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 10/22/16

October 22nd, 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,
What is the right number of letters of recommendation to send in with an application and who should they come from?

Dear Howard,
Most colleges will make clear the number of letters of recommendation to be submitted in their application instructions. Typically, they will want an evaluation from the guidance counselor/college advisor that provides an overview of the student’s character, citizenship and preparation for college as well as letters from two teachers who will comment on the student’s academic aptitude, work habits and performance in the classroom. One of the teachers should be able to address the student’s critical thinking and articulation skills. The other teacher should be familiar with the student’s skill set as it relates to her potential academic focus in college. Beyond that, letters from friends, alumni and/or other influential people are generally inconsequential and tend to get in the way.

Dear Peter,
I have heard you say that it is important to establish relationships with the regional recruiters at the colleges where my daughter wants to apply.  How can we find out who these people are?

Dear Melanie,
I would start with the college advisors at your daughter’s high school. If the colleges in question have been recruiting in your area, it is quite likely that the college advisors will be able to identify the regional recruiters for you. If not, check the admission pages on the websites for these colleges. Many will list the members of the admission staff along with their areas of recruitment. When visiting a college’s campus, your daughter might ask if she could say “hello” to the regional recruiter or, at the very least, get that person’s business card.

If all else fails, your daughter could call the school’s admission office and ask for the name and contact information of the person who recruits at her school.

Dear Peter,
We have a situation where my son left his original high school to attend an IB (International Baccalaureate Program) in another state where his father lives. Needless to say, it is a two-year program. He is in 11th grade, but would like to return to his original high school this coming January 2017 and leave the IB program he successfully started this past August. What could be the repercussions of such move from a college application standpoint? My son’s choices for colleges are in the United Kingdom, which is one of the reasons the IB had some appeal.

Dear Margaret,
While not optimal to a student’s academic development, things like a divorce or move do happen and can be disruptive. While I don’t have any experience/expertise in dealing with admission to universities in the UK, I can tell you that, if he were to remain in the US, he would need to make sure the circumstances surrounding the changes in his academic program are well explained in his application. You might reach out to some of the UK universities of interest to see what they have to say. Many are now very interested in, and attentive to, students in the US who want to study abroad and could give you good advice.

Dear Peter,
We applied for special accommodations for my son while taking the SATs to allow for extra time, as he is dyslexic. He usually doesn’t need extra time, but its good to have in case. We’re currently working on applying to ACT for the accommodations as well. The registration for the ACT had a profile to complete. It asked, repeatedly, about accommodations needed AT THE COLLEGE. We weren’t sure if it was wise to put his potential needs on the profile (separate from the testing registration). Do schools have a quota of taking “learning disabled” students? Would it be a detriment to put it on his profile? If he needs any special accommodations, they would be minimal. Do you have an opinion either way? We don’t want to do him harm by disclosing he MAY need accommodations. But if they need quota numbers, and it would give him favor, we can go forward with disclosure.

Dear Marianne,
I am not aware of colleges having to fill quotas regarding numbers of students with learning differences to enroll. If there is a chance, however, that he might need accommodations (as reflected by the request for special accommodation on the SAT/ACT) once in college, it would be prudent to provide related information on the application. Frankly, you have to ask yourself whether you would want your son to attend a college that would otherwise discriminate against him or one that will do what it takes to support him in the achievement of his goals.

Dear Peter,
I am not applying Early Decision, but wonder if there are any advantages in sending in my Regular Decision application a day or two after the ED date but way ahead of the RD date? My guidance counselor recommended that I wait and send it in just before the RD date because, if an application is sent in early, it will just sit there until the RD date anyway.

Dear Liam,
The timing of your Regular Decision application submissions is not terribly critical. Your counselor is correct that an application submitted early is not likely to be reviewed until later. At schools that offer ED or EA options, credential review time will be devoted to those applications. I suggest you try to submit Regular Decision applications two weeks in advance of deadlines in order to avoid the avalanche of paperwork that typically hits admission offices at their deadlines.

Dear Peter,
My son is in 12th grade. Should the FAFSA be completed as soon as possible or should it be submitted after he applies to college? Because our income is below $80K, does it pay to submit the FAFSA after he applies to college? Will our income influence his aid, getting in, and financial package?

Dear Alden,
The FAFSA should be completed as soon as possible. Upon its completion, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that reveals your expected family contribution (EFC) according to the ”federal methodology” used in need analysis. This information will be very helpful in determining your out-of-pocket exposure to any state university as well as many private colleges to which your son might apply.

If he is applying to any of the more selective colleges, your son will most likely need to complete the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well. This form will lead to a more granular assessment of your financial situation (using institution-specific variables) that is likely to produce a higher EFC. Unfortunately, you will not be informed of the result of this submission as this is information known only to the colleges to which he applies.

