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BCF Readers’ Forum II

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Dear Peter,
I am recently divorced and will be facing the funding of my children’s college educations alone. They currently attend a private day school. I recently attended a free seminar about funding of said educations. It turned out to be a teaser for a company that offered everything from preparation for the SAT exam to assistance in preparation of the College Scholarship Service Profile and FAFSA applications to appealing any awards by the schools if deemed to be inadequate. The initial fee is $1995 per family with an additional $39 per month per child for 48 months. There is no contract and the service can be terminated at any time. Do you feel that a service like this is valuable and worth the cost?

Dear Eileen,
You are wise to be cynical about this company’s pitch. In reality, your prep school tuition dollars are already producing many of the same benefits that the company seems to offer. Basically, you would be paying to have them complete your financial aid forms when you can do them yourself at no cost or have your accountant do them for a lesser fee. With regard to appeals of financial aid awards, colleges don’t want to hear from a consultant—they want to hear from you directly. The only possible value to engaging the company is to your peace of mind regarding elements of the process. They will not get your kids into colleges or leverage better financial aid awards for them. They will, however, charge you for services that, in my opinion, aren’t necessary.

Dear Peter,
As my son registers for future standardized tests, should he fill out all the profile questions on their websites (other than the basics, such as his graduation year)?

Both testing organizations ask for a lot of information they clearly state is supplied to colleges. We are wondering if there is any harm in declining to supply information—questions related to anticipated majors, extra-curricular information and plans for how many years of college, etc? Conversely, is there any potential drawback to providing this information? The information that is requested seems very over the top!

Dear AnnMarie,
Welcome to the world of lead generation! Colleges, summer camps and scholarship programs will buy tens of thousands of names of students who meet their minimal requirements and then direct their messaging at getting the students to respond!

I am not aware of any downside to withholding the optional information requested by the testing agencies. If your son would rather not be subjected to the deluge of random mail/email that would otherwise result from that sharing, there is no harm in declining to provide the information. The possible upside to sharing is that his name might be picked up by colleges and/or scholarship programs that could be of interest to him.

Dear Peter,
Do college admission officers take a high school’s ranking into consideration when looking at a candidate? My son goes to a full-time gifted school which has always ranked as one of the best high schools in the USA. Being in a school of all gifted students, the competition is stiffer. Even with his 4.7 GPA he is not ranked in the top ten percentile of his class. Will this work against him when he applies in highly selective schools?

Dear Arlene,
The answer to your question will vary according to institutional type. Whereas many state universities evaluate high school transcripts at face value, most private colleges and universities review academic records contextually. In other words, before they can make any sense out of the student’s academic performance, they first delve into the learning environment from which the student comes to better understand who attends the school, what courses are offered, how students are evaluated and how they perform when taking AP/IB/SAT Subject Tests. With this information in hand, they come to a better understanding of the individual’s performance. I don’t know where your son goes to school, but I suspect the college counseling folks are pretty diligent about providing the contextual information needed by admission officers in order to make good and fair assessments regarding its students as they apply to college.

Dear Peter,
How does one ace the college interview??

Dear Jonathan,
I would offer four bits of advice to the student preparing for interviews. First, be in command of your academic (and life) credentials. Students often feel compelled to present resumes and/or transcripts to their interviewers. Frankly, that’s not necessary. Interviewers are more interested in hearing the student’s interpretation of that information in the student’s words. So, it is important that you can recite courses, grades and test information. You also need to able to talk about important activities and life events, including any circumstances that might have contributed to irregularities in the academic record.

Second, you need to relax. This cannot be underestimated. You should be able to engage comfortably in conversation with someone who is eager to get to know more about you. Good interviewers are adept at leading the conversation and drawing critical information from the interviewees.

Third, positive body language is important. A pleasant smile, good eye contact and firm handshake help to set the tone. Just as important is the elimination of distractions—chewing gum, nervous ticks (shaking legs, etc.), inappropriate attire (go with “business casual” for teenagers) and conversational hiccups (“like, well, you know…” “Ummmm…” etc.).

Finally, be knowledgeable about the institution—know why you are there! Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered on the college’s website. Make sure you convey an air of confidence that you know why the place would be a good match for you.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a junior with a straight “A” average in 5 AP courses with a 1570 SAT. She plays volleyball for her high school and an elite club year-round. She wants desperately to attend an Ivy whether playing volleyball or not. Having been consumed with volleyball year round, she has had little time to participate in other extracurricular activities. She now feels behind in some respects and wants to travel overseas for a week this summer to assist indigents and will set up a website for donations throughout her senior year. My question: how will admissions people view this at Ivys? Is it worthwhile for admissions purposes or would she be better served with summer employment or internships?

