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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“Thinking College? For Best Results, Focus on Fit!” 6.21.17

June 21st, 2017

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 7.15.17

June 15th, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
I’m finishing my Junior year in the International Baccalaureate program and I am worried about the prestige of the IB program at my current school. How do colleges consider the IB in determining the reputation of the high school? Will they consider the performance of alumni from my school in the past to determine whether I am going to a good school?

Dear Ronnie,
You are very fortunate to be studying in an IB program. While I can’t speak for all universities, I can tell you that most regard the IB as one of the premier academic programs in the world. The philosophy and content of the program are universal, so every participating high school (and student) will be subject to the same curricular expectations. A high school can only offer IB instruction if it is approved by the IB Organization and its faculty have undergone significant training.

In determining the relative strength of a given program, colleges review profile data provided by the high school that reveals the percentage of the overall enrollment engaged in the program as full IB candidates, the percentage of graduates who have completed the IB Diploma requirements and the performances of graduates on IB exams. A school that features the IB program, but does not see many of its students complete the Diploma requirements or whose collective exam results are relatively modest, might not inspire the same confidence in a college as one that is consistently showing a high rate of Diploma completion with high exam results.

In the final analysis, though, it will be your performance in the IB that counts the most. If you embrace the full IB, perform at a high level in your daily work and project high exam results, you will put yourself on the competitive “playing fields” (for admission) at most selective institutions in the US.

Dear Peter,
During a college visit this weekend, my daughter met with a coach who asked her to fill out an information form that requested her social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram and, I think, Skype). There is nothing negative on the accounts, but she feels the request steps over the privacy bounds. If she doesn’t provide the information, could that reflect negatively on her as an applicant? They are not requesting passwords or access, just the account names and, of course, we instructed her to ensure that all privacy settings were at the maximum. Is this a common request in the application process?

Dear Sue,
The coach’s request for the social media info is fairly benign. In all likelihood, the coach is looking for the best opportunity to stay in touch—and this is not uncommon among recruiters. Under no circumstances, though, should your daughter share that information if she is at all uncomfortable doing so. Frankly, if her reluctance to share the information does adversely affect her status with the coach/school, it might be a good thing in the long run. After all, would she really want to be subject to an environment of caution and distrust as exhibited by the person(s) who would be leading her sport program? Something to think about.

Dear Peter,
What is going on with social media in the admission process? I just read where students have had their admission revoked at highly selective institutions—after they had enrolled—because of information they posted on social media sites.

Dear Charles,
This is a tricky situation. Anything that students (or any of us for that matter) post on social media is discoverable. While I am not aware that colleges actively investigate each applicant, they are clearly prepared to look into situations if provoked. I am not intimately familiar with the recent expulsions, but it is my impression that the students in question had posted insensitive, if not highly inflammatory, statements. Private colleges are within their rights to take disciplinary action if such activity is discovered that violates their codes of conduct.

My advice to students: Treat your social media accounts as though they are billboards on the interstate. Don’t post anything you don’t want the world to see. Moreover, be conscious of language, ideas or images that others might be using in conversation with you as they can be perceived of a reflection of you and your values.

Additional Note: Financial aid officers are able to access real estate profiles on Zillow as well as Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that might reveal pertinent home equity information and financial lifestyle choices that could have a bearing on the determination of a family’s ability to pay for college.

Dear Peter,
I need advice regarding the FAFSA and if one should, or should not, complete it. If we put our information into the FAFSA system, will colleges assume we are seeking financial aid even if we do not intend to pursue that option? Will it reflect more positively if we don’t complete the FAFSA? Or will schools understand our intent if we check the “do not need financial aid” option?

Dear Marge,
Completing the FAFSA will not lead to the conclusion by colleges that you are pursuing need-based financial aid. The FAFSA is a Federal document designed to determine your daughter’s eligibility to receive loans, grants and campus work opportunities funded and/or subsidized by the US government. It makes sense to complete the FAFSA if you want to explore these funding options.

While many colleges use the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional support, the more selective private colleges will also require submission of the College Scholarship Service Profile.

In any case, the point of discrimination in the selective admission process will come when an institution determines that you are not able to be fully self-funding in the process, at which time the question becomes: “If we extend institutional funding to this student, what is the likely return on our investment?” This question will become relevant regardless of whether the “financial aid box” is checked on the application for admission.

