College Planning Blog

Welcome to Best College Fit (BCF) College Planning Blog, an ongoing discussion of the factors that impact the college planning process. This space will keep you abreast of critical planning strategies, introduce you to key resources and comment on timely issues that relate to your college planning effort. We look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.

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BCF Readers’ Forum 1.21.17

January 21st, 2017

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at

Dear Peter,
Unfortunately, my son was deferred Early Action at his first choice school. Other than good senior year grades, do you have any suggestions for increasing his chances for Regular acceptance? Should he be contacting the admissions officer and following up periodically? Or, would that be perceived as an annoyance?

Dear Barb,
At this point, the best things to do are stay focused in the classroom and provide brief updates regarding relevant achievements to the regional recruiter. You’re right that he doesn’t want to become an annoyance, so he needs to be measured in his outreach.

Your son might also consider a campus visit between now and the end of February during which he would stay overnight and go to classes. The admission office might be able to set it up for him—and while there, he should drop by to say “hello” to the regional rep (if available). Otherwise, patience is the best course of action.

Dear Peter,
As a college counselor, I have an outstanding student this year who was deferred at an Ivy League school in the Early Action round. She is truly outstanding, and would do very well at this college, but I am wondering if the fact that our school is a tiny, nonprofit Montessori school may be why she was not admitted?

Our school has adopted an “Early College” model. I am wondering if these highly selective colleges view that as inferior in any way, as our students take most of their courses at the community college. I attended a conference workshop where it was implied that APs or IB are the only curricula that are considered rigorous by these colleges, and that CC courses are viewed unfavorably.

At this point, I am considering calling the admission office at this college to gain some insight on which part of her application they considered weak so she can address it in the update she is planning to send in February.

Dear Thomas,
In order to understand the admission decision, you need to remember that colleges offering Early Action are typically admitting only the students they KNOW they would admit in the Regular Decision round. Had the college in question known with absolute certainty that it would have admitted your student in its Regular Admission (when fewer than 5% are admitted), it would have taken her EA.

It is hard to know whether questions about your student’s strength of curriculum could have come into to play. The AP and IB curricula are indeed highly regarded for their rigor. Whereas, admission officers will immediately recognize the standardized curricula (IB, AP) in which the student has performed, there is much more variability of rigor in community college courses. As a result, admission officers will not have the same benchmarking opportunity with students who have taken CC courses making it more incumbent on the student to present superior (and intriguing) credentials otherwise.

Contacting the college’s admission office directly might be helpful although you are likely to hear that the decision is a “reflection of the nature of the competition.”

Dear Peter,
My son was deferred Early Decision at his first choice school. In the meantime he received two acceptances; one has already provided the aid/scholarship amount. Each letter indicates a deposit is required, but also that it doesn’t have to be made until May 1st. I know my son will be making his decision long before then, but are there any issues with waiting to hear from the other colleges before sending a deposit? We’ve received a few follow-up emails from the schools that admitted him indicating they’d like the deposit as soon as possible. I don’t want to negatively affect anything, but I just wanted to be sure.

Dear Sue,
Sorry to hear about your son’s deferral, but it sounds like he is being courted by a few other places. Good for him! Unless an acceptance has come through an Early Decision process, he is not obligated to submit an enrollment deposit until May 1. Frankly, there is no need to rush. He will not lose his offers of admission. Some schools might push the ethical bounds by indicating he needs to enroll by an earlier date in order to secure a scholarship or special housing—hopefully that is not the case, though. The National Association of College Admission Counseling admonishes colleges not to engage in that type of behavior! With acceptances in hand, though, he can make his enrollment decision whenever he is ready.

Dear Peter,
Is Junior year too soon to fill out financial forms?

Dear Stephanie,  
The Junior year really is too early to complete the financial aid applications. In fact, your official FAFSA submission can’t be completed until October 1 of your student’s Senior year. That said, you can use online FAFSA forecasters and/or the Net Price Calculators on college websites to get an early (and rough) idea about your eligibility for financial aid.

Dear Peter,
My son is in the process of applying to several highly selective universities. Although he does not want to major in music, he is interested in continuing to participate in marching band and other ensembles in college. He is one of the top musicians in his school, currently serving as drum major and participating in regional honors bands since his Freshman year. Would it be to his advantage to reach out to the music department indicating he is applying to the university and is extremely excited to hopefully join the music programs available? Does that kind of request ever filter back to admissions?

