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” 9/21/16

September 21st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Application Info, Early Decision/Action, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application | 3 Comments »


“Fact-checking College Admission” 9.14.16

September 14th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 7th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 1st, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Ideal College—A Place That Values You for What You Have to Offer!” 8.24.16

August 24th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

Over the last two months, I have written about elements of a good college fit—elements that are just as important when you are getting started with your college search as they are when making the final choice of a college. “Fit,” more than rankings, rhetoric or emotional logic that is bound to emerge, is the greatest determinant of success in both gaining admission and completing the degree requirements at a given college or university.

As you know by now, the best college for you will be the place that:

  • Offers the course of study you want to pursue—and will provide opportunities for you to explore if you are undecided.
  • Provides instruction and learning opportunities in a manner that is compatible with the way you like to learn.
  • Is a good match for your level of ability and academic preparation.
  • Provides a community that feels like home.

It is vital that you give each of these elements equal regard in your college search. A place that “feels like home” but does not offer your intended program of study is not a good fit. Nor is the place that insists that you declare your major as an applicant if you haven’t come to any good conclusions about a major yet. The best fit will be the place that meets your requirements as defined within each of these elements.

If you have charted your college selection around these elements of fit, you are bound to discover many places that meet your criteria. Among them, the best place for you—the ideal college—will be the place that values you for what you have to offer!

Think about it. Wouldn’t you prefer to be at a college that recognizes your talents and abilities, interests and perspectives—and demonstrates its commitment to investing in your success? As you contemplate your educational experience, think about each potential college destination as a partner you might choose as you attempt to reach your goals. Do you want to commit yourself to a partner that barely acknowledges your presence or one that embraces you with a full sense of the possibilities?

Be discriminating as you look for evidence of the latter. Do you see it when you seek help in finding financial assistance? What is the response when you inquire about opportunities to pursue special independent study projects or to study abroad? Do you find yourself meeting with people who are eager to help you make things happen or are you left to figure these things out on your own? The manner in which a college engages you during the recruitment process is often an indicator of the way it will treat you as an enrolled student. In particular, colleges that value you for what you do well will:

  • Give you personal attention throughout the recruitment process.
  • Answer your questions about housing, registration and payment plans in a timely manner.
  • Admit you and provide financial aid to meet your need.
  • Recognize your talents with scholarships and/or special academic opportunities, i.e., study abroad, internships, research, etc.

Not surprisingly, this notion of “value” is evident as admission officers engage in the selective admission process as well. The question, “Who among the excellent candidates under consideration are of greatest interest to us—who do we value most?” frames the deliberation as highly qualified applicants are considered for limited places in the entering classes at selective institutions. Remember, such schools don’t have to admit you simply because you are good. If they admit you it is because they chose to do so.

The last two bullet points are especially important, then, as you apply for admission. Why? What better evidence that you have found a good college fit than to be admitted and extended the financial support you need in order to enroll?! The best college fit for you will be a place that seems to be saying, “among all of the really good candidates we are considering, we want you because of what you have to offer and we’re prepared to invest in your success.”

So, what does this mean for you? The secret to your success still rests in your ability to reflect honestly on “who you are” and “what you have to offer”—and to find a good college match for those qualities. Take stock of your gifts, talents and perspectives. What do you have to contribute to a new community and where might such contributions be valued most? Be true to yourself, then, and put yourself in a better position to experience a lasting relationship with an institution that makes sense for you.

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 | 1 Comment »


BCF Readers’ Forum 8.17.16

August 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 wants to apply Early Decision to one of the most highly selective colleges. There is another college, less selective, but still highly selective, at which my son would have a better chance of gaining admission. My question is if my son is rejected Early Decision at his first choice, is he at a real disadvantage with this other school going through regular decision?

Dear Glenn,
I have two thoughts. One, your son should not consider applying Early Decision anywhere unless the school is his clear first choice school—and that school should be the one that fits him best. Playing the “ED card” to simply to optimize chances of getting into a “reach” school is usually not a good idea.

Two, applying ED unsuccessfully at one school should not adversely affect your son’s chances at other schools as long as he is able to convey the sincerity of his interest in the latter. In fact, many institutions offer a “round two” ED option with a deadline in January thereby creating the scenario where your son could follow up a failed ED application at one school with another ED application at a new first choice school.

Dear Peter,
What is the best protocol for submitting additional letters of recommendation beyond the required letters? Should they go directly to the college or through the counselor?

Dear Lewis,
I would send the additional letters directly to the college. High School counselors might have limitations on the number of letters they can process with each application. That said, I would only submit additional letters if the authors can add something substantive about your student’s academic or work performance.

Dear Peter,
Does it matter which application our son uses in applying to colleges? Some colleges have produced their own applications. In addition, we’re hearing and reading a fair amount about a new application, the Coalition Application, that will be used by many selective colleges this Fall. And then, of course, there is the Common Application. What do you recommend?