Dear Lee,
Given your daughter’s academic credentials, she will be on the academic “competitive playing fields” academically at any school in the country. Without any further considerations—and assuming her classroom performance continues at the same level through her senior year, the odds of gaining admission are between one out of ten and one out of twenty at the colleges of interest. In order to improve those odds, she needs to present non-academic credentials that cause her to stand out among similarly qualified applicants at the institutions in question. Quite frankly, it is possible that her volleyball involvement could provide the “hook” she needs. She will know soon if that is to be the case as the college coaches will start identifying their top prospects this summer. Her club coach should be able to give her a sense as to the likelihood she will be recruited by the Ivies.

Beyond volleyball, your daughter needs to be careful not to be seen as manufacturing a credential in order to enhance her competitiveness. Rather, she needs to make choices as though college is not in the picture. She needs to make herself happy—to find personal enrichment in all she does. In doing so, her actions/decisions will reveal the authenticity of character that might set her apart from the competition. She should not embark on the overseas project simply to create a credential worthy of admission to an Ivy League school. She should do it because she can’t help herself—because she feels absolutely compelled to engage in the project. Even more compelling will be the connectivity of her decision-making with other choices she has made in life.

Highly selective schools see thousands of seemingly gratuitous examples of summer service in underdeveloped countries. The fact of the involvement won’t turn heads. If it is part of a larger sense of mission and opportunity that she can clearly articulate in her application, then it can make a difference.

Dear Peter,
My daughter just received her ACT score. She did not score well at all on her SAT, however, she managed to pull out an above average score on her ACT. We intended to continue her tutoring and have her take both a second time. My husband, now armed with the higher ACT score, thinks we should drop the SAT altogether and focus on her area of strength with the ACT. He feels we should continue working to improve on the ACT score and that most schools will take either test. Could you provide any guidance on this?

Dear Sophia,
Your husband on the right track! It is true that every college in the country will accept either the SAT or ACT. I strongly urge students to sample one of each in order to determine the test with which they are most comfortable and then to focus on that test taking it no more than three times. In this case, if your daughter seems more comfortable with the ACT, then she might as well focus on preparing for that test (and not worry about the SAT going forward).

By Peter Van Buskirk

Few college admission requirements generate more angst than standardized testing. When considered along with a student’s academic record, such tests are intended to help admission officers determine whether students can do the work academically in the first year of college. In fact that is their sole purpose. (They should certainly not be confused with intelligence tests!)

Unfortunately, test results add very little to the predictive equation, a fact that is borne out by validity tests conducted on college campuses across the country each year. Admission officers know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without test scores. Moreover, nearly 900 college and universities have publicly stated that conviction by making the submission of test results optional. You can learn more about the requirements of these schools at

The odds are, however, that you will need to address a testing requirement somewhere along the line as you apply to colleges. At some institutions, test results are embedded in formulas that determine who will be admitted—or, at the very least, be given further consideration. At others, they simply serve as competitive credentials—the bigger the scores the better. The following are a few tips to consider as you factor testing and test prep into your plans for applying to college.

1. You have options! Every school in the country regards the SAT and the ACT as equals and receives them interchangeably. The tests themselves are different. Whereas the ACT is a subject-based test designed to measure what you have learned in the classroom, the SAT is a deductive reasoning test. Try one of each. Which one suits you best? Focus on preparing for and taking that test.

2. Colleges strongly prefer to receive test results (SAT, ACT) directly from the testing services. Make arrangements with the appropriate testing service to have your results sent directly to the colleges to which you are applying. However, if you are taking tests in the coming months, you may want to wait until you have seen the results before deciding to have official score reports sent to colleges. This is an option afforded you by “Score Choice” by both testing agencies (College Board, ACT) in acknowledgement of the fact that you own the results and can control where they are sent.

3. Admission officers tend to “super-score” test results by compiling the best combination of subscores from the tests (ACT or SAT) you have taken. For example, if you have taken the SAT several times, they will match your best Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score (that might have come on your third test) with your best Math result (that might have come on your second test). You can’t do the “super-scoring” for them, though. They’ll need to see all of your relevant results in order to find the best subscores.