The information produced by these forms could well influence the disposition of your son’s admission status. It will definitely determine the assessment of his EFC at each college. Should he be admitted, the college in question will then determine the nature of the financial aid award. Quite often this determination is subjective (a practice called preferential packaging) based on the extent to which he is valued by the institution. If his credentials put him among the very best candidates at the school, the question of EFC will be moot and the school will use its resources to leverage his enrollment with a financial aid award that is weighted more heavily with gift aid (grants, scholarships).

At colleges where he is an acceptable but not superior candidate, the presence or inference of financial need could well influence the admission decision and, if he is admitted, the composition of his financial aid award (less gift aid and more self-help such as loans and campus work study).

The bottom line: if cost and affordability will be critical factors in your decision-making, it would be better to be in possession of this information sooner than later. If your son is admitted and the financial aid award doesn’t seem to be consistent with your expectations, you should be prepared to appeal the award with the school’s financial aid office.

Dear Peter,
What do you advise with regard to extracurricular activities? Is It better to be involved in many things or to focus on a few areas of commitment?

Dear JoAnn,
Students should engage in activities that give them joy in life. Hopefully, those activities are positive and constructive. Ideally, students will grow their involvements by taking on new and greater responsibilities. Some students are able to manage multiple involvements in a healthy, productive manner. Others are better off finding their niche in specific interests. Students are well-advised to do whatever makes sense to them.

In the admission process, authenticity is the key. Decision-makers are looking for evidence of sustained involvement and growth through activities. It would be a mistake for any student to try to engage in indiscriminate resume-building or to try to anticipate what admission officers want to see.

Posted in Application Info, College Planning, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Learning Differences, Meeting College Costs, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep, What Colleges Want | No Comments »


“‘Connect the Dots’ With Your College Application” 10.15.16

October 15th, 2016

Peter Van Buskirk

One of the biggest mistakes students make in preparing their applications for admission is the tendency to treat the information they submit as random data points. Scores, essays, courses, grades and letters of recommendation are often regarded as items to be completed on a checklist for each college. When this happens, students miss important opportunities to make a difference in their applications. Rather than being purposeful in presenting their credentials, they fail to “connect the dots” to create a coherent picture of who they are.

As you prepare your applications for admission, then, consider how the different elements of your application can be woven together to tell your story. Remember that admission committees are most interested in learning about you and what you have to offer the community of scholars they are assembling through the admission process. Use your essays, letters of recommendation and extra-curricular to create a picture of who you are and what you have to offer. Be thoughtful about your presentation so that your application makes a compelling statement that says, “Take me!”

Eight Tips for Making Your Case
1.    Know what it is you want to say about yourself—what are the key messages you want to convey? If you are having trouble getting your arms around this, either because there is a lot to say or because you are struggling to find a beginning point, try the following:

  • Think about how others see you. How would your friends describe you? Your teachers? Your parents?
  • What key words and thoughts begin to emerge? Generous? Competitive? Studious? Inventive? A leader? A “renaissance person”?
  • Choose two or three that are most consistent with your core identity.
  • List the key involvements, experiences and achievements that make the connection to these themes.
  • Look broadly and creatively at your application (essays, extracurricular profile, letters of recommendation) for opportunities to weave these elements together in making your case.

2.    Resist the temptation to add newspaper clippings and certificates of achievement as they tend to be redundant with the information provided in your application. Rather, take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate your accomplishments into the theme you are trying to establish for your application.

3.    Be concise in completing the extracurricular profile on your application. Admission officers want to see how you distill the information that defines you in the space provided. If you absolutely need more space to list your activities and achievements, submit an additional page or, possibly, a resume with your application. If you go with the latter, keep it to one page. Some of the key details and insights of the emerging “story” can be addressed by people writing on your behalf. Make sure they have the needed information and that they know how their perspectives are integral to the messages you seek to convey.

4.    Focus on the events that have defined your life since the beginning of high school. Earlier accomplishments (prior to 9th grade) are ancient history from an admission perspective! Reference them only if you can demonstrate their relevance to the person you are becoming.

5.    Reference family situations (achievements or setbacks) only to the extent that they have had an impact on you. You are the candidate. Don’t make your application a soliloquy to others in your life.

6.    Use your essays and personal statements to “let the reader in.” Who are you? How do you think? What values do you hold dear? How do these insights connect with other information you are submitting about yourself? As you contemplate these questions, you give the reviewer of your credentials an understanding of your character that won’t appear anywhere else in the application.

7.    When possible, take advantage of opportunities to tell your story in personal interviews with paid admission staff persons. They will be decision-makers when your credentials are considered behind closed doors. Not all schools offer interviews, but when they do, be prepared to capitalize on the opportunity. It is better to have some exposure with decision-makers than none at all.

8.    Reach out to regional recruiters at the colleges of interest. Give them opportunities to help you with important questions and to learn about unusual circumstances in your life experience. At many institutions, these folks will be at the “point” in the decision-making with regard to your application. The more comfortable they are with what they know about you, the easier it will be for them to support your candidacy.

