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. I look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.

“BCF Readers’ Forum” 9/19/13

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,
In your September 4 blog, you suggested developing a short list dominated by schools at which the student has a “reasonable chance” of gaining admission. What do you consider to be a reasonable chance? I am reflecting on the list my son is considering and want to make sure we are looking at the right mix. Should this be a list of schools where his chances of getting in are in the 30-50% range or should we include some where his chances are better along with a couple of “reach” schools?

Dear Eric,
When talking about percentage chances, you need to be careful not to project your son’s opportunities based solely on a college’s admit rate or selectivity. Rather, projecting where his credentials might fit in the overall competition at a given school is critical. While there is no foolproof formula for making such projections, I tend to focus on test scores and GPA. For example, if he is considering a college that admits 25% of its applicants, and where his scores and GPA would put him right at the mean among admitted students at that school last year, then his chances are exactly like those of other candidates with the same credentials—25%. If his credentials put him in the top quartile of admitted students, then his odds improve to about 50%. Conversely, credentials in the bottom quartile would reduce his odds at such a school to 12.5%. You can use the same logic across the board whether the schools’ admit rates are 10% or 75%.

Note that extraordinary non-academic credentials (special talent, legacy connection, etc.) can have the effect of increasing your son’s chances almost exponentially at some schools. If, however, he does not have a discernable “hook,” then his chances remain as projected by the scores/GPA.

That said, I regard a reasonable chance as a situation where a student’s odds of admission are at least 40%. When the odds are lower than 40%, he should consider the school a “reach.”

I recommend a short list of colleges that does not exceed eight. In that number, 2-3 might be considered “reaches” (chances of admission are less than 40%), two should be schools where his chances are greater than 60% and the rest are “target schools” where his chances are between 40-60%.

Dear Peter,
My tenth-grade son has been in orchestra for 6 years. It is not one of his favorite hobbies, but he does have some talent. All of his core courses are honors and he is concerned that he will miss important classes when he attends lessons. The district does not allow students to attend orchestra classes and concerts without taking lessons during the school day. My offer to have him take lessons outside of school with an approved music tutor was denied. In addition, he is on the Varsity soccer team that meets every afternoon from now until the end of October.

Do you think I should have him continue with orchestra because it would give him an edge when applying for colleges or is it better for him to stop and join a club after the soccer season?

Dear Danielle,
On the surface, this is a tough question because there would seem to be clear advantages to following each direction. My advice, however, is to ask your son what he wants to do. There is no sense artificially propping up one activity if his heart is elsewhere. If he drops orchestra, though, its absence will be conspicuous on his application and will need to be explained. The good news is that such scheduling conflicts are not uncommon so his explanation will not be viewed cynically.

My other suggestion is to have him raise this question with the admission reps who recruit in your area from several of the colleges that might interest him. Get their takes on the situation. The advice he receives will not only be reassuring to your son but the exchange will put him on their “radar screens.”

Dear Peter,
How does already having a child in college impact our expected family contribution (EFC)?
Our youngest will overlap with his sister for one year of college.

Dear Ron,
The formula for determining a family’s discretionary income (income/assets less the cost of living) remains the same when two children are in college concurrently. Theoretically, the EFC won’t change—it will simply be split between the two. For example, if your EFC for the first child is $25,000 and your financial circumstances remain constant from year to year (your EFC remains unchanged), you would then be expected to split the $25K between the two children. That said, however, the composition of the respective financial aid awards can vary depending on the manner in which the attending schools choose to package the awards. For your own peace of mind in planning, I suggest you raise this question at the school your oldest child attends as well as one or two of the schools that interest your son.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a Senior applying to seven colleges. I would like her to reach out to the college reps who recruit in our area to introduce herself. She had a very interesting summer and I thought she might send a letter to the college telling the reps about it. Should she do this to all seven schools, just her top choices or is this a bad idea?

Dear Caren,
Reaching out to and establishing relationships with regional recruiters for colleges that interest your daughter is a smart move. In doing so, she needs to make sure the content of her messaging is substantive and not gratuitous. Simply volunteering information about her summer might fall into the latter category.

Generally speaking, I encourage students to start the conversation by raising a thoughtful question that 1) shows they are making considered connections with the institution and 2) requires a response. In this case, the question might have to do with the availability of programming at the institution that relates to an interest inspired by the summer activity.

However she frames the question, the communication should take place via email, not a hard copy letter. Admission reps are more prone to engage/respond electronically.

Finally, it can’t hurt to reach out to all seven schools. The odds are that, at some point, she will need to rely on one or more of the schools that are further down her list in which case she can’t afford to have them regard her as a stranger!

Dear Peter,
My son is a Junior this year and we have done college tours this past summer. He is now in the process of narrowing down his college list; however, some of the schools he is considering are out-of-state and very expensive. He is highly determined, however, and does not want this to be a deterring factor. My question is how soon can we start applying for scholarships? Does he have to be accepted in a college first before he can start the application process?

Dear Marla,
Your son is off to a good start in the college search process. It’s good that he has visited schools and is beginning to narrow his list. I would remind him, though, that there shouldn’t be a great urgency to do so until this time next year. In the meantime, he should continue to learn what he can about the possibilities that exist for him—time is on his side!

With regard to scholarships, now is the right time for him to be exploring community-based scholarships. Many of them involve application processes that go on for months. Except for a few local scholarships in which he might be interested, most will have application deadlines that are approaching or have already passed. The bottom line: he should not wait until he has been accepted to colleges before applying for scholarships. At that point, the money will have been committed to other students.

Your son should also make note of the potential for merit scholarships at the schools on his list. If they are offered, where do his credentials fit relative to those of past recipients? This, by the way, is a fair question to ask the admission reps at those schools.

Leave a Reply