4. Make note of schools that require SAT Subject Tests. Some will tell you which tests to take. Others will allow you to choose. In either case, the Subject Test results are essentially another set of filters that can be used to sort through candidates for degree programs that can be highly selective. When given the option with regard to subjects, go with your strengths. And, if you can, time your testing to coincide with the completion of that subject in school.

5. Consider the “test optional” opportunities that might exist among the colleges to which you are applying. Compare your results with the range of scores reported for each test optional college. If your scores fall in the bottom 50% of the score ranges, logic would suggest that you elect not to submit your scores, as they will do nothing to enhance your application. A complete list of test optional colleges can be found at

6. Choose colleges at which your testing profile is a good fit. Remember, colleges are fond of reporting high scores for their entering classes. The further your “super-scores” fall below the mid-point of the reported range of scores at a college, the less likely you will be admitted at that college. Target places, then, where your scores are in the top half, if not the top quartile, of the distribution of scores for admitted students in the past year.

7. Create a spreadsheet on which you can keep track of the testing profiles for each of the colleges that interests you. Note both the averages as well as the range of scores reported for admitted students. Be careful not to interpret the “average” or mean score as the minimum requirement as half of the admitted students will have scores that fall at or below the average.

8. Both testing agencies (SAT and ACT) concede that the tests can be “coached.” As a result, test prep may be a viable option for you. In considering test prep, be discriminating about the provider. Make sure you are comfortable with the style of instruction and, frankly, the instructor. A bad match can negate the potential good that can come from the exercise. Time your test prep so the instruction ends no more than two weeks prior to the test you plan to take.

Proven—and less expensive—test prep alternatives include reviewing practice tests (available in bookstores) and personal reading in various genres.

Finally, while testing is unavoidable in the college admission process, don’t obsess on it. Although, test results can be pivotal in many objective selection processes (where “numbers” carry the day), they are merely one part of the selection processes at other places that are more holistic in their assessments. Finding the best college “fit,” then, is vital to your eventual success. Places that value you for what you have to offer will be more inclined to look beyond your test results out of respect for what they might gain by admitting you.

“Life After the PSAT”

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

The middle of December is a time of important revelations for many young people as they apply to college. If you are a high school Junior, the chances are you will learn your PSAT result in the next few days. As momentous as this event (the unveiling of your scores) might seem, you need to keep it in perspective.

After months of preparation—pre-tests, test prep and practice tests—the PSAT you took in October is real. It is important to remember, though, that the result you receive does not define your intelligence nor does it reveal your worth as an individual. It can, however, serve as a starting point in giving definition to your opportunities as a college applicant. If you like what you see, congratulations! You’re off to a good start. But, if your numbers don’t measure up to your expectations, relax—your life isn’t over.

As a matter of fact, the last thing you want to do is jump to conclusions such as, “Wow! Look at that score! I’ll be able to get in wherever I want to go!” or “I might as well forget it. I’ll never get into a ‘good’ school.” Remember, this is just a starting point for your college planning. If you posted amazing scores, it is true you are likely to attract a lot of unsolicited attention from colleges—and considerable advice from anyone who has an opinion about where you should be looking. If, on the other hand, your score disappoints you, don’t despair. There is plenty of time to work on your credentials and to define a set of quality options for yourself.

However you feel about your test results, don’t let them change you. Big scores are no more a guarantee of admission and scholarships than modest scores are a limitation of opportunity. Use what you learn from the results to plan effectively. Stay focused on your priorities. Do what you do as well as you can. And look for colleges that value you for what you do well.

A few words of caution for students with high PSAT results:
While some institutions will offer you the “sun and the moon” because your scores are very high and you might be qualified for selection as a National Merit Scholar, make sure those places are good fits for you. Will they be able to offer you the kind of learning environment, as well as the program of study, that is important to you? Don’t make any commitments, even emotionally, until you have visited their campuses.

In addition, understand that the more selective institutions will see hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates with scores just like yours—and turn down many of them. A high score is not a guarantee of admission.

How to Use the PSAT Results
While I am not a fan of standardized testing as an evaluative tool in the admission process, your results can help you generate a list of schools at which you should be able to compete for admission. To get started in that direction, add 60 points to your total score to project the typical improvement shown over the course of 2-3 additional SAT test administrations.

With that information in hand, look at the range of SAT scores for enrolled students reported by the schools that interest you. Focus on the places where your projected result would put you in the top half of the scores reported. Do the same for your ACT results if you took that test. This approach to selecting schools isn’t foolproof, but it will help you identify the right competitive “playing fields” for you given your credentials.

