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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).

BCF Readers’ Forum V

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BCF Readers’ Forum VIII

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Van Buskirk

One of the biggest mistakes students make in preparing their applications for admission is the tendency to treat the information they submit as random data points. Scores, essays, courses, grades and letters of recommendation are often regarded as items to be completed on a checklist for each college. When this happens, students miss important opportunities to make a difference in their applications. Rather than being purposeful in presenting their credentials, they fail to “connect the dots” to create a coherent picture of who they are.

As you prepare your applications for admission, then, consider how the different elements of your application can be woven together to tell your story. Remember that admission committees are most interested in learning about you and what you have to offer the community of scholars they are assembling through the admission process. Use your essays, letters of recommendation and extra-curricular to create a picture of who you are and what you have to offer. Be thoughtful about your presentation so that your application makes a compelling statement that says, “Take me!”

Eight Tips for Making Your Case
1.    Know what it is you want to say about yourself—what are the key messages you want to convey? If you are having trouble getting your arms around this, either because there is a lot to say or because you are struggling to find a beginning point, try the following:

  • Think about how others see you. How would your friends describe you? Your teachers? Your parents?
  • What key words and thoughts begin to emerge? Generous? Competitive? Studious? Inventive? A leader? A “renaissance person”?
  • Choose two or three that are most consistent with your core identity.
  • List the key involvements, experiences and achievements that make the connection to these themes.
  • Look broadly and creatively at your application (essays, extracurricular profile, letters of recommendation) for opportunities to weave these elements together in making your case.

2.    Resist the temptation to add newspaper clippings and certificates of achievement as they tend to be redundant with the information provided in your application. Rather, take advantage of the opportunity to incorporate your accomplishments into the theme you are trying to establish for your application.

3.    Be concise in completing the extracurricular profile on your application. Admission officers want to see how you distill the information that defines you in the space provided. If you absolutely need more space to list your activities and achievements, submit an additional page or, possibly, a resume with your application. If you go with the latter, keep it to one page. Some of the key details and insights of the emerging “story” can be addressed by people writing on your behalf. Make sure they have the needed information and that they know how their perspectives are integral to the messages you seek to convey.

4.    Focus on the events that have defined your life since the beginning of high school. Earlier accomplishments (prior to 9th grade) are ancient history from an admission perspective! Reference them only if you can demonstrate their relevance to the person you are becoming.

5.    Reference family situations (achievements or setbacks) only to the extent that they have had an impact on you. You are the candidate. Don’t make your application a soliloquy to others in your life.

6.    Use your essays and personal statements to “let the reader in.” Who are you? How do you think? What values do you hold dear? How do these insights connect with other information you are submitting about yourself? As you contemplate these questions, you give the reviewer of your credentials an understanding of your character that won’t appear anywhere else in the application.

7.    When possible, take advantage of opportunities to tell your story in personal interviews with paid admission staff persons. They will be decision-makers when your credentials are considered behind closed doors. Not all schools offer interviews, but when they do, be prepared to capitalize on the opportunity. It is better to have some exposure with decision-makers than none at all.

8.    Reach out to regional recruiters at the colleges of interest. Give them opportunities to help you with important questions and to learn about unusual circumstances in your life experience. At many institutions, these folks will be at the “point” in the decision-making with regard to your application. The more comfortable they are with what they know about you, the easier it will be for them to support your candidacy.

Finally, “connecting the dots” is moot if you don’t put yourself on competitive playing fields where you will be valued for what you have to offer—where your message will be well-received. A strong message by itself won’t necessarily put you over the top if you are not already a competitive candidate—you can’t “will” your way into a college or university simply because you are qualified and have a strong desire to attend. Focus your time and attention on making the case for yourself at schools that make sense for you.


