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The Northern Virginia Problem

Top Virginia Universities are harder to get into: checking why and how to help.

University of Virginia Rotunda.

University of Virginia Rotunda. Photo by Sanjay Suchak, U.Va. Office of University Communications

Many Northern Virginian students are biting their nails, waiting for their college admission letters this week. But in a sea of overachievers, NoVa students are coming across a pervasive issue with in-state colleges—what is being dubbed the "the Northern Virginia Problem." Many residents of Fairfax, Alexandria City, Loudon, Fauquier, Prince William and Arlington counties are spreading the word that top Virginia universities—the University of Virginia, Washington and Lee and William and Mary are becoming harder and harder to get into.

"I applied to a lot of Virginia schools. I didn’t get into UVa, but I’m not surprised because it’s gotten so hard—especially from Langley (High School) where everyone seemed to be applying to the same schools," says Chris Susskind, a 3.8 (weighted) GPA senior at Langley High School with multiple AP courses, a near-perfect ACT score and a volunteer with disabled children. "It’s (UVa has) become ivy league for schools in Virginia."

Other high-achieving seniors, like Drew Treger of W.T. Woodson High School, don’t even bother applying.

"I knew I wasn’t going to get in, so I didn’t even try," says Treger, captain of the men’s varsity lacrosse team and of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes at Woodson, who also holds a 3.5 GPA with four AP classes under his belt.

THESE TOP VIRGINIA UNIVERSITIES are not trying to totally dispel the rumors either—they are in fact accepting less of a percentage of NoVa students. But the reasons are not that they’ve become more stringent in their admission policies or more selective, they claim. The problem it seems is an issue of sheer volume. All hope is not lost, however, and we have a few tips for those students vying for entrance into these top-ranked schools.

Data from the University of Virginia’s communications office supports the rumors that they are indeed accepting less of a percentage of Northern Virginia applicants—39 percent this year compared to 42 percent for fall 2009. However, the number of students applying from our NoVa counties is also increasing—up 25 percent in just five years. Unless UVa and the other top-rated schools grow their facilities as fast as their applicant pool, there’s naturally going to be less of a percentage accepted.

"Generally, the academic quality of incoming classes here has increased over the years and the number of applications for limited spots continues to set records," says Charles McGregor McCance, senior director of media relations at UVA. "This raises the competitive environment for all applicants from everywhere. For the current academic year, the University received more than 31,000 applications for about 3,500 spots."

The same trend appears to be the case with the College of William and Mary. According to data pulled from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, applications into this top-rated Virginia college increased 12 percent in the last five years and their acceptance rate only went down from 44 percent to 42. The actual number of students being accepted is steadily increasing at UVa and William and Mary, just not the percentage.

Washington and Lee University does not report or collect data by county, the communications department informed us.

"We have always taken 15 percent from Virginia," says Brian Eckert, executive director of communications and public affairs for Washington and Lee. "We look at grades first and—once we know that someone can handle the work here—then we start looking at demonstrated strong leadership and students who have performed community service."

Fairfax County alone grew from 969,000 in 2000 to over 1.1 million in 2013. With thousands more students flooding the application system, it may seem harder to stand out amongst classmates—many of whom are getting straight As. But stressing out over SATs and class rank isn’t the most effective way to beat out the competition.

Yes, it’s true the types and grades you get in those classes are the first and foremost aspects of a transcript these colleges are looking at but leadership roles, caliber of essays and an overall interesting aspect about you—something to make you diverse, is what they all claim to set those who stand out against those who get weeded out.

"More and more students are adding an area of interest when applying to colleges," says Judith Hingle, career connections specialist with the Fairfax County Public School System. "Adding a prospective major can help, because colleges need to balance all those things."

With engineering degrees being the most popular, Eckert agreed there are undoubtedly more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students applying now than ever before, but classics majors are at an all-time low across the nation.

JUST TWO YEARS AGO, Fairfax County schools adapted a more career-minded focus with the installation of the Naviance system, a Web-based system FCPS named the Family Connection. Naviance is a career and academic guidance software system that links students’ academic choices to the counseling offices and helps them determine their high school, college and subsequent career path. Hingle says this kind of focus can only help up students’ chances at receiving those coveted admission letters.

Another way around the system entirely—which can also cut down on your final tuition bill—is to attend a Virginia community college. Many top schools in Virginia and the D.C. area have a guaranteed admissions agreement with not just UVa, but William and Mary, certain colleges within George Washington University and Catholic University of America. Washington and Lee, however, does not participate.

And if all else fails, Hingle says not to despair, there are tons of other great schools in Virginia that were established after the 19th century—many of whom are taking a higher percentage of NoVa students than in years past.

"Pick a school that really interests you," Hingle advises. "If you just focus on the high end, a lot of great kids become discouraged, but there are lots of chances to grow and learn here in Virginia."