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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You’re On the Wait List? Get Ready for “Over-time!” 3.29.17

March 29th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

Admission decisions have been hitting in-boxes fast and furiously over the last ten days. While much of the news is good, some carries with it a curious, if not confusing, announcement: “We’re pleased to offer you a place on our Wait List. Let us know if you would like to remain active on our Wait List.”

As encouraging as the words might seem, the reality is this is not an acceptance letter—nor is it a denial letter. This can be particularly jarring to students sitting at the top of their class with impressive resumes of achievement throughout their high school years. So, what is it then? It’s an invitation to participate in the college admission version of “over-time.”

If you choose the “over-time” route by electing to remain active on a WL, your chances of gaining admission are better than you might imagine! On the other hand, if you are fatigued or discouraged by the admission process and want to leave your game on the field of Regular Admission, you will have no chance in “over-time.”

The Back-Story
While selective colleges and universities have historically maintained Wait Lists as “insurance policies” against coming “short” of their enrollment goals through Early Decision, Early Action or Regular Admission, the WL has taken on a more strategic look in recent years. No longer an insurance policy, the WL is now used to burnish institutional credentials (improve yield and increase selectivity). Think of it as “Early Decision” at the back end of the enrollment process. It is not hard to imagine strategic backroom conversations: “Why should we take so many low-yielding students—often at a yield rate of 20% or lower—in Regular Admission, when we can put them on the WL to see who is really interested? Then we can take them at a 75% yield rate.”

Setting the Stage for WL Activity
At the outset, a lot of students worthy of admission are offered WL status. While some of them might have presented flawed credentials, others are quite strong in every way. Many of the latter would have been admitted had they made stronger, more consistent demonstrations of interest throughout the admission process. The number of students offered WL status at a given college will often match the number of students it admits in Regular Decision. For example if 2,000 students are admitted Regular Decision, then a similar number will be offered WL status.

Typically, 25%-50% of those offered WL status will take some sort of action (an email, letter and/or campus visit) to signal a desire to remain active on the WL. It is this group that comprises the new applicant pool should the WL be needed. By the middle of April, the “active” WL will have taken shape at most colleges and, soon after, admission officers will begin to assess the need to admit more students.

While the initial ordering of students on Wait Lists typically reflects the relative academic strengths of the students, other agendas (athletic recruitment, alumni connections, the need to “balance” the class demographically, etc.) can strongly influence their positions. (Thus the importance of sending any new information, e.g., grades, honors, awards, that might speak to these possibilities.)

However, there are three factors that can override the consideration of any of the above: ability to pay, the likelihood that the student will enroll and the student’s general accessibility.

Three Keys to Success in “Over-Time”

  1. Should you decide to convey your interest in remaining active on a WL, make sure you resolve any uncertainty that might have existed about your ability to pay. If you have discovered through the FAFSA that you don’t need financial aid, or you have learned that a family member will be a source of funding for you, make it clear in your WL messaging that funding for college will not be an issue for you. Students admitted from WLs prior to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date are typically those who do not need any financial assistance. Students admitted from the WL after May 1 will receive need-based financial aid on a funds availability basis (so, don’t expect merit scholarships).
  2. Aside from asserting your intent to enroll if admitted from the WL, a strong indication of your interest and intentions is a visit to the campus. Even if you have been there already, go back. Check in at the admission office. Take another tour. Visit academic departments of interest and make an attempt to connect with the admission officer who recruits in your home area as it is that person who will likely be your strongest advocate if admission from the WL is considered. Be careful not to plan your visit around formal activities for admitted students as you will get lost in the shuffle during such programs.
  3. Finally, make sure you are accessible. When you respond with your intent to remain active on the WL, provide your cell number and email address. Make it easy for those who might admit you to find you!

The “Call”
Notice of acceptance from the WL will likely come in the form a phone call, text or email in which you are informed of the opportunity and given a very short period of time (often 24 hours or less) to accept it or not. Ideally, such calls would come before May 1 so you can factor the opportunity among the other offers of admission you have received. By the way, you would be wise to submit an enrollment deposit to a college that has admitted you so you are “covered” in the event the WL doesn’t come through. If you subsequently accept an offer from one college’s WL, you would forfeit the initial enrollment deposit at the other college.

