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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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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!

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

BCF Readers’ Forum V

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Dear Peter,
My son, a Junior, is currently taking Calculus BC. He will finish his high school math at the end of this year. The only math course he can take in his Senior year, AP Statistics, is an elective which he does not want to take. If he doesn’t take a math course in his Senior year, would it effect his possible acceptance by top tier schools?

Dear Mara,
I would strongly encourage your son to stick with math in his senior year. AP Statistics is a very substantive elective that will do the trick. “Top tier” schools want to see evidence that students continue to find appropriate challenges in each academic discipline through the senior year. Besides, Statistics will likely prove to be the most utilitarian coursework he can take into his college experience.

Dear Peter,
My daughter, a junior, is taking AP Seminar this year and, until recently, was full steam ahead to take AP Research next year. As this class only earns elective credit, sacrifices have had to be made in order to fulfill graduation requirements (such as taking online classes over the summer). Now she’s considering not taking AP Research next year in order to take AP Music Theory. Her interests are math and music and she is in one of the auditioned choirs at her school. Part of me wants to see her complete the AP Capstone program and receive the diploma. How will it look, however, if she is taking Seminar this year but does not take Research next year? Is the AP Capstone diploma something that will help her stand out on college applications compared with all the other students at her school with 4.4 weighted GPAs and plenty of honors/AP classes?

Dear Gina,
Given your daughter’s interests, AP Music Theory would seem to be a no-brainer! While “nice,” the AP Capstone Program, in my opinion, is not likely to be very consequential in the admission process, especially when the alternative is AP Music Theory, an intensive, challenging course. If any question remains, suggest that she pose the question to some of the admission officers at colleges that interest her.

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted to a college with a nice merit scholarship. He is also applying for an outside scholarship that might also be a significant amount. If he is awarded the outside scholarship will the school add that to the merit scholarship they awarded him or will they reduce their offer? I understand that need-based aid can be reduced when scholarships are received, but can scholarships be bundled? I can’t find help with this anywhere.

Dear Darlene,
Colleges vary with regard to how they apply outside scholarships. Some will apply the funds to reduce their own exposure via institutional grants or scholarships, some will apply it against your out-of-pocket expense, and some will split the amount with funds distributed to help both the institution and the family. I suggest you ask the financial aid office at the college in question about its practice in such situations. It’s a fair question and as a consumer, you have the right to know all the details before making any commitments.

Dear Peter,
My daughter recently received an invitation to represent her high school at the National Student Leadership Conference. It sounds interesting to her since they not only teach leadership skills, but also allow her to learn more about the career she is interested in (neuroscience). They tout the program as exclusive and say students will receive a Certificate of Achievement, an official program transcript and a letter of recommendation that they can submit to colleges. Is this program as exclusive as they say? Does it look good to have this on your college application? Or is this just a way for them to make a large profit (the program is rather expensive at approximately $3,000 for 9 days).

Dear Joseph,
The invitation from NSLC and other “leadership” programs is sent to tens of thousands of students each year. (It’s not that exclusive!) My guess is the leadership components of the program are much stronger than are the neuroscience elements, which are likely to be of a more superficial, “show and tell” nature. The certificate, program transcript and letter of recommendation rarely carry much weight in the selection process. If your daughter is drawn to the NSLC experience purely for self-enrichment, then you might consider it for her. Otherwise, she might be better off exploring opportunities to shadow neurosurgeons and/or participate in research projects being conducted by professionals in your area.

Dear Peter,
Do the most selective schools use demonstrated interest in admissions decisions?

Dear Maia,
While most of the highly selective colleges indicate that they do not engage in predictive analytics (and it might be true), you can bet that all will review candidates carefully to discern the degree to which they have been thoughtful/intentional in both their decisions to apply and the manner in which they present their credentials. The key is to demonstrate the synergy that exists between the student’s interests, goals and learning style-and the institution’s capacity to serve them well.

Dear Peter,
My son is in 11th grade. His sister went to a nearby, highly selective school a few years ago and, more recently, my husband started to work at the same school for which my son will get his tuition waived if admitted. When considering his chances of admission, I was wondering if this is an advantage or a problem for him. Although he will not ask for financial aid, will the fact that they have to waive the tuition affect his candidacy in a negative way?

Dear Joan,
Your son potentially benefits twice here-first with the legacy connection (his sister) and then with tuition remission because off your husband’s employment. The latter is likely to be more consequential as most institutions regard the tuition remission for dependents as an important benefit for eligible employees. While there can be no guarantees, there are no negatives here!

