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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“Considering the ‘Gap Year’” 2.22.17

February 22nd, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Do you think it would be okay if I took some time off before going to college?”

It’s a question that comes up with surprising frequency as students grapple with their post-high school options. And, while the questioner seems to be seeking validation around the idea, there is often an implied and even deeper concern about how colleges themselves might regard such a strategy.

I would like to address the notion of taking time off or the “gap year” at two different levels. First, I will lay a philosophical foundation for the gap year discussion. Then, I will take a look at “if” and “how” the gap year might be beneficial.

Conceptually, the question of the gap year fits within a broader consideration of what seems to be a required sequence of experiences that young people must follow in their academic lives. The lockstep begins with pre-school and, for many, extends right through graduate school. It’s as though kids are placed on a conveyor belt that moves them through a series of prescribed exercises that systematically measures their needs, fills them up with the things they “need to know,” tests them and, assuming they have acquired a “minimal level of mastery,” stamps them as fit for promotion.

While the educational chronology is presumably geared to the developmental and academic needs of each age-group cohort, it often fails to accommodate the kids whose progress along their respective learning paths requires different measures.

Consider, for example, the young woman who desperately wants to accelerate her progress toward high school graduation because, by age 14, she has exhausted the curricular offerings of her school. Or the young man who is “young” for his eighth grade class. Like many others whose academic tracking puts them ahead of their peers, each is struggling to weigh the desire to remain stimulated intellectually with the need to grow socially and emotionally in age-appropriate ways.

Unfortunately, ours is not a “one size fits all” system that works comfortably for everyone. It is important to remember, then, that the best interests of the young person may not always be defined by the chronology. As parents and educators, we need to remain vigilant in support of those interests even when doing so means taking them out of the lockstep of the conveyor belt.

It is within this context, then, that many families consider the “gap year.” While some students are understandably concerned about their readiness—academic, social or emotional—to move immediately into college, others simply need to be able to step back and breath deeply before taking the next step into life as a full-time college student. Yet others are able to realize some pretty cool personal enrichment opportunities related to travel, service, or work.

I believe the answer to the gap year question is quite simple. “Take the time off! Invest in yourself. Do what you need to do, so when you enter college you are ready to embrace the experience with focus and determination.”

The college years should not be entered with hesitation or reservation. Don’t allow your enrollment in a college to be an accident of circumstance. It can’t be the default option. College campuses are full of students who don’t know why they are there. As a result, many of them leave early with little or nothing to show for the time and money invested in their educations.

When you enter, do so with a sense of purpose—a conviction that that a college campus is where you need to be in order to lay the foundation for future success and happiness. And if you need to take some time away from the classroom to get your head clear, or just to try something different before getting started, good for you!

In general, colleges value the added maturity and perspective students bring with them after having taken a year off—especially if that time has been spent productively. It’s hard to imagine that admission committees wouldn’t welcome students who contribute to a broader range of life experiences.

Having said that, you have two options with regard to declaring your gap year intentions. One, you can inform the admission committee of your intent when you apply for admission. Two, you can apply for admission without reference to the gap year and then, upon gaining admission, seek a deferral of your enrollment for a year.

I recommend the latter for two very practical reasons. Despite the tacit endorsement of the gap year by admission officers, you don’t want questions about your intent to enroll to enter into their deliberations.

More importantly, though, it will be much easier for you to complete the application process while you are still in school. You will be in rhythm with the rest of your peers as you complete your applications and you will have direct access to your school-based support system (counselor, teachers, coaches, etc.) as you pull together the various elements of your applications. Attacking the college application process 8-10 months after graduation will put you at a disadvantage, as you might not have easy access to the people and information you need.

In the final analysis, don’t assume that you need to go to college just because “it’s what you do after high school.” We don’t all work on the same developmental “clock.” For some, college makes sense right after high school. Others, however, find great benefit in taking some time off. The “gap year” is an opportunity to be embraced—I wish more students would feel confident in taking advantage of it!

Posted in Application Info, College Planning | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 2.15.17

February 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,
My son was just admitted to a selective university in their Early Decision Round II. While we received some financial aid from them, I’m wondering if we should send out emails to the other, even more selective colleges to which he applied asking if they can speed up the decision process. If he gets into one of them with better financial aid, then I could ask the ED school for more. If they don’t give us more grants, then that would give us an excuse to get out of the ED.

Dear Mike,
When your son applied ED, he gave up the right/opportunity to compare financial aid awards. While he might appeal his financial aid award at the ED school, at the end of the appeal process he will need to withdraw all other active applications and commit to the ED school. The time to reconcile the financial aid situation was before the ED application was submitted. By applying ED, he (and you) agreed that any contingent matters that could stand in the way of his enrollment had been fully resolved. By trying to play one school against another while committed ED, he risks losing all potential offers of admission. Many of these schools compare ED acceptance lists and he doesn’t want to be seen as failing to honor his ED commitment.

