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“Fool’s Gold”

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Earlier this year, a friend asked my opinion about a dilemma that had come upon one of her advisees. A young woman whom she was advising had been accepted Early Decision to her first-choice school, a highly selective institution in the Northeast. Upon receiving the acceptance letter, she withdrew the applications she had submitted to half a dozen other elite institutions in order to honor her Early Decision commitment. The first in her family to attend college, she was understandably elated. Not only was she going to college, she had been admitted to the college of her dreams!

Weeks later, however, the elation turned to shock and concern when the financial aid award arrived and she found that her family was expected to contribute much more money out-of pocket than she had anticipated.

Instead of the $5,000 she thought her family would need to pay out of pocket, she was told their contributions would be closer to $12,000. She was now in a bind and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t afford her ED school and was now without options as she had withdrawn her applications to the other schools on her short list.

It is important to note that, prior to submitting the ED application, this young woman and her parents had completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and subsequently received a Student Aid Report (SAR). Based on the information her family provided, the SAR indicated an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $5,000 for the first year. While that was a lot of money for this family, her parents were confident enough in their ability to come up with that amount that she had gone ahead with the ED application. Now, the school to which she was committed was somehow expecting more, much more.

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are likely to play out in many households in the coming weeks as colleges and universities stretch their financial aid budgets to accommodate the financial needs of students whom they have accepted. For families, the revelations can be gut wrenching, if not downright painful.

Despite the early (October of the Senior Year) accessibility of the FAFSA application and the availability of “Net Price Calculators” (mandated on college websites to provide better information to families about cost and affordability) there is little precision in a process that is fraught with institutional nuances and agendas. As the young woman in this situation found out, institutions have variable means at their disposal to assess the EFC—means that can produce a range of results generated from data provided by the same family!

Moreover, colleges will apply these means in a manner reflective of the desirability of each candidate—an institutional prerogative that is lost in the online calculators.

For example, many private institutions utilize the College Scholarship Service Profile as well as the FAFSA to arrive at an EFC for a student. Rarely, however, do the two methodologies agree. In fact, PROFILE-generated EFCs can be $5,000-$10,000 higher than EFCs projected by the FAFSA. In a practice known as “differential need analysis,” institutions that utilize both methodologies can then choose, on a case-by-case basis, the one that allows it to respond to the student in a manner consistent with the value it attaches to that student. By doing so, the institution can claim to meet the demonstrated needs of its admitted students without ever having to reconcile the differential in the respective need analyses to the families involved.

I saw this first-hand when a young man shared with me the financial aid awards he had received from ten different colleges. They were so strikingly different that, if one were to “white out” his name on each award letter, you would think that each letter was being addressed to a different student! Some had very generous grants and scholarships while others were front-loaded with sizeable loans. In each case, the institutions had chosen to assess and meet his financial need according to the manner in which they regarded him as a candidate.

In yet other cases, colleges will ignore the need analyses and simply elect not to meet the full need of the admitted student. Instead, they will provide a basic financial aid award that covers a fraction of the demonstrated need and fill the ”gap” of unmet need with additional loans for the student and/or the parents. However it is manifest, don’t be surprised to find this type of gapping, as well as differential need analysis, in the days to come.

As you weigh your educational options, then, in the coming weeks, it is important that you understand the terms of the enrollment agreements you are considering, including your obligation to meet the cost of attendance. Sometimes in the euphoria associated with “getting in” it is easy to overlook the details and, in the case of managing college costs, the “devil might indeed be in the detail.”

The good news is that colleges will treat well those students whom they find most attractive. As a result, there are good deals to be found. To find them, though, you need to manage expectations and focus on finding colleges that are the best “fit” for you. Among other things, “best fit” colleges are those that value you for what you have to offer. They will admit you—and give you the support needed to meet your goals as a student on their campuses.

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

The college admission process can produce some interesting personal dilemmas. One such quandary was brought to my attention in a phone call from a young man who was trying to sort out an Early Decision opportunity. A competitive athlete, he had been approached by a recruiting coach from an NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) school with the suggestion that he convert his application for admission from Regular Decision to Early Decision (ED). Moreover, the coach had assured the young man that if his application for financial aid did not produce the desired assistance from this institution, he would not be held to his commitment to enroll if accepted ED.

