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 September 2017

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By Peter Van Buskirk

As students come of college-going age, it is not uncommon for them to find their mailboxes (and inboxes) full of unsolicited promotional materials from colleges and universities around the country. At first, the attention is flattering. Glossy brochures, promises of scholarships and stories of personal educational experiences prove to be effective enticements to students eager for some reassurance that a college awaits.

Before long, however, eagerness gives way to cynicism as the unrelenting messaging from countless colleges begins to run together to form a homogeneous stew. What was initially ego food (“Look! They want me!”) has become junk food as the “trash bin” fills quickly.

The back-story on this mailing phenomenon is that colleges and universities are spending a great deal of time and money to get the word out about their institutions. They buy lists of student names by the tens of thousands whose test results and self-reported GPAs would seem to make them viable candidates. And, then, the “pitch” begins.

It’s all about marketing as even the most well-known among institutions seek to position themselves as destinations for high-talent students. The premium on pre-qualified names is such that lead generation—the “mining” of names—has become a big business behind the scenes of the college-going process.

Interestingly, the practice of lead generation as a source of prospects for college recruitment has been around for many years. It has recently become viewed in a different light, however, as enrollment strategists are learning to apply a complex set of market analytics to student contact data that is at their disposal. No longer concerned with simply prequalifying students academically, they are determined to identify students who are more likely to enroll if admitted.

In what is something of a covert operation, colleges are now tracking students as they visit campuses, attend information sessions in high schools, open their emails and even as they collect information about the college on various online search engines. The fact that a student has in any way entered the “foot-print” of the institution, electronic or otherwise, is now discoverable to the institution. The result: said institution is able to attach values to the different contacts to develop a metric that predicts, with a high degree of accuracy, the likelihood that the student will enroll before she has even submitted an application!

If predictive data can be used to target students for recruitment, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how admission officers, especially at highly selective institutions, might be inclined to use it as they make fine distinctions between academically able candidates. Make no mistake—this variable is very much in play at “crunch time” in the selection process as institutions strive to stock their acceptance lists with “high-yielding” students.

The implications for the prospective applicant should be clear. While your transcript and resume will get you into the competition at schools of choice, it will often be the degree of confidence you give the decision-makers in your likelihood of enrollment that will make the difference in the outcome of your application.

It would make sense, then, to get—and stay—on the radar screens of decision-makers at the colleges of interest. Primary among them are the admission staffers who are assigned the task of recruiting in your region. Don’t allow yourself to be regarded as a stranger at a point in their deliberations when they are more inclined to go with candidates who are known entities or “sure things” from a yield perspective.

And you might think twice about your response to the correspondence—mail, emails and surveys—you receive from the schools that interest you. Instead of hitting the “delete” button, consider the implications of thoughtful engagement—of allowing a conversational exchange to develop with the regional recruiter on matters of importance to you in the admission process at that school. Conversely, the absence of thoughtful engagement, or even a response, will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest in the school.

While there is no guarantee that demonstrating interest by responding in appropriate ways will result in your admission to a given institution, doing so will reduce the questions about the likelihood of your enrollment if admitted and return the focus of the deliberations to the factors that reflect your strength as a candidate.

BCF Readers’ Forum 9.23.17


Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

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

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.
Molly

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!
Peter

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

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

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

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.
Peter

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?
Ellen

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.
Peter

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?
Raj

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.
Peter

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?
Julie

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.
Peter

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?
Lynn

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.
Peter

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?
Mark

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.
Peter

“Fact-checking College Admission” 9.16.17


Saturday, September 16th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Peter Van Buskirk

“On your mark! Get set … Go!” With the opening of the school year, the starter’s call has sounded on the marathon that is the next college application season. Ready or not, high school seniors with college aspirations need to step up if they want to compete.

The coming months will establish the pace for each candidate. Good planning, positive energy and careful execution will move students to the head of the pack. By contrast, inertia can be a killer! Slow starts resulting from a lack of focus and poor organization can be overcome, but rarely without undue amounts of angst that stress a process that is already emotionally charged.