Finally, “connecting the dots” is moot if you don’t put yourself on competitive playing fields where you will be valued for what you have to offer—where your message will be well-received. A strong message by itself won’t necessarily put you over the top if you are not already a competitive candidate—you can’t “will” your way into a college or university simply because you are qualified and have a strong desire to attend. Focus your time and attention on making the case for yourself at schools that make sense for you.

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

Posted in Application Info, College Planning, What Colleges Want | 2 Comments »


Making Sense of ED & EA Options: October College Planning Tips 10.8.16

October 8th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Applying Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) are increasingly popular options for college applicants. The following is a breakdown of what you need to know before you apply ED or EA.

1.  Early Decision (ED): What Is It?
Early Decision is an application opportunity offered by many of the nation’s selective institutions that provides the promise of early feedback (an admission decision) in exchange for the student’s commitment to enroll if accepted. A student may only be active as an ED candidate at one college. If admitted ED, a student is expected to withdraw all other Regular Decision applications that might have been active and enroll at the ED school.

ED: Inside the Numbers
Think selectivity. Think rankings. “Admitting one to enroll one,” allows a college to use ED to leverage as many high yield students into its entering classes as possible. By contrast, many schools must admit 3-5 students in Regular Decision to enroll one, a lower yielding proposition. What you are looking at, then, is fundamental enrollment management. For every ED enrollment it achieves, a college can reduce its number of Regular Decision offers by as many as five-fold, thereby, increasing its yield, improving selectivity and becoming more attractive in the college ranking process.

Possible ED Outcomes
Colleges will consider one of three outcomes when students apply ED: acceptance, deferral and denial. If accepted, the student is expected to enroll. When deferred or denied, however, the student is released from that commitment and effectively becomes a “free agent” who can pursue other options—including ED at another school. Deferred candidates will be considered again within the context of the Regular Decision review process.

Who Benefits?
Whereas it has been a long-held notion that ED was reserved for only the very best candidates, it is now the case that “reasonably competitive” candidates can also benefit from the ED option as colleges seek to build their enrollments with “high yielding” students. In addition, ED will be an attractive option at many schools for the following:

  • Students who do not require financial assistance
  • Athletic recruits
  • Legacy candidates

2.  Early Action (EA): What Is It?
Early Action also affords students the opportunity to submit credentials to some highly selective colleges in return for notification ahead of the Regular Decision process. The big difference: students who choose this option are not presumed to be declaring a first-choice interest in the colleges to which they apply EA. As a result, they are not committed to enroll if admitted and may, in many cases, apply EA to multiple schools. That said, a handful of institutions offer EA as a restrictive, “single choice” option that prohibits students from applying EA to any other school. Be sure to read the fine print regarding each institution’s EA program.

EA Inside the Numbers
If you are still thinking selectivity and rankings, you are right on the mark! While EA candidates do not enroll at the same rate as admitted ED candidates (presumably 100%), they are still likely to enroll at a much higher rate than students who apply Regular Decision. Colleges know this because they track their yields on EA offers from year to year. That said, admission committees tend not to bend their academic standards for EA candidates. Rather, they are banking on the opportunity to realize higher conversion rates among high profile admitted students by making strong, positive connections with them early in the process.

Possible EA Outcomes
Much like the case with ED, EA outcomes include acceptance, deferral and denial. The only difference is that acceptance does not involve a commitment to enroll. In addition, deferred candidates generally find themselves on equal footing with other Regular Decision candidates.

Who Benefits?
Unlike ED, EA really doesn’t improve one’s chances of admission. Why? Institutions are reluctant to commit places in the class to strong, but not superior students without first being able to compare them with the larger pool of candidates. EA does, however, provide peace of mind for those who use it early in the process.

3.  Tips for Potential ED/EA Applicants

  • Read the fine print for each institutional offering and understand your commitments before initiating an early application of any sort.
  • Rather than looking for an “ED school,” focus on finding colleges that fit you well as you arrive at your short list of schools. If one of them becomes your absolute first choice, then ED should be a considered option.
  • Do not apply ED unless you are dead certain of your commitment to enroll if accepted.
  • Do not apply ED if you have not visited the campus first! Ideally, your visit will have included an overnight stay that enabled you to also attend classes and experience the campus culture.
  • Resist the temptation to act on impulse. The feelings you have for a college now might change greatly over time leaving you committed to a place that is no longer where you want to be. Give yourself at least a month to reflect on your intended application before applying ED.
  • Remember the ED Round II option. Many schools will give you the opportunity to “convert” your Regular Decision application during a second round of ED in January. The conditions are the same as with ED Round I, but you might be better prepared to make a commitment later in the year.
  • Resolve all questions and concerns about cost and affordability before applying ED. Once you are admitted, there can be no contingencies. Ask the school’s financial aid office to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC) before you submit your ED application. Apply ED only if you are completely satisfied with the information you receive regarding your EFC.
  • Sprint to the finish! Even though you might hold an EA or ED acceptance letter, it is likely to be conditional on your completion of the senior at the same level of achievement that earned you the offer of admission. More than a few colleges are known to rescind offers of admission when final transcripts show performances that drop measurably after offers of admission are secured.