Dear Melanie,
Your son should absolutely reach out to the music directors at the colleges that interest him. If they offer auditions, it cannot hurt to give it a try. (He might do this even though he is not interested in pursing music academically.) If they don’t, he should consider recording a selection of personal performances for the directors to hear. Much like athletic coaches who are eager to attract top talent onto their rosters, music directors want to assemble the best talent possible for their ensembles! And, yes, if they like what they hear, they could well become advocates for your son in the admission process.

Encourage your son to reach out to the music directors sooner than later.  He’ll never know whether his talent might have been a leveraging point in the admission process unless he tries. Good luck!

Dear Peter,
Thank you so much for coming to our school! I’ve been following your advice and replying to every email I get from colleges that interest me. Is it okay for me to set up a standard reply email for them, or should I write each one by hand?

Dear Nikhil,
In replying to colleges—especially those that you like—I suggest a customized response for each. They are looking for evidence that you are attempting to make a personal connection with them. A standard reply will not convey that impression.

Dear Peter,
Since my son was deferred Early Action, he received some additional honors and was chosen for significant roles in the theatre program. Is this information that he should pass along to the admission office at the EA school. If so, how and when should he do it?

Dear Jill,
While staying in touch and developing relationships with colleges is important, your son should do so in a thoughtful, sincere manner as it is important that the recipient regards the information as interesting and insightful. Students need to be careful not to come across as calculating the timing and/or content of messaging simply for effect. Admission officers are busy right now and they will regard as frivolous any interruptions that are not substantive in nature.

Dear Peter,
We have started visiting schools. My daughter, a Junior, is interested in a Physical Therapy program. When should we start applying to colleges? Is it too soon?

Dear Enrico,
The application process typically starts early in the senior year of high school. Each college will provide an outline of its deadlines so you might check with the admission pages of their respective websites.

Posted in College Planning, Early Decision/Action | No Comments »


“Time to Transfer?” 1.14.17

January 14th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

I had a number of conversations over the last several weeks with individuals who wanted to talk about the college transfer process. They were coming at the discussion from a variety of different perspectives ranging from the intentional to the desperate. The one thing they had in common was that they weren’t where they wanted to be—or so they thought.

In light of these conversations, it would seem appropriate to discuss the topic further in this space where the insight gleaned might help both those active in the transfer process as well as families that might be weighing the transfer option as part of the four year educational plan.

Before we look at the transfer process, it is important to acknowledge that many educators agree the optimal learning experience is one that takes place over four years on one campus. While there are certainly great examples of individuals who have pieced together meaningful undergrad experiences at multiple schools, the continuity of one academic program—and the relationships that emerge through it—typically fosters a more holistic experience and often produces more favorable results after graduation.

Opportunities to transfer into institutions are typically contingent on two factors: the availability of space and the availability of funds (for those who may need assistance). For example, schools that experience very little turnover in student enrollment (prior to graduation) may take on few, if any, transfers in a given year. These are places that, by virtue of rigorous admission standards, can make sure the students who enter, either as first-year students or transfers, are well equipped to manage the expectations of their respective classrooms.

Many of them also invest significantly in the various types of support needed for their students to find success. As a result, students who enter usually stay and graduate. Not surprisingly, these are also places that many students seeking to transfer see as “destination schools.”

By contrast, institutions more open to transfers are those that experience greater attrition prior to graduation. Their ability to support transfer students who need financial assistance may vary from year to year depending on the funds available at the time. It is possible, then, that institutions could extend offers of transfer admission but fail to provide the necessary financial aid.

In any case, the admission process for transfer candidates is remarkably similar to that of first-year applicants with several notable exceptions. 1) The high school transcript often takes a “back seat” to the college record in the credential review process. 2) The high school extracurricular record becomes secondary to involvement at the college level. 3) A statement is often required of the “sending” dean of student affairs attesting to the student’s good standing at the institution. 4) Finally, transfer students will be expected to address their reasons for transferring. The more selective the process, the greater the scrutiny that will be given to each factor as admission officers ask the question, “If we admit this student, what do we get?”

Given this background on the process, the rationale for transferring can be considered contextually. While there are myriad reasons for transferring, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Intentional
  2. Circumstantial
  3. Reactive

Intentional  The transfer process is both expedient and intentional for students who plan from the outset to piece together academic experiences at multiple schools. For some, it’s a matter of finances. They plan to address general education requirements at a community college or state university where the cost per credit is much lower before transferring into a four-year college to complete their degree requirements. Others simply need to develop academic competencies (and confidence) before embarking on a four-year degree.

