Admission to a selective college is tough today, and it will get brutal at some schools over the next few years as the baby-boom echo grows louder.

So how can you best help to prepare your children to get in to the college of their choice? And how can you best brace them – and yourself – for the rejections that will likely come your family’s way?

There is no simple formula for admission; an acceptance decision, especially at the most competitive schools, is more art than science. However, since the best art usually has some mathematical underpinnings, I offer a simple equation of FOUR plus FOUR as at least a place to start.

Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, grades do count. According to 2003-04 State of College Admissions, published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a professional association for guidance counselors based in Alexandria, Virginia, there are FOUR “academic factors” that count most in college admissions. They are, in order:

  • Grades in college-prep courses, especially AP courses.
  • Scores on standardized admissions tests (though there is a small, slow-growing trend to put aside test scores as a factor).
  • Grades in all courses.
  • Class ranking (how your son or daughter’s grades compare with his or her peers).

Yet, as I have emphasized to you in some of my previous columns on this topic, it’s not just about grades. To that point, NACAC’s report has also identified what it calls “tip factors” that it says are “important accents on the records of students who compare evenly” on the academic measures – particularly at elite secondary institutions where everyone’s grades and test scores seem to be in the stratosphere. These FOUR “tip factors” are:

  • Essay or writing sample.
  • Counselor recommendation.
  • Teacher recommendation.
  • Work/extracurricular activities.

At the most selective colleges, where only one of 10 applicants gets in, many rejected students have academic credentials that are at least as impressive as those who are accepted. That is where these “tip factors” come into play. And, as you can see, they are not nearly as quantifiable as the “academic factors.”

This may sound like heresy coming from College Parents of America, but I offer you some advice. As important as college is, your child’s life will not be ruined if he or she does not get into one of the top schools, or decides to postpone higher education. The ranks of CEOs, entrepreneurs and professionals are filled with people who did not attend brand-name schools, and many successful people in all walks of life have followed unconventional paths. Moreover, college increasingly is a stepping stone to a graduate education, and the best graduate schools are also seeking a diversified student body, selecting high-performing students from state universities as well as select private schools.

If you have a child whose academic record today does not allow them to get into a school that you may be dreaming about for them, it is not the end of the road. Your child’s academic performance in college, wherever he or she attends, will be far more important than anything else in determining where they might be able to go to graduate school.

Meanwhile, it is best for you to understand that the undergraduate admissions process is about matching students’ aptitude, interests and goals with institutions where they can flourish, a process that really is more art than science. Since there is only so much that you can control, stay as informed as you can but, in the end, just relax and enjoy the show.