Where Does Test Prep Fit?
Effective engagement in test preparation can make a difference in your subsequent SAT/ACT results. As you consider test prep, though, keep in mind that success involves a serious commitment of time and effort. Simply buying the course won’t make the difference.

If you decide to invest in test prep, focus on the options that best suit your learning style and schedule. Possibilities include personal one-to-one tutoring, classroom instruction and online instruction. Plan your involvement in order to complete the course within two weeks of the targeted test date.

Be wary of guaranteed results. Quite often, the guarantee speaks to projected improvement from your last official test result to the practice test taken at the conclusion of the course—not your next official examination!

Additional Tips for Managing Your Test Results
Now that you have “gotten your feet wet” with testing, keep the following in mind as you proceed with additional testing.

  • You have testing options. In the coming months, try the SAT and the ACT to discover the style of test that fits you best. Then, focus on preparing for that test. Every college in the country uses ACT and SAT results interchangeably .
  • Limit yourself to three sittings for the test you choose (ACT/SAT). There is a point of diminishing return! Don’t become a slave to testing and test prep when your time can be better spent elsewhere.
  • Remember you have “score choice” at your disposal. This means you can choose the scores you would like to forward to colleges. When you take the SAT, you will be given the opportunity to designate up to four colleges to receive your results. Don’t list any schools unless you don’t care that they see all of your scores. Instead, wait until you have taken the SAT several times to determine which sets of scores you’d like to send.
  • Speaking of options, more than 850 colleges and universities now welcome applications without test results. Visit to see the list of “test optional” schools.
  • Read a lot! If you are determined to improve your testing performance, don’t overlook the impact of exposure to language and ideas found contextually in books and articles. Hard as it might be to imagine in the world of electronics in which we live, reading can be fun and very inexpensive!

BCF Readers’ Forum IX

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

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 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 most recent 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.

BCF Readers’ Forum XIII

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

Dear Peter,
We’re wondering what the pros and cons are of taking a few SAT Subject Tests. I know some colleges recommend students submit two SAT Subject Test scores. For these colleges, can it add anything to a student’s application to take and submit more than two subject tests? If he has good scores on 3 or 4 tests, would they make his college application any stronger?

In addition, can a student choose which Subject Test scores to submit to colleges (whether or not the college allows Score Choice)? In other words, could a student take a few Subject Tests and submit only his strongest scores to colleges or do some colleges require scores from all subject tests taken?

Dear Marc,
The impact of Subject Tests truly varies from college to college. While some will accept a battery of Subject Tests in place of the SAT or ACT, increasingly fewer places actually require Subject Tests these days. That said, I doubt that submission of unrequired Subject Tests will add to the strength of the application. In all likelihood, they will simply validate other performance measures that are required.

If your son takes any Subject Tests, I’d urge him to exercise Score Choice—he should see the results before submitting them. In assessing the results, focus on the percentile for the score. Since relatively few students take Subject Tests, high scores can be misleading—a high score might result in a relatively modest percentile. For the most selective colleges, submit only scores that are at least 95thpercentile. If your student is applying to one of the few colleges that refuses to honor Score Choice—and his scores turn out to be very good but not superior—he’ll have an ethical dilemma on his hands with regard to score submission.

Dear Peter,
My son is a Junior who will apply to college this fall. Now is the time to apply for the national honor society at his school. How important is the National Honor Society? Do colleges favor this award?

Dear Wei,
While National Honor Society is an important recognition for students within the context of their schools, it does not always carry much weight in the college admission process. As an academic honor, it is largely redundant with the strength of the student’s academic record. If, however, selection into the NHS is also indicative of extraordinary leadership and/or service—and carries with it an expectation of more to come—then, the recognition is more substantive.

The bottom line: it can’t hurt for your son to have NHS membership on his resume. It just might not be a “tie-breaking” credential at some colleges.

Dear Peter,
My son is a Junior and his grades and ACT scores are very strong. He is grappling with a decision to change schools for senior year for reasons relating to personal happiness. He is wondering to what extent this decision will adversely affect his college applications.

Dear Deb,
Your son needs to make sure he is in the best position possible to have a strong senior year academically. If his current situation is distracting or uncomfortable such that his performance is adversely affected, then the transfer could make sense. My concern would be that, in transferring, he will need to acclimate rather quickly to a new environment with new curricula, instructors, peers and expectations. It could work beautifully—or it could blow up on him. The risks are very real.

If he does transfer, he needs to be very intentional—and absolutely transparent—about the situation in his application.