Calculating the Odds
As you contemplate “over-time” on the WL, it is tempting to calculate the odds of admission. To help you with this, colleges are strongly encouraged by the National Association of College Admission Counseling to provide data reflecting their experiences with WL activity in past years. The data provided, though, is often “soft” or incomplete.

For example, a college might report that, of 2,000 students on the WL the previous year, only 20 were accepted. On the surface, these odds don’t seem very promising. The data won’t reveal, however, that only 500 of the 2,000 chose to remain “active” on the WL or that admission officers might have contacted 100 students (or more!) before they got commitments from 20. In effect, 20% of the students on the active WL might have been given the opportunity to accept an offer. In some years, colleges with greater enrollment needs from the WL will nearly exhaust their active WL possibilities before filling their classes.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that many colleges only report WL activity through the end of May. When this happens, the number of students contacted and subsequently enrolled from a given WL could turn about to be much greater than that which is reported.

The Bottom Line
While there can be no guarantees, if you hang in there with a WL situation, good things can happen. Patience and persistence (stay on the college’s radar in polite and appropriate ways) can indeed pay off!

Posted in Making the Final Choice of a College, The Admission Process | 2 Comments »


“You’re In! Now What?! 3.22.17

March 22nd, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

Within the next week, the annual college admission lottery will finally be played out. After months of waiting, most applicants will find out where they have been admitted to college. And, by the time all of the mail is open, you should have options—quality options. Some will include scholarships or special recognition. Others will simply convey the invitation to enroll. In any case, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you get to make the final choice of a college destination.

You need to choose well, however, to ensure a successful experience over the next four years of college. Now, more than ever, you need to be attentive to the details. As you enter the final phase of decision-making, start by rechecking your priorities. What was important when you initially constructed your list of colleges? Has anything changed? Why? The answers to these questions will be your compass as you make decisions in the coming weeks.

The elements of a good college fit apply now more than ever. Even the “best” college (by acclaim) won’t help you reach your goals if getting through four years at that school is likely to be a struggle academically. Choose wisely. Stay within your ability to comfortably embrace the academic programs and achieve the educational goals you set for yourself.

Using your priorities as a guide, it’s time to examine more closely the colleges that accepted you, including those that might not have been at the top of your list. Return to their campuses where you can immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and overall culture of the places. How do they feel to you? The following are ten tips for getting the most out of these campus visits:

  1. Spend a weeknight in a residence hall; eat at least two meals in the dining hall and go to two classes in different disciplines including an introductory first-year class.
  2. Talk with professors from the academic departments that interest you as well as the appropriate pre-professional advisor for those programs. Ask them what they teach, who they teach and how they teach. Do they engage undergraduates in collaborative research or independent study? Look for evidence that they (and their colleagues) are invested in helping undergraduates achieve their goals. Do you see a home for yourself in those environments?
  3. Pull students aside in those departments as well. Ask them about the courses they take. Who teaches them? What do they like about them? What are their opportunities to apply what they are learning? How accessible are their professors? What would they do differently about their learning experience thus far? Can you relate to their experiences?
  4. Ask to see data reflective of outcomes. What is the graduation rate in four years? Five years? What happens to students in your major at graduation? What percent go to graduate school, PhD programs or professional degree programs? How many get jobs? What are the average starting salaries? Ask to see the data for the last five years. Colleges are obligated to give it to you—they just might not volunteer it!
  5. Hang out. Watch people. Listen to them talk. Ask them what they think about campus life, politics, sports, religion, or whatever is important to you.
  6. If you are a recruited athlete, meet with the coach as well as members of the team. These folks may be your support system for the next four years. Where will you fit best?
  7. If you have academic support needs, talk with the coordinator of the Special Needs Support Center or the Writing Center. Look for evidence that you will get the support you need.
  8. If you have financial concerns, make an appointment with the financial aid office. Take copies of your financial aid application AND your 2015 tax returns for reference. Document changes in your family’s circumstances. Don’t assume that troubling financial differences will be worked out after you enroll. By the way, borrowing is a choice families make—it is not a requirement. In comparing financial aid awards, ask the admitting institutions to project the likely student debt over four years. Colleges can provide this information as well. Student debt of up to $30,000 over four years should be manageable after graduation. Much more than that, however, could saddle you with an unreasonable financial burden as you attempt to become established personally and professionally after college.
  9. Ask to see safety information, crime statistics and campus escort programs.
  10. Use good judgment as you explore the social scene. Know your limits…

