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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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

Students often enter the college search process with specific academic programs or career interests in mind. And why not? If you know what you want to study in college, the best places are those that will accommodate and support the development of your interests. For example, if you want to pursue chemical engineering, focus on schools that offer it. The same is true whether your interests lie in business, elementary education, or graphic design.

As you look at colleges, be careful not to compromise your pursuit of such passions. If you want to pursue film studies, but a college you are considering doesn’t offer a very well established program in that area, then you need to recognize early that it is not a good fit. You owe it to yourself to look into colleges that offer substantive programs that meet your needs in your areas of interest.

In particular, don’t let emotional interests override your academic priorities. Embracing a college or university simply on the merit of its overall ranking or reputation, or because it has a great athletic program or is in a location you like, on the assumption you’ll be able to figure out the academic piece later, is not wise. When you do that, you become “destination-centered” and set yourself up for frustration down the line. Think about it. How often do you hear about students transferring because the colleges they have chosen don’t offer the programs they want to study?

If, on the other hand, you don’t feel drawn to a particular career interest or academic direction, don’t worry. You’re normal. It’s difficult to know at any age what you’ll do for the rest of your life, so relax. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know. Instead, see those presumed “deficiencies” as opportunities. You’ve got a lot of time to sort them out.

If you are “undecided,” the more important underlying questions are, “Do you have the desire to learn—to discover the many truths that define you and the world in which you live—and, if so, can you project the relevance of what you are learning into the various pathways you might choose in life?”

Hopefully, the answer to both questions is “yes.” If so, look for places that will encourage you to explore various perspectives and draw from diverse experiences that will form the building blocks that are foundational to your future direction. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the notion that there is something wrong with you if your future plans are not laid out in great detail.

You’ll be fine. Hundreds of institutions across the country—liberal arts colleges as well as universities with robust general studies programs—are eager to embrace the undecided student. You just need to plan accordingly to give yourself options.

That said, be true to your priorities as you go into the college selection process. If you know what you want to do academically, go for it! On the other hand, don’t add schools to your list that will limit your academic flexibility if what you really want is the opportunity to explore. If you are undecided about your future academic directions, yet find yourself looking at an application for admission that requires you to declare a major as you apply for admission, you are looking at an institution that is not a good fit for you. In the long run, it matters less where you go to college and more what you do with the opportunities available to you at that school. Focus on places that will embrace your interests and give you the best opportunity to succeed. In doing so, don’t abandon your academic needs in favor of factors that will have little or no impact on your learning experience.

Did You Know…

  • You will probably change your major in college?  Most college students do at least once.
  • Most students enter college “undeclared” with regard to a major?
  • The odds are that you will change jobs at least four times and change careers twice?
  • Many colleges report that 80-90% of the people who graduated more than 25 years ago are now in careers that did not exist when they graduated?

To learn more about finding a good college fit, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore.

BCF Readers’ Forum 6.21.18


Thursday, June 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 and I are struggling with questions about letters of recommendation from teachers such as how many letters are needed and when should she ask for them.
Jean

Dear Jean,
The number of letters required from teachers will vary across institutions. Start by checking the application requirements of the colleges to which your student would like to apply. In all likelihood, she’ll need letters from two teachers. If so, one should be from a teacher who can comment on the student’s communication skills; the other might come from a teacher who can speak to the student’s aptitude and skills related to the academic area(s) she would like to pursue in college.

The best time to ask for these letters is now.  And, by the way, the “ask” should include a conversation in which the student provides context regarding her plans for college—what she wants to study, how she wants to engage in an academic environment and why she has chosen the college(s) in question. It would also be helpful to re-live with the teacher the moments of excitement she felt in that classroom. In doing so, she helps to shape the narrative of the teacher’s letter in a manner that is consistent with the story she is trying to tell in her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with writer’s block? My son has been a very good and involved student, yet he is having trouble finding something that will set him apart in the competition.
Carol

Dear Carol,
Your son is not alone! A lot of rising seniors are struggling to find a place to start with their essays. The short answer is that your son needs to look within for the answers. Rather than focusing on the “what” and “when” of his life experience, he should reflect on the “how” and “why.” The facts of his application (resume, academic record, scores) will be well known. It will be the perspectives derived from life experiences, however, that have shaped his character.

That said, great essays don’t just happen—good writing is a process. Your son needs to be prepared for a thoughtful process of drafting and editing that could take weeks or months.

