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 3.21.18

March 21st, 2018

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

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.

Posted in Choice of a College, Financial Aid, Making the Final Choice of a College, Meeting College Costs | 1 Comment »


“Fool’s Gold” 3.14.18

March 14th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Earlier this year, a friend asked my opinion about a dilemma that had come upon one of her advisees. A young woman whom she was advising had been accepted Early Decision to her first-choice school, a highly selective institution in the Northeast. Upon receiving the acceptance letter, she withdrew the applications she had submitted to half a dozen other elite institutions in order to honor her Early Decision commitment. The first in her family to attend college, she was understandably elated. Not only was she going to college, she had been admitted to the college of her dreams!

Weeks later, however, the elation turned to shock and concern when the financial aid award arrived and she found that her family was expected to contribute much more money out-of pocket than she had anticipated.

Instead of the $5,000 she thought her family would need to pay out of pocket, she was told their contributions would be closer to $12,000. She was now in a bind and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t afford her ED school and was now without options as she had withdrawn her applications to the other schools on her short list.

It is important to note that, prior to submitting the ED application, this young woman and her parents had completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and subsequently received a Student Aid Report (SAR). Based on the information her family provided, the SAR indicated an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $5,000 for the first year. While that was a lot of money for this family, her parents were confident enough in their ability to come up with that amount that she had gone ahead with the ED application. Now, the school to which she was committed was somehow expecting more, much more.

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are likely to play out in many households in the coming weeks as colleges and universities stretch their financial aid budgets to accommodate the financial needs of students whom they have accepted. For families, the revelations can be gut wrenching, if not downright painful.

Despite the early (October of the Senior Year) accessibility of the FAFSA application and the availability of “Net Price Calculators” (mandated on college websites to provide better information to families about cost and affordability) there is little precision in a process that is fraught with institutional nuances and agendas. As the young woman in this situation found out, institutions have variable means at their disposal to assess the EFC—means that can produce a range of results generated from data provided by the same family!

Moreover, colleges will apply these means in a manner reflective of the desirability of each candidate—an institutional prerogative that is lost in the online calculators.

For example, many private institutions utilize the College Scholarship Service Profile as well as the FAFSA to arrive at an EFC for a student. Rarely, however, do the two methodologies agree. In fact, PROFILE-generated EFCs can be $5,000-$10,000 higher than EFCs projected by the FAFSA. In a practice known as “differential need analysis,” institutions that utilize both methodologies can then choose, on a case-by-case basis, the one that allows it to respond to the student in a manner consistent with the value it attaches to that student. By doing so, the institution can claim to meet the demonstrated needs of its admitted students without ever having to reconcile the differential in the respective need analyses to the families involved.

I saw this first-hand when a young man shared with me the financial aid awards he had received from ten different colleges. They were so strikingly different that, if one were to “white out” his name on each award letter, you would think that each letter was being addressed to a different student! Some had very generous grants and scholarships while others were front-loaded with sizeable loans. In each case, the institutions had chosen to assess and meet his financial need according to the manner in which they regarded him as a candidate.

In yet other cases, colleges will ignore the need analyses and simply elect not to meet the full need of the admitted student. Instead, they will provide a basic financial aid award that covers a fraction of the demonstrated need and fill the ”gap” of unmet need with additional loans for the student and/or the parents. However it is manifest, don’t be surprised to find this type of gapping, as well as differential need analysis, in the days to come.

As you weigh your educational options, then, in the coming weeks, it is important that you understand the terms of the enrollment agreements you are considering, including your obligation to meet the cost of attendance. Sometimes in the euphoria associated with “getting in” it is easy to overlook the details and, in the case of managing college costs, the “devil might indeed be in the detail.”

The good news is that colleges will treat well those students whom they find most attractive. As a result, there are good deals to be found. To find them, though, you need to manage expectations and focus on finding colleges that are the best “fit” for you. Among other things, “best fit” colleges are those that value you for what you have to offer. They will admit you—and give you the support needed to meet your goals as a student on their campuses.

Posted in Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, The Admission Process | 5 Comments »


“Standardized Testing: March College Planning Tips” 3.7.18

March 7th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Few college admission requirements generate more angst than standardized testing. When considered along with a student’s academic record, such tests are intended to help admission officers determine whether students can do the work academically in the first year of college. In fact that is their sole purpose. (They should certainly not be confused with intelligence tests!)