Whenever there are irregularities relating to a student’s academic program and/or performance, admission officers will look for explanations. Without an explanation, they will draw their own conclusions. Keep in mind that admission officers are, by their very nature, cynical. An unexplained change in schools for the senior year will be viewed as highly irregular, perhaps even as a “red flag.” Left to draw their own conclusions, admission officers could conclude that the change was the result of a discipline issue, an infraction of school rules/policies or a calculated decision by the student to pursue a course of less resistance academically. While I seriously doubt that any of these explanations would apply to your son, I hope you see my point. He cannot risk those assumptions.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a junior who attends a church that teaches meditation. The church considers itself universal, embracing aspects of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. How should my daughter present this on application forms? I’m afraid if she puts “other” this might be interpreted as atheism or raise concerns. Would putting Buddhism be a plus or a minus for admissions purposes? I feel like this requires some explanation, but I don’t think my daughter wants to focus on it in her essays. What is the best or most advantageous way to handle this?

Dear Rich,
I am not aware that colleges are requiring students to disclose their religious background on applications for admission. For this information to appear, your daughter would need to volunteer it somewhere in a personal statement. If she is asked for this information, she might simply respond with the name of the church.

Regardless, I seriously doubt that her response would be held in judgment unless she is applying to a college with a strong religious doctrine. On the contrary, most schools are likely to be intrigued by her spiritual orientation. She has an open mind to discovery, a trait highly valued by educational institutions!

Dear Peter,
My daughter received an email from one of her favorite colleges inviting her to a day of workshops about the college application process in general and the college in particular. She does like the college a lot. I don’t know if she has a real shot there, but wonder if attending will help her chances. I was planning to take her for the first two hours only as the second two hours are same as a visit which we have already done. What are your thoughts?

Dear Eileen,
It can’t hurt for your daughter to attend the workshop. While it is not a requirement for admission, the school is giving prospective students an opportunity to begin developing a relationship. Attending won’t guarantee admission. On the other hand, it will be possible for her to gain admission without attending. In the end, however, as the college’s admission officers look for evidence of her investment in the place/process, having attended the workshop creates another trackable touchpoint for them.

Dear Peter,
What is the best way for my son to determine if a college/university provides a level of rigor or challenge in the classroom to match his ability and preparedness? You mention that this is important in determining whether a college is a good fit. Please advise. Thanks!

Dear Ruth,
The people who are best positioned to help your son identify college academic environments that are good fits for his ability and preparedness are his current teachers. Not only are they aware of the natural progression of his curricular tracking, many of them will be able to discern from his study skills, inquisitiveness, classroom participation, reaction to setbacks, self-confidence and articulation skills (oral and written) his preparedness to find success in certain types of academic environments.

In soliciting their thoughts, though, he must be careful not to assume that, because his teachers express confidence in his ability to do the work at certain colleges, he will be admitted to those schools. Their confidence is further evidence that he is on the competitive playing fields at the schools. His success as a candidate, though, will be a function of many factors—his actual performance chief among them.

BCF Readers’ Forum XVIII

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Dear Peter,
My son has applied ED and has submitted applications to several other colleges in the event that the ED application is not successful. What is the best way for him to continue to keep a dialogue of sorts with the “fall-back” schools that might become more important to him after his ED decision is known?

Dear Arnie,
At this time, the most meaningful dialogue that could be initiated by your son will involve thoughtful, sincere questions that cannot be answered anywhere in the schools’ literature or websites. If none come to mind, then there is nothing to communicate. Your son needs to be careful not to come across as insecure by calculating for effect. Sometimes the best action is no action. Rather than succumbing to the urge to reach out, he simply needs to be mindful of opportunities to respond to communication that is directed to him from the colleges.

Dear Peter,
My son has a processing issue that results in homework taking him an excruciatingly long time. He has found that taking AP courses that require more reading is not feasible for him when trying to manage a full class load. But he is now comparing himself to his classmates and hearing about how the difficulty of classes is perceived and assessed by schools. He feels like his transcript will convey that he hasn’t challenged himself when, in fact, these “regular” classes have been very rigorous. Is this something he should explain in a supplemental essay?

Dear Jeanine,
I can appreciate your concern regarding the processing issues. My inclination is to err on the side of disclosure whenever there would seem to be outcomes inconsistent with expectations. In your son’s case, if the perceived lack of academic rigor can be explained by the processing issues, then such an explanation is warranted somewhere in his application. The supplemental essay can be used for this purpose.