Dear Jon,
Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter which application your son uses. Institutions that are trying to discern a student’s level of interest, though, will look for patterns of engagement in assessing the likelihood that a student will enroll if accepted. For example, a student applying with the Common Application or the Coalition Application who doesn’t otherwise appear on the institution’s radar is likely to be read with greater suspicion regarding level of interest and might end up on the WL or worse. On the other hand, an Early Decision candidate who has visited the campus will be beyond suspicion regardless of the application used. If that is the case, your son should choose the application that will enable him to comfortably make the strongest, most personal presentation.

Dear Peter,
As my daughter gets ready for college interviews, we are hearing conflicting views on how she should explain her slow start during her first two years of high school. She was diagnosed at the end of her Sophomore year with two learning deficits (processing speed and verbal working memory) and ADD. As a result, she took medication and received accommodations of extra time (which she used infrequently) and exam pacing. She had a 3.87 GPA in her Junior year which was up dramatically from a 3.2 over the prior two years. She got a 5 on an AP exam and scored a 33 on the ACT.

One school of thought is that she should not specifically disclose the learning deficits or the ADD or the medication/accommodation to Admissions reps in interviews as that information will jaundice their view of her grades and scores and perhaps make them less interested in taking her because they would more likely have to provide her accommodations. Instead, she should just talk about having problems adjusting, transitioning and gaining maturity when she entered high school. Others think that she should just tell her story about the learning differences as they are fairly prevalent these days.

What are your thoughts? Will schools be turned off if they know that she has received medication and accommodations?

Dear Mary,
Given your daughter’s marked improvement over the last three years, the diagnosis/medication/accommodation explanation is extremely relevant. Without it, her seemingly lackluster performance earlier on will take her out of the competition for admission. My rule of thumb is that, whenever valid, documentable circumstances contribute to substandard performance, they must be addressed somewhere in the application. If your daughter is comfortable with the conversation, the interview would be a perfect place for it. As long as she presents the situation objectively, she shouldn’t have a problem.

On the flip side, would you really want your daughter to attend a school that would otherwise discriminate against her? Rather, I’d think you would want to see her enter an environment that is cognizant of her situation and eager to support her continued growth and development.

By the way, during campus visits you might want to drop by the health services offices where you can speak with folks who are responsible for compliance with learning differences. (Any conversation you have with them is confidential.) As a consumer, you might want to know the philosophy/orientation of the services and how they might be able to support your daughter should she need them.

Dear Peter,
My son is a recruited athlete and was told to be on the lookout for a “streamlined application” in August. What do these typically include and will he still need to write the standard Common App essay?

Dear Julie,
Athletic coaches at selective institutions are often trying to pre-qualify top recruits in order to eventually secure their commitments. While I don’t know the institution-specific protocols in question, my guess is the coach wants to glean enough academic information about your son in order to present him to the admission committee for early clearance. If the coach gets a “thumbs-up” from the admission committee, he’ll likely try to leverage a commitment from your son. At some colleges, the Early Decision option might come into play.

I don’t know what this college’s streamlined application will look like or whether your son will need to complete any essays at this time. I would urge him to take it seriously, though, especially if this will be a college of interest to him even if the athletic recruitment doesn’t pan out. With the coach’s endorsement, the subjective elements of the application (including essay) tend to be viewed less critically. However, if the coach drops his endorsement—and this happens more often than you’d like to think—then your son’s application will have to stand on its own merit in which case the essays will take on a different relevance.

Dear Peter,
Our son was recently invited to join NSHSS. As we (parents) moved to the US after finishing our education it is often difficult for us to judge which are the best organizations to join. There are so many offers for honor societies out there and our son has received multiple invitations. (NSHSS and NJHS are just two examples). Can you help us in this regard?

Dear Claudia,
I get this question often! The most meaningful honor societies are those sponsored by your son’s school that recognize students for their achievements. It is important to note that students should never have to pay for such recognition. While groups like NSHSS claim that membership will burnish his credentials as a candidate for admission, it will not. The bottom line: honors cannot be bought; they must be earned.

Dear Peter,
A 10th grade honor student, with a 95 average across all courses, starts an honors 10th grade math course and has a “bad” teacher who grades very harshly. The student unsuccessfully tries to get a different teacher and is told only option is to drop to a Regents level course. What do you advise? What’s better—an 86 in honors or 96 in Regents?

Dear Phil,
The short answer to your question is that an 86 in honors almost always wins over a 96 in Regents. The possible exception will be at state universities that do not distinguish between the rigor of the given courses in their assessment algorithms.

I would add that the circumstances of the lower grade are worthy of note when your student eventually applies for admission to colleges. He might approach his guidance counselor with this request, “How can you help me tell this part of my story to admission officers?” It is not unreasonable to expect that the counselor might provide witness, as an objective third-party, to the facts of the situation.