Unfortunately, test results add very little to the predictive equation, a fact that is borne out by validity tests conducted on college campuses across the country each year. Admission officers know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without test scores. Moreover, nearly 900 college and universities have publicly stated that conviction by making the submission of test results optional. You can learn more about the requirements of these schools at

The odds are, however, that you will need to address a testing requirement somewhere along the line as you apply to colleges. At some institutions, test results are embedded in formulas that determine who will be admitted—or, at the very least, be given further consideration. At others, they simply serve as competitive credentials—the bigger the scores the better. The following are a few tips to consider as you factor testing and test prep into your plans for applying to college.

1. You have options! Every school in the country regards the SAT and the ACT as equals and receives them interchangeably. The tests themselves are different. Whereas the ACT is a subject-based test designed to measure what you have learned in the classroom, the SAT is a deductive reasoning test. Try one of each. Which one suits you best? Focus on preparing for and taking that test.

2. Colleges strongly prefer to receive test results (SAT, ACT) directly from the testing services. Make arrangements with the appropriate testing service to have your results sent directly to the colleges to which you are applying. However, if you are taking tests in the coming months, you may want to wait until you have seen the results before deciding to have official score reports sent to colleges. This is an option afforded you by “Score Choice” by both testing agencies (College Board, ACT) in acknowledgement of the fact that you own the results and can control where they are sent.

3. Admission officers tend to “super-score” test results by compiling the best combination of subscores from the tests (ACT or SAT) you have taken. For example, if you have taken the SAT several times, they will match your best Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score (that might have come on your third test) with your best Math result (that might have come on your second test). You can’t do the “super-scoring” for them, though. They’ll need to see all of your relevant results in order to find the best subscores.

4. Make note of schools that require SAT Subject Tests. Some will tell you which tests to take. Others will allow you to choose. In either case, the Subject Test results are essentially another set of filters that can be used to sort through candidates for degree programs that can be highly selective. When given the option with regard to subjects, go with your strengths. And, if you can, time your testing to coincide with the completion of that subject in school.

5. Consider the “test optional” opportunities that might exist among the colleges to which you are applying. Compare your results with the range of scores reported for each test optional college. If your scores fall in the bottom 50% of the score ranges, logic would suggest that you elect not to submit your scores, as they will do nothing to enhance your application. A complete list of test optional colleges can be found at

6. Choose colleges at which your testing profile is a good fit. Remember, colleges are fond of reporting high scores for their entering classes. The further your “super-scores” fall below the mid-point of the reported range of scores at a college, the less likely you will be admitted at that college. Target places, then, where your scores are in the top half, if not the top quartile, of the distribution of scores for admitted students in the past year.

7. Create a spreadsheet on which you can keep track of the testing profiles for each of the colleges that interests you. Note both the averages as well as the range of scores reported for admitted students. Be careful not to interpret the “average” or mean score as the minimum requirement as half of the admitted students will have scores that fall at or below the average.

8. Both testing agencies (SAT and ACT) concede that the tests can be “coached.” As a result, test prep may be a viable option for you. In considering test prep, be discriminating about the provider. Make sure you are comfortable with the style of instruction and, frankly, the instructor. A bad match can negate the potential good that can come from the exercise. Time your test prep so the instruction ends no more than two weeks prior to the test you plan to take.

Proven—and less expensive—test prep alternatives include reviewing practice tests (available in bookstores) and personal reading in various genres.

Finally, while testing is unavoidable in the college admission process, don’t obsess on it. Although, test results can be pivotal in many objective selection processes (where “numbers” carry the day), they are merely one part of the selection processes at other places that are more holistic in their assessments. Finding the best college “fit,” then, is vital to your eventual success. Places that value you for what you have to offer will be more inclined to look beyond your test results out of respect for what they might gain by admitting you.

Posted in Testing/Test Prep | 2 Comments »


“The College Decision—Worth Getting It Right” 2.28.18

February 28th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Among lifestyle investments, a college education ranks among the most important—and the most expensive—in the life of a young person. Getting ‘it”—the choice of a college—right is critical to realizing a strong return on the investment.