Regardless, students intending to pursue a “2+2” degree path need to make sure the potential destination colleges promise to accept the coursework taken during the first two years and to support the transferring student with need-based financial aid. Many community colleges have negotiated articulation agreements with four-year programs that offer such assurances.

Circumstantial  Sometimes, the “best laid” plans fail to accommodate changes in circumstance at a chosen college. For example, unforeseen changes in career interest, access to competitive opportunities athletically, health concerns, or financial support may put a student in the position of having to look for a new college home. When this happens, it is best to work with advisors at the “sending” school to compile a compelling statement in support of the transfer.

Reactive  Some of my recent exchanges were with parents, worried that the first-year experience for their students isn’t going so well. Such revelations are never easy especially in light of the time and energy that was expended in the initial college selection process. As a result, parents are often conflicted about what to do—rush to their students’ sides with assurances that a transfer is in order or let things work themselves out on their own.

That the transfer “button” has been touched in any way is often symptomatic of adjustment issues (i.e. homesickness, high school relationship that is “on the rocks,” or envy—“the grass is greener somewhere else”) that do indeed benefit from time, experience and, in some cases, added maturity. My experience is that the vast majority of scenarios that seem highly worrisome at the end of the first semester have all but been forgotten by the end of the second.

Summary: All potential transfer scenarios must be carefully considered, not only for the benefits that seem to be immediately apparent, but for the long-term implications. If you go down the path of the transfer applicant, do so with your eyes wide open and an honest assessment of your rationale for doing so.

Posted in College Planning, Hot Topics/Trends | 2 Comments »


“Getting Started: January College Planning Tips” 1.7.17

January 7th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

In many households around the country, the start of a new calendar year marks the beginning of the college planning process. After much holiday talk about possible college destinations, high school Juniors now gird themselves for the inevitable rush of activity that will culminate in college applications less than a year from now. (And many younger students will soon find themselves on the “college trail” as well.) Wherever you, the student, are in the process, keep the following in mind as you engage in college planning.

1.    Stay student-centered. Quite often, students (and their parents) focus on the “answer” without first addressing the “question.” They know the “what”—college is the predetermined outcome—before they have carefully considered the “why.” This can lead to uninformed choices and, eventually, a sense of aimlessness once in college.

Before starting to draft college lists, contemplate important questions such as: “Why do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to accomplish by the time you graduate?” “In what type of academic environment do you function best?” In other words, put yourself—and your needs—first in all deliberations.

2.    Resist the temptation to start with a list of destination or target colleges. You still have plenty of time for that. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to see what is “out there.” Go window-shopping. Check out colleges of all sizes, shapes and locations. The more you know—the broader the perspective you can gain now—the easier it will be to make critical distinctions later.

3.    Keep rankings and reputations in perspective. We’ll talk about rankings in later missives, but know this: by allowing yourself to be strongly influenced by rankings and reputation at the start of your search, you risk denying yourself an awareness of options that might be more viable for you in the long run.

4.    Focus on fit. Student-centered decision-making means that the optimal solution (college choice) will be the one that fits you best. It will:

1)    Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs.
2)    Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn.
3)    Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation.
4)    Offer a community that feels like home to you.
5)    Value you for what you have to offer.

As you consider different college possibilities, be deliberate about making sure that each passes the “best fit” test before moving them into “preferred” status.

5.    Establish a hierarchy of importance. As you sort through the various factors that seem to influence your decision-making, i.e. location, distance from home, presence of a top-ranked athletic program, etc., consider their importance in your choice of colleges. Are they “essential,” “very important” or do they fit in a “would be nice” category? Be honest in your assessments. Don’t let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

6.    Road trip! While the Internet provides a ready opportunity to search for colleges from the comfort of your home, now is a good time to start visiting college campuses. Take tours. Participate in information sessions. Record your visits—take notes (and pictures).

7.    Don’t rush to judgment. There is plenty of time before you need to worry about focusing on specific schools. Allow your list to grow. As you do, reflect on what you are learning about yourself and the factors that define a good fit for you. Later, as you begin working toward a short list of colleges, utilize the “hierarchy of importance” to make sure you are targeting the places that make the most sense to you.

8.    Get on colleges’ radar screens. As you learn about colleges, make sure you get credit for the contacts you are making at college nights, information sessions at your school and campus visits. Fill out information cards and registration forms whenever possible. Many places are keeping track and will eventually, when you become an applicant, try to predict the likelihood of your enrollment based on the nature of your engagement with them.

