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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“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 | 1 Comment »


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 | No 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.

Posted in College Planning | 3 Comments »


“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.

Posted in Campus Visits | 1 Comment »


“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 »


BCF Readers’ Forum 4.22.17

April 22nd, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
My son is waitlisted to the undergraduate engineering program at a very selective university for the fall 2017. The school reports that approximately 2,200 students asked to remain active on its Wait List and only 4 from 2,200 were ultimately accepted to the freshman class. So, it would appear the chances of a waitlisted applicant getting admitted to the University are less than 0.2%? If this info is accurate, would these waitlist probabilities be similar at other colleges?

Dear Paul,
I must confess that I am generally very cynical about data self-reported by colleges. In particular, data derived from WL activity can be very “soft.” For example, colleges will only count as “admitted” from the WL those students who receive letters confirming the admission. The typical protocol for admitting students from the WL is for admission officers to contact them directly with a “verbal” offer. Letters of acceptance are only sent to the students who say “yes.” For example, it is not uncommon for admission officers to call 50-60 students—or more—before receiving 20 affirmative responses. The calls to students that failed to yield positive responses are not counted among the acceptances.

Moreover, admission data is often reported well before WL activity has been completed. While it is possible that the university in question only “accepted” four students from the WL by the time it reported its WL numbers, it is also possible that many more students were contacted and accepted after the report was submitted.

Having said that, the data/probabilities are likely to be similarly “soft” at other schools. I will say this, though, the WL is a dead-end for students who do not choose to remain active on it at a given school. On the other hand, those who remain active—visit the campus (again!), update their files with new information and make sure they are accessible (cell phones, emails, etc.)—have more reasonable chances of admission than they might have imagined.

Dear Peter,
I hear from many parents that our child needs to have volunteer hours included in with her college applications. Are these necessary and, if so, to what extent? Our daughter plays high school field hockey and occasionally volunteers at the field hockey clinics offered in our area. She hasn’t expressed any interest in volunteering in other areas and, with free time being so limited due to her field hockey club practices and clinics, I wonder if she NEEDS to be more diverse in her volunteer hours for her application. I was hoping you might be able to elaborate on this.

Dear Hal,
The best thing you can do is support your daughter’s development in those areas that are of interest to her. While volunteering/community service can certainly be a valued part of an applicant’s credentials, so can talent development and leadership. I would advise your daughter to continue investing in the things that give her joy in life. If volunteering becomes one of them, great. Regardless, it is most important that she continues to grow with her involvements.

I would like to add that you might stop listening to your friends on this topic! Unless they are or have been admission officers, they have no relevant expertise and know little more than you do at this point. The “noise” that envelops the college going-process can be maddening if you don’t find a way to block it out or at least process it with perspective. Enjoy your daughter’s teenage years with her—they’ll be gone before you know it! Help her to stay true to herself as she reaches into the uncertainty of the future. And help her find colleges that will value her for that person she is becoming.

Dear Peter,
Do you have a sample letter to send to a school where I have been accepted; however, I decided to go to another college? I would like to keep the door open for the future.

Dear Melanie,
I don’t have such a letter but I suggest you keep the message simple. Something like, “Thank you so much for offering me admission! After much consideration, I have decided to attend (name of college). All the best!” Generally speaking, these letters are opened by support staff who then update student statuses is their systems. If you have developed a relationship of any sort with an admission recruiter, you might send a separate, more personal note to that person in which you explain your decision/plans.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is currently a junior and wants to increase her chances at her favorite schools. When you mention to be in contact with the school and email the admissions person assigned to our area, do you have any recommendations for what she should be inquiring about or what is a good example of showing strong interest without sounding desperate?

Dear Marva,
Contacts with colleges run both ways. Your daughter needs to be attentive and responsive to outreach from the colleges of interest to her. And when she has questions about the college or an aspect of its admission process for which there are no answers easily found in its literature or on its website, she needs to ask them of its regional recruiter. Quite often, such questions relate to course selections. They might also relate to other choices your daughter needs to make (which subject tests are required/preferred, who should I ask for a letter of recommendation, etc.). She needs to be careful, though, to make sure her queries are thoughtful. It would be a mistake to try sending messages on a regular (daily, weekly, etc.) basis as she would come to be regarded as pest.

Dear Peter,
Do alumni donations matter for legacies? I have heard for the most part they don’t unless they exceed the six-figure mark.

