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BCF Readers’ Forum I


Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Dear Peter,
My daughter and I are struggling with questions about letters of recommendation from teachers such as how many letters are needed and when should she ask for them.
Jean

Dear Jean,
The number of letters required from teachers will vary across institutions. Start by checking the application requirements of the colleges to which your student would like to apply. In all likelihood, she’ll need letters from two teachers. If so, one should be from a teacher who can comment on the student’s communication skills; the other might come from a teacher who can speak to the student’s aptitude and skills related to the academic area(s) she would like to pursue in college.

The best time to ask for these letters is now.  And, by the way, the “ask” should include a conversation in which the student provides context regarding her plans for college—what she wants to study, how she wants to engage in an academic environment and why she has chosen the college(s) in question. It would also be helpful to re-live with the teacher the moments of excitement she felt in that classroom. In doing so, she helps to shape the narrative of the teacher’s letter in a manner that is consistent with the story she is trying to tell in her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do you have any suggestions for dealing with writer’s block? My son has been a very good and involved student, yet he is having trouble finding something that will set him apart in the competition.
Carol

Dear Carol,
Your son is not alone! A lot of rising seniors are struggling to find a place to start with their essays. The short answer is that your son needs to look within for the answers. Rather than focusing on the “what” and “when” of his life experience, he should reflect on the “how” and “why.” The facts of his application (resume, academic record, scores) will be well known. It will be the perspectives derived from life experiences, however, that have shaped his character.

That said, great essays don’t just happen—good writing is a process. Your son needs to be prepared for a thoughtful process of drafting and editing that could take weeks or months.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter didn’t do well this year in an advanced pre-calc math class. The teacher is known to be very tough and picky. She got a D this second semester and she scored in the 97th percentile on the math portion of the ACT (her overall ACT was 31). She’s considering taking another class like this over the internet or through summer school—not for credit replacement, but to show on her transcript that she acknowledges she didn’t do well despite knowing the information. What are your thoughts on this?
Charles

Dear Charles,
Retaking the class this summer is a great idea! It shows the reader of her application that she is neither content with nor accepting of the earlier outcome. It also shows that she is not making excuses—that she is making herself accountable for her own development—and that’s pretty cool! If admission officers are looking to see what she does with her time when she doesn’t have to do anything, choosing this path—while not guaranteeing admission—will speak volumes to who she is!
Peter

Dear Peter,
What are your thoughts on choosing a college major? Recently, the person I volunteer with told me that her biggest regret from college was that she didn’t get a “technical degree” like “nursing or teaching.” She advised me to focus on obtaining a degree that will be useful in getting a job immediately after college. What do you feel should be the main considerations?
Danielle

Dear Danielle,
One of the most vexing issues for young people as they contemplate college is that involving the choice of a major and/or career. While some seem to know what they want to do, most are still trying to figure it out. In fact, most college students (roughly two-thirds) will change their majors at least once! As you try to sort things out, then, you have a lot of company!

At its core, your undergraduate (college) experience can offer at least three important opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to become educated—to broaden your perspective and develop skills of critical thinking and analysis.
  2. The opportunity for experiential learning—to test what you think you know through research, independent study, internships and work opportunities.
  3. And, possibly, the opportunity to become trained in a vocational or career track.

Notice that acquiring certain training is only one element of the college experience. In fact, many employers will look for candidates who are well educated and who have developed the capacity to learn how to learn (the experiential piece).

My suggestion: follow your instincts. Choose to do something that makes you happy—and pursue it with passion. If you are naturally drawn to academic programs and career tracks that involve technical degrees (nursing, teaching, engineering, etc.) then go for it. I wouldn’t, however, arbitrarily assume that such a career will work out for you just because you have chosen it. Instead, become well educated. Even if a career track is not immediately apparent to you, seize every opportunity to test assumptions and apply what you have learned. It is in doing the latter that you set yourself up for future employment opportunities.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I am a single parent who adopted my daughter from China when she was an infant. Now, she is a good student looking at colleges where she will need financial aid. Do you think colleges will be interested in her because of her unusual background? She is not keen about focusing on this in her essay. I think she should at least mention it and discuss it to some extent. We’re both interested to hear your thoughts.
Margaret

Dear Margaret,
To the extent that your daughter’s cultural heritage is important to her—and gives definition to her character and life experience—it should be considered among the “dots” to be connected in telling her story as a college applicant. That said, she will be able to reveal her background—and relationship with you—on her applications without making it the focus of an essay. If greater insight might be shared through broader treatment of the topic—and she is reluctant to make any statements herself—then she might ask her college advisor to reference her background and upbringing in his/her letter of recommendation. Making this the focal point of an essay, though, is something she should only attempt if she is comfortable doing so. Presumably, she is thinking of other topics/approaches that will give the readers of her application insight into her life experience beyond that which is apparent on her application.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is there a benefit or disadvantage to waiving the right to have the ability (at a later date) to review teacher recommendations? My son has spoken with two teachers who agreed to write his recommendations, but he did not complete the forms to them because of the question about waiving rights.
Arthur

