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 7.20.16

July 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in College Planning, Course Selections, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep, What Colleges Want | 2 Comments »


“Be True to Your Academic ‘Fingerprint’” 7.14.16

July 14th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Myth: All colleges and universities are alike.

Reality: This country boasts a broad array of more than 3,000 colleges and universities dedicated to providing post-secondary educational opportunities. Although common in mission, their personalities, curricula and institutional cultures vary as greatly as 3,000 sets of fingerprints!

Think about what this means for you. While your educational needs can be met at many places, it would be a mistake to assume they will be met in the same manner—or, more importantly, in a manner that is well suited to your learning style. This is perhaps the most underestimated element of the college selection process. Believe it or not, comfort and compatibility can make a big difference in your eventual success as a student.

Finding a good college fit, then, begins with identifying places that provide the academic program you need and a style of instruction that is most comfortable for you. Just as students possess unique learning styles—they each process information differently—colleges offer different styles of instruction. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to study Biology. Some colleges will teach Biology in seminars that include 25-30 students. Some teach it in lecture halls of five hundred! Yet others will attach labs to the instruction or offer research opportunities.

In each case, the material is the basically same—Bio is Bio—but the experience is different. The important questions are, “How would you function in these different environments? What sort of interaction do you want to have with the information that is being presented?”

In order to find the learning environments that make the most sense for you, take stock of your learning style. How do you like to be engaged with learning? Who or what inspires you? Under what circumstances are you most likely to produce your best work? The more you know about how you like to learn, the easier it will be to make critical distinctions among the learning environments of different colleges.

Consider the following questions as you try to get your arms around your learning style. Be particularly attentive to the “why” part of each question.

  • Who is your favorite teacher—and why?
  • What is your favorite class right now—and why?
  • In which type of classroom setting (i.e. large group lectures, seminars, etc.) are you most comfortable—and why?
  • With what kinds of people and personalities do you enjoy exchanging ideas—and why?
  • If you had to choose between a test, a paper and a project to receive a grade for the entire year, what would you choose—and why?

As you reflect on your answers—especially the “whys”—you come to better understand the characteristics of a learning environment that would be the most appropriate for you in college. The next step is to look for colleges that mirror these characteristics. They will be the best fits for you.

If, for example, your approach to learning is to take good notes, read diligently and prepare carefully—all in the relative anonymity of the large lecture hall, then you are more likely to function comfortably in a larger, more expansive instructional setting. On the other hand, if you like the engagement of a small classroom where you can ask questions—where you can challenge and be challenged—then the seminar format will be more productive for you.

Now, consider the consequences of failing to be attentive to the information you are gleaning about your learning style. If you do prefer the large lecture hall experience—but you’ve chosen a college where most of your classes put you front and center around the seminar table, won’t you feel like the proverbial “fish out of water”? On the other hand, if you really like the engagement of the small classroom but find yourself in a setting that features lectures of 300 or more students—all the time—will that learning environment bring out the best in you? In the final analysis, you are more likely to get the most out of your ability when you find yourself in an environment that is well suited to the way you learn.

And if your preference is to write a paper or do a project because you are more comfortable demonstrating your mastery in that manner (besides, you don’t feel you are a good test-taker!) a large university will not be the best fit. Professors in those environments will rely heavily on fill-in-the-bubble tests as they simply don’t have the time to critique hundreds of papers or projects.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Take the time, then, to get to know yourself—and the circumstances in which you learn most comfortably. In doing so, you put yourself in a better position to make good choices that reflect your interests and needs.

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


Addressing the College Essay Blues: July College Planning Tips

July 6th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Having talked with a fair number of rising high school seniors over the last six weeks, I am coming to the conclusion that these days can be the “dog days” of the college application process. This is especially true for those who have identified target schools and are struggling to get their arms around their essay assignments!

