Getting a Better Financial Offer

In recent weeks, I’ve received phone calls and emails from lots of happy students who have been admitted to their favorite colleges. Many have also been awarded generous merit scholarships or financial aid packages. That’s important, because getting into a school you can’t afford to attend is painful and frustrating.

If your financial aid package is not what you expected, it is possible to appeal. If there are special circumstances, such as a job loss or major medical expenses, contact the financial aid office. They may be able to improve the package. If another school has offered a financial aid package that has more grants and fewer loans, you can send a copy of the better offer and the financial aid office may match the other school’s offer. Some colleges engage in preferential packaging, where the best aid packages go to the students they want the most.

In addition to providing more need-based aid, some liberal arts colleges are increasing merit scholarships in order to make their school financially attractive and meet their enrollment targets. Some colleges that were offering $5,000 to $12,000 a year scholarships in the past are now offering $15,000 to $25,000. Students are in the strongest position if other, similar colleges have made better offers. You can send copies of those offers to your favorite college, which may be more likely to increase its offer rather than lose a desirable student.

Of course, that means you need to have applied to similar colleges, which takes some research. For students who will be applying to college in the fall, it’s more important than ever to do your research and apply to a number of similar colleges that are likely to award good financial packages, so that you can then take those offers to the school you prefer. If that school matches the offer, you have the school you want at a more affordable cost. If your preferred school does not match the offer, you can decide whether the school would provide a significantly better college experience that is worth the extra money, or whether you would be just as happy at one of the schools that will cost less.


Bringing Down the Cost of College (Part 2)

Even families that have a healthy income are understandably worried about paying more than $60,000 a year for college. Getting maximum value for your money doesn’t mean going for the lowest tuition.  While cost is a real concern, you need to look beyond tuition and consider the quality of the educational experience.  A private college might cost more per year, but if you have small classes with attention from professors who will nurture you and provide research opportunities and recommendation letters that will help when it’s time to apply to graduate school, and you can get the courses you need to graduate in four years, that college may offer better value than a lower-priced public school.

Private colleges can be cheaper than you might think, and schools located in the South are often less expensive than those in the Northeast.  Students who want a small liberal arts college can pay more than $52,000 in tuition at Trinity College.  Or they can head for Trinity University in San Antonio, which also offers small classes and great undergraduate research opportunities, where tuition is less than $42,000 and they might qualify for a generous merit scholarship which would bring the cost even lower.

In North Carolina, Elon University’s tuition is under $35,000, and students will find small classes with personal attention from professors, a beautiful campus and sense of community. Merit scholarships can make this school a bargain for strong students who don’t want to get lost in a big public university.

Even colleges with higher price tags may be more affordable than they seem. While Ivy League and other elite universities like Stanford, Duke and Georgetown only provide need-based financial aid, there are other highly selective schools that offer a financial incentive to attract top students. Outstanding students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid may be able to get merit-based scholarships at University of Chicago, Washington University, Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University.

These are just a few examples of the merit-based aid offered by hundreds of colleges and universities. Students have the best chance of getting merit-based scholarships at schools where they are at the top of the applicant pool. But that doesn’t mean you need dazzling grades or test scores to get a scholarship. There are many less competitive schools where students with a 3.2 GPA and SAT score of 1000 would qualify for a scholarship.

Most schools automatically consider all applicants for merit-based aid, but some require a separate scholarship application. Merit scholarships are usually renewable for a total of four years, if students maintain acceptable academic performance.

Many colleges also offer art and music scholarships, though the amounts may not be as large as academic scholarships. In addition, some schools have special scholarships for students who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, or would bring some other important quality to campus. These scholarships typically also require a strong academic record.

In my experiences, students receive the most generous scholarships directly from colleges. But you can use one of the many available search engines, like, to locate outside scholarships for which your child is eligible to apply. The scholarships that are open to everyone, and especially the ones that offer significant money, are extremely competitive.

