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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Peter Van Buskirk

It’s crunch time for families in the college selection process. The admission decisions are in and, with less than a month remaining before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date, students are now turning their attention to the final choice of a college. It’s an exciting—and nerve-wracking—time to be sure, especially for families trying to reconcile cost and affordability against limited means and/or cash-flow concerns.

If you are in that number, there is a strong likelihood you applied for financial aid and are now trying to interpret the financial aid award letters you received from various colleges. Months ago, as you engaged in the grueling task of completing the financial aid applications, it was the promise of the “just reward” that kept you going. Now that the award letters are in hand, you are left wondering, “What does it all mean?”

A young woman shared with me the financial aid award letters she had received from ten different colleges. Never mind that she had allowed her list of colleges to grow too long (16!)—she had been admitted to ten and had received various forms of financial aid from each of them. With an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution” (per the FAFSA) of $5,000, the award letters were predictably generous. They were also troublingly inconsistent.

For example, two of the schools, at total costs of $39,825 and $61,740, respectively, appeared to cover the entire cost of attendance with financial aid. The first included modest “self help” (loan and work study) totaling $2,565, in addition to more than $37,000 in grants and scholarships, in its financial aid offer.

The second college issued a financial aid award letter that featured $36,900 in grants/scholarships. The balance, ($24,840), however, was covered by loans and work study! On the surface, it seemed both schools were being quite generous in covering all of his costs. Upon closer examination, however, the difference in “out-of-pocket” expense for this family at the two schools would be greater than $20,000—all with the same EFC!

The wide variance in financial aid awards in response to the same financial circumstance is the result of “differential need analysis” (using the need analysis that is most favorable to the institution’s objectives) and “preferential packaging,” a widespread practice that enables institutions to create financial aid awards strategically in an attempt to leverage the enrollment of the students they value most. In the case of the latter, students who are more highly regarded typically receive financial aid that includes greater portions of grants—and, possibly scholarships.

Conversely, the attitude toward other students, whose credentials were strong enough to warrant their admission, but not strong enough to gain them superstar status at a given school, is that “if they (the students) want us badly enough, they will find the means to make it happen.” It is when families, often deliriously wide-eyed with their students’ acceptances into high profile schools, buy into this logic that they open themselves to unreasonable debt burdens.

As you compare financial aid award letters, then, you need to get to the bottom line “out-of-pocket” expenses for each. Where does the bottom line create the least amount of debt exposure to your family? Unfortunately, the award letters don’t always spell that out for you. The following tips are offered to make sure you are comparing “apples and apples.”

  1. Identify the total cost of attendance for each institution. This will include tuition, room and board as well as books, supplies, activity fees, lab fees and possible transportation expenses. You may need to consult the school’s website for a complete list as very few award letters provide a complete documentation. A phone call to the financial aid office can produce the same information.
  2. Add all of the grants and scholarships listed on the award letter together. These funds comprise the “gift” aid you are receiving—money you don’t have to re-pay. The sources of these funds may include the state and federal governments as well as the institution itself. It is not actually cash you will see. Rather, it represents a discount on the cost of attendance.
  3. Subtract the total amount of “gift” aid from the total cost of attendance to determine the total out-of-pocket expense for your family.
  4. In most cases, institutions will offer a standard “self-help” component to the financial aid award that includes a Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford) of $3,500 and a campus work-study opportunity worth up to $1,500. These are funding sources that will help you address out-of-pocket expenses. Note that the two figures are likely to increase in subsequent years: the total cost of attendance and the amount of the loan eligibility attributed to the students. Moreover, additional loans authorized for the student or the parents (PLUS Loan) may be offered in place of “gift” aid in years 2-4.
  5. A word of caution is in order here. If you have somehow managed to pool your family resources into coverage of costs for the first year on the assumption that, because you will appear more “needy” in the second year, you will be treated to more financial aid—guess again! Colleges and universities typically budget financial aid for students in years two, three and four based on the EFC of the first year. They will have contingency funds available for emergent situations (catastrophic health issues, changing employment status, loss of life, etc.), but not for families who claim sudden poverty because all of their funds were committed to the first-year expenses. In the case of the latter, get ready for a heavy dose of loans for both the student and the parents.
  6. It is not uncommon for the total amount of financial aid offered, both “gift aid” and “self help,” to fall short of making up the difference between the Expected Family Contribution and the total cost of attendance. This practice, known as “gapping,” is symptomatic of preferential packaging and is employed by institutions that choose not to meet the full need of the student with financial aid. In such cases, the student is left to his/her own devices to find the remaining funds. Unmet need of this nature becomes another factor to consider with your out-of-pocket expenses.
  7. Know the difference between grants and scholarships. A grant is awarded because you demonstrate financial “need.” It should carry forward in subsequent years as long as you continue to demonstrate need and remain in academic good standing. A scholarship is offered in recognition of merit and will likely carry with it academic and/or performance renewal terms.
  8. If you receive a financial aid award that includes both grant and scholarship components, be sure to read the renewal criteria carefully. It is possible that the institution could “pull” the scholarship if performance criterion are not met in subsequent years leaving you to find the resources elsewhere (more loans!).
  9. In the event you do not qualify for need-based financial aid and are trying to reconcile out-of pocket expenses (full cost of attendance) against scholarships that have been awarded, you need to know that you are at the mercy of the institution. The cash flow issue is yours and not theirs. While some might respond to an appeal, don’t expect big changes in scholarships amounts.
  10. Appeal financial aid awards, including scholarships, with information, not emotion. If your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you completed financial aid applications, submit written appeals to the colleges in question along with documentation of the new circumstances. Some colleges will invite you to submit “better” financial aid awards from their competitors as part of an appeal. In any case, keep your cool. You are only entitled to the financial assistance that the institution decides to give you.