9.    Talk with your parents about cost and affordability. You need to go into this process with your eyes wide open. It is no secret that a four-year college education can be very expensive. Try to get a sense as to what your family can or is willing to afford relative to college costs. Consider yourself lucky if you are fortunate to be able to afford four years of college out-of-pocket. On the other hand, if you need assistance, realize that hundreds of millions of dollars of institutional funding is available to students each year. In order to tap into this support, you will need to manage your expectations and direct your attention to places that will value you for what you have to offer.

10.    Develop a strategy for testing. On which test, SAT or ACT, do you want to focus? It’s generally a good idea to take a test at least twice—but not more than three times—over the next twelve months. It is important to remember, though, that you own the results and that means that no results should be released to colleges, universities or scholarship-granting organizations without your authorization.

11.    Make good choices. Every day, you have the opportunity to make choices that have a domino effect on how you live the next day. Now, more than ever, the choices you make in school—and in life—will have a bearing on how you will compete for admission. Like it or not, everything counts. So, make choices that will give admission committees confidence that you are well prepared and best suited for their environments. Don’t wait to become a college applicant—you are already one now!

Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students is an excellent resource for students getting started with college planning. It includes timelines, tips and exercises for students that walk them through the college search and application processes. Prepare, Compete, Win! is available in the BCF Bookstore.

P.S. Stay with us! While this blog and others to follow are designed to help orient younger students to the college process, I will continue to provide guidance to current college applicants on important decision-making matters through the early part of May.

Posted in College Planning | 2 Comments »


“Life After the PSAT” 12.10.16

December 10th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

The middle of December is a time of important revelations for many young people as they apply to college. If you are a high school Junior, the chances are you will learn your PSAT result in the next few days. As momentous as this event (the unveiling of your scores) might seem, you need to keep it in perspective.

After months of preparation—pre-tests, test prep and practice tests—the PSAT you took in October is real. It is important to remember, though, that the result you receive does not define your intelligence nor does it reveal your worth as an individual. It can, however, serve as a starting point in giving definition to your opportunities as a college applicant. If you like what you see, congratulations! You’re off to a good start. But, if your numbers don’t measure up to your expectations, relax—your life isn’t over.

As a matter of fact, the last thing you want to do is jump to conclusions such as, “Wow! Look at that score! I’ll be able to get in wherever I want to go!” or “I might as well forget it. I’ll never get into a ‘good’ school.” Remember, this is just a starting point for your college planning. If you posted amazing scores, it is true you are likely to attract a lot of unsolicited attention from colleges—and considerable advice from anyone who has an opinion about where you should be looking. If, on the other hand, your score disappoints you, don’t despair. There is plenty of time to work on your credentials and to define a set of quality options for yourself.

However you feel about your test results, don’t let them change you. Big scores are no more a guarantee of admission and scholarships than modest scores are a limitation of opportunity. Use what you learn from the results to plan effectively. Stay focused on your priorities. Do what you do as well as you can. And look for colleges that value you for what you do well.

A few words of caution for students with high PSAT results:
While some institutions will offer you the “sun and the moon” because your scores are very high and you might be qualified for selection as a National Merit Scholar, make sure those places are good fits for you. Will they be able to offer you the kind of learning environment, as well as the program of study, that is important to you? Don’t make any commitments, even emotionally, until you have visited their campuses.

In addition, understand that the more selective institutions will see hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates with scores just like yours—and turn down many of them. A high score is not a guarantee of admission.

How to Use the PSAT Results
While I am not a fan of standardized testing as an evaluative tool in the admission process, your results can help you generate a list of schools at which you should be able to compete for admission. To get started in that direction, add 60 points to your total score to project the typical improvement shown over the course of 2-3 additional SAT test administrations.

With that information in hand, look at the range of SAT scores for enrolled students reported by the schools that interest you. Focus on the places where your projected result would put you in the top half of the scores reported. Do the same for your ACT results if you took that test. This approach to selecting schools isn’t foolproof, but it will help you identify the right competitive “playing fields” for you given your credentials.

Where Does Test Prep Fit?
Effective engagement in test preparation can make a difference in your subsequent SAT/ACT results. As you consider test prep, though, keep in mind that success involves a serious commitment of time and effort. Simply buying the course won’t make the difference.

If you decide to invest in test prep, focus on the options that best suit your learning style and schedule. Possibilities include personal one-to-one tutoring, classroom instruction and online instruction. Plan your involvement in order to complete the course within two weeks of the targeted test date.

Be wary of guaranteed results. Quite often, the guarantee speaks to projected improvement from your last official test result to the practice test taken at the conclusion of the course—not your next official examination!