The student was understandably excited and confused by this development. While he liked the school very much, he couldn’t say for sure that it was his first choice. This is largely due to his need of financial aid. In fact, the uncertainty of his financial aid situation had led him to actively consider other schools as well. Moreover, he understood the underlying premise of the unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted that is assumed of ED candidates. As a result, he was skeptical of the pitch he had been given by this coach.

My advice to the young man was simple: “If you need to make sure you get the best financial aid possible—and there is a chance other schools might admit you and give you better offers—then don’t give up your right to see those offers by converting your application to ED at one school.”

I pointed out that the coach is behaving unethically in making this suggestion and suggested that he (the student) not compound the problem by heading down that road with him. I’m not sure I told this young man anything he didn’t already suspect to be true, but our chat gave him the confidence to respond to the coach’s overtures.

Whether or not you are a recruited athlete, you need to be vigilant about the ethics of the admission process. This can be especially challenging when you see evidence that others—on both sides of the negotiation—are pushing the ethical “envelope.” Where there are clearly articulated rules, you need to observe them. The desire to get into favored schools should never put you in a place where you compromise your integrity.

Unfortunately, the coach in question was crossing the ethical “line” by asking the applicant to consider an Early Decision application when he knew the young man could only do so conditionally due to his financial situation—clearly a breach of rules governing the ED process. The good news is the young man had the presence of mind to step back and assess the situation objectively.

Now, in case you’re checking the calendar and wondering how this conversation between the coach and the applicant could be taking place as the “round two” deadlines for ED have passed at most schools, welcome to the world of college admission in 2018! These are the days when selective colleges do what they can to pump up their yields on offers of admission while looking for opportunities to reduce the overall number of students they need to admit and, hence, become more selective. For example, each additional ED enrollment reduces the number of low-yielding Regular Decision candidates to be admitted by four or five at most colleges.

Consider the impact of such a strategy on a larger scale. A college or university that can attract 50 more ED enrollments over the previous year reduces by as many as 250 Regular Decision students it would otherwise need to admit to fill those places in the class. As a result, the more ED enrollments a school can stockpile, the more selective it becomes.

Add to the mix the dynamics of athletic recruitment—even at the NCAA Division III non-scholarship level—and the opportunity for late-season Early Decision conversations emerges. A few other observations are worth noting here.

One, the NCAA forbids Division III athletic recruiters from having any conversation about family finances with the financial aid officers at their respective institutions. In short, an athlete’s potential involvement in an NCAA Division III program may NOT have any bearing on the disposition of his/her financial aid status.

Two, each institution employs slightly different criterion in assessing a student’s financial “need” and then recognizing the comparative strength of her academic credential within the context of its financial aid program. It is not only possible, then, that a recruit’s financial “need” could be read differently from one school to the next, but the strength of her academic credential could also result in differences in the composition of the financial aid awards she receives. Whereas a student athlete may qualify for special consideration academically at one school, at others she may not.

Finally, the late season ED phenomenon is not limited to recruited athletes. Admission officers at many selective schools will keep the application “door” open past formal deadlines as they troll for high-yielding ED conversions well into February of the admission process. Should you be presented with such an opportunity, just remember—the rules remain the same. If you convert your application to ED, you are making an unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted.

By Peter Van Buskirk

In recent weeks, thousands of anxious Early Decision and Early Action applicants have been learning the outcome of their applications. While the news brings excitement and relief to many, even more students find themselves holding letters of deferral or denial—and wondering what went wrong.

The angst has been brought home to me in various conversations with bewildered students and parents over the last six weeks. In all cases, the conversations involved excellent students—young people with strong records and well-developed talents coming from challenging academic programs. By all accounts, they deserved better. Now, however, they are left scrambling to reorient themselves to different options.

In assessing each situation, it is usually easy to spot the reason behind the non-admission—and it often revolves around a lack of purpose or intentionality regarding the submitted application. In other words, the students expected their credentials to stand on their own merit. Instead, the reader of the application would have easily surmised that the candidate expected the sheer weight of good grades, superb extracurricular activities and worthy goals to carry the day.

At selective institutions, however, those characteristics (good grades, etc.) do little more than put the student on the “competitive playing field” with hundreds or, in many cases, thousands of other equally qualified applicants. Their credentials are strong enough to start the conversation, but often fall short of “clinching the deal.”