Moreover, he might ask his guidance counselor to help tell this part of his story. Colleges that understand and respect his processing issues, and are eager—and prepared—to support him in college, will regard this information as helpful to their decision-making. On the other hand, some colleges will simply see this information as validation of a concern that he might not be adequately prepared to function in their respective environments. If it is a fear of this potential reaction that is keeping your son from disclosing, he must ask the question: “Would I really want to be at a college that would otherwise discriminate against me?” Such a college is certainly not going to go out of its way to help support him if he is admitted and enrolled.

Dear Peter,
My son heard an admission presentation at his school and would like to follow up with the rep. Do you have samples of letters to let them know that you were there and how much you would love to attend their school?

Dear Nancy,
Follow-ups to college reps should be short, to the point—and sincere. That’s why there is no template. Your son might simply say, “Just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your presentation and look forward to learning more about (insert name of program[s] he’d like to pursue). I’ve begun to make plans to visit your campus and look forward to staying in touch…” It would be great if your son could ask a thoughtful question or request clarification of information provided during the presentation as that would require a follow-up from the college representative.

Dear Peter,
It is my understanding that selective universities invite certain Early Action applicants to have an optional interview with an Alumnus sometime between mid-November to mid-December. Is this meaningful at all in terms of probability of acceptance? It seems that they would only invite applicants to interview that passed some initial screening. Given the tight turnaround time from the November 1 application due date to the invitation for an interview, I am guessing that they must do some kind of computerized screening. Any insight on this process would be very much appreciated.

Dear Antone,
While I can’t speak for all schools regarding their protocol for interviews, it is common practice for elite institutions to offer alumni interviews with applicants. Doing so is less an indicator of probability of acceptance (I would not assume any prescreening) and more so an opportunity for the institution to screen for interest on the part of the student. That said I’d urge your student to participate in the alumni interview if at all possible. It is not the content of the interview that will matter; rather, it is the fact that it takes place that can make a difference.

Dear Peter,
I met the senior associate dean of admission at one of my son’s favorite schools when we went to visit and then again this week when he gave a lecture locally. And at the end of the last lecture, I told him this was the second time meeting him and he said he remembered my question from the first meeting. He gave me his business card, I did not ask for it. I want to now email him but frankly, have no idea what to say, what is appropriate to say, etc. Please advise. Thanks!

Dear Rich,
The only reason to email this rep is if you have a thoughtful question that can’t be answered anywhere in his school’s literature or on its website. Admission officers are so busy right now that anything short of substantive inquiries from the “outside” will be regarded as a nuisance that could risk introducing a negative bias for the candidate. Moreover, the more pertinent contact would come from your son, not you. If you don’t know what to say, there is no need to contact the gentleman.

Dear Peter,
When a student submits SAT scores, and a school offers “super-scoring,” does the admission team see the full test for each day, or does an admin compile a file for each kid so the evaluating admission officer only sees the highest scores from each date combined? In other words, if my student’s high math score is accompanied by a relatively low critical reading score, is it a risk to send a low critical reading score from an exposure standpoint?

Dear Annalise,
The processing of test scores will vary at each institution. At many schools, the super-scoring takes place at the point of data entry. As a result, application readers only see the super-score result. At other, often more selective, schools the full set of subscores will be visible to the reviewers in which case there is some exposure risk to providing all scores as those schools might discriminate on the anomalously low subscore or, in your student’s case, the critical reading score.

BCF Readers’ Forum XIX

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

Dear Peter,
What is the right number of letters of recommendation to send in with an application and who should they come from?

Dear Howard,
Most colleges will make clear the number of letters of recommendation to be submitted in their application instructions. Typically, they will want an evaluation from the guidance counselor/college advisor that provides an overview of the student’s character, citizenship and preparation for college as well as letters from two teachers who will comment on the student’s academic aptitude, work habits and performance in the classroom. One of the teachers should be able to address the student’s critical thinking and articulation skills. The other teacher should be familiar with the student’s skill set as it relates to her potential academic focus in college. Beyond that, letters from friends, alumni and/or other influential people are generally inconsequential and tend to get in the way.

Dear Peter,
I have heard you say that it is important to establish relationships with the regional recruiters at the colleges where my daughter wants to apply.  How can we find out who these people are?

Dear Melanie,
I would start with the college advisors at your daughter’s high school. If the colleges in question have been recruiting in your area, it is quite likely that the college advisors will be able to identify the regional recruiters for you. If not, check the admission pages on the websites for these colleges. Many will list the members of the admission staff along with their areas of recruitment. When visiting a college’s campus, your daughter might ask if she could say “hello” to the regional recruiter or, at the very least, get that person’s business card.

