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 March 2018

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“You’re In! Now What?” 3.28.18


Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

The annual college admission lottery is finally being played out this week. After months of waiting, most applicants will find out where they have been admitted and by the time all of the mail is open, you should have options—quality options. Some will include scholarships or special recognition. Others will simply convey the invitation to enroll. In any case, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you get to make the final choice of a college destination.

You need to choose well, however, to ensure a successful experience over the next four years of college. Now, more than ever, you need to be attentive to the details. As you enter the final phase of decision-making, start by rechecking your priorities. What was important when you initially constructed your list of colleges? Has anything changed? Why? The answers to these questions will be your compass as you make decisions in the coming weeks.

The elements of a good college fit apply now more than ever. Even the “best” college (by acclaim) won’t help you reach your goals if getting through four years at that school is likely to be a struggle academically. Choose wisely. Stay within your ability to comfortably embrace the academic programs and achieve the educational goals you set for yourself.

Using your priorities as a guide, it’s time to examine more closely the colleges that accepted you, including those that might not have been at the top of your list. Return to their campuses where you can immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and overall culture of the places. How do they feel to you? The following are ten tips for getting the most out of these campus visits:

  1. Spend a weeknight in a residence hall; eat at least two meals in the dining hall and go to two classes in different disciplines including an introductory first-year class.
  2. Talk with professors from the academic departments that interest you as well as the appropriate pre-professional advisor for those programs. Ask them what they teach, who they teach and how they teach. Do they engage undergraduates in collaborative research or independent study? Look for evidence that they (and their colleagues) are invested in helping undergraduates achieve their goals. Do you see a home for yourself in those environments?
  3. Pull students aside in those departments as well. Ask them about the courses they take. Who teaches them? What do they like about them? What are their opportunities to apply what they are learning? How accessible are their professors? What would they do differently about their learning experience thus far? Can you relate to their experiences?
  4. Ask to see data reflective of outcomes. What is the graduation rate in four years? Five years? What happens to students in your major at graduation? What percent go to graduate school, PhD programs or professional degree programs? How many get jobs? What are the average starting salaries? Ask to see the data for the last five years. Colleges are obligated to give it to you—they just might not volunteer it!
  5. Hang out. Watch people. Listen to them talk. Ask them what they think about campus life, politics, sports, religion, or whatever is important to you.
  6. If you are a recruited athlete, meet with the coach as well as members of the team. These folks may be your support system for the next four years. Where will you fit best?
  7. If you have academic support needs, talk with the coordinator of the Special Needs Support Center or the Writing Center. Look for evidence that you will get the support you need.
  8. If you have financial concerns, make an appointment with the financial aid office. Take copies of your financial aid application AND your 2016 tax returns for reference. Document changes in your family’s circumstances. Don’t assume that troubling financial differences will be worked out after you enroll. By the way, borrowing is a choice families make—it is not a requirement. In comparing financial aid awards, ask the admitting institutions to project the likely student debt over four years. Colleges can provide this information as well. Student debt of up to $30,000 over four years should be manageable after graduation. Much more than that, however, could saddle you with an unreasonable financial burden as you attempt to become established personally and professionally after college.
  9. Ask to see safety information, crime statistics and campus escort programs.
  10. Use good judgment as you explore the social scene. Know your limits…

In other words, take in as much as possible during your campus visits. Allow yourself to get past the rankings, reputations and car stickers to a true understanding of what makes the most sense for you. Most students who emerge from this process acknowledge that much of the decision-making comes down to a gut feeling. Let your gut go to work for you. Make sure the college you choose fits comfortably and feels good before you commit yourself.

Finally, a word of caution is on order. Your life is about to change as colleges roll out the “red carpet.” You’ll be invited to acceptance parties and open houses in your honor. Prominent alumni will call to wish you well. Some schools may even offer to fly you to their campuses for the weekend.

In the midst of all the ego food being tossed your way, you need to stay focused. Do your own detective work and remain true to your priorities. Much of the activity over the next four weeks will be staged by colleges for your benefit. Now that you have been admitted, they want you to enroll—and that’s fine. Just make sure you sort through the excitement to find evidence that the school in question truly values you for what you have to offer and is prepared to invest in your success.