If this sounds like you, the good news is you recognize the need to be thinking and acting upon your college applications in a timely manner. That recognition, however, doesn’t lessen the anxious avoidance you experience—or the nights of fitful sleep—or the extended periods of time you spend staring at an unresponsive keyboard. The words and the critical messages your essays convey will not materialize out of thin air. You can’t will a good essay to completion!

I’d like to offer a few suggestions, then, that can help you work through the creative blues to points of clarity, if not inspiration, as you get started in the essay writing process.

  1. Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book. It will only contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you are experiencing. The essays you will find in those books are not only well-written, but they also fit the context of someone else’s life story. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.
  2. Identify key themes and/or messages you want to convey. Are there two or three things you want to make sure the readers of your application know about you? In answering this question, go beyond the obvious. Don’t restate information that can be found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Coming to grips with the objective of your message will help you find the most effective form for presenting it.
  3. Reflect on your most memorable life experiences. How have they shaped you? A group of students just returned from a two-week tour of Europe with great pictures and wonderful stories. Two years from now when they begin writing their college applications, they should reflect less on where they went and what they saw—and more on how some aspect of the experience changed them.
  4. Find the story within the story. Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages in college application essays. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?
  5. Reveal—don’t tell. It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to understand you, as a thinking person, better. Not long ago, a parent member of an audience who also happens to be a college professor asked me to remind college applicants that colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.
  6. Keep a pen/pencil and paper beside your bed. You might wrack your brain all day trying to come up with clever ideas, but invariably the best stuff emerges in those hazy, subconscious moments just before you drift off to sleep! If you can, push back the sleep long enough to jot down your new inspirations.
  7. Read—a lot! Quite often, essay writers are consumed with a myopia that limits their ability to understand their place in the world in which they live. Break out of that shell by reading news stories and editorials. Better yet, read books that make you think. It’s not too late and biographies are great sources! I have found increasing inspiration from the life stories of people who have risen from relative obscurity to make significant contributions as thinkers and doers.
  8. Take advantage of the time you give yourself by starting early. Resist the temptation to write a college essay in a single draft. Good writing—and editing—is a process. Manage it well to your advantage!

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


“A Good College Fit is One That Will Meet Your Academic Needs” 6.29.16

June 29th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Students often enter the college search process with specific academic programs or career interests in mind. And why not? If you know what you want to study in college, the best places are those that will accommodate and support the development of your interests. For example, if you want to pursue chemical engineering, focus on schools that offer it. The same is true whether your interests lie in business, elementary education, or graphic design.

As you look at colleges, be careful not to compromise your pursuit of such passions. If you want to pursue film studies, but a college you are considering doesn’t offer a very well established program in that area, then you need to recognize early that it is not a good fit. You owe it to yourself to look into colleges that offer substantive programs that meet your needs in your areas of interest.

In particular, don’t let emotional interests override your academic priorities. Embracing a college or university simply on the merit of its overall ranking or reputation, or because it has a great athletic program or is in a location you like, on the assumption you’ll be able to figure out the academic piece later, is not wise. When you do that, you become “destination-centered” and set yourself up for frustration down the line. Think about it. How often do you hear about students transferring because the colleges they have chosen don’t offer the programs they want to study?

If, on the other hand, you don’t feel drawn to a particular career interest or academic direction, don’t worry. You’re normal. It’s difficult to know at any age what you’ll do for the rest of your life, so relax. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know. Instead, see those presumed “deficiencies” as opportunities. You’ve got a lot of time to sort them out.

If you are “undecided,” the more important underlying questions are, “Do you have the desire to learn—to discover the many truths that define you and the world in which you live—and, if so, can you project the relevance of what you are learning into the various pathways you might choose in life?”

Hopefully, the answer to both questions is “yes.” If so, look for places that will encourage you to explore various perspectives and draw from diverse experiences that will form the building blocks that are foundational to your future direction. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the notion that there is something wrong with you if your future plans are not laid out in great detail.

You’ll be fine. Hundreds of institutions across the country—liberal arts colleges as well as universities with robust general studies programs—are eager to embrace the undecided student. You just need to plan accordingly to give yourself options.