I would note that I spend four hours working with students on precisely this discovery process in the “What’s My Story” application preparation workshops. You can learn more about upcoming workshops at www.BestCollegeFit.com/wms-workshops.php.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter didn’t do well this year in an advanced pre-calc math class. The teacher is known to be very tough and picky. She got a D this second semester and she scored in the 97th percentile on the math portion of the ACT (her overall ACT was 31). She’s considering taking another class like this over the internet or through summer school—not for credit replacement, but to show on her transcript that she acknowledges she didn’t do well despite knowing the information. What are your thoughts on this?
Charles

Dear Charles,
Retaking the class this summer is a great idea! It shows the reader of her application that she is neither content with nor accepting of the earlier outcome. It also shows that she is not making excuses—that she is making herself accountable for her own development—and that’s pretty cool! If admission officers are looking to see what she does with her time when she doesn’t have to do anything, choosing this path—while not guaranteeing admission—will speak volumes to who she is!
Peter

Dear Peter,
What are your thoughts on choosing a college major? Recently, the person I volunteer with told me that her biggest regret from college was that she didn’t get a “technical degree” like “nursing or teaching.” She advised me to focus on obtaining a degree that will be useful in getting a job immediately after college. What do you feel should be the main considerations?
Danielle

Dear Danielle,
One of the most vexing issues for young people as they contemplate college is that involving the choice of a major and/or career. While some seem to know what they want to do, most are still trying to figure it out. In fact, most college students (roughly two-thirds) will change their majors at least once! As you try to sort things out, then, you have a lot of company!

At its core, your undergraduate (college) experience can offer at least three important opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to become educated—to broaden your perspective and develop skills of critical thinking and analysis.
  2. The opportunity for experiential learning—to test what you think you know through research, independent study, internships and work opportunities.
  3. And, possibly, the opportunity to become trained in a vocational or career track.

Notice that acquiring certain training is only one element of the college experience. In fact, many employers will look for candidates who are well educated and who have developed the capacity to learn how to learn (the experiential piece).

My suggestion: follow your instincts. Choose to do something that makes you happy—and pursue it with passion. If you are naturally drawn to academic programs and career tracks that involve technical degrees (nursing, teaching, engineering, etc.) then go for it. I wouldn’t, however, arbitrarily assume that such a career will work out for you just because you have chosen it. Instead, become well educated. Even if a career track is not immediately apparent to you, seize every opportunity to test assumptions and apply what you have learned. It is in doing the latter that you set yourself up for future employment opportunities.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I am a single parent who adopted my daughter from China when she was an infant. Now, she is a good student looking at colleges where she will need financial aid. Do you think colleges will be interested in her because of her unusual background? She is not keen about focusing on this in her essay. I think she should at least mention it and discuss it to some extent. We’re both interested to hear your thoughts.
Margaret

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that your daughter’s cultural heritage is important to her—and gives definition to her character and life experience—it should be considered among the “dots” to be connected in telling her story as a college applicant. That said, she will be able to reveal her background—and relationship with you—on her applications without making it the focus of an essay. If greater insight might be shared through broader treatment of the topic—and she is reluctant to make any statements herself—then she might ask her college advisor to reference her background and upbringing in his/her letter of recommendation. Making this the focal point of an essay, though, is something she should only attempt if she is comfortable doing so. Presumably, she is thinking of other topics/approaches that will give the readers of her application insight into her life experience beyond that which is apparent on her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is there a benefit or disadvantage to waiving the right to have the ability (at a later date) to review teacher recommendations? My son has spoken with two teachers who agreed to write his recommendations, but he did not complete the forms to them because of the question about waiving rights.
Arthur

Dear Arthur,
I recommend that students waive access to the teacher recommendations. IF we can assume that a teacher is eager to help your son find success in the process—usually a safe assumption as most teachers do care about the successes of their students—and IF your son takes initiative to meet with his teachers in advance to share his educational goals and reflect on his experiences in their classrooms, there should be no concerns about what is written. In doing the latter, he helps the teacher help him by contributing to the narrative that emerges in the letter of recommendation. Waiving access, then, allows the teacher to write a more balanced, if not candid, recommendation that will be given greater credibility by admission committees.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is leaning to taking two AP Math classes and no science in her senior year since scheduling permits very few options. The alternative would be to take one AP Math class with a “filler” science, just to get a 4th year of science, but she is not interested in the class and it is not an AP class. How will taking two AP Math classes be looked upon from a university admissions perspective?
Becca