If all else fails, your daughter could call the school’s admission office and ask for the name and contact information of the person who recruits at her school.

Dear Peter,
We have a situation where my son left his original high school to attend an IB (International Baccalaureate Program) in another state where his father lives. Needless to say, it is a two-year program. He is in 11th grade, but would like to return to his original high school this coming January and leave the IB program he successfully started this past August. What could be the repercussions of such move from a college application standpoint? My son’s choices for colleges are in the United Kingdom, which is one of the reasons the IB had some appeal.

Dear Margaret,
While not optimal to a student’s academic development, things like a divorce or move do happen and can be disruptive. While I don’t have any experience/expertise in dealing with admission to universities in the UK, I can tell you that, if he were to remain in the US, he would need to make sure the circumstances surrounding the changes in his academic program are well explained in his application. You might reach out to some of the UK universities of interest to see what they have to say. Many are now very interested in, and attentive to, students in the US who want to study abroad and could give you good advice.

Dear Peter,
We applied for special accommodations for my son while taking the SATs to allow for extra time, as he is dyslexic. He usually doesn’t need extra time, but its good to have in case. We’re currently working on applying to ACT for the accommodations as well. The registration for the ACT had a profile to complete. It asked, repeatedly, about accommodations needed AT THE COLLEGE. We weren’t sure if it was wise to put his potential needs on the profile (separate from the testing registration). Do schools have a quota of taking “learning disabled” students? Would it be a detriment to put it on his profile? If he needs any special accommodations, they would be minimal. Do you have an opinion either way? We don’t want to do him harm by disclosing he MAY need accommodations. But if they need quota numbers, and it would give him favor, we can go forward with disclosure.

Dear Marianne,
I am not aware of colleges having to fill quotas regarding numbers of students with learning differences to enroll. If there is a chance, however, that he might need accommodations (as reflected by the request for special accommodation on the SAT/ACT) once in college, it would be prudent to provide related information on the application. Frankly, you have to ask yourself whether you would want your son to attend a college that would otherwise discriminate against him or one that will do what it takes to support him in the achievement of his goals.

Dear Peter,
I am not applying Early Decision, but wonder if there are any advantages in sending in my Regular Decision application a day or two after the ED date but way ahead of the RD date? My guidance counselor recommended that I wait and send it in just before the RD date because, if an application is sent in early, it will just sit there until the RD date anyway.

Dear Liam,
The timing of your Regular Decision application submissions is not terribly critical. Your counselor is correct that an application submitted early is not likely to be reviewed until later. At schools that offer ED or EA options, credential review time will be devoted to those applications. I suggest you try to submit Regular Decision applications two weeks in advance of deadlines in order to avoid the avalanche of paperwork that typically hits admission offices at their deadlines.

Dear Peter,
My son is in 12th grade. Should the FAFSA be completed as soon as possible or should it be submitted after he applies to college? Because our income is below $80K, does it pay to submit the FAFSA after he applies to college? Will our income influence his aid, getting in, and financial package?

Dear Alden,
The FAFSA should be completed as soon as possible. Upon its completion, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that reveals your expected family contribution (EFC) according to the ”federal methodology” used in need analysis. This information will be very helpful in determining your out-of-pocket exposure to any state university as well as many private colleges to which your son might apply.

If he is applying to any of the more selective colleges, your son will most likely need to complete the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well. This form will lead to a more granular assessment of your financial situation (using institution-specific variables) that is likely to produce a higher EFC. Unfortunately, you will not be informed of the result of this submission as this is information known only to the colleges to which he applies.

The information produced by these forms could well influence the disposition of your son’s admission status. It will definitely determine the assessment of his EFC at each college. Should he be admitted, the college in question will then determine the nature of the financial aid award. Quite often this determination is subjective (a practice called preferential packaging) based on the extent to which he is valued by the institution. If his credentials put him among the very best candidates at the school, the question of EFC will be moot and the school will use its resources to leverage his enrollment with a financial aid award that is weighted more heavily with gift aid (grants, scholarships).

At colleges where he is an acceptable but not superior candidate, the presence or inference of financial need could well influence the admission decision and, if he is admitted, the composition of his financial aid award (less gift aid and more self-help such as loans and campus work study).