Posted in Application Info, Athletic Recruitment, Campus Visits, Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Learning Differences, Preparing the Application | 5 Comments »


“Find a College That Feels Like Home” 8.10.16

August 10th, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

“I need to get out of here!” It’s a feeling shared by teenagers almost daily that is expressed loudly to anyone within earshot. And “here” is wherever you are at the moment—home, school, community. Just about anywhere else would be better than where you are.

Perhaps you recognize the symptoms. It seems the older you get the more claustrophobic your world becomes. Everybody is in your business and you need space. You’re ready for a new look, a change of scenery. And right about now, college seems like an inviting destination.

As eager as you might be to get up and go, though, the chances are there is a quiet voice inside you (never to be heard by anyone else!) that says something like, “I’m not sure I want to go. They feed me and let me drive their car. Besides, my friends are right around the corner. I actually have a good life here. Do I really have to leave?”

The answer is “yes.” At some point you will need to find a change of address. And, if that place will be a college, why not find one that bears the qualities you like in your home environment—a place that includes people with shared values and interests, a place where people will encourage you on bad days and celebrate with you the good days? Why not find a community into which you can settle comfortably?

When you think about it, the best college fit will be a place that offers a community in which you will feel comfortable. It will be a place where you won’t be distracted by worries about how you fit in. You won’t worry about what people think about you—how you talk, what you say, how you dress or what you think. You won’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Instead, you can relax and focus on getting the most out of your college experience and that includes, by the way, your academic work. There is a strong correlation between one’s comfort level in college—and one’s grade point average!

So, how do you find such a place? It’s hard to search the Internet for such a fit. Chat room conversations can be deceptive as they tend to reflect only the opinions of those who participate.  And the images you see on videos and in printed materials are rarely unattractive.

As a result, you will need to do some original research. Specifically, you need to experience college campuses and, in the process, be sensitive to your “gut” reactions. Quite often students who believe they’ve found the colleges of their dreams are hard-pressed to explain the attraction, except to say, “It’s a gut feeling. It feels right—like I would be at home.” As you think about living apart from the comforts of home, finding your niche is vitally important so let your gut go to work for you.

What “gut feeling” do you hope to find as you look at colleges? Look for students who come from similar backgrounds—who share your interests and your loyalties. While they shouldn’t be exact clones of your friends from home, it’s a good sign if they are people from whom you can learn and around whom you can grow personally. In all likelihood, your gut will tell you when you have found people you’d like to get to know better.

Moreover, what does your gut tell you about a college’s inclination to stretch and support you through various aspects of your college experience? Do you sense that people in a given environment will encourage and support you in your journey of self-discovery? Based on your experience on college campuses, where do you see evidence that interaction with others will help broaden your perspective—get you to take risks and think outside of the box periodically? What does your gut tell you about how an environment will respond if you struggle? Will anyone know?  Will anyone care?

Posted in Campus Visits, College Planning | No Comments »


“College Rankings: August College Planning Tips” 8.3.16

August 3rd, 2016

By Peter Van Buskirk

August is here—and so are college rankings. With a new college admission cycle looming, editors from Money Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review have once again begun to ply us with a parade of ranking guides that presume to reveal the “best values” in education, identify the best “party” schools or, simply, quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges. Before you get out your credit card or rush to print out a list of the “best” colleges, though, take a moment to consider the following:

1.    Rankings are not science. The data collection process relies on self-reported information from colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped to standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to manage the manner in which their data is assembled.

Moreover, editors are able to creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive. For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication’s editors (U.S. News & World Report) will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on the values of its presumed peers.

2.    Rankings are highly subjective. Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings reputation carries the greatest weight. On the surface, that might make sense—until you come to know how reputation is “measured.”

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form admit they are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected guidance counselors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all “voters” continues to be abysmally low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

3.    Rankings change each year because …? Change is glacial in nature on college campuses, yet every year the outcome of the rankings changes. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors’ need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

4.    Apples and Oranges. While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different with regard to programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations—another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task.

5.    Be discriminating. The definitions of “best” are essentially editorial opinions dressed up in pseudo-facts. Contrived to sell magazines, they might not—and, in fact, should not—be the beginning point for your college selection process. Don’t become blinded by these definitions of the “best.” You need to arrive at your own definition of the best that is rooted in your needs, interests and learning style.

6.    Project yourself into the picture. You must ask yourself, “What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me/my student?” Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright, but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that apply to your situation?

7.    Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. More specifically, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Unlike the purchase process with regard to other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. Rankings don’t get kids into college nor do they necessarily point you in the direction that is best for you.

Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from sensible, student-centered decision-making.

Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this fall will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?

Frankly, the rankings phenomenon has grown wearisome. The notion that all of America’s best colleges can be rank ordered in any context (“party schools,” academic reputation,” etc.)—that the mythical pecking order can actually be quantified—is foolhardy. It makes too many wandering assumptions about people and places, cultures and values, quality and—believe it or not—fit.

Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientation and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed becomes more important than what is to be accomplished or why that goal might be important or how the institution might best serve the student. When distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.

Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.

Posted in College Rankings, Hot Topics/Trends | 3 Comments »