Dear Peter,
We were recently bombarded with college letters for our sophomore daughter. The letters all appear to have been robo-generated and arrived within a day of each other. Each is particular to that college but largely the same. In your presentation, you mentioned a student who didn’t get into his desired college because he neglected to respond to a simple survey sent to him. Would this count for these robo-generated mailings? Are these legitimate?

Dear Annie,
The barrage of letters your sophomore received is not unusual. Colleges invest heavily in “lead generation.” They buy names of students (often in excess of 100,000 names) whose credentials would put them on the institution’s “competitive playing fields.” A common indicator of this is performance on tests (SAT, ACT, AP) combined with other self-reported information (GPA, academic interest, etc.). Selected students then receive introductory materials that are designed to pique their curiosity, if not impress them.

While the deluge can, at first, generate excitement, the “ego” mail soon begins to feel like “junk” mail and much of it is understandably discarded. On the other hand, if your daughter receives information from colleges that have programs and educational environments that might be of interest to her, she should respond. It is likely that most of these schools will continue to reach out to her, so she will no doubt have future opportunities to engage them when she is ready. Responding will put her on the institution’s radar screen and set up the potential for more substantive exchanges (including surveys) in the future.

Dear Peter,
My son has been notified that he is either a semi-finalist or finalist in merit scholarships at a number of excellent schools. These were all regular decision applications and therefore he has not received formal acceptances from them. Would you say it is safe to assume that if he named as a scholarship candidate and is being asked to send additional information for the scholarship that he will be receiving an acceptance to the school?

Dear Ali,
It would be logical to assume that your son is someone of real interest to these schools—they’re not going to be waving scholarship opportunities in front of weak candidates! That said, he needs to stay engaged (respond to requests for information about the scholarships, participate in interviews when offered, visit the campus and meet with professors in his academic area of interest).

Short of receiving actual letters of acceptance, however, nothing is guaranteed. IF admission officers sense any disinterest on his part or that he is leaning toward another school, they might decide not to admit him. Bottom line: it is much better to be part of these conversations than not!

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a high-achieving student presently doing a gap year in the Czech Republic. She will be entering 10th grade in the Fall. She is interested in enrolling at an IB secondary school in Prague that is run in close alignment to the British educational system. However, she is pretty certain that she will want to go to an American university.

What issues will she confront when applying to American colleges, having come from a non-USA IB institution of British pedigree? And importantly, want can she do in her three years to showcase and/or mitigate that peculiarity to the satisfaction of American colleges?

Dear Mark,
It sounds like your daughter is enjoying a remarkable cross-cultural learning experience! Continuing her education in Prague would be incredibly broadening and enlightening—a rare opportunity!

The good news is that the IB is universal in its curriculum and assessment. While it might take on the nuance of the local milieu, it is nonetheless recognized as a premier, if not the premier, academic program in the world. As you probably know, the IB was created to give students studying outside of the USA an opportunity to prepare to compete for admission and succeed in the classroom at the most selective institutions in this country. I do not foresee any circumstance in which this experience would compromise her future college applications.

My advice to your daughter would be to soak it all in. If she continues to work hard and squeeze everything she can from the experience, she’ll have a compelling story to tell when applying to colleges in the USA.

Dear Peter,
What do colleges mean when they say they want to see four years of study in a particular discipline? Does French I–IV (in 8th–11th grade) cover it or do they mean they’d like someone to study French all the years they’re in high school?

Dear Jill,
When colleges talk about four years of study, they are referencing grades 9-12. Work done in 8th grade generally doesn’t qualify.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has received acceptances to a great public Ivy school and to a highly regarded pharmacy program within a large out-of-state, state university. She has just received preliminary award letters from each school and they are very different. The public Ivy school has left a gap of $18,000 whereas the state school has left a gap of $35,000 per year. Is it appropriate to approach the state school to ask for a better offer and if so what is the best way to go about this? Is it realistic to think that this difference in award can be bridged or do some schools simply have more money? I would like her to be able to weigh up her options from a level playing field. As it stands right now the state school is out of her reach financially.

Dear Leanne,
You can always ask for reconsideration from the out-of-state university. If you do, you might present the other financial aid award as evidence of what the competition has to offer. I wouldn’t expect much from the appeal, though, as state university award processes are likely to be more formula driven and any discretionary funds are likely to go to the in-state kids first.

BTW, your daughter’s interest in pharmacy is likely to require graduate school at which time she might choose the program at the state university for the pharmacy degree. If that is the case, she can have the best of both worlds with these two schools.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been admitted Early Decision to her number-one choice. We are proud of her acceptance and have sent in our confirmation and our early deposit money.

