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By Peter Van Buskirk

In recent weeks, thousands of anxious Early Decision and Early Action applicants have been learning the outcome of their applications. While the news brings excitement and relief to many, even more students find themselves holding letters of deferral or denial—and wondering what went wrong.

The angst has been brought home to me in various conversations with bewildered students and parents over the last six weeks. In all cases, the conversations involved excellent students—young people with strong records and well-developed talents coming from challenging academic programs. By all accounts, they deserved better. Now, however, they are left scrambling to reorient themselves to different options.

In assessing each situation, it is usually easy to spot the reason behind the non-admission—and it often revolves around a lack of purpose or intentionality regarding the submitted application. In other words, the students expected their credentials to stand on their own merit. Instead, the reader of the application would have easily surmised that the candidate expected the sheer weight of good grades, superb extracurricular activities and worthy goals to carry the day.

At selective institutions, however, those characteristics (good grades, etc.) do little more than put the student on the “competitive playing field” with hundreds or, in many cases, thousands of other equally qualified applicants. Their credentials are strong enough to start the conversation, but often fall short of “clinching the deal.”

Consider, for example, the highly involved student whose application failed to convey the generosity that shaped his character or the student who neglected to mention that the absence of a foreign language on her senior year schedule was due to a conflict with a course she is taking at a local college. Imagine the difference a personal interview would have made for the student whose life circumstances had affected her performance in the classroom, or the impact a thoughtfully developed personal statement could have had in place of the hastily completed essay that was deemed “good enough” by its author.

In each case, the lack of intentionality—the failure to “connect the dots” of one’s life experiences—brought the candidate up “short” in the end. Perhaps,  most often overlooked is the opportunity the students have to demonstrate the synergy that exists between themselves and the institutions to which they are applying. In response to the typical “Why do you want to attend our school?” essay, a rather gratuitous response citing the school’s ranking and the prestige of its faculty reveals nothing about the student’s sense of purpose.

On the other hand, had the student reached beyond the obvious to reveal the synergy—in real and personal terms—between the student’s aptitude, goals and learning style and the institution’s ability to complement them, he would have positioned himself much more effectively, especially in the competition for admission at colleges that must make fine distinctions between great candidates.

Quite often, then, the difference between acceptance and non-acceptance boils down to the student’s ability—and willingness—to be thoughtful and intentional in the presentation of her application. The winners in this competition are typically those who recognized—and seized upon—the opportunity to “connect the dots” of their applications to present themselves in a thematically cohesive manner. More than qualified, they made themselves into compelling candidates by giving admission officers greater insight into the unique perspectives and defining influences in their lives.

While there is not much current seniors can do to change the presentations of their submitted applications, the lessons learned in the process are worth passing forward to those who can benefit from them as they prepare their college applications. Start now to make note of how you want to approach the presentation of your credentials when the time comes. You will have that opportunity before you know it!

BCF Readers’ Forum VI

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Dear Peter,
My son was recently deferred Early Action at a school that continues to be his top choice. He remains hopeful and we would appreciate your guidance on what he should do next. He intends to reach out to the regional recruiter and to submit a letter expressing his continued interest in the school. He has also arranged to submit his grades for the first two marking periods of senior year. He does not want to overstep and provide anything more than they wish to receive, but he does not want to under-respond, either.

Please advise us regarding how assertive he should be under these circumstances and what action he should take to put his best foot forward while they consider his application with the regular decision applicant pool. Is it appropriate to inform the school at this point that if he were to be granted an acceptance, he would enroll at that school? This school is truly where he dreams about attending.

Dear Marge,
It is important to know that colleges offering the Early Action option (no enrollment commitment expected) are seeking to identify students who would otherwise be at the top of the competition in their respective Regular Decision candidate pools. While disappointing, the deferral does not imply a lessening of chances in the Regular process.

It sounds like he is doing all the right things at this point to stay on the “radar” of the regional recruiter. The letter expressing his intent to enroll if accepted, along with any new information, is appropriate. The first key is brevity. The second key is patience. The next 8-10 weeks will be torturously slow!

Dear Peter,
We are now into the second phase of college applications—shock and disappointment! My daughter just found out that two of her top choices have deferred her Early Action. Are there any tips you can give regarding what she should do next that might increase her chances of acceptance? Do you know, from experience, the percent of deferrals that are accepted? I want to try to give her some hope as these are her top schools.

Dear Jaime,
I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s Early Action deferrals. That said, she should take heart. The chances for students deferred EA are essentially the same as the chances for other Regular decision candidates. In the EA process, admission committees are looking for the superstar applicants, asking the question, “Do we know for certain that she would be one of best candidates if she were to apply Regular decision?” If so, the student is admitted. Absent that high level of certainty, the admission decision will be deferral. Students who are not likely to be competitive at all will be denied.