That said, be true to your priorities as you go into the college selection process. If you know what you want to do academically, go for it! On the other hand, don’t add schools to your list that will limit your academic flexibility if what you really want is the opportunity to explore. If you are undecided about your future academic directions, yet find yourself looking at an application for admission that requires you to declare a major as you apply for admission, you are looking at an institution that is not a good fit for you. In the long run, it matters less where you go to college and more what you do with the opportunities available to you at that school. Focus on places that will embrace your interests and give you the best opportunity to succeed. In doing so, don’t abandon your academic needs in favor of factors that will have little or no impact on your learning experience.

Did You Know…

  • You will probably change your major in college?  Most college students do at least once.
  • Most students enter college “undeclared” with regard to a major?
  • The odds are that you will change jobs at least four times and change careers twice?
  • Many colleges report that 80-90% of the people who graduated more than 25 years ago are now in careers that did not exist when they graduated?

To learn more about finding a good college fit, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in College Planning | 2 Comments »


“Thinking College? For Best Results, Focus on Fit!” 6.23.16

June 23rd, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Which college is best for you—and why might that be the case?

On the surface, these questions may not seem very consequential. When you consider the opportunity that lies before you, however, understanding the importance of the questions—and being able to answer them thoughtfully—can make a big difference in the outcomes of your college planning process. This, in turn, can influence the options that come your way upon graduation.

A college education is an important lifetime opportunity. Throughout your undergraduate experience, you will meet new people, prepare for a career and learn more than you could ever imagine. If you use your time well, you will also increase your lifetime earning capacity exponentially. The payoffs for education are both immediate and long-term. That’s why families are willing to make the investment.

Unfortunately, the investment can prove costly when college plans go awry. Consider the following:

  • Fewer than 50% of the students who enter college graduate in four years
  • Barely half will graduate from any college at any time in their lives!

These are not good outcomes, either for the students or the society that bears the financial burden of a collective failure to make good on educational opportunities. The inability to reach the “finish line” is indeed a problem of “pay me later” proportions. The ensuing costs are undeniable. When you are not able to finish what you start, your family loses the money it has put into tuition and other college expenses. Attach a dollar mark to the cost of a year’s room, board and tuition and you get the picture. Moreover, that money doesn’t come back if you become sidetracked or leave college prematurely. It becomes the “cost of unfulfilled potential.”

Failing to stay the course to graduation from college also means you lose time toward completion of an undergraduate degree and the subsequent opportunity to gain an advantage in the job market. Even if you return to the classroom after having been away for a while or you transfer to a different school, the cost of lost opportunity can be significant. Not only must you absorb the tuition and fees associated with an additional year or so of education, you must also wait longer to take advantage of your new earning potential.

While there are all kinds of “good” reasons— personal, financial and academic—to leave college prematurely, the fact that many of them are avoidable—rooted in issues of a questionable college “fit”—only adds to the tragedy.

The key, then, is to get the choice of a college “right” the first time. To do that, you need to reflect on factors that relate to a good college fit for you. In doing so, you put yourself in the best position to find success both in the college admission process and the undergraduate years that follow.

With over 3,000 colleges and universities across the country, you will quickly discover many viable options. Some are well known, if not quite famous. Others will be new to you. Regardless, most have something of value to offer.

Among them, the “best college” is the one that is right for you. It is a quality option if for no other reason than it is the college that will best meet your needs. It fits. It might not hold the cachet or ranking that impresses your friends, but it does fit your aptitude and needs. The college that “fits” you best is one that will:

  1. Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs.
  2. Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn.
  3. Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation.
  4. Offer a community that feels like home to you.
  5. Value you for what you have to offer.

Be particularly attentive to the last point, especially if you need financial assistance or hope to receive merit scholarship recognition. The places that have seen what you can do—and are prepared to invest in your further success—are the ones that will admit you and give you the support you need to achieve your goals.

