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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“The Ideal College—A Place That Values You for What You Have to Offer!” 8.24.16

August 24th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Over the last two months, I have written about elements of a good college fit—elements that are just as important when you are getting started with your college search as they are when making the final choice of a college. “Fit,” more than rankings, rhetoric or emotional logic that is bound to emerge, is the greatest determinant of success in both gaining admission and completing the degree requirements at a given college or university.

As you know by now, the best college for you will be the place that:

  • Offers the course of study you want to pursue—and will provide opportunities for you to explore if you are undecided.
  • Provides instruction and learning opportunities in a manner that is compatible with the way you like to learn.
  • Is a good match for your level of ability and academic preparation.
  • Provides a community that feels like home.

It is vital that you give each of these elements equal regard in your college search. A place that “feels like home” but does not offer your intended program of study is not a good fit. Nor is the place that insists that you declare your major as an applicant if you haven’t come to any good conclusions about a major yet. The best fit will be the place that meets your requirements as defined within each of these elements.

If you have charted your college selection around these elements of fit, you are bound to discover many places that meet your criteria. Among them, the best place for you—the ideal college—will be the place that values you for what you have to offer!

Think about it. Wouldn’t you prefer to be at a college that recognizes your talents and abilities, interests and perspectives—and demonstrates its commitment to investing in your success? As you contemplate your educational experience, think about each potential college destination as a partner you might choose as you attempt to reach your goals. Do you want to commit yourself to a partner that barely acknowledges your presence or one that embraces you with a full sense of the possibilities?

Be discriminating as you look for evidence of the latter. Do you see it when you seek help in finding financial assistance? What is the response when you inquire about opportunities to pursue special independent study projects or to study abroad? Do you find yourself meeting with people who are eager to help you make things happen or are you left to figure these things out on your own? The manner in which a college engages you during the recruitment process is often an indicator of the way it will treat you as an enrolled student. In particular, colleges that value you for what you do well will:

  • Give you personal attention throughout the recruitment process.
  • Answer your questions about housing, registration and payment plans in a timely manner.
  • Admit you and provide financial aid to meet your need.
  • Recognize your talents with scholarships and/or special academic opportunities, i.e., study abroad, internships, research, etc.

Not surprisingly, this notion of “value” is evident as admission officers engage in the selective admission process as well. The question, “Who among the excellent candidates under consideration are of greatest interest to us—who do we value most?” frames the deliberation as highly qualified applicants are considered for limited places in the entering classes at selective institutions. Remember, such schools don’t have to admit you simply because you are good. If they admit you it is because they chose to do so.

The last two bullet points are especially important, then, as you apply for admission. Why? What better evidence that you have found a good college fit than to be admitted and extended the financial support you need in order to enroll?! The best college fit for you will be a place that seems to be saying, “among all of the really good candidates we are considering, we want you because of what you have to offer and we’re prepared to invest in your success.”

So, what does this mean for you? The secret to your success still rests in your ability to reflect honestly on “who you are” and “what you have to offer”—and to find a good college match for those qualities. Take stock of your gifts, talents and perspectives. What do you have to contribute to a new community and where might such contributions be valued most? Be true to yourself, then, and put yourself in a better position to experience a lasting relationship with an institution that makes sense for you.

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.

Posted in College Planning | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 8.17.16

August 17th, 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 wants to apply Early Decision to one of the most highly selective colleges. There is another college, less selective, but still highly selective, at which my son would have a better chance of gaining admission. My question is if my son is rejected Early Decision at his first choice, is he at a real disadvantage with this other school going through regular decision?

Dear Glenn,
I have two thoughts. One, your son should not consider applying Early Decision anywhere unless the school is his clear first choice school—and that school should be the one that fits him best. Playing the “ED card” to simply to optimize chances of getting into a “reach” school is usually not a good idea.

Two, applying ED unsuccessfully at one school should not adversely affect your son’s chances at other schools as long as he is able to convey the sincerity of his interest in the latter. In fact, many institutions offer a “round two” ED option with a deadline in January thereby creating the scenario where your son could follow up a failed ED application at one school with another ED application at a new first choice school.

Dear Peter,
What is the best protocol for submitting additional letters of recommendation beyond the required letters? Should they go directly to the college or through the counselor?

Dear Lewis,
I would send the additional letters directly to the college. High School counselors might have limitations on the number of letters they can process with each application. That said, I would only submit additional letters if the authors can add something substantive about your student’s academic or work performance.