Dear Peter,
The youngest of my three children will start in September at the college to which he has been accepted Early Decision. I do have another child who will be at a different college in September. The ED school has offered a $16,000 scholarship against a $55,000 per year bill and nothing else. I am between jobs and only have a small amount in a 529 for my youngest. My question: how might I best approach the Financial Aid department in the hopes of securing additional aid for him? It will be virtually impossible to afford both kids’ tuition even after I start my new job. We have nothing left in savings and I’m reluctant to draw from my IRA retirement account. I know there are subsidized and unsubsidized loans out there but am trying to not leave my kids with crushing student loan debt upon graduation.

Dear James,
Since your youngest has been admitted ED, you should make every attempt to resolve the cost/affordability issue before submitting an enrollment deposit. Once you send in the deposit, you lose your leverage in the discussion about financial aid.
In terms of addressing your out-of-pocket concerns, schedule an appointment with the financial aid office as soon as possible at which time you can present documentation of your current financial situation, including evidence of financial aid treatment for your older child. As you present this information, ask the question, “How can you help make it possible for my son to attend?” The financial aid officer should be able to respond when faced with new and compelling information.

By the way, you need to be prepared to accept student loans as part of the proposed solution. In appropriate increments, borrowing doesn’t have to be unusually burdensome. Be prepared for $3,000-$5,000 in the first year and increases up to $8,500 in the last two years. Much more than that, in his name, is not reasonable. You also need to be prepared for the suggestion that you borrow through the Parent PLUS loan.

If the proposed solution is not reasonable, then your son needs to be prepared to decline the ED opportunity, withdraw his application completely and look elsewhere where his value to the institution will be more satisfactorily reflected in its financial support of him.

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!


BCF Readers’ Forum VIII

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Dear Peter,
My son is thinking about applying early decision to a university that says it requires three years of a foreign language from its applicants. Is that usually a hard requirement or will they still consider him?

Dear Carole,
Colleges frequently make benchmark statements about academic requirements that are designed to help students calibrate their academic preparation. It is my experience that such statements are not necessarily “hard” requirements if the candidate presents other credentials that make him highly attractive to the institution. That said, I don’t know how this university will respond. If they really like your son, they could easily ignore his deficiency in language. On the other hand, if he’s “on the fence,” they could decide not to admit him due to the lack of foreign language courses.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has found a number one school, but we are concerned that she might have made a fatal mistake. She talked with the college rep at the college fair last fall, toured the campus last spring, and will be applying next month. Neither of us followed up, however, on an opportunity to meet the admissions out-of-state advisor and now realize that emails from her have gone un-opened. In addition, there are no more events in our area. So, is there any way to grovel back into school’s vision? It seems to be a place that works off the calculation that the student will attend if accepted. I am hoping for additional insight on how she can be “seen” beyond this.

Dear Evelyn,
I wouldn’t call it a fatal mistake just yet. The fact that your daughter has visited the campus is still very important. Beyond that, I would offer two suggestions. 1.) As she has serious, thoughtful questions about the application process or the academic program at the school, she should reach out to the regional recruiter. 2.) She should do a deep dive into the programs of study that interest her at the school so she can document/prove, on her application, the synergy that exists between her goals and the capacity of the institution to meet them.

Ultimately, she wants to present a compelling argument that she has a plan for her future and she has chosen the school because it best enables her to pursue that plan. Conveying that type of intentionality in her application, along with the campus visit, reveals her sense of purpose and greatly lessens the likelihood that her application will be regarded as coming from a “stranger.”

Dear Peter,
My daughter, a current high school senior, received a letter from her favorite college indicating they want to see her grades after the mid-point of this year. What does this mean in terms of her chances of being accepted? She is looking at it negatively but I am telling her it is an opportunity. I want her to respond to the person she received the letter from telling them that their school is really the place she wants to attend. Your thoughts?!! Anything else we can say/do?

Dear Steve,
It’s hard to know the meaning of the letter without knowing your daughter’ status as an applicant. If she has already applied, with a transcript that reveals grades that are regarded as problematic, it could be that the admission committee is intrigued by other aspects of her application, but wants to see more grades before making a decision. I can’t imagine any other scenario whereby the school would send this message.

If the above is the case, your daughter should see the letter as a “half-full” indicator. Apparently, they like her well enough to want to see more information before rendering a decision. Otherwise, they could just as easily discourage or deny her application.
If your daughter has not yet applied, then the letter is even more curious. Most schools do want to see mid-year grades as a matter of course. It could be they were just letting her know that this would be a requirement she must be prepared to meet.