A student has a better chance of winning scholarships sponsored by local organizations, and if the applications are not too burdensome, they may be worth pursuing, even though they are usually smaller awards. If you spend three hours writing an essay that wins a scholarship of $1,000, that’s pretty good hourly pay. Check your high school college and career center for scholarship listings.

While cost is a major factor in choosing a college, the decision to attend a school can’t be made on price tag alone. The real bottom line in choosing a college has to be whether it is a good match for your child. If you do some research and are open to the possibilities, you can find schools that are both affordable and good matches.

Bringing Down the Cost of College (Part 1)

Preparing a college list that includes “highly likely,” “50/50”and “reach” schools is not enough. Students need to think beyond their chances of admission and include at least one financial safety school that the family can comfortably afford. The thrill of being accepted will quickly fade if attending that college means having to take out big loans.

The Ivies and other elite schools provide generous financial aid to students from low and middle income households, so that students attending these colleges should not graduate with huge debt. But most colleges don’t have the financial resources to offer that kind of aid, and families need to start thinking early about what they will pay for college.

Parents are often surprised, and not in a good way, when they learn their Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money they are expected to pay toward their child’s education. The number, based on information about income and assets provided in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is usually higher than expected. Sometimes the government determines that the family can pay the full cost of college, so there will be no need-based aid available. Rather than waiting until October of senior year, when you can complete the FAFSA, get an early estimate of your qualification for federal financial aid now at FAFSA4caster while there is still time to revise your senior’s college list.

But even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, there are ways to bring down the cost of college.  The most economical approach is to start at community college and then transfer to a four year college.  You end up with the same degree as someone starting at the four year school, for much less money.  Of course for the first two years you sacrifice the traditional college experience by living at home and attending community college.

Even if you want to go straight into a four year college after high school, you might consider taking community college courses before you graduate from high school. Students who have taken AP or community college classes while in high school may accumulate enough credits to graduate from college a semester or year early at some schools, saving thousands of dollars in tuition.

Another relatively low cost route is choosing a local public college or university.  In-state tuition is lower than private college tuition and usually lower than paying out of state tuition at a public university in another state.

For students who are determined to go out of state, some public colleges offer reasonable tuition for nonresident students. While University of Michigan charges more than $45,000 tuition, highly regarded University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which also offers strong academics, big sports and a great college town, is under $35,000 a year for out of state students. You can get an even better deal at the University of Kansas, where Compact Tuition compact allows nonresidents to lock in a $29,000 tuition rate for four years. For the “B” student who wants a nice college town, big sports and school spirit, KU could be a great choice. If you want to wear shorts to class in January, you will find tuition at about $27,000 at Arizona State University.  The less competitive universities also offer scholarships, which can bring the costs down even more.

But you have to look beyond tuition in determining the cost of a college education. Budget cuts mean that students attending public universities in some states may find bigger classes, fewer courses offered, longer waits for advising appointments, and difficulty getting into classes. If it takes five years to graduate, the cost of a degree is higher than you might think, especially when you consider the lost wages a student could be earning during that fifth year.

Students who have clear educational/career goals can save money and time in a combined degree program. Some schools offer accelerated BA/MD programs, where students begin medical school after three years of undergraduate work.  Aspiring attorneys might be interested in the six year BA/JD programs offered by a number of schools.

But even if you’re not headed for medical or law school, there are ways to lower the cost of an advanced degree. Clark University offers a free fifth year, so students can earn a Master’s degree without having to pay more tuition. Wesleyan’s B.A./M.A. Program in the Sciences also includes a tuition free fifth year for students who want an intensive research experience. Other colleges have programs that allow students to apply some undergraduate work toward a Master’s degree, so that even though they have to pay a fifth year of tuition, they graduate with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in less time than it would typically take to earn these degrees separately.

These are just a few ways to bring down the cost of college.  More to come next week.

Preparing for the SAT or ACT

The SAT and ACT, which aren’t very good predictors of success in college, are a source of much anxiety among high school students. Every year more colleges are dropping the standardized test requirement. But the majority of schools do still require test scores and most students will take at least one of these tests.