At schools where your daughter is likely to be on the margin of the competition, the demonstrated “need” of financial assistance could well compromise her chances of admission. Conversely, in admission competition where she is highly valued for what she has to offer, an institution will admit her and use its resources to leverage her enrollment. The solution: work with her to identify schools where she will be valued for what she has to offer!

Dear Peter,
Prior to 9th Grade, my daughter was diagnosed with ADD. With medication—and literally, overnight—she went from receiving grades in the 70’s to grades in the mid 90’s in virtually all of her classes. She had struggled immensely until this point and her confidence was decimated.

Due to the timing of the diagnosis, she had not taken algebra or earth science in 8th grade and was not tracked into any honors classes. She has, however, maintained a rigorous schedule that will see her taking physics, calculus, year five of Spanish, history and English in her senior year. She has maintained an overall 94 average and has made the High Honor Roll each quarter of her high school career.

My daughter has also been quite successful at soccer. She is being recruited by two outstanding Division III private colleges and we are at the point of sending transcripts. It is our impression these colleges want to see honors as well as AP courses.

How much “pull” do coaches have? Should we be very forthcoming right out of the box about my daughter’s late diagnosis of ADD and miraculous results with the medication? She has worked hard to accomplish well over the past three years of high school and we’d like to see her get into the best academic college possible.

Dear Hannah,
I would urge full disclosure with regard to your daughter’s academic history. IF the coach is going to have any “pull” with the admission office, she will need to be in full command of your daughter’s situation. I have written before about the need for students to explain irregularities (performance that doesn’t match expectations) in their academic program and/or performance. This is a perfect example of the need for such an explanation.

Absent such information, admission officers will be easily dismissive of her credentials. She at least gives herself a chance by telling the complete story and eliminating the guesswork that would otherwise be required of admission officers.

You can’t worry about whether such self-disclosure will hurt your daughter’s chances. Would you want her to attend a college that would knowingly discriminate against her otherwise? Colleges that see her potential and respect her accomplishments will admit her and support her once enrolled.

Posted in Athletic Recruitment, Course Selections, Financial Aid, Learning Differences | No Comments »


“College List Development: June College Planning Tips” 6.7.17

June 7th, 2017

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. And, 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. 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 college 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 have yet to learn that facilitate good decision-making about possible destinations. The good news is you still 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 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 might 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 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! Don’t add these schools to your list simply because they make it easy to do so!

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 | No Comments »


“A Key to Achieving Happy Outcomes in College Planning: Make Good Choices” 5.24.17

May 24th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

If you are a rising high school senior, close your eyes and imagine a day in the future. No more applications. No more essays. No more SATs or ACTs. No more worrying and waiting. The final choice of a college will have been made! A year from now, it will all be over except for the celebrating.

It’s a wonderful image, but you aren’t there yet! Getting there—getting to the point where you are in a position to make that choice—actually boils down to making many good choices in the coming weeks and months. Every day, you have opportunities to make choices that can have a bearing on how you live the rest of your life. And if you are about to become a high school senior—and a college applicant—the choices you make take on added importance each day.

The opportunities for decision-making are everywhere. For example, what courses have you chosen to take during your senior year? Will they challenge you to learn and grow—or are they merely place-holders as you ease your way to graduation? How will you choose to address the daily expectations of the classroom as a senior? Will you push yourself to achieve at the highest levels—or will you be content to do that which is merely good enough?

What will you do this summer? Will you find opportunities to invest in the things you like to do, seek new adventures or look for productive engagement in the community—or will you sit back and wait for the action to come to you?

Think also about how you will engage yourself in the college application process. Will you step up, take ownership and give definition to college planning—or will you sit back and let others do it for you? Will you reach out to colleges to learn more about application requirements—or is that something that can wait until later? Will you get an early start on your essays when doing so gives you perspective and allows you the opportunity to edit critically—or will you rely on the tried and true “adrenaline rush” to throw something together at the deadline?

These are just a few examples of the many situations that are bound to arise between now and the end of the admission process. While you shouldn’t feel the need to be on top of everything, you do need to understand how the choices you make may impact the bigger picture. With that in mind, I would like to share the following with you from the “author unknown” chronicles:

Be careful of your thoughts, because your thoughts will become your words.
Be careful of your words, because your words will become your deeds.
Be careful of your deeds, because your deeds will become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, because your habits will become your character.
Be careful of your character, because your character will become your destiny.

The thoughts, words and deeds of the coming months will indeed continue to shape your character and define your destiny as you apply to college and in your life beyond. Choose them well.