In other words, take in as much as possible during your campus visits. Allow yourself to get past the rankings, reputations and car stickers to a true understanding of what makes the most sense for you. Most students who emerge from this process acknowledge that much of the decision-making comes down to a gut feeling. Let your gut go to work for you. Make sure the college you choose fits comfortably and feels good before you commit yourself.

Finally, a word of caution is on order. Your life is about to change as colleges roll out the “red carpet.” You’ll be invited to acceptance parties and open houses in your honor. Prominent alumni will call to wish you well. Some schools may even offer to fly you to their campuses for the weekend.

In the midst of all the ego food being tossed your way, you need to stay focused. Do your own detective work and remain true to your priorities. Much of the activity over the next four weeks will be staged by colleges for your benefit. Now that you have been admitted, they want you to enroll—and that’s fine. Just make sure you sort through the excitement to find evidence that the school in question truly values you for what you have to offer and is prepared to invest in your success.

Posted in Making the Final Choice of a College | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 3.15.17

March 15th, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
My mom is completely set on me needing to figure out what my major (and future career) will be RIGHT NOW. She doesn’t think it’s responsible or sensible to go to college without having one picked out. I’m so scared of this, I’m only sixteen and can’t decide what I want to do forever. I have some ideas, but which route I will go is still unclear. I’m looking at colleges that offer the classes I would need to start going in either direction, so why would I need to settle on one right now? If you have any advice on this situation, it would be much appreciated.

Dear Lisa,
Your college years are all about self-discovery—learning how to learn, becoming a critical thinker, finding those things about which you are most passionate. That’s why most college students change their minds about their majors at least once—half of them twice—as they become exposed to new ideas. Moreover, surveys of people who graduated from college 25 years ago show that approximately 90% are now in careers that didn’t exist when they graduated from college. There is something to be said, then, for choosing an education that will prepare you for, not just your first job, but your second, third and fourth as the world continues to change around you.

Rather than resisting your parents, let them know that you are keeping your eyes and ears open to career possibilities. Share with them the information you are finding so they can experience your discovery process with you.

Your plan to look at colleges that might have academic areas that could be interesting to you, but that won’t force you to declare a major immediately or won’t penalize you for changing your major once you are enrolled makes sense. They will enable you to try out some of your ideas before having to commit to any of them. You’ll find this to be true of liberal arts colleges and many general studies programs at universities.

Finally, try not to let the stress you are feeling overwhelm you. Just remember that, once enrolled, you will have the opportunity to refine your thinking as you take different classes. Think of it as the “smile and nod” approach to your parents. It is far less contentious and will give you the space you need to make decisions for yourself.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to try applying Early Decision to an Ivy League school. Our financial situation will put her in desperate need of “need-based” financial aid. If she does apply ED to the school and we find out she is not offered enough Financial Aid to make attendance possible, can we decline the offer and be released from the commitment?

Dear Marla,
Your daughter should not apply ED anywhere until you have fully resolved any contingent factors, including those related to cost and affordability. While it is possible to abandon an ED commitment due to unresolved financial aid considerations, that process is complicated and can have severe implications for your daughter’s applications to other schools as well as future applicants from her high school to the college in question.

In order to resolve questions about financial aid, I strongly recommend that you ask the school for an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution. If you provide your 2016 IRS tax return, the college can do a need analysis on the spot and give you a sense of your EFC. When they give you a number (your EFC), be sure to follow up with the question, “Since this amount won’t cover the total cost of attendance at your college, what might we expect in a financial aid award?” They can tell you this as well.

While colleges might not volunteer early estimates (not the same as information provided by their web-based Net Price Calculators), they are obligated to provide them upon request. I suggest presenting your financials in person, if possible. IF you are not completely comfortable with the conversation and your likely out-of-pocket exposure, your daughter should NOT apply ED—the financial aid response will not get better later.