Even PSAT scores, which are not used for admission and will never even be seen by colleges, can impact self-esteem and trigger anxiety about upcoming SATs. Disappointing PSAT scores can be especially frustrating for students who get top grades in school. Accustomed to doing well, it can come as quite a shock to not be at the top of the class. The humiliation may feel unbearable, and it is very difficult for students to understand that ten years from now, SAT scores will have nothing to do with the quality of their lives.

One way to reduce test anxiety is to find colleges where the average scores are close to a student’s PSAT scores. Students need to know that they will have college options, even if their SAT scores are no higher than their PSATs. You don’t want your child going into the SAT or ACT thinking “if I don’t get these scores up, my life will be over.” Not only does it create needless suffering, but that kind of pressure can sabotage months of test preparation.

Whether the SAT or ACT, it makes sense to plan on taking the test several times. Knowing there is another chance reduces the “now or never” pressure that can cause students to miss questions they could otherwise answer.

Rather than focusing exclusively on raising scores, I like to approach SAT or ACT preparation with the goal of making a student more comfortable with the exam. Once a student is familiar with the test, the anxiety level goes down, and scores usually go up.

Students who are motivated and who did fairly well on the PSAT may be able to prepare for the SAT on their own. There are computer programs that can be very helpful and Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to offer free SAT practice. ACT has partnered with Kaplan to provide ACT preparation.

Many students benefit from a structured, face to face test preparation program, which can be done in a group or individually. Group programs can work well for students who are not shy about asking questions, and whose scores are in the middle range. Students who are far ahead of the class may feel bored, and those who are struggling to keep up can feel frustrated and hopeless.

One-to-one tutoring is especially helpful for students who are highly anxious. They don’t need to be exposed to the contagious anxiety of a classroom setting. There’s enough competition in the college admissions process, so why give sensitive students more opportunities to compare themselves to their classmates? A tutor can cover the material at the student’s pace. A math problem can be explained four times without the student feeling embarrassed. Another advantage of individual tutoring is that students are highly motivated to do the homework, since they can’t hide at the back of the classroom.

Sometimes students get anxious about being anxious. But a little nervousness the day of the test is fine, as the adrenalin boost will keep a student awake and sharp. It’s panic that makes it impossible to perform, and panic is unlikely if a student has done enough practice tests and knows what to expect.

While preparing for the SAT or ACT can be extremely beneficial, the most important thing you can is help your child keep the test in perspective and not let it become a measure of self-worth. Many very accomplished people never did well on standardized tests, and there are other people whose dazzling SAT scores are their greatest accomplishment. Which group would you rather be in?

A Strong Finish to Your School Year

With just a few weeks left in the school year, final exams are looming. This is an opportunity for students to make one last push to end the year with the best possible grades. While test scores and a rigorous curriculum certainly matter, grades are the single most important factor in college admission.

If you are a junior, these may be the last grades that colleges will consider in making admission decisions, especially if you plan to apply early decision or early action, or will be applying to a public university that only considers grades through junior year for admission purposes.

Colleges look at grade trends as well as cumulative grade point averages, so even if your early high school grades are not so great, you will benefit from earning your strongest grades this year. Of course, if you are a freshman or sophomore, getting good grades now means you don’t need to worry about low early grades pulling down your GPA. The higher your GPA, the fewer regrets you will have senior year and the more options you will have when it’s time to apply to colleges.

While your focus in the next few weeks will be on preparing for exams, it’s also helpful to take a long-term look at what you can do to improve your grades. One way to protect your GPA is to not overload on AP and Honors courses. While colleges do want students who are taking a rigorous curriculum, if taking four or five AP classes means you will be staying up past midnight studying and struggling to earn B grades, you may be risking your health rather than enhancing your college admission prospects. Take Honors and AP courses in your strongest subjects, or if those teachers are considered the best in the school, but find a balance that’s right for you.