As you anticipate making important decisions over the coming year, remember that Best College Fit® provides resources that can be helpful as you navigate the college planning process. Check out Best College Fit’s Resources for Student and Parents as well as Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore.

Posted in College Planning | 2 Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 5.18.17

May 18th, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
We’re wondering what the pros and cons are of taking a few SAT Subject Tests. I know some colleges recommend students submit two SAT Subject Test scores. For these colleges, can it add anything to a student’s application to take and submit more than two subject tests? If he has good scores on 3 or 4 tests, would they make his college application any stronger?

In addition, can a student choose which Subject Test scores to submit to colleges (whether or not the college allows Score Choice)? In other words, could a student take a few Subject Tests and submit only his strongest scores to colleges or do some colleges require scores from all subject tests taken?

Dear Marc,
The impact of Subject Tests truly varies from college to college. While some will accept a battery of Subject Tests in place of the SAT or ACT, increasingly fewer places actually require Subject Tests these days. That said, I doubt that submission of unrequired Subject Tests will add to the strength of the application. In all likelihood, they will simply validate other performance measures that are required.

If your son takes any Subject Tests, I’d urge him to exercise Score Choice—he should see the results before submitting them. In assessing the results, focus on the percentile for the score. Since relatively few students take Subject Tests, high scores can be misleading—a high score might result in a relatively modest percentile. For the most selective colleges, submit only scores that are at least 95thpercentile. If your student is applying to one of the few colleges that refuses to honor Score Choice—and his scores turn out to be very good but not superior—he’ll have an ethical dilemma on his hands with regard to score submission.

Dear Peter,
My son is a Junior who will apply to college this fall. Now is the time to apply for the national honor society at his school. How important is the National Honor Society? Do colleges favor this award?

Dear Wei,
While National Honor Society is an important recognition for students within the context of their schools, it does not always carry much weight in the college admission process. As an academic honor, it is largely redundant with the strength of the student’s academic record. If, however, selection into the NHS is also indicative of extraordinary leadership and/or service—and carries with it an expectation of more to come—then, the recognition is more substantive.

The bottom line: it can’t hurt for your son to have NHS membership on his resume. It just might not be a “tie-breaking” credential at some colleges.

Dear Peter,
My son is a Junior and his grades and ACT scores are very strong. He is grappling with a decision to change schools for senior year for reasons relating to personal happiness. He is wondering to what extent this decision will adversely affect his college applications.

Dear Deb,
Your son needs to make sure he is in the best position possible to have a strong senior year academically. If his current situation is distracting or uncomfortable such that his performance is adversely affected, then the transfer could make sense. My concern would be that, in transferring, he will need to acclimate rather quickly to a new environment with new curricula, instructors, peers and expectations. It could work beautifully—or it could blow up on him. The risks are very real.

If he does transfer, he needs to be very intentional—and absolutely transparent—about the situation in his application.

Whenever there are irregularities relating to a student’s academic program and/or performance, admission officers will look for explanations. Without an explanation, they will draw their own conclusions. Keep in mind that admission officers are, by their very nature, cynical. An unexplained change in schools for the senior year will be viewed as highly irregular, perhaps even as a “red flag.” Left to draw their own conclusions, admission officers could conclude that the change was the result of a discipline issue, an infraction of school rules/policies or a calculated decision by the student to pursue a course of less resistance academically. While I seriously doubt that any of these explanations would apply to your son, I hope you see my point. He cannot risk those assumptions.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a junior who attends a church that teaches meditation. The church considers itself universal, embracing aspects of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. How should my daughter present this on application forms? I’m afraid if she puts “other” this might be interpreted as atheism or raise concerns. Would putting Buddhism be a plus or a minus for admissions purposes? I feel like this requires some explanation, but I don’t think my daughter wants to focus on it in her essays. What is the best or most advantageous way to handle this?

Dear Rich,
I am not aware that colleges are requiring students to disclose their religious background on applications for admission. For this information to appear, your daughter would need to volunteer it somewhere in a personal statement. If she is asked for this information, she might simply respond with the name of the church.

Regardless, I seriously doubt that her response would be held in judgment unless she is applying to a college with a strong religious doctrine. On the contrary, most schools are likely to be intrigued by her spiritual orientation. She has an open mind to discovery, a trait highly valued by educational institutions!