Here’s the problem—she made some bad decisions and let her academic work slip in the second marking period. She got a 76 and 77 in two classes. All of her classes are AP and honors, but still, she dropped 12-15 points in those two classes AND they happen to be classes related to her intended major.

Her ED school requires mid-year grades to be sent. What should she do? Do we wait for them to say something? Or, should my daughter reach out to the regional admission rep and explain herself.

Dear Mary,
“Stuff” happens and right now it is best that your daughter get out in front of it. Better to own the situation than have to defend it in the face of questions.

The same thing happened to my grandson a couple of years ago with a slightly different twist. The difference: he hadn’t been admitted yet. The same day he received an email request from his ED school for his mid-year grades, the grades were revealed to him. He had gotten a D in Physics and was understandably mortified. We talked and he came to understand the need to own the situation.

He wrote a brief email to the regional recruiter in which he acknowledged that she would be seeing a significant drop in one of his grades. He explained that he had allowed himself to become distracted by his involvement with his travel soccer team (a week in Florida in early December for a tournament) and, as a result, found himself in a bind with Physics. Nonetheless, he offered no excuses and asserted that he was embarrassed by the outcome: “this isn’t who I am and promise you I don’t want to ever let it happen again.”

The admission officer wrote back somewhat incredulously: “Thank you…we never hear this kind of explanation from students…I’ll share this with my colleagues and get back to you. ”He was subsequently admitted.

I suggest your daughter follow a similar approach. There is no need to get into all the details. In her own words, she simply needs to take responsibility. She had allowed herself to be distracted by her non-academic involvements at the expense of her attention to classroom assignments.

I would add it is highly unlikely the college will revoke her offer of admission. They will, however, continue to watch her performance through the end of the year (yes, June!) and, if these grades prove to be a troublesome trend, she could then lose her place in the class.

Posted in Campus Visits, Course Selections, Early Decision/Action, Financial Aid, Meeting College Costs, The Admission Process | 2 Comments »


“Course Selections: February College Planning Tips” 2.9.17

February 9th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

One of the first—and most important—exercises in the college planning process involves course selections for the coming year of high school. Your high school academic record determines whether you make it onto the “competitive playing fields” at the schools to which you apply. Moreover, the strength of your record positions you among other candidates who are vying for consideration.

The level of selectivity experienced at a given college provides an important contextual framework for this discussion. For example, the harder it is to get into a college, the more magnified are the decisions you make in all aspects of your life, especially those that relate to your academic development. Colleges that are less selective tend to be more forgiving of choices/outcomes that might not reflect as positively on your application.

Keep in mind, then, that the choices you make will be regarded differently according to the pressure a given institution feels to make fine distinctions between great candidates. The following are tips for making course selections that will serve you well going forward.

  • When in doubt, err on the side of rigor. The degree to which you expose yourself to rigor or challenge in the high school classroom speaks volumes with regard to the likelihood that you can perform well in college level courses. As a result, admission officers are watching to see how you use the curriculum available to you to “step up” each year. Each year of high school should reflect advancement through progressively rigorous coursework in each discipline.
  • Know your capacity to do the work. In contemplating rigor, it is easy to get drawn into the presumptive logic that taking the most advanced course will be most impressive to colleges. While there is some truth in that assessment, you need to be able to function at a high level in the course. Barely passing an inordinately “hard” course produces the double whammy of a low grade in that course and the ripple effect of lower grades in other courses as you spend a disproportionate amount of time making it through the hard course. The bottom line: While it is important to stretch yourself, don’t over-reach in taking courses for the purpose of impressing admission officers.
  • Breadth matters. In other words, keep your bases covered. In each year of high school, you should take courses in the five core discipline areas: math, science, social science, foreign language and communication arts (a.k.a. English). Do this regardless of your career interests. Why? Admission officers, especially at selective colleges, want to see that you have developed skills of critical thinking and analysis across all disciplines. Having such an experience gives them greater confidence that you will be able to handle distribution requirements and cross-disciplinary courses you are likely to encounter in college.
  • Substitute value for value. It is not uncommon for students entering the Junior or Senior year to rationalize course selections, e.g. “I don’t like Spanish…” “I want to double up in sciences…” “I’ve already satisfied my math requirement for graduation.” Generally speaking, dropping a course in one discipline for a course in another is acceptable if you are substituting value for value. For example, dropping an Honors or AP French in order to take AP Biochemistry is acceptable. On the other hand, dropping it for a survey course in Economics or Psychology would be a bad move within the context of competition at selective institutions.

If you think you want to take courses that relate to your possible major in college, keep in mind that the first order of business is competing for admission. While in high school, focus on breadth and depth of curricular development. If your schedule allows you to take courses related to your career interest in addition to the core group of five (referenced above), go for it. Otherwise, wait until college to start your major.