As you consider colleges, then, start with an understanding of fit from a perspective that is centered on your sense of self. How does each college you encounter measure up against these elements of a good fit? You need be conscious of inconsistencies. Don’t settle for a college that only meets one or two criteria. It’s a compromise that could cost you later.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find more than one institution that seems to fit. That’s great! Not only will you improve your odds of gaining admission to those colleges, you are more likely to stay once enrolled. And that’s a good thing!

I will address each element of a good college fit in series of articles over the next two months. In addition, you can find a more detailed discussion of the “best college fit” in Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, which is available in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in College Planning | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 6.17.16

June 17th, 2016

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

Dear Peter,
My son is trying to get his arms around the application process and has discovered that some of the colleges where he wants to apply are talking about a “coalition application.” I had never heard of it before and just assumed he would use the Common Application for most of his schools. What do you recommend?

Dear Josie,
Over the last twelve months, a group of colleges and universities have come together to create the Coalition Application as an alternative to the Common Application. The launch of the Coalition Application has been accompanied by a lot of rhetoric about creating a broader platform for the submission of information (online “lockers” into which students can post projects, awards, performances, reflections throughout their high school years) thereby increasing access to college among currently under-represented populations. While the concept is noble, it remains largely untested. Among the 90+ “member” colleges, only a handful have expressed an intent to use the new application this year.

The Coalition Application is still at the early stages of its development and there is no clear evidence that using it will provide a measurable impact on a student’s chances of admission. Therefore, I suggest that your son submit either the Common Application or other previously established applications used by the colleges that interest him.

Dear Peter,
My daughter didn’t do well this year in an advanced precalc math class. The teacher is known to be very tough and picky. She got a D this second semester and she scored in the 97th percentile on the math portion of the ACT (her overall ACT was 31). She’s considering taking another class like this over the internet or through summer school—not for credit replacement, but to show on her transcript that she acknowledges she didn’t do well despite knowing the information. What are your thoughts on this?

Dear Charles,
Retaking the class this summer is a great idea! It shows the reader of her application that she is neither content with nor accepting of the earlier outcome. It also shows that she is not making excuses—that she is making herself accountable for her own development—and that’s pretty cool! If admission officers are looking to see what she does with her time when she doesn’t have to do anything, choosing this path—while not guaranteeing admission—will speak volumes to who she is!

Dear Peter,
What are your thoughts on choosing a college major? Recently, the person I volunteer with told me that her biggest regret from college was that she didn’t get a “technical degree” like “nursing or teaching.” She advised me to focus on obtaining a degree that will be useful in getting a job immediately after college. What do you feel should be the main considerations?

Dear Danielle,
One of the most vexing issues for young people as they contemplate college is that involving the choice of a major and/or career. While some seem to know what they want to do, most are still trying to figure it out. In fact, most college students (roughly two-thirds) will change their majors at least once! As you try to sort things out, then, you have a lot of company!

At its core, your undergraduate (college) experience can offer at least three important opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to become educated—to broaden your perspective and develop skills of critical thinking and analysis.
  2. The opportunity for experiential learning—to test what you think you know through research, independent study, internships and work opportunities.
  3. And, possibly, the opportunity to become trained in a vocational or career track.

Notice that acquiring certain training is only one element of the college experience. In fact, many employers will look for candidates who are well educated and who have developed the capacity to learn how to learn (the experiential piece).

My suggestion: follow your instincts. Choose to do something that makes you happy—and pursue it with passion. If you are naturally drawn to academic programs and career tracks that involve technical degrees (nursing, teaching, engineering, etc.) then go for it. I wouldn’t, however, arbitrarily assume that such a career will work out for you just because you have chosen it. Instead, become well educated. Even if a career track is not immediately apparent to you, seize every opportunity to test assumptions and apply what you have learned. It is in doing the latter that you set yourself up for future employment opportunities.

Dear Peter,
I am a single parent who adopted my daughter from China when she was an infant. Now, she is a good student looking at colleges where she will need financial aid. Do you think colleges will be interested in her because of her unusual background? She is not keen about focusing on this in her essay. I think she should at least mention it and discuss it to some extent. We’re both interested to hear your thoughts.