Dear Peter,
My Sophomore is currently choosing classes for next year. He’s an advanced student taking his first AP class (US History) this year and doing pretty well in that. His school is just starting their International Baccalaureate program next year. While they are touting the IB Diploma route, it’s can be pretty restrictive with regard to the classes he’d be able to take.

The question is whether the IB Diploma is valuable enough, from a college admissions point of view, to outweigh the restrictions? The alternative is for him to just take a mixture of AP & IB classes, which would be rigorous in their own right.

Dear Erik,
I am a real fan of the IB as it is one of the premier academic programs in the world. Not only will your son learn about “things,” he’ll learn how to think critically about things in the process. If there is any way he can see his way through the perceived restrictiveness of the IB curriculum, he should find that he is well-served by it as a college applicant and, subsequently, as a college student. That said, he needs to choose the curricular direction with which he feels most comfortable. That could be an orientation to either the IB or AP—or a combination of both.

Dear Peter,
I received a decent scholarship offer from a university’s Honors Program, but would like to try to appeal my scholarship. Whereas other schools have a specific slot on the Portal to do so, this university does not have any specific structure. I have researched a little and found some students had success in appealing their scholarships, but I cannot find the process to do so. Should my letter go to admissions directly or to the financial officer listed on my portal? I am visiting the university in a couple weeks, would it be best to bring it in then?

Dear Evan,
You should appeal a performance-based scholarship award at the admission office and I suggest you communicate the appeal directly to the staff person who recruits in your area. Appeals of need-based financial aid awards should go directly to the financial aid office. Regardless, I would start the appeal now (phone, email) and indicate that you look forward to following up, if necessary, during your upcoming visit.

Dear Peter,
In the Common Application, there is a section for listing up to five academic awards. Does a visual art award belong to the academic award category? For example, is an individual national visual art award more impressive than a state robotics team competition award? By the way, my child does not plan to pursue a visual art major in college.

Dear Sharon,
Both awards are very impressive and worthy of being listed among the five academic awards on the Common Application. That said, the state robotics team competition will probably fit more logically with your student’s extracurricular activities as it is an extension of involvement there. The visual art award should be listed with the academic awards.

Dear Peter,
How can we keep personal data private? Between College Board, Naviance, ACT, FAFSA, Common App, and all the tech companies that colleges and universities use, these companies have more info than Homeland Security and can create personal profiles using personality tests etc. How can a student be guaranteed cyber privacy?

Dear Ken,
Colleges are indeed working diligently to profile potential candidates and it is hard for students to keep personal data private when they are eager to make good impressions on colleges and avail themselves of informational opportunities. Keep in mind, though, that personal information cannot go anywhere via the College Board, ACT, Naviance, FAFSA, or the Common App without the student’s authorization.

Information sent to colleges is confidential and should be secure. Most “breaches” of cyber privacy occur when students forget to decline the option to have their information shared when registering for tests, scholarships or summer enrichment programs or, more likely, when they register to participate on college/admission related websites or forums.

Dear Peter,
We just received a financial aid award package from a college that lists a deadline to accept the financial aid by March 28. Our daughter is not very interested in attending that school, but wants to keep the option open. I thought we could wait until May to formally accept their offer of admission. If we accept the financial aid award, does that obligate her to enroll?

Dear Jordan,
Your daughter should not be expected to make an enrollment commitment until the Candidate’s Reply Date which is May 1. Schools that require a commitment to financial aid, scholarships or preferred housing prior to May 1 are operating outside of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice as articulated by the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

My guess is that the acceptance of the financial aid award involves an enrollment deposit indicative of your daughter’s plans to enroll. If the school seems to be insisting on a non-refundable enrollment deposit, you might ask for an extension until May 1. If is not granted, and your daughter is not inclined to make an enrollment commitment, then she will have no choice but to pass on this particular financial aid offer.

Posted in College Planning, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Making the Final Choice of a College, Meeting College Costs | No Comments »


“What Do We Get?” 3.8.17

March 8th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

It is late in the admission process at many colleges and the question, “What do we get?” can be heard repeatedly as applications are reviewed one last time to determine who will make the “final cut.”

