College Planning Blog

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

Archive for August 2017

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By Peter Van Buskirk

Over the last two months, I have written about elements of a good college fit—elements that are just as important when you are getting started with your college search as they are when making the final choice of a college. “Fit,” more than rankings, rhetoric or emotional logic that is bound to emerge, is the greatest determinant of success in both gaining admission and completing the degree requirements at a given college or university.

As you know by now, the best college for you will be the place that:

  • Offers the course of study you want to pursue—and will provide opportunities for you to explore if you are undecided.
  • Provides instruction and learning opportunities in a manner that is compatible with the way you like to learn.
  • Is a good match for your level of ability and academic preparation.
  • Provides a community that feels like home.

It is vital that you give each of these elements equal regard in your college search. A place that “feels like home” but does not offer your intended program of study is not a good fit. Nor is the place that insists that you declare your major as an applicant if you haven’t come to any good conclusions about a major yet. The best fit will be the place that meets your requirements as defined within each of these elements.

If you have charted your college selection around these elements of fit, you are bound to discover many places that meet your criteria. Among them, the best place for you—the ideal college—will be the place that values you for what you have to offer!

Think about it. Wouldn’t you prefer to be at a college that recognizes your talents and abilities, interests and perspectives—and demonstrates its commitment to investing in your success? As you contemplate your educational experience, think about each potential college destination as a partner you might choose as you attempt to reach your goals. Do you want to commit yourself to a partner that barely acknowledges your presence or one that embraces you with a full sense of the possibilities?

Be discriminating as you look for evidence of the latter. Do you see it when you seek help in finding financial assistance? What is the response when you inquire about opportunities to pursue special independent study projects or to study abroad? Do you find yourself meeting with people who are eager to help you make things happen or are you left to figure these things out on your own? The manner in which a college engages you during the recruitment process is often an indicator of the way it will treat you as an enrolled student. In particular, colleges that value you for what you do well will:

  • Give you personal attention throughout the recruitment process.
  • Answer your questions about housing, registration and payment plans in a timely manner.
  • Admit you and provide financial aid to meet your need.
  • Recognize your talents with scholarships and/or special academic opportunities, i.e., study abroad, internships, research, etc.

Not surprisingly, this notion of “value” is evident as admission officers engage in the selective admission process as well. The question, “Who among the excellent candidates under consideration are of greatest interest to us—who do we value most?” frames the deliberation as highly qualified applicants are considered for limited places in the entering classes at selective institutions. Remember, such schools don’t have to admit you simply because you are good. If they admit you it is because they chose to do so.

The last two bullet points are especially important, then, as you apply for admission. Why? What better evidence that you have found a good college fit than to be admitted and extended the financial support you need in order to enroll?! The best college fit for you will be a place that seems to be saying, “among all of the really good candidates we are considering, we want you because of what you have to offer and we’re prepared to invest in your success.”

So, what does this mean for you? The secret to your success still rests in your ability to reflect honestly on “who you are” and “what you have to offer”—and to find a good college match for those qualities. Take stock of your gifts, talents and perspectives. What do you have to contribute to a new community and where might such contributions be valued most? Be true to yourself, then, and put yourself in a better position to experience a lasting relationship with an institution that makes sense for you.

To learn more about finding a good college fit, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students, available in the BCF Bookstore.

BCF Readers’ Forum 8.19.17


Saturday, August 19th, 2017

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

Dear Peter,
My son intends to answer the demographic question of “Are you Latino or Hispanic?” with a “Yes” response because “My grandmother is Puerto Rican so, I am 25% Hispanic.”