Writing a letter to the person who wrote to her, asking for clarification and stating her strong interest in attending, would make sense if she hasn’t applied yet. If she has already applied, the best thing to do is stay focused academically so the mid-year grades speak well for her candidacy.

Dear Peter,
My senior year son has been receiving enticing “exclusive invitation” and “invitation only” messages regarding open houses and preview days at various colleges. He has already visited the campuses and participated in other recruitment activities. Does he need to consider attending these events or will his previous interactions suffice?

Dear Jack,
Welcome to marketing in college admission! While it seems exclusive, the same email goes to tens of thousands of other students. In identifying recipients, the institutions are no doubt selecting high profile (academic) candidates. It is not likely, however, that the institutions have been very discriminating in determining which of those students have already been on their campuses once—or twice!

This phenomenon is prevalent at increasing numbers of institutions that are very intentional about trying to increase their selectivity, something that is accomplished by generating more applications and admitting fewer candidates. That’s the implicit messaging in the communication you have received.

The bottom line is that, as long as your son has been diligent about exploring the schools and developing appropriate relationships—and it sounds like he has—he’ll be fine. If he has any questions about the importance of attending either program, he might ask the regional recruiters in brief emails. My strong suspicion is that his time will be better spent attending to his school work and preparing his applications.

Dear Peter,
I have enough money saved up in my son’s 529 plan to cover approximately 3 years of tuition (assuming $50k per year). Do I apply for financial aid now or wait until year 2 or 3? Note that I am a single mom and will not be adding further to her 529 plan. I think I remember you saying that a student’s chances of getting into an elite school could be better if financial aid is not required.

Dear Anne,
The 529 will be considered a parental asset to be incrementally applied to your son’s educational expenses over four years. Effectively, then, the amount of savings put toward your EFC in year one will only be a portion of the 529 value. As a result, it makes sense to apply for financial aid now in order to spread out the draw on the asset over four years.

While it might be tempting to use funds from the 529 to cover all of first-year costs (and appear not to be in need of assistance), you shouldn’t assume that a college will automatically fill with need-based financial aid when the 529 runs out in subsequent years. Should your son receive aid at that point, it will likely come in the form of loans.

It is important to remember, though, that, if your son focuses on colleges where he will be valued for what he has to offer, the need of assistance won’t be a factor in the admission process. Rather, those schools will admit him and use their resources in an attempt to leverage his enrollment.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has two extremely selective schools at the top of her list, both of which have ED1 and ED2 options. She says she will apply ED1 to one of these schools. My question is about when she should apply to the other.

Understanding that ED1 decisions are made by December 15, should she submit her RD application to the other school in October or November (since her application will be complete), and then change the status from RD to ED2 if she doesn’t get into school #1; or should she wait until she hears back from her first choice—and, if deferred or rejected, send her application in by January 1 to school #2 as an ED2? I’m worried it might look bad if she changes from Regular Decision to ED2, and that the college will assume she didn’t get into her first choice, and that is why she is now changing from RD to ED2.

And when applying ED2, can you get deferred, or will you get a straight yes or no?

Is there any real benefit sending in your RD application a month or two early, since admission committees will only be reading ED applications in November and early December?

Dear Jim,
Assuming your daughter applies ED1, it really doesn’t matter when she submits RD applications to other schools (including the potential ED2 school) although it definitely makes sense to have the latter at the ready in the event the ED1 application is not successful. The advantage to submitting the RD applications ahead of deadline is peace of mind—they’re done! Don’t wouldn’t worry about how it might look to convert from RD to ED2. Schools that offer ED2 do so in order to accommodate students whose ED1 applications came up short elsewhere.

The potential outcomes are the same for ED1 and ED2—acceptance, deferral and denial. I would add that the admission prospects for deferred ED (1 or 2) candidates are not that great.

Dear Peter,
I wanted to ask you about the “Common Application” versus “Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success” application. I know they are similar and accepted by selective schools, but which one is preferable or more beneficial for the applicant, given the CAAS is still in its infancy? Does it matter which application is submitted if the target school accepts both?

Dear Marla,
I am not aware of any strategic advantage to the applicant in using one of these applications over the other. Theoretically, the CAAS application creates more opportunity for the submission of non-academic information. That information is only relevant, though, if the student is already regarded as a viable candidate academically. As you noted, the CAAS is still in its infancy, so the organization and conveyance of information can be irregular.

BCF Readers’ Forum X

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Dear Peter,
My son intends to answer the demographic question of “Are you Latino or Hispanic?” with a “Yes” response because “My grandmother is Puerto Rican so, I am 25% Hispanic.”