Chosen well, a college education sets the table for years of opportunities that will determine comfort and success for graduates, their families and their careers. Chosen well, every penny of the investment is repaid many times over. Choose poorly, however, and the debt is compounded by lost earning opportunity, reduced productivity and diminished return on investment.

Every year, nearly two million U.S. students and their parents invest in education for the first time, in many cases gambling their life savings in the process. Some do it well. They prepare and compete effectively, putting themselves in a position to acquire the type of educational experiences that will serve them well in life.

Regrettably, though, many—including students of all means and backgrounds—fall short of achieving their goals. Either they fail to complete the education they’ve started (barely half of entering college freshmen will graduate from any college at any time in their lives) or they muddle through their college years only to cross the “finish line” without any real sense of accomplishment or direction.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be content with a “system” that only works half the time. It’s not healthy for the young people who fail to make good on the promise of their own ability and it’s not good for a society that, ultimately, must pick up the slack for them.

Whether you are on the verge of choosing a college or you are just getting started in the college search/selection process, it is critical that you engage in thoughtful discernment and decision-making with regard to your future. Focus on your needs and priorities. And keep in mind that colleges are more than rankings and reputations—they are diverse academic programs enveloped in a range of campus cultures. You deserve the opportunity to choose the place that makes the most sense for you. Wherever you are in the process, keep the following in mind:

  1. Challenge assumptions. The college admission process isn’t what it used to be nor is it what many colleges would have you believe it is. Moreover, the realities can’t be found in chatrooms or backyard conversations. A healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric.
  2. Keep your mind open to a range of solutions. In doing so, you acknowledge that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.
  3. Make good choices—choices that are truly student-centered. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.
  4. Focus on “fit.” The best college for your student is the one that “fits” her best. (And, it will always be the one that values her for what she has to offer.)

Posted in Choice of a College | 3 Comments »


“High Anxiety Time” 2.24.18

February 24th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

If you are a college applicant waiting out the “Regular” admission process, mid-winter can be high anxiety time. Even if you may have experienced success with an Early Action application or two, it will be the admission decisions in the Regular selection process that finally define your range of options.

For now, though, all you can do is wait—and that isn’t easy. After months of deadlines, interviews, phone conversations, and campus visits, the chatter from the colleges has all but disappeared. Although momentarily welcome, the silence becomes more deafening by the day.

So, what happens to your application when it reaches the admission office? Who reads it? What do they think? How will they decide? Surprisingly, the answers aren’t that simple.

The credential review processes at colleges and universities vary widely according to applicant volume, levels of selectivity, and institutional agendas. For example, colleges that practice “rolling admission” make decisions on applications as they arrive in complete form. Starting September—and sometimes earlier—they admit qualified candidates until their classes are full, a process that can extend well into the following summer.

The type of review will vary across schools as well. Many state universities engage in an objective review of applicants that involves an initial screening based on a formula of test results and GPA. In some cases, a student’s ability to present credentials that meet or exceed the preset standard of the formula are admitted. In others, those students are simply passed along for a more subjective or “holistic” review by members of the admission committee.

The holistic review considers a variety of factors in addressing the question, “What do we gain by admitting this student?” Extracurricular profiles, letters of recommendation, essays and, where offered, personal interviews provide relevant insight. Out-of-state candidates at state universities as well as applicants to honors programs at those schools often face even greater levels of scrutiny as they compete with other, similarly qualified students for limited places in areas of restricted enrollment.

The holistic review is also common among selective, private schools. In these “deadline-driven” environments, admission committees are eager to see the breadth and depth of the competition before making fine distinctions about whom to admit. Again, the questions will be, “What do we get? Who among the qualified candidates will fit best into the community we are trying to build with this class? Who do we value most?”

In just about every admission process, the “committee” is where the more difficult decisions are often made. Consider the term “committee” loosely because committee members or “readers” may meet together in conference rooms or individually in their offices or the quiet comfort of their homes. Once in committee, applications are usually reviewed by at least two readers before any decisions are made. Readers can include part-time staff hired to participate in credential review, specialists in particular majors or subgroups of students (international students, for example) and members of the admission staff. The staff person who recruits in your area is almost certainly going to be an interested participant as well.

In some cases, faculty members are invited to read applications from students interested in their respective academic disciplines. This is more likely at universities that are comprised of “colleges” or “academic programs” to which you apply directly.