Dear Peter,
Does it matter which application our son uses in applying to colleges? Some colleges have produced their own applications. In addition, we’re hearing and reading a fair amount about a new application, the Coalition Application, that will be used by many selective colleges this Fall. And then, of course, there is the Common Application. What do you recommend?

Dear Jon,
Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter which application your son uses. Institutions that are trying to discern a student’s level of interest, though, will look for patterns of engagement in assessing the likelihood that a student will enroll if accepted. For example, a student applying with the Common Application or the Coalition Application who doesn’t otherwise appear on the institution’s radar is likely to be read with greater suspicion regarding level of interest and might end up on the WL or worse. On the other hand, an Early Decision candidate who has visited the campus will be beyond suspicion regardless of the application used. If that is the case, your son should choose the application that will enable him to comfortably make the strongest, most personal presentation.

Dear Peter,
As my daughter gets ready for college interviews, we are hearing conflicting views on how she should explain her slow start during her first two years of high school. She was diagnosed at the end of her Sophomore year with two learning deficits (processing speed and verbal working memory) and ADD. As a result, she took medication and received accommodations of extra time (which she used infrequently) and exam pacing. She had a 3.87 GPA in her Junior year which was up dramatically from a 3.2 over the prior two years. She got a 5 on an AP exam and scored a 33 on the ACT.

One school of thought is that she should not specifically disclose the learning deficits or the ADD or the medication/accommodation to Admissions reps in interviews as that information will jaundice their view of her grades and scores and perhaps make them less interested in taking her because they would more likely have to provide her accommodations. Instead, she should just talk about having problems adjusting, transitioning and gaining maturity when she entered high school. Others think that she should just tell her story about the learning differences as they are fairly prevalent these days.

What are your thoughts? Will schools be turned off if they know that she has received medication and accommodations?

Dear Mary,
Given your daughter’s marked improvement over the last three years, the diagnosis/medication/accommodation explanation is extremely relevant. Without it, her seemingly lackluster performance earlier on will take her out of the competition for admission. My rule of thumb is that, whenever valid, documentable circumstances contribute to substandard performance, they must be addressed somewhere in the application. If your daughter is comfortable with the conversation, the interview would be a perfect place for it. As long as she presents the situation objectively, she shouldn’t have a problem.

On the flip side, would you really want your daughter to attend a school that would otherwise discriminate against her? Rather, I’d think you would want to see her enter an environment that is cognizant of her situation and eager to support her continued growth and development.

By the way, during campus visits you might want to drop by the health services offices where you can speak with folks who are responsible for compliance with learning differences. (Any conversation you have with them is confidential.) As a consumer, you might want to know the philosophy/orientation of the services and how they might be able to support your daughter should she need them.

Dear Peter,
My son is a recruited athlete and was told to be on the lookout for a “streamlined application” in August. What do these typically include and will he still need to write the standard Common App essay?

Dear Julie,
Athletic coaches at selective institutions are often trying to pre-qualify top recruits in order to eventually secure their commitments. While I don’t know the institution-specific protocols in question, my guess is the coach wants to glean enough academic information about your son in order to present him to the admission committee for early clearance. If the coach gets a “thumbs-up” from the admission committee, he’ll likely try to leverage a commitment from your son. At some colleges, the Early Decision option might come into play.

I don’t know what this college’s streamlined application will look like or whether your son will need to complete any essays at this time. I would urge him to take it seriously, though, especially if this will be a college of interest to him even if the athletic recruitment doesn’t pan out. With the coach’s endorsement, the subjective elements of the application (including essay) tend to be viewed less critically. However, if the coach drops his endorsement—and this happens more often than you’d like to think—then your son’s application will have to stand on its own merit in which case the essays will take on a different relevance.

Dear Peter,
Our son was recently invited to join NSHSS. As we (parents) moved to the US after finishing our education it is often difficult for us to judge which are the best organizations to join. There are so many offers for honor societies out there and our son has received multiple invitations. (NSHSS and NJHS are just two examples). Can you help us in this regard?

Dear Claudia,
I get this question often! The most meaningful honor societies are those sponsored by your son’s school that recognize students for their achievements. It is important to note that students should never have to pay for such recognition. While groups like NSHSS claim that membership will burnish his credentials as a candidate for admission, it will not. The bottom line: honors cannot be bought; they must be earned.

Dear Peter,
A 10th grade honor student, with a 95 average across all courses, starts an honors 10th grade math course and has a “bad” teacher who grades very harshly. The student unsuccessfully tries to get a different teacher and is told only option is to drop to a Regents level course. What do you advise? What’s better—an 86 in honors or 96 in Regents?