The following, then, are tips for students as they approach the “starting line.” While there can be no guarantees with regard to outcomes, knowing what lies ahead—and planning accordingly—can be advantageous as you map out your “race.” These suggestions are intended to put you in a more competitive position while relieving a little stress along the way!

1.    Prepare yourself for a busy year. “Okay, so what’s new!?” you say. Well, being able to anticipate the rush of Senior Year activity is one thing. Managing it is quite another. The key: take control. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by things “beyond your control.” Rather, know what you want to accomplish and be prepared to do what it takes to make things happen. Be responsible—no excuses. Take charge of your life and give meaning to the things you do. Success won’t just happen. You will need to make it happen.

2.    Invest in yourself. The college application process will seem like another high-level course or two on top of everything else on your schedule. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing the things you enjoy. Instead, give them everything you’ve got. Expand your involvement. Look for leadership opportunities. Try new roles. Doing so may prove quite challenging and require a difficult balancing act on your part. When you consider the potential short and long-term benefits, though, aren’t you worth the effort?!

3.    Stay on top of your grades! Selective colleges want to see what you will do in the classroom when you think the pressure is off—when no one is looking. Your hard work has gotten you this far academically—now is the time to sprint to the finish!

4.    Finalize your college list. Ideally, your list is already taking shape. By the end of September, it should be set. While there are all kinds of reasons why students feel the need to apply to lots of colleges, a good number is eight (8). If you have managed expectations around a good college fit (see my summer blogs), this list should be dominated by “target” schools—places at which you have a reasonable chance (40%-60% probability) of gaining admission.

5.    Research the applications of the colleges to which you will apply. If you haven’t done so already, there is no time like the present. Create an account with the Common Application. Become familiar with the supplementary information required by the colleges to which you are applying on the Common App’s “member pages” as well as the institutional applications for schools that do not use the Common Application. Do the same with the Universal Application and/or the new Coalition Application if you are so inclined. Create a spreadsheet on which you can note deadlines and requirements.

6.    Develop a plan for telling your story. What are the key messages you want colleges to know about you? How can you use the different elements of the application to convey those messages—to “connect the dots” in revealing a clearer picture of who you are?

7.    Start working on your essays! While you don’t need finished drafts right off the bat, you need to start sometime. Remember, good writing is a process, not an event. It doesn’t happen overnight. Try to have solid drafts of at least three 500-word essays finished by the end of September. Otherwise, the “adrenalin rush” that has served you well in the past might prove to be more elusive than you anticipate later in the Fall.

8.    Make sure your supporters are ready and able to help you! By the end of September, you should have met with the individuals who will write letters of recommendation for you and notified your counselor of the colleges to which you may be applying. In addition, familiarize yourself with your high school’s procedures and deadlines for processing application materials including transcripts, mid-year grades and counselor recommendations.

9.   If you are thinking about Early Decision, plan an overnight visit at your first-choice college AND at another of your favorite colleges. Compare your impressions of each before completing any ED forms. If you are not 100%, unconditionally committed to a school, then ED should not be considered. If you are applying Early Action to schools that offer that option, be respectful of the rules each has regarding the use of EA as some offer it as a restrictive, single choice opportunity.

10.    Take the SAT or ACT at least once between September and December. Plan to take the SAT Subject Tests necessary to satisfy the requirements of the colleges where you are applying.

11.    Give your parents a list of application deadlines. Presumably, one of them will be paying your application fees. They need to know when and how much.

12.    Become familiar with the financial aid forms and process. In determining your eligibility for need-based financial aid, all schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and many private schools also require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Know the submission deadlines. (Note: you can submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 using 2016 IRS tax return. Consult financial aid professionals at schools where you might be applying if you have questions. If you are considering Early Decision and cost is a factor, many schools will meet with you to provide an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution (EFC). Do not regard information taken from institutional Net Price Calculators as the absolute gospel with regard to your EFC.