Dear Rob,
I’m afraid there is no way to predict the manner in which colleges factor alumni donations into the admission process. Schools admitting 30%+ of their applicants will certainly be impressed by substantial giving but are also inclined to admit legacies with the “long view” in mind. In other words, admitting your student makes you proud (as an alum) and, perhaps, more likely to write them into your estate planning. The most selective (and wealthy) institutions seem to be as impressed by status/stature as money. At those places, six digits doesn’t even scratch the surface. They’ll want to see evidence of philanthropic giving and the potential to put a name on a building.

Dear Peter,
What are your tips for college campus visits?

Dear Nikhil,
Most college visits will afford you the opportunity to take a tour and participate in a group information session. Some offer personal interviews as well. If a college ever gives you an opportunity to interview with a paid admission staff person, you should take advantage of it! It’s always good to have some exposure to a decision-maker.

For additional tips, visit and click on the “Campus Visit” category where you will find several articles that will help you prepare for your campus visits. I will also be posting additional articles on the topic in the coming weeks.

Dear Peter,
I know it should be up to my son to decide which school he wants to attend, but I can’t help wondering if there is more than one “best college fit” school for him? Is it wrong of me to convince him to attend “College A” because the odds are better for him at finding a job after school?  Fundamentally, I know he has the rest of his life to work and only one chance to have a great college experience, but I can’t seem to get past the phenomenal job statistics presented by “College A”. It would be a shame if he were to graduate and have a tough time finding a job.

However, I have a feeling that my son might have a better and happier college experience at “College B” with its large and beautiful campus, athletic teams, and more traditional approach to academics and internships.  He would probably have more fun there, too.

Do you have any advice for this mom who has been losing sleep over her dilemma?

Dear Rose,
Even though you (and your son) are on the homestretch of this process, some of the toughest decisions are yet to be made. This is a time, however, when you have to allow him to trust his own judgment.

One thing that I learned as a parent in the process is that, hard as it might be at times, as our kids move toward adulthood, we (parents) have to give them the opportunity to find their own way. While that might go against our very nature (after all, you have spent 17 years trying to protect your son from anything bad that might come his way while giving him every opportunity to succeed), at some point you need to ask yourself, “For how long in his life do I want to the responsible for everything good—and everything bad—that might happen in his life?” Hard as it might be, I suggest giving your son the opportunity to own the decision-making and the direction his life will take as a result.

There is no guarantee that the choice of a college he makes will turn out to be perfect. On the other hand, I truly believe he can’t go wrong. Marketing of programs aside, there is likely very little difference between the two programs. Your son’s eventual success will be determined by his comfort level with the school he has chosen. The more comfortable he is, the more likely it is that he will avail himself of all the opportunities that will be present for him.

The bottom line: there is a good chance your son is ready to find his own voice in the matter. If so, he will prosper in whichever environment he chooses.

Posted in Campus Visits, Making the Final Choice of a College, The Admission Process, What Colleges Want | 3 Comments »


“Guidelines for Making the Final Choice of a College” 4.12.17

April 12th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

For families of students recently admitted to college, the coming weeks are critical to the final choice of a college. With a May 1 enrollment deadline looming, important decisions must be made. After months, if not years, of researching options and “shopping” for the best “fit,” it is time to determine which opportunity represents the best investment. It is also a time when the cost of attending comes more sharply into focus. Given what is at stake, you might consider the following guidelines as you engage in a cost/benefit analysis of your college options.

1. Ask important questions. “Why am I going to college?” The answer might seem like a forgone conclusion at this point, but articulating it again can add clarity at a time when other factors may be clouding your vision. “What do I expect to get out of my college experience?” Specifically, what are the three things you want to accomplish by the time you graduate from college four years from now? Use these priorities to guide you further in choosing among the colleges that accepted you. Which of them provides the best opportunity to achieve your goals?

2. Take a look at the cost/value proposition. Start by looking at the price tags. What is the comprehensive cost of attendance at each school? If you expect to be a full-time, residential student, this number will include room, board, and related fees—on top of tuition. Be sure to calculate the total for the year if that hasn’t already been done for you.

The total cost, less any scholarship or grant money you have been awarded, represents the adjusted cost that you will need to meet from your own resources (savings, loans, work study). Is the cost of attending a given institution justified by the value that is attached to achieving your educational goals? The question to ask is: “Will my experience as a student and the likely outcomes (earning potential) merit this level of financial exposure to my family?”

I recently heard from a family inquiring about the relative benefits of attending two colleges where the differential in the projected debt burden was $60,000 ($100,000 versus $40,000) over four years. My response: “Is the value of the projected educational experience that much different to warrant the added debt?”