The bottom line: if cost and affordability will be critical factors in your decision-making, it would be better to be in possession of this information sooner than later. If your son is admitted and the financial aid award doesn’t seem to be consistent with your expectations, you should be prepared to appeal the award with the school’s financial aid office.

Dear Peter,
What do you advise with regard to extracurricular activities? Is It better to be involved in many things or to focus on a few areas of commitment?

Dear JoAnn,
Students should engage in activities that give them joy in life. Hopefully, those activities are positive and constructive. Ideally, students will grow their involvements by taking on new and greater responsibilities. Some students are able to manage multiple involvements in a healthy, productive manner. Others are better off finding their niche in specific interests. Students are well-advised to do whatever makes sense to them.

In the admission process, authenticity is the key. Decision-makers are looking for evidence of sustained involvement and growth through activities. It would be a mistake for any student to try to engage in indiscriminate resume-building or to try to anticipate what admission officers want to see.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Do you know why the SAT exists today?

The answer might surprise you. Over its long history, the SAT has served many purposes including that of “leveling the playing field” through a standardized test that presumed to reconcile the great disparities that exist between high school academic programs across the country.

In its current iteration, however, the test’s intended purpose is that of a diagnostic assessment that helps admission officers predict the ability of applicants to perform academically during the first year of college. It is not an intelligence test nor is it predicting the likelihood of graduation.

Within this context—as a diagnostic test forecasting first year success—it holds little value. What’s more, admission officers seem to recognize this. They regularly conduct validity studies to determine the value of different variables (courses, grades, GPA, letters of recommendation, essays, etc.) and these studies routinely reveal that the SAT has only a marginal impact on their predictive models. In short, they know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without the presence of SAT results.

So, why, then, do so many colleges and universities insist that you submit test results?

Some institutions with great volumes of applicants (state universities, highly selective schools) use test results along with GPAs to screen candidates. In effect, scores in those cases are competitive credentials. Achieving the minimum score on a given school’s “scale of acceptability” is less a demonstration that you can do the work—and more an indication that you have hit that school’s rather arbitrary cut-off for consideration in the admission process.

And, at the end of the day, institutions use the SAT to project the strength of their entering classes. Intimating that the SAT is a universal metric for intelligence, they seem to be saying, “Look at all these smart students we have managed to enroll.” As a result, colleges seek to attract candidates with “big numbers”—and, far from the diagnostic it is intended to be, the SAT becomes a competitive credential.

The good news is that more than 850 colleges now recognize the folly of this exercise and have made the submission of test results optional. In doing so, they have acknowledged that they can make good decisions about whom to admit without test results. To see a complete, alphabetized list of these schools, go to

When I made reference to the test optional opportunity that exists at a growing number of schools during a presentation earlier this week, a student asked, somewhat incredulously, “Won’t colleges assume that if you don’t submit scores you are trying to hide low results?” I would make two observations from personal experience in response to questions like this.

One, the removal of the testing requirement in light of their confidence in other predictive factors frees admission officers to focus their deliberations on the personal strengths and attributes of the student without concern for how a score might affect their institutions’ academic profiles. The day my former institution went test optional in the admission process was a day of liberation for my colleagues and me. Free from the “tyranny of numbers,” we were able to admit the students who were most interesting to us.

Two, there tends to be very little difference between the test performance of “submitters” and “non-submitters.” Subsequent studies of the two groups at my institution revealed that average scores for the two groups were nearly identical. In fact, we discovered quite a few students who had withheld high scores, presumably, because they were philosophically aligned with the test optional policy.

Did we admit kids who benefited by not having to submit substandard scores? Sure—because they produced compelling coursework and supporting documentation that gave us confidence that they could do the work in our environment. And most did very well in college and in life after school. Similarly, we admitted more than a few students over the years with high scores, but relatively modest high school records who did not find the same success.

I have also heard the assertion that test optional schools are simply using the option as a marketing ploy to attract applicants and raise their scores (because low scores are no longer reported). While those might be natural outcomes that fall to such schools, it is my experience that the rationale for going test optional runs much deeper. Many schools with test requirements tend to admit students whose test results match or enhance their respective testing profiles. In the process, they tend to arbitrarily dismiss candidates who are otherwise very compelling but whose scores would “hurt the profile.” Making the test optional allows for a broader assessment of the candidate’s credentials.

The bottom line: If testing is not your thing or you are philosophically opposed to its place in the admission process, you should feel more than comfortable exploring the 850 colleges and universities that have made the submission of tests optional. They have defined a different paradigm for decision-making that, quite frankly, is student-centered. And that’s a good thing!