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that your daughter’s cultural heritage is important to her—and gives definition to her character and life experience—it should be considered among the “dots” to be connected in telling her story as a college applicant. That said, she will be able to reveal her background—and relationship with you—on her applications without making it the focus of an essay. If greater insight might be shared through broader treatment of the topic—and she is reluctant to make any statements herself—then she might ask her college advisor to reference her background and upbringing in his/her letter of recommendation. Making this the focal point of an essay, though, is something she should only attempt if she is comfortable doing so. Presumably, she is thinking of other topics/approaches that will give the readers of her application insight into her life experience beyond that which is apparent on her application.

Dear Peter,
Is there a benefit or disadvantage to waiving the right to have the ability (at a later date) to review teacher recommendations? My son has spoken with two teachers who agreed to write his recommendations, but he did not complete the forms to them because of the question about waiving rights.

Dear Arthur,
I recommend that students waive access to the teacher recommendations. IF we can assume that a teacher is eager to help your son find success in the process—usually a safe assumption as most teachers do care about the successes of their students—and IF your son takes initiative to meet with his teachers in advance to share his educational goals and reflect on his experiences in their classrooms, there should be no concerns about what is written. In doing the latter, he helps the teacher help him by contributing to the narrative that emerges in the letter of recommendation. Waiving access, then, allows the teacher to write a more balanced, if not candid, recommendation that will be given greater credibility by admission committees.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is leaning to taking two AP Math classes and no science in her senior year since scheduling permits very few options. The alternative would be to take one AP Math class with a “filler” science, just to get a 4th year of science, but she is not interested in the class and it is not an AP class. How will taking two AP Math classes be looked upon from a university admissions perspective?

Dear Becca,
Generally speaking, when students drop a course (science, in this case) it is important that the replacement course be of equal or greater rigor. That seems to be the case with your daughter’s proposal so she should be fine. As a failsafe, though, I would urge her to ask the question of the regional recruiters from some of the colleges that interest her. It’s a valid question—let them be the experts. In the process, she also gets on their “radar screens,” a factor that should not be underestimated in the selective admission process.

Dear Peter,
Our son will be a senior in the fall and we are concerned about how we will pay for college. We have been receiving invitations to attend “free” presentations by financial planners. Some of the pitches sound too good to be true (help with completing forms, guaranteed financial aid, better scholarships, etc.). Should we be checking out these opportunities?

Dear Mark,
Cost and affordability are indeed serious matters as you consider your son’s educational options. The good news is that you can have most of your questions answered by financial aid professionals on college campuses. If you want help completing the financial aid forms or need advice with regard to asset management, talk with your accountant. Be wary of guarantees, though, especially from people you don’t know. Quite often you are being set up (during the “free” session) to write a check for consulting services that you really don’t need.

Posted in Application Info, College Planning, Course Selections, Hot Topics/Trends, Meeting College Costs, Preparing the Application | No Comments »


College List Development: June College Planning Tips 6.2.16

June 2nd, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Congratulations rising high school seniors—you are about to officially become college applicants! It won’t be long before you are fully immersed in the application process. If all goes well, a year from now you will have the satisfaction of knowing your college destination. Getting to that point, however, will require careful planning and forethought. And there is no time like the present to get started!

Developing a college list that makes sense to you and your educational goals is critical to your ultimate success. The colleges that emerge on your “short list” should be good “fits”— places that represent the right “competitive playing fields” for you. They will be places where your academic credentials (scores, GPA) are at least in the top half of the credentials reported for the class entering this fall—and places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. The following tips are intended to help get you started in developing such a college list.

1.  Establish your priorities. Students often focus on college destinations without first thinking seriously about how such places might fit them. They are more enamored with names and reputations—and less concerned about whether the institutions actually make sense for them. Before you can begin to make a list of colleges you need to take stock of who you are and what you want to get out of the college experience.