N.B. Student debt is a choice you make—it’s not an obligation. That said, reasonable student borrowing ($25,000-$30,000 over four years) is a healthy way of promoting accountability and responsibility on the part of the young person.

3. Be discriminating in your evaluation of financial aid award letters. Some colleges might present seemingly generous “packages” that are much less robust when you subtract the amount of self-help (loans, work study) you will need to assume. It is important that you compare the actual EFC (Expected Family Contribution) for each institution.

Ideally, each college would arrive at the same EFC and respond to you with the same financial aid. That is not likely to be the case, though, because schools work with different formulas for need analysis and pricing scenarios.

For example, you might receive substantial assistance at a high-priced private college but not be eligible for much assistance at a lower priced state-supported university. Or two private institutions that appear similar might provide financial aid awards that are very different in terms of the amount your family is expected to contribute as well as the composition (scholarship, loan) of the awards themselves. Remember, each institution will direct its resources toward the students it values most.

4. Get clarity regarding the numbers! If you are confused by the contents of your financial aid letter or you see dramatic discrepancies between awards received from different schools, now is the time to seek clarification. While financial aid officers are not inclined to negotiate financial aid awards, they are usually willing to hear appeals based on new information. A few will even offer to match the offer of a competitor. There are no guarantees associated with the appeal process, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Note to Parents: Most successful appeals are driven by data, not emotions. If you initiate an appeal, remember that you are seeking clarity and fair treatment. You cannot, however, expect or even insist that your student is entitled to anything more or less.

5. Consider the cost/value proposition. Look at each college option within the context of what you are getting in exchange for your investment of time and money. Be careful not to confuse the prestige or ranking of an institution with the strength of the academic opportunity you are seeking. Your success in life beyond college will hinge much more on how you take advantage of your undergraduate experience than on the name of the institution you choose to attend.

Again, stick to your priorities. If you have been diligent about searching out a learning environment that fits you well—a program that meets your needs, style of instruction that is consistent with the way you like to learn and a degree of rigor that is commensurate with your ability and preparation—you will find the best educational investment values for you.

Additional tips for assessing value among your college options:

  • If you have been offered a merit scholarship, make sure you are clear about the criteria for renewing it after your first year.
  • Find out how each institution will apply the credit associated with any community-based scholarships you might receive to your cost of attendance. Some colleges will reduce the amount of scholarship they are offering; others will reduce the amount of self-help (loan, work-study) in your financial aid award.
  • Ask for a review of your potential college credits (AP, IB, courses taken on college campuses) as collectively they have the potential to reduce graduation requirements and, as a result, your out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Determine the likelihood that you will be able to complete your degree requirements in four years. Ask to see data on graduation rates and post-graduate placements.

Posted in Choice of a College, College Planning, Hot Topics/Trends, Making the Final Choice of a College | No Comments »


“Making Sense of Financial Aid Awards: April College Planning Tips” 4.5.17

April 5th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

It’s crunch time for families in the college selection process. The admission decisions are in and, with less than a month remaining before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date, students are now turning their attention to the final choice of a college. It’s an exciting—and nerve-wracking—time to be sure, especially for families trying to reconcile cost and affordability against limited means and/or cash-flow concerns.

If you are in that number, there is a strong likelihood you applied for financial aid and are now trying to interpret the financial aid award letters you received from various colleges. Months ago, as you engaged in the grueling task of completing the financial aid applications, it was the promise of the “just reward” that kept you going. Now that the award letters are in hand, you are left wondering, “What does it all mean?”

A young man shared with me the financial aid award letters he had received from ten different colleges. Never mind that he had allowed his list of colleges to grow too long—he had been admitted to ten and had received various forms of financial aid from each of them. With an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution” (per the FAFSA) of $5,000, the award letters were predictably generous. They were also troublingly inconsistent.

For example, two of the schools, at total costs of $39,825 and $61,740, respectively, appeared to cover the entire cost of attendance with financial aid. The first included modest “self help” (loan and work study) totaling $2,565, in addition to more than $37,000 in grants and scholarships, in its financial aid offer.

The second college issued a financial aid award letter that featured $36,900 in grants/scholarships. The balance, ($24,840), however, was covered by loans and work study! On the surface, it seemed both schools were being quite generous in covering all of his costs. Upon closer examination, however, the difference in “out-of-pocket” expense for this family at the two schools would be greater than $20,000—all with the same EFC!

The wide variance in financial aid awards in response to the same financial circumstance is the result of “preferential packaging,” a widespread practice that is integral to the strategic deployment of financial aid as institutions attempt to leverage the enrollment of the students they value most. Students who are more highly regarded typically receive financial aid that includes greater portions of grants—and, possibly scholarships.

