College Planning Blog

Welcome to Best College Fit (BCF) College Planning Blog, an ongoing discussion of the factors that impact the college planning process. This space will keep you abreast of critical planning strategies, introduce you to key resources and comment on timely issues that relate to your college planning effort. We look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.

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BCF Readers’ Forum 6.21.18


Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BCF Readers’ Forum 4.18.18


Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

Dear Peter,
My son is waitlisted to the undergraduate engineering program at a very selective university for the fall 2017. The school reports that approximately 2,200 students asked to remain active on its Wait List and only 4 from 2,200 were ultimately accepted to the freshman class. So, it would appear the chances of a waitlisted applicant getting admitted to the University are less than 0.2%? If this info is accurate, would these waitlist probabilities be similar at other colleges?
Paul

Dear Paul,  
I must confess that I am generally very cynical about data self-reported by colleges. In particular, data derived from WL activity can be very “soft.” For example, colleges will only count as “admitted” from the WL those students who receive letters confirming the admission. The typical protocol for admitting students from the WL is for admission officers to contact them directly with a “verbal” offer. Letters of acceptance are only sent to the students who say “yes.” For example, it is not uncommon for admission officers to call 50-60 students—or more—before receiving 20 affirmative responses. The calls to students that failed to yield positive responses are not counted among the acceptances.
 
Moreover, admission data is often reported well before WL activity has been completed. While it is possible that the university in question only “accepted” four students from the WL by the time it reported its WL numbers, it is also possible that many more students were contacted and accepted after the report was submitted.
 
Having said that, the data/probabilities are likely to be similarly “soft” at other schools. I will say this, though, the WL is a dead-end for students who do not choose to remain active on it at a given school. On the other hand, those who remain active—visit the campus (again!), update their files with new information and make sure they are accessible (cell phones, emails, etc.)—have more reasonable chances of admission than they might have imagined.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted into five colleges, each of which has offered $20,000-$25,000 in scholarship money out of about $65,000 a year tuition and board. The problem is we have no money for his college and I’m not sure he can or should get a student loan for $40,000 a year. The FASFA was based on 2016 income when our combined income was $140,000. However, my husband lost his job in 2017. Between unemployment and short-term sales jobs, he earned less than half of his 2016 income. This year looks even worse financially as my income will significantly decrease while I am out of work due to recently diagnosed health issues. How do I go about contacting the colleges and sharing my new financial situation?
Ann

Dear Ann,
I would urge you to present a detailed explanation of your evolving situation to the financial aid officers at the colleges in question and ask for an appeal of your son’s financial aid status. Any documentation you can provide regarding employment, income and medical expenses will be very important. While you might be able to accomplish the appeal by phone, I would suggest you try to accomplish the meetings in person (call in advance to make an appointment). Contact information for the financial aid offices should be found on the award letters you received from the respective institutions.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I hear from many parents that our child needs to have volunteer hours included in with her college applications. Are these necessary and, if so, to what extent? Our daughter plays high school field hockey and occasionally volunteers at the field hockey clinics offered in our area. She hasn’t expressed any interest in volunteering in other areas and, with free time being so limited due to her field hockey club practices and clinics, I wonder if she NEEDS to be more diverse in her volunteer hours for her application. I was hoping you might be able to elaborate on this.
Hal

Dear Hal,
The best thing you can do is support your daughter’s development in those areas that are of interest to her. While volunteering/community service can certainly be a valued part of an applicant’s credentials, so can talent development and leadership. I would advise your daughter to continue investing in the things that give her joy in life. If volunteering becomes one of them, great. Regardless, it is most important that she continues to grow with her involvements.