What follows in the review process is an attempt to arrive at consensus regarding your application. As readers review your credentials, they start with your transcript, noting both the strength of your academic program and your academic successes relative to other students in your school. In all likelihood, you will be regarded as qualified—you could do the work academically if given the opportunity.

Having been established as a viable candidate on their competitive “playing field,” readers begin to dig more deeply into your application. Driven by the “What do we get?” question, they look at extracurricular activities, test results and essays for “hooks” or points of distinction. As the research into your application continues, committee members probe for authenticity and sincerity of purpose in all your application materials.

Readers will also look for explanations that might shed light on any irregularities in your program and/or performance. Such explanations might be found in personal statements, interviews and letters of recommendation.

In a very short period of time, admission officers develop a bias — a sense of what you have to offer and where you fit in the competition. The more intense the competition the more important it is to have a decisive or “over the top” credential—and the more important it is for that credential to be authentic. This is when arguments on behalf of students with special talents, interests and perspectives begin to emerge.

Assuming the bias is favorable, readers quickly scan letters of recommendation to look for validation—evidence that supports the information on your application. Sometimes these letters provide an added dimension of understanding regarding your performance that can be very powerful.

As the selection process moves into March, the focus turns to the students who remain on the “bubble” or the margin of the competition. Questions such as “What is the likelihood that she will enroll if we take her?” and “How are his third marking period grades?” and “Are we sure we will get a good return on our investment if we give him that much financial aid?” While candidates at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum are sorted quickly and easily, those in the middle continue to get lots of attention as the process winds down.

This is also a time when institutional agendas can dictate outcomes. Special talents, legacy connections, leadership and diverse perspectives can become hooks that make all the difference in a tight competition.

The final weeks of the Regular Decision selection process, often in mid-March, are more important than most students realize. Typically a “settling” or “move-down period” for the class in waiting, it is a time the likelihood of enrollment is calibrated for each student and fine points are considered. Further arguments are heard from special interest groups about special cases, grades are checked—again—and adjustments are made based on yield (on offers of admission) forecasts to make sure the group of admitted students will generate the needed enrollment—and revenue—to balance the budget in the coming year.

Before long—as early as the middle of March for some deadline-driven schools—letters will be mailed and decisions will be posted on institutional websites. If you focused on “fit” and were able to prove your value to the schools where you applied, happy outcomes will soon find you.

Be sure to check future blogs for more tips and suggestions regarding next steps in the enrollment process.

Posted in The Admission Process | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 2.14.18

February 14th, 2018

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, a Junior, is currently taking Calculus BC. He will finish his high school math at the end of this year. The only math course he can take in his Senior year, AP Statistics, is an elective which he does not want to take. If he doesn’t take a math course in his Senior year, would it effect his possible acceptance by top tier schools?

Dear Mara,
I would strongly encourage your son to stick with math in his senior year. AP Statistics is a very substantive elective that will do the trick. “Top tier” schools want to see evidence that students continue to find appropriate challenges in each academic discipline through the senior year. Besides, Statistics will likely prove to be the most utilitarian coursework he can take into his college experience.

Dear Peter,
My daughter, a junior, is taking AP Seminar this year and, until recently, was full steam ahead to take AP Research next year. As this class only earns elective credit, sacrifices have had to be made in order to fulfill graduation requirements (such as taking online classes over the summer). Now she’s considering not taking AP Research next year in order to take AP Music Theory. Her interests are math and music and she is in one of the auditioned choirs at her school. Part of me wants to see her complete the AP Capstone program and receive the diploma. How will it look, however, if she is taking Seminar this year but does not take Research next year? Is the AP Capstone diploma something that will help her stand out on college applications compared with all the other students at her school with 4.4 weighted GPAs and plenty of honors/AP classes?

Dear Gina,
Given your daughter’s interests, AP Music Theory would seem to be a no-brainer! While “nice,” the AP Capstone Program, in my opinion, is not likely to be very consequential in the admission process, especially when the alternative is AP Music Theory, an intensive, challenging course. If any question remains, suggest that she pose the question to some of the admission officers at colleges that interest her.