Additional Tips for Managing Your Test Results
Now that you have “gotten your feet wet” with testing, keep the following in mind as you proceed with additional testing.

  • You have testing options. In the coming months, try the SAT and the ACT to discover the style of test that fits you best. Then, focus on preparing for that test. Every college in the country uses ACT and SAT results interchangeably .
  • Limit yourself to three sittings for the test you choose (ACT/SAT). There is a point of diminishing return! Don’t become a slave to testing and test prep when your time can be better spent elsewhere.
  • Remember you have “score choice” at your disposal. This means you can choose the scores you would like to forward to colleges. When you take the SAT, you will be given the opportunity to designate up to four colleges to receive your results. Don’t list any schools unless you don’t care that they see all of your scores. Instead, wait until you have taken the SAT several times to determine which sets of scores you’d like to send.
  • Speaking of options, more than 850 colleges and universities now welcome applications without test results. Visit to see the list of “test optional” schools.
  • Read a lot! If you are determined to improve your testing performance, don’t overlook the impact of exposure to language and ideas found contextually in books and articles. Hard as it might be to imagine in the world of electronics in which we live, reading can be fun and very inexpensive!

Posted in Testing/Test Prep | No Comments »


“Financial Aid: December College Planning Tips” 12.3.16

December 3rd, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Getting into the college of choice might weigh heavily on your mind at the moment, but the odds are the prospect of affording college costs looms even larger. And, if financial aid is critical to your ability to attend that college—or any college for that matter—now is the time to get organized around the possibilities. The following tips are intended to help bring order to the financial aid application process.

1. Know the five sources of funding for college. The first source is—no surprise—the student’s family. The second and third are the federal and state governments which provide cash—grants, loans and work study funds (in your name)—to your chosen college in amounts that can total more than $10,000 per year.

Colleges, the fourth source, then can choose to offer “assistance” that addresses the difference between the total cost of attendance and the combined resources coming from the family and the federal and/or state governments. If they do so in the form of a grant or scholarship, they are effectively agreeing to forgive you payment in that amount. They might also offer a range of borrowing opportunities for you and your parents which will result in more cash to the college—money that you will pay back to lending institutions.

The fifth source of funding involves service organizations, philanthropic foundations and places of employment that offer scholarships. After the funding from your family, each of the other sources is integral to the overall financial support you might receive.

2. Become familiar with your “EFC.” As noted above, your family is presumed to be the first source of funding for college. The amount that your family is expected to contribute is known as your Expected Family Contribution or “EFC.” Simply put, your EFC is the difference between your family’s income and assets and your family’s cost of living. The actual determination of amounts for each category is drawn from multiple data points that are derived from the financial aid forms listed in #3 below.

3. Complete the required forms in a timely fashion. The determination of your EFC and your eligibility for funding from sources beyond the family starts with the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A government document, the FAFSA, calculates your EFC and determines your eligibility for federal, state and, in many cases, college funds. Your family should plan to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible using financial data from your 2015 IRS tax return. Upon completing the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (S.A.R.) showing your EFC will be sent to you and each of the colleges you have listed on the FAFSA.

In addition, many private institutions require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well to the determine your eligibility for institutional funding. More granular in its assessment of family finances, the Profile should also be completed as soon as possible if you are applying to any of the schools that require it. A report will be sent to the colleges you have designated. You will not receive any information regarding this need analysis.

Some colleges also require the completion of their own forms. Make sure you know the forms that are required for each college and submit them at the earliest possible date.

4. Understand the concept of “need.” In the conversation about financial aid, “need” is the difference between the total cost of attendance and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC falls short of the cost of attendance, then you have demonstrated need. Theoretically, colleges will provide financial aid to meet the demonstrated needs of the students they admit. As you will see in #5 and #6 below, though, the determination of “need” can vary from place to place as will the disposition of each college with regard to meeting your need. Moreover, you should be prepared for the likelihood that the need analysis completed using the FAFSA data might show an EFC that is lower than that revealed by the Profile.

5. Don’t make assumptions about EFC or need. And be wary of online forecasters or of any service that suggests it can optimize your financial aid potential. While parameters for determining financial need might seem to be predictable, the processes of admitting students and awarding financial aid are heavily nuanced across institutions.