  • Don’t settle for “good enough.” It is common for students to chart their progress through high school by working only to the level of their graduation requirements or to the course “requirements” posted by colleges. The problem is that selective colleges want to see what you will do when you have seemingly satisfied your “requirements”—when you don’t think you have to do anything. Be careful, then, not to settle for the minimum or that which is good enough. If you want to increase your range of options as a college applicant, push past that which is good enough to that which will make you a better candidate.

Finally, a common question from students regarding course selections sounds like this: “Is it better for me to take an easier course where I know I can get an “A” or should I take a harder course where I’ll probably get a lower grade?” While it is tempting to assert that one should take the hard course and get the “A,” I would like to offer a slightly different, three-part response that should apply to any course selection.

  1. Choose courses that make sense to you—not to your friends or your parents. The courses you choose in each discipline should provide a new level of challenge and opportunity for growth.
  2. Do as well as you can in these courses—good enough is never enough.
  3. Select colleges that will value you for what you have to offer. These will be schools that see your trajectory and want to be part of your continued growth.

When it might not be possible, for a variety of reasons, to schedule all of the courses that make sense to you or when there are irregularities in your academic program, you have a story to tell in your application. And that is a topic for another day!

To learn more about “Course Selections,” check out Prepare Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore. Prepare, Compete, Win! is an excellent resource for students in all phases of the college planning process. It includes timelines, tips and exercises for students that walk them through the college search and application processes.

Posted in College Planning, Course Selections | 4 Comments »


“‘Could’ve, Would’ve, Should’ve’—Passing Forward the Lessons Learned” 2.4.17

February 4th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

In recent weeks, thousands of anxious Early Decision and Early Action applicants have been learning the outcome of their applications. While the news brings excitement and relief to many, even more students find themselves holding letters of deferral or denial—and wondering what went wrong.

The angst has been brought home to me in various conversations with students and parents over the last six weeks. It is important to note that, in all cases, the conversations involved good students—students with strong records and well-developed talents coming from strong academic programs. And, by all accounts, they deserved better. Now, however, they are left scrambling to reorient themselves to different options.

As I learn about each situation, it is usually easy to spot the reason behind the non-admission. In fact, a common theme has emerged and it revolves around a lack of purpose or considered intent regarding the submitted application. In other words, there’s a good chance the manner in which the application was presented reflected random organization and a sense that the sheer weight of good grades, superb extracurricular activities and worthy goals would carry the day.

At selective institutions, however, those characteristics (good grades, etc.) do little more than put the student on the “competitive playing field” with hundreds or, in many cases, thousands of other equally qualified applicants. Their credentials are strong enough to start the conversation, but often fall short of “clinching the deal.”

Consider, for example, the highly involved student whose application failed to convey the generosity that shaped his character or the student who neglected to mention that the absence of a foreign language on her senior year schedule was due to a conflict with a course she is taking at a local college. Imagine the difference a personal interview would have made for the student whose life circumstances had affected her performance in the classroom, or the impact a thoughtfully developed personal statement could have had in place of the hastily completed essay that was deemed “good enough” by its author. In each case, the lack of intentionality—the failure to “connect the dots” of one’s life experiences—brought the candidate up “short” in the end.

And think about the opportunity the student has to demonstrate the synergy between himself and the institution. In response to the typical “Why do you want to attend our school?” essay, a rather gratuitous response citing the school’s ranking and the prestige of its faculty reveals nothing about the student’s sense of purpose. On the other hand, had the student reached beyond the obvious to reveal the synergy—in real and personal terms—between the student’s aptitude, goals and learning style and the institution’s ability to complement them, he would have positioned himself much more effectively, especially in the competition for admission at colleges that must make fine distinctions between great candidates.

Quite often, then, the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance boils down to the student’s willingness and ability to be thoughtful and intentional in the presentation of her application. The winners in this competition are typically those who recognized—and seized upon—the opportunity to “connect the dots” of their applications to present themselves in a cohesive, thematically consistent manner. More than qualified, they made themselves into compelling candidates.

While there is not much current seniors can do to change the presentations of their submitted applications, the lessons learned in the process are worth passing forward to those who can benefit from them as they prepare their college applications.

It is for this reason that I will once again be offering a series of college application preparation workshops for high school juniors this spring. “What’s My Story?” is an intensive four-hour exercise that provides soon-to-be college applicants with proven strategies for “connecting the dots” to convey distinctive messages while eliminating the presentation of random credentials in their college applications.

To learn more about “What’s My Story?” workshops (locations, dates, FAQs, testimonials) and to register visit “What’s My Story?” Workshops.