Choosing the right classes is the first step. Then you can focus on doing your best in those classes. Many students listen passively, or not at all, when they are in class. But if you participate in class discussions and ask questions, you learn the material at a deeper level and are much more likely to remember what you are learning. This kind of active approach will serve you well in college. It will also help you get into college since teachers will appreciate the fact that you are actively engaged in learning, and will be able to write college application recommendations that praise your contributions to their class. You may even find that you need to spend less time studying at home if you are really listening and participating in class.

Continue the active approach to learning by taking good notes, in class and when you’re reading a textbook. Accurate, reliable notes will be enormously helpful when it’s time to study for exams  in high school and college. Review your notes each night to make sure you understand what you’ve written, and to solidify what you learned that day.

Read the assigned chapter before class and you will get much more out of the class. If you don’t have time to read the whole chapter, at least read the titles, subtitles, boldfaced text and summaries, so that the material will be somewhat familiar in class the next day.

It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. In fact, the most successful people acknowledge that they need other people in order to do their job well. Getting help as soon as you feel confused is especially important when it comes to math and science, which build on previous knowledge. If you are lost in a sea of trigonometric equations, ask your teacher or a classmate to help you sort out sine from cosine as soon as possible.

Make a study schedule and stick to it. At the start of each week, allocate time according to the demands of each class, so if you have a Spanish test coming up, schedule extra time that week to prepare. If your job or extracurricular activities leave you too exhausted to study, it’s time to cut back. School is your most important job.

Eliminate distractions during study time. That means no checking Facebook or e-mail. No text messages. If you focus on your work, you will find yourself finishing in half the time, and then you can enjoy all the guilt-free texting you want.

When you are studying, pretend you have to teach the material to your class the next day. When you can explain it to someone else, you will understand it at a deeper level and will be more likely to retain it.

Develop good study habits early in your high school career and you will have many options for college. You will also be more successful once you get there.

Early Decision & Early Action

Early Decision and Early Action are more popular than ever, and it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of these programs.

Early Decision serves many colleges well. Students applying Early Decision agree to attend if they are accepted, which enables admissions officers to lock in a percentage of their freshman class. They get to spread out their workload so they aren’t quite as overwhelmed with applications in January.

Students can also benefit from Early Decision. They get a decision in December, which can make for a more enjoyable winter break and early end to the stress of senior year. They may have a better chance of being admitted as applying Early Decision is the ultimate in demonstrated interest.  However, this admission edge will only help students who are already strong candidates. If your junior year grades or SAT/ACT scores are not as high as they could be, you may be better off improving your grades and test scores this semester and applying through the Regular Decision process. You want to submit your strongest application. If you are denied admission through an Early Decision or Early Action program, you cannot apply to that college again through Regular Decision.

Too many students apply Early Decision because they don’t want to miss out on the potential edge in admission. This is a big decision about where you will spend the next four years of your life, and you want to make it in a thoughtful way. Acting out of fear doesn’t usually lead to the best decisions. Students who are not really enthusiastic about a college but are applying Early Decision just because they don’t want to lose the opportunity for an edge in admission may put together rushed essays that don’t enhance their application.

If you are applying Early Decision, you need to be absolutely sure that you want to attend this college. Many students find that their first choice is very different in the spring. The students who are happy with their Early Decision acceptance have thoroughly researched the college. One of my students recently spent two days at the school he was considering. He sat in on three classes during his visit, ate several meals in the dining hall, spent time with a friend who is a student at the school, and attended a party in the residence hall. He came away with a very clear picture of life at this college and is ready to make the binding commitment. Because he spent so much time on campus, this student is able to prepare a thoughtful application that, combined with his strong academic record, will give him the best prospects for admission.

But even for a student who has identified his first choice college and has excellent grades and test scores, Early Decision may not be the best choice. If the family wants to compare financial aid packages, applying Early Decision is not an option.

Schools with Early Decision or Early Action programs can admit, deny or defer students. If you are deferred, your application will be considered again in the Regular Decision process.