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted to a college with a nice merit scholarship. He is also applying for an outside scholarship that might also be a significant amount. If he is awarded the outside scholarship will the school add that to the merit scholarship they awarded him or will they reduce their offer? I understand that need-based aid can be reduced when scholarships are received, but can scholarships be bundled? I can’t find help with this anywhere.

Dear Darlene,
Colleges vary with regard to how they apply outside scholarships. Some will apply the funds to reduce their own exposure via institutional grants or scholarships, some will apply it against your out-of-pocket expense, and some will split the amount with funds distributed to help both the institution and the family. I suggest you ask the financial aid office at the college in question about its practice in such situations. It’s a fair question and as a consumer, you have the right to know all the details before making any commitments.

Dear Peter,
My daughter recently received an invitation to represent her high school at the 2018 National Student Leadership Conference. It sounds interesting to her since they not only teach leadership skills, but also allow her to learn more about the career she is interested in (neuroscience). They tout the program as exclusive and say students will receive a Certificate of Achievement, an official program transcript and a letter of recommendation that they can submit to colleges. Is this program as exclusive as they say? Does it look good to have this on your college application? Or is this just a way for them to make a large profit (the program is rather expensive at approximately $3,000 for 9 days).

Dear Joseph,
The invitation from NSLC and other “leadership” programs is sent to tens of thousands of students each year. (It’s not that exclusive!) My guess is the leadership components of the program are much stronger than are the neuroscience elements, which are likely to be of a more superficial, “show and tell” nature. The certificate, program transcript and letter of recommendation rarely carry much weight in the selection process. If your daughter is drawn to the NSLC experience purely for self-enrichment, then you might consider it for her. Otherwise, she might be better off exploring opportunities to shadow neurosurgeons and/or participate in research projects being conducted by professionals in your area.

Dear Peter,
Do the most selective schools use demonstrated interest in admissions decisions?

Dear Maia,
While most of the highly selective colleges indicate that they do not engage in predictive analytics (and it might be true), you can bet that all will review candidates carefully to discern the degree to which they have been thoughtful/intentional in both their decisions to apply and the manner in which they present their credentials. The key is to demonstrate the synergy that exists between the student’s interests, goals and learning style-and the institution’s capacity to serve them well.

Dear Peter,
My son is in 11th grade. His sister went to a nearby, highly selective school a few years ago and, more recently, my husband started to work at the same school for which my son will get his tuition waived if admitted. When considering his chances of admission, I was wondering if this is an advantage or a problem for him. Although he will not ask for financial aid, will the fact that they have to waive the tuition affect his candidacy in a negative way?

Dear Joan,
Your son potentially benefits twice here-first with the legacy connection (his sister) and then with tuition remission because off your husband’s employment. The latter is likely to be more consequential as most institutions regard the tuition remission for dependents as an important benefit for eligible employees. While there can be no guarantees, there are no negatives here!

Dear Peter,
The youngest of my three children will start in September at the college to which he has been accepted Early Decision. I do have another child who will be at a different college in September. The ED school has offered a $16,000 scholarship against a $55,000 per year bill and nothing else. I am between jobs and only have a small amount in a 529 for my youngest. My question: how might I best approach the Financial Aid department in the hopes of securing additional aid for him? It will be virtually impossible to afford both kids’ tuition even after I start my new job. We have nothing left in savings and I’m reluctant to draw from my IRA retirement account. I know there are subsidized and unsubsidized loans out there but am trying to not leave my kids with crushing student loan debt upon graduation.

Dear James,
Since your youngest has been admitted ED, you should make every attempt to resolve the cost/affordability issue before submitting an enrollment deposit. Once you send in the deposit, you lose your leverage in the discussion about financial aid.
In terms of addressing your out-of-pocket concerns, schedule an appointment with the financial aid office as soon as possible at which time you can present documentation of your current financial situation, including evidence of financial aid treatment for your older child. As you present this information, ask the question, “How can you help make it possible for my son to attend?” The financial aid officer should be able to respond when faced with new and compelling information.

By the way, you need to be prepared to accept student loans as part of the proposed solution. In appropriate increments, borrowing doesn’t have to be unusually burdensome. Be prepared for $3,000-$5,000 in the first year and increases up to $8,500 in the last two years. Much more than that, in his name, is not reasonable. You also need to be prepared for the suggestion that you borrow through the Parent PLUS loan.