Faced with the prospect of having to choose between an abundance of academically able students, admission officers will examine a student’s credentials one more time for evidence of that “something extra” she might bring to the college if she is admitted. They will pore through essays, letters of recommendation and extracurricular profiles in search of the talent, interest or perspective that might make her a “difference-maker” on their campuses.

It is perhaps this part of the admission process that is most easily overlooked by students as they get started in the process. As a prospective applicant, much of your time and effort is spent working to achieve a strong academic record—and for good reason! When you are successful in this regard, you make yourself a viable candidate for admission—you put yourself on the “competitive playing fields” at the colleges that interest you. Failure to do so at a given school means that you have no chance of gaining admission. So, keep up the good work in the classroom. It is earning you the right to compete!

Once in the competition, though, you must be able to distinguish yourself from the other candidates who are similarly qualified. They can do the work, too. Unfortunately, not all can be admitted and this is when the question, “What do we get?” is often raised. It is heard first within the context of determining who will be admitted and, then, within the context of who will receive different types of financial aid or scholarship support.

To gain perspective on this part of the selection process, it might be helpful to think about what is going on through the eyes of the admission officers. Think of them as investors. As they consider whom to admit into their entering classes, they see opportunities to invest in young people, most of whom present superb academic records. After the academic credentials are thoroughly vetted, the point of inquiry invariably shifts to the question, “Who among these great students, will have a transformative influence on our campus?”

When they consider your credentials, then, admission offices want to know about their likely “return on investment” (ROI)—how will you make a difference in the quality of life on their respective campuses and, eventually, what is the likelihood that you will bring honor and distinction to their institutions. For example, are you likely to:

  • Engage as a critical thinker in the classroom?
  • Emerge as a creative influence in the arts?
  • Contribute to the success of the theatre program?
  • Write for the student newspaper?
  • Bring unusual talent to the music or athletic programs?
  • Give of your time and talent to those who are less fortunate?
  • Affect change through thoughtful and energetic leadership?
  • Show curiosity and tease ideas into inventions?
  • Challenge others to see the world differently?

And, when an institution’s investment is accompanied by financial support, either in the form of need-based financial aid or a merit scholarship, the expectations emerging from the “What do we get?” question tend to go up proportionately. The manner in which some universities use athletic scholarships to recruit talented athletes is a very visible illustration of the ROI concept at work.

Now, apply this concept to schools at varying levels of selectivity. At colleges and universities that are able to admit most of their applicants, it is entirely possible that you will present credentials that stand out in the competition. Why? Without the pressure of having to review a ton of applications, they don’t need to make as many fine distinctions between their applicants. As a result, your chances of being regarded as a potential difference-maker on their campuses are better, thereby improving your prospects for getting in and securing favorable financial assistance.

On the other hand, the scrutiny surrounding the “What do we get?” question increases with the degree of selectivity experienced at colleges and universities. The harder it is to get into a college, the greater is the pressure on admission committees to make fine distinctions. The same credential that earned you a scholarship at one school might not stand out at a more highly selective college.

While the competition for admission and financial aid might seem daunting, the reality is that literally thousands of colleges and universities are prepared to invest in new students each year. And most award tens of millions of dollars in financial aid and scholarships to students who are valued for what they have to offer—each year!

Keys to Success
The keys to your success in the college admission process are three-fold. First, take advantage of your high school years to invest in yourself. Become a difference-maker in the communities (home, school, church, volunteer organizations, places of employment) in which you function. When you invest in making yourself better and in improving the quality of life for those around you, you will inspire others to invest in you.

Two, be thoughtful—and purposeful—about your messaging as you consider your applications for admission. Beyond your obvious credentials, what is it you want admission officers to know about you? What will set you apart from the competition? To learn more about how to discover the “invisible you” and to project yourself effectively in your applications, check out the “What’s My Story” application preparation workshops that are being held this spring.

The third key to success is to target colleges where you will be valued for what you have to offer—places where your credentials will answer the “What do we get?” question in a big way! These colleges and universities are good “fits” for you because they will regard you as a potential difference-maker on their campuses and be eager to invest in you.