Posted in Early Decision/Action | 6 Comments »


“Time, Deadlines … and the Need to Manage Priorities” 9.28.16

September 28th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

“There are never enough hours in a day…”

The start of the academic year is an apt reminder of this time-worn lament, especially for high school students as they seek to balance the challenges of the classroom with other aspects of their personal and social lives. Add into the mix a heavy dose of college planning activity or, for seniors, college application preparations, and the prospect of getting it all done can become overwhelming.

I recently found myself in conversation with a high school senior about the realities of becoming a college applicant. In particular, we identified tasks that needed to be accomplished and talked about the importance of carving out time for college visits, test prep and essay writing. Along the way, I observed that, done well, managing the college application process would have the effect of adding two honors courses to his schedule this fall.

“I’m worried about getting it all done,” he observed with understandable concern. “On top of a full academic schedule with honors courses, I’ve got soccer practice and games and my part-time job on the weekends.”

“In addition,’ he continued, ‘I need time to work out. I want to hang out with the guys and, of course, I want to spend time with my girlfriend. So, when am I going to be able to do all of this other stuff?”

Good question. Moreover, I can well imagine that, paralyzed by the seemingly impossible, his initial inclination will be to carry on with his current schedule until faced with the urgency of imminent deadlines. Then, somehow, things will rather magically fall into place as they always do.

The problem is that he needs to realize what is at stake here. As a college applicant with goals and objectives connected to his future educational experience, now is not the time to leave matters related to “getting there” to chance. Rather, he needs to step up into the competition for admission at the places that interest him—a competition that will include lots of students of similar ability who are determined to gain admission. Many have already fought through the proverbial “paralysis by analysis” to embrace the opportunities present in the application process. In doing so, they have made critical choices with regard to managing their priorities.

My young friend is also faced with having to make difficult choices this fall if he wants to come out on the winning end of the admission competition. Unfortunately, there is no magic involved—no fortuitous wave of a wand that will produce the desired outcomes. He needs to assert ownership in the process and, in order to find time to address the college “stuff” we had been discussing, he needs to manage his priorities effectively starting today.

I share this story because I suspect the angst he feels is common, to varying degrees, among most students as they enter the college application process. Knowing what needs to be done and getting it done in a timely fashion are two very different things. To the extent that you might find yourself in a similar position, I suggest you utilize the hierarchy of importance in managing your priorities.

The hierarchy of importance assumes that at almost every decision-making juncture, the options you might consider can be given different weight contextually according to their levels of importance. For example, an option might be considered essential if proceeding toward a specific goal without it is not feasible or possible. In my friend’s case, tending to his academic assignments is essential if he wants to present himself as a competitive college candidate. He knew that. He also felt that, within the context of remaining a competitive athlete—another factor critical to defining his chances as a college applicant—he at least needed to train and compete with his team. As essentials, these commitments would remain high priorities for him.

He was also coming to realize that visiting college campuses, prepping for standardized tests and beginning to work on college essays were essential to his chances of achieving his goals. Essential to his success as a college applicant, they needed to become priorities along with his academic work and soccer. The question was where to fit them into his schedule.

In the hierarchy of importance, somewhat lesser weight can be attributed to options that, while important, are not essential to goal achievement. In his case, working out would be important, but not essential. The same would be true of his part-time job. He liked the independence that came with being paid, but the amount wasn’t so much that it was essential to his general well-being. The hard truth is that, if push came to shove, these options could be put to the side to make room for the essentials.

And, while his determination to carve out times for his friends is understandable, it is likely that those friendships will endure the interruptions that are likely to occur in the coming months. In the hierarchy, staying active with them would be nice, but not essential. His buddies aren’t going to get him into college!

As you make your way into and through the college application process, then, I’d urge you to first examine your goals. Know what you want to accomplish. And then establish your priorities in a manner that is consistent with those goals. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the “would be nice” options that confront you. Instead, focus on doing the essentials well.

Finally, step forward to take ownership in defining your future today. Commit yourself to doing the necessary in order to achieve your goals. And know this: every day that goes by without action on your part, is a day that can never be recovered. Make them all count!

Posted in Preparing the Application | 1 Comment »


“BCF Readers’ Forum” 9/21/16

September 21st, 2016

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

Dear Peter,
When a student uses the Common Application for multiple universities, does each institution see the other schools you are applying to or how many? At one of your workshops, you also mentioned that applying to more than eight schools might indicate to a college that the student isn’t that committed to them. How would a school know how many schools he applied to?

Dear Marilyn,
The only way a college can know for sure the names of the other colleges to which a student has applied is if he reveals that information either conversationally or in writing somewhere. That said, admission officers understand that students are applying to multiple colleges and will make strong inferences about the importance of their own college to that student by the manner in which he presents himself.