If the proposed solution is not reasonable, then your son needs to be prepared to decline the ED opportunity, withdraw his application completely and look elsewhere where his value to the institution will be more satisfactorily reflected in its financial support of him.

Posted in Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Meeting College Costs, What Colleges Want | 6 Comments »


“Athletic Recruitment, Ethics and Early Decision” 2.8.18

February 8th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

The college admission process can produce some interesting personal dilemmas. One such quandary was brought to my attention in a phone call from a young man who was trying to sort out an Early Decision opportunity. A competitive athlete, he had been approached by a recruiting coach from an NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) school with the suggestion that he convert his application for admission from Regular Decision to Early Decision (ED). Moreover, the coach had assured the young man that if his application for financial aid did not produce the desired assistance from this institution, he would not be held to his commitment to enroll if accepted ED.

The student was understandably excited and confused by this development. While he liked the school very much, he couldn’t say for sure that it was his first choice. This is largely due to his need of financial aid. In fact, the uncertainty of his financial aid situation had led him to actively consider other schools as well. Moreover, he understood the underlying premise of the unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted that is assumed of ED candidates. As a result, he was skeptical of the pitch he had been given by this coach.

My advice to the young man was simple: “If you need to make sure you get the best financial aid possible—and there is a chance other schools might admit you and give you better offers—then don’t give up your right to see those offers by converting your application to ED at one school.”

I pointed out that the coach is behaving unethically in making this suggestion and suggested that he (the student) not compound the problem by heading down that road with him. I’m not sure I told this young man anything he didn’t already suspect to be true, but our chat gave him the confidence to respond to the coach’s overtures.

Whether or not you are a recruited athlete, you need to be vigilant about the ethics of the admission process. This can be especially challenging when you see evidence that others—on both sides of the negotiation—are pushing the ethical “envelope.” Where there are clearly articulated rules, you need to observe them. The desire to get into favored schools should never put you in a place where you compromise your integrity.

Unfortunately, the coach in question was crossing the ethical “line” by asking the applicant to consider an Early Decision application when he knew the young man could only do so conditionally due to his financial situation—clearly a breach of rules governing the ED process. The good news is the young man had the presence of mind to step back and assess the situation objectively.

Now, in case you’re checking the calendar and wondering how this conversation between the coach and the applicant could be taking place as the “round two” deadlines for ED have passed at most schools, welcome to the world of college admission in 2018! These are the days when selective colleges do what they can to pump up their yields on offers of admission while looking for opportunities to reduce the overall number of students they need to admit and, hence, become more selective. For example, each additional ED enrollment reduces the number of low-yielding Regular Decision candidates to be admitted by four or five at most colleges.

Consider the impact of such a strategy on a larger scale. A college or university that can attract 50 more ED enrollments over the previous year reduces by as many as 250 Regular Decision students it would otherwise need to admit to fill those places in the class. As a result, the more ED enrollments a school can stockpile, the more selective it becomes.

Add to the mix the dynamics of athletic recruitment—even at the NCAA Division III non-scholarship level—and the opportunity for late-season Early Decision conversations emerges. A few other observations are worth noting here.

One, the NCAA forbids Division III athletic recruiters from having any conversation about family finances with the financial aid officers at their respective institutions. In short, an athlete’s potential involvement in an NCAA Division III program may NOT have any bearing on the disposition of his/her financial aid status.

Two, each institution employs slightly different criterion in assessing a student’s financial “need” and then recognizing the comparative strength of her academic credential within the context of its financial aid program. It is not only possible, then, that a recruit’s financial “need” could be read differently from one school to the next, but the strength of her academic credential could also result in differences in the composition of the financial aid awards she receives. Whereas a student athlete may qualify for special consideration academically at one school, at others she may not.

Finally, the late season ED phenomenon is not limited to recruited athletes. Admission officers at many selective schools will keep the application “door” open past formal deadlines as they troll for high-yielding ED conversions well into February of the admission process. Should you be presented with such an opportunity, just remember—the rules remain the same. If you convert your application to ED, you are making an unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted.