Consider, for example, the highly involved student whose application failed to convey the generosity that shaped his character or the student who neglected to mention that the absence of a foreign language on her senior year schedule was due to a conflict with a course she is taking at a local college. Imagine the difference a personal interview would have made for the student whose life circumstances had affected her performance in the classroom, or the impact a thoughtfully developed personal statement could have had in place of the hastily completed essay that was deemed “good enough” by its author.

In each case, the lack of intentionality—the failure to “connect the dots” of one’s life experiences—brought the candidate up “short” in the end. Perhaps,  most often overlooked is the opportunity the students have to demonstrate the synergy that exists between themselves and the institutions to which they are applying. In response to the typical “Why do you want to attend our school?” essay, a rather gratuitous response citing the school’s ranking and the prestige of its faculty reveals nothing about the student’s sense of purpose.

On the other hand, had the student reached beyond the obvious to reveal the synergy—in real and personal terms—between the student’s aptitude, goals and learning style and the institution’s ability to complement them, he would have positioned himself much more effectively, especially in the competition for admission at colleges that must make fine distinctions between great candidates.

Quite often, then, the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance boils down to the student’s ability—and willingness—to be thoughtful and intentional in the presentation of her application. The winners in this competition are typically those who recognized—and seized upon—the opportunity to “connect the dots” of their applications to present themselves in a thematically cohesive manner. More than qualified, they made themselves into compelling candidates by giving admission officers greater insight into the unique perspectives and defining influences in their lives.

While there is not much current seniors can do to change the presentations of their submitted applications, the lessons learned in the process are worth passing forward to those who can benefit from them as they prepare their college applications. Start now to make note of how you want to approach the presentation of your credentials when the time comes. You will have that opportunity before you know it!

BCF Readers’ Forum VI

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Dear Peter,
My son was recently deferred Early Action at a school that continues to be his top choice. He remains hopeful and we would appreciate your guidance on what he should do next. He intends to reach out to the regional recruiter and to submit a letter expressing his continued interest in the school. He has also arranged to submit his grades for the first two marking periods of senior year. He does not want to overstep and provide anything more than they wish to receive, but he does not want to under-respond, either.

Please advise us regarding how assertive he should be under these circumstances and what action he should take to put his best foot forward while they consider his application with the regular decision applicant pool. Is it appropriate to inform the school at this point that if he were to be granted an acceptance, he would enroll at that school? This school is truly where he dreams about attending.

Dear Marge,
It is important to know that colleges offering the Early Action option (no enrollment commitment expected) are seeking to identify students who would otherwise be at the top of the competition in their respective Regular Decision candidate pools. While disappointing, the deferral does not imply a lessening of chances in the Regular process.

It sounds like he is doing all the right things at this point to stay on the “radar” of the regional recruiter. The letter expressing his intent to enroll if accepted, along with any new information, is appropriate. The first key is brevity. The second key is patience. The next 8-10 weeks will be torturously slow!

Dear Peter,
We are now into the second phase of college applications—shock and disappointment! My daughter just found out that two of her top choices have deferred her Early Action. Are there any tips you can give regarding what she should do next that might increase her chances of acceptance? Do you know, from experience, the percent of deferrals that are accepted? I want to try to give her some hope as these are her top schools.

Dear Jaime,
I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s Early Action deferrals. That said, she should take heart. The chances for students deferred EA are essentially the same as the chances for other Regular decision candidates. In the EA process, admission committees are looking for the superstar applicants, asking the question, “Do we know for certain that she would be one of best candidates if she were to apply Regular decision?” If so, the student is admitted. Absent that high level of certainty, the admission decision will be deferral. Students who are not likely to be competitive at all will be denied.

It is important to note that the implications of deferral in the EA process are much different than they are for deferral in the Early Decision process. In the latter, the question is, “If she were to be a candidate in the Regular admission process, do we think we might admit her then?” Whereas, in ED the tendency is to “lower the bar” somewhat academically, in EA the tendency is to “raise the bar.”

Without knowing more, I would observe that the probability of your daughter’s application being admitted is consistent with the overall selectivity of the respective colleges. If they admit one out of four, then her chances are one out of four. It could turn out that her credentials are highly valued by either or both of the colleges and she might still be admitted. She still needs to be mindful of the competitive nature of each school, though.

