but the more we can educate our community, the better.” — Ms. Coughlin

The Game

Peter Van Buskirk spent more than 25 years in selective college admission including twelve as Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College before joining Peterson’s where he served as Vice President for College Planning Solutions. He attended Harvard’s Management Development Program and is a 40-year member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

He developed the “The Admission Game” as a way to help families better position their students to reach their educational goals. During his presentation, Mr. Van Buskirk explains how college admissions work from an inside perspective. He talks about the increase in competition for highly selective and selective schools along with strategies to help families make the right choice.

Mr. Van Buskirk breaks the crowd into teams who will pose as admissions officers, each representing a different fictional student. The audience dissects each student’s application including test scores, geographic location, academic interests, athletics, family history, ethnic background, gender, extracurricular activities, early decision candidates, class rank and more. Mr. Van Buskirk demonstrates how colleges might balance these factors differently for each applicant. This presentation explores many of the same ideas that Severn college counselors Ms. Kim Coughlin and Mr. David Brunk discuss with students and their families on an individual level. 
"We strive to empower students to understand the “admissions game,” yet we emphasize that it is a search for the right fit rather than an externally determined (i.e. by a magazine ranking) prize to be won. We know and value every student so we can give them the tools they need to find a college where they will thrive. Admission to college is not the prize. Our students themselves are the prizes that colleges should fight to win." — Mr. Brunk

College Counseling is Here to Help

Mr. Brunk and Ms. Coughlin work one-on-one to advocate for our students, helping to highlight special strengths and support college applications with letters of recommendation. They can answer questions about admission testing and application procedures. They are here to help Severn students and families navigate the college decision-making process to find the right match — for the people our students are and the people they hope to be.

Our counselors also hold events throughout the year to give Severn families the best resources possible to make informed decisions. Events include:
  • Annual alumni panel Q&A
  • College nights for juniors and seniors
  • Summer college workshops for seniors
  • Annual AIMS college fair
  • Paying for College: Helpful Strategies for Parents
As Mr. Lagarde said in a recent letter reflecting on the state of college admissions, “We are very fortunate at Severn to have a college counseling staff with extensive knowledge and experience that provides individual guidance and support and that understands the importance of finding the right match. No college counselor anywhere can guarantee a specific outcome, but the Severn college counselors and I can promise to provide you and your child with the best information and attention possible through the college admission process.”

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    • David Brunk, Kim Coughlin, Peter Van Buskirk and Laurie Duguay

Lower School

Preschool-Grade 5
Chesapeake Campus
1185 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd
Arnold, MD 21012

Middle/Upper School

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