If you do not see a “What’s My Story?” workshop at a location near you, but are aware of a school or organization that might like to collaborate in presenting one, please contact me at

In the meantime, start to make note of how you want to approach the presentation of your credentials. You will have that opportunity before you know it!

Posted in Application Info, Early Decision/Action, Essay Preparation, Preparing the Application | 2 Comments »


“Keep Your Eyes on the Road” 1.26.17

January 26th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

The “rush” associated with college application deadlines has almost passed. Except for students applying to colleges with February 1 deadlines or those with “rolling admission” processes, the “heavy lifting” is over. And with that realization comes a huge sigh of relief. All that is left now is the wait for final admission decisions. Sound familiar?

If so, you (and your parents) might be tempted to downshift from the frenetic pace that got you this far. Be careful, though, not take your “eyes off the road” to college. Otherwise, you might miss important opportunities to put yourself in the best position to gain admission and secure the financial assistance you need at the schools of your choice. You have traveled too far in this process to leave things to chance. For example:

1.  File the FAFSA—now! If you find college price tags to be even the least bit daunting, you need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Wherever you are looking, need-based financial aid starts with it. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for grants and loans from the federal government and from most states. Moreover, state universities and many private colleges also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for institutional funds. If you think you need assistance, you can’t afford not to file the FAFSA

2.  Don’t wait for the “admit” letter to apply for financial aid. This may seem redundant, but it bears repeating: if you think you need assistance, complete the financial aid application process now! That means completing the FAFSA and all other required forms. In particular, watch out for the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE, a highly complex form required by many private institutions.

It is not uncommon for families to put off financial aid applications because they are either uncomfortable with the process itself or they are don’t want to jeopardize the student’s status through the admission process. The assumption: “Let’s see where you get in and then we can apply for financial aid” or “This form is worse than the 1040 tax return. Let’s wait until our accountant can work on it.”

Frankly, “waiting” is a bad strategy. The reason—financial aid is awarded (or allocated) to students as soon as they are admitted. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand before beginning to address financial aid applications and you demonstrate that you need assistance, it is likely you will receive a message from the admitting institution that the financial aid “well” has gone dry. Despite the “need,” the money is gone. In such cases, any financial aid that might come your way “after the fact” will likely involve heavy doses of loans and campus work-study.

3.  Stick with your list.
It will be tempting to second-guess yourself with regard to the number and “quality” of schools to which you have applied—especially if you think “it can’t hurt to pick up a ‘true’ safety school” or “I’ll never know if I could get in if I don’t try.” While you are “in the moment,” these thoughts might seem very reasonable. The fact is you are likely to put yourself into competitive situations where your lack of history with the institution will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest. Such seemingly whimsical interest can lead to the conclusion that you are a “ghost applicant.” When that happens, even prospective “safety” schools will be inclined to put you on the Wait List.

The bottom line: Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by last minute flings. It is much better to remain focused on maintaining productive relationships with schools on your short list.

4.  Stay engaged with the colleges to which you have applied. This mantra is probably getting old, but don’t under-estimate the importance many institutions attach to having some degree of confidence in the sincerity of your interest. When the hair-splitting is finished in the credential review process, the following question is often raised about compelling candidates, “If we admit this student, what is the likelihood that he will enroll?”

So, what can you do? If you haven’t visited, make plans to do so now. Once on campus, make sure you check in at the admission office. Interview if you can. Some schools will offer alumni interviews. If so, make an appointment. It will be the fact, not the substance, of the interview that can make a difference.

Pay attention to your inbox—don’t ignore seemingly casual emails from representatives of the schools to which you have applied. There is a good chance they are “pinging” to see if you are paying attention—to see if you are interested. Don’t give them a reason to question the strength of your interest. In sincere and appropriate ways, stay on their radar screens. An institution’s lack of confidence in the sincerity of a student’s interest is the unseen reason behind countless decisions to move highly qualified students from the admit list to the Wait List.

5.  Stay focused. The work you do in the classroom in the coming weeks could well make the difference in your admission outcome. This might be the most straightforward—and common sense—bit of advice I can offer, but it is also the most easily overlooked. The rule of thumb when it comes to the senior year is this: “The more selective the college of interest, the more important the senior year performance will be as the number one factor.”

Think about it. It is precisely at that moment when you think the pressure is off—that no one is looking—that admission officers at selective institutions make their most difficult decisions. Even students who have been admitted Early Decision or Early Action will be expected to show that the performance that gained them admission is continued through graduation. Don’t give admission officers a reason to say “no” or to reconsider their offers of admission.

Posted in Application Info, Financial Aid, The Admission Process | No Comments »


BCF Readers’ Forum 1.21.17

January 21st, 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,
Unfortunately, my son was deferred Early Action at his first choice school. Other than good senior year grades, do you have any suggestions for increasing his chances for Regular acceptance? Should he be contacting the admissions officer and following up periodically? Or, would that be perceived as an annoyance?