The best advice I can offer is to remain engaged in appropriate ways with each school. In particular, forward any new information to the regional recruiters as well as the admission office in general. The former are the decision-makers who are most likely to be involved in determining the outcomes of her applications.

Dear Peter,
In mid-December, my son received an acceptance letter from a university to which he applied Early Decision. He was thrilled and withdrew all of his other applications.

I am curious about something, though. My son applied Early Action to all of the other schools on his list, so he was finished submitting applications by November 1st. Is there any way for a university that receives an Early Action application to know that the same applicant has also submitted an ED application to another school? And if so, could this send a message that they are not the “first choice”?

Dear Liz,
First of all, congrats to your son on his acceptance! He did the right thing by withdrawing his other applications, including the Early Action applications. It is common for colleges to share lists of students accepted in the ED process with their peers. The schools to which he applied EA would then withdraw his applications if he hadn’t done so already.

I would offer two thoughts in response to your question. 1) Colleges with EA programs assume that many of their candidates will be ED candidates elsewhere—even if they don’t have any hard evidence of the fact. 2) Colleges offering EA do not expect that students applying EA are declaring first choice interest. All but a few (with restricted, single-choice EA options) assume that students applying EA at their schools are also applying EA at others as well. In the EA competition—and in the Regular Decision process—it is critical to demonstrate a sincerity of interest and, more importantly, recognition of the synergy that exists between the student and institution. Admission officers are really good at discerning the intentionality or sense of purpose that is exhibited by the candidate in the application.

Dear Peter,
I’ve read that most ED accepted applicants at the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools play a varsity sport. Is that true?

Dear Doug,
While I cannot refer to specific data, I doubt that is the case. It is true that NESCAC schools use ED aggressively in qualifying and securing commitments from recruited athletes—as do other highly selective, non-scholarship programs—but I suspect the majority of admitted ED candidates are not athletes.

Dear Peter,
My 10th-grade son is an outstanding student with a GPA > 4.0, all honors and AP classes and very strong standardized test-taking skills. He plays soccer, runs track and volunteers at his HS after school as a tutor for struggling students.

I’ve regularly encouraged him to consider applying to schools in the top tier of colleges that interest him but he’s been consistently dismissive of the whole college ranking/selection process and believes that, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter (either during his college years or afterwards in his profession and life) where he goes to school as long as he’s happy with his choice. He now refuses to talk about college with me and rejected the chance to visit any number of east coast schools this summer when we will be traveling for a family event.

My goal for him is to find a great school that he loves, but one that triggers and sustains a very high level of intellectual curiosity for him. I am quite confident that the faculty, resources, student diversity and learning environment at schools like Tufts, MIT or Wesleyan would prove extraordinarily satisfying for him both now and truly for the rest of his life. How do I get him to see that, or to at least consider that I may be right and that, all things being equal, he should probably go to Georgetown over San Diego State?

Dear Ian,
It sounds like your son is actually being very thoughtful about his educational future. I tend to agree with him about rankings in that they often provide a distorted sense of institutional worth. And I would have to agree that success upon graduation and in life is less a function of where he goes—and is more likely determined by what he does once on that campus.

At this point, your son probably just needs some space. It is not uncommon for parental anticipation of the process to be met by teenage indifference. He is still a sophomore—he’s got a lot of time. The last thing you want to do is push him away.

When you do talk about his educational future, you might try a different approach. Instead of focusing on the places, why don’t you try talking with him about his interests? What are his favorite subjects—and why? Who are his favorite teachers—and why? How would he describe himself as a student? Why does he want to go to college? What would a “good education” feel like to him?

Once the conversation is about him—and he can begin to reflect on his priorities—it will be easier for him to begin thinking about places that will best enable him to achieve his goals. In the end, he might discover some of the same schools you’ve been presenting to him, but the “find” needs to be his.

Dear Peter,
We learned that one of the highly selective schools to which my daughter has applied looks at demonstrated interest. Would it be helpful or a waste of time to schedule a campus visit now that apps are already submitted? If it is helpful, when would be the latest date to visit that would benefit her? (We are thinking mid-late February).

