Archive for November 2017

Sort by

“Good Enough is Never Enough”

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

By Peter Van Buskirk

As the days grow shorter, high school seniors are faced with a time of reckoning as they prepare college applications. The academic year is in full swing with new academic challenges and a sense of nostalgia that is sweeping over students as they wistfully embrace events and relationships for the “last time” in their high school experience. And, for many, the college application process looms as another layer of intense activity on top of an already busy schedule.

The excitement and allure of going to college has begun to wane as the process of applying becomes an onerous imposition. With pending deadlines and mounting requirements, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to get it all done! As a result, there is a tendency to choose the course of least resistance—to do what is “good enough.”

I would like to offer a word to the wise if you find yourself in this situation. Stay focused. Now is the time to do your best work even though doing so might mean making compromises in your social life. You can’t “will” great grades. Essays don’t become excellent overnight. College applications don’t materialize out of thin air.

Keep in mind the competition for admission. Popular forecasts to the contrary, the competition at selective institutions continues unabated as a higher proportion of the college age population applies to college. As a result, colleges will continue to be inundated by applications from more qualified candidates than they can admit. And the more selective institutions will be forced to make even finer distinctions between deserving students.

In particular, they will watch to see how you handle the pressure. Will you wilt under the weight of the added expectations? Will you find the easiest path to the “finish line”? Or will you step up to the challenge?

Colleges that can be picky are indeed watching. They want to see what you do when you don’t think you have to do anything. They want to see how you approach your classroom assignments. When a “B” seems good enough, will you continue to push for the “A”?

And admission officers at these colleges will be able to gauge your investment in your application immediately. Have you been thoughtful about conveying key messages? How have you told your story? What does your essay say about you? I can tell you from experience that applications and, in particular, essays that are pulled together at the last minute will have that “good enough” look about them.

You must ask yourself, then, “Do I want ‘good enough’ to represent me in the college application process—or in life, for that matter?” I wouldn’t if I were you, especially given what is at stake. By doing so, you are suggesting that you are willing to settle for something less than your best. And when your admission credentials have the look of “good enough,” you give the person reading them a reason to be dismissive of your application in favor of those that are more compelling—game over!

As a high school senior and an applicant to college, you are still in a position to control the manner in which your application is presented. Resist the temptation, then, to put things off or go into “cruise control.” Now is the time to accelerate! You must make that commitment, though. As one young woman observed after hearing this message at a recent program, “If nothing else, I have learned that good enough is never enough if I want to reach my goals.”

BCF Readers’ Forum VII

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Dear Peter,
How important is it to make donations to one’s alma mater? There’s a good chance that at least one of my three kids will want to go to mine. Is a small annual contribution advisable?

Dear Jim,
The impact of donations to one’s alma mater is not easy to anticipate as each school is different. Generally speaking, the more selective the school, the greater that gift needs to be in order to effectively leverage an outcome. I do know that colleges are sensitive to the percent of alumni who give as that information is factored into some ranking calculations. That said, a small annual donation would probably make sense as it would at least demonstrate some level of engagement on your part, the absence of which might raise questions about the level of interest on the part of the student.

Dear Peter,
My daughter will be attending college starting in August. We have filled out the FASFA application and entered 10 of her top colleges. I need to add 5 more. How do we go about this? Do we create a new account with the same information?

Dear Matt,
If you want to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to more than 10 schools, the FAFSA website provides several options for doing so. Visit their website at to find answers to the question, “If I want to apply to more than ten colleges, what should I do?”

Dear Peter,
My son attends a magnet public high school. He recently received a letter from a private college trustee asking for my son to submit his high school GPA and SAT scores for a baseline institutional aid award. This is not a college that was on his list and he has not visited the college. Should he go ahead and see what the aid award will be? They do have his intended program of study. The tuition at the college is $56,000/yr. (tuition, room/board and fees). They also give out merit awards based on GPA plus SAT score.

Dear Lily,
The letter your son received is analogous to a “cold call” from the institution—it’s part of their marketing effort. If your son checks out the school and finds that it could be interesting, then it can’t hurt to respond and see what happens. It will cost you nothing and your son can always “walk away” if his subsequent research does not inspire stronger interest. At the end of the day, he needs to stay focused on finding “fit” with regard to his priorities.

Dear Peter,
I have heard that college admissions offices are “need blind”, that is to say the counselors do not know if an applicant will need financial help or not and I was wondering what your perspective is on that.