Dear Arthur,
I recommend that students waive access to the teacher recommendations. IF we can assume that a teacher is eager to help your son find success in the process—usually a safe assumption as most teachers do care about the successes of their students—and IF your son takes initiative to meet with his teachers in advance to share his educational goals and reflect on his experiences in their classrooms, there should be no concerns about what is written. In doing the latter, he helps the teacher help him by contributing to the narrative that emerges in the letter of recommendation. Waiving access, then, allows the teacher to write a more balanced, if not candid, recommendation that will be given greater credibility by admission committees.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is leaning to taking two AP Math classes and no science in her senior year since scheduling permits very few options. The alternative would be to take one AP Math class with a “filler” science, just to get a 4th year of science, but she is not interested in the class and it is not an AP class. How will taking two AP Math classes be looked upon from a university admissions perspective?
Becca

Dear Becca,
Generally speaking, when students drop a course (science, in this case) it is important that the replacement course be of equal or greater rigor. That seems to be the case with your daughter’s proposal so she should be fine. As a failsafe, though, I would urge her to ask the question of the regional recruiters from some of the colleges that interest her. It’s a valid question—let them be the experts. In the process, she also gets on their “radar screens,” a factor that should not be underestimated in the selective admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Our son will be a senior in the fall and we are concerned about how we will pay for college. We have been receiving invitations to attend “free” presentations by financial planners. Some of the pitches sound too good to be true (help with completing forms, guaranteed financial aid, better scholarships, etc.). Should we be checking out these opportunities?
Mark

Dear Mark,
Cost and affordability are indeed serious matters as you consider your son’s educational options. The good news is that you can have most of your questions answered by financial aid professionals on college campuses. If you want help completing the financial aid forms or need advice with regard to asset management, talk with your accountant. Be wary of guarantees, though, especially from people you don’t know. Quite often you are being set up (during the “free” session) to write a check for consulting services that you really don’t need.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

Which college is best for you? And why might that be the case?

On the surface, these questions may not seem very consequential. When you consider the opportunity that lies before you, however, understanding the importance of the questions—and being able to answer them thoughtfully—can make a big difference in the outcomes of your college planning process. This, in turn, can influence the options that come your way upon graduation.

A college education is an important lifetime opportunity. Throughout your undergraduate experience, you will meet new people, prepare for a career and learn more than you could ever imagine. If you use your time well, you will also increase your lifetime earning capacity exponentially. The payoffs for education are both immediate and long-term. That’s why families are willing to make the investment.

Unfortunately, the investment can prove costly when college plans go awry. Consider the following:

  • Fewer than 50% of the students who enter college graduate in four years
  • Barely half will graduate from any college at any time in their lives!

These are not good outcomes, either for the students or the society that bears the financial burden of a collective failure to make good on educational opportunities. The inability to reach the “finish line” is indeed a problem of “pay me later” proportions. The ensuing costs are undeniable. When you are not able to finish what you start, your family loses the money it has put into tuition and other college expenses. Attach a dollar mark to the cost of a year’s room, board and tuition and you get the picture. Moreover, that money doesn’t come back if you become sidetracked or leave college prematurely. It becomes the “cost of unfulfilled potential.”

Failing to stay the course to graduation from college also means you lose time toward completion of an undergraduate degree and the subsequent opportunity to gain an advantage in the job market. Even if you return to the classroom after having been away for a while or you transfer to a different school, the cost of lost opportunity can be significant. Not only must you absorb the tuition and fees associated with an additional year or so of education, you must also wait longer to take advantage of your new earning potential.

While there are all kinds of “good” reasons— personal, financial and academic—to leave college prematurely, the fact that many of them are avoidable—rooted in issues of a questionable college “fit”—only adds to the tragedy.

The key, then, is to get the choice of a college “right” the first time. To do that, you need to reflect on factors that relate to a good college fit for you. In doing so, you put yourself in the best position to find success both in the college admission process and the undergraduate years that follow.

With over 3,000 colleges and universities across the country, you will quickly discover many viable options. Some are well known, if not quite famous. Others will be new to you. Regardless, most have something of value to offer.

Among them, the “best college” is the one that is right for you. It is a quality option if for no other reason than it is the college that will best meet your needs. It fits. It might not hold the cachet or ranking that impresses your friends, but it does fit your aptitude and needs. The college that “fits” you best is one that 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.

Be particularly attentive to the last point, especially if you need financial assistance or hope to receive merit scholarship recognition. The places that have seen what you can do—and are prepared to invest in your further success—are the ones that will admit you and give you the support you need to achieve your goals.

As you consider colleges, then, start with an understanding of fit from a perspective that is centered on your sense of self. How does each college you encounter measure up against these elements of a good fit? You need be conscious of inconsistencies. Don’t settle for a college that only meets one or two criteria. It’s a compromise that could cost you later.

Finally, don’t be surprised if you find more than one institution that seems to fit. That’s great! Not only will you improve your odds of gaining admission to those colleges, you are more likely to stay once enrolled. And that’s a good thing!

