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 8.19.17

August 19th, 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,
My son intends to answer the demographic question of “Are you Latino or Hispanic?” with a “Yes” response because “My grandmother is Puerto Rican so, I am 25% Hispanic.”

Would ”yes” be the correct response? While on the Common App he further identifies himself as a “White, Caucasian” in the next demographic question, some other school applications do not offer this follow-up question about self-identity. Any advice you could give would be MUCH appreciated.

Dear Ellen,
A student’s response to the demographic prompt is a matter of personal perspective and interpretation. Checking “Hispanic” is not likely to help your son unless there is evidence in his application that his Hispanic heritage is a defining element of his character and life experience. Absent such evidence, the check in the box could come across as curious, if not disingenuous.

Dear Peter,
Due to a scheduling conflict, our son is having difficulty fitting a science class into his senior schedule. He is considering an online science class. We have been advised that an online class is not viewed very highly by selective institutions. Do you find this to be true?

Dear Matt,
I understand the dilemma regarding an online course. Admission officers will assess academic effort/choices contextually when they can. In general, they want to see what students will do when they don’t think they have to do anything—or, like your son, when they would seem to be cut off from a preferred curricular option. While taking a science course online might not be your son’s preferred option, it is better than having none at all this year. Given the circumstances, I don’t see any harm in taking science online.

Dear Peter,
What colleges would you recommend for the young person “whose sense of self and direction is still emerging”?

Dear Mary,
Much depends on the academic background and strength of the student. Liberal arts colleges are good landing places for academically accomplished students who are still finding direction as those colleges are very intentional about exposing students to a range of content and opportunity.

Some argue that two-year colleges, or less expensive four-year colleges, are good places for students to explore before completing an undergraduate degree at a four-year college. This approach can be effective, and is certainly less expensive. The potential downside is that the student loses the continuity and context of the four-year progression on a single campus.

Finally, the gap year (or two) can be an effective option for students who are in need of focus and intentionality. Students who have stepped away from the classroom for a period of time quite often return with renewed determination and direction that fuels their success in college.

Dear Peter,
I was debating whether or not I should take any SAT Subject tests. None of the schools I am applying to require them. In your opinion, would submitting SAT subject scores give any sort of benefit?

Dear Sam,
If SAT Subject Tests are not required at the colleges to which you are applying, there is no need to take them. Focus instead on investing in those other aspects of your application (extracurricular involvement, essay development, relationship building with college reps, etc.) that are more likely to determine your competitiveness.

Dear Peter,
In your opinion, is writing about one’s mental health in the application too risky? Would admitting to overcoming mental health challenges put my daughter in a negative light in terms of admissions or would some admissions officers consider it a brave topic to write about?

Dear Gillian,
I typically advise students that strength can be found in making themselves vulnerable. If your daughter has a compelling story to tell regarding her struggles and is comfortable telling it, she has the potential to convey confidence, focus and strength of character. Or, she might enlist her guidance counselor for support in this regard. The question to the latter might be, “How can you help me tell my story?” Quite often, the third-party testimonial to such situations can be quite powerful in the application.

There is no guarantee that admission officers will respond in the affirmative. Colleges that recognize both the strength of her character and the power of her journey, however, will want to celebrate her talents and invest in helping her achieve her goals.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is applying to a highly selective university that gives her the choice of reporting her weighted or unweighted GPA. Her unweighted GPA is 4.0 and weighted is 4.698, showing that she takes very challenging IB classes. Which is more impressive and aren’t they going to look at her transcript and find out that info themselves? Why are they making her choose?

Dear Art,
In my opinion, there is no question that the weighted rank should be reported. Not only does it indicate that your daughter has chosen a very rigorous program, it speaks well to her impressive performance in that curriculum. Frankly, I’m not sure why a college wouldn’t want to see the weighted GPA. My guess is the institution in question is larger and more formula driven in its assessment of candidates in which case human eyes might not get to the detail of the transcript as well as the accompanying interpretive high school profile.

Dear Peter,
What is your opinion about going Early Action versus Regular Admission?

Dear Suzanne,
The question of Early Action versus Regular Decision really depends on the colleges in question. If your student applies EA to colleges where his credentials project him to be among the better candidates and the probability of admission for him is 50% or better, EA might help in the long run (at worst, he is deferred and given an opportunity to compete again as a Regular Decision candidate). At colleges where the probabilities for him are less than 50%, the chances are greater that he will simply be denied as an EA candidate.