Dear Peter,
My daughter received an email from one of her favorite colleges inviting her to a day of workshops about the college application process in general and the college in particular. She does like the college a lot. I don’t know if she has a real shot there, but wonder if attending will help her chances. I was planning to take her for the first two hours only as the second two hours are same as a visit which we have already done. What are your thoughts?

Dear Eileen,
It can’t hurt for your daughter to attend the workshop. While it is not a requirement for admission, the school is giving prospective students an opportunity to begin developing a relationship. Attending won’t guarantee admission. On the other hand, it will be possible for her to gain admission without attending. In the end, however, as the college’s admission officers look for evidence of her investment in the place/process, having attended the workshop creates another trackable touchpoint for them.

Dear Peter,
What is the best way for my son to determine if a college/university provides a level of rigor or challenge in the classroom to match his ability and preparedness? You mention that this is important in determining whether a college is a good fit. Please advise. Thanks!

Dear Ruth,
The people who are best positioned to help your son identify college academic environments that are good fits for his ability and preparedness are his current teachers. Not only are they aware of the natural progression of his curricular tracking, many of them will be able to discern from his study skills, inquisitiveness, classroom participation, reaction to setbacks, self-confidence and articulation skills (oral and written) his preparedness to find success in certain types of academic environments.

In soliciting their thoughts, though, he must be careful not to assume that, because his teachers express confidence in his ability to do the work at certain colleges, he will be admitted to those schools. Their confidence is further evidence that he is on the competitive playing fields at the schools. His success as a candidate, though, will be a function of many factors—his actual performance chief among them.

Posted in College Planning, Hot Topics/Trends, Preparing the Application, Testing/Test Prep | 2 Comments »


“Students, Parents and Ownership in College Planning” 5.11.17

May 11th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

May is a month when high school Juniors find themselves staring at the seemingly “uphill” portion of the college planning process. Whereas the prospect of “going to college” has been on the radar screen for quite a while, the task of getting there is now approached with a new-found sense of earnestness.

The coming months will find students compiling lists and sorting through options in the hopes of happy outcomes. It won’t be easy, though. Just contemplating the upcoming gauntlet of college visits, essay preparation and tests—not to mention the panicked rush to meet application deadlines—can induce waves of anxiety on even the most thoughtfully organized families.

Getting “there”—to the happy endpoint—with a modicum of sanity intact, then, requires an implicit understanding of roles and responsibilities. And it requires recognition that ownership of the process and the outcomes rests with the student.

The question of ownership in the college planning process isn’t easily or comfortably resolved—if addressed at all—within many families. After all, parents have been heavily invested in outcomes for their progeny since birth. College is simply an extension of the litany of experiences that parents intend for their children on the way to establishing happy and productive lifestyles. And who, better than the parents, can make the critical decisions about where and how to apply?

The truth of the matter is that the college application and selection process represents a launching pad for young adults as they emerge from the comforts of home, family and all that is known into a world of self-discovery. They need to recognize—and seize—such opportunities for reasons that are important to them and no one else.

This assertion can be difficult for some parents to swallow. After all, it isn’t easy to give up control and expect an 18-year-old, with little-to-no experience, to make the right decisions in managing a process of this complexity when the stakes are so high. For these parents, peace of mind is found in handling the important decisions themselves—hiring private educational consultants to manage the process, putting kids in pricey test prep programs and paying for access to essay editing services.

When this happens, students become spectators in the planning for their respective futures. Forced to the “sidelines,” they are not able to learn and practice good decision-making skills or experience accountability for their actions in a process that impacts their respective futures. Unable to truly affect outcomes, they are affected by them.

The best outcomes in college planning occur when the student is vested with ownership. After all, the parents aren’t going to college—it is the student who must compete for admission. And it is the student, who, based on the strength of his credentials and preparation, will be given the opportunity to test his skills at the next level educationally.

Achieving this opportunity in a manner that is ultimately rewarding to the student and satisfying to the parent calls for an approach in which parents cede ownership to their students, an approach in which “directing” gives way to “guiding.” Turning over the controls isn’t easy, but at some point it’s necessary. (If you have taught your kids to drive, you know what I mean!) For kids, going to college represents, among other things, the opportunity to step out of their parents’ shadows and into a world of possibilities they can begin to imagine for themselves. And getting there, despite their inexperience and busy schedules, is something they must learn to do for themselves.

The gift of ownership, then, can be incredibly empowering for a young person who is straining to define herself. College admission officers are eager to see how students are emerging as young adults. They want to hear their voices and learn about their accomplishments. They want a measure of the student’s vision and self-confidence that can only come from the student. As a parent, you have done your job in that you have brought her to the point where she can begin speaking for herself. Now, it’s her turn.