Would “yes” be the correct response? While on the Common App he further identifies himself as a “White, Caucasian” in the next demographic question, some other school applications do not offer this follow-up question about self-identity. Any advice you could give would be MUCH appreciated.
Ellen

Dear Ellen,
A student’s response to the demographic prompt is a matter of personal perspective and interpretation. Checking “Hispanic” is not likely to help your son unless there is evidence in his application that his Hispanic heritage is a defining element of his character and life experience. Absent such evidence, the check in the box could come across as curious, if not disingenuous.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Due to a scheduling conflict, our son is having difficulty fitting a science class into his senior schedule. He is considering an online science class. We have been advised that an online class is not viewed very highly by selective institutions. Do you find this to be true?
Matt

Dear Matt,
I understand the dilemma regarding an online course. Admission officers will assess academic effort/choices contextually when they can. In general, they want to see what students will do when they don’t think they have to do anything—or, like your son, when they would seem to be cut off from a preferred curricular option. While taking a science course online might not be your son’s preferred option, it is better than having none at all this year. Given the circumstances, I don’t see any harm in taking science online.
Peter

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

Dear Mary,
Much depends on the academic background and strength of the student. Liberal arts colleges are good landing places for academically accomplished students who are still finding direction as those colleges are very intentional about exposing students to a range of content and opportunity.

Some argue that two-year colleges, or less expensive four-year colleges, are good places for students to explore before completing an undergraduate degree at a four-year college. This approach can be effective, and is certainly less expensive. The potential downside is that the student loses the continuity and context of the four-year progression on a single campus.

Finally, the gap year (or two) can be an effective option for students who are in need of focus and intentionality. Students who have stepped away from the classroom for a period of time quite often return with renewed determination and direction that fuels their success in college.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I was debating whether or not I should take any SAT Subject tests. None of the schools I am applying to require them. In your opinion, would submitting SAT subject scores give any sort of benefit?
Sam

Dear Sam,
If SAT Subject Tests are not required at the colleges to which you are applying, there is no need to take them. Focus instead on investing in those other aspects of your application (extracurricular involvement, essay development, relationship building with college reps, etc.) that are more likely to determine your competitiveness.
Peter

Dear Peter,
In your opinion, is writing about one’s mental health in the application too risky? Would admitting to overcoming mental health challenges put my daughter in a negative light in terms of admissions or would some admissions officers consider it a brave topic to write about?
Gillian

Dear Gillian,
I typically advise students that strength can be found in making themselves vulnerable. If your daughter has a compelling story to tell regarding her struggles and is comfortable telling it, she has the potential to convey confidence, focus and strength of character. Or, she might enlist her guidance counselor for support in this regard. The question to the latter might be, “How can you help me tell my story?” Quite often, the third-party testimonial to such situations can be quite powerful in the application.

There is no guarantee that admission officers will respond in the affirmative. Colleges that recognize both the strength of her character and the power of her journey, however, will want to celebrate her talents and invest in helping her achieve her goals.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is applying to a highly selective university that gives her the choice of reporting her weighted or unweighted GPA. Her unweighted GPA is 4.0 and weighted is 4.698, showing that she takes very challenging IB classes. Which is more impressive and aren’t they going to look at her transcript and find out that info themselves? Why are they making her choose?
Art

Dear Art,
In my opinion, there is no question that the weighted rank should be reported. Not only does it indicate that your daughter has chosen a very rigorous program, it speaks well to her impressive performance in that curriculum. Frankly, I’m not sure why a college wouldn’t want to see the weighted GPA. My guess is the institution in question is larger and more formula driven in its assessment of candidates in which case human eyes might not get to the detail of the transcript as well as the accompanying interpretive high school profile.
Peter

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

Dear Suzanne,
The question of Early Action versus Regular Decision really depends on the colleges in question. If your student applies EA to colleges where his credentials project him to be among the better candidates and the probability of admission for him is 50% or better, EA might help in the long run (at worst, he is deferred and given an opportunity to compete again as a Regular Decision candidate). At colleges where the probabilities for him are less than 50%, the chances are greater that he will simply be denied as an EA candidate.

Whereas the submission of an Early Decision application can measurably improve one’s chances of admission at most colleges, the EA application usually doesn’t carry the same advantage.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has played football for the past 5 years. He has worked hard, gone to most every practice and loved every minute…until last year. He is going to be a senior and just told us that he doesn’t want to play this season. We want to be supportive parents but we also want to make sure he has thought this through. Does it look awful on college applications if he chooses not to play his senior year?
LeeAnn

Dear LeeAnn,
The question of continuing sport involvement is a good one. As a former 3-sport athlete, I well understand the rigors of training and competing—and I was a marginal athlete! When your efforts are rewarded with playing time, the commitment can seem worthwhile. On the other hand, I can understand the sense of futility that might set in if playing time isn’t a likelihood. I don’t know your son’s status on the football team, but if he doesn’t factor into the game-plan, finding other outlets for his energy might be a good idea.