It is really important, then, that the student 1) get on the radar screens, i.e., visit the campus, answer correspondence, etc. of the colleges he really likes and, 2) treat each application as though it is a personal statement being made directly to the college in question. Admission officers are very adept at discerning a student’s interest. Again, it is critical that students are very intentional about the messaging they present to each institution. With each additional application that is submitted, it is harder for a student to make a compelling argument to each college that he is sincerely interested; hence, my strong recommendation to keep the college list to eight.

Dear Peter,
Is it better to apply Early Action to a school where the student might have a chance rather then a reach school? I figured nothing to lose so why not try EA for reach school? Is that the wrong strategy?

Dear Kate,
Unless the EA option being considered is of a restrictive, “single-choice” nature, I agree that it can’t hurt for a student to apply EA to any or even all of the schools on her list including the reach school. EA does not require or even imply a commitment from the student so the only reason not to try it is if there is a chance that the student’s credentials (scores, grades) might be measurably improved through the first half of the academic year. Keep in mind, though, that the only real benefit to such a strategy is peace of mind. Whereas the odds of admission improve with Early Decision at most schools, EA candidates really don’t have find any statistical advantage in the admission process.

Dear Peter,
When is it best to submit an Early Decision application? Is it better to apply Oct. 1 versus waiting for the Nov. 1 deadline?

Dear Anne,
The best time for your student to submit her ED application is when she is ready. There is no real strategic advantage to applying well ahead of the deadline. I do suggest trying to submit a week in advance of the deadline in order to avoid having her credentials get caught in the avalanche of materials that is bound to arrive in admission offices on November 1.

Dear Peter,
How crucial is it that you take 4 years of foreign language? Does it look bad to drop it your senior year because it does not fit your schedule?

Dear Jo,
The more selective the college to which your student wants to apply, the more important it is to have a fourth year (senior year) of a language. If, for any reason, that is not possible, your student needs to make sure to explain the situation in the application (interview, optional essay, letters of recommendation).

Dear Peter,
Our daughter attended a two-week Introduction to Engineering session at Notre Dame during the summer. Should she mention this in her applications to other schools including the name of the University? She is a very good student with a 4.33 weighted GPA, Girl Scout Gold Award, achieved level 9 out 10 in piano performance and theory, etc.

Dear Gerard,
Your daughter should definitely include the engineering session at Notre Dame on her application. As an academic enrichment activity, it helps to validate/reinforce the sincerity of her interest in engineering and it is just as relevant as her Gold Award and music achievements.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wrote a good application essay where she reveals an early passion she developed exploring and recreating cultural nuances of different time periods in history. It reads well and shows some of her passions, creativity and independence.

However, she more recently developed a new academic interest in psychology. She took an AP Psych class her sophomore year and has taken classes at colleges to pursue that interest each of the last two summers. She wanted badly to set up a research project, but after contacting multiple college professors, could not do this.

She will be using the supplemental information essay on the Common App to tell another story that relates to a big healthy eating project and grant she has been working on at her school district.

Now the question: Is it okay to have an application with these two essays that reveal of some of her personality and interests but does not include the newer Psychology passion which is what she wants to pursue in college?

Will admission officers perceive a bit of a missing link? On some applications, she can explain the Psych interest in response to the individual questions, but not all colleges give her the option.

Dear Sylvia,
It sounds like your daughter’s primary essays are revealing important elements of her character and perspective. She should not worry about trying to validate her psychology interest in the application any more than is already implicit in her current essays and explicit on the listing of her activities. Colleges that want more evidence of the thoughtfulness and intentionality behind her academic choice(s) will ask for it.

Dear Peter,
My HS senior plans to major in applied math and is taking differential equations and Calc III this year. The teacher who was going to teach that course, and who had already agreed to write a recommendation letter (the teacher had previously taught my son in another math course), has left the school unexpectedly.

Does it make sense for that teacher to write a letter? Prior to teaching at the HS he was a very accomplished university professor and leader in secondary education. We felt that his recommendation letter would be helpful.

Coincidentally, another teacher (Comp Science AP and Physics), with 40 years of tenure who my son believes would have gladly written a strong letter, retired at the end of last year. These are likely my son’s two biggest proponents.

All of this leads to a more general question: how important are recommendation letters and do letters from certain types of teachers “carry more weight than others”? If so, what matters other than that the teacher knows the student and thinks highly of him?

Dear Glenn,
Letters of recommendation can provide valuable context regarding the rigor and expectations of a given classroom as well as insight into the student’s approach to learning. Both factors are important in the selective admission process as readers of the application try to discern the student’s ability and preparation to function in advanced college-level courses. Such assessments are even more relevant when considering students for admission into academic programs that require a high level of proficiency at the outset.

Ideally, a letter should come from 1) a teacher who is familiar with the student’s communication and critical thinking skills and, 2) a teacher who can provide perspective on the student’s performance and preparedness in curricula related to his intended major. When possible, the letters should come from teachers who taught the student in the Junior and/or Senior years.