For example:

  • Why do you want to go to college?
  • In what type of learning environment are you most likely to function comfortably?
  • With what kind of people do you want to live and study?
  • What are 3-4 things you want to make sure you accomplish by the time you graduate? What will make yours a successful experience?
  • How important are cost and affordability to the equation?

The answers that begin to emerge from this reflective exercise are important to framing your college selections. They will give clarity to your priorities and, more importantly, provide the filters through which you process the information you uncover about colleges and universities.

2.  Identify the “essentials.” You are bound to respond to a range of stimuli as you learn about schools. For example, you might be sensitive to the proximity of an urban center or the presence of a “big-time” sports culture. Climate or access to outdoor activities might be important to you. Where does a social life fit? Are you determined to go to a large university because you have spent the last four years at a small high school? Oh, and then there is the question of academics and learning environment. Clearly, you’ll have a lot on your mind as you look at colleges!

The above factors are among the many that will have a place in your decision-making. They can’t carry equal weight, however. As you think about the factors that might influence your choice of a college, consider the hierarchy of importance. Is a given factor essential to your success? Very important? Or, would it be nice if it could be satisfied by your selection? Be careful not to let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

3.  Let your list grow. Right now, you are limited by the things you think you know about colleges and those impressions tend to be pretty superficial. It will be the things you don’t know that make it difficult to make good decisions about possible destinations. The good news is you are still early enough in the process that you have time to explore and thoroughly research the possibilities. While you might be feeling some angst about the need to come up with a short list right now, time is still on your side.

4.  Go “window shopping.” As your summer plans evolve, be sure to include time for college visits—and not just visits to the campuses of the schools you know. Check out research universities and liberal arts colleges. Explore the differences between public and private institutions. Compare urban campuses with those in suburban and rural areas.

Learn what you can from personal observation, not hearsay. As you “try on different sizes,” look for patterns. Do you find yourself responding consistently to similar characteristics on different campuses? The broader the perspective you are able to establish now, the easier it will be to identify places that make the most sense for you at the end of the summer.

5.  Focus on places that are “target” schools for you academically. The popular notion about college list development is that a good list should include a sampling of “reach,” “target” and “likely admit” schools. Subscribing to this notion sometimes gives rise to a proliferation of applications to high profile, “dream” schools at the expense of smart decision-making. The accompanying rationalization may sound like, “Well, how will I know if I can get in if I don’t try?”

This logic is problematic in two ways: 1) it implicitly diminishes (in the mind of the person who espouses it) the value of any school that is not in the “reach” category and 2) it can be incredibly limiting by creating blinders with regard to more appropriate options. Be careful about building your list around highly selective schools. The odds of getting into places where the probability of admission is low don’t increase if you apply to more of them. Moreover, including such schools on a college list will distract you from presenting well at places where you might otherwise have a reasonable chance of gaining admission.

While you might allow yourself a dream school (or two), it is best to build your list around target schools—places where your credentials would put your probability of admission in the 40-60% range, places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. There are never any guarantees in the selective admission process, but putting yourself on the right competitive playing field will be critical to your eventual success as an applicant.

6.  Eight is enough. By September, you should be ready to whittle your list down to a workable number. If you have been thorough—and thoughtful—in your research you should be focusing on no more than eight applications. That number might include 1-2 low-probability dream schools and 1-2 places where you are likely to be admitted. The rest should be target schools.

Keeping your list at eight will require discipline as you will be tempted by colleges that want to make the application process easy for you. They will offer fee waivers for applications submitted while visiting their campuses and fee waivers for applications submitted online. Some will recognize you as a V.I.P. or “priority” applicant if you apply by specified deadlines in September. Others will send you applications that are all filled out for you. Yes—they have captured information about you from various sources and made it easy for you to apply. You simply sign and return the form!

The bottom line: stay focused on your priorities and your list. The more applications to which you commit, the harder it will be for you to stay on top of each one—and the more likely you won’t be able to present yourself in a compelling fashion to the schools that are most important to you.