Tips to parents for implementing the transition to student ownership:

  1. Engage in conversation that gives your student the opportunity to think about and identify his priorities for life after high school.
  2. If such priorities include a college education, explore with your student the factors that will be essential –in her mind—to defining a successful experience (i.e. distance from home, style of instruction, social life, etc.).
  3. Focus on finding the best college fit. Preoccupation with prestige and rankings often detract from a student’s ability to make smart, student-centered choices.
  4. Give your student responsibility for the development of a college list. Encourage a long list that at first includes a range of options. Then help him assess these schools within the context of “fit” and his priorities. Support opportunities to visit colleges whenever possible.
  5. Urge your student to maintain a file of information about the colleges that interest her most. The file might include a spreadsheet on which she tracks data and impressions for each college that relate to her priorities.
  6. Encourage your student to wrestle with questions such as “What will a college get if it admits you?” and “How might you convince admission officers that you will be a good fit for their schools?” Such conversations will help the student find greater focus when it is time to apply for admission.

As you and your student become immersed in college planning, continue to visit this College Planning Blog for additional blog postings that provide greater insights and guidance with regard to different elements of college planning. In addition, Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore is a great resource for students as they begin to take ownership in the college planning process.

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“Road Trip! Get the Most Out of College Visits: May College Planning Tips” 5.3.17

May 3rd, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

As the school year winds down, thousands of families are gearing up to start the college search and selection process in earnest. For many, the process includes plans to visit college campuses. The questions that often arise, however, are “When is the best time to visit?” and “What should we expect to accomplish?”

The answers are fairly straightforward. Visit when you can and soak up as much information as possible! Ideally, you would visit colleges when classes are in session and the campuses are full of life. That may not always be possible, though, so go when you can. The best opportunities may be around business trips, holiday travels or vacations.

And if such opportunities should occur early in the college planning process, go “window shopping.” When you are “window shopping,” you are less concerned about buying and more interested in checking out the inventory. Give yourself exposure to as many different kinds of places as you can—big schools, small schools, research universities, liberal arts colleges, urban campuses and places way out in the country.

Visiting a range of colleges while there is no pressure to “buy” allows you to develop a broad perspective with regard to what is “out there.” Later, when it is time to buy, you will know what you like and you know where to find it. As you visit the campuses, allow your senses to guide you. Ultimately, it will be a “sixth sense”—the proverbial “gut feeling” that will lead you to the places that suit you best.

So, pack up your “sixth sense” and get ready to enjoy the adventure found in “window shopping” college campuses. The following are tips that will help you get the most out of your campus visits—wherever you go!

1.  Take advantage of everything the school has to offer. If an interview is offered, take it! Take a tour. Visit an academic department or program area in which you have an interest. Ask thoughtful questions that reflect your interest.

2.  Plan ahead. If possible, schedule your visit at least two weeks in advance. At some colleges, you may need to call two months in advance for an interview appointment. This will be especially true over the summer and around holidays.

3.  Prepare well. Read the information you have about the school. Look for the potential synergy between your interests, perspectives and learning style—and the offerings of the school. While on campus, you will want to test your initial impressions. Know why you are there. See how you fit. By examining your priorities in advance, you can be alert to evidence that the campus in question will support you in achieving your goals.

4.  Arrive early. Avoid feeling rushed. Give yourself time to stretch and walk around before you make an official introduction. Find a snack bar or some place where you can comfortably take in campus life. How do folks relate to each other? How do they relate to you?

5.  Get more than one opinion. Much of that which is offered formally by a college during your visit is staged for your benefit. It should look and sound good. It’s part of the sales pitch.

If you can, allow time to go “backstage” where you can learn more. Visit the “neighborhoods” of the campus that you are likely to frequent should you choose to enroll there. Introduce yourself to students and ask questions like: “What do you like most about your experience?” “How would you describe the academic environment?” “How is this college helping you to achieve your goals?” “If you could change one thing about your experience, what would it be?” Listen to their stories. How do you see yourself fitting into the picture they “paint” of life on that campus?

6. Record your visit. Make notes as soon as you are able. The more colleges you see, the more they will begin to look and sound alike. Take pictures. Buy postcards. Give yourself a visual index of what you have seen to avoid confusion later.