In the final analysis, you will have to complete your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether there is sufficient value to you (educationally) in accepting a financial aid award that might be less than you need or would like. Now is the time to weigh your options carefully. Make sure you are entirely comfortable with your ability to manage the cost of attending a college before you submit an enrollment deposit.

Visit the BCF Recommended Resources, “Financial Aid/Scholarships” section, for a “Comparing College Costs Worksheet” that will help you organize and compare the data you are seeing on various financial aid award letters.

To learn more about financial aid and meeting college costs check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook. (Available in the BCF Bookstore; $20)

BCF Readers’ Forum 3.21.18

Wednesday, March 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

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.

BCF Readers’ Forum 2.14.18

Wednesday, February 14th, 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

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 2018 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

Getting into the college of choice might weigh heavily on your mind at the moment, but the odds are the prospect of affording college costs looms even larger. And, if financial aid is critical to your ability to attend that college—or any college for that matter—now is the time to get organized around the possibilities. The following tips are intended to help bring order to the financial aid application process.

1. Know the five sources of funding for college. The first source is—no surprise—the student’s family. The second and third are the federal and state governments which provide cash—grants, loans and work study funds (in your name)—to your chosen college in amounts that can total more than $10,000 per year.

Colleges, the fourth source, then can choose to offer “assistance” that addresses the difference between the total cost of attendance and the combined resources coming from the family and the federal and/or state governments. If they do so in the form of a grant or scholarship, they are effectively agreeing to forgive you payment in that amount. They might also offer a range of borrowing opportunities for you and your parents which will result in more cash to the college—money that you will pay back to lending institutions.

The fifth source of funding involves service organizations, philanthropic foundations and places of employment that offer scholarships. After the funding from your family, each of the other sources is integral to the overall financial support you might receive.

2. Become familiar with your “EFC.” As noted above, your family is presumed to be the first source of funding for college. The amount that your family is expected to contribute is known as your Expected Family Contribution or “EFC.” Simply put, your EFC is the difference between your family’s income and assets and your family’s cost of living. The actual determination of amounts for each category is drawn from multiple data points that are derived from the financial aid forms listed in #3 below.

3. Complete the required forms in a timely fashion. The determination of your EFC and your eligibility for funding from sources beyond the family starts with the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A government document, the FAFSA, calculates your EFC and determines your eligibility for federal, state and, in many cases, college funds. Your family should plan to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible using financial data from your 2016 IRS tax return. Upon completing the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (S.A.R.) showing your EFC will be sent to you and each of the colleges you have listed on the FAFSA.

In addition, many private institutions require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well to the determine your eligibility for institutional funding. More granular in its assessment of family finances, the Profile should also be completed as soon as possible if you are applying to any of the schools that require it. A report will be sent to the colleges you have designated. You will not receive any information regarding this need analysis.

Some colleges also require the completion of their own forms. Make sure you know the forms that are required for each college and submit them at the earliest possible date.

4. Understand the concept of “need.” In the conversation about financial aid, “need” is the difference between the total cost of attendance and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC falls short of the cost of attendance, then you have demonstrated need. Theoretically, colleges will provide financial aid to meet the demonstrated needs of the students they admit. As you will see in #5 and #6 below, though, the determination of “need” can vary from place to place as will the disposition of each college with regard to meeting your need. Moreover, you should be prepared for the likelihood that the need analysis completed using the FAFSA data might show an EFC that is lower than that revealed by the Profile.

5. Don’t make assumptions about EFC or need. And be wary of online forecasters or of any service that suggests it can optimize your financial aid potential. While parameters for determining financial need might seem to be predictable, the processes of admitting students and awarding financial aid are heavily nuanced across institutions.