Conversely, the attitude toward other students, whose credentials were strong enough to warrant their admission, but not strong enough to gain them superstar status at a given school, is that “if they (the students) want us badly enough, they find the means to make it happen.” It is when families, often wide-eyed with their students’ acceptances into high profile schools, buy into this logic that they open themselves to unreasonable debt burdens.

As you compare financial aid award letters, then, you need to get to the bottom line “out-of-pocket” expenses for each. Where does the bottom line create the least amount of debt exposure to your family? Unfortunately, the award letters don’t always spell that out for you. The following tips are offered to make sure you are comparing “apples and apples.”

  1. Identify the total cost of attendance for each institution. This will include tuition, room and board as well as books, supplies, activity fees, lab fees and possible transportation expenses. You may need to consult the school’s website for a complete list as very few award letters provide a complete documentation. A phone call to the financial aid office can produce the same information.
  2. Add all of the grants and scholarships listed on the award letter together. These funds comprise the “gift” aid you are receiving—money you don’t have to re-pay. The sources of these funds may include the state and federal governments as well as the institution itself. It is not actually cash that you will see. Rather, it represents a discount on the cost of attendance.
  3. Subtract the total amount of “gift” aid from the total cost of attendance to determine the total out-of-pocket expense for your family.
  4. In most cases, institutions will offer a standard “self-help” component to the financial aid award that includes a Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford) of $3,500 and a campus work-study opportunity worth up to $1,500. These are funding sources that will help you address out-of-pocket expenses. Note that the two figures are likely to increase in subsequent years: the total cost of attendance and the amount of the loan eligibility attributed to the students. Moreover, additional loans authorized for the student or the parents (PLUS Loan) may be offered in place of “gift” aid in years 2-4.
  5. A word of caution is in order here. If you have somehow managed to pool your family resources into coverage of costs for the first year on the assumption that, because you will appear more “needy” in the second year, you will be treated to more financial aid—guess again! Colleges and universities typically budget financial aid for students in years two, three and four based on the EFC of the first year. They will have contingency funds available for emergent situations (catastrophic health issues, changing employment status, loss of life, etc.), but not for families who claim sudden poverty because all of their funds were committed to the first-year expenses. In the case of the latter, get ready for a heavy dose of loans for both the student and the parents.
  6. It is not uncommon for the total amount of financial aid offered, both “gift” and “self help,” to fall short of making up the difference between the Expected Family Contribution and the total cost of attendance. This is practice, known as “gapping,” is symptomatic of preferential packaging and is employed by institutions that choose not to meet the full need of the student with financial aid. In such cases, the student is left to his/her own devices to find the remaining funds. Unmet need of this nature becomes another factor to consider with your out-of-pocket expenses.
  7. Know the difference between grants and scholarships. A grant is awarded because you demonstrate financial “need.” It should carry forward in subsequent years as long as you continue to demonstrate need and remain in academic good standing. A scholarship is offered in recognition of merit and will likely carry with it academic and/or performance renewal terms.
  8. If you receive a financial aid award that includes both grant and scholarship components, be sure to read the renewal criteria carefully. It is possible that the institution could “pull” the scholarship if performance criterion are not met in subsequent years leaving you to find the resources elsewhere (more loans!).
  9. In the event you do not qualify for need-based financial aid and are trying to reconcile out-of pocket expenses (full cost of attendance) against scholarships that have been awarded, you need to know that you are at the mercy of the institution. The cash flow issue is yours and not theirs. While some might respond to an appeal, don’t expect big changes in scholarships amounts.
  10. Appeal financial aid awards, including scholarships, with information, not emotion. If your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you completed financial aid applications, submit written appeals to the colleges in question along with documentation of the new circumstances. Some colleges will invite you to submit “better” financial aid awards from their competitors as part of an appeal. In any case, keep your cool. You are only entitled to the financial assistance that the institution decides to give you.

In the final analysis, you will have to complete your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether there is sufficient value to you (educationally) in accepting a financial aid award that might be less than you need or would like. Now is the time to weigh your options carefully. Make sure you are entirely comfortable with your ability to manage the cost of attending a college before you submit an enrollment deposit.

Visit the BCF Recommended Resources, “Financial Aid/Scholarships” section, for a “Comparing College Costs Worksheet” that will help you organize and compare the data you are seeing on various financial aid award letters.

To learn more about financial aid and meeting college costs check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook. (Available in the BCF Bookstore; $20)

Posted in Financial Aid, Making the Final Choice of a College, Meeting College Costs | 8 Comments »