I would like to add that you might stop listening to your friends on this topic! Unless they are or have been admission officers, they have no relevant expertise and know little more than you do at this point. The “noise” that envelops the college going-process can be maddening if you don’t find a way to block it out or at least process it with perspective. Enjoy your daughter’s teenage years with her—they’ll be gone before you know it! Help her to stay true to herself as she reaches into the uncertainty of the future. And help her find colleges that will value her for that person she is becoming.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is it a bad thing to drop a foreign language in the Senior Year if you have taken the 3 required years?
Arlene

Dear Arlene,
Much depends on the selectivity of the college in question. The more selective the college, the more important it is for a student to demonstrate breadth of curricular involvement through the senior year—and that includes language studies. If the student elects to drop a high-level course in the senior year, then the replacement course should be of the same level of academic rigor. Dropping a fourth year of Spanish for electives of less rigor is not a good idea. On the other hand, dropping it in order to take a second high-level science (for example) could be justified.

By the way, you reference “the 3 required years.” Please do not confuse requirements for HS graduation or minimum “requirements” posted by some colleges as an expression of what will be appropriate or most competitive in the college admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter was accepted to two schools, each of which is requiring her enrollment overseas—one for a semester and the other for a year—before she begins as a full-time student on their respective campuses. She has been admitted to two other schools, one with a scholarship and the other without special recognition. Her goal is to go to law school and maybe get a joint degree in business (JD/MBA). She has good options but is a bit confused about the overseas study requirement. Will she have the same opportunities at those colleges as she will at the others?
Alice

Dear Alice,
The enrollment opportunities your daughter has received at the first two colleges are not traditional offers of acceptance. While she should be able to achieve her educational/career goals at those colleges, there are some practical considerations. For example, students starting in September get the full advantage of orientation programming, first-year seminars and dedicated advisement while acclimating to both the academic and social routines with their peers and professors. Students starting at mid-year or a year later are effectively entering as transfer students. Unfortunately, the “process” doesn’t stop or slow down to accommodate them.
 
I often talk about the importance of finding a college that values the student for what she has to offer. In all candor, the offer of delayed entry enrollment puts your daughter at the “back of the line” in terms of who is being valued in the entering class. She—and others who are required to begin their studies elsewhere—are effectively being “stashed” at those places. While she will be allowed to enter discreetly through the “back-door” at each institution, she won’t count as an admitted student and her credentials will not be included in the profiles of admitted students. Her eventual enrollment will, however, enable the institutions to admit fewer students (and appear to be more selective) in the following year.

That said, she can still achieve her goals at the delayed entry colleges. The study abroad opportunities notwithstanding (window dressing in my opinion), though, delayed enrollment relative to her cohort does mean she’ll be starting at a competitive disadvantage.
 
Your daughter is fortunate to have options. I would urge her to proceed with eyes wide open relative to the implications of delayed enrollment.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I know it should be up to my son to decide which school he wants to attend, but I can’t help wondering if there is more than one “best college fit” school for him?  Is it wrong of me to convince him to attend “College A” because the odds are better for him at finding a job after school?  Fundamentally, I know he has the rest of his life to work and only one chance to have a great college experience, but I can’t seem to get past the phenomenal job statistics presented by “College A”.  It would be a shame if he were to graduate and have a tough time finding a job.

However, I have a feeling that my son might have a better and happier college experience at “College B” with its large and beautiful campus, athletic teams, and more traditional approach to academics and internships.  He would probably have more fun there, too.

Do you have any advice for this mom who has been losing sleep over her dilemma?
Rose

Dear Rose,  
Even though you (and your son) are on the homestretch of this process, some of the toughest decisions are yet to be made. This is a time, however, when you have to allow him to trust his own judgment.

One thing that I learned as a parent in the process is that, hard as it might be at times, as our kids move toward adulthood, we (parents) have to give them the opportunity to find their own way. While that might go against our very nature (after all, you have spent 17 years trying to protect your son from anything bad that might come his way while giving him every opportunity to succeed), at some point you need to ask yourself, “For how long in his life do I want to the responsible for everything good—and everything bad—that might happen in his life?” Hard as it might be, I suggest giving your son the opportunity to own the decision-making and the direction his life will take as a result.
 