Would “yes” be the correct response? While on the Common App he further identifies himself as a “White, Caucasian” in the next demographic question, some other school applications do not offer this follow-up question about self-identity. Any advice you could give would be MUCH appreciated.

Dear Ellen,
A student’s response to the demographic prompt is a matter of personal perspective and interpretation. Checking “Hispanic” is not likely to help your son unless there is evidence in his application that his Hispanic heritage is a defining element of his character and life experience. Absent such evidence, the check in the box could come across as curious, if not disingenuous.

Dear Peter,
Due to a scheduling conflict, our son is having difficulty fitting a science class into his senior schedule. He is considering an online science class. We have been advised that an online class is not viewed very highly by selective institutions. Do you find this to be true?

Dear Matt,
I understand the dilemma regarding an online course. Admission officers will assess academic effort/choices contextually when they can. In general, they want to see what students will do when they don’t think they have to do anything—or, like your son, when they would seem to be cut off from a preferred curricular option. While taking a science course online might not be your son’s preferred option, it is better than having none at all this year. Given the circumstances, I don’t see any harm in taking science online.

Dear Peter,
What colleges would you recommend for the young person “whose sense of self and direction is still emerging”?

Dear Mary,
Much depends on the academic background and strength of the student. Liberal arts colleges are good landing places for academically accomplished students who are still finding direction as those colleges are very intentional about exposing students to a range of content and opportunity.

Some argue that two-year colleges, or less expensive four-year colleges, are good places for students to explore before completing an undergraduate degree at a four-year college. This approach can be effective, and is certainly less expensive. The potential downside is that the student loses the continuity and context of the four-year progression on a single campus.

Finally, the gap year (or two) can be an effective option for students who are in need of focus and intentionality. Students who have stepped away from the classroom for a period of time quite often return with renewed determination and direction that fuels their success in college.

Dear Peter,
I was debating whether or not I should take any SAT Subject tests. None of the schools I am applying to require them. In your opinion, would submitting SAT subject scores give any sort of benefit?

Dear Sam,
If SAT Subject Tests are not required at the colleges to which you are applying, there is no need to take them. Focus instead on investing in those other aspects of your application (extracurricular involvement, essay development, relationship building with college reps, etc.) that are more likely to determine your competitiveness.

Dear Peter,
In your opinion, is writing about one’s mental health in the application too risky? Would admitting to overcoming mental health challenges put my daughter in a negative light in terms of admissions or would some admissions officers consider it a brave topic to write about?

Dear Gillian,
I typically advise students that strength can be found in making themselves vulnerable. If your daughter has a compelling story to tell regarding her struggles and is comfortable telling it, she has the potential to convey confidence, focus and strength of character. Or, she might enlist her guidance counselor for support in this regard. The question to the latter might be, “How can you help me tell my story?” Quite often, the third-party testimonial to such situations can be quite powerful in the application.

There is no guarantee that admission officers will respond in the affirmative. Colleges that recognize both the strength of her character and the power of her journey, however, will want to celebrate her talents and invest in helping her achieve her goals.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is applying to a highly selective university that gives her the choice of reporting her weighted or unweighted GPA. Her unweighted GPA is 4.0 and weighted is 4.698, showing that she takes very challenging IB classes. Which is more impressive and aren’t they going to look at her transcript and find out that info themselves? Why are they making her choose?

Dear Art,
In my opinion, there is no question that the weighted rank should be reported. Not only does it indicate that your daughter has chosen a very rigorous program, it speaks well to her impressive performance in that curriculum. Frankly, I’m not sure why a college wouldn’t want to see the weighted GPA. My guess is the institution in question is larger and more formula driven in its assessment of candidates in which case human eyes might not get to the detail of the transcript as well as the accompanying interpretive high school profile.

Dear Peter,
What is your opinion about going Early Action versus Regular Admission?

Dear Suzanne,
The question of Early Action versus Regular Decision really depends on the colleges in question. If your student applies EA to colleges where his credentials project him to be among the better candidates and the probability of admission for him is 50% or better, EA might help in the long run (at worst, he is deferred and given an opportunity to compete again as a Regular Decision candidate). At colleges where the probabilities for him are less than 50%, the chances are greater that he will simply be denied as an EA candidate.

Whereas the submission of an Early Decision application can measurably improve one’s chances of admission at most colleges, the EA application usually doesn’t carry the same advantage.

Dear Peter,
My son has played football for the past 5 years. He has worked hard, gone to most every practice and loved every minute…until last year. He is going to be a senior and just told us that he doesn’t want to play this season. We want to be supportive parents but we also want to make sure he has thought this through. Does it look awful on college applications if he chooses not to play his senior year?