For example, colleges typically engage in subjective practices such as differential needs analysis (they will choose the methodology—FAFSA or Profile—that allows them to justify the amount of “need” they will recognize) and preferential packaging (different amounts of grant, loan and work study are assembled that reflect the value attached to a given candidate) to leverage the enrollments of students they want the most. As a result, online forecasters, including the net price calculators found on college websites, rarely provide an accurate picture of your likely out-of pocket expenses should you be admitted. Moreover, some colleges will eventually make financial aid awards that come short of meeting the demonstrated need of admitted students or that include disproportionate amounts of loan—funds that will ultimately come from your pocket on top of the EFC.

6. Be prepared for the fact that not all colleges will meet your full “need.” As colleges preferentially package financial aid (see above), they will be sure to treat well those students whom they value most highly. Students who appear to be very good—but not superior—in the evaluation of credentials, might be admitted with “gapped” financial aid awards. In other words, the financial aid will come short of meeting the need (the differential between total cost of attendance and your family’s expected family contribution). Unfortunately, such financial aid awards are not very transparent—the true EFC is rarely revealed on the award letter and it is only after calculating the numbers yourself that you find the total out-of-pocket expense your family will need to assume.

By the way, don’t assume that a financial aid award comprised of large sums of loans, to be taken by the student and/or the parents, is meeting your need. The college is simply creating a range of sourcing opportunities for your family to generate cash that will help to cover our college costs. The amount of student loan to be assumed in the first year does not need to be greater $7,500 and can be less. While it might be prudent to use the parent loan (PLUS) to address your cash flow needs within the EFC be careful about taking out PLUS loan monies as part of the financial aid award.

7. Don’t wait to apply! Waiting until the admission decisions are known or until you have completed your tax returns to begin the financial aid process is extremely risky. The reason: most institutions “spend down” their financial aid budgets as they proceed through the selection process. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand to apply for aid, the money might well be gone.

8. If the numbers don’t look right, appeal! Soon after you receive an offer of admission, you should expect to receive a financial aid award letter if you have applied for financial aid. This will be true of candidates for both Early Decision and Regular Decision. Hopefully, the numbers are consistent with your expectations and you feel reassured about your ability to meet the cost of attendance for the colleges in question. If not, contact the financial aid office at the school with your questions and any new and relevant information that might be considered in an appeal of your financial aid award. Do this as soon as possible.

9. Discuss cost/affordability at home. Communication about cost and affordability at home is critical to good decision-making. Make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to how much you are able/willing to spend on a college education. This “ounce of prevention” can help to avert stressful conversations about paying for college at the end of the process.

10. Manage expectations. Know where your credentials will be most competitive and set your (college) expectations accordingly. Hundreds of millions of financial aid dollars will be awarded each year—and they will go to the students who are valued most at the institutions in question.

For more tips on navigating the financial aid process, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in Financial Aid, Meeting College Costs | 4 Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 11.21.16

November 21st, 2016

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at

Dear Peter,
My son has applied ED and has submitted applications to several other colleges in the event that the ED application is not successful. What is the best way for him to continue to keep a dialogue of sorts with the “fall-back” schools that might become more important to him after his ED decision is known?

Dear Arnie,
At this time, the most meaningful dialogue that could be initiated by your son will involve thoughtful, sincere questions that cannot be answered anywhere in the schools’ literature or websites. If none come to mind, then there is nothing to communicate. Your son needs to be careful not to come across as insecure by calculating for effect. Sometimes the best action is no action. Rather than succumbing to the urge to reach out, he simply needs to be mindful of opportunities to respond to communication that is directed to him from the colleges.

Dear Peter,
My son has a processing issue that results in homework taking him an excruciatingly long time. He has found that taking AP courses that require more reading is not feasible for him when trying to manage a full class load. But he is now comparing himself to his classmates and hearing about how the difficulty of classes is perceived and assessed by schools. He feels like his transcript will convey that he hasn’t challenged himself when, in fact, these “regular” classes have been very rigorous. Is this something he should explain in a supplemental essay?

Dear Jeanine,
I can appreciate your concern regarding the processing issues. My inclination is to err on the side of disclosure whenever there would seem to be outcomes inconsistent with expectations. In your son’s case, if the perceived lack of academic rigor can be explained by the processing issues, then such an explanation is warranted somewhere in his application. The supplemental essay can be used for this purpose.

Moreover, he might ask his guidance counselor to help tell this part of his story. Colleges that understand and respect his processing issues, and are eager—and prepared—to support him in college, will regard this information as helpful to their decision-making. On the other hand, some colleges will simply see this information as validation of a concern that he might not be adequately prepared to function in their respective environments. If it is a fear of this potential reaction that is keeping your son from disclosing, he must ask the question: “Would I really want to be at a college that would otherwise discriminate against me?” Such a college is certainly not going to go out of its way to help support him if he is admitted and enrolled.