BCF Readers’ Forum 3.21.18


Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

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

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?
Ari

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?
Joe

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?
Maia

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?
Fred

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?
Raj

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.
Peter

“Fool’s Gold” 3.14.18


Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Earlier this year, a friend asked my opinion about a dilemma that had come upon one of her advisees. A young woman whom she was advising had been accepted Early Decision to her first-choice school, a highly selective institution in the Northeast. Upon receiving the acceptance letter, she withdrew the applications she had submitted to half a dozen other elite institutions in order to honor her Early Decision commitment. The first in her family to attend college, she was understandably elated. Not only was she going to college, she had been admitted to the college of her dreams!

Weeks later, however, the elation turned to shock and concern when the financial aid award arrived and she found that her family was expected to contribute much more money out-of pocket than she had anticipated.

Instead of the $5,000 she thought her family would need to pay out of pocket, she was told their contributions would be closer to $12,000. She was now in a bind and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t afford her ED school and was now without options as she had withdrawn her applications to the other schools on her short list.

It is important to note that, prior to submitting the ED application, this young woman and her parents had completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and subsequently received a Student Aid Report (SAR). Based on the information her family provided, the SAR indicated an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $5,000 for the first year. While that was a lot of money for this family, her parents were confident enough in their ability to come up with that amount that she had gone ahead with the ED application. Now, the school to which she was committed was somehow expecting more, much more.

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are likely to play out in many households in the coming weeks as colleges and universities stretch their financial aid budgets to accommodate the financial needs of students whom they have accepted. For families, the revelations can be gut wrenching, if not downright painful.

Despite the early (October of the Senior Year) accessibility of the FAFSA application and the availability of “Net Price Calculators” (mandated on college websites to provide better information to families about cost and affordability) there is little precision in a process that is fraught with institutional nuances and agendas. As the young woman in this situation found out, institutions have variable means at their disposal to assess the EFC—means that can produce a range of results generated from data provided by the same family!

Moreover, colleges will apply these means in a manner reflective of the desirability of each candidate—an institutional prerogative that is lost in the online calculators.

For example, many private institutions utilize the College Scholarship Service Profile as well as the FAFSA to arrive at an EFC for a student. Rarely, however, do the two methodologies agree. In fact, PROFILE-generated EFCs can be $5,000-$10,000 higher than EFCs projected by the FAFSA. In a practice known as “differential need analysis,” institutions that utilize both methodologies can then choose, on a case-by-case basis, the one that allows it to respond to the student in a manner consistent with the value it attaches to that student. By doing so, the institution can claim to meet the demonstrated needs of its admitted students without ever having to reconcile the differential in the respective need analyses to the families involved.

I saw this first-hand when a young man shared with me the financial aid awards he had received from ten different colleges. They were so strikingly different that, if one were to “white out” his name on each award letter, you would think that each letter was being addressed to a different student! Some had very generous grants and scholarships while others were front-loaded with sizeable loans. In each case, the institutions had chosen to assess and meet his financial need according to the manner in which they regarded him as a candidate.

In yet other cases, colleges will ignore the need analyses and simply elect not to meet the full need of the admitted student. Instead, they will provide a basic financial aid award that covers a fraction of the demonstrated need and fill the ”gap” of unmet need with additional loans for the student and/or the parents. However it is manifest, don’t be surprised to find this type of gapping, as well as differential need analysis, in the days to come.

As you weigh your educational options, then, in the coming weeks, it is important that you understand the terms of the enrollment agreements you are considering, including your obligation to meet the cost of attendance. Sometimes in the euphoria associated with “getting in” it is easy to overlook the details and, in the case of managing college costs, the “devil might indeed be in the detail.”

The good news is that colleges will treat well those students whom they find most attractive. As a result, there are good deals to be found. To find them, though, you need to manage expectations and focus on finding colleges that are the best “fit” for you. Among other things, “best fit” colleges are those that value you for what you have to offer. They will admit you—and give you the support needed to meet your goals as a student on their campuses.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Few college admission requirements generate more angst than standardized testing. When considered along with a student’s academic record, such tests are intended to help admission officers determine whether students can do the work academically in the first year of college. In fact that is their sole purpose. (They should certainly not be confused with intelligence tests!)