Whereas the submission of an Early Decision application can measurably improve one’s chances of admission at most colleges, the EA application usually doesn’t carry the same advantage.

Dear Peter,
My son has played football for the past 5 years. He has worked hard, gone to most every practice and loved every minute…until last year. He is going to be a senior and just told us that he doesn’t want to play this season. We want to be supportive parents but we also want to make sure he has thought this through. Does it look awful on college applications if he chooses not to play his senior year?

Dear LeeAnn,
The question of continuing sport involvement is a good one. As a former 3-sport athlete, I well understand the rigors of training and competing—and I was a marginal athlete! When your efforts are rewarded with playing time, the commitment can seem worthwhile. On the other hand, I can understand the sense of futility that might set in if playing time isn’t a likelihood. I don’t know your son’s status on the football team, but if he doesn’t factor into the game-plan, finding other outlets for his energy might be a good idea.

That said, I have encountered accomplished athletes who 1) have simply lost the passion for their sport, 2) because of their slight stature, don’t want to risk injury, or 3) need to make tough choices about how to commit their time in the senior year. All reasons are valid. Should he choose not to play football, the key for your son is to make sure his situation is explained. It would also behoove him to make sure he is filling his new-found time with constructive activity. Dropping football shouldn’t be a problem in the admission process if the decision is well-considered and your son has a well-articulated plan for moving on.

Dear Peter,
The SAT prep class in which I had planned to enroll my daughter has come highly recommended and I believe she would really benefit from the approach it takes. Unfortunately, it is being run for those who will be taking the November 4, 2017 SAT. They are not running a prep class for those who will be sitting for the October 7, 2017 SAT which is the one my daughter was planning to take. We are not that confident in the prep program being run for the October test date.

Would you recommend that she take the October or November 2017 exam? She is not planning on applying Early Decision, but she may apply Early Action to a few schools. If she were to wait to take the November SAT, she would have the advantage of having this strong prep class under her belt. If she were your child—what would you recommend she do? This whole process has become VERY complicated.

Dear Fiona,
I would urge your daughter to enroll in a test prep program that doesn’t add undue stress. Test prep is only as good as the synergy that exists between the student, the instructor and the medium of instruction. Any company can be very good—or very bad—for a given student.

There’s nothing wrong with prepping for and taking the November SAT, especially if the only October prep option is one in which you don’t have much confidence. As long as your daughter indicates on her applications that she will be sitting for the November SAT, most colleges will wait for the results before making decisions.

Posted in Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Hot Topics/Trends, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep | No Comments »


“Find a College That Feels Like Home” 8.9.17

August 9th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

“I need to get out of here!” It’s a feeling shared by teenagers almost daily that is expressed loudly to anyone within earshot. And “here” is wherever you are at the moment—home, school, community. Just about anywhere else would be better than where you are.

Perhaps you recognize the symptoms. It seems the older you get the more claustrophobic your world becomes. Everybody is in your business and you need space. You’re ready for a new look, a change of scenery. And right about now, college seems like an inviting destination.

As eager as you might be to get up and go, though, the chances are there is a quiet voice inside you (never to be heard by anyone else!) that says something like, “I’m not sure I want to go. They feed me and let me drive their car. Besides, my friends are right around the corner. I actually have a good life here. Do I really have to leave?”

The answer is “yes.” At some point you will need to find a change of address. And, if that place will be a college, why not find one that bears the qualities you like in your home environment—a place that includes people with shared values and interests, a place where people will encourage you on bad days and celebrate with you the good days? Why not find a community into which you can settle comfortably?

When you think about it, the best college fit will be a place that offers a community in which you will feel comfortable. It will be a place where you won’t be distracted by worries about how you fit in. You won’t worry about what people think about you—how you talk, what you say, how you dress or what you think. You won’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Instead, you can relax and focus on getting the most out of your college experience and that includes, by the way, your academic work. There is a strong correlation between one’s comfort level in college—and one’s grade point average!

So, how do you find such a place? It’s hard to search the Internet for such a fit. Chat room conversations can be deceptive as they tend to reflect only the opinions of those who participate.  And the images you see on videos and in printed materials are rarely unattractive.

As a result, you will need to do some original research. Specifically, you need to experience college campuses and, in the process, be sensitive to your “gut” reactions. Quite often students who believe they’ve found the colleges of their dreams are hard-pressed to explain the attraction, except to say, “It’s a gut feeling. It feels right—like I would be at home.” As you think about living apart from the comforts of home, finding your niche is vitally important so let your gut go to work for you.