BCF Readers’ Forum XI

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BCF Readers’ Forum XIV

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

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

Dear Paul,
I must confess that I am generally very cynical about data self-reported by colleges. In particular, data derived from WL activity can be very “soft.” For example, colleges will only count as “admitted” from the WL those students who receive letters confirming the admission. The typical protocol for admitting students from the WL is for admission officers to contact them directly with a “verbal” offer. Letters of acceptance are only sent to the students who say “yes.” For example, it is not uncommon for admission officers to call 50-60 students—or more—before receiving 20 affirmative responses. The calls to students that failed to yield positive responses are not counted among the acceptances.

Moreover, admission data is often reported well before WL activity has been completed. While it is possible that the university in question only “accepted” four students from the WL by the time it reported its WL numbers, it is also possible that many more students were contacted and accepted after the report was submitted.

Having said that, the data/probabilities are likely to be similarly “soft” at other schools. I will say this, though, the WL is a dead-end for students who do not choose to remain active on it at a given school. On the other hand, those who remain active—visit the campus (again!), update their files with new information and make sure they are accessible (cell phones, emails, etc.)—have more reasonable chances of admission than they might have imagined.

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

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

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

Dear Peter,
Do you have a sample letter to send to a school where I have been accepted; however, I decided to go to another college? I would like to keep the door open for the future.

Dear Melanie,
I don’t have such a letter but I suggest you keep the message simple. Something like, “Thank you so much for offering me admission! After much consideration, I have decided to attend (name of college). All the best!” Generally speaking, these letters are opened by support staff who then update student statuses is their systems. If you have developed a relationship of any sort with an admission recruiter, you might send a separate, more personal note to that person in which you explain your decision/plans.

Dear Peter,
My daughter is currently a junior and wants to increase her chances at her favorite schools. When you mention to be in contact with the school and email the admissions person assigned to our area, do you have any recommendations for what she should be inquiring about or what is a good example of showing strong interest without sounding desperate?

Dear Marva,
Contacts with colleges run both ways. Your daughter needs to be attentive and responsive to outreach from the colleges of interest to her. And when she has questions about the college or an aspect of its admission process for which there are no answers easily found in its literature or on its website, she needs to ask them of its regional recruiter. Quite often, such questions relate to course selections. They might also relate to other choices your daughter needs to make (which subject tests are required/preferred, who should I ask for a letter of recommendation, etc.). She needs to be careful, though, to make sure her queries are thoughtful. It would be a mistake to try sending messages on a regular (daily, weekly, etc.) basis as she would come to be regarded as pest.

Dear Peter,
Do alumni donations matter for legacies? I have heard for the most part they don’t unless they exceed the six-figure mark.

Dear Rob,
I’m afraid there is no way to predict the manner in which colleges factor alumni donations into the admission process. Schools admitting 30%+ of their applicants will certainly be impressed by substantial giving but are also inclined to admit legacies with the “long view” in mind. In other words, admitting your student makes you proud (as an alum) and, perhaps, more likely to write them into your estate planning. The most selective (and wealthy) institutions seem to be as impressed by status/stature as money. At those places, six digits doesn’t even scratch the surface. They’ll want to see evidence of philanthropic giving and the potential to put a name on a building.

Dear Peter,
What are your tips for college campus visits?

Dear Nikhil,
Most college visits will afford you the opportunity to take a tour and participate in a group information session. Some offer personal interviews as well. If a college ever gives you an opportunity to interview with a paid admission staff person, you should take advantage of it! It’s always good to have some exposure to a decision-maker.

For additional tips, visit and click on the “Campus Visit” category where you will find several articles that will help you prepare for your campus visits.

“What Do We Get?”

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

It is late in the admission process at many colleges and the question, “What do we get?” can be heard repeatedly as applications are reviewed one last time to determine who will make the “final cut.”

Faced with the prospect of having to choose between an abundance of academically able students, admission officers will examine a student’s credentials one more time for evidence of that “something extra” she might bring to the college if she is admitted. They will pore through essays, letters of recommendation and extracurricular profiles in search of the talent, interest or perspective that might make her a “difference-maker” on their campuses.