Dear Becca,
Generally speaking, when students drop a course (science, in this case) it is important that the replacement course be of equal or greater rigor. That seems to be the case with your daughter’s proposal so she should be fine. As a failsafe, though, I would urge her to ask the question of the regional recruiters from some of the colleges that interest her. It’s a valid question—let them be the experts. In the process, she also gets on their “radar screens,” a factor that should not be underestimated in the selective admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Our son will be a senior in the fall and we are concerned about how we will pay for college. We have been receiving invitations to attend “free” presentations by financial planners. Some of the pitches sound too good to be true (help with completing forms, guaranteed financial aid, better scholarships, etc.). Should we be checking out these opportunities?
Mark

Dear Mark,
Cost and affordability are indeed serious matters as you consider your son’s educational options. The good news is that you can have most of your questions answered by financial aid professionals on college campuses. If you want help completing the financial aid forms or need advice with regard to asset management, talk with your accountant. Be wary of guarantees, though, especially from people you don’t know. Quite often you are being set up (during the “free” session) to write a check for consulting services that you really don’t need.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

Which college is best for you? And why might that be the case?

On the surface, these questions may not seem very consequential. When you consider the opportunity that lies before you, however, understanding the importance of the questions—and being able to answer them thoughtfully—can make a big difference in the outcomes of your college planning process. This, in turn, can influence the options that come your way upon graduation.

A college education is an important lifetime opportunity. Throughout your undergraduate experience, you will meet new people, prepare for a career and learn more than you could ever imagine. If you use your time well, you will also increase your lifetime earning capacity exponentially. The payoffs for education are both immediate and long-term. That’s why families are willing to make the investment.

Unfortunately, the investment can prove costly when college plans go awry. Consider the following:

  • Fewer than 50% of the students who enter college graduate in four years
  • Barely half will graduate from any college at any time in their lives!

These are not good outcomes, either for the students or the society that bears the financial burden of a collective failure to make good on educational opportunities. The inability to reach the “finish line” is indeed a problem of “pay me later” proportions. The ensuing costs are undeniable. When you are not able to finish what you start, your family loses the money it has put into tuition and other college expenses. Attach a dollar mark to the cost of a year’s room, board and tuition and you get the picture. Moreover, that money doesn’t come back if you become sidetracked or leave college prematurely. It becomes the “cost of unfulfilled potential.”

Failing to stay the course to graduation from college also means you lose time toward completion of an undergraduate degree and the subsequent opportunity to gain an advantage in the job market. Even if you return to the classroom after having been away for a while or you transfer to a different school, the cost of lost opportunity can be significant. Not only must you absorb the tuition and fees associated with an additional year or so of education, you must also wait longer to take advantage of your new earning potential.

While there are all kinds of “good” reasons— personal, financial and academic—to leave college prematurely, the fact that many of them are avoidable—rooted in issues of a questionable college “fit”—only adds to the tragedy.

The key, then, is to get the choice of a college “right” the first time. To do that, you need to reflect on factors that relate to a good college fit for you. In doing so, you put yourself in the best position to find success both in the college admission process and the undergraduate years that follow.

With over 3,000 colleges and universities across the country, you will quickly discover many viable options. Some are well known, if not quite famous. Others will be new to you. Regardless, most have something of value to offer.

Among them, the “best college” is the one that is right for you. It is a quality option if for no other reason than it is the college that will best meet your needs. It fits. It might not hold the cachet or ranking that impresses your friends, but it does fit your aptitude and needs. The college that “fits” you best is one that 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.

Be particularly attentive to the last point, especially if you need financial assistance or hope to receive merit scholarship recognition. The places that have seen what you can do—and are prepared to invest in your further success—are the ones that will admit you and give you the support you need to achieve your goals.

As you consider colleges, then, start with an understanding of fit from a perspective that is centered on your sense of self. How does each college you encounter measure up against these elements of a good fit? You need be conscious of inconsistencies. Don’t settle for a college that only meets one or two criteria. It’s a compromise that could cost you later.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find more than one institution that seems to fit. That’s great! Not only will you improve your odds of gaining admission to those colleges, you are more likely to stay once enrolled. And that’s a good thing!