There is no guarantee that the choice of a college he makes will turn out to be perfect. On the other hand, I truly believe he can’t go wrong. Marketing of programs aside, there is likely very little difference between the two programs. Your son’s eventual success will be determined by his comfort level with the school he has chosen. The more comfortable he is, the more likely it is that he will avail himself of all the opportunities that will be present for him.
 
The bottom line: there is a good chance your son is ready to find his own voice in the matter. If so, he will prosper in whichever environment he chooses.
Peter

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.

“Fact-checking College Admission” 9.16.17


Saturday, September 16th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

“Young man, it is your job to try to disprove everything I say. If you can disprove something, you have discovered a new truth. If you can’t disprove it, you have validated an old truth. Regardless, you have come to a better understanding of the truth.”

It has been many years since one of my professors who, upon observing my fastidious note-taking as he presented to our small group seminar, broke from his remarks to push me out of my comfort zone. The message, “Don’t accept something just because I say it is so,” continues to resonate. While I don’t remember anything else from the class that day, I have never forgotten his words!

As another college admission season begins to ramp up, the need to challenge assumptions—and search for the “truth”—has never been more relevant for students, parents and college access professionals. At a time when eagerness and anticipation morph into stress and anxiety, we tend to seek certainty—facts that can be trusted from seemingly reliable sources, things we know to be true—to guide our decision-making. In doing so, however, we are prone to accepting false “truths.”

Given the high stakes nature of college planning and the abundance of information being conveyed by institutions, online forums, media (social and mainstream) and backyard conversations, the need for critical thinking on the part of consumers is paramount as things aren’t always as they seem.

And, frankly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Full transparency is not part of the marketing formula for colleges as they seek to improve their admission measurables (test scores and selectivity that are projected as proxies for quality). The media panders to the mindset of rankings and the rhetoric of high profile institutions. And social media and backyard conversations revel in ill-informed, self-made expertise.

Consequently, the truth about college access and educational opportunity is often buried in layers of rhetoric and urban legend! A little digging, however, can be revealing. For example:

1)  Be wary about assertions regarding the “real” cost of attendance. Colleges are prone to such statements and the media likes to frame “best value” in related terms. While it is true that just about every student at a college might be paying a different amount due to either merit-based or need-based discounting, it is also true that colleges identify a “sticker cost” for a reason—they need cash to pay the bills and want to enroll as many students as possible whose families can afford the full amount.

Statements made in the abstract about students only paying X% of the sticker price are often misleading. Yes, many students pay the discounted amount—or less. If, however, you want to be one of those students at a given college, you need to be able to prove your value as a candidate (what does the college gain by admitting you?) in order to receive that type of discount. It is important to know, then, where you fit academically on a college’s competitive playing field and to have a realistic sense as to how your non-academic credentials will be regarded.

2)  Question policy statements that seem to be absolute. “We are need blind in the admission process” and “We meet the full, demonstrated need of 100% of our students” are moral positioning statements often associated with high profile institutions.

“Need blind,” an assertion that students are considered for admission without regard to the family’s financial circumstances, is highly conceptual. It assumes a complete lack of awareness of financial circumstance, actual or implied, in the selection process—which is highly improbable—as well as an inexhaustible supply of financial aid. Truth be told, however, even the wealthiest schools have fixed, financial aid budgets.

Moreover, “meeting 100% of demonstrated need” is a subjective notion in which the institution determines both the student’s “need” and the manner in which it is met. The assertion that students with family incomes under $X won’t have to borrow is similarly ambiguous given the range of potential interpretations for “income” that can be rendered.

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by such policy statements. While they reflect noble ambitions, they are not verifiable nor should they be regarded as differentiators in the choice of a college.

3)  Allow a healthy dose of cynicism in the face of those who seem to have all the answers regarding the admission process at your favorite college. Students who have been admitted to high-profile schools tend to become experts about the selection processes that they successfully navigated and are all too happy to proffer advice. Little do they realize that they were simply fortunate to have won the admission lotteries at their respective schools!