That said, I have encountered accomplished athletes who 1) have simply lost the passion for their sport, 2) because of their slight stature, don’t want to risk injury, or 3) need to make tough choices about how to commit their time in the senior year. All reasons are valid. Should he choose not to play football, the key for your son is to make sure his situation is explained. It would also behoove him to make sure he is filling his new-found time with constructive activity. Dropping football shouldn’t be a problem in the admission process if the decision is well-considered and your son has a well-articulated plan for moving on.
Peter

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

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

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

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

By Peter Van Buskirk

“I need to get out of here!” It’s a feeling shared by teenagers almost daily that is expressed loudly to anyone within earshot. And “here” is wherever you are at the moment—home, school, community. Just about anywhere else would be better than where you are.

Perhaps you recognize the symptoms. It seems the older you get the more claustrophobic your world becomes. Everybody is in your business and you need space. You’re ready for a new look, a change of scenery. And right about now, college seems like an inviting destination.

As eager as you might be to get up and go, though, the chances are there is a quiet voice inside you (never to be heard by anyone else!) that says something like, “I’m not sure I want to go. They feed me and let me drive their car. Besides, my friends are right around the corner. I actually have a good life here. Do I really have to leave?”

The answer is “yes.” At some point you will need to find a change of address. And, if that place will be a college, why not find one that bears the qualities you like in your home environment—a place that includes people with shared values and interests, a place where people will encourage you on bad days and celebrate with you the good days? Why not find a community into which you can settle comfortably?

When you think about it, the best college fit will be a place that offers a community in which you will feel comfortable. It will be a place where you won’t be distracted by worries about how you fit in. You won’t worry about what people think about you—how you talk, what you say, how you dress or what you think. You won’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Instead, you can relax and focus on getting the most out of your college experience and that includes, by the way, your academic work. There is a strong correlation between one’s comfort level in college—and one’s grade point average!

So, how do you find such a place? It’s hard to search the Internet for such a fit. Chat room conversations can be deceptive as they tend to reflect only the opinions of those who participate.  And the images you see on videos and in printed materials are rarely unattractive.

As a result, you will need to do some original research. Specifically, you need to experience college campuses and, in the process, be sensitive to your “gut” reactions. Quite often students who believe they’ve found the colleges of their dreams are hard-pressed to explain the attraction, except to say, “It’s a gut feeling. It feels right—like I would be at home.” As you think about living apart from the comforts of home, finding your niche is vitally important so let your gut go to work for you.

What “gut feeling” do you hope to find as you look at colleges? Look for students who come from similar backgrounds—who share your interests and your loyalties. While they shouldn’t be exact clones of your friends from home, it’s a good sign if they are people from whom you can learn and around whom you can grow personally. In all likelihood, your gut will tell you when you have found people you’d like to get to know better.

Moreover, what does your gut tell you about a college’s inclination to stretch and support you through various aspects of your college experience? Do you sense that people in a given environment will encourage and support you in your journey of self-discovery? Based on your experience on college campuses, where do you see evidence that interaction with others will help broaden your perspective—get you to take risks and think outside of the box periodically? What does your gut tell you about how an environment will respond if you struggle? Will anyone know?  Will anyone care?

The answers to these questions will help define the ideal college community for you. At a time in your life when you might be aching to get away and have a different experience, it’s vital that you “land” well when you get to college. Be careful not to react impulsively, then, as you consider your college “home away from home.” Be sure to test your reactions. Until you can experience such a place first hand and come away with a really strong, positive “gut feeling,” that feeling only exists in your imagination. Be prepared to visit campuses—and revisit and revise your list accordingly—as your college search continues until one day you will know the place that feels right for you because it feels like home!

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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