Archive for February 2018

Sort by

By Peter Van Buskirk

Among lifestyle investments, a college education ranks among the most important—and the most expensive—in the life of a young person. Getting ‘it”—the choice of a college—right is critical to realizing a strong return on the investment.

Chosen well, a college education sets the table for years of opportunities that will determine comfort and success for graduates, their families and their careers. Chosen well, every penny of the investment is repaid many times over. Choose poorly, however, and the debt is compounded by lost earning opportunity, reduced productivity and diminished return on investment.

Every year, nearly two million U.S. students and their parents invest in education for the first time, in many cases gambling their life savings in the process. Some do it well. They prepare and compete effectively, putting themselves in a position to acquire the type of educational experiences that will serve them well in life.

Regrettably, though, many—including students of all means and backgrounds—fall short of achieving their goals. Either they fail to complete the education they’ve started (barely half of entering college freshmen will graduate from any college at any time in their lives) or they muddle through their college years only to cross the “finish line” without any real sense of accomplishment or direction.

Frankly, this is unacceptable. We shouldn’t be content with a “system” that only works half the time. It’s not healthy for the young people who fail to make good on the promise of their own ability and it’s not good for a society that, ultimately, must pick up the slack for them.

Whether you are on the verge of choosing a college or you are just getting started in the college search/selection process, it is critical that you engage in thoughtful discernment and decision-making with regard to your future. Focus on your needs and priorities. And keep in mind that colleges are more than rankings and reputations—they are diverse academic programs enveloped in a range of campus cultures. You deserve the opportunity to choose the place that makes the most sense for you. Wherever you are in the process, keep the following in mind:

  1. Challenge assumptions. The college admission process isn’t what it used to be nor is it what many colleges would have you believe it is. Moreover, the realities can’t be found in chatrooms or backyard conversations. A healthy cynicism is required for distilling the reality from the rhetoric.
  2. Keep your mind open to a range of solutions. In doing so, you acknowledge that success in college—and in life—is less a function of the space one occupies and more a function of how one takes advantage of the opportunities present in that space.
  3. Make good choices—choices that are truly student-centered. Every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on, not only how students compete for admission but how they live the next day and beyond.
  4. Focus on “fit.” The best college for your student is the one that “fits” her best. (And, it will always be the one that values her for what she has to offer.)

“High Anxiety Time”


Saturday, February 24th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

If you are a college applicant waiting out the “Regular” admission process, mid-winter can be high anxiety time. Even if you may have experienced success with an Early Action application or two, it will be the admission decisions in the Regular selection process that finally define your range of options.

For now, though, all you can do is wait—and that isn’t easy. After months of deadlines, interviews, phone conversations, and campus visits, the chatter from the colleges has all but disappeared. Although momentarily welcome, the silence becomes more deafening by the day.

So, what happens to your application when it reaches the admission office? Who reads it? What do they think? How will they decide? Surprisingly, the answers aren’t that simple.

The credential review processes at colleges and universities vary widely according to applicant volume, levels of selectivity, and institutional agendas. For example, colleges that practice “rolling admission” make decisions on applications as they arrive in complete form. Starting September—and sometimes earlier—they admit qualified candidates until their classes are full, a process that can extend well into the following summer.

The type of review will vary across schools as well. Many state universities engage in an objective review of applicants that involves an initial screening based on a formula of test results and GPA. In some cases, a student’s ability to present credentials that meet or exceed the preset standard of the formula are admitted. In others, those students are simply passed along for a more subjective or “holistic” review by members of the admission committee.

The holistic review considers a variety of factors in addressing the question, “What do we gain by admitting this student?” Extracurricular profiles, letters of recommendation, essays and, where offered, personal interviews provide relevant insight. Out-of-state candidates at state universities as well as applicants to honors programs at those schools often face even greater levels of scrutiny as they compete with other, similarly qualified students for limited places in areas of restricted enrollment.

The holistic review is also common among selective, private schools. In these “deadline-driven” environments, admission committees are eager to see the breadth and depth of the competition before making fine distinctions about whom to admit. Again, the questions will be, “What do we get? Who among the qualified candidates will fit best into the community we are trying to build with this class? Who do we value most?”

In just about every admission process, the “committee” is where the more difficult decisions are often made. Consider the term “committee” loosely because committee members or “readers” may meet together in conference rooms or individually in their offices or the quiet comfort of their homes. Once in committee, applications are usually reviewed by at least two readers before any decisions are made. Readers can include part-time staff hired to participate in credential review, specialists in particular majors or subgroups of students (international students, for example) and members of the admission staff. The staff person who recruits in your area is almost certainly going to be an interested participant as well.

In some cases, faculty members are invited to read applications from students interested in their respective academic disciplines. This is more likely at universities that are comprised of “colleges” or “academic programs” to which you apply directly.

What follows in the review process is an attempt to arrive at consensus regarding your application. As readers review your credentials, they start with your transcript, noting both the strength of your academic program and your academic successes relative to other students in your school. In all likelihood, you will be regarded as qualified—you could do the work academically if given the opportunity.