Unfortunately, test results add very little to the predictive equation, a fact that is borne out by validity tests conducted on college campuses across the country each year. Admission officers know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without test scores. Moreover, nearly 900 college and universities have publicly stated that conviction by making the submission of test results optional. You can learn more about the requirements of these schools at www.FairTest.org

The odds are, however, that you will need to address a testing requirement somewhere along the line as you apply to colleges. At some institutions, test results are embedded in formulas that determine who will be admitted—or, at the very least, be given further consideration. At others, they simply serve as competitive credentials—the bigger the scores the better. The following are a few tips to consider as you factor testing and test prep into your plans for applying to college.

1. You have options! Every school in the country regards the SAT and the ACT as equals and receives them interchangeably. The tests themselves are different. Whereas the ACT is a subject-based test designed to measure what you have learned in the classroom, the SAT is a deductive reasoning test. Try one of each. Which one suits you best? Focus on preparing for and taking that test.

2. Colleges strongly prefer to receive test results (SAT, ACT) directly from the testing services. Make arrangements with the appropriate testing service to have your results sent directly to the colleges to which you are applying. However, if you are taking tests in the coming months, you may want to wait until you have seen the results before deciding to have official score reports sent to colleges. This is an option afforded you by “Score Choice” by both testing agencies (College Board, ACT) in acknowledgement of the fact that you own the results and can control where they are sent.

3. Admission officers tend to “super-score” test results by compiling the best combination of subscores from the tests (ACT or SAT) you have taken. For example, if you have taken the SAT several times, they will match your best Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score (that might have come on your third test) with your best Math result (that might have come on your second test). You can’t do the “super-scoring” for them, though. They’ll need to see all of your relevant results in order to find the best subscores.

4. Make note of schools that require SAT Subject Tests. Some will tell you which tests to take. Others will allow you to choose. In either case, the Subject Test results are essentially another set of filters that can be used to sort through candidates for degree programs that can be highly selective. When given the option with regard to subjects, go with your strengths. And, if you can, time your testing to coincide with the completion of that subject in school.

5. Consider the “test optional” opportunities that might exist among the colleges to which you are applying. Compare your results with the range of scores reported for each test optional college. If your scores fall in the bottom 50% of the score ranges, logic would suggest that you elect not to submit your scores, as they will do nothing to enhance your application. A complete list of test optional colleges can be found at www.FairTest.org

6. Choose colleges at which your testing profile is a good fit. Remember, colleges are fond of reporting high scores for their entering classes. The further your “super-scores” fall below the mid-point of the reported range of scores at a college, the less likely you will be admitted at that college. Target places, then, where your scores are in the top half, if not the top quartile, of the distribution of scores for admitted students in the past year.

7. Create a spreadsheet on which you can keep track of the testing profiles for each of the colleges that interests you. Note both the averages as well as the range of scores reported for admitted students. Be careful not to interpret the “average” or mean score as the minimum requirement as half of the admitted students will have scores that fall at or below the average.

8. Both testing agencies (SAT and ACT) concede that the tests can be “coached.” As a result, test prep may be a viable option for you. In considering test prep, be discriminating about the provider. Make sure you are comfortable with the style of instruction and, frankly, the instructor. A bad match can negate the potential good that can come from the exercise. Time your test prep so the instruction ends no more than two weeks prior to the test you plan to take.

Proven—and less expensive—test prep alternatives include reviewing practice tests (available in bookstores) and personal reading in various genres.

Finally, while testing is unavoidable in the college admission process, don’t obsess on it. Although, test results can be pivotal in many objective selection processes (where “numbers” carry the day), they are merely one part of the selection processes at other places that are more holistic in their assessments. Finding the best college “fit,” then, is vital to your eventual success. Places that value you for what you have to offer will be more inclined to look beyond your test results out of respect for what they might gain by admitting you.