Dear Jill,
Campus visits are indeed the best indicators to colleges that are attempting to measure a student’s interest. While this visit should have taken place last summer/fall, visiting now is better than not at all as your daughter will get the benefit of learning more about the school first-hand. It’s hard to know whether the visit will be persuasive to decision-makers. Mid-late February might suit her agenda, but it will probably be too late to be impactful in the admission process.

Dear Peter,
We know that we are not going to qualify for need-based aid, so is there any reason to submit the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile?

Dear Lynn,
There is no need to submit the CSS Profile as it is used to determine your eligibility for need-based institutional funds. On the other hand, an institution might require submission of the FAFSA if your student is offered a merit scholarship. Because the FAFSA determines your eligibility for funds (grants, loans, campus work study) from the Federal government, you’ll also need to submit it if your student wants to take out a student loan or secure a job on campus, both of which are funded (for the most part) by the Feds.


BCF Readers’ Forum VII

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Dear Peter,
How important is it to make donations to one’s alma mater? There’s a good chance that at least one of my three kids will want to go to mine. Is a small annual contribution advisable?

Dear Jim,
The impact of donations to one’s alma mater is not easy to anticipate as each school is different. Generally speaking, the more selective the school, the greater that gift needs to be in order to effectively leverage an outcome. I do know that colleges are sensitive to the percent of alumni who give as that information is factored into some ranking calculations. That said, a small annual donation would probably make sense as it would at least demonstrate some level of engagement on your part, the absence of which might raise questions about the level of interest on the part of the student.

Dear Peter,
My daughter will be attending college starting in August. We have filled out the FASFA application and entered 10 of her top colleges. I need to add 5 more. How do we go about this? Do we create a new account with the same information?

Dear Matt,
If you want to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to more than 10 schools, the FAFSA website provides several options for doing so. Visit their website at to find answers to the question, “If I want to apply to more than ten colleges, what should I do?”

Dear Peter,
My son attends a magnet public high school. He recently received a letter from a private college trustee asking for my son to submit his high school GPA and SAT scores for a baseline institutional aid award. This is not a college that was on his list and he has not visited the college. Should he go ahead and see what the aid award will be? They do have his intended program of study. The tuition at the college is $56,000/yr. (tuition, room/board and fees). They also give out merit awards based on GPA plus SAT score.

Dear Lily,
The letter your son received is analogous to a “cold call” from the institution—it’s part of their marketing effort. If your son checks out the school and finds that it could be interesting, then it can’t hurt to respond and see what happens. It will cost you nothing and your son can always “walk away” if his subsequent research does not inspire stronger interest. At the end of the day, he needs to stay focused on finding “fit” with regard to his priorities.

Dear Peter,
I have heard that college admissions offices are “need blind”, that is to say the counselors do not know if an applicant will need financial help or not and I was wondering what your perspective is on that.

Dear Brad,
“Need blind admission,” the notion that colleges will look only at the student’s academic record—and not the family’s ability to pay—is laudable but, in reality, it isn’t possible. To be need blind, institutions would need to be “blind” to the financial circumstances for all families throughout every phase of the selection process. While this is where many institutions start the process, it is not where they finish.

Whenever there are exceptions, the need blind rubric fails. And there will be exceptions (students on the Wait List, transfer candidates, international applicants and students with marginal credentials are all vulnerable to questions of ability to pay). Even the wealthiest institutions have fixed financial aid budgets to which they must be accountable. Whereas “need blind” implies that the institution has sufficient resources to be able to “blindly” admit students and dole out funds accordingly, it must ultimately be accountable to a bottom line. Moreover, the suggestion that admission officers cannot see financial data or are not aware of a family’s financial circumstances is simply not accurate.

The bottom line: It is important to remember that, regardless of claims institutions make about their admission/financial aid practices, they will always admit—and support—the students they value most.

Dear Peter,
What do you do with a high achiever who isn’t getting engaged with the college process and hasn’t found a fit at any of the colleges visited? His GPA is at the top of the class and his test scores are in the tops 95th percentile. The drive for this student is to learn, but the specific area hasn’t been found yet—everything is “exciting.” If there was a college close by where there was an option to live at home I would choose that. I think about a deferred entrance but am not sure how that works.

Dear Suzanne,
It is important to keep in mind that, above all, the four years of college are about self-discovery. It could be that your son is feeling paralyzed by the expectation that he must have a clear career path already worked out in his mind before choosing a college. The reality is that most students change their minds about their majors once in college—half of them do it twice!