Finding this fit will require some research on your part—research that does not include college ranking guides! Start by looking for colleges and universities where your testing profile (SAT or ACT) places you in the top half of the scores reported for students who enrolled the previous year. For good measure, especially at highly selective schools, your scores should be in the top 25%—just to give yourself a competitive chance with the “What do we get?” question!

The coming months, then, are a time for reflection as you prepare to compete for admission. Organize your thoughts around an understanding of “self” that becomes the foundation of the candidate you are about to become. In doing so, the “What do we get?” question will be answered and doors of new opportunity will begin to open around you.

Posted in College Planning, What Colleges Want | No Comments »


“Standardized Testing: March College Planning Tips” 3.1.17

March 1st, 2017

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 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, more than 850 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 now receives the SAT and the ACT 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 “superscore” 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 Critical Reading 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 “superscoring” 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) now 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 | No Comments »


“Considering the ‘Gap Year’” 2.22.17

February 22nd, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Do you think it would be okay if I took some time off before going to college?”

It’s a question that comes up with surprising frequency as students grapple with their post-high school options. And, while the questioner seems to be seeking validation around the idea, there is often an implied and even deeper concern about how colleges themselves might regard such a strategy.

I would like to address the notion of taking time off or the “gap year” at two different levels. First, I will lay a philosophical foundation for the gap year discussion. Then, I will take a look at “if” and “how” the gap year might be beneficial.

Conceptually, the question of the gap year fits within a broader consideration of what seems to be a required sequence of experiences that young people must follow in their academic lives. The lockstep begins with pre-school and, for many, extends right through graduate school. It’s as though kids are placed on a conveyor belt that moves them through a series of prescribed exercises that systematically measures their needs, fills them up with the things they “need to know,” tests them and, assuming they have acquired a “minimal level of mastery,” stamps them as fit for promotion.

While the educational chronology is presumably geared to the developmental and academic needs of each age-group cohort, it often fails to accommodate the kids whose progress along their respective learning paths requires different measures.

Consider, for example, the young woman who desperately wants to accelerate her progress toward high school graduation because, by age 14, she has exhausted the curricular offerings of her school. Or the young man who is “young” for his eighth grade class. Like many others whose academic tracking puts them ahead of their peers, each is struggling to weigh the desire to remain stimulated intellectually with the need to grow socially and emotionally in age-appropriate ways.

Unfortunately, ours is not a “one size fits all” system that works comfortably for everyone. It is important to remember, then, that the best interests of the young person may not always be defined by the chronology. As parents and educators, we need to remain vigilant in support of those interests even when doing so means taking them out of the lockstep of the conveyor belt.

It is within this context, then, that many families consider the “gap year.” While some students are understandably concerned about their readiness—academic, social or emotional—to move immediately into college, others simply need to be able to step back and breath deeply before taking the next step into life as a full-time college student. Yet others are able to realize some pretty cool personal enrichment opportunities related to travel, service, or work.

I believe the answer to the gap year question is quite simple. “Take the time off! Invest in yourself. Do what you need to do, so when you enter college you are ready to embrace the experience with focus and determination.”

The college years should not be entered with hesitation or reservation. Don’t allow your enrollment in a college to be an accident of circumstance. It can’t be the default option. College campuses are full of students who don’t know why they are there. As a result, many of them leave early with little or nothing to show for the time and money invested in their educations.

When you enter, do so with a sense of purpose—a conviction that that a college campus is where you need to be in order to lay the foundation for future success and happiness. And if you need to take some time away from the classroom to get your head clear, or just to try something different before getting started, good for you!

In general, colleges value the added maturity and perspective students bring with them after having taken a year off—especially if that time has been spent productively. It’s hard to imagine that admission committees wouldn’t welcome students who contribute to a broader range of life experiences.

Having said that, you have two options with regard to declaring your gap year intentions. One, you can inform the admission committee of your intent when you apply for admission. Two, you can apply for admission without reference to the gap year and then, upon gaining admission, seek a deferral of your enrollment for a year.

I recommend the latter for two very practical reasons. Despite the tacit endorsement of the gap year by admission officers, you don’t want questions about your intent to enroll to enter into their deliberations.