It is important to note that the implications of deferral in the EA process are much different than they are for deferral in the Early Decision process. In the latter, the question is, “If she were to be a candidate in the Regular admission process, do we think we might admit her then?” Whereas, in ED the tendency is to “lower the bar” somewhat academically, in EA the tendency is to “raise the bar.”

Without knowing more, I would observe that the probability of your daughter’s application being admitted is consistent with the overall selectivity of the respective colleges. If they admit one out of four, then her chances are one out of four. It could turn out that her credentials are highly valued by either or both of the colleges and she might still be admitted. She still needs to be mindful of the competitive nature of each school, though.

The best advice I can offer is to remain engaged in appropriate ways with each school. In particular, forward any new information to the regional recruiters as well as the admission office in general. The former are the decision-makers who are most likely to be involved in determining the outcomes of her applications.

Dear Peter,
In mid-December, my son received an acceptance letter from a university to which he applied Early Decision. He was thrilled and withdrew all of his other applications.

I am curious about something, though. My son applied Early Action to all of the other schools on his list, so he was finished submitting applications by November 1st. Is there any way for a university that receives an Early Action application to know that the same applicant has also submitted an ED application to another school? And if so, could this send a message that they are not the “first choice”?

Dear Liz,
First of all, congrats to your son on his acceptance! He did the right thing by withdrawing his other applications, including the Early Action applications. It is common for colleges to share lists of students accepted in the ED process with their peers. The schools to which he applied EA would then withdraw his applications if he hadn’t done so already.

I would offer two thoughts in response to your question. 1) Colleges with EA programs assume that many of their candidates will be ED candidates elsewhere—even if they don’t have any hard evidence of the fact. 2) Colleges offering EA do not expect that students applying EA are declaring first choice interest. All but a few (with restricted, single-choice EA options) assume that students applying EA at their schools are also applying EA at others as well. In the EA competition—and in the Regular Decision process—it is critical to demonstrate a sincerity of interest and, more importantly, recognition of the synergy that exists between the student and institution. Admission officers are really good at discerning the intentionality or sense of purpose that is exhibited by the candidate in the application.

Dear Peter,
I’ve read that most ED accepted applicants at the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools play a varsity sport. Is that true?

Dear Doug,
While I cannot refer to specific data, I doubt that is the case. It is true that NESCAC schools use ED aggressively in qualifying and securing commitments from recruited athletes—as do other highly selective, non-scholarship programs—but I suspect the majority of admitted ED candidates are not athletes.

Dear Peter,
My 10th-grade son is an outstanding student with a GPA > 4.0, all honors and AP classes and very strong standardized test-taking skills. He plays soccer, runs track and volunteers at his HS after school as a tutor for struggling students.

I’ve regularly encouraged him to consider applying to schools in the top tier of colleges that interest him but he’s been consistently dismissive of the whole college ranking/selection process and believes that, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter (either during his college years or afterwards in his profession and life) where he goes to school as long as he’s happy with his choice. He now refuses to talk about college with me and rejected the chance to visit any number of east coast schools this summer when we will be traveling for a family event.

My goal for him is to find a great school that he loves, but one that triggers and sustains a very high level of intellectual curiosity for him. I am quite confident that the faculty, resources, student diversity and learning environment at schools like Tufts, MIT or Wesleyan would prove extraordinarily satisfying for him both now and truly for the rest of his life. How do I get him to see that, or to at least consider that I may be right and that, all things being equal, he should probably go to Georgetown over San Diego State?

Dear Ian,
It sounds like your son is actually being very thoughtful about his educational future. I tend to agree with him about rankings in that they often provide a distorted sense of institutional worth. And I would have to agree that success upon graduation and in life is less a function of where he goes—and is more likely determined by what he does once on that campus.

At this point, your son probably just needs some space. It is not uncommon for parental anticipation of the process to be met by teenage indifference. He is still a sophomore—he’s got a lot of time. The last thing you want to do is push him away.

When you do talk about his educational future, you might try a different approach. Instead of focusing on the places, why don’t you try talking with him about his interests? What are his favorite subjects—and why? Who are his favorite teachers—and why? How would he describe himself as a student? Why does he want to go to college? What would a “good education” feel like to him?

Once the conversation is about him—and he can begin to reflect on his priorities—it will be easier for him to begin thinking about places that will best enable him to achieve his goals. In the end, he might discover some of the same schools you’ve been presenting to him, but the “find” needs to be his.