Dear Brad,
“Need blind admission,” the notion that colleges will look only at the student’s academic record—and not the family’s ability to pay—is laudable but, in reality, it isn’t possible. To be need blind, institutions would need to be “blind” to the financial circumstances for all families throughout every phase of the selection process. While this is where many institutions start the process, it is not where they finish.

Whenever there are exceptions, the need blind rubric fails. And there will be exceptions (students on the Wait List, transfer candidates, international applicants and students with marginal credentials are all vulnerable to questions of ability to pay). Even the wealthiest institutions have fixed financial aid budgets to which they must be accountable. Whereas “need blind” implies that the institution has sufficient resources to be able to “blindly” admit students and dole out funds accordingly, it must ultimately be accountable to a bottom line. Moreover, the suggestion that admission officers cannot see financial data or are not aware of a family’s financial circumstances is simply not accurate.

The bottom line: It is important to remember that, regardless of claims institutions make about their admission/financial aid practices, they will always admit—and support—the students they value most.

Dear Peter,
What do you do with a high achiever who isn’t getting engaged with the college process and hasn’t found a fit at any of the colleges visited? His GPA is at the top of the class and his test scores are in the tops 95th percentile. The drive for this student is to learn, but the specific area hasn’t been found yet—everything is “exciting.” If there was a college close by where there was an option to live at home I would choose that. I think about a deferred entrance but am not sure how that works.

Dear Suzanne,
It is important to keep in mind that, above all, the four years of college are about self-discovery. It could be that your son is feeling paralyzed by the expectation that he must have a clear career path already worked out in his mind before choosing a college. The reality is that most students change their minds about their majors once in college—half of them do it twice!

I would introduce him to liberal arts colleges and general studies programs—curricula that will allow him to explore. Encourage him to sit in on college classes and talk with professors about their work. Such experiences will spark his interest and help whet his appetite for college studies. If he remains uncertain/ambivalent, then the gap year might be a healthy, productive option.

Dear Peter,
Should IEP documentation be forwarded with an Early Decision or Early Action application OR after the student is accepted?

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that the IEP documentation might provide useful context with regard to the student’s academic performance, it should be included with the application, even in the ED or EA process. Regardless, related documentation should be presented to the institution’s personnel responsible for compliance with accommodations after the student has been accepted in order to ensure appropriate accommodations upon enrollment.

Dear Peter,
My daughter finally submitted her applications and now realizes that all the college communication she has been receiving from them was on her personal email address. Given the need to synchronize with the school’s Naviance and Common Application/Coalition systems, however, she used her high school email address on her college applications, an address that won’t match the one she’s used in communicating with the colleges over the past 1.5+ years.

I’ve asked her to sign up her new, school supplied email address to all the schools she has applied to in order to show her continued interest. I’m concerned, however, that it will look like she just signed up “after” she submitted her application, when in reality she has been on their email listings for a very long time.

Am I making too much of this or should she contact each school to let them know of this change so they can update her records to show that she had been following the school for quite some time?

Dear Ted,
Your concern is valid. It is hard to know, though, the “key” items that are used to track students in the databases at each college. In the unlikely event that a place tracks exclusively based on the email address, your daughter could get lost in the shuffle. It is more likely, though, that schools will use a combination of factors including last name, first name, school name, high school graduation year, etc. If your daughter is at all concerned that her prior record of contacts will be lost she might reach out to the respective regional recruiters to let them know of the change.

Dear Peter,
My son, an A-plus, well-rounded IB student, only got 1350 on the SAT. He was hoping to apply to an Ivy league school. Does he have a chance of getting in with these credentials, or should he wait until he has re-written the exam to apply?

Dear Anne,
Based on the strength of your son’s academic profile alone, he’ll be on the competitive “playing field” at any school in the country. While he could conceivably be admitted anywhere, his actual chances are no better than anyone else at schools, like the Ivies, where the probabilities of admission range from 5%-15%. Since SATs are implicitly used as competitive credentials at the most selective institutions (including the Ivy League), his current credentials will not put him in a compelling place in the competition for admission at those schools.

I don’t normally suggest additional testing but, in this case it could help a little. That said, I would strongly urge your son to be mindful of schools where he’s more likely to be valued for what he has to offer, academically and otherwise. Too often, those schools get put on the “back-burner” during the pursuit of the more prestigious options. The former are very good, though, at discerning the student’s intent and will often put them on the Wait List if the perceived interest is not strong. Your son should be diligent about developing relationships at these schools in order to avoid that potential outcome.