What “gut feeling” do you hope to find as you look at colleges? Look for students who come from similar backgrounds—who share your interests and your loyalties. While they shouldn’t be exact clones of your friends from home, it’s a good sign if they are people from whom you can learn and around whom you can grow personally. In all likelihood, your gut will tell you when you have found people you’d like to get to know better.

Moreover, what does your gut tell you about a college’s inclination to stretch and support you through various aspects of your college experience? Do you sense that people in a given environment will encourage and support you in your journey of self-discovery? Based on your experience on college campuses, where do you see evidence that interaction with others will help broaden your perspective—get you to take risks and think outside of the box periodically? What does your gut tell you about how an environment will respond if you struggle? Will anyone know?  Will anyone care?

The answers to these questions will help define the ideal college community for you. At a time in your life when you might be aching to get away and have a different experience, it’s vital that you “land” well when you get to college. Be careful not to react impulsively, then, as you consider your college “home away from home.” Be sure to test your reactions. Until you can experience such a place first hand and come away with a really strong, positive “gut feeling,” that feeling only exists in your imagination. Be prepared to visit campuses—and revisit and revise your list accordingly—as your college search continues until one day you will know the place that feels right for you because it feels like home!

Posted in Campus Visits, College Planning | 1 Comment »


“College Rankings: August College Planning Tips” 8.2.17

August 2nd, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

August is here—and so are college rankings. With a new college admission cycle looming, editors from Money Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review have once again begun to ply us with a parade of ranking guides that presume to reveal the “best values” in education, identify the best “party” schools or, simply, quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges. Before you get out your credit card or rush to print out a list of the “best” colleges, though, take a moment to consider the following:

1.    Rankings are not science. The data collection process relies on self-reported information from colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped to standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to manage the manner in which their data is assembled.

Moreover, editors are able to creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive. For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication’s editors (U.S. News & World Report) will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on the values of its presumed peers.

2.    Rankings are highly subjective. Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings reputation carries the greatest weight. On the surface, that might make sense—until you come to know how reputation is “measured.”

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form admit they are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected guidance counselors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all “voters” continues to be abysmally low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

3.    Rankings change each year because …? Change is glacial in nature on college campuses, yet every year the outcome of the rankings changes. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors’ need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

4.    Apples and Oranges. While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different with regard to programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations—another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task.

5.    Be discriminating. The definitions of “best” are essentially editorial opinions dressed up in pseudo-facts. Contrived to sell magazines, they might not—and, in fact, should not—be the beginning point for your college selection process. Don’t become blinded by these definitions of the “best.” You need to arrive at your own definition of the best that is rooted in your needs, interests and learning style.

6.    Project yourself into the picture. You must ask yourself, “What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me/my student?” Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright, but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that apply to your situation?

7.    Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. More specifically, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Unlike the purchase process with regard to other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. Rankings don’t get kids into college nor do they necessarily point you in the direction that is best for you.

Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from sensible, student-centered decision-making.

Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this fall will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?

Frankly, the rankings phenomenon has grown wearisome. The notion that all of America’s best colleges can be rank ordered in any context (“party schools,” academic reputation,” etc.)—that the mythical pecking order can actually be quantified—is foolhardy. It makes too many wandering assumptions about people and places, cultures and values, quality and—believe it or not—fit.

Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientation and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed becomes more important than what is to be accomplished or why that goal might be important or how the institution might best serve the student. When distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.

Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.

Posted in College Rankings, Hot Topics/Trends | 3 Comments »


“Find a Good College ‘Fit’ Academically” 7.26.17

July 26th, 2017

by Peter Van Buskirk

How comfortable are you around water? Are you a strong swimmer or do you struggle to keep your head above water? Are you comfortable venturing into the deeper water or do you prefer to wade into shallow water as long as the bottom is visible and the footing is certain? Most people expose themselves to water and swimming situations according to their respective levels of skill and comfort—no more, no less.

The same might be true as you assess your comfort level with different academic environments in search of a good college “fit.” Just as you might study a body of water to figure out its temperature, depth and current (relative to your levels of tolerance) before venturing in, you need to investigate the rigor, pace and depth of an academic environment—and your ability to keep your “head above water” if admitted—before deciding to apply.

