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.

Archive for the 'Choice of a College' Category

Sort by

By Peter Van Buskirk

Myth: All colleges and universities are alike.

Reality: This country boasts a broad array of more than 3,000 colleges and universities dedicated to providing post-secondary educational opportunities. Although common in mission, their personalities, curricula and institutional cultures vary as greatly as 3,000 sets of fingerprints!

Think about what this means for you. While your educational needs can be met at many places, it would be a mistake to assume they will be met in the same manner—or, more importantly, in a manner that is well suited to your learning style. This is perhaps the most underestimated element of the college selection process. Believe it or not, comfort and compatibility can make a big difference in your eventual success as a student.

Finding a good college fit, then, begins with identifying places that provide the academic program you need and a style of instruction that is most comfortable for you. Just as students possess unique learning styles—they each process information differently—colleges offer different styles of instruction. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to study Biology. Some colleges will teach Biology in seminars that include 25-30 students. Some teach it in lecture halls of five hundred! Yet others will attach labs to the instruction or offer research opportunities.

In each case, the material is the basically same—Bio is Bio—but the experience is different. The important questions are, “How would you function in these different environments? What sort of interaction do you want to have with the information that is being presented?”

In order to find the learning environments that make the most sense for you, take stock of your learning style. How do you like to be engaged with learning? Who or what inspires you? Under what circumstances are you most likely to produce your best work? The more you know about how you like to learn, the easier it will be to make critical distinctions among the learning environments of different colleges.

Consider the following questions as you try to get your arms around your learning style. Be particularly attentive to the “why” part of each question.

  • Who is your favorite teacher—and why?
  • What is your favorite class right now—and why?
  • In which type of classroom setting (i.e. large group lectures, seminars, etc.) are you most comfortable—and why?
  • With what kinds of people and personalities do you enjoy exchanging ideas—and why?
  • If you had to choose between a test, a paper and a project to receive a grade for the entire year, what would you choose—and why?

As you reflect on your answers—especially the “whys”—you come to better understand the characteristics of a learning environment that would be the most appropriate for you in college. The next step is to look for colleges that mirror these characteristics. They will be the best fits for you.

If, for example, your approach to learning is to take good notes, read diligently and prepare carefully—all in the relative anonymity of the large lecture hall, then you are more likely to function comfortably in a larger, more expansive instructional setting. On the other hand, if you like the engagement of a small classroom where you can ask questions—where you can challenge and be challenged—then the seminar format will be more productive for you.

Now, consider the consequences of failing to be attentive to the information you are gleaning about your learning style. If you do prefer the large lecture hall experience—but you’ve chosen a college where most of your classes put you front and center around the seminar table, won’t you feel like the proverbial “fish out of water”? On the other hand, if you really like the engagement of the small classroom but find yourself in a setting that features lectures of 300 or more students—all the time—will that learning environment bring out the best in you? In the final analysis, you are more likely to get the most out of your ability when you find yourself in an environment that is well suited to the way you learn.

And if your preference is to write a paper or do a project because you are more comfortable demonstrating your mastery in that manner (besides, you don’t feel you are a good test-taker!) a large university will not be the best fit. Professors in those environments will rely heavily on fill-in-the-bubble tests as they simply don’t have the time to critique hundreds of papers or projects.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Take the time, then, to get to know yourself—and the circumstances in which you learn most comfortably. In doing so, you put yourself in a better position to make good choices that reflect your interests and needs.

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.

And the information you glean from your visits will come in handy when it comes time to prepare your applications for admission! (To learn more about related strategies, check out the “What’s My Story?” application preparation workshops being offered around the country this spring and summer.)

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.

BCF Readers’ Forum 3.21.18


Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

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 Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?
Ari

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?
Joe

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?
Maia

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?
Fred

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?
Raj

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

Among lifestyle investments, a college education ranks among the most important—and the most expensive—in the life of a young person. Getting ‘it”—the choice of a college—right is critical to realizing a strong return on the investment.

Chosen well, a college education sets the table for years of opportunities that will determine comfort and success for graduates, their families and their careers. Chosen well, every penny of the investment is repaid many times over. Choose poorly, however, and the debt is compounded by lost earning opportunity, reduced productivity and diminished return on investment.

Every year, nearly two million U.S. students and their parents invest in education for the first time, in many cases gambling their life savings in the process. Some do it well. They prepare and compete effectively, putting themselves in a position to acquire the type of educational experiences that will serve them well in life.

Regrettably, though, many—including students of all means and backgrounds—fall short of achieving their goals. Either they fail to complete the education they’ve started (barely half of entering college freshmen will graduate from any college at any time in their lives) or they muddle through their college years only to cross the “finish line” without any real sense of accomplishment or direction.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be content with a “system” that only works half the time. It’s not healthy for the young people who fail to make good on the promise of their own ability and it’s not good for a society that, ultimately, must pick up the slack for them.

Whether you are on the verge of choosing a college or you are just getting started in the college search/selection process, it is critical that you engage in thoughtful discernment and decision-making with regard to your future. Focus on your needs and priorities. And keep in mind that colleges are more than rankings and reputations—they are diverse academic programs enveloped in a range of campus cultures. You deserve the opportunity to choose the place that makes the most sense for you. Wherever you are in the process, keep the following in mind:

  1. Challenge assumptions. The college admission process isn’t what it used to be nor is it what many colleges would have you believe it is. Moreover, the realities can’t be found in chatrooms or backyard conversations. A healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric.
  2. Keep your mind open to a range of solutions. In doing so, you acknowledge that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.
  3. Make good choices—choices that are truly student-centered. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.
  4. Focus on “fit.” The best college for your student is the one that “fits” her best. (And, it will always be the one that values her for what she has to offer.)