Dear Peter,
We will not be eligible for need based aid based on our income; however, we were told by my daughter’s advisor that the FAFSA might be needed for merit aid purposes. We do hope to be able to get some merit aid and wonder if that is the case. I have also heard you have a better chance of acceptance if you do not apply for need based aid. I was surprised by that. Is that a possibility?

Dear Marc,
If you are certain you will not need financial assistance—and you don’t expect your daughter to take a guaranteed student loan or a job on campus—completing the FAFSA won’t be necessary. While you shouldn’t need to complete the FAFSA to qualify your daughter for scholarships, you might be expected to submit it after the fact if she is awarded a scholarship somewhere. Regardless, check with the colleges in question as those that offer scholarships will make related requirements well known to you.
Colleges are not likely to discriminate against candidates in the admission process strictly based on the submission of a FAFSA. Rather, they will wait to see the numbers (IRS returns) before they decide whether the likely ROI is commensurate with the financial aid being considered. Just keep in mind that colleges will admit and aid the students whom they value most.

By Peter Van Buskirk 

At this time of year, I am often asked to react to dozens of college essays. Happily, the students in question see the opportunity to make an impact with the written word and are eager to put forth their best efforts. Unfortunately, many essays that are presumably in “final form” when they reach me are really not ready for “prime time.” The concepts are generally well conceived, but the presentation—from a technical perspective—reveals that much work can still be done to make a good essay great.

With that thought in mind, I would like to share the following editorial suggestions as they relate to the essay drafting process.

  1. Don’t try to pack everything you’ve done into your essay. Be careful to avoid the redundancy of reciting activities and/or accomplishments that will be found in other parts of your application. Quite frankly, resume narratives are dull and useless. Similarly, if your essay reads like a vacation travelogue, you have most likely “missed the boat.” Rather, take an expansive approach to a particular aspect of the topic at hand. If you can, focus on a revelation that changed your perspective. In doing so, you give the reader insight into a part of your life experience that won’t appear anywhere else on the application.
  2. In response to the “Why do you want to come here?” essay prompt, don’t restate the obvious about the college or university in question. You don’t win points by telling them you want to study with their “world famous professors” in their “top ranked programs.” Instead, reflect on your research and/or campus visit experience to project yourself into the culture of the place. Reveal an awareness of instructional style and independent learning opportunities. Demonstrate the synergy between yourself and the institution.
  3. Be measured and concise in your presentation. While complex sentences are sometimes necessary, it is best to err on the side of simplicity. This can be especially true in a story-telling narrative. A series of short, “punchy” sentences can have a powerful effect in delivering emotionally laden messages.
  4. Allow paragraphs to be your friends! An essay that is presented in a few long paragraphs is not only hard to read—the resulting word “blocks” can be overwhelming to tired eyes—it effectively obscures the author’s key messages. Change paragraphs with each new thought. And remember—a one line, one sentence paragraph can be just as impactful as a 3-4 sentence paragraph.
  5. Don’t use the word “I” to start sentences any more than is necessary. It is assumed that you are the author. You don’t need to remind the reader at the start of each sentence. Find creative solutions to conveying ownership of your thoughts.
  6. Speaking of unnecessary words, check to see if the word “that” is needed wherever it appears in your draft. If not, delete it.
  7. Avoid dangling prepositions (e.g., to, for, from, with, about).  Such words will undoubtedly play important roles in the articulation of your thoughts, but they don’t belong at the end of sentences!
  8. Punctuate creatively to emphasize key points. The strategic use of dashes (double hyphen) and exclamation marks as well as italics and bold type characteristics can add emphasis. Use quotation marks to indicate you are giving special meaning to a word or phrase. Be careful about using semi-colons, though, as they often set apart independent thoughts that should be punctuated as sentences.
  9. Don’t restate the essay prompt. Doing so is unnecessarily redundant and can limit your ability to take a more expansive approach with your essay.
  10. Eliminate qualifying phrases such as “I think” and “I believe.” They convey a lack of conviction. Generally speaking, you should try to project a more confident, assertive voice in your presentation.
  11. Make sure there is agreement between nouns and pronouns as well as verb tenses. Failure to do so is an indication of poor grammar skills, carelessness—or both.
  12. Whenever possible, write in the active voice.
  13. Eliminate unnecessary adverbs. There is a tendency to want to impress with flowery language—and adverbs often comprise the “bouquet.” Don’t overdo them.
  14. Speaking of flowery language, use the thesaurus judiciously! The words you use need to sound like they are coming from you. If not, they can be rather jarring to the reader!
  15. Don’t worry about the word count until you have developed a complete draft. Word and character counts can be paralyzing if you allow them to dictate your approach to an essay topic. Instead, commit yourself to an idea. Write it down from start to finish. Then, take a step back in order to gain perspective. As you begin to edit and refine the idea, challenge your word choices. Are they essential to conveying the key messages? If not, eliminate them.
  16. Finally, don’t assume that because a teacher or college advisor has “signed off” on an essay that it is finished. In all likelihood, that person is simply acknowledging that you are on the right track—that the essay is a good representation of the messages you want to convey. Taking it to the next level—making a good essay “great”—is your job!