Dear Phil,
The short answer to your question is that an 86 in honors almost always wins over a 96 in Regents. The possible exception will be at state universities that do not distinguish between the rigor of the given courses in their assessment algorithms.

I would add that the circumstances of the lower grade are worthy of note when your student eventually applies for admission to colleges. He might approach his guidance counselor with this request, “How can you help me tell this part of my story to admission officers?” It is not unreasonable to expect that the counselor might provide witness, as an objective third-party, to the facts of the situation.

Posted in Application Info, Athletic Recruitment, Campus Visits, Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Learning Differences, Preparing the Application | 5 Comments »


“Find a College That Feels Like Home” 8.10.16

August 10th, 2016

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?

Posted in Campus Visits, College Planning | No Comments »


“College Rankings: August College Planning Tips” 8.3.16

August 3rd, 2016

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” 7.27.16

July 27th, 2016

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 7.20.16

July 20th, 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,
I was starting to look over the essay requirements for the colleges where I want to apply this fall and, despite the standardized nature of the Common Application, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of essays I might need to write to satisfy each college’s requirements. Is it possible to just write one essay that can be customized to the prompts for each of the schools?

Dear Derrick,
You are beginning to recognize the challenge of having to manage the application requirements of different colleges. (BTW, that’s one of the reasons I recommend keeping the short list to eight or fewer.) In answer to your question, you can submit anything you want. Keep in mind, however, that schools are being intentional with the essay prompts they provide—they are often trying to elicit evidence of character, critical thinking or creativity. Reworking one essay to suit another college’s prompt, then, is a rather transparent indication that you have chosen not to invest much time or energy into developing a thoughtful response for the latter.

Dear Peter,
Do you think some students and parents need to lower their expectations with regard to colleges? For example, my son goes to a prep school. He does well with his grades—BUT has to work very hard. He loves science and wants to be an engineer, yet those are the classes he struggles with the most—he has to put in A LOT of study time and some tutoring to understand concepts. He is a true communicator, a leader who can work a crowd, and is heavily involved in community service. He has put pressure on himself to go to the “better” schools, major in engineering and much more. Such may be the influence of the prep school environment or it could be that his expectations are too high. As a parent, I have tried to guide and encourage but I have learned to step back. Do you think investing in a college consultant is the best way to go?

Dear Kiera,
I am a big believer in managing expectations with regard to college planning. Unfortunately, students (and, quite often, their parents) are subjected to a lot of “noise”—well-intended advice as well as mindless chatter—that tends to clutter good judgment in this regard. The noise comes from peers, friends, relatives, colleagues, chatrooms and even staff at schools that feel pressure to populate their college-bound lists with high-profile institutions. It sounds like you are taking a healthy approach to the situation.

Whatever might be influencing your son’s expectations—including, in all likelihood, a natural desire to test himself at highly selective colleges—he needs to know your love and support is unconditional and that his success as a college applicant will not change that nor define him in any way.

A good school-based college advisor should be able to help your son reflect on the relative strengths of his application in order to find good college fits for him. Theoretically, that is a key benefit associated with the prep school experience. I would start there. If it seems that, for whatever reason, your son is not getting the objective support he needs, then an independent college consultant might be helpful.

Dear Peter,
I am becoming frustrated and concerned about my son’s seeming lack of engagement in the college planning process. He’s a good student and a recruit-able athlete, yet he seems more interested in sleeping in late and hanging out with friends than making contact with colleges. What should I/we be doing? Should I just go ahead and take the lead in making things happen or is this a time to stand back and let him see the consequences of his inaction?

Dear Scott,
Believe it or not, you just described a scenario that is probably common to many households around country. The fact is that big changes loom on the horizon for students as they approach the end of their high school years. For your son, going to college will mean learning to live in a new place with strangers. It will mean having to start over again in the classroom and on a new playing field. And it means coming face-to-face with the rest of his life—a daunting prospect especially if the destination is unknown or the path is uncertain. Add in an unspoken sense of guilt about imposing debt on his family and your son’s reticence is somewhat understandable.

You and I know that he will be fine—that he is likely to prosper through the transition. He just needs to trust himself to step forward. Helping him find that trust is another matter. You might consider moving forward in a partnership in which you agree to clearly defined roles. Express your willingness to provide support in a manner that is commensurate with the initiative he takes. Work out a timeline with mutually agreeable tasks to be completed. And remind him that, while you care about his happiness and success, you can’t give it to him.