When assessing academic rigor as an indication of “fit,” you are likely to find that you have the capacity to “get the job done” academically in a range of college environments. In other words, to follow the metaphor, you are not likely to have difficulty with the water itself. You will fit best, however, in environments where your ability and preparation enable you to rise to new levels of challenge.

Your objective, then, should be to find academic environments where your levels of ability and preparation will enable you to achieve well as you stretch yourself intellectually. These places represent appropriate “bodies of water” for you academically. The best sources of insight regarding your preparedness to meet the academic rigor of various colleges and universities are your high school teachers. Their familiarity with your capabilities can be invaluable in identifying the colleges where you will be well served academically.

Assuming you are able to identify appropriate environments academically, you now need to assess the competitiveness of your credentials for admission to those colleges. How does your record stack up with those of other candidates, most (about 90%) of whom are just like you in that they can do the work, too?

A helpful guide in this regard is to compare your credentials with those of students who are already enrolled at the college you are considering. You can do this by looking at the Admission Profile for that school’s most recent entering class. If your scores and GPA fall within the top quartile of those reported on the school’s profile, it’s a safe bet you will be a competitive candidate for admission to that school. While not a guarantee of admission, it is reassurance that you are looking in the right place. Your chances diminish incrementally, though, as your credentials fall below the top quartile.

You need to be honest in assessing this part of the picture especially if you are considering schools that can be highly selective. A lot of students get in over their heads competitively when they fail to consider the odds of gaining admission. While you might feel you are a viable candidate at schools that can be very choosy, the reality is you need to be in the top 25% of applicant pools at such schools to have a fighting chance of being admitted. By the way, you don’t increase your chances of getting into at least one such school by applying to a dozen of them!

Be smart, then, about choosing where to apply. Choose competitive playing fields that are most appropriate given your skills and preparation. Whether you compete in the pool or on the stage or in the classroom, you have the best chance of finding success when your skills prove your capacity to do the work and are competitive with those around you. Put yourself into competition where you fit best and enjoy the success that is bound to come your way both as a candidate for admission and as a subsequently enrolled student.

Posted in College Planning | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 7.20.17

July 20th, 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,
My daughter is working on her college essays for both the Coalition and the Common applications. Each allows an essay on the “topic of your choice.” Could she just pick any prompt from either app and submit it for both? Or, would submitting something that was obviously written for a different app be considered tacky?

Dear Janet,
Most essay prompts present creative challenges in response to which students are able to reveal aspects of their life experiences that aren’t found anywhere else in their applications. In short, they have an opportunity to tell stories that are uniquely theirs.

Students need to be intentional when identifying essay prompts that provide the best opportunities for conveying essential messages in a thematically cohesive manner. Both the Coalition and Common Applications provide a series of essay prompt options as well as an option to write an essay on “a topic of your choice.” The latter leaves open the possibility that the student can use an essay that has been created for other purposes.

Given this flexibility regarding topic choices, intentionality is critical—students need to be thoughtful about the messages they want to convey to each college. A “one size fits all” approach to choosing an essay prompt might seem efficient, but it can be risky. Admission officers are quite discerning about the student’s recognition of the synergy between herself and the institution. In other words, “is this a conversation you are having with us or is it a conversation you are having with all who will listen?” This is likely to be even more relevant as students respond to the supplemental essay prompts associated with specific colleges receiving your daughter’s applications.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to visit some colleges that are far away. I would love to take her, but I am a single parent and have very limited vacation days that I can take off due to a recent surgery. I know it is important for her to see the campuses, but I won’t be able to go with her to all of the colleges. What should we do?

Dear Jillian,
Your daughter should make every effort to visit colleges that are very important to her—it will be hard for her to make a compelling application to a college that is “site unseen.” If you are not able to travel with her, perhaps a friend or family member might accompany her.

If visiting is simply not feasible, your daughter should check the websites of the colleges in question to see if virtual tours are available. She should also identify the admission staff persons at the colleges and reach out to them with any thoughtful questions she might have. Finally, she should be alert to any webinar information sessions that are offered by the colleges.

Dear Peter,
Prior to 9th Grade, my daughter was diagnosed with ADD. With medication—and literally overnight—she went from receiving grades in the 70’s to grades in the mid-90’s in virtually all of her classes. She had struggled immensely until this point and her confidence was decimated.