By Peter Van Buskirk

As deadlines for college applications approach, it is important to be both organized and purposeful in your preparations. The following ten tips will help you avoid common mistakes as you put the finishing touches on your applications.

1. Focus on a short list of no more than eight colleges. The greater the number of applications you submit, the more likely it is you appear (to the colleges) to be applying whimsically—and the greater the likelihood that “application fatigue” will begin to effect your ability to do a good job with each application. Stay focused on the core group of schools that represent good fits for you. In most cases, eight is more than enough.

2. “Connect the dots”—tell your story! Be purposeful in your presentation—eliminate the randomness of your submissions. Establish a theme and use every part of the application to connect the dots (various data points) of your life experience to create a clear picture of who you are and what the college gets by admitting you.

3. Answer the “why” question thoughtfully. Colleges that ask you to write about “why you want to attend” are really trying to discern the synergy that exists between your goals, needs and learning style and their respective learning environments. Don’t tell them things they already know about themselves. Admission officers don’t want to hear about their highly ranked programs, great faculty or beautiful facilities—at least, not in this essay! Instead, reveal to them how, where and why you have found meaningful connections. Prove to the reader that you “get it”—that you understand how the learning environment in question makes the most sense for you.

4. Take pride in your presentation. Your application is like a personal statement that needs to state the case for your admission. Proofread it carefully. Read it out loud. Resist the temptation to repurpose information from one application to another—to do what is “good enough.” Make sure each application you submit is a positive reflection of who you are and what you have to offer.

5. Know your high school’s rules/procedures for supporting the college application process. Give the appropriate personnel time to prepare and complete your supporting documentation. Quite often, schools want information at least a week in advance of the actual application deadlines. Don’t put your college advisor in a bind by waiting until the last minute.

6. Make sure your recommenders are “on the same page” with regard to key messages you need to convey on your application. Your college advisor and the teachers who are supporting you are important partners in the presentation of your credentials.

7. Be organized. The application process involves the management of many moving parts (score reports, letters of recommendations, essays, supplemental forms, etc.). Make sure your part of the application is submitted with the application fee by the posted deadline. At that point, the colleges to which you have applied will create unique data files for you into which any other outstanding credentials will be added as they arrive.

To make sure everything gets to where it needs to be in a timely fashion, create a spreadsheet on which you can list and track all the information you need to submit to each college. If you can, submit your part of the application two weeks in advance of the college’s deadline in order to beat the rush.

8. Don’t assume—anything! At a time when deadlines and requirements are critical, it would be a mistake to assume that someone else has taken care of something for you! It is your job to make sure your application is complete and that it carries the key messages that help to define your life experience—and distinguish your candidacy.

Give yourself extra time to work with the formatting of your essays (no need for panicked melt-downs the night before deadlines!) and get in touch with the regional representatives from the colleges in question for guidance if you run into difficulty interpreting the requirements for their respective institutions.

9. Save copies. It might seem like a hassle, but take the time to make and save copies (hard copy or electronic) of the application materials you submit. You never know when you might need to refer to them.

Make arrangements to have test scores submitted directly to the colleges. It you have not already authorized the submission of test results (SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests) to the colleges that require them, now is the time to do so.

10. Stay on their radar screens! One of the biggest mistakes students make at this point in the process is they fail to stay engaged with the schools to which they are applying! The assumption seems to be: “They have my application, so they know I’m interested.” Guess again! One of the biggest reasons bright and talented students do not get into target schools has to do with questions about the sincerity of the candidate’s interest. Answer emails that might come your way from those schools. Visit the campus. Direct important questions to the staff person at the university who recruits in your area. Don’t allow the decision-makers to regard you as a “ghost applicant.”