Having been established as a viable candidate on their competitive “playing field,” readers begin to dig more deeply into your application. Driven by the “What do we get?” question, they look at extracurricular activities, test results and essays for “hooks” or points of distinction. As the research into your application continues, committee members probe for authenticity and sincerity of purpose in all your application materials.

Readers will also look for explanations that might shed light on any irregularities in your program and/or performance. Such explanations might be found in personal statements, interviews and letters of recommendation.

In a very short period of time, admission officers develop a bias — a sense of what you have to offer and where you fit in the competition. The more intense the competition the more important it is to have a decisive or “over the top” credential—and the more important it is for that credential to be authentic. This is when arguments on behalf of students with special talents, interests and perspectives begin to emerge.

Assuming the bias is favorable, readers quickly scan letters of recommendation to look for validation—evidence that supports the information on your application. Sometimes these letters provide an added dimension of understanding regarding your performance that can be very powerful.

As the selection process moves into March, the focus turns to the students who remain on the “bubble” or the margin of the competition. Questions such as “What is the likelihood that she will enroll if we take her?” and “How are his third marking period grades?” and “Are we sure we will get a good return on our investment if we give him that much financial aid?” While candidates at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum are sorted quickly and easily, those in the middle continue to get lots of attention as the process winds down.

This is also a time when institutional agendas can dictate outcomes. Special talents, legacy connections, leadership and diverse perspectives can become hooks that make all the difference in a tight competition.

The final weeks of the Regular Decision selection process, often in mid-March, are more important than most students realize. Typically a “settling” or “move-down period” for the class in waiting, it is a time the likelihood of enrollment is calibrated for each student and fine points are considered. Further arguments are heard from special interest groups about special cases, grades are checked—again—and adjustments are made based on yield (on offers of admission) forecasts to make sure the group of admitted students will generate the needed enrollment—and revenue—to balance the budget in the coming year.

Before long—as early as the middle of March for some deadline-driven schools—letters will be mailed and decisions will be posted on institutional websites. If you focused on “fit” and were able to prove your value to the schools where you applied, happy outcomes will soon find you.

Be sure to check future blogs for more tips and suggestions regarding next steps in the enrollment process.

BCF Readers’ Forum V


Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Peter Van Buskirk

The college admission process can produce some interesting personal dilemmas. One such quandary was brought to my attention in a phone call from a young man who was trying to sort out an Early Decision opportunity. A competitive athlete, he had been approached by a recruiting coach from an NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) school with the suggestion that he convert his application for admission from Regular Decision to Early Decision (ED). Moreover, the coach had assured the young man that if his application for financial aid did not produce the desired assistance from this institution, he would not be held to his commitment to enroll if accepted ED.

The student was understandably excited and confused by this development. While he liked the school very much, he couldn’t say for sure that it was his first choice. This is largely due to his need of financial aid. In fact, the uncertainty of his financial aid situation had led him to actively consider other schools as well. Moreover, he understood the underlying premise of the unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted that is assumed of ED candidates. As a result, he was skeptical of the pitch he had been given by this coach.

My advice to the young man was simple: “If you need to make sure you get the best financial aid possible—and there is a chance other schools might admit you and give you better offers—then don’t give up your right to see those offers by converting your application to ED at one school.”

I pointed out that the coach is behaving unethically in making this suggestion and suggested that he (the student) not compound the problem by heading down that road with him. I’m not sure I told this young man anything he didn’t already suspect to be true, but our chat gave him the confidence to respond to the coach’s overtures.

Whether or not you are a recruited athlete, you need to be vigilant about the ethics of the admission process. This can be especially challenging when you see evidence that others—on both sides of the negotiation—are pushing the ethical “envelope.” Where there are clearly articulated rules, you need to observe them. The desire to get into favored schools should never put you in a place where you compromise your integrity.

Unfortunately, the coach in question was crossing the ethical “line” by asking the applicant to consider an Early Decision application when he knew the young man could only do so conditionally due to his financial situation—clearly a breach of rules governing the ED process. The good news is the young man had the presence of mind to step back and assess the situation objectively.

Now, in case you’re checking the calendar and wondering how this conversation between the coach and the applicant could be taking place as the “round two” deadlines for ED have passed at most schools, welcome to the world of college admission in 2018! These are the days when selective colleges do what they can to pump up their yields on offers of admission while looking for opportunities to reduce the overall number of students they need to admit and, hence, become more selective. For example, each additional ED enrollment reduces the number of low-yielding Regular Decision candidates to be admitted by four or five at most colleges.

Consider the impact of such a strategy on a larger scale. A college or university that can attract 50 more ED enrollments over the previous year reduces by as many as 250 Regular Decision students it would otherwise need to admit to fill those places in the class. As a result, the more ED enrollments a school can stockpile, the more selective it becomes.

Add to the mix the dynamics of athletic recruitment—even at the NCAA Division III non-scholarship level—and the opportunity for late-season Early Decision conversations emerges. A few other observations are worth noting here.