For example, colleges typically engage in subjective practices such as differential needs analysis (they will choose the methodology—FAFSA or Profile—that allows them to justify the amount of “need” they will recognize) and preferential packaging (different amounts of grant, loan and work study are assembled that reflect the value attached to a given candidate) to leverage the enrollments of students they want the most. As a result, online forecasters, including the net price calculators found on college websites, rarely provide an accurate picture of your likely out-of-pocket expenses should you be admitted. Moreover, some colleges will eventually make financial aid awards that come short of meeting the demonstrated need of admitted students or that include disproportionate amounts of loan—funds that will ultimately come from your pocket on top of the EFC.

6. Be prepared for the fact that not all colleges will meet your full “need.” As colleges preferentially package financial aid (see above), they will be sure to treat well those students whom they value most highly. Students who appear to be very good—but not superior—in the evaluation of credentials, might be admitted with “gapped” financial aid awards. In other words, the financial aid will come short of meeting the need (the differential between total cost of attendance and your family’s expected family contribution). Unfortunately, such financial aid awards are not very transparent—the true EFC is rarely revealed on the award letter and it is only after calculating the numbers yourself that you find the total out-of-pocket expense your family will need to assume.

By the way, don’t assume that a financial aid award comprised of large sums of loans, to be taken by the student and/or the parents, is meeting your need. The college is simply creating a range of sourcing opportunities for your family to generate cash that will help to cover our college costs. The amount of student loan to be assumed in the first year does not need to be greater $7,500 and can be less. While it might be prudent to use the parent loan (PLUS) to address your cash flow needs within the EFC be careful about taking out PLUS loan monies as part of the financial aid award.

7. Don’t wait to apply! Waiting until the admission decisions are known or until you have completed your tax returns to begin the financial aid process is extremely risky. The reason: most institutions “spend down” their financial aid budgets as they proceed through the selection process. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand to apply for aid, the money might well be gone.

8. If the numbers don’t look right, appeal! Soon after you receive an offer of admission, you should expect to receive a financial aid award letter if you have applied for financial aid. This will be true of candidates for both Early Decision and Regular Decision. Hopefully, the numbers are consistent with your expectations and you feel reassured about your ability to meet the cost of attendance for the colleges in question. If not, contact the financial aid office at the school with your questions and any new and relevant information that might be considered in an appeal of your financial aid award. Do this as soon as possible.

9. Discuss cost/affordability at home. Communication about cost and affordability at home is critical to good decision-making. Make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to how much you are able/willing to spend on a college education. This “ounce of prevention” can help to avert stressful conversations about paying for college at the end of the process.

10. Manage expectations. Know where your credentials will be most competitive and set your (college) expectations accordingly. Hundreds of millions of financial aid dollars will be awarded each year—and they will go to the students who are valued most at the institutions in question.

For more tips on navigating the financial aid process, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.

BCF Readers’ Forum 10.21.17

Saturday, October 21st, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BCF Readers’ Forum 9.23.17

Saturday, September 23rd, 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

Dear Peter,
Is an optional admission interview something that everyone should do? My son isn’t convinced. Can you please tell us the pros and cons? He is specifically looking at a college that I believe is looking for evidence that a student has shown interest.

Dear Molly,
In the selective admission process, interviews are golden opportunities. If a college ever offers your son an interview opportunity with a paid, admission staff person—take it! That person is a decision-maker and it is always a good idea for your son to have some exposure with someone who could become an advocate behind the closed doors of the selection process. Most colleges that offer interviews make them optional, in part to see who takes advantage of the opportunity. In addition to meeting someone who can speak on his behalf in the admission committee, the fact that the interview takes place is the best indicator of his interest in the institution. Please reassure him that no one has ever died in an admission interview—he’ll be fine!

Dear Peter,
You have indicated that the net price calculator is not very helpful, especially for private colleges, and suggested that families might ask the university for a financial pre-read. Is it appropriate to ask them to do it now (before applications are submitted) and what documents would they need?

Dear Ariel,
You should be able to secure early estimates of your expected family contribution (EFC) by simply forwarding your 2016 IRS tax returns. The school will let you know if it needs additional information. It is important to note that many private colleges will look at both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service PROFILE to determine which methodology it will use in assessing your EFC. The latter is a much more granular assessment that can show an EFC that is higher than the FAFSA by as much as $10,000. Be sure to ask the person providing the early estimate to identify the methodology used to arrive at the estimate as well as the methodology that is likely to be used in the event that your student is admitted.

Dear Peter,
Do you know which colleges are generally more generous with their financial/merit aid?

Dear Stephen,
It can be argued that all colleges are generous with financial aid, including scholarships. Just remember that each will use its resources to leverage the enrollment of the students whom they value most. That’s why it’s important to target schools where your student is likely to be in the top quartile of the competitive playing fields (for admission) and will be valued for what he has to offer.