I would introduce him to liberal arts colleges and general studies programs—curricula that will allow him to explore. Encourage him to sit in on college classes and talk with professors about their work. Such experiences will spark his interest and help whet his appetite for college studies. If he remains uncertain/ambivalent, then the gap year might be a healthy, productive option.

Dear Peter,
Should IEP documentation be forwarded with an Early Decision or Early Action application OR after the student is accepted?

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that the IEP documentation might provide useful context with regard to the student’s academic performance, it should be included with the application, even in the ED or EA process. Regardless, related documentation should be presented to the institution’s personnel responsible for compliance with accommodations after the student has been accepted in order to ensure appropriate accommodations upon enrollment.

Dear Peter,
My daughter finally submitted her applications and now realizes that all the college communication she has been receiving from them was on her personal email address. Given the need to synchronize with the school’s Naviance and Common Application/Coalition systems, however, she used her high school email address on her college applications, an address that won’t match the one she’s used in communicating with the colleges over the past 1.5+ years.

I’ve asked her to sign up her new, school supplied email address to all the schools she has applied to in order to show her continued interest. I’m concerned, however, that it will look like she just signed up “after” she submitted her application, when in reality she has been on their email listings for a very long time.

Am I making too much of this or should she contact each school to let them know of this change so they can update her records to show that she had been following the school for quite some time?

Dear Ted,
Your concern is valid. It is hard to know, though, the “key” items that are used to track students in the databases at each college. In the unlikely event that a place tracks exclusively based on the email address, your daughter could get lost in the shuffle. It is more likely, though, that schools will use a combination of factors including last name, first name, school name, high school graduation year, etc. If your daughter is at all concerned that her prior record of contacts will be lost she might reach out to the respective regional recruiters to let them know of the change.

Dear Peter,
My son, an A-plus, well-rounded IB student, only got 1350 on the SAT. He was hoping to apply to an Ivy league school. Does he have a chance of getting in with these credentials, or should he wait until he has re-written the exam to apply?

Dear Anne,
Based on the strength of your son’s academic profile alone, he’ll be on the competitive “playing field” at any school in the country. While he could conceivably be admitted anywhere, his actual chances are no better than anyone else at schools, like the Ivies, where the probabilities of admission range from 5%-15%. Since SATs are implicitly used as competitive credentials at the most selective institutions (including the Ivy League), his current credentials will not put him in a compelling place in the competition for admission at those schools.

I don’t normally suggest additional testing but, in this case it could help a little. That said, I would strongly urge your son to be mindful of schools where he’s more likely to be valued for what he has to offer, academically and otherwise. Too often, those schools get put on the “back-burner” during the pursuit of the more prestigious options. The former are very good, though, at discerning the student’s intent and will often put them on the Wait List if the perceived interest is not strong. Your son should be diligent about developing relationships at these schools in order to avoid that potential outcome.

Dear Peter,
We will not be eligible for need based aid based on our income; however, we were told by my daughter’s advisor that the FAFSA might be needed for merit aid purposes. We do hope to be able to get some merit aid and wonder if that is the case. I have also heard you have a better chance of acceptance if you do not apply for need based aid. I was surprised by that. Is that a possibility?

Dear Marc,
If you are certain you will not need financial assistance—and you don’t expect your daughter to take a guaranteed student loan or a job on campus—completing the FAFSA won’t be necessary. While you shouldn’t need to complete the FAFSA to qualify your daughter for scholarships, you might be expected to submit it after the fact if she is awarded a scholarship somewhere. Regardless, check with the colleges in question as those that offer scholarships will make related requirements well known to you.
Colleges are not likely to discriminate against candidates in the admission process strictly based on the submission of a FAFSA. Rather, they will wait to see the numbers (IRS returns) before they decide whether the likely ROI is commensurate with the financial aid being considered. Just keep in mind that colleges will admit and aid the students whom they value most.

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.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Applying Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) are increasingly popular options for college applicants. The following is a breakdown of what you need to know before you apply ED or EA.

1.  Early Decision (ED): What Is It?
Early Decision is an application opportunity offered by many of the nation’s selective institutions that provides the promise of early feedback (an admission decision) in exchange for the student’s commitment to enroll if accepted. A student may only be active as an ED candidate at one college. If admitted ED, a student is expected to withdraw all other Regular Decision applications that might have been active and enroll at the ED school.

