BCF Readers’ Forum XIII

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.

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