Dear Barb,
At this point, the best things to do are stay focused in the classroom and provide brief updates regarding relevant achievements to the regional recruiter. You’re right that he doesn’t want to become an annoyance, so he needs to be measured in his outreach.

Your son might also consider a campus visit between now and the end of February during which he would stay overnight and go to classes. The admission office might be able to set it up for him—and while there, he should drop by to say “hello” to the regional rep (if available). Otherwise, patience is the best course of action.

Dear Peter,
As a college counselor, I have an outstanding student this year who was deferred at an Ivy League school in the Early Action round. She is truly outstanding, and would do very well at this college, but I am wondering if the fact that our school is a tiny, nonprofit Montessori school may be why she was not admitted?

Our school has adopted an “Early College” model. I am wondering if these highly selective colleges view that as inferior in any way, as our students take most of their courses at the community college. I attended a conference workshop where it was implied that APs or IB are the only curricula that are considered rigorous by these colleges, and that CC courses are viewed unfavorably.

At this point, I am considering calling the admission office at this college to gain some insight on which part of her application they considered weak so she can address it in the update she is planning to send in February.

Dear Thomas,
In order to understand the admission decision, you need to remember that colleges offering Early Action are typically admitting only the students they KNOW they would admit in the Regular Decision round. Had the college in question known with absolute certainty that it would have admitted your student in its Regular Admission (when fewer than 5% are admitted), it would have taken her EA.

It is hard to know whether questions about your student’s strength of curriculum could have come into to play. The AP and IB curricula are indeed highly regarded for their rigor. Whereas, admission officers will immediately recognize the standardized curricula (IB, AP) in which the student has performed, there is much more variability of rigor in community college courses. As a result, admission officers will not have the same benchmarking opportunity with students who have taken CC courses making it more incumbent on the student to present superior (and intriguing) credentials otherwise.

Contacting the college’s admission office directly might be helpful although you are likely to hear that the decision is a “reflection of the nature of the competition.”

Dear Peter,
My son was deferred Early Decision at his first choice school. In the meantime he received two acceptances; one has already provided the aid/scholarship amount. Each letter indicates a deposit is required, but also that it doesn’t have to be made until May 1st. I know my son will be making his decision long before then, but are there any issues with waiting to hear from the other colleges before sending a deposit? We’ve received a few follow-up emails from the schools that admitted him indicating they’d like the deposit as soon as possible. I don’t want to negatively affect anything, but I just wanted to be sure.

Dear Sue,
Sorry to hear about your son’s deferral, but it sounds like he is being courted by a few other places. Good for him! Unless an acceptance has come through an Early Decision process, he is not obligated to submit an enrollment deposit until May 1. Frankly, there is no need to rush. He will not lose his offers of admission. Some schools might push the ethical bounds by indicating he needs to enroll by an earlier date in order to secure a scholarship or special housing—hopefully that is not the case, though. The National Association of College Admission Counseling admonishes colleges not to engage in that type of behavior! With acceptances in hand, though, he can make his enrollment decision whenever he is ready.

Dear Peter,
Is Junior year too soon to fill out financial forms?

Dear Stephanie,  
The Junior year really is too early to complete the financial aid applications. In fact, your official FAFSA submission can’t be completed until October 1 of your student’s Senior year. That said, you can use online FAFSA forecasters and/or the Net Price Calculators on college websites to get an early (and rough) idea about your eligibility for financial aid.

Dear Peter,
My son is in the process of applying to several highly selective universities. Although he does not want to major in music, he is interested in continuing to participate in marching band and other ensembles in college. He is one of the top musicians in his school, currently serving as drum major and participating in regional honors bands since his Freshman year. Would it be to his advantage to reach out to the music department indicating he is applying to the university and is extremely excited to hopefully join the music programs available? Does that kind of request ever filter back to admissions?

Dear Melanie,
Your son should absolutely reach out to the music directors at the colleges that interest him. If they offer auditions, it cannot hurt to give it a try. (He might do this even though he is not interested in pursing music academically.) If they don’t, he should consider recording a selection of personal performances for the directors to hear. Much like athletic coaches who are eager to attract top talent onto their rosters, music directors want to assemble the best talent possible for their ensembles! And, yes, if they like what they hear, they could well become advocates for your son in the admission process.

Encourage your son to reach out to the music directors sooner than later.  He’ll never know whether his talent might have been a leveraging point in the admission process unless he tries. Good luck!

Dear Peter,
Thank you so much for coming to our school! I’ve been following your advice and replying to every email I get from colleges that interest me. Is it okay for me to set up a standard reply email for them, or should I write each one by hand?