Finally, be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that college might not be the best option for your son at this time. If that turns out to be the case, make sure he understands that he needs to commit to a healthy and productive alternative.

Dear Peter,
My son, a rising senior, has excelled in the most rigorous courses offered by his high school. He has a weighted GPA of 4.35 and has qualified as a National AP scholar with 8 AP exams completed (7 scores of a 5 and 1 score of a 4). His best ACT composite is 34. He is a three-sport varsity athlete, has been involved in other clubs for all 4 years and is currently at the Governor’s School for Engineering and Technology. However, his ACT Writing this past June came in at a 21. His one 4 on the AP exam was in AP English and his only B+ in his 3 years of high school was in AP English.

With all this said, how concerned should we be about this ACT writing score in his chances for Ivy League and other highly selective schools? Any advice that can be shared would be most appreciated.

Dear Theresa,
The sum of your son’s achievements will put him on the competitive playing fields of every college in the country. Gaining admission to any of those institutions, though, will be a function of his ability to prove his value. If any of these colleges want him, they’ll admit him with confidence knowing that he can be successful in their respective academic programs. His current scores, including ACT writing, won’t keep him out nor will any measureable improvement assure his acceptance. The testing is what it is. Rather, your son should focus on developing a thematically cohesive presentation in his applications that, beyond the numbers, will set him apart from the other highly accomplished candidates.

Dear Peter,
When can we find out what this year’s college application essay subjects will be? My son isn’t able to find this coming year’s applications at the schools he is interested in.

Dear Joe,
Your son can actually learn about essay prompts now. If the colleges in which he has interest use the Common Application, he can set up an account at where he will be able to view the Common Application essay prompts. In addition, when he identifies the colleges of interest, he will be able to access “member pages” that address additional information, including essays, required by each school. If he is considering colleges that are not members of the Common Application group, he might check the admission pages of their respective websites for essay instructions or, better yet, he can reach out (via email) to the regional recruiters from those colleges to get the essay prompts from them.

Dear Peter,
My son has experienced severe health issues over the last two years that have affected his attendance (and performance) in school. Despite the challenges, he continued with a schedule that was half honors and half “advanced” classes in his Sophomore year. He got A’s in all the advanced ones and was referred to honors for his Junior year when he took 4 AP/IB courses. His senior year will feature a similar load.

While we have been able to identify meds that have, for the most part, addressed the chronic pain issues, all this has impacted his GPA to a degree as he occasionally gets breakthrough migraines, some of which can last 4-5 days. He also has fewer extra-curriculars because he has to do homework earlier in the day in order to get adequate sleep. How do we talk about this, without it being viewed negatively? Or should we omit?

Dear Reggie,
Your son definitely has a story to tell! In presenting their applications, students need to assume responsibility for explaining any irregularities that might appear in their academic programs or performances. It would seem your son has a lot to explain! He can do this in an interview and/or an essay. In addition, I would urge him to seek the assistance of his college advisor because that person’s testimonial in witness of his trials along the way can provide powerful, objective insight into his determination and resilience. He should approach his advisor in the following manner, “As you know, I’ve dealt with a number of serious physical ailments that have affected my performance. How can you help me tell this part of my story to admission officers in my application?”

Dear Peter,
My son is a rising senior this fall. His GPA in 9th was not that great due to a C in English, B in Algebra and C in Social Studies. His 10th grade GPA is better and 11th grade will be probably above 3.6. He just finished AP Calc AB and AP Statistics and had a 4 in AP Computer Science in 10th grade. He goes to an independent school where the curriculum is rigorous. Would he benefit from doing remedial online courses for 9th and 10th grade Algebra, English and Social Studies? It will not change his GPA per the school, but it would show up as credit on the transcript. Or should he concentrate on subject tests and extra AP courses online? He has a great ACT score and an awesome Math level 2 Subject Test score.

Dear Ali,
The best time for the remedial work would have been in the summers after the 9th and 10th grade difficulties. He gains little, if anything, by doing the work now. Your son has advanced beyond the content and remediation won’t improve his understanding of the material nor will it help his academic credentials. He is better off focusing on the work that lies ahead as you have outlined.

Posted in College Planning, Course Selections, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep, What Colleges Want | 4 Comments »


“Be True to Your Academic ‘Fingerprint’” 7.14.16

July 14th, 2016

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.

Posted in Choice of a College, College Planning | 3 Comments »


Addressing the College Essay Blues: July College Planning Tips

July 6th, 2016

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!

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