Dear Peter,
My son is an accomplished student looking at mostly highly selective institutions. When I complete the Net Price Calculator it often indicates our expected family contribution is essentially the full bill. Would you recommend taking the time to complete the FAFSA and perhaps the other financial form (CSS PROFILE) the highly selective institutions require if we are likely not going to qualify for need? By not completing the FAFSA, does that take our son out of the running for merit scholarship consideration?

Dear Ellen,
While the Net Price Calculators are not perfect, they do tend to give you the best-case scenarios for the schools in question. If they are projecting your EFC at or above the total cost of attendance, that’s a pretty good sign that you will be expected to cover the full cost of attendance.
Completing the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE can’t hurt if you think there is a chance that your financial data might have been interpreted incorrectly. That said, schools that offer merit (non-need based) scholarships will often require completion of at least the FAFSA. You should be able to determine the filing requirements on the websites of schools that offer scholarships. Moreover, if you want your son to take a Guaranteed Student Loan or seek on-campus employment, you will need to complete the FAFSA as the federal government is the funding source for both.

Dear Peter,
Is it possible to say to every college that you are giving an Early Decision application to each? While I am just a Sophomore, I am eager to know how Early Decision works?

Dear Raj,
Early Decision is an application option that many colleges offer that allows you to declare your “true love.” In other words, you are saying to the college, “If you admit me, I will withdraw all of my other applications and enroll at your school.” Formally declaring your first-choice interest to multiple colleges would be dishonest and unethical.

At this point, you should try to identify colleges that are good fits for you. Then, investigate them thoroughly so that, by the start of your senior year, you are ready to move forward with applications to a short list of no more than eight colleges. If one of those places emerges as your absolute first choice, then ED would be a viable application option at that school. You may only apply ED to one school, though. If that school defers or denies you, you become a “free agent” and are able to consider an ED application at another school if it offers an ED Round Two option.

Please note that colleges do compare lists of ED accepted students. If you show up on more than one list, be prepared for each college to withdraw your application completely.

Dear Peter,
Several of my son’s “reach” schools have indicated that submission of ACT Writing and SAT Subject tests is optional. However, these schools are highly competitive. At schools like this, is there an unwritten expectation that these test results should be provided? Is everyone else providing them and would it be a glaring omission if my son didn’t provide results, especially for the ACT writing?

Dear Julie,
I generally advise students not to submit test results when those results are at or below the averages for colleges where the submission of scores is optional. In such cases, the presence of average or below average scores cannot help. Moreover, the presence of low scores tends to introduce a negative bias into the minds of the reviewers.
If your son’s overall credentials are otherwise attractive to an institution, the absence of test results will make it easier for admission officers to rationalize admitting him. This is not a question of your son needing to submit scores to prove his ability. Rather, the test results, when provided, become part of the institution’s profile of admitted students and it would rather not include scores that would depress the profile. If he doesn’t send the scores, the college doesn’t need to worry about how they will look on its profile if he is admitted.

Dear Peter,
We’re about to visit some colleges and my daughter is nervous about the interview process. One of the colleges where she will be interviewing indicates on its website that it encourages questions at the interview. Are there any points or questions that you feel are essential to ask during the interview?

Dear Lynn,
I worry that one of the biggest problems facing students is they overthink the interview. At its basic level, the interview is simply a conversation between two people who are eager to get to know each other (or the college that one of them represents). Quite frankly, the content for many interviews emerges from the chit-chat that takes place during the walk from the reception area to the interviewer’s office!

Your daughter does need to be prepared with 2-3 talking points—things she wants the interviewer to know about her background, interests, and/or difficulties she has encountered academically (if there are any). This is her opportunity to give the interviewer insight into who she is beyond the resume.
With regard to questions, she might inquire about the things she would like to know regarding her possible academic interest (accessibility of professors, internships, research opportunities, study abroad, etc.) as well as other aspects of campus life that are important to her. In addition, if she is uncertain about any aspect of the admission process/requirements, now is the time to ask. She should be careful not to ask questions for which answers can be easily found in the college’s promotional literature or on its website.

Dear Peter,
My son recently started a club at his school, but he is afraid to share it with colleges because of the title, Conservative Student Union. While the purpose of the club is to give opportunity for students to discuss political issues, he is concerned admission officers will not look at the merits of the work involved with starting up a club, running weekly meetings and organizing community service and, instead, will judge him on the title of the club. Thoughts?

Dear Mark,
First of all, congrats to your son! His initiative is noteworthy and that, rather than the content of the club, will be impressive to admission committees. First amendment rights are highly cherished on most college campuses as institutions generally relish the opportunity to include students who represent a range of social, political, spiritual and cultural interests. I would remind your son that any place that would judge him harshly because of his beliefs or his involvements (assuming he is respectfully engaged) is probably not a place where he is likely to be comfortable for four years.

“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.