Your son might inquire of the colleges to which he applies about the protocol for submitting letters from either or both of these individuals in addition to those required from current classroom teachers as they are likely to provide relevant insight into his application.

Posted in Application Info, Early Decision/Action, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application | 5 Comments »


“Fact-checking College Admission” 9.14.16

September 14th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Young man, it is your job to try to disprove everything I say. If you can disprove something, you have discovered a new truth. If you can’t disprove it, you have validated an old truth. Regardless, you have come to a better understanding of the truth.”

It has been many years since one of my professors who, upon observing my fastidious note-taking as he presented to our small group seminar, broke from his remarks to push me out of my comfort zone. The message, “Don’t accept something just because I say it is so,” continues to resonate. While I don’t remember anything else from the class that day, I have never forgotten his words!

As another college admission season begins to ramp up, the need to challenge assumptions—and search for the “truth”—has never been more relevant for students, parents and college access professionals. At a time when eagerness and anticipation morph into stress and anxiety, we tend to seek certainty—facts that can be trusted from seemingly reliable sources, things we know to be true—to guide our decision-making. In doing so, however, we are prone to accepting false “truths.”

Given the high stakes nature of college planning and the abundance of information being conveyed by institutions, online forums, media (social and mainstream) and backyard conversations, the need for critical thinking on the part of consumers is paramount as things aren’t always as they seem.

And, frankly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Full transparency is not part of the marketing formula for colleges as they seek to improve their admission measurables (test scores and selectivity that are projected as proxies for quality). The media panders to the mindset of rankings and the rhetoric of high profile institutions. And social media and backyard conversations revel in ill-informed, self-made expertise.

Consequently, the truth about college access and educational opportunity is often buried in layers of rhetoric and urban legend! A little digging, however, can be revealing. For example:

1)  Be wary about assertions regarding the “real” cost of attendance. Colleges are prone to such statements and the media likes to frame “best value” in related terms. While it is true that just about every student at a college might be paying a different amount due to either merit-based or need-based discounting, it is also true that colleges identify a “sticker cost” for a reason—they need cash to pay the bills and want to enroll as many students as possible whose families can afford the full amount.

Statements made in the abstract about students only paying X% of the sticker price are often misleading. Yes, many students pay the discounted amount—or less. If, however, you want to be one of those students at a given college, you need to be able to prove your value as a candidate (what does the college gain by admitting you?) in order to receive that type of discount. It is important to know, then, where you fit academically on a college’s competitive playing field and to have a realistic sense as to how your non-academic credentials will be regarded.

2)  Question policy statements that seem to be absolute. “We are need blind in the admission process” and “We meet the full, demonstrated need of 100% of our students” are moral positioning statements often associated with high profile institutions.

“Need blind,” an assertion that students are considered for admission without regard to the family’s financial circumstances, is highly conceptual. It assumes a complete lack of awareness of financial circumstance, actual or implied, in the selection process—which is highly improbable—as well as an inexhaustible supply of financial aid. Truth be told, however, even the wealthiest schools have fixed, financial aid budgets.

Moreover, “meeting 100% of demonstrated need” is a subjective notion in which the institution determines both the student’s “need” and the manner in which it is met. The assertion that students with family incomes under $X won’t have to borrow is similarly ambiguous given the range of potential interpretations for “income” that can be rendered.

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by such policy statements. While they reflect noble ambitions, they are not verifiable nor should they be regarded as differentiators in the choice of a college.

3)  Allow a healthy dose of cynicism in the face of those who seem to have all the answers regarding the admission process at your favorite college. Students who have been admitted to high-profile schools tend to become experts about the selection processes that they successfully navigated and are all too happy to proffer advice. Little do they realize that they were simply fortunate to have won the admission lotteries at their respective schools!

A similar “whisper-down-the-lane” phenomenon can be found in many high schools, workplaces and backyards as well where the “word on the street” about college admission takes on a life of its own. At times, the “noise” can be deafening, yet not many facts come from such conversations! Perhaps the best advice I can give you in this regard is to stop listening to your friends! They don’t know any more about the process than you do! Unless they were part of the decision-making effort at a college or university, they have no clue regarding how or why a candidate might be admitted! In the search for good information, your best bet is to focus on conducting original research.

NB: Predicative algorithms and apps are of limited value because they are unable to capture the potential synergy between you, your interests, talents and perspectives and a highly nuanced admission selection process.

4)  Don’t take everything you hear from colleges at face value. Institutions spend millions of dollars to create good impressions—to promote their brands. When you think about it, they’re trying to justify their sticker prices.

As a result, you will be treated to a “show” at every turn along the way from tours and information sessions to websites and literature. Stories abound about small classes, close interactions with professors and great internships as it seems like colleges are intent on being all things to all people. Be discerning, though, as you take it in. Does the rhetoric seem logical given the host environment? Do the stories reveal situations common to most students or are they truly exceptional? If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

If a college is putting on a “show,” take time to go “backstage” and immerse yourself in the culture of the place and of the academic programs that interests you. Talk with students and faculty who are not part of the cast. Can you see yourself functioning well with them? Will the place be a good fit for you given your goals and learning style?