A similar “whisper-down-the-lane” phenomenon can be found in many high schools, workplaces and backyards as well where the “word on the street” about college admission takes on a life of its own. At times, the “noise” can be deafening, yet not many facts come from such conversations! Perhaps the best advice I can give you in this regard is to stop listening to your friends! They don’t know any more about the process than you do! Unless they were part of the decision-making effort at a college or university, they have no clue regarding how or why a candidate might be admitted! In the search for good information, your best bet is to focus on conducting original research.

NB: Predicative algorithms and apps are of limited value because they are unable to capture the potential synergy between you, your interests, talents and perspectives and a highly nuanced admission selection process.

4)  Don’t take everything you hear from colleges at face value. Institutions spend millions of dollars to create good impressions—to promote their brands. When you think about it, they’re trying to justify their sticker prices.

As a result, you will be treated to a “show” at every turn along the way from tours and information sessions to websites and literature. Stories abound about small classes, close interactions with professors and great internships as it seems like colleges are intent on being all things to all people. Be discerning, though, as you take it in. Does the rhetoric seem logical given the host environment? Do the stories reveal situations common to most students or are they truly exceptional? If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

If a college is putting on a “show,” take time to go “backstage” and immerse yourself in the culture of the place and of the academic programs that interests you. Talk with students and faculty who are not part of the cast. Can you see yourself functioning well with them? Will the place be a good fit for you given your goals and learning style?

In the final analysis, you need to remember that the college process is all about finding the best educational opportunity for you. There are no reliable shortcuts. Don’t expect answers or outcomes to be handed to you. Keep asking questions, challenging assumptions and pressing for information that will enable you to make smart decisions about your future. Don’t let the college process happen to you—make it happen for you.

BCF Readers’ Forum 8.19.17


Saturday, August 19th, 2017

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

Dear Peter,
My 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.
Ellen

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.
Peter

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?
Matt

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.
Peter

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

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.
Peter

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?
Sam

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.
Peter

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?
Gillian

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.
Peter

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?
Art

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.
Peter

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

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.
Peter

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?
LeeAnn

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.
Peter

Dear Peter,
The SAT prep class in which I had planned to enroll my daughter has come highly recommended and I believe she would really benefit from the approach it takes. Unfortunately, it is being run for those who will be taking the November 4, 2017 SAT. They are not running a prep class for those who will be sitting for the October 7, 2017 SAT which is the one my daughter was planning to take. We are not that confident in the prep program being run for the October test date.

Would you recommend that she take the October or November 2017 exam? She is not planning on applying Early Decision, but she may apply Early Action to a few schools. If she were to wait to take the November SAT, she would have the advantage of having this strong prep class under her belt. If she were your child—what would you recommend she do? This whole process has become VERY complicated.
Fiona

Dear Fiona,
I would urge your daughter to enroll in a test prep program that doesn’t add undue stress. Test prep is only as good as the synergy that exists between the student, the instructor and the medium of instruction. Any company can be very good—or very bad—for a given student.

There’s nothing wrong with prepping for and taking the November SAT, especially if the only October prep option is one in which you don’t have much confidence. As long as your daughter indicates on her applications that she will be sitting for the November SAT, most colleges will wait for the results before making decisions.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

August is here—and so are college rankings. With a new college admission cycle looming, editors from Money Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review have once again begun to ply us with a parade of ranking guides that presume to reveal the “best values” in education, identify the best “party” schools or, simply, quantify the mythical pecking order of colleges. Before you get out your credit card or rush to print out a list of the “best” colleges, though, take a moment to consider the following:

1.    Rankings are not science. The data collection process relies on self-reported information from colleges and universities. While the use of the Common Data Set has helped to standardize the reporting process, institutions are still able to manage the manner in which their data is assembled.

Moreover, editors are able to creatively interpret the information they do (or don’t) receive. For example, should an institution choose to abstain from submitting data, at least one publication’s editors (U.S. News & World Report) will resort to a formula that creates values for that institution based on the values of its presumed peers.