Due to the timing of the diagnosis, she had not taken algebra or earth science in 8th grade and was not tracked into any honors classes. She has, however, maintained a rigorous schedule that will see her taking physics, calculus, Spanish 5, History and English in her senior year. She has maintained an overall 94 average and has made the High Honor Roll each quarter of her high school career.

My daughter has also been quite successful at soccer. She is being recruited by two outstanding Division III private colleges and we are at the point of sending transcripts.
It is our impression these colleges want to see honors as well as AP courses.

How much “pull” do coaches have? Should we be very forthcoming right out of the box about my daughter’s late diagnosis of ADD and miraculous results with the medication? She has worked hard to accomplish well over the past three years of high school and we’d like to see her get into the best academic college possible.

Dear Hannah,
I would urge you to be fully disclosing with regard to your daughter’s academic history. IF the coach is going to have any “pull” with the admission office, she will need to be in full command of your daughter’s situation. I have written before about the need for students to explain irregularities (performance doesn’t match expectations) in their academic program/performance. This is a perfect example of the need for such an explanation.

Absent such information, admission officers will be easily dismissive of her credentials. She at least gives herself a chance by telling the complete story and eliminating the guesswork that would otherwise be required of admission officers.

Dear Peter,
Our son received a National Society of High School Scholars “Membership Confirmation” today and I wonder whether this is something that might help him get admitted or secure scholarships. Would you be able to weigh in on whether this is worth the $75.00 they seek?

Dear Don,
I have found no evidence that NSHSS membership is actually regarded as a meaningful credential in the admission or scholarship selection process. If anything, it’s ego food. Honors are earned—they can’t be bought.

Dear Peter,
My question has to do with how a student might incorporate traveling abroad during the summer into a college application. This will be my son’s second trip and he will get community service hours. I have been told in the past that you do not want to mention any type of service where you had to pay to be involved. Although, my son has a strong passion for travel and helping others, would it be wrong to label these outings as ”mission trips” or would you just avoid mentioning them all together? This summer, he is actually staying with a host family and intends to start some type of fundraiser for them when he gets back.

Dear Matt,
Travel abroad and “mission” trips can be incredibly enlightening activities and certainly deserve reference in college applications. Such experiences are fairly common, though, and typically fall to students who can afford them—hence, the cynicism expressed by many admission officers when students talk about the trips in their essays. That said, it is appropriate to include reference to the travel somewhere on the extracurricular profile/resume. And, to the extent that the experiences have shaped your son’s perspective, they might be the subject of an essay.

Dear Peter,
I have been pondering whether or not I should take an AP Biology course for my senior year or an AP Government and Politics class. Science is not the field I wish to pursue as I am interested in history education. I am concerned about dropping science, though, if it will decrease my chances of being admitted into a school. I am looking for some guidance through this difficult decision.

Dear Sharon,
On the surface, swapping out one high level course (AP Bio) for another (AP Government/Politics) would seem to make sense, especially if you are leaning strongly toward academic/career interests related to the latter. On the other hand, some colleges will regard AP Bio as a stronger choice. That said, I’d strongly urge you to raise the same question with the regional recruiters from some of the colleges likely to be on your “short list.” They are in a better position to provide insight into the nuances of the selection processes of which they are a part.

Dear Peter,
One of the highly selective colleges we visited earlier this week indicates it will no longer accept AP courses/test scores or give college credit at all starting 2018. Is that a trend? The college indicated that it “may” waive the requirement to take the course again, but no college credit is given.

Dear Marla,
Whereas most colleges have tended to award college credit for AP scores and/or use AP results as a rationale for placing students into upper level courses, the message you heard is evidence of a developing trend among some very selective institutions to back out of the awarding of credit.

It is my impression that moves such as this are due to concerns that students are feeling undue pressure to access AP courses throughout high school (at the expense of appropriate tracking) and that the AP curricula has become objectified as a credentialing mechanism rather than a meaningful learning platform. Clearly, this is a fluid situation that bears watching.

Posted in Campus Visits, Course Selections, Learning Differences, Preparing the Application, What Colleges Want | No Comments »


“Be True to Your Academic ‘Fingerprint’” 7.12.17

July 12th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

Myth: All colleges and universities are alike.

Reality: This country boasts a broad array of more than 3,000 colleges and universities dedicated to providing post-secondary educational opportunities. Although common in mission, their personalities, curricula and institutional cultures vary as greatly as 3,000 sets of fingerprints!