Dear Nikhil,
In replying to colleges—especially those that you like—I suggest a customized response for each. They are looking for evidence that you are attempting to make a personal connection with them. A standard reply will not convey that impression.

Dear Peter,
Since my son was deferred Early Action, he received some additional honors and was chosen for significant roles in the theatre program. Is this information that he should pass along to the admission office at the EA school. If so, how and when should he do it?

Dear Jill,
While staying in touch and developing relationships with colleges is important, your son should do so in a thoughtful, sincere manner as it is important that the recipient regards the information as interesting and insightful. Students need to be careful not to come across as calculating the timing and/or content of messaging simply for effect. Admission officers are busy right now and they will regard as frivolous any interruptions that are not substantive in nature.

Dear Peter,
We have started visiting schools. My daughter, a Junior, is interested in a Physical Therapy program. When should we start applying to colleges? Is it too soon?

Dear Enrico,
The application process typically starts early in the senior year of high school. Each college will provide an outline of its deadlines so you might check with the admission pages of their respective websites.

Posted in College Planning, Early Decision/Action | No Comments »


“Time to Transfer?” 1.14.17

January 14th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

I had a number of conversations over the last several weeks with individuals who wanted to talk about the college transfer process. They were coming at the discussion from a variety of different perspectives ranging from the intentional to the desperate. The one thing they had in common was that they weren’t where they wanted to be—or so they thought.

In light of these conversations, it would seem appropriate to discuss the topic further in this space where the insight gleaned might help both those active in the transfer process as well as families that might be weighing the transfer option as part of the four year educational plan.

Before we look at the transfer process, it is important to acknowledge that many educators agree the optimal learning experience is one that takes place over four years on one campus. While there are certainly great examples of individuals who have pieced together meaningful undergrad experiences at multiple schools, the continuity of one academic program—and the relationships that emerge through it—typically fosters a more holistic experience and often produces more favorable results after graduation.

Opportunities to transfer into institutions are typically contingent on two factors: the availability of space and the availability of funds (for those who may need assistance). For example, schools that experience very little turnover in student enrollment (prior to graduation) may take on few, if any, transfers in a given year. These are places that, by virtue of rigorous admission standards, can make sure the students who enter, either as first-year students or transfers, are well equipped to manage the expectations of their respective classrooms.

Many of them also invest significantly in the various types of support needed for their students to find success. As a result, students who enter usually stay and graduate. Not surprisingly, these are also places that many students seeking to transfer see as “destination schools.”

By contrast, institutions more open to transfers are those that experience greater attrition prior to graduation. Their ability to support transfer students who need financial assistance may vary from year to year depending on the funds available at the time. It is possible, then, that institutions could extend offers of transfer admission but fail to provide the necessary financial aid.

In any case, the admission process for transfer candidates is remarkably similar to that of first-year applicants with several notable exceptions. 1) The high school transcript often takes a “back seat” to the college record in the credential review process. 2) The high school extracurricular record becomes secondary to involvement at the college level. 3) A statement is often required of the “sending” dean of student affairs attesting to the student’s good standing at the institution. 4) Finally, transfer students will be expected to address their reasons for transferring. The more selective the process, the greater the scrutiny that will be given to each factor as admission officers ask the question, “If we admit this student, what do we get?”

Given this background on the process, the rationale for transferring can be considered contextually. While there are myriad reasons for transferring, they tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Intentional
  2. Circumstantial
  3. Reactive

Intentional  The transfer process is both expedient and intentional for students who plan from the outset to piece together academic experiences at multiple schools. For some, it’s a matter of finances. They plan to address general education requirements at a community college or state university where the cost per credit is much lower before transferring into a four-year college to complete their degree requirements. Others simply need to develop academic competencies (and confidence) before embarking on a four-year degree.

Regardless, students intending to pursue a “2+2” degree path need to make sure the potential destination colleges promise to accept the coursework taken during the first two years and to support the transferring student with need-based financial aid. Many community colleges have negotiated articulation agreements with four-year programs that offer such assurances.

Circumstantial  Sometimes, the “best laid” plans fail to accommodate changes in circumstance at a chosen college. For example, unforeseen changes in career interest, access to competitive opportunities athletically, health concerns, or financial support may put a student in the position of having to look for a new college home. When this happens, it is best to work with advisors at the “sending” school to compile a compelling statement in support of the transfer.

Reactive  Some of my recent exchanges were with parents, worried that the first-year experience for their students isn’t going so well. Such revelations are never easy especially in light of the time and energy that was expended in the initial college selection process. As a result, parents are often conflicted about what to do—rush to their students’ sides with assurances that a transfer is in order or let things work themselves out on their own.

That the transfer “button” has been touched in any way is often symptomatic of adjustment issues (i.e. homesickness, high school relationship that is “on the rocks,” or envy—“the grass is greener somewhere else”) that do indeed benefit from time, experience and, in some cases, added maturity. My experience is that the vast majority of scenarios that seem highly worrisome at the end of the first semester have all but been forgotten by the end of the second.