Dear LeeAnn,
The question of continuing sport involvement is a good one. As a former 3-sport athlete, I well understand the rigors of training and competing—and I was a marginal athlete! When your efforts are rewarded with playing time, the commitment can seem worthwhile. On the other hand, I can understand the sense of futility that might set in if playing time isn’t a likelihood. I don’t know your son’s status on the football team, but if he doesn’t factor into the game-plan, finding other outlets for his energy might be a good idea.

That said, I have encountered accomplished athletes who 1) have simply lost the passion for their sport, 2) because of their slight stature, don’t want to risk injury, or 3) need to make tough choices about how to commit their time in the senior year. All reasons are valid. Should he choose not to play football, the key for your son is to make sure his situation is explained. It would also behoove him to make sure he is filling his new-found time with constructive activity. Dropping football shouldn’t be a problem in the admission process if the decision is well-considered and your son has a well-articulated plan for moving on.

BCF Readers’ Forum XI

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Dear Peter,
My daughter is working on her college essays for both the Coalition and the Common applications. Each allows an essay on the “topic of your choice.” Could she just pick any prompt from either app and submit it for both? Or, would submitting something that was obviously written for a different app be considered tacky?

Dear Janet,
Most essay prompts present creative challenges in response to which students are able to reveal aspects of their life experiences that aren’t found anywhere else in their applications. In short, they have an opportunity to tell stories that are uniquely theirs.

Students need to be intentional when identifying essay prompts that provide the best opportunities for conveying essential messages in a thematically cohesive manner. Both the Coalition and Common Applications provide a series of essay prompt options as well as an option to write an essay on “a topic of your choice.” The latter leaves open the possibility that the student can use an essay that has been created for other purposes.

Given this flexibility regarding topic choices, intentionality is critical—students need to be thoughtful about the messages they want to convey to each college. A “one size fits all” approach to choosing an essay prompt might seem efficient, but it can be risky. Admission officers are quite discerning about the student’s recognition of the synergy between herself and the institution. In other words, “is this a conversation you are having with us or is it a conversation you are having with all who will listen?” This is likely to be even more relevant as students respond to the supplemental essay prompts associated with specific colleges receiving your daughter’s applications.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to visit some colleges that are far away. I would love to take her, but I am a single parent and have very limited vacation days that I can take off due to a recent surgery. I know it is important for her to see the campuses, but I won’t be able to go with her to all of the colleges. What should we do?

Dear Jillian,
Your daughter should make every effort to visit colleges that are very important to her—it will be hard for her to make a compelling application to a college that is “site unseen.” If you are not able to travel with her, perhaps a friend or family member might accompany her.

If visiting is simply not feasible, your daughter should check the websites of the colleges in question to see if virtual tours are available. She should also identify the admission staff persons at the colleges and reach out to them with any thoughtful questions she might have. Finally, she should be alert to any webinar information sessions that are offered by the colleges.

Dear Peter,
Prior to 9th Grade, my daughter was diagnosed with ADD. With medication—and literally overnight—she went from receiving grades in the 70’s to grades in the mid-90’s in virtually all of her classes. She had struggled immensely until this point and her confidence was decimated.

Due to the timing of the diagnosis, she had not taken algebra or earth science in 8th grade and was not tracked into any honors classes. She has, however, maintained a rigorous schedule that will see her taking physics, calculus, Spanish 5, History and English in her senior year. She has maintained an overall 94 average and has made the High Honor Roll each quarter of her high school career.

My daughter has also been quite successful at soccer. She is being recruited by two outstanding Division III private colleges and we are at the point of sending transcripts.
It is our impression these colleges want to see honors as well as AP courses.

How much “pull” do coaches have? Should we be very forthcoming right out of the box about my daughter’s late diagnosis of ADD and miraculous results with the medication? She has worked hard to accomplish well over the past three years of high school and we’d like to see her get into the best academic college possible.

Dear Hannah,
I would urge you to be fully disclosing with regard to your daughter’s academic history. IF the coach is going to have any “pull” with the admission office, she will need to be in full command of your daughter’s situation. I have written before about the need for students to explain irregularities (performance doesn’t match expectations) in their academic program/performance. This is a perfect example of the need for such an explanation.

Absent such information, admission officers will be easily dismissive of her credentials. She at least gives herself a chance by telling the complete story and eliminating the guesswork that would otherwise be required of admission officers.

Dear Peter,
Our son received a National Society of High School Scholars “Membership Confirmation” today and I wonder whether this is something that might help him get admitted or secure scholarships. Would you be able to weigh in on whether this is worth the $75.00 they seek?