Think about what this means for you. While your educational needs can be met at many places, it would be a mistake to assume they will be met in the same manner—or, more importantly, in a manner that is well suited to your learning style. This is perhaps the most underestimated element of the college selection process. Believe it or not, comfort and compatibility can make a big difference in your eventual success as a student.

Finding a good college fit, then, begins with identifying places that provide the academic program you need and a style of instruction that is most comfortable for you. Just as students possess unique learning styles—they each process information differently—colleges offer different styles of instruction. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to study Biology. Some colleges will teach Biology in seminars that include 25-30 students. Some teach it in lecture halls of five hundred! Yet others will attach labs to the instruction or offer research opportunities.

In each case, the material is the basically same—Bio is Bio—but the experience is different. The important questions are, “How would you function in these different environments? What sort of interaction do you want to have with the information that is being presented?”

In order to find the learning environments that make the most sense for you, take stock of your learning style. How do you like to be engaged with learning? Who or what inspires you? Under what circumstances are you most likely to produce your best work? The more you know about how you like to learn, the easier it will be to make critical distinctions among the learning environments of different colleges.

Consider the following questions as you try to get your arms around your learning style. Be particularly attentive to the “why” part of each question.

  • Who is your favorite teacher—and why?
  • What is your favorite class right now—and why?
  • In which type of classroom setting (i.e. large group lectures, seminars, etc.) are you most comfortable—and why?
  • With what kinds of people and personalities do you enjoy exchanging ideas—and why?
  • If you had to choose between a test, a paper and a project to receive a grade for the entire year, what would you choose—and why?

As you reflect on your answers—especially the “whys”—you come to better understand the characteristics of a learning environment that would be the most appropriate for you in college. The next step is to look for colleges that mirror these characteristics. They will be the best fits for you.

If, for example, your approach to learning is to take good notes, read diligently and prepare carefully—all in the relative anonymity of the large lecture hall, then you are more likely to function comfortably in a larger, more expansive instructional setting. On the other hand, if you like the engagement of a small classroom where you can ask questions—where you can challenge and be challenged—then the seminar format will be more productive for you.

Now, consider the consequences of failing to be attentive to the information you are gleaning about your learning style. If you do prefer the large lecture hall experience—but you’ve chosen a college where most of your classes put you front and center around the seminar table, won’t you feel like the proverbial “fish out of water”? On the other hand, if you really like the engagement of the small classroom but find yourself in a setting that features lectures of 300 or more students—all the time—will that learning environment bring out the best in you? In the final analysis, you are more likely to get the most out of your ability when you find yourself in an environment that is well suited to the way you learn.

And if your preference is to write a paper or do a project because you are more comfortable demonstrating your mastery in that manner (besides, you don’t feel you are a good test-taker!) a large university will not be the best fit. Professors in those environments will rely heavily on fill-in-the-bubble tests as they simply don’t have the time to critique hundreds of papers or projects.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Take the time, then, to get to know yourself—and the circumstances in which you learn most comfortably. In doing so, you put yourself in a better position to make good choices that reflect your interests and needs.

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“Addressing the College Essay Blues: July College Planning Tips” 7.5.17

July 5th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

Having talked with a fair number of rising high school seniors over the last six weeks, I am coming to the conclusion that these days can be the “dog days” of the college application process. This is especially true for those who have identified target schools and are struggling to get their arms around their essay assignments!

If this sounds like you, the good news is you recognize the need to be thinking and acting upon your college applications in a timely manner. That recognition, however, doesn’t lessen the anxious avoidance you experience—or the nights of fitful sleep—or the extended periods of time you spend staring at an unresponsive keyboard. The words and the critical messages your essays convey will not materialize out of thin air. You can’t will a good essay to completion!

I’d like to offer a few suggestions, then, that can help you work through the creative blues to points of clarity, if not inspiration, as you get started in the essay writing process.