Summary: All potential transfer scenarios must be carefully considered, not only for the benefits that seem to be immediately apparent, but for the long-term implications. If you go down the path of the transfer applicant, do so with your eyes wide open and an honest assessment of your rationale for doing so.

Posted in College Planning, Hot Topics/Trends | 2 Comments »


“Getting Started: January College Planning Tips” 1.7.17

January 7th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

In many households around the country, the start of a new calendar year marks the beginning of the college planning process. After much holiday talk about possible college destinations, high school Juniors now gird themselves for the inevitable rush of activity that will culminate in college applications less than a year from now. (And many younger students will soon find themselves on the “college trail” as well.) Wherever you, the student, are in the process, keep the following in mind as you engage in college planning.

1.    Stay student-centered. Quite often, students (and their parents) focus on the “answer” without first addressing the “question.” They know the “what”—college is the predetermined outcome—before they have carefully considered the “why.” This can lead to uninformed choices and, eventually, a sense of aimlessness once in college.

Before starting to draft college lists, contemplate important questions such as: “Why do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to accomplish by the time you graduate?” “In what type of academic environment do you function best?” In other words, put yourself—and your needs—first in all deliberations.

2.    Resist the temptation to start with a list of destination or target colleges. You still have plenty of time for that. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to see what is “out there.” Go window-shopping. Check out colleges of all sizes, shapes and locations. The more you know—the broader the perspective you can gain now—the easier it will be to make critical distinctions later.

3.    Keep rankings and reputations in perspective. We’ll talk about rankings in later missives, but know this: by allowing yourself to be strongly influenced by rankings and reputation at the start of your search, you risk denying yourself an awareness of options that might be more viable for you in the long run.

4.    Focus on fit. Student-centered decision-making means that the optimal solution (college choice) will be the one that fits you best. It 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.

As you consider different college possibilities, be deliberate about making sure that each passes the “best fit” test before moving them into “preferred” status.

5.    Establish a hierarchy of importance. As you sort through the various factors that seem to influence your decision-making, i.e. location, distance from home, presence of a top-ranked athletic program, etc., consider their importance in your choice of colleges. Are they “essential,” “very important” or do they fit in a “would be nice” category? Be honest in your assessments. Don’t let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

6.    Road trip! While the Internet provides a ready opportunity to search for colleges from the comfort of your home, now is a good time to start visiting college campuses. Take tours. Participate in information sessions. Record your visits—take notes (and pictures).

7.    Don’t rush to judgment. There is plenty of time before you need to worry about focusing on specific schools. Allow your list to grow. As you do, reflect on what you are learning about yourself and the factors that define a good fit for you. Later, as you begin working toward a short list of colleges, utilize the “hierarchy of importance” to make sure you are targeting the places that make the most sense to you.

8.    Get on colleges’ radar screens. As you learn about colleges, make sure you get credit for the contacts you are making at college nights, information sessions at your school and campus visits. Fill out information cards and registration forms whenever possible. Many places are keeping track and will eventually, when you become an applicant, try to predict the likelihood of your enrollment based on the nature of your engagement with them.

9.    Talk with your parents about cost and affordability. You need to go into this process with your eyes wide open. It is no secret that a four-year college education can be very expensive. Try to get a sense as to what your family can or is willing to afford relative to college costs. Consider yourself lucky if you are fortunate to be able to afford four years of college out-of-pocket. On the other hand, if you need assistance, realize that hundreds of millions of dollars of institutional funding is available to students each year. In order to tap into this support, you will need to manage your expectations and direct your attention to places that will value you for what you have to offer.

10.    Develop a strategy for testing. On which test, SAT or ACT, do you want to focus? It’s generally a good idea to take a test at least twice—but not more than three times—over the next twelve months. It is important to remember, though, that you own the results and that means that no results should be released to colleges, universities or scholarship-granting organizations without your authorization.

11.    Make good choices. Every day, you have the opportunity to make choices that have a domino effect on how you live the next day. Now, more than ever, the choices you make in school—and in life—will have a bearing on how you will compete for admission. Like it or not, everything counts. So, make choices that will give admission committees confidence that you are well prepared and best suited for their environments. Don’t wait to become a college applicant—you are already one now!

Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students is an excellent resource for students getting started with college planning. It includes timelines, tips and exercises for students that walk them through the college search and application processes. Prepare, Compete, Win! is available in the BCF Bookstore.

P.S. Stay with us! While this blog and others to follow are designed to help orient younger students to the college process, I will continue to provide guidance to current college applicants on important decision-making matters through the early part of May.

Posted in College Planning | 2 Comments »