Dear Peter,
We learned that one of the highly selective schools to which my daughter has applied looks at demonstrated interest. Would it be helpful or a waste of time to schedule a campus visit now that apps are already submitted? If it is helpful, when would be the latest date to visit that would benefit her? (We are thinking mid-late February).

Dear Jill,
Campus visits are indeed the best indicators to colleges that are attempting to measure a student’s interest. While this visit should have taken place last summer/fall, visiting now is better than not at all as your daughter will get the benefit of learning more about the school first-hand. It’s hard to know whether the visit will be persuasive to decision-makers. Mid-late February might suit her agenda, but it will probably be too late to be impactful in the admission process.

Dear Peter,
We know that we are not going to qualify for need-based aid, so is there any reason to submit the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile?

Dear Lynn,
There is no need to submit the CSS Profile as it is used to determine your eligibility for need-based institutional funds. On the other hand, an institution might require submission of the FAFSA if your student is offered a merit scholarship. Because the FAFSA determines your eligibility for funds (grants, loans, campus work study) from the Federal government, you’ll also need to submit it if your student wants to take out a student loan or secure a job on campus, both of which are funded (for the most part) by the Feds.


“Keep Your Eyes on the Road”

Saturday, January 13th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

The “rush” associated with college application deadlines has almost passed. Except for students applying to colleges with February 1 deadlines or those with “rolling admission” processes, the “heavy lifting” is over. And with that realization comes a huge sigh of relief. All that is left now is the wait for final admission decisions. Sound familiar?

If so, you (and your parents) might be tempted to downshift from the frenetic pace that got you this far. Be careful, though, not take your “eyes off the road” to college. Otherwise, you might miss important opportunities to put yourself in the best position to gain admission and secure the financial assistance you need at the schools of your choice. You have traveled too far in this process to leave things to chance. For example:

1.  File the FAFSA—now! If you find college price tags to be even the least bit daunting, you need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Wherever you are looking, need-based financial aid starts with it. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for grants and loans from the federal government and from most states. Moreover, state universities and many private colleges also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for institutional funds. If you think you need assistance, you can’t afford not to file the FAFSA

2.  Don’t wait for the “admit” letter to apply for financial aid. This may seem redundant, but it bears repeating: if you think you need assistance, complete the financial aid application process now! That means completing the FAFSA and all other required forms. In particular, watch out for the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE, a highly complex form required by many private institutions.

It is not uncommon for families to put off financial aid applications because they are either uncomfortable with the process itself or they are don’t want to jeopardize the student’s status through the admission process. The assumption: “Let’s see where you get in and then we can apply for financial aid” or “This form is worse than the 1040 tax return. Let’s wait until our accountant can work on it.”

Frankly, “waiting” is a bad strategy. The reason—financial aid is awarded (or allocated) to students as soon as they are admitted. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand before beginning to address financial aid applications and you demonstrate that you need assistance, it is likely you will receive a message from the admitting institution that the financial aid “well” has gone dry. Despite the “need,” the money is gone. In such cases, any financial aid that might come your way “after the fact” will likely involve heavy doses of loans and campus work-study.

3.  Stick with your list.
It will be tempting to second-guess yourself with regard to the number and “quality” of schools to which you have applied—especially if you think “it can’t hurt to pick up a ‘true’ safety school” or “I’ll never know if I could get in if I don’t try.” While you are “in the moment,” these thoughts might seem very reasonable. The fact is you are likely to put yourself into competitive situations where your lack of history with the institution will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest. Such seemingly whimsical interest can lead to the conclusion that you are a “ghost applicant.” When that happens, even prospective “safety” schools will be inclined to put you on the Wait List.

The bottom line: Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by last minute flings. It is much better to remain focused on maintaining productive relationships with schools on your short list.

4.  Stay engaged with the colleges to which you have applied. This mantra is probably getting old, but don’t under-estimate the importance many institutions attach to having some degree of confidence in the sincerity of your interest. When the hair-splitting is finished in the credential review process, the following question is often raised about compelling candidates, “If we admit this student, what is the likelihood that he will enroll?”

So, what can you do? If you haven’t visited, make plans to do so now. Once on campus, make sure you check in at the admission office. Interview if you can. Some schools will offer alumni interviews. If so, make an appointment. It will be the fact, not the substance, of the interview that can make a difference.

Pay attention to your inbox—don’t ignore seemingly casual emails from representatives of the schools to which you have applied. There is a good chance they are “pinging” to see if you are paying attention—to see if you are interested. Don’t give them a reason to question the strength of your interest. In sincere and appropriate ways, stay on their radar screens. An institution’s lack of confidence in the sincerity of a student’s interest is the unseen reason behind countless decisions to move highly qualified students from the admit list to the Wait List.