2.    Rankings are highly subjective. Consider, for example, reputation. In the U.S. News & World Report rankings reputation carries the greatest weight. On the surface, that might make sense—until you come to know how reputation is “measured.”

Each year, U.S. News & World Report sends three ballots to each participating school asking the recipients (president, academic dean and dean of admission) to rate peer institutions on a scale of five to one. The assumption is that these individuals know higher education better than anyone else and are best positioned to make qualitative assessments.

What do you think? Could you provide such a rating for each of the high schools in your state? It is highly doubtful, just as it is highly doubtful that these three voters can make objective assessments of peer institutions across the country. Consequently, fewer than half respond. Many who do complete the rating form admit they are making educated guesses. To address related concerns, the editors now solicit ratings from selected guidance counselors as well. Not surprisingly, the participation rate among all “voters” continues to be abysmally low. That said, what do the rankings really tell you about reputation?

3.    Rankings change each year because …? Change is glacial in nature on college campuses, yet every year the outcome of the rankings changes. Why? At least one ranking guide (U.S. News) admits to changing or “tweaking” its formula each year—further evidence of the subjectivity involved as well as the editors’ need to maintain uncertain outcomes from year to year.

4.    Apples and Oranges. While many institutions might look alike on the surface, they are very different with regard to programs, instructional styles, cultures, values and aspirations—another reason why trying to rank them is a daunting, if not impossible, task.

5.    Be discriminating. The definitions of “best” are essentially editorial opinions dressed up in pseudo-facts. Contrived to sell magazines, they might not—and, in fact, should not—be the beginning point for your college selection process. Don’t become blinded by these definitions of the “best.” You need to arrive at your own definition of the best that is rooted in your needs, interests and learning style.

6.    Project yourself into the picture. You must ask yourself, “What do the editors of ranking guides really know about me/my student?” Where, for example, do they talk about the colleges that are best for the bright, but timid student who wants to study classical archaeology or the student who learns best through engagement in the classroom or the young person whose sense of self and direction is still emerging? What tangible takeaways do college rankings offer that apply to your situation?

7.    Look for evidence that rankings will make a difference in your college planning outcomes. More specifically, ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?” Unlike the purchase process with regard to other commodities (cars, appliances, etc.), the ultimate choice of a college is the product of a mutual selection process. Rankings don’t get kids into college nor do they necessarily point you in the direction that is best for you.

Over the last 30 years, the college-going process has been turned upside down by ranking guides. Whereas the focus should be on the kids—and what is best for them—college ranking guides put the focus on destinations that are presumed to be most desirable. In reality, they are artificial metrics for quality in education that detract from sensible, student-centered decision-making.

Herein lies the disconnect. If ranking guides are truly useful to consumers, why do so many students apply to schools where the chances of gaining admission are less than one out of four? And where is the usefulness of college ranking guides when barely half of the students entering college this fall will graduate from any college during their lifetimes?

Frankly, the rankings phenomenon has grown wearisome. The notion that all of America’s best colleges can be rank ordered in any context (“party schools,” academic reputation,” etc.)—that the mythical pecking order can actually be quantified—is foolhardy. It makes too many wandering assumptions about people and places, cultures and values, quality and—believe it or not—fit.

Among other things, rankings promote a destination orientation and an obsessive approach to getting into highly ranked colleges. Where the student might be headed becomes more important than what is to be accomplished or why that goal might be important or how the institution might best serve the student. When distracted by the blinding power and prestige that rankings bestow upon a few institutions, it is easy to lose sight of one’s values and priorities as well as the full range of opportunities that exist.

Keep rankings in perspective as you proceed with college planning. Resist the temptation to obsess on a set of numbers. Instead, focus on developing a list of colleges based who you are, why you want to go to college and what you want to accomplish during your undergraduate years. And don’t lose sight of how you like to learn. Stay student-centered and you will discover the colleges that are truly best for you.