Dear Don,
I have found no evidence that NSHSS membership is actually regarded as a meaningful credential in the admission or scholarship selection process. If anything, it’s ego food. Honors are earned—they can’t be bought.

Dear Peter,
My question has to do with how a student might incorporate traveling abroad during the summer into a college application. This will be my son’s second trip and he will get community service hours. I have been told in the past that you do not want to mention any type of service where you had to pay to be involved. Although, my son has a strong passion for travel and helping others, would it be wrong to label these outings as “mission trips” or would you just avoid mentioning them all together? This summer, he is actually staying with a host family and intends to start some type of fundraiser for them when he gets back.

Dear Matt,
Travel abroad and “mission” trips can be incredibly enlightening activities and certainly deserve reference in college applications. Such experiences are fairly common, though, and typically fall to students who can afford them—hence, the cynicism expressed by many admission officers when students talk about the trips in their essays. That said, it is appropriate to include reference to the travel somewhere on the extracurricular profile/resume. And, to the extent that the experiences have shaped your son’s perspective, they might be the subject of an essay.

Dear Peter,
I have been pondering whether or not I should take an AP Biology course for my senior year or an AP Government and Politics class. Science is not the field I wish to pursue as I am interested in history education. I am concerned about dropping science, though, if it will decrease my chances of being admitted into a school. I am looking for some guidance through this difficult decision.

Dear Sharon,
On the surface, swapping out one high level course (AP Bio) for another (AP Government/Politics) would seem to make sense, especially if you are leaning strongly toward academic/career interests related to the latter. On the other hand, some colleges will regard AP Bio as a stronger choice. That said, I’d strongly urge you to raise the same question with the regional recruiters from some of the colleges likely to be on your “short list.” They are in a better position to provide insight into the nuances of the selection processes of which they are a part.

BCF Readers’ Forum XII

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

Dear Peter,
I’m finishing my Junior year in the International Baccalaureate program and I am worried about the prestige of the IB program at my current school. How do colleges consider the IB in determining the reputation of the high school? Will they consider the performance of alumni from my school in the past to determine whether I am going to a good school?

Dear Ronnie,
You are very fortunate to be studying in an IB program. While I can’t speak for all universities, I can tell you that most regard the IB as one of the premier academic programs in the world. The philosophy and content of the program are universal, so every participating high school (and student) will be subject to the same curricular expectations. A high school can only offer IB instruction if it is approved by the IB Organization and its faculty have undergone significant training.

In determining the relative strength of a given program, colleges review profile data provided by the high school that reveals the percentage of the overall enrollment engaged in the program as full IB candidates, the percentage of graduates who have completed the IB Diploma requirements and the performances of graduates on IB exams. A school that features the IB program, but does not see many of its students complete the Diploma requirements or whose collective exam results are relatively modest, might not inspire the same confidence in a college as one that is consistently showing a high rate of Diploma completion with high exam results.

In the final analysis, though, it will be your performance in the IB that counts the most. If you embrace the full IB, perform at a high level in your daily work and project high exam results, you will put yourself on the competitive “playing fields” (for admission) at most selective institutions in the US.

Dear Peter,
During a college visit this weekend, my daughter met with a coach who asked her to fill out an information form that requested her social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram and, I think, Skype). There is nothing negative on the accounts, but she feels the request steps over the privacy bounds. If she doesn’t provide the information, could that reflect negatively on her as an applicant? They are not requesting passwords or access, just the account names and, of course, we instructed her to ensure that all privacy settings were at the maximum. Is this a common request in the application process?

Dear Sue,
The coach’s request for the social media info is fairly benign. In all likelihood, the coach is looking for the best opportunity to stay in touch—and this is not uncommon among recruiters. Under no circumstances, though, should your daughter share that information if she is at all uncomfortable doing so. Frankly, if her reluctance to share the information does adversely affect her status with the coach/school, it might be a good thing in the long run. After all, would she really want to be subject to an environment of caution and distrust as exhibited by the person(s) who would be leading her sport program? Something to think about.

Dear Peter,
What is going on with social media in the admission process? I just read where students have had their admission revoked at highly selective institutions—after they had enrolled—because of information they posted on social media sites.

Dear Charles,
This is a tricky situation. Anything that students (or any of us for that matter) post on social media is discoverable. While I am not aware that colleges actively investigate each applicant, they are clearly prepared to look into situations if provoked. I am not intimately familiar with the recent expulsions, but it is my impression that the students in question had posted insensitive, if not highly inflammatory, statements. Private colleges are within their rights to take disciplinary action if such activity is discovered that violates their codes of conduct.