It is perhaps this part of the admission process that is most easily overlooked by students as they get started in the process. As a prospective applicant, much of your time and effort is spent working to achieve a strong academic record—and for good reason! When you are successful in this regard, you make yourself a viable candidate for admission—you put yourself on the “competitive playing fields” at the colleges that interest you. Failure to do so at a given school means that you have no chance of gaining admission. So, keep up the good work in the classroom. It is earning you the right to compete!

Once in the competition, though, you must be able to distinguish yourself from the other candidates who are similarly qualified. They can do the work, too. Unfortunately, not all can be admitted and this is when the question, “What do we get?” is often raised. It is heard first within the context of determining who will be admitted and, then, within the context of who will receive different types of financial aid or scholarship support.

To gain perspective on this part of the selection process, it might be helpful to think about what is going on through the eyes of the admission officers. Think of them as investors. As they consider whom to admit into their entering classes, they see opportunities to invest in young people, most of whom present superb academic records. After the academic credentials are thoroughly vetted, the point of inquiry invariably shifts to the question, “Who among these great students, will have a transformative influence on our campus?”

When they consider your credentials, then, admission offices want to know about their likely “return on investment” (ROI)—how will you make a difference in the quality of life on their respective campuses and, eventually, what is the likelihood that you will bring honor and distinction to their institutions. For example, are you likely to:

  • Engage as a critical thinker in the classroom?
  • Emerge as a creative influence in the arts?
  • Contribute to the success of the theatre program?
  • Write for the student newspaper?
  • Bring unusual talent to the music or athletic programs?
  • Give of your time and talent to those who are less fortunate?
  • Affect change through thoughtful and energetic leadership?
  • Show curiosity and tease ideas into inventions?
  • Challenge others to see the world differently?

And, when an institution’s investment is accompanied by financial support, either in the form of need-based financial aid or a merit scholarship, the expectations emerging from the “What do we get?” question tend to go up proportionately. The manner in which some universities use athletic scholarships to recruit talented athletes is a very visible illustration of the ROI concept at work.

Now, apply this concept to schools at varying levels of selectivity. At colleges and universities that are able to admit most of their applicants, it is entirely possible that you will present credentials that stand out in the competition. Why? Without the pressure of having to review a ton of applications, they don’t need to make as many fine distinctions between their applicants. As a result, your chances of being regarded as a potential difference-maker on their campuses are better, thereby improving your prospects for getting in and securing favorable financial assistance.

On the other hand, the scrutiny surrounding the “What do we get?” question increases with the degree of selectivity experienced at colleges and universities. The harder it is to get into a college, the greater is the pressure on admission committees to make fine distinctions. The same credential that earned you a scholarship at one school might not stand out at a more highly selective college.

While the competition for admission and financial aid might seem daunting, the reality is that literally thousands of colleges and universities are prepared to invest in new students each year. And most award tens of millions of dollars in financial aid and scholarships to students who are valued for what they have to offer—each year!

Keys to Success
The keys to your success in the college admission process are three-fold. First, take advantage of your high school years to invest in yourself. Become a difference-maker in the communities (home, school, church, volunteer organizations, places of employment) in which you function. When you invest in making yourself better and in improving the quality of life for those around you, you will inspire others to invest in you.

Two, be thoughtful—and purposeful—about your messaging as you consider your applications for admission. Beyond your obvious credentials, what is it you want admission officers to know about you? What will set you apart from the competition? 

The third key to success is to target colleges where you will be valued for what you have to offer—places where your credentials will answer the “What do we get?” question in a big way! These colleges and universities are good “fits” for you because they will regard you as a potential difference-maker on their campuses and be eager to invest in you.

Finding this fit will require some research on your part—research that does not include college ranking guides! Start by looking for colleges and universities where your testing profile (SAT or ACT) places you in the top half of the scores reported for students who enrolled the previous year. For good measure, especially at highly selective schools, your scores should be in the top 25%—just to give yourself a competitive chance with the “What do we get?” question!

The coming months, then, are a time for reflection as you prepare to compete for admission. Organize your thoughts around an understanding of “self” that becomes the foundation of the candidate you are about to become. In doing so, the “What do we get?” question will be answered and doors of new opportunity will begin to open around you.

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.