Posted in College Planning | 2 Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 5.20.16

May 20th, 2016

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

Dear Peter,
The first round of new SAT scores came out this week. My junior did well, but the score is below the published range for a few of the (highly selective) schools on her list. Those ranges are based on the old test. The College Board has provided a concordance table and, to be honest, the converted “new” score seems a bit further outside the range when using this. In short, the new test and new scale introduce some uncertainty around this measure and how it might be interpreted/used in the admissions process. How are colleges likely to view results from the new test?

Dear Sean,
While I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly study the scoring for the new test, it would appear that comparable percentile performances have resulted in higher scores on the new test. The next admission cycle will be interesting as college admission officers react to this information just as you are now. Few, if any, have had the opportunity to fully digest the scoring differences in order to know how they will integrate the old with the new. Even though comparing results from the two tests will be like comparing apples and oranges, my guess is that many will use the concordance table intuitively in assessing credentials. The manner in which they report that data for accepted students will be yet another story!

Dear Peter,
I’m not a fan of quantitative measures (SAT) of student performance and worthiness, however, my student’s initial results on the “new” test are slightly below average given his aspirations. He’s a good student but not a superstar in anything. Is there any merit to having him do a re-take?

Dear Phil,
The research shows that students should be able to improve their test results from the first to the second test and again from the second to the third test. After the third test, nothing happens! Admission officers respect the fact that students want to put forth their best efforts and will not be surprised that multiple tests have been taken. They become cynical, though, when they see more than three sets of test results.

Generally speaking, test results will be regarded as competitive credentials—the bigger the better. Absent a discernible hook, your student will need to be able to present scores that are in the top half of the distribution of test results produced by past enrollees at any of these places—just to have hope. His alternatives are to try the ACT, focus on places that are test optional and/or simply make some adjustments to his expectations with regard to the colleges he wants to consider to include places where his scores will give him a greater competitive advantage.

Dear Peter,
There seems to be a “disconnect” about the college essay. We are lead to believe that colleges look at the whole package: grades, rigor of classes, test scores, extracurricular, service. But, colleges also imply that the essay is really, really important, and is sometimes what makes or breaks the acceptance. My son is a strong math/science kid, top 10% of his class, takes 3 or 4 honors/APs per year and scored 33 on the ACT. He’s not a writer, though, and is feeling a bit stressed about the essay. Any insight?

Dear Margaret,
The whole package is indeed important in the selection process. The academic piece, in particular, is what will establish your son as a viable candidate. However, it is safe to say that the more selective the institution—the greater the pressure to make fine distinctions between great candidates—the more important the details of the presentation will be in determining the outcomes. And that is where the essay takes on added importance. His ability to provide thematically cohesive insight into who he is, what he thinks and how he thinks—to take the reader of his application beyond the resume to the “invisible self”—will be critical to his success as an applicant at many schools.

Your son is not the only one feeling stressed about this aspect of the college application process. It’s quite daunting for most young people! If he is within traveling range of one my upcoming “What’s My Story?” workshops, you might consider signing him up.

Dear Peter,
If a high school student gets B’s in the classroom and plays three sports but, unfortunately, tried smoking pot at the start of his 10th grade year and was caught IN SCHOOL and put on probation for one year, how should he handle this when it comes to the college application? The student realizes the tremendous consequences of his actions and lives with an almost “Scarlett Letter.” Because he is on probation for one year, he cannot slip up AT ALL or could possibly be expelled. He’s a great kid and his parents clarified any confusion with him by saying for the record, no drinking alcohol or smoking pot. Period. Will this be a tough hurdle when it comes to college applications?

Dear DJ,
I appreciate the sensitivity of the situation you describe. Despite the legalization of pot in many places, this error in judgment is a violation of school policy that must be given serious and thoughtful attention.

That said, the need for acknowledgement will depend on how the question is asked on the college application and, just as importantly, how the high school intends to report this on his transcript and in his letter of recommendation. If the application doesn’t require him to address the probation and the school doesn’t report it, then he might not have an issue.