My advice to students: Treat your social media accounts as though they are billboards on the interstate. Don’t post anything you don’t want the world to see. Moreover, be conscious of language, ideas or images that others might be using in conversation with you as they can be perceived of a reflection of you and your values.

Additional Note: Financial aid officers are able to access real estate profiles on Zillow as well as Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that might reveal pertinent home equity information and financial lifestyle choices that could have a bearing on the determination of a family’s ability to pay for college.

Dear Peter,
I need advice regarding the FAFSA and if one should, or should not, complete it. If we put our information into the FAFSA system, will colleges assume we are seeking financial aid even if we do not intend to pursue that option? Will it reflect more positively if we don’t complete the FAFSA? Or will schools understand our intent if we check the “do not need financial aid” option?

Dear Marge,
Completing the FAFSA will not lead to the conclusion by colleges that you are pursuing need-based financial aid. The FAFSA is a Federal document designed to determine your daughter’s eligibility to receive loans, grants and campus work opportunities funded and/or subsidized by the US government. It makes sense to complete the FAFSA if you want to explore these funding options.

While many colleges use the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional support, the more selective private colleges will also require submission of the College Scholarship Service Profile.

In any case, the point of discrimination in the selective admission process will come when an institution determines that you are not able to be fully self-funding in the process, at which time the question becomes: “If we extend institutional funding to this student, what is the likely return on our investment?” This question will become relevant regardless of whether the “financial aid box” is checked on the application for admission.

At schools where your daughter is likely to be on the margin of the competition, the demonstrated “need” of financial assistance could well compromise her chances of admission. Conversely, in admission competition where she is highly valued for what she has to offer, an institution will admit her and use its resources to leverage her enrollment. The solution: work with her to identify schools where she will be valued for what she has to offer!

BCF Readers’ Forum XVI

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Dear Peter,
My son was just admitted to a selective university in their Early Decision Round II. While we received some financial aid from them, I’m wondering if we should send out emails to the other, even more selective colleges to which he applied asking if they can speed up the decision process. If he gets into one of them with better financial aid, then I could ask the ED school for more. If they don’t give us more grants, then that would give us an excuse to get out of the ED.

Dear Mike,
When your son applied ED, he gave up the right/opportunity to compare financial aid awards. While he might appeal his financial aid award at the ED school, at the end of the appeal process he will need to withdraw all other active applications and commit to the ED school. The time to reconcile the financial aid situation was before the ED application was submitted. By applying ED, he (and you) agreed that any contingent matters that could stand in the way of his enrollment had been fully resolved. By trying to play one school against another while committed ED, he risks losing all potential offers of admission. Many of these schools compare ED acceptance lists and he doesn’t want to be seen as failing to honor his ED commitment.

Dear Peter,
We were recently bombarded with college letters for our sophomore daughter. The letters all appear to have been robo-generated and arrived within a day of each other. Each is particular to that college but largely the same. In your presentation, you mentioned a student who didn’t get into his desired college because he neglected to respond to a simple survey sent to him. Would this count for these robo-generated mailings? Are these legitimate?

Dear Annie,
The barrage of letters your sophomore received is not unusual. Colleges invest heavily in “lead generation.” They buy names of students (often in excess of 100,000 names) whose credentials would put them on the institution’s “competitive playing fields.” A common indicator of this is performance on tests (SAT, ACT, AP) combined with other self-reported information (GPA, academic interest, etc.). Selected students then receive introductory materials that are designed to pique their curiosity, if not impress them.

While the deluge can, at first, generate excitement, the “ego” mail soon begins to feel like “junk” mail and much of it is understandably discarded. On the other hand, if your daughter receives information from colleges that have programs and educational environments that might be of interest to her, she should respond. It is likely that most of these schools will continue to reach out to her, so she will no doubt have future opportunities to engage them when she is ready. Responding will put her on the institution’s radar screen and set up the potential for more substantive exchanges (including surveys) in the future.

Dear Peter,
My son has been notified that he is either a semi-finalist or finalist in merit scholarships at a number of excellent schools. These were all regular decision applications and therefore he has not received formal acceptances from them. Would you say it is safe to assume that if he named as a scholarship candidate and is being asked to send additional information for the scholarship that he will be receiving an acceptance to the school?

Dear Ali,
It would be logical to assume that your son is someone of real interest to these schools—they’re not going to be waving scholarship opportunities in front of weak candidates! That said, he needs to stay engaged (respond to requests for information about the scholarships, participate in interviews when offered, visit the campus and meet with professors in his academic area of interest).