More importantly, though, it will be much easier for you to complete the application process while you are still in school. You will be in rhythm with the rest of your peers as you complete your applications and you will have direct access to your school-based support system (counselor, teachers, coaches, etc.) as you pull together the various elements of your applications. Attacking the college application process 8-10 months after graduation will put you at a disadvantage, as you might not have easy access to the people and information you need.

In the final analysis, don’t assume that you need to go to college just because “it’s what you do after high school.” We don’t all work on the same developmental “clock.” For some, college makes sense right after high school. Others, however, find great benefit in taking some time off. The “gap year” is an opportunity to be embraced—I wish more students would feel confident in taking advantage of it!

Posted in Application Info, College Planning | 4 Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 2.15.17

February 15th, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
My son was just admitted to a selective university in their Early Decision Round II. While we received some financial aid from them, I’m wondering if we should send out emails to the other, even more selective colleges to which he applied asking if they can speed up the decision process. If he gets into one of them with better financial aid, then I could ask the ED school for more. If they don’t give us more grants, then that would give us an excuse to get out of the ED.

Dear Mike,
When your son applied ED, he gave up the right/opportunity to compare financial aid awards. While he might appeal his financial aid award at the ED school, at the end of the appeal process he will need to withdraw all other active applications and commit to the ED school. The time to reconcile the financial aid situation was before the ED application was submitted. By applying ED, he (and you) agreed that any contingent matters that could stand in the way of his enrollment had been fully resolved. By trying to play one school against another while committed ED, he risks losing all potential offers of admission. Many of these schools compare ED acceptance lists and he doesn’t want to be seen as failing to honor his ED commitment.

Dear Peter,
We were recently bombarded with college letters for our sophomore daughter. The letters all appear to have been robo-generated and arrived within a day of each other. Each is particular to that college but largely the same. In your presentation, you mentioned a student who didn’t get into his desired college because he neglected to respond to a simple survey sent to him. Would this count for these robo-generated mailings? Are these legitimate?

Dear Annie,
The barrage of letters your sophomore received is not unusual. Colleges invest heavily in “lead generation.” They buy names of students (often in excess of 100,000 names) whose credentials would put them on the institution’s “competitive playing fields.” A common indicator of this is performance on tests (SAT, ACT, AP) combined with other self-reported information (GPA, academic interest, etc.). Selected students then receive introductory materials that are designed to pique their curiosity, if not impress them.

While the deluge can, at first, generate excitement, the “ego” mail soon begins to feel like “junk” mail and much of it is understandably discarded. On the other hand, if your daughter receives information from colleges that have programs and educational environments that might be of interest to her, she should respond. It is likely that most of these schools will continue to reach out to her, so she will no doubt have future opportunities to engage them when she is ready. Responding will put her on the institution’s radar screen and set up the potential for more substantive exchanges (including surveys) in the future.

Dear Peter,
My son has been notified that he is either a semi-finalist or finalist in merit scholarships at a number of excellent schools. These were all regular decision applications and therefore he has not received formal acceptances from them. Would you say it is safe to assume that if he named as a scholarship candidate and is being asked to send additional information for the scholarship that he will be receiving an acceptance to the school?

Dear Ali,
It would be logical to assume that your son is someone of real interest to these schools—they’re not going to be waving scholarship opportunities in front of weak candidates! That said, he needs to stay engaged (respond to requests for information about the scholarships, participate in interviews when offered, visit the campus and meet with professors in his academic area of interest).

Short of receiving actual letters of acceptance, however, nothing is guaranteed. IF admission officers sense any disinterest on his part or that he is leaning toward another school, they might decide not to admit him. Bottom line: it is much better to be part of these conversations than not!

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a high-achieving student presently doing a gap year in the Czech Republic. She will be entering 10th grade in the Fall. She is interested in enrolling at an IB secondary school in Prague that is run in close alignment to the British educational system. However, she is pretty certain that she will want to go to an American university.

What issues will she confront when applying to American colleges, having come from a non-USA IB institution of British pedigree? And importantly, want can she do in her three years to showcase and/or mitigate that peculiarity to the satisfaction of American colleges?