ED: Inside the Numbers
Think selectivity. Think rankings. “Admitting one to enroll one,” allows a college to use ED to leverage as many high yield students into its entering classes as possible. By contrast, many schools must admit 3-5 students in Regular Decision to enroll one, a lower yielding proposition. What you are looking at, then, is fundamental enrollment management. For every ED enrollment it achieves, a college can reduce its number of Regular Decision offers by as many as five-fold, thereby, increasing its yield, improving selectivity and becoming more attractive in the college ranking process.

Possible ED Outcomes
Colleges will consider one of three outcomes when students apply ED: acceptance, deferral and denial. If accepted, the student is expected to enroll. When deferred or denied, however, the student is released from that commitment and effectively becomes a “free agent” who can pursue other options—including ED at another school. Deferred candidates will be considered again within the context of the Regular Decision review process.

Who Benefits?
Whereas it has been a long-held notion that ED was reserved for only the very best candidates, it is now the case that “reasonably competitive” candidates can also benefit from the ED option as colleges seek to build their enrollments with “high yielding” students. In addition, ED will be an attractive option at many schools for the following:

  • Students who do not require financial assistance
  • Athletic recruits
  • Legacy candidates

2.  Early Action (EA): What Is It?
Early Action also affords students the opportunity to submit credentials to some highly selective colleges in return for notification ahead of the Regular Decision process. The big difference: students who choose this option are not presumed to be declaring a first-choice interest in the colleges to which they apply EA. As a result, they are not committed to enroll if admitted and may, in many cases, apply EA to multiple schools. That said, a handful of institutions offer EA as a restrictive, “single choice” option that prohibits students from applying EA to any other school. Be sure to read the fine print regarding each institution’s EA program.

EA Inside the Numbers
If you are still thinking selectivity and rankings, you are right on the mark! While EA candidates do not enroll at the same rate as admitted ED candidates (presumably 100%), they are still likely to enroll at a much higher rate than students who apply Regular Decision. Colleges know this because they track their yields on EA offers from year to year. That said, admission committees tend not to bend their academic standards for EA candidates. Rather, they are banking on the opportunity to realize higher conversion rates among high profile admitted students by making strong, positive connections with them early in the process.

Possible EA Outcomes
Much like the case with ED, EA outcomes include acceptance, deferral and denial. The only difference is that acceptance does not involve a commitment to enroll. In addition, deferred candidates generally find themselves on equal footing with other Regular Decision candidates.

Who Benefits?
Unlike ED, EA really doesn’t improve one’s chances of admission. Why? Institutions are reluctant to commit places in the class to strong, but not superior students without first being able to compare them with the larger pool of candidates. EA does, however, provide peace of mind for those who use it early in the process.

3.  Tips for Potential ED/EA Applicants

  • Read the fine print for each institutional offering and understand your commitments before initiating an early application of any sort.
  • Rather than looking for an “ED school,” focus on finding colleges that fit you well as you arrive at your short list of schools. If one of them becomes your absolute first choice, then ED should be a considered option.
  • Do not apply ED unless you are dead certain of your commitment to enroll if accepted.
  • Do not apply ED if you have not visited the campus first! Ideally, your visit will have included an overnight stay that enabled you to also attend classes and experience the campus culture.
  • Resist the temptation to act on impulse. The feelings you have for a college now might change greatly over time leaving you committed to a place that is no longer where you want to be. Give yourself at least a month to reflect on your intended application before applying ED.
  • Remember the ED Round II option. Many schools will give you the opportunity to “convert” your Regular Decision application during a second round of ED in January. The conditions are the same as with ED Round I, but you might be better prepared to make a commitment later in the year.
  • Resolve all questions and concerns about cost and affordability before applying ED. Once you are admitted, there can be no contingencies. Ask the school’s financial aid office to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC) before you submit your ED application. Apply ED only if you are completely satisfied with the information you receive regarding your EFC.
  • Sprint to the finish! Even though you might hold an EA or ED acceptance letter, it is likely to be conditional on your completion of the senior at the same level of achievement that earned you the offer of admission. More than a few colleges are known to rescind offers of admission when final transcripts show performances that drop measurably after offers of admission are secured.