I will address each element of a good college fit in series of articles over the next two months. In addition, you can find a more detailed discussion of the “best college fit” in Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, which is available in the BCF Bookstore.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Congratulations rising high school seniors—you are about to officially become college applicants! It won’t be long before you are fully immersed in the application process. And, if all goes well, a year from now you will have the satisfaction of knowing your college destination. Getting to that point, however, will require careful planning and forethought. There is no time like the present to get started!

Developing a college list that makes sense to you and your educational goals is critical to your ultimate success. The colleges that emerge on your “short list” should be good “fits”— places that represent the right “competitive playing fields” for you. They will be places where your academic credentials (scores, GPA) are at least in the top half of the credentials reported for the class entering this fall—and places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. The following tips are intended to help get you started in developing such a college list.

1.  Establish your priorities. Students often focus on college destinations without first thinking seriously about how such places might fit them. They are more enamored with names and reputations—and less concerned about whether the institutions actually make sense for them. Before you can begin to make a list of colleges you need to take stock of who you are and what you want to get out of the college experience.

For example:

  • Why do you want to go to college?
  • In what type of learning environment are you most likely to function comfortably?
  • With what kind of people do you want to live and study?
  • What are 3-4 things you want to make sure you accomplish by the time you graduate? What will make yours a successful college experience?
  • How important are cost and affordability to the equation?

The answers that begin to emerge from this reflective exercise are important to framing your college selections. They will give clarity to your priorities and, more importantly, provide the filters through which you process the information you uncover about colleges and universities in the coming weeks.

2.  Identify the “essentials.” You are bound to respond to a range of stimuli as you learn about schools. For example, you might be sensitive to the proximity of an urban center or the presence of a “big-time” sports culture. Climate or access to outdoor activities might be important to you. Where does a social life fit? Are you determined to go to a large university because you have spent the last four years at a small high school? Oh, and then there is the question of academics and learning environment. Clearly, you’ll have a lot on your mind as you look at colleges!

The above factors are among the many that will have a place in your decision-making. They can’t carry equal weight, however. As you think about the factors that might influence your choice of a college, consider the hierarchy of importance. Is a given factor essential to your success? Very important? Or, would it be nice if it could be satisfied by your selection? Identify and focus on your “essentials.” And be careful not to let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

3.  Let your list grow. Right now, you are limited by the things you think you know about colleges and those impressions tend to be pretty superficial. It will be the things you have yet to learn that facilitate good decision-making about possible destinations. The good news is you still have time to explore and thoroughly research the possibilities. While you might be feeling some angst about the need to come up with a short list right now, time is still on your side.

4.  Go “window shopping.” As your summer plans evolve, be sure to include time for college visits—and not just visits to the campuses of the schools you know. Check out research universities and liberal arts colleges. Explore the differences between public and private institutions. Compare urban campuses with those in suburban and rural areas.

Learn what you can from personal observation, not hearsay. As you “try on different sizes,” look for patterns. Do you find yourself responding consistently to similar characteristics on different campuses? The broader the perspective you establish now, the easier it will be to identify places that make the most sense for you at the end of the summer.

5.  Focus on places that are “target” schools for you academically. The popular notion about college list development is that a good list should include a sampling of “reach,” “target” and “likely admit” schools. Subscribing to this notion sometimes gives rise to a proliferation of applications to high profile, “dream” schools at the expense of smart decision-making. The accompanying rationalization might sound like, “Well, how will I know if I can get in if I don’t try?”

This logic is problematic in two ways: 1) it implicitly diminishes (in the mind of the person who espouses it) the value of any school that is not in the “reach” category and 2) it can be incredibly limiting by creating blinders to more appropriate options. Be careful about building your list around highly selective schools. The odds of getting into places where the probability of admission is low don’t increase if you apply to more of them. Moreover, including such schools on a college list will distract you from presenting well at places where you might otherwise have a reasonable chance of gaining admission.

While you might allow yourself a dream school (or two), it is best to build your list around target schools—places where your credentials would put your probability of admission in the 40-60% range, places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. There are never any guarantees in the selective admission process, but putting yourself on the right competitive playing field will be critical to your eventual success as an applicant.

6.  Eight is enough. By September, you should be ready to whittle your list down to a workable number. If you have been thorough—and thoughtful—in your research you should be focusing on no more than eight applications. That number might include 1-2 low-probability dream schools and 1-2 places where you are likely to be admitted. The rest should be target schools.

Keeping your list at eight will require discipline as you will be tempted by colleges that want to make the application process easy for you. They will offer fee waivers for applications submitted while visiting their campuses and fee waivers for applications submitted online. Some will recognize you as a V.I.P. or “priority” applicant if you apply by specified deadlines in September. Others will send you applications that are all filled out for you. Yes—they have captured information about you from various sources and made it easy for you to apply. You simply sign and return the form! Don’t add these schools to your list simply because they make it easy to do so!

The bottom line: stay focused on your priorities and your list. The more applications to which you commit, the harder it will be for you to stay on top of each one—and the more likely you won’t be able to present yourself in a compelling fashion to the schools that are most important to you.

Are you beginning the college planning process with more questions than answers?

If so, plan to join Peter Van Buskirk in two free upcoming webinars sponsored by Revolution Prep to develop a plan that works for you.

On June 5, Peter will be interviewed by Rev Prep’s Jon Small on the topic of “Jumpstarting the College Planning Process.” In this keynote event of the Revolution Prep Summer Webinar Series, they will discuss:

  • Strategies for starting the college planning process
  • The importance of “intentionality” in developing a plan for college
  • Getting the most from college visits
  • Tips for acquiring letters of recommendation
  • Determining the relevance of support services (essay support, test prep, etc.)

Click on “Jumpstarting the College Planning Process” to register for the June 5 webinar (9PM ET).

On June 19, Peter will follow up with a presentation of “Little Things that Make a Big Difference in the College Admission Process.” In this webinar, he will examine opportunities to stand out as an applicant within the context of the competition at targeted colleges. He will reveal common mistakes made in the application process and offer tips that empower students to:

  • Establish ownership in the process
  • Develop thematically cohesive applications
  • Take advantage of academic opportunities available to them through the senior year
  • Build relationships with colleges that are important to them
  • Put themselves in the best position possible for admission success

Click on “Little Things that Make a Big Difference in the College Admission Process” to register for the June 19 Webinar (9PM ET).

Revolution Prep is a leading provider of tutoring and test preparation solutions, offering a range of online and in-person support for students.

BCF Readers’ Forum 5.16.18


Wednesday, May 16th, 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,
I am recently divorced and will be facing the funding of my children’s college educations alone. They currently attend a private day school. I recently attended a free seminar about funding of said educations. It turned out to be a teaser for a company that offered everything from preparation for the SAT exam to assistance in preparation of the College Scholarship Service Profile and FAFSA applications to appealing any awards by the schools if deemed to be inadequate. The initial fee is $1995 per family with an additional $39 per month per child for 48 months. There is no contract and the service can be terminated at any time. Do you feel that a service like this is valuable and worth the cost?
Eileen

Dear Eileen,
You are wise to be cynical about this company’s pitch. In reality, your prep school tuition dollars are already producing many of the same benefits that the company seems to offer. Basically, you would be paying to have them complete your financial aid forms when you can do them yourself at no cost or have your accountant do them for a lesser fee. With regard to appeals of financial aid awards, colleges don’t want to hear from a consultant—they want to hear from you directly. The only possible value to engaging the company is to your peace of mind regarding elements of the process. They will not get your kids into colleges or leverage better financial aid awards for them. They will, however, charge you for services that, in my opinion, aren’t necessary.
Peter

Dear Peter,
As my son registers for future standardized tests, should he fill out all the profile questions on their websites (other than the basics, such as his graduation year)?

Both testing organizations ask for a lot of information they clearly state is supplied to colleges. We are wondering if there is any harm in declining to supply information—questions related to anticipated majors, extra-curricular information and plans for how many years of college, etc? Conversely, is there any potential drawback to providing this information? The information that is requested seems very over the top!
AnnMarie

Dear AnnMarie,
Welcome to the world of lead generation! Colleges, summer camps and scholarship programs will buy tens of thousands of names of students who meet their minimal requirements and then direct their messaging at getting the students to respond!

I am not aware of any downside to withholding the optional information requested by the testing agencies. If your son would rather not be subjected to the deluge of random mail/email that would otherwise result from that sharing, there is no harm in declining to provide the information. The possible upside to sharing is that his name might be picked up by colleges and/or scholarship programs that could be of interest to him.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do college admission officers take a high school’s ranking into consideration when looking at a candidate? My son goes to a full-time gifted school which has always ranked as one of the best high schools in the USA. Being in a school of all gifted students, the competition is stiffer. Even with his 4.7 GPA he is not ranked in the top ten percentile of his class. Will this work against him when he applies in highly selective schools?
Arlene

Dear Arlene,
The answer to your question will vary according to institutional type. Whereas many state universities evaluate high school transcripts at face value, most private colleges and universities review academic records contextually. In other words, before they can make any sense out of the student’s academic performance, they first delve into the learning environment from which the student comes to better understand who attends the school, what courses are offered, how students are evaluated and how they perform when taking AP/IB/SAT Subject Tests. With this information in hand, they come to a better understanding of the individual’s performance. I don’t know where your son goes to school, but I suspect the college counseling folks are pretty diligent about providing the contextual information needed by admission officers in order to make good and fair assessments regarding its students as they apply to college.
Peter

Dear Peter,
How does one ace the college interview??
Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
I would offer four bits of advice to the student preparing for interviews. First, be in command of your academic (and life) credentials. Students often feel compelled to present resumes and/or transcripts to their interviewers. Frankly, that’s not necessary. Interviewers are more interested in hearing the student’s interpretation of that information in the student’s words. So, it is important that you can recite courses, grades and test information. You also need to able to talk about important activities and life events, including any circumstances that might have contributed to irregularities in the academic record.

Second, you need to relax. This cannot be underestimated. You should be able to engage comfortably in conversation with someone who is eager to get to know more about you. Good interviewers are adept at leading the conversation and drawing critical information from the interviewees.

Third, positive body language is important. A pleasant smile, good eye contact and firm handshake help to set the tone. Just as important is the elimination of distractions—chewing gum, nervous ticks (shaking legs, etc.), inappropriate attire (go with “business casual” for teenagers) and conversational hiccups (“like, well, you know…” “Ummmm…” etc.).

Finally, be knowledgeable about the institution—know why you are there! Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered on the college’s website. Make sure you convey an air of confidence that you know why the place would be a good match for you.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a junior with a straight “A” average in 5 AP courses with a 1570 SAT. She plays volleyball for her high school and an elite club year-round. She wants desperately to attend an Ivy whether playing volleyball or not. Having been consumed with volleyball year round, she has had little time to participate in other extracurricular activities. She now feels behind in some respects and wants to travel overseas for a week this summer to assist indigents and will set up a website for donations throughout her senior year. My question: how will admissions people view this at Ivys? Is it worthwhile for admissions purposes or would she be better served with summer employment or internships?
Lee

Dear Lee,
Given your daughter’s academic credentials, she will be on the academic “competitive playing fields” academically at any school in the country. Without any further considerations—and assuming her classroom performance continues at the same level through her senior year, the odds of gaining admission are between one out of ten and one out of twenty at the colleges of interest. In order to improve those odds, she needs to present non-academic credentials that cause her to stand out among similarly qualified applicants at the institutions in question. Quite frankly, it is possible that her volleyball involvement could provide the “hook” she needs. She will know soon if that is to be the case as the college coaches will start identifying their top prospects this summer. Her club coach should be able to give her a sense as to the likelihood she will be recruited by the Ivies.

Beyond volleyball, your daughter needs to be careful not to be seen as manufacturing a credential in order to enhance her competitiveness. Rather, she needs to make choices as though college is not in the picture. She needs to make herself happy—to find personal enrichment in all she does. In doing so, her actions/decisions will reveal the authenticity of character that might set her apart from the competition. She should not embark on the overseas project simply to create a credential worthy of admission to an Ivy League school. She should do it because she can’t help herself—because she feels absolutely compelled to engage in the project. Even more compelling will be the connectivity of her decision-making with other choices she has made in life.

Highly selective schools see thousands of seemingly gratuitous examples of summer service in underdeveloped countries. The fact of the involvement won’t turn heads. If it is part of a larger sense of mission and opportunity that she can clearly articulate in her application, then it can make a difference.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter just received her ACT score. She did not score well at all on her SAT, however, she managed to pull out an above average score on her ACT. We intended to continue her tutoring and have her take both a second time. My husband, now armed with the higher ACT score, thinks we should drop the SAT altogether and focus on her area of strength with the ACT. He feels we should continue working to improve on the ACT score and that most schools will take either test. Could you provide any guidance on this?
Sophia

Dear Sophia,
Your husband on the right track! It is true that every college in the country will accept either the SAT or ACT. I strongly urge students to sample one of each in order to determine the test with which they are most comfortable and then to focus on that test taking it no more than three times. In this case, if your daughter seems more comfortable with the ACT, then she might as well focus on preparing for that test (and not worry about the SAT going forward).
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

May is a month when high school Juniors find themselves staring at the seemingly “uphill” portion of the college planning process. Whereas the prospect of “going to college” has been on the radar screen for quite a while, the task of getting there is now approached with a new-found sense of earnestness.

The coming months will find students compiling lists and sorting through options in the hopes of happy outcomes. It won’t be easy, though. Just contemplating the upcoming gauntlet of college visits, essay preparation and tests—not to mention the panicked rush to meet application deadlines—can induce waves of anxiety on even the most thoughtfully organized families.

Getting “there”—to the happy endpoint—with a modicum of sanity intact, then, requires an implicit understanding of roles and responsibilities. And it requires recognition that ownership of the process and the outcomes rests with the student.

The question of ownership in the college planning process isn’t easily or comfortably resolved—if addressed at all—within many families. After all, parents have been heavily invested in outcomes for their progeny since birth. College is simply an extension of the litany of experiences that parents intend for their children on the way to establishing happy and productive lifestyles. And who, better than the parents, can make the critical decisions about where and how to apply?

The truth of the matter is that the college application and selection process represents a launching pad for young adults as they emerge from the comforts of home, family and all that is known into a world of self-discovery. They need to recognize—and seize—such opportunities for reasons that are important to them and no one else.

This assertion can be difficult for some parents to swallow. After all, it isn’t easy to give up control and expect an 18-year-old, with little-to-no experience, to make the right decisions in managing a process of this complexity when the stakes are so high. For these parents, peace of mind is found in handling the important decisions themselves—hiring private educational consultants to manage the process, putting kids in pricey test prep programs and paying for access to essay editing services.

When this happens, students become spectators in the planning for their respective futures. Forced to the “sidelines,” they are not able to learn and practice good decision-making skills or experience accountability for their actions in a process that impacts their respective futures. Unable to truly affect outcomes, they are affected by them.

The best outcomes in college planning occur when the student is vested with ownership. After all, the parents aren’t going to college—it is the student who must compete for admission. And it is the student, who, based on the strength of his credentials and preparation, will be given the opportunity to test his skills at the next level educationally.

Achieving this opportunity in a manner that is ultimately rewarding to the student and satisfying to the parent calls for an approach in which parents cede ownership to their students, an approach in which “directing” gives way to “guiding.” Turning over the controls isn’t easy, but at some point it’s necessary. (If you have taught your kids to drive, you know what I mean!) For kids, going to college represents, among other things, the opportunity to step out of their parents’ shadows and into a world of possibilities they can begin to imagine for themselves. And getting there, despite their inexperience and busy schedules, is something they must learn to do for themselves.

The gift of ownership, then, can be incredibly empowering for a young person who is straining to define herself. College admission officers are eager to see how students are emerging as young adults. They want to hear their voices and learn about their accomplishments. They want a measure of the student’s vision and self-confidence that can only come from the student. As a parent, you have done your job in that you have brought her to the point where she can begin speaking for herself. Now, it’s her turn.

Tips to parents for implementing the transition to student ownership:

  1. Engage in conversation that gives your student the opportunity to think about and identify his priorities for life after high school.
  2. If such priorities include a college education, explore with your student the factors that will be essential –in her mind—to defining a successful experience (i.e. distance from home, style of instruction, social life, etc.).
  3. Focus on finding the best college fit. Preoccupation with prestige and rankings often detract from a student’s ability to make smart, student-centered choices.
  4. Give your student responsibility for the development of a college list. Encourage a long list that at first includes a range of options. Then help him assess these schools within the context of “fit” and his priorities. Support opportunities to visit colleges whenever possible.
  5. Urge your student to maintain a file of information about the colleges that interest her most. The file might include a spreadsheet on which she tracks data and impressions for each college that relate to her priorities.
  6. Encourage your student to wrestle with questions such as “What will a college get if it admits you?” and “How might you convince admission officers that you will be a good fit for their schools?” Such conversations will help the student find greater focus when it is time to apply for admission.

As you and your student become immersed in college planning, continue to visit this College Planning Blog for additional blog postings that provide greater insights and guidance with regard to different elements of college planning. In addition, Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore is a great resource for students as they begin to take ownership in the college planning process.