Short of receiving actual letters of acceptance, however, nothing is guaranteed. IF admission officers sense any disinterest on his part or that he is leaning toward another school, they might decide not to admit him. Bottom line: it is much better to be part of these conversations than not!

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a high-achieving student presently doing a gap year in the Czech Republic. She will be entering 10th grade in the Fall. She is interested in enrolling at an IB secondary school in Prague that is run in close alignment to the British educational system. However, she is pretty certain that she will want to go to an American university.

What issues will she confront when applying to American colleges, having come from a non-USA IB institution of British pedigree? And importantly, want can she do in her three years to showcase and/or mitigate that peculiarity to the satisfaction of American colleges?

Dear Mark,
It sounds like your daughter is enjoying a remarkable cross-cultural learning experience! Continuing her education in Prague would be incredibly broadening and enlightening—a rare opportunity!

The good news is that the IB is universal in its curriculum and assessment. While it might take on the nuance of the local milieu, it is nonetheless recognized as a premier, if not the premier, academic program in the world. As you probably know, the IB was created to give students studying outside of the USA an opportunity to prepare to compete for admission and succeed in the classroom at the most selective institutions in this country. I do not foresee any circumstance in which this experience would compromise her future college applications.

My advice to your daughter would be to soak it all in. If she continues to work hard and squeeze everything she can from the experience, she’ll have a compelling story to tell when applying to colleges in the USA.

Dear Peter,
What do colleges mean when they say they want to see four years of study in a particular discipline? Does French I–IV (in 8th–11th grade) cover it or do they mean they’d like someone to study French all the years they’re in high school?

Dear Jill,
When colleges talk about four years of study, they are referencing grades 9-12. Work done in 8th grade generally doesn’t qualify.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has received acceptances to a great public Ivy school and to a highly regarded pharmacy program within a large out-of-state, state university. She has just received preliminary award letters from each school and they are very different. The public Ivy school has left a gap of $18,000 whereas the state school has left a gap of $35,000 per year. Is it appropriate to approach the state school to ask for a better offer and if so what is the best way to go about this? Is it realistic to think that this difference in award can be bridged or do some schools simply have more money? I would like her to be able to weigh up her options from a level playing field. As it stands right now the state school is out of her reach financially.

Dear Leanne,
You can always ask for reconsideration from the out-of-state university. If you do, you might present the other financial aid award as evidence of what the competition has to offer. I wouldn’t expect much from the appeal, though, as state university award processes are likely to be more formula driven and any discretionary funds are likely to go to the in-state kids first.

BTW, your daughter’s interest in pharmacy is likely to require graduate school at which time she might choose the program at the state university for the pharmacy degree. If that is the case, she can have the best of both worlds with these two schools.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been admitted Early Decision to her number-one choice. We are proud of her acceptance and have sent in our confirmation and our early deposit money.

Here’s the problem—she made some bad decisions and let her academic work slip in the second marking period. She got a 76 and 77 in two classes. All of her classes are AP and honors, but still, she dropped 12-15 points in those two classes AND they happen to be classes related to her intended major.

Her ED school requires mid-year grades to be sent. What should she do? Do we wait for them to say something? Or, should my daughter reach out to the regional admission rep and explain herself.

Dear Mary,
“Stuff” happens and right now it is best that your daughter get out in front of it. Better to own the situation than have to defend it in the face of questions.

The same thing happened to my grandson a couple of years ago with a slightly different twist. The difference: he hadn’t been admitted yet. The same day he received an email request from his ED school for his mid-year grades, the grades were revealed to him. He had gotten a D in Physics and was understandably mortified. We talked and he came to understand the need to own the situation.

He wrote a brief email to the regional recruiter in which he acknowledged that she would be seeing a significant drop in one of his grades. He explained that he had allowed himself to become distracted by his involvement with his travel soccer team (a week in Florida in early December for a tournament) and, as a result, found himself in a bind with Physics. Nonetheless, he offered no excuses and asserted that he was embarrassed by the outcome: “this isn’t who I am and promise you I don’t want to ever let it happen again.”

The admission officer wrote back somewhat incredulously: “Thank you…we never hear this kind of explanation from students…I’ll share this with my colleagues and get back to you. ”He was subsequently admitted.

I suggest your daughter follow a similar approach. There is no need to get into all the details. In her own words, she simply needs to take responsibility. She had allowed herself to be distracted by her non-academic involvements at the expense of her attention to classroom assignments.

I would add it is highly unlikely the college will revoke her offer of admission. They will, however, continue to watch her performance through the end of the year (yes, June!) and, if these grades prove to be a troublesome trend, she could then lose her place in the class.