  1. Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book. It will only contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you are experiencing. The essays you will find in those books are not only well-written, but they also fit the context of someone else’s life story. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.
  2. Identify key themes and/or messages you want to convey. Are there two or three things you want to make sure the readers of your application know about you? In answering this question, go beyond the obvious. Don’t restate information that can be found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Coming to grips with the objective of your message will help you find the most effective form for presenting it.
  3. Reflect on your most memorable life experiences. How have they shaped you? A group of students just returned from a two-week tour of Europe with great pictures and wonderful stories. Two years from now when they begin writing their college applications, they should reflect less on where they went and what they saw—and more on how some aspect of the experience changed them.
  4. Find the story within the story. Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages in college application essays. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?
  5. Reveal—don’t tell. It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to understand you, as a thinking person, better. Not long ago, a parent member of an audience who also happens to be a college professor asked me to remind college applicants that colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.
  6. Keep a pen/pencil and paper beside your bed. You might wrack your brain all day trying to come up with clever ideas, but invariably the best stuff emerges in those hazy, subconscious moments just before you drift off to sleep! If you can, push back the sleep long enough to jot down your new inspirations.
  7. Read—a lot! Quite often, essay writers are consumed with a myopia that limits their ability to understand their place in the world in which they live. Break out of that shell by reading news stories and editorials. Better yet, read books that make you think. It’s not too late and biographies are great sources! I have found increasing inspiration from the life stories of people who have risen from relative obscurity to make significant contributions as thinkers and doers.
  8. Take advantage of the time you give yourself by starting early. Resist the temptation to write a college essay in a single draft. Good writing—and editing—is a process. Manage it well to your advantage!

If you are still struggling to pull together thematically cohesive college applications, now is the time to register for a “last chance” “What’s My Story?” application preparation workshop in August. In a WMS workshop, you will engage in creative brainstorming that reveals your uniquely personal story—a story that will emerge in your essays, interviews and letters of recommendation. It is this type intentionality that will separate your credentials from the rest.

Visit “What’s My Story?” workshops for more information and to register.

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


“A Good College Fit is One That Will Meet Your Academic Needs” 6.28.17

June 28th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

Students often enter the college search process with specific academic programs or career interests in mind. And why not? If you know what you want to study in college, the best places are those that will accommodate and support the development of your interests. For example, if you want to pursue chemical engineering, focus on schools that offer it. The same is true whether your interests lie in business, elementary education, or graphic design.

As you look at colleges, be careful not to compromise your pursuit of such passions. If you want to pursue film studies, but a college you are considering doesn’t offer a very well established program in that area, then you need to recognize early that it is not a good fit. You owe it to yourself to look into colleges that offer substantive programs that meet your needs in your areas of interest.

In particular, don’t let emotional interests override your academic priorities. Embracing a college or university simply on the merit of its overall ranking or reputation, or because it has a great athletic program or is in a location you like, on the assumption you’ll be able to figure out the academic piece later, is not wise. When you do that, you become “destination-centered” and set yourself up for frustration down the line. Think about it. How often do you hear about students transferring because the colleges they have chosen don’t offer the programs they want to study?

If, on the other hand, you don’t feel drawn to a particular career interest or academic direction, don’t worry. You’re normal. It’s difficult to know at any age what you’ll do for the rest of your life, so relax. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know. Instead, see those presumed “deficiencies” as opportunities. You’ve got a lot of time to sort them out.

If you are “undecided,” the more important underlying questions are, “Do you have the desire to learn—to discover the many truths that define you and the world in which you live—and, if so, can you project the relevance of what you are learning into the various pathways you might choose in life?”

Hopefully, the answer to both questions is “yes.” If so, look for places that will encourage you to explore various perspectives and draw from diverse experiences that will form the building blocks that are foundational to your future direction. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the notion that there is something wrong with you if your future plans are not laid out in great detail.

You’ll be fine. Hundreds of institutions across the country—liberal arts colleges as well as universities with robust general studies programs—are eager to embrace the undecided student. You just need to plan accordingly to give yourself options.

That said, be true to your priorities as you go into the college selection process. If you know what you want to do academically, go for it! On the other hand, don’t add schools to your list that will limit your academic flexibility if what you really want is the opportunity to explore. If you are undecided about your future academic directions, yet find yourself looking at an application for admission that requires you to declare a major as you apply for admission, you are looking at an institution that is not a good fit for you. In the long run, it matters less where you go to college and more what you do with the opportunities available to you at that school. Focus on places that will embrace your interests and give you the best opportunity to succeed. In doing so, don’t abandon your academic needs in favor of factors that will have little or no impact on your learning experience.

Did You Know…

  • You will probably change your major in college?  Most college students do at least once.
  • Most students enter college “undeclared” with regard to a major?
  • The odds are that you will change jobs at least four times and change careers twice?
  • Many colleges report that 80-90% of the people who graduated more than 25 years ago are now in careers that did not exist when they graduated?

To learn more about finding a good college fit, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore.

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