IF, however, his school intends to report the infraction or the application does require an acknowledgement of the fact, then I would strongly urge him to get out in front with a full disclosure of his own (he doesn’t want this to be conveyed by another source first) in the application. In this case, he should speak to the situation in an essay or, possibly, an interview. This situation needs to integrated into the story he is telling in his application.

Many applications, including the Common Application, will provide optional essay opportunities for students to use in addressing important matters that might not be covered elsewhere in the application. Contrition and sincerity are important. (I once met with a student in a similar circumstance who, when asked what he had learned from the situation, said, “Don’t get caught.” Not the right answer!)

I also suggest that the student meet with his college advisor to make sure all are on the same page with regard to what is required by the application, what the school is obligated to report (and how), and how his statement might be supported by the advisor.

How will colleges respond? Good question. If this is old news (and not symptomatic of a recurring theme) and the student has clearly learned and grown from it, many admission officers will give him a “pass” in which case he will be evaluated on the merit of his overall application. Others that either have a strong moralistic bent or who are faced with making incredibly fine distinctions between great candidates could just as easily see this as a reason to say “no.”

Dear Peter,
Is it possible for colleges to determine the other schools to which a student has applied? If yes, how do schools obtain that information, and would they use it to make a decision on admission acceptance/rejection?

Dear Rose,
The only way colleges can determine the other schools to which a student has applied is if he reveals that information. When that information is revealed, no good can come of the disclosure to the student. Rather, it can be used by the institution to help calculate the likelihood that a student will enroll if admitted.

Your student needs to be discreet with this information, especially when in conversation with admission personnel. IF an institutional representative asks for information about the other colleges to which he has applied, he can indicate he is still working on his final list. If asked on an application/form for the information, he should leave the space blank.

Dear Peter,
My son was diagnosed with ADHD in 9th grade. His grades weren’t the best but after he was diagnosed and put on the proper medication in 9th grade he was able to focus and his grades in AP and honors classes are now stellar. The question: should he tell admissions about his ADHD? Will this hurt or help him get into a college and will it help or hurt in explaining his 9th grade grades and his GPA. His guidance counselor said she would write a letter. Is that OK or should my son write it into his Common App essay or a supplemental essay or both?

Dear Eve,
It is important that students explain irregularities that might appear on their academic records. In this case, it sounds like the ADHD diagnosis and subsequent medication are particularly relevant to an understanding of your son’s experience in 9th grade and thereafter. Absent such an explanation, admission officers will have to guess with regard to his performance—and they won’t guess charitably!

I have always been in favor of self-disclosure when learning differences are involved. If you worry that a college will use the information in a discriminatory manner, would you really want him to attend the school? Places that see the bigger picture and care about supporting his development will factor the information constructively. If his counselor is willing to provide a testimonial to the situation, that will free your son to use the Common App essay to address other aspects of his life experience.

Dear Peter,
Our daughter wants to consider some costly private schools and is looking at private scholarships to help supplement any awards she might get from these schools. I have seen in the small print at some colleges that they deduct the value of outside scholarships from any award granted by the school. This makes it difficult to try to patch together full funding. How widespread is this practice, and is there any way around it?

Dear Deb,
The question about private or “outside” (non-institutional) scholarships is a good one. Unfortunately, the manner in which schools factor such scholarships into the family’s budget for covering college expenses does vary greatly. While some schools credit 100% of the scholarship against your out-of-pocket expenses, others will credit a fraction (quite often half) to your out-of-pocket expense with the remainder being used to reduce the amount of institutional grant/scholarship that is being offered. Yet others will apply all of the outside scholarship against the grants/scholarships they would otherwise offer.

If your student is a likely recipient of outside scholarships, I suggest that she begin inquiring of the institutions that interest her to receive a clear articulation of their practices in such circumstances. She should not consider committing to a school before this question is resolved satisfactorily in your minds.

Posted in Application Info, Hot Topics/Trends, Learning Differences, Meeting College Costs, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep | 2 Comments »