5.  Stay focused. The work you do in the classroom in the coming weeks could well make the difference in your admission outcome. This might be the most straightforward—and common sense—bit of advice I can offer, but it is also the most easily overlooked. The rule of thumb when it comes to the senior year is this: “The more selective the college of interest, the more important the senior year performance will be as the number one factor.”

Think about it. It is precisely at that moment when you think the pressure is off—that no one is looking—that admission officers at selective institutions make their most difficult decisions. Even students who have been admitted Early Decision or Early Action will be expected to show that the performance that gained them admission is continued through graduation. Don’t give admission officers a reason to say “no” or to reconsider their offers of admission.

By Peter Van Buskirk

In many households around the country, the start of a new calendar year marks the beginning of the college planning process. After much holiday talk about possible college destinations, high school Juniors now gird themselves for the inevitable rush of activity that will culminate in college applications less than a year from now. (And many younger students will soon find themselves on the “college trail” as well.) Wherever you, the student, are in the process, keep the following in mind as you engage in college planning.

1.    Stay student-centered. Quite often, students (and their parents) focus on the “answer” without first addressing the “question.” They know the “what”—college is the predetermined outcome—before they have carefully considered the “why.” This can lead to uninformed choices and, eventually, a sense of aimlessness once in college.

Before starting to draft college lists, contemplate important questions such as: “Why do you want to go to college?” “What do you want to accomplish by the time you graduate?” “In what type of academic environment do you function best?” In other words, put yourself—and your needs—first in all deliberations.

2.    Resist the temptation to start with a list of destination or target colleges. You still have plenty of time for that. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to see what is “out there.” Go window-shopping. Check out colleges of all sizes, shapes and locations. The more you know—the broader the perspective you can gain now—the easier it will be to make critical distinctions later.

3.    Keep rankings and reputations in perspective. We’ll talk about rankings in later missives, but know this: by allowing yourself to be strongly influenced by rankings and reputation at the start of your search, you risk denying yourself an awareness of options that might be more viable for you in the long run.

4.    Focus on fit. Student-centered decision-making means that the optimal solution (college choice) will be the one that fits you best. It will:

1)    Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs.
2)    Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn.
3)    Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation.
4)    Offer a community that feels like home to you.
5)    Value you for what you have to offer.

As you consider different college possibilities, be deliberate about making sure that each passes the “best fit” test before moving them into “preferred” status.

5.    Establish a hierarchy of importance. As you sort through the various factors that seem to influence your decision-making, i.e. location, distance from home, presence of a top-ranked athletic program, etc., consider their importance in your choice of colleges. Are they “essential,” “very important” or do they fit in a “would be nice” category? Be honest in your assessments. Don’t let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

6.    Road trip! While the Internet provides a ready opportunity to search for colleges from the comfort of your home, now is a good time to start visiting college campuses. Take tours. Participate in information sessions. Record your visits—take notes (and pictures).

7.    Don’t rush to judgment. There is plenty of time before you need to worry about focusing on specific schools. Allow your list to grow. As you do, reflect on what you are learning about yourself and the factors that define a good fit for you. Later, as you begin working toward a short list of colleges, utilize the “hierarchy of importance” to make sure you are targeting the places that make the most sense to you.

8.    Get on colleges’ radar screens. As you learn about colleges, make sure you get credit for the contacts you are making at college nights, information sessions at your school and campus visits. Fill out information cards and registration forms whenever possible. Many places are keeping track and will eventually, when you become an applicant, try to predict the likelihood of your enrollment based on the nature of your engagement with them.

9.    Talk with your parents about cost and affordability. You need to go into this process with your eyes wide open. It is no secret that a four-year college education can be very expensive. Try to get a sense as to what your family can or is willing to afford relative to college costs. Consider yourself lucky if you are fortunate to be able to afford four years of college out-of-pocket. On the other hand, if you need assistance, realize that hundreds of millions of dollars of institutional funding is available to students each year. In order to tap into this support, you will need to manage your expectations and direct your attention to places that will value you for what you have to offer.

10.    Develop a strategy for testing. On which test, SAT or ACT, do you want to focus? It’s generally a good idea to take a test at least twice—but not more than three times—over the next twelve months. It is important to remember, though, that you own the results and that means that no results should be released to colleges, universities or scholarship-granting organizations without your authorization.

11.    Make good choices. Every day, you have the opportunity to make choices that have a domino effect on how you live the next day. Now, more than ever, the choices you make in school—and in life—will have a bearing on how you will compete for admission. Like it or not, everything counts. So, make choices that will give admission committees confidence that you are well prepared and best suited for their environments. Don’t wait to become a college applicant—you are already one now!