For more advice about organizing the college application process, check out the new 2017 edition of Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Sometimes, the simplest prompts can prove to be the most challenging when it comes to writing college essays. Who would think, for example, that some version of “Why do you want to attend this school?” could induce sleepless paranoia? Or that “Explain your choice of a college major” would leave students second-guessing themselves?

After all, one’s interest in a school should be self-evident—shouldn’t it? The place looks good, feels good and has everything you need. What more can you say? How can you hope to capture the “gut feeling” that has inexplicably taken hold of you?

And, about that major—it’s easy to talk about a life-long desire to become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. But, what if that career direction isn’t so clear? How can you make a convincing argument about something that is seemingly so speculative?

Despite the inevitable brain-freeze, you still need to come up with words that will not only fill the spaces, but come together to create a compelling statement about you, the applicant. Consider, then, the context behind the questions for insight into how you might attempt to answer them.

Many of the schools that ask long and short answer questions of a personal nature are highly selective. They must make fine distinctions between hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of talented, high-achieving students. As an applicant, your data—courses, grades, scores—puts you on the “competitive playing fields” at such schools.

Once in the competition, though, the attention often shifts from, “Can you do the work?” to questions such as, “If we admit this student, what do we get?” and “Where is the evidence that this student would be a good fit for us?” In other words, what sets you apart from others with similar credentials? Moreover, selective colleges want to know if your interest is sparked by an awareness of the synergy that exists between you and the culture of the educational experience on that campus—or is it a more superficial attraction?

Think about it. Do you justify your interest in a place because it is highly ranked, has a beautiful campus and is in an urban area—things the school already knows about itself? Or can you make the case that you are intrigued by the manner in which the curriculum is organized, instruction is offered and students are engaged? There are not-so-subtle differences in the answers. Colleges often ask the questions about your interest in them as well as your intended program of study, not to see how well you can recite their outstanding attributes, but to learn more about you and how you are thinking about your education.

A friend of mine who is the dean admission at a school that asks questions of this nature has often said, “I don’t want applicants to tell me they deserve to be admitted because they have great credentials. I want them to demonstrate that they ‘get it’—that they understand why my institution would be a good fit for them.” His institution, and others like it, want to measure both the sincerity of your interest and the intentionality with which you approach your application.

This takes us back to the “what do we get” question. In response to the essay prompts, do you come across as someone who is thoughtfully engaged and analytically involved—who is fully self-aware and has carefully researched distinctions between programs in search of the best fit? Or is your application merely the product of an expectation that your credentials should be justly rewarded by admission to that institution?

The key to writing essays in response to these prompts, then, is to remember that the essay needs to be about you. It needs to reveal a deeper understanding of who you are, what you think, and how you think within the context of the question. And, it needs to demonstrate an implicit understanding of the nuances of the school to which you aspire.

In responding to a prompt about an intended major, be sure to validate, if not prove, your interest in that discipline. In other words, demonstrate that your understanding of the subject matter is more than superficial. Better yet, provide evidence—if you can—of your current engagement with the subject matter by virtue of extending reading and/or experiential learning. Again, prove your passion. Make it relevant to your interest in the school.

Don’t panic, though, if you don’t have a clear academic interest. Most students don’t. Moreover, the odds are your interests will change throughout your college experience. Reflect instead on the subject areas you do enjoy. See yourself as the sum of many parts. In doing so, convince the reader that you value opportunities to think critically and explore broadly. After all, the college experience should do more than train you for a career. It should make you a more educated person.

In the final analysis, you need to see in each essay prompt the opportunity to give the reader some insight into you that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. This is true whether you are writing about meaningful life experiences or the reason you have chosen to apply. Be thoughtful. Be reflective. Be intentional. As long as you remember that the essay is about you, you’ll be on the right track.