In the final analysis, you need to remember that the college process is all about finding the best educational opportunity for you. There are no reliable shortcuts. Don’t expect answers or outcomes to be handed to you. Keep asking questions, challenging assumptions and pressing for information that will enable you to make smart decisions about your future. Don’t let the college process happen to you—make it happen for you.

Posted in College Planning, Hot Topics/Trends, Meeting College Costs | No Comments »


“Organizing the College Application Process: September College Planning Tips” 9.7.16

September 7th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

“On your mark! Get set … Go!” With the opening of the school year, the starter’s call has sounded on the marathon that is the next college application season. Ready or not, high school seniors with college aspirations need to step up if they want to compete.

The coming months will establish the pace for each candidate. Good planning, positive energy and careful execution will move students to the head of the pack. By contrast, inertia can be a killer! Slow starts resulting from a lack of focus and poor organization can be overcome, but rarely without undue amounts of angst that stress a process that is already emotionally charged.

The following, then, are tips for students as they approach the “starting line.” While there can be no guarantees with regard to outcomes, knowing what lies ahead—and planning accordingly—can be advantageous as you map out your “race.” These suggestions are intended to put you in a more competitive position while relieving a little stress along the way!

1.    Prepare yourself for a busy year. “Okay, so what’s new!?” you say. Well, being able to anticipate the rush of Senior Year activity is one thing. Managing it is quite another. The key: take control. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things “beyond your control.” Rather, know what you want to accomplish and be prepared to do what it takes to make things happen. Be responsible—no excuses. Take charge of your life and give meaning to the things you do. Success won’t just happen. You will need to make it happen.

2.    Invest in yourself. The college application process will seem like another high-level course or two on top of everything else on your schedule. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing the things you enjoy. Instead, give them everything you’ve got. Expand your involvement. Look for leadership opportunities. Try new roles. Doing so may prove quite challenging and require a difficult balancing act on your part. When you consider the potential short and long-term benefits, though, aren’t you worth the effort?!

3.    Stay on top of your grades! Selective colleges want to see what you will do in the classroom when you think the pressure is off—when no one is looking. Your hard work has gotten you this far academically—now is the time to sprint to the finish!

4.    Finalize your college list. Ideally, your list is already taking shape. By the end of September, it should be set. While there are all kinds of reasons why students feel the need to apply to lots of colleges, a good number is eight (8). If you have managed expectations around a good college fit (see my summer blogs), this list should be dominated by “target” schools—places at which you have a reasonable chance (40%-60% probability) of gaining admission.

5.    Research the applications of the colleges to which you will apply. If you haven’t done so already, there is no time like the present. Create an account with the Common Application. Become familiar with the supplementary information required by the colleges to which you are applying on the Common App’s “member pages” as well as the institutional applications for schools that do not use the Common Application. Do the same with the Universal Application and/or the new Coalition Application if you are so inclined. Create a spreadsheet on which you can note deadlines and requirements.

6.    Develop a plan for telling your story. What are the key messages you want colleges to know about you? How can you use the different elements of the application to convey those messages—to “connect the dots” in revealing a clearer picture of who you are?

7.    Start working on your essays! While you don’t need finished drafts right off the bat, you need to start sometime. Remember, good writing is a process, not an event. It doesn’t happen overnight. Try to have solid drafts of at least three 500-word essays finished by the end of September. Otherwise, the “adrenalin rush” that has served you well in the past might prove to be more elusive than you anticipate later in the Fall.

8.    Make sure your supporters are ready and able to help you! By the end of September, you should have met with the individuals who will write letters of recommendation for you and notified your counselor of the colleges to which you may be applying. In addition, familiarize yourself with your high school’s procedures and deadlines for processing application materials including transcripts, mid-year grades and counselor recommendations.

9.   If you are thinking about Early Decision, plan an overnight visit at your first-choice college AND at another of your favorite colleges. Compare your impressions of each before completing any ED forms. If you are not 100%, unconditionally committed to a school, then ED should not be considered. If you are applying Early Action to schools that offer that option, be respectful of the rules each has regarding the use of EA as some offer it as a restrictive, single choice opportunity.

10.    Take the SAT or ACT at least once between September and December. Plan to take the SAT Subject Tests necessary to satisfy the requirements of the colleges where you are applying.

11.    Give your parents a list of application deadlines. Presumably, one of them will be paying your application fees. They need to know when and how much.

12.    Become familiar with the financial aid forms and process. In determining your eligibility for need-based financial aid, all schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and many private schools also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Know the submission deadlines. (Note: you can submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 using 2015 IRS tax return. Consult financial aid professionals at schools where you might be applying if you have questions. If you are considering Early Decision and cost is a factor, many schools will meet with you to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC). Do not regard information taken from institutional Net Price Calculators as the absolute gospel with regard to your EFC.