One, the NCAA forbids Division III athletic recruiters from having any conversation about family finances with the financial aid officers at their respective institutions. In short, an athlete’s potential involvement in an NCAA Division III program may NOT have any bearing on the disposition of his/her financial aid status.

Two, each institution employs slightly different criterion in assessing a student’s financial “need” and then recognizing the comparative strength of her academic credential within the context of its financial aid program. It is not only possible, then, that a recruit’s financial “need” could be read differently from one school to the next, but the strength of her academic credential could also result in differences in the composition of the financial aid awards she receives. Whereas a student athlete may qualify for special consideration academically at one school, at others she may not.

Finally, the late season ED phenomenon is not limited to recruited athletes. Admission officers at many selective schools will keep the application “door” open past formal deadlines as they troll for high-yielding ED conversions well into February of the admission process. Should you be presented with such an opportunity, just remember—the rules remain the same. If you convert your application to ED, you are making an unconditional commitment to enroll if accepted.

By Peter Van Buskirk

One of the first—and most important—exercises in the college planning process involves course selections for the coming year of high school. Your high school academic record determines whether you make it onto the “competitive playing fields” at the schools to which you apply. Moreover, the strength of your record positions you among other candidates who are vying for consideration.

The level of selectivity experienced at a given college provides an important contextual framework for this discussion. For example, the harder it is to get into a college, the more magnified are the decisions you make in all aspects of your life, especially those that relate to your academic development. Colleges that are less selective tend to be more forgiving of choices/outcomes that might not reflect as positively on your application.

Keep in mind, then, that the choices you make will be regarded differently according to the pressure a given institution feels to make fine distinctions between great candidates. The following are tips for making course selections that will serve you well going forward.

  • When in doubt, err on the side of rigor. The degree to which you expose yourself to rigor or challenge in the high school classroom speaks volumes with regard to the likelihood that you can perform well in college level courses. As a result, admission officers are watching to see how you use the curriculum available to you to “step up” each year. Each year of high school should reflect advancement through progressively rigorous coursework in each discipline.
  • Know your capacity to do the work. In contemplating rigor, it is easy to get drawn into the presumptive logic that taking the most advanced course will be most impressive to colleges. While there is some truth in that assessment, you need to be able to function at a high level in the course. Barely passing an inordinately “hard” course produces the double whammy of a low grade in that course and the ripple effect of lower grades in other courses as you spend a disproportionate amount of time making it through the hard course. The bottom line: While it is important to stretch yourself, don’t over-reach in taking courses for the purpose of impressing admission officers.
  • Breadth matters. In other words, keep your bases covered. In each year of high school, you should take courses in the five core discipline areas: math, science, social science, foreign language and communication arts (a.k.a. English). Do this regardless of your career interests. Why? Admission officers, especially at selective colleges, want to see that you have developed skills of critical thinking and analysis across all disciplines. Having such an experience gives them greater confidence that you will be able to handle distribution requirements and cross-disciplinary courses you are likely to encounter in college.
  • Substitute value for value. It is not uncommon for students entering the Junior or Senior year to rationalize course selections, e.g. “I don’t like Spanish…” “I want to double up in sciences…” “I’ve already satisfied my math requirement for graduation.” Generally speaking, dropping a course in one discipline for a course in another is acceptable if you are substituting value for value. For example, dropping an Honors or AP French in order to take AP Biochemistry is acceptable. On the other hand, dropping it for a survey course in Economics or Psychology would be a bad move within the context of competition at selective institutions.

If you think you want to take courses that relate to your possible major in college, keep in mind that the first order of business is competing for admission. While in high school, focus on breadth and depth of curricular development. If your schedule allows you to take courses related to your career interest in addition to the core group of five (referenced above), go for it. Otherwise, wait until college to start your major.

  • Don’t settle for “good enough.” It is common for students to chart their progress through high school by working only to the level of their graduation requirements or to the course “requirements” posted by colleges. The problem is that selective colleges want to see what you will do when you have seemingly satisfied your “requirements”—when you don’t think you have to do anything. Be careful, then, not to settle for the minimum or that which is good enough. If you want to increase your range of options as a college applicant, push past that which is good enough to that which will make you a better candidate.

Finally, a common question from students regarding course selections sounds like this: “Is it better for me to take an easier course where I know I can get an “A” or should I take a harder course where I’ll probably get a lower grade?” While it is tempting to assert that one should take the hard course and get the “A,” I would like to offer a slightly different, three-part response that should apply to any course selection.

  1. Choose courses that make sense to you—not to your friends or your parents. The courses you choose in each discipline should provide a new level of challenge and opportunity for growth.
  2. Do as well as you can in these courses—good enough is never enough.
  3. Select colleges that will value you for what you have to offer. These will be schools that see your trajectory and want to be part of your continued growth.

When it might not be possible, for a variety of reasons, to schedule all of the courses that make sense to you or when there are irregularities in your academic program, you have a story to tell in your application. And that is a topic for another day!