Dear Peter,
My son heard an admission presentation at his school and would like to follow up with the rep. Do you have samples of letters to let them know that you were there and how much you would love to attend their school?

Dear Nancy,
Follow-ups to college reps should be short, to the point—and sincere. That’s why there is no template. Your son might simply say, “Just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your presentation and look forward to learning more about (insert name of program[s] he’d like to pursue). I’ve begun to make plans to visit your campus and look forward to staying in touch…” It would be great if your son could ask a thoughtful question or request clarification of information provided during the presentation as that would require a follow-up from the college representative.

Dear Peter,
It is my understanding that selective universities invite certain Early Action applicants to have an optional interview with an Alumnus sometime between mid-November to mid-December. Is this meaningful at all in terms of probability of acceptance? It seems that they would only invite applicants to interview that passed some initial screening. Given the tight turnaround time from the November 1 application due date to the invitation for an interview, I am guessing that they must do some kind of computerized screening. Any insight on this process would be very much appreciated.

Dear Antone,
While I can’t speak for all schools regarding their protocol for interviews, it is common practice for elite institutions to offer alumni interviews with applicants. Doing so is less an indicator of probability of acceptance (I would not assume any prescreening) and more so an opportunity for the institution to screen for interest on the part of the student. That said I’d urge your student to participate in the alumni interview if at all possible. It is not the content of the interview that will matter; rather, it is the fact that it takes place that can make a difference.

Dear Peter,
I met the senior associate dean of admission at one of my son’s favorite schools when we went to visit and then again this week when he gave a lecture locally. And at the end of the last lecture, I told him this was the second time meeting him and he said he remembered my question from the first meeting. He gave me his business card, I did not ask for it. I want to now email him but frankly, have no idea what to say, what is appropriate to say, etc. Please advise. Thanks!

Dear Rich,
The only reason to email this rep is if you have a thoughtful question that can’t be answered anywhere in his school’s literature or on its website. Admission officers are so busy right now that anything short of substantive inquiries from the “outside” will be regarded as a nuisance that could risk introducing a negative bias for the candidate. Moreover, the more pertinent contact would come from your son, not you. If you don’t know what to say, there is no need to contact the gentleman.

Dear Peter,
When a student submits SAT scores, and a school offers “super-scoring,” does the admission team see the full test for each day, or does an admin compile a file for each kid so the evaluating admission officer only sees the highest scores from each date combined? In other words, if my student’s high math score is accompanied by a relatively low critical reading score, is it a risk to send a low critical reading score from an exposure standpoint?

Dear Annalise,
The processing of test scores will vary at each institution. At many schools, the super-scoring takes place at the point of data entry. As a result, application readers only see the super-score result. At other, often more selective, schools the full set of subscores will be visible to the reviewers in which case there is some exposure risk to providing all scores as those schools might discriminate on the anomalously low subscore or, in your student’s case, the critical reading score.

Dear Peter,
After attending one of your recent presentations, we have been excited about visiting colleges, one of which has impressed us very much. My daughter is a Junior. We have never done this before and wonder when should we start applying to colleges?

Dear Millie,
I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation! The application process typically starts early in the Senior year of high school although some colleges will invite applications before that. Each college will provide an outline of its deadlines so you might check with the admission pages of their respective websites.

Posted in Application Info, Early Decision/Action, Learning Differences, Testing/Test Prep | 6 Comments »


“College Application Essays: Do’s & Don’ts” 11.12.16

November 12th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk 

At this time of year, I am often asked to react to dozens of college essays. Happily, the students in question see the opportunity to make an impact with the written word and are eager to put forth their best efforts. Unfortunately, many essays that are presumably in “final form” when they reach me are really not ready for “prime time.” The concepts are generally well conceived, but the presentation—from a technical perspective—reveals that much work can still be done to make a good essay great.

With that thought in mind, I would like to share the following editorial suggestions as they relate to the essay drafting process. For additional perspective you can visit the College Planning Blog archives to see another article I wrote on July 6, 2016, “Addressing the College Essay Blues,” that provides a complementary view of the essay writing process.