7. Build relationships. Your campus visit gives you a chance to establish relationships with individuals such as interviewers and information session presenters who might be decision-makers when your application is considered. Collect business cards. Be sure to stay in touch with them in appropriate ways as you continue exploring your interest.

8. Connect with the recruiter. Institutions typically assign their admission personnel to different areas of the country for recruiting purposes. Find out who from the institution recruits in your area and check to see if that person is available. If so, introduce yourself. If not, ask for that person’s business card. Regardless, consider him/her as your “go to” person when you have important questions later in the college selection process.

9. Absorb it. Resist the impulse to come to immediate judgment, one way or the other, on a campus visit experience. Sleep on it. Process what you have learned. Weigh your impressions against those you have of other schools. Your first reaction is bound to be emotional. In the end, you need to remain as objective as possible.

10. Focus on fit. How does the college you are visiting meet your academic needs? Will you be challenged appropriately? Is the style of instruction a good match for the manner in which you are most comfortable learning? Does the college offer a sense of community that makes you feel “at home?” And where do you see evidence that you will be valued for what you have to offer.

For more discussion of a good college “fit,” check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the Best College Fit Bookstore.

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“Looking Past the ‘Label’ in Choosing a College” 4.27.17

April 27th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

The next few days are a point of reckoning for many high school seniors. After months, if not years, of searching and sorting through college options, the choice of a college all boils down to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date and what for many students is the $50,000 (or more!) question, “Where do I send my enrollment deposit?”

Students and parents alike are obsessed with finding the answer as is evidenced by these queries.

From a student, “Is it better to go a school that has given me a $20,000 scholarship, a summer internship opportunity and the promise of a letter of recommendation from the college president at graduation—or should I go to a ‘better’ school that hasn’t given me any of these things?”

And from a parent (unrelated), “Four schools have given our child varying amounts of scholarship assistance. How do we determine which of them represents the best ‘value’?”

In each case, the answer lies within the student. To infer otherwise is to devalue, albeit unintentionally, the young person’s goals, learning style and character. At this point in the decision-making, there are no absolutes that can be applied with certainty.

Each question—and others like them being asked in countless households around the country—seems to imply a natural order among colleges that doesn’t really exist. While it’s true that colleges differ with regard to how they engage young people educationally, the differences are most appropriately defined within the context of what the student brings to the table.

The student who couldn’t decide between an attractive package from one school and the basic offer from another “better” school was allowing the “look of the label” (read “brand name”) to influence his assessment. In essence, he was asking, “Which will look better—rather than which will work better for me?” The truth of the matter is the biggest differences between the two schools are cultural and geographic! Given his career goals and hands-on learning preference, the answer should have been clear to him.

Similarly, in asking her question, the parent was comparing brands in an attempt to lend objectivity to the choice of a college without factoring her child into the equation. Rather than asking whether College A was “worth” the difference in out-of-pocket expense to the family, she might have pursued a line of questioning that focused on her child’s comfort level with the various academic cultures and learning environments. In other words, assuming an ability to meet college costs at any of the schools, the questions might have been, “In what type of environment does my child function comfortably and, that said, where is he most likely to be meaningfully engaged such that he can achieve his educational goals?”

In assessing college options, then, it is reasonable to assume that a student is not likely to be confronted with any that are truly lacking. And, in fairness, the folks raising the questions referenced above were trying to make fine distinctions between good and valid options. They simply needed to recognize that some will fit better than others and, in order to find that fit, they needed to refocus on the students’ core priorities.

As you make your final choice of a college try to ignore the label or brand of an institution. It won’t be easy (and it probably sounds like heresy!) but, as you are probably coming to realize, the labels can be a huge distraction to your decision-making. And, believe it or not, the name of the place you choose now will carry less weight than you imagine after you have graduated from that institution. It is what you do while enrolled that gives greatest definition to your future prospects, both personally and professionally, in life. That’s why finding the best fit is so important!

Focus, then, on your objectives as well as what you have learned about the style and content of a given college’s offerings. As you do, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Which school gives me the best opportunity to achieve my educational goals by virtue of its curriculum, faculty and facilities?
  2. In which learning environment will I be able to “do my thing” most comfortably?
  3. Which college will challenge me to develop my skills to their fullest?
  4. Where will I find a community of “scholars” that brings out the best in me as a person?
  5. Which college has demonstrated that it is most likely to invest in my success?

Think for yourself and you can’t go wrong!  Happy decision-making!

Posted in Making the Final Choice of a College | 6 Comments »