 

By Peter Van Buskirk

Congratulations rising high school seniors—you are about to officially become college applicants! It won’t be long before you are fully immersed in the application process. And, if all goes well, a year from now you will have the satisfaction of knowing your college destination. Getting to that point, however, will require careful planning and forethought. There is no time like the present to get started!

Developing a college list that makes sense to you and your educational goals is critical to your ultimate success. The colleges that emerge on your “short list” should be good “fits”— places that represent the right “competitive playing fields” for you. They will be places where your academic credentials (scores, GPA) are at least in the top half of the credentials reported for the class entering this fall—and places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. The following tips are intended to help get you started in developing such a college list.

1.  Establish your priorities. Students often focus on college destinations without first thinking seriously about how such places might fit them. They are more enamored with names and reputations—and less concerned about whether the institutions actually make sense for them. Before you can begin to make a list of colleges you need to take stock of who you are and what you want to get out of the college experience.

For example:

  • Why do you want to go to college?
  • In what type of learning environment are you most likely to function comfortably?
  • With what kind of people do you want to live and study?
  • What are 3-4 things you want to make sure you accomplish by the time you graduate? What will make yours a successful college experience?
  • How important are cost and affordability to the equation?

The answers that begin to emerge from this reflective exercise are important to framing your college selections. They will give clarity to your priorities and, more importantly, provide the filters through which you process the information you uncover about colleges and universities in the coming weeks.

2.  Identify the “essentials.” You are bound to respond to a range of stimuli as you learn about schools. For example, you might be sensitive to the proximity of an urban center or the presence of a “big-time” sports culture. Climate or access to outdoor activities might be important to you. Where does a social life fit? Are you determined to go to a large university because you have spent the last four years at a small high school? Oh, and then there is the question of academics and learning environment. Clearly, you’ll have a lot on your mind as you look at colleges!

The above factors are among the many that will have a place in your decision-making. They can’t carry equal weight, however. As you think about the factors that might influence your choice of a college, consider the hierarchy of importance. Is a given factor essential to your success? Very important? Or, would it be nice if it could be satisfied by your selection? Identify and focus on your “essentials.” And be careful not to let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making.

3.  Let your list grow. Right now, you are limited by the things you think you know about colleges and those impressions tend to be pretty superficial. It will be the things you have yet to learn that facilitate good decision-making about possible destinations. The good news is you still have time to explore and thoroughly research the possibilities. While you might be feeling some angst about the need to come up with a short list right now, time is still on your side.

4.  Go “window shopping.” As your summer plans evolve, be sure to include time for college visits—and not just visits to the campuses of the schools you know. Check out research universities and liberal arts colleges. Explore the differences between public and private institutions. Compare urban campuses with those in suburban and rural areas.

Learn what you can from personal observation, not hearsay. As you “try on different sizes,” look for patterns. Do you find yourself responding consistently to similar characteristics on different campuses? The broader the perspective you establish now, the easier it will be to identify places that make the most sense for you at the end of the summer.

5.  Focus on places that are “target” schools for you academically. The popular notion about college list development is that a good list should include a sampling of “reach,” “target” and “likely admit” schools. Subscribing to this notion sometimes gives rise to a proliferation of applications to high profile, “dream” schools at the expense of smart decision-making. The accompanying rationalization might sound like, “Well, how will I know if I can get in if I don’t try?”

This logic is problematic in two ways: 1) it implicitly diminishes (in the mind of the person who espouses it) the value of any school that is not in the “reach” category and 2) it can be incredibly limiting by creating blinders to more appropriate options. Be careful about building your list around highly selective schools. The odds of getting into places where the probability of admission is low don’t increase if you apply to more of them. Moreover, including such schools on a college list will distract you from presenting well at places where you might otherwise have a reasonable chance of gaining admission.

While you might allow yourself a dream school (or two), it is best to build your list around target schools—places where your credentials would put your probability of admission in the 40-60% range, places where you will be valued for what you have to offer. There are never any guarantees in the selective admission process, but putting yourself on the right competitive playing field will be critical to your eventual success as an applicant.

6.  Eight is enough. By September, you should be ready to whittle your list down to a workable number. If you have been thorough—and thoughtful—in your research you should be focusing on no more than eight applications. That number might include 1-2 low-probability dream schools and 1-2 places where you are likely to be admitted. The rest should be target schools.

Keeping your list at eight will require discipline as you will be tempted by colleges that want to make the application process easy for you. They will offer fee waivers for applications submitted while visiting their campuses and fee waivers for applications submitted online. Some will recognize you as a V.I.P. or “priority” applicant if you apply by specified deadlines in September. Others will send you applications that are all filled out for you. Yes—they have captured information about you from various sources and made it easy for you to apply. You simply sign and return the form! Don’t add these schools to your list simply because they make it easy to do so!

The bottom line: stay focused on your priorities and your list. The more applications to which you commit, the harder it will be for you to stay on top of each one—and the more likely you won’t be able to present yourself in a compelling fashion to the schools that are most important to you.