  1. Don’t try to pack everything you’ve done into your essay. Be careful to avoid the redundancy of reciting activities and/or accomplishments that will be found in other parts of your application. Quite frankly, resume narratives are dull and useless. Similarly, if your essay reads like a vacation travelogue, you have most likely “missed the boat.” Rather, take an expansive approach to a particular aspect of the topic at hand. If you can, focus on a revelation that changed your perspective. In doing so, you give the reader insight into a part of your life experience that won’t appear anywhere else on the application.
  2. In response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt, don’t restate the obvious about the college or university in question. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution.
  3. Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
  4. Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be just as impactful as a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
  5. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts.
  6. Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
  7. Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about).  Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
  8. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
  9. Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
  10. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
  11. Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
  12. Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
  13. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
  14. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
  15. Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
  16. Finally, don’t assume that because a teacher or college advisor has “signed off” on an essay that it is finished. In all likelihood, that person is simply acknowledging that you are on the right track—that the essay is a good representation of the messages you want to convey. Taking it to the next level—making a good essay “great”—is your job!

Posted in Application Info, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application | No Comments »


“Keys to Submitting a Winning Application: November College Planning Tips” 11.5.16

November 5th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

As deadlines for college applications approach, it is important to be both organized and purposeful in your preparations. The following ten tips will help you avoid common mistakes as you put the finishing touches on your applications.

1. Focus on a short list of no more than eight colleges. The greater the number of applications you submit, the more likely it is you appear (to the colleges) to be applying whimsically—and the greater the likelihood that “application fatigue” will begin to effect your ability to do a good job with each application. Stay focused on the core group of schools that represent good fits for you. In most cases, eight is more than enough.

2. “Connect the dots”—tell your story! Be purposeful in your presentation—eliminate the randomness of your submissions. Establish a theme and use every part of the application to connect the dots (various data points) of your life experience to create a clear picture of who you are and what the college gets by admitting you.

3. Answer the “why” question thoughtfully. Colleges that ask you to write about “why you want to attend” are really trying to discern the synergy that exists between your goals, needs and learning style and their respective learning environments. Don’t tell them things they already know about themselves. Admission officers don’t want to hear about their highly ranked programs, great faculty or beautiful facilities—at least, not in this essay! Instead, reveal to them how, where and why you have found meaningful connections. Prove to the reader that you “get it”—that you understand how the learning environment in question makes the most sense for you.

4. Take pride in your presentation. Your application is like a personal statement that needs to state the case for your admission. Proofread it carefully. Read it out loud. Resist the temptation to repurpose information from one application to another—to do what is “good enough.” Make sure each application you submit is a positive reflection of who you are and what you have to offer.

5. Know your high school’s rules/procedures for supporting the college application process. Give the appropriate personnel time to prepare and complete your supporting documentation. Quite often, schools want information at least a week in advance of the actual application deadlines. Don’t put your college advisor in a bind by waiting until the last minute.

6. Make sure your recommenders are “on the same page” with regard to key messages you need to convey on your application. Your college advisor and the teachers who are supporting you are important partners in the presentation of your credentials.

7. Be organized. The application process involves the management of many moving parts (score reports, letters of recommendations, essays, supplemental forms, etc.). Make sure your part of the application is submitted with the application fee by the posted deadline. At that point, the colleges to which you have applied will create unique data files for you into which any other outstanding credentials will be added as they arrive.

To make sure everything gets to where it needs to be in a timely fashion, create a spreadsheet on which you can list and track all the information you need to submit to each college. If you can, submit your part of the application two weeks in advance of the college’s deadline in order to beat the rush.

8. Don’t assume—anything! At a time when deadlines and requirements are critical, it would be a mistake to assume that someone else has taken care of something for you! It is your job to make sure your application is complete and that it carries the key messages that help to define your life experience—and distinguish your candidacy.

Give yourself extra time to work with the formatting of your essays (no need for panicked melt-downs the night before deadlines!) and get in touch with the regional representatives from the colleges in question for guidance if you run into difficulty interpreting the requirements for their respective institutions.

9. Save copies. It might seem like a hassle, but take the time to make and save copies (hard copy or electronic) of the application materials you submit. You never know when you might need to refer to them.

Make arrangements to have test scores submitted directly to the colleges. It you have not already authorized the submission of test results (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests) to the colleges that require them, now is the time to do so.

10. Stay on their radar screens! One of the biggest mistakes students make at this point in the process is they fail to stay engaged with the schools to which they are applying! The assumption seems to be: “They have my application, so they know I’m interested.” Guess again! One of the biggest reasons bright and talented students do not get into target schools has to do with questions about the sincerity of the candidate’s interest. Answer emails that might come your way from those schools. Visit the campus. Direct important questions to the staff person at the university who recruits in your area. Don’t allow the decision-makers to regard you as a “ghost applicant.”

For more tips on preparing on your application, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in Application Info, Preparing the Application, The Admission Process | 3 Comments »