For more advice about organizing the college application process, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in College Planning, Preparing the Application | 3 Comments »


“Whose Job Is It? Getting Beyond the Committee of ‘We’ In the College Application Process” 9.1.16

September 1st, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

The season of reckoning for high school seniors has arrived. At a time in their lives when everything they do takes on the added “last time” significance, they are also coming face-to-face with the prospect of life after high school. The future is now. And, for many, it is wrapped up neatly in a package called “college.”

Getting there, however, is another story. The competition for admission to America’s selective institutions has never been greater and navigating the competitive landscape requires teamwork on the home front. In a scenario rife with irony, students and parents need to find themselves on the same page at a time when their respective agendas are otherwise drifting apart! As the deadlines loom, then, whose job is it to take the college applications to completion?

While the answer might seem obvious, actual behaviors often belie conventional wisdom. Whereas students might find the college application process a bit daunting and approach it rather tentatively, many parents eagerly rise to the task.

Instinctively—and protectively—they take the lead. The result is the “Committee of We”—a highly focused college planning effort energized and organized by Mom, Dad or both. It’s a committee whose objective is clear: “Get into the best college possible.” And its high-level tactical discussions frequently take place at the dinner table. In between “How was your day?” and “Please pass the peas,” you hear from Mom or Dad:

“So, when are we going to start narrowing down our list of colleges?”

We really do need to get signed up for the SAT.”

“Maybe we should start working on applications this weekend.”

The “Committee of We” also shows up around the water cooler at work, in supermarket aisles and in the stands at ballgames as parents proudly compare notes about college planning.

We’re applying to X, Y and Z colleges. We’re pretty sure we’re going to get in at X, though.”

We’re going up to State U. next week where we have an interview with the admission office.”

Needless to say, such conversations can be confusing to the young person! I find myself reminding students, “No, Mom and Dad aren’t going with you. There are no suites for parents at the end of the hall in the freshman dorm!”

Parents, if you see yourself in any of these scenarios, take a step back and reconsider your involvement. The truth is there’s a good chance you’ve become a “helicopter parent”—the constantly hovering presence that sometimes blocks out the sun in your child’s life! You want to make sure he experiences the best opportunities as you clear the way for his inevitable success. Such tendencies don’t make you a bad parent, but they do inhibit your child’s opportunity to grow in confidence as he finds his direction.

In order for your student to fully grasp what it takes to compete for admission she must first take ownership of the process and the outcome. You may be picking up the tab, but for her to embrace the opportunity with confidence you need to discretely slip into a supporting role. The more engaged she is with the process—the more it becomes hers—and the happier she will be with the outcomes.

While you might feel uncomfortable giving up absolute control of the process, you do have an opportunity to remain engaged and make a difference in the quality of the experience your student has as a college applicant. For example:

  • Talk with your student about what he wants—and needs—educationally. Are you and your student on the same page with regard to what constitutes a good college “fit?”
  • Establish your student’s ownership of the process. Help him understand what he needs to do in order to get from where he is to where he wants to be. Guide him, but don’t do it for him.
  • Develop a shared understanding of the “big picture” as it relates to college admission. What do colleges want? Who gets in and why?
  • Help him establish a general calendar of events that will get him through the college application process.
  • Manage expectations around colleges that fit him well. Which places clearly value him for what he has to offer? Where is the synergy between his talents, interests and learning style and an institution’s offerings most evident?
  • Celebrate the person—don’t tinker with the genetic code. He is who he is. Don’t try to make him into something else in order to get into the colleges you might have in mind.

In the process, be supportive, not directive. If you find yourself issuing ultimatums, something has gone wrong. Your child is either stymied or overly anxious and needs assistance, not orders. Remember, it’s his college future that is at stake, not yours.

Giving up control goes against the grain of just about every parenting principle by which you have attempted to live. Oh, you’ll eventually do it just like millions of parents before you, but it still won’t feel natural. If you want your student to find happiness in his own space, though, you’ve got to give it up. The college years are his. He needs to use them to figure out who and what he will be as he enters the rest of his life.

As your child engages in the college application process, he must proceed with the confidence that his worth is not determined by the realization of a dream, especially yours. Success or failure as an applicant to a given college will not change the course of human events! It certainly doesn’t lessen the power of his potential. By reducing the fear of failure (that he won’t meet your expectations), you increase his chance of success as an applicant

The answer to the opening question, then, is easy. Completing the college application is your child’s job. This is about her and her future. She is the college applicant and her application must bear her signature. Finding success in the process, though, will require a special kind of teamwork.

So, smile and relax. Too many parents get so caught up in the rush to “win” that they take the process—and themselves—too seriously. Stay calm and maintain perspective. The opportunity to pursue a college education is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Give it unconditionally. Give it with love. And celebrate the occasion!

Posted in College Planning, Preparing the Application | 4 Comments »