Posted in Application Info, Athletic Recruitment, Early Decision/Action, Hot Topics/Trends | No Comments »


“Course Selections: February College Planning Tips” 2.1.18

February 1st, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

One of the first—and most important—exercises in the college planning process involves course selections for the coming year of high school. Your high school academic record determines whether you make it onto the “competitive playing fields” at the schools to which you apply. Moreover, the strength of your record positions you among other candidates who are vying for consideration.

The level of selectivity experienced at a given college provides an important contextual framework for this discussion. For example, the harder it is to get into a college, the more magnified are the decisions you make in all aspects of your life, especially those that relate to your academic development. Colleges that are less selective tend to be more forgiving of choices/outcomes that might not reflect as positively on your application.

Keep in mind, then, that the choices you make will be regarded differently according to the pressure a given institution feels to make fine distinctions between great candidates. The following are tips for making course selections that will serve you well going forward.

  • When in doubt, err on the side of rigor. The degree to which you expose yourself to rigor or challenge in the high school classroom speaks volumes with regard to the likelihood that you can perform well in college level courses. As a result, admission officers are watching to see how you use the curriculum available to you to “step up” each year. Each year of high school should reflect advancement through progressively rigorous coursework in each discipline.
  • Know your capacity to do the work. In contemplating rigor, it is easy to get drawn into the presumptive logic that taking the most advanced course will be most impressive to colleges. While there is some truth in that assessment, you need to be able to function at a high level in the course. Barely passing an inordinately “hard” course produces the double whammy of a low grade in that course and the ripple effect of lower grades in other courses as you spend a disproportionate amount of time making it through the hard course. The bottom line: While it is important to stretch yourself, don’t over-reach in taking courses for the purpose of impressing admission officers.
  • Breadth matters. In other words, keep your bases covered. In each year of high school, you should take courses in the five core discipline areas: math, science, social science, foreign language and communication arts (a.k.a. English). Do this regardless of your career interests. Why? Admission officers, especially at selective colleges, want to see that you have developed skills of critical thinking and analysis across all disciplines. Having such an experience gives them greater confidence that you will be able to handle distribution requirements and cross-disciplinary courses you are likely to encounter in college.
  • Substitute value for value. It is not uncommon for students entering the Junior or Senior year to rationalize course selections, e.g. “I don’t like Spanish…” “I want to double up in sciences…” “I’ve already satisfied my math requirement for graduation.” Generally speaking, dropping a course in one discipline for a course in another is acceptable if you are substituting value for value. For example, dropping an Honors or AP French in order to take AP Biochemistry is acceptable. On the other hand, dropping it for a survey course in Economics or Psychology would be a bad move within the context of competition at selective institutions.

If you think you want to take courses that relate to your possible major in college, keep in mind that the first order of business is competing for admission. While in high school, focus on breadth and depth of curricular development. If your schedule allows you to take courses related to your career interest in addition to the core group of five (referenced above), go for it. Otherwise, wait until college to start your major.

  • Don’t settle for “good enough.” It is common for students to chart their progress through high school by working only to the level of their graduation requirements or to the course “requirements” posted by colleges. The problem is that selective colleges want to see what you will do when you have seemingly satisfied your “requirements”—when you don’t think you have to do anything. Be careful, then, not to settle for the minimum or that which is good enough. If you want to increase your range of options as a college applicant, push past that which is good enough to that which will make you a better candidate.

Finally, a common question from students regarding course selections sounds like this: “Is it better for me to take an easier course where I know I can get an “A” or should I take a harder course where I’ll probably get a lower grade?” While it is tempting to assert that one should take the hard course and get the “A,” I would like to offer a slightly different, three-part response that should apply to any course selection.

  1. Choose courses that make sense to you—not to your friends or your parents. The courses you choose in each discipline should provide a new level of challenge and opportunity for growth.
  2. Do as well as you can in these courses—good enough is never enough.
  3. Select colleges that will value you for what you have to offer. These will be schools that see your trajectory and want to be part of your continued growth.

When it might not be possible, for a variety of reasons, to schedule all of the courses that make sense to you or when there are irregularities in your academic program, you have a story to tell in your application. And that is a topic for another day!

To learn more about “Course Selections,” check out Prepare Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore. Prepare, Compete, Win! is an excellent resource for students in all phases of the college planning process. It includes timelines, tips and exercises for students that walk them through the college search and application processes.

Posted in College Planning, Course Selections | 8 Comments »