Early Action does not typically offer as much of an admission advantage, but is still helpful at some schools. An admissions officer at one university told me several years ago that if a student didn’t apply early action, she wondered if the student was seriously interested in the school.

Some colleges, like Georgetown University, will defer all or most early applicants. But others, including Stanford, will make final decisions on the majority of early applications. It may be painful to get a rejection in December, but it also enables students to move on and invest emotionally in more accessible schools.

Students need to make sure that they understand the rules for Early Decision and Early Action at any colleges they are considering. If you apply to college through a binding Early Decision program, you can’t apply Early Decision to another college at the same time. You must withdraw all other applications once you have been admitted to your early decision school.

Early Action applications are not binding, and you have until May 1 to consider other offers. While most colleges allow students to apply Early Action to as many schools as they want, some Early Action schools do place restrictions on submitting other early applications. There are some variations in their plans, but all allow you to apply early to any public institution in your own state as well as to any college’s non-binding rolling admissions process.

If you find the rules confusing, you’re not alone. And colleges can change their policies from year to year, so check with each school on your list to make sure you understand the rules before applying.

Admissions Officers on the Road

In the spring and fall, admission officers travel around the world to recruit applicants for the next admission cycle. They may be conducting an information session in your town, and if you haven’t visited a college on your list, this is a great opportunity to learn more about it. The sessions provide an overview of the school’s programs and student life, as well as information about the application and financial aid process. There will also be an opportunity to ask questions.

Some schools do joint programs, where you can learn about several colleges in one evening. Another nice thing about joint programs is that you may go because you are interested in one school and end up discovering that another school you hadn’t considered would be a really good fit for you.

One of the most popular programs is Exploring College Options. Admissions officers from Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn and Stanford will offer short presentations and answer questions. Admissions officers from Brown, University of Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, and Rice will be presenting their Exploring Educational Excellence program in many cities.

The Colleges That Change Lives program is a great opportunity to learn about this group of 44 student-centered colleges. The schools vary in program offerings, location, selectivity and other characteristics. But they all share a commitment to undergraduate education, and many of the schools have an excellent track record for graduate school acceptances.

Admissions officers at these events are usually assigned to the local area and will probably be the first person to read your application and so this is an opportunity to establish a relationship. When you speak with an admissions officer, be sure to get a business card so you can follow up with an email thanking her for coming, mentioning something that resonated with you from your conversation about the school and asking a follow-up question. In addition to learning more about the school so that you are better able to decide if it is a match, you can gain insights that may help you write a “Why are you applying to our college?” application essay. You will also be demonstrating interest, which can’t hurt in the admissions process.

These information sessions can help you get off to a good start when you are putting together your college list, as you get an overview of each school. But admissions officers are there to promote their school and their enthusiasm can leave you infatuated with all of them, especially when the slide shows make each campus look so beautiful and inviting. You will get more out of the programs if you have done some research and come prepared with a list of questions. While parents ask most of the questions at these sessions, admissions officers like to see students engaging them in conversation about their school.

These programs certainly don’t take the place of a campus visit. But attending an information session may help you decide whether you want to invest the time and money to visit a school. Be sure to register on the website of any school that interests you so that you will be on the mailing list for admission events in your area.

Thinking About Medical School?

It’s not easy to get into medical school, but making the right choices can help you reach your goal. It’s important to start out with a good foundation.

That means taking physics and calculus in high school, both to have credibility as a prospective science major in the admissions process and to be prepared for the science courses you’ll be taking in college. Medical schools require students to have college courses in biology, inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry, physics and calculus. These courses are tougher if you haven’t had any exposure to the subjects in high school. Since medical schools will be looking at your science GPA in addition to your overall college GPA, it’s important to do well in these classes.

The good news is that you can major in any subject. An art history major who has excellent grades in science classes will be in a stronger position applying to medical school than a biology major with lower grades.

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is also a major factor in admissions decisions. I know it’s not fun to realize that the SAT isn’t the end of standardized tests.

Beyond grades and test scