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 11.21.16

November 21st, 2016

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

Dear Peter,
My son has applied ED and has submitted applications to several other colleges in the event that the ED application is not successful. What is the best way for him to continue to keep a dialogue of sorts with the “fall-back” schools that might become more important to him after his ED decision is known?

Dear Arnie,
At this time, the most meaningful dialogue that could be initiated by your son will involve thoughtful, sincere questions that cannot be answered anywhere in the schools’ literature or websites. If none come to mind, then there is nothing to communicate. Your son needs to be careful not to come across as insecure by calculating for effect. Sometimes the best action is no action. Rather than succumbing to the urge to reach out, he simply needs to be mindful of opportunities to respond to communication that is directed to him from the colleges.

Dear Peter,
My son has a processing issue that results in homework taking him an excruciatingly long time. He has found that taking AP courses that require more reading is not feasible for him when trying to manage a full class load. But he is now comparing himself to his classmates and hearing about how the difficulty of classes is perceived and assessed by schools. He feels like his transcript will convey that he hasn’t challenged himself when, in fact, these “regular” classes have been very rigorous. Is this something he should explain in a supplemental essay?

Dear Jeanine,
I can appreciate your concern regarding the processing issues. My inclination is to err on the side of disclosure whenever there would seem to be outcomes inconsistent with expectations. In your son’s case, if the perceived lack of academic rigor can be explained by the processing issues, then such an explanation is warranted somewhere in his application. The supplemental essay can be used for this purpose.

Moreover, he might ask his guidance counselor to help tell this part of his story. Colleges that understand and respect his processing issues, and are eager—and prepared—to support him in college, will regard this information as helpful to their decision-making. On the other hand, some colleges will simply see this information as validation of a concern that he might not be adequately prepared to function in their respective environments. If it is a fear of this potential reaction that is keeping your son from disclosing, he must ask the question: “Would I really want to be at a college that would otherwise discriminate against me?” Such a college is certainly not going to go out of its way to help support him if he is admitted and enrolled.

Dear Peter,
My son heard an admission presentation at his school and would like to follow up with the rep. Do you have samples of letters to let them know that you were there and how much you would love to attend their school?

Dear Nancy,
Follow-ups to college reps should be short, to the point—and sincere. That’s why there is no template. Your son might simply say, “Just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your presentation and look forward to learning more about (insert name of program[s] he’d like to pursue). I’ve begun to make plans to visit your campus and look forward to staying in touch…” It would be great if your son could ask a thoughtful question or request clarification of information provided during the presentation as that would require a follow-up from the college representative.

Dear Peter,
It is my understanding that selective universities invite certain Early Action applicants to have an optional interview with an Alumnus sometime between mid-November to mid-December. Is this meaningful at all in terms of probability of acceptance? It seems that they would only invite applicants to interview that passed some initial screening. Given the tight turnaround time from the November 1 application due date to the invitation for an interview, I am guessing that they must do some kind of computerized screening. Any insight on this process would be very much appreciated.

Dear Antone,
While I can’t speak for all schools regarding their protocol for interviews, it is common practice for elite institutions to offer alumni interviews with applicants. Doing so is less an indicator of probability of acceptance (I would not assume any prescreening) and more so an opportunity for the institution to screen for interest on the part of the student. That said I’d urge your student to participate in the alumni interview if at all possible. It is not the content of the interview that will matter; rather, it is the fact that it takes place that can make a difference.

Dear Peter,
I met the senior associate dean of admission at one of my son’s favorite schools when we went to visit and then again this week when he gave a lecture locally. And at the end of the last lecture, I told him this was the second time meeting him and he said he remembered my question from the first meeting. He gave me his business card, I did not ask for it. I want to now email him but frankly, have no idea what to say, what is appropriate to say, etc. Please advise. Thanks!

Dear Rich,
The only reason to email this rep is if you have a thoughtful question that can’t be answered anywhere in his school’s literature or on its website. Admission officers are so busy right now that anything short of substantive inquiries from the “outside” will be regarded as a nuisance that could risk introducing a negative bias for the candidate. Moreover, the more pertinent contact would come from your son, not you. If you don’t know what to say, there is no need to contact the gentleman.

Dear Peter,
When a student submits SAT scores, and a school offers “super-scoring,” does the admission team see the full test for each day, or does an admin compile a file for each kid so the evaluating admission officer only sees the highest scores from each date combined? In other words, if my student’s high math score is accompanied by a relatively low critical reading score, is it a risk to send a low critical reading score from an exposure standpoint?

Dear Annalise,
The processing of test scores will vary at each institution. At many schools, the super-scoring takes place at the point of data entry. As a result, application readers only see the super-score result. At other, often more selective, schools the full set of subscores will be visible to the reviewers in which case there is some exposure risk to providing all scores as those schools might discriminate on the anomalously low subscore or, in your student’s case, the critical reading score.

Dear Peter,
After attending one of your recent presentations, we have been excited about visiting colleges, one of which has impressed us very much. My daughter is a Junior. We have never done this before and wonder when should we start applying to colleges?

Dear Millie,
I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation! The application process typically starts early in the Senior year of high school although some colleges will invite applications before that. Each college will provide an outline of its deadlines so you might check with the admission pages of their respective websites.

Posted in Application Info, Early Decision/Action, Learning Differences, Testing/Test Prep | 2 Comments »


“College Application Essays: Do’s & Don’ts” 11.12.16

November 12th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk 

At this time of year, I am often asked to react to dozens of college essays. Happily, the students in question see the opportunity to make an impact with the written word and are eager to put forth their best efforts. Unfortunately, many essays that are presumably in “final form” when they reach me are really not ready for “prime time.” The concepts are generally well conceived, but the presentation—from a technical perspective—reveals that much work can still be done to make a good essay great.

With that thought in mind, I would like to share the following editorial suggestions as they relate to the essay drafting process. For additional perspective you can visit the College Planning Blog archives to see another article I wrote on July 6, 2016, “Addressing the College Essay Blues,” that provides a complementary view of the essay writing process.

  1. Don’t try to pack everything you’ve done into your essay. Be careful to avoid the redundancy of reciting activities and/or accomplishments that will be found in other parts of your application. Quite frankly, resume narratives are dull and useless. Similarly, if your essay reads like a vacation travelogue, you have most likely “missed the boat.” Rather, take an expansive approach to a particular aspect of the topic at hand. If you can, focus on a revelation that changed your perspective. In doing so, you give the reader insight into a part of your life experience that won’t appear anywhere else on the application.
  2. In response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt, don’t restate the obvious about the college or university in question. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution.
  3. Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
  4. Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be just as impactful as a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
  5. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts.
  6. Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
  7. Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about).  Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
  8. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
  9. Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
  10. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
  11. Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
  12. Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
  13. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
  14. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
  15. Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
  16. Finally, don’t assume that because a teacher or college advisor has “signed off” on an essay that it is finished. In all likelihood, that person is simply acknowledging that you are on the right track—that the essay is a good representation of the messages you want to convey. Taking it to the next level—making a good essay “great”—is your job!

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


“Keys to Submitting a Winning Application: November College Planning Tips” 11.5.16

November 5th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

As deadlines for college applications approach, it is important to be both organized and purposeful in your preparations. The following ten tips will help you avoid common mistakes as you put the finishing touches on your applications.

1. Focus on a short list of no more than eight colleges. The greater the number of applications you submit, the more likely it is you appear (to the colleges) to be applying whimsically—and the greater the likelihood that “application fatigue” will begin to effect your ability to do a good job with each application. Stay focused on the core group of schools that represent good fits for you. In most cases, eight is more than enough.

2. “Connect the dots”—tell your story! Be purposeful in your presentation—eliminate the randomness of your submissions. Establish a theme and use every part of the application to connect the dots (various data points) of your life experience to create a clear picture of who you are and what the college gets by admitting you.

3. Answer the “why” question thoughtfully. Colleges that ask you to write about “why you want to attend” are really trying to discern the synergy that exists between your goals, needs and learning style and their respective learning environments. Don’t tell them things they already know about themselves. Admission officers don’t want to hear about their highly ranked programs, great faculty or beautiful facilities—at least, not in this essay! Instead, reveal to them how, where and why you have found meaningful connections. Prove to the reader that you “get it”—that you understand how the learning environment in question makes the most sense for you.

4. Take pride in your presentation. Your application is like a personal statement that needs to state the case for your admission. Proofread it carefully. Read it out loud. Resist the temptation to repurpose information from one application to another—to do what is “good enough.” Make sure each application you submit is a positive reflection of who you are and what you have to offer.

5. Know your high school’s rules/procedures for supporting the college application process. Give the appropriate personnel time to prepare and complete your supporting documentation. Quite often, schools want information at least a week in advance of the actual application deadlines. Don’t put your college advisor in a bind by waiting until the last minute.

6. Make sure your recommenders are “on the same page” with regard to key messages you need to convey on your application. Your college advisor and the teachers who are supporting you are important partners in the presentation of your credentials.

7. Be organized. The application process involves the management of many moving parts (score reports, letters of recommendations, essays, supplemental forms, etc.). Make sure your part of the application is submitted with the application fee by the posted deadline. At that point, the colleges to which you have applied will create unique data files for you into which any other outstanding credentials will be added as they arrive.

To make sure everything gets to where it needs to be in a timely fashion, create a spreadsheet on which you can list and track all the information you need to submit to each college. If you can, submit your part of the application two weeks in advance of the college’s deadline in order to beat the rush.

8. Don’t assume—anything! At a time when deadlines and requirements are critical, it would be a mistake to assume that someone else has taken care of something for you! It is your job to make sure your application is complete and that it carries the key messages that help to define your life experience—and distinguish your candidacy.

Give yourself extra time to work with the formatting of your essays (no need for panicked melt-downs the night before deadlines!) and get in touch with the regional representatives from the colleges in question for guidance if you run into difficulty interpreting the requirements for their respective institutions.

9. Save copies. It might seem like a hassle, but take the time to make and save copies (hard copy or electronic) of the application materials you submit. You never know when you might need to refer to them.

Make arrangements to have test scores submitted directly to the colleges. It you have not already authorized the submission of test results (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests) to the colleges that require them, now is the time to do so.

10. Stay on their radar screens! One of the biggest mistakes students make at this point in the process is they fail to stay engaged with the schools to which they are applying! The assumption seems to be: “They have my application, so they know I’m interested.” Guess again! One of the biggest reasons bright and talented students do not get into target schools has to do with questions about the sincerity of the candidate’s interest. Answer emails that might come your way from those schools. Visit the campus. Direct important questions to the staff person at the university who recruits in your area. Don’t allow the decision-makers to regard you as a “ghost applicant.”

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

Posted in Application Info, Preparing the Application, The Admission Process | 3 Comments »


“Good Enough is Never Enough” 10.29.16

October 29th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

October is a time of reckoning for students as they prepare college applications. The senior year of high school is in full swing with new academic challenges as well as a sense of nostalgia as students wistfully embrace events and relationships for the “last time” in their high school experience. And, for many, the college application process represents another layer of intense activity on top of an already busy schedule.

Before long, though, the excitement and allure of going to college begins to wane as the process of applying becomes an onerous imposition. With pending deadlines and mounting requirements, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get it all done! As a result, there is a tendency to choose the course of least resistance—to do what is “good enough.”

I would like to offer a word to the wise if you find yourself in this situation. Stay focused. Now is the time to do your best work even though doing so may mean making compromises in your social life. You can’t “will” great grades. Essays don’t become excellent overnight. College applications don’t materialize out of thin air.

Keep in mind the competition for admission. Popular forecasts to the contrary, the competition at selective institutions will continue to increase as a higher proportion of the college age population applies to college this year—and next, and the year after that. As a result, colleges will continue to be inundated by applications from more qualified candidates than they can admit. And the more selective institutions will be forced to make even finer distinctions between deserving students.

In particular, they will watch to see how you handle the pressure. Will you wilt under the weight of the added expectations? Will you find the easiest path to the “finish line? Or will you step up to the challenge?

Colleges that can be picky are indeed watching. They want to see what you do when you don’t think you have to do anything. They want to see how you approach your classroom assignments. When a “B” seems good enough, will you continue to push for the “A”?

And they will be able to gauge your investment in your application immediately. Have you been thoughtful about conveying key messages? How have you told your story? What does your essay say about you? I can tell you from experience that applications and, in particular, essays that are pulled together at the last minute have that “good enough” look about them.

You must ask yourself, then, “Do I want ‘good enough’ to represent me in the college application process—or in life, for that matter?” I wouldn’t if I were you, especially given what is at stake. By doing so, you are suggesting that you are willing to settle for something less than your best. And when your admission credentials have the look of “good enough,” you give the person reading them a reason to be dismissive of your application in favor of those that are more compelling—game over!

As a high school senior and an applicant to college, you are still in a position to control the manner in which your application is presented. Resist the temptation, then, to put things off or go into cruise control. Now is the time to accelerate! You must make that commitment, though. As one young woman observed after hearing this message at a recent program, “If nothing else, I have learned that good enough is never enough if I want to reach my goals.”

Posted in College Planning, Preparing the Application | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 10/22/16

October 22nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Application Info, College Planning, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Learning Differences, Meeting College Costs, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep, What Colleges Want | 4 Comments »


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

October 15th, 2016

Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Application Info, College Planning, What Colleges Want | 4 Comments »


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

October 8th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.  Tips for Potential ED/EA Applicants

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

Posted in Early Decision/Action | 6 Comments »


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

September 28th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

“There are never enough hours in a day…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Preparing the Application | 1 Comment »