Dear Mark,
It sounds like your daughter is enjoying a remarkable cross-cultural learning experience! Continuing her education in Prague would be incredibly broadening and enlightening—a rare opportunity!

The good news is that the IB is universal in its curriculum and assessment. While it might take on the nuance of the local milieu, it is nonetheless recognized as a premier, if not the premier, academic program in the world. As you probably know, the IB was created to give students studying outside of the USA an opportunity to prepare to compete for admission and succeed in the classroom at the most selective institutions in this country. I do not foresee any circumstance in which this experience would compromise her future college applications.

My advice to your daughter would be to soak it all in. If she continues to work hard and squeeze everything she can from the experience, she’ll have a compelling story to tell when applying to colleges in the USA.

Dear Peter,
What do colleges mean when they say they want to see four years of study in a particular discipline? Does French I–IV (in 8th–11th grade) cover it or do they mean they’d like someone to study French all the years they’re in high school?

Dear Jill,
When colleges talk about four years of study, they are referencing grades 9-12. Work done in 8th grade generally doesn’t qualify.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has received acceptances to a great public Ivy school and to a highly regarded pharmacy program within a large out-of-state, state university. She has just received preliminary award letters from each school and they are very different. The public Ivy school has left a gap of $18,000 whereas the state school has left a gap of $35,000 per year. Is it appropriate to approach the state school to ask for a better offer and if so what is the best way to go about this? Is it realistic to think that this difference in award can be bridged or do some schools simply have more money? I would like her to be able to weigh up her options from a level playing field. As it stands right now the state school is out of her reach financially.

Dear Leanne,
You can always ask for reconsideration from the out-of-state university. If you do, you might present the other financial aid award as evidence of what the competition has to offer. I wouldn’t expect much from the appeal, though, as state university award processes are likely to be more formula driven and any discretionary funds are likely to go to the in-state kids first.

BTW, your daughter’s interest in pharmacy is likely to require graduate school at which time she might choose the program at the state university for the pharmacy degree. If that is the case, she can have the best of both worlds with these two schools.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been admitted Early Decision to her number-one choice. We are proud of her acceptance and have sent in our confirmation and our early deposit money.

Here’s the problem—she made some bad decisions and let her academic work slip in the second marking period. She got a 76 and 77 in two classes. All of her classes are AP and honors, but still, she dropped 12-15 points in those two classes AND they happen to be classes related to her intended major.

Her ED school requires mid-year grades to be sent. What should she do? Do we wait for them to say something? Or, should my daughter reach out to the regional admission rep and explain herself.

Dear Mary,
“Stuff” happens and right now it is best that your daughter get out in front of it. Better to own the situation than have to defend it in the face of questions.

The same thing happened to my grandson a couple of years ago with a slightly different twist. The difference: he hadn’t been admitted yet. The same day he received an email request from his ED school for his mid-year grades, the grades were revealed to him. He had gotten a D in Physics and was understandably mortified. We talked and he came to understand the need to own the situation.

He wrote a brief email to the regional recruiter in which he acknowledged that she would be seeing a significant drop in one of his grades. He explained that he had allowed himself to become distracted by his involvement with his travel soccer team (a week in Florida in early December for a tournament) and, as a result, found himself in a bind with Physics. Nonetheless, he offered no excuses and asserted that he was embarrassed by the outcome: “this isn’t who I am and promise you I don’t want to ever let it happen again.”

The admission officer wrote back somewhat incredulously: “Thank you…we never hear this kind of explanation from students…I’ll share this with my colleagues and get back to you. ”He was subsequently admitted.

I suggest your daughter follow a similar approach. There is no need to get into all the details. In her own words, she simply needs to take responsibility. She had allowed herself to be distracted by her non-academic involvements at the expense of her attention to classroom assignments.

I would add it is highly unlikely the college will revoke her offer of admission. They will, however, continue to watch her performance through the end of the year (yes, June!) and, if these grades prove to be a troublesome trend, she could then lose her place in the class.

Posted in Campus Visits, Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Meeting College Costs, The Admission Process | 2 Comments »


“Course Selections: February College Planning Tips” 2.9.17

February 9th, 2017

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 | 4 Comments »