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BCF Readers’ Forum I


Thursday, June 21st, 2018

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.
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!

 

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.

BCF Readers’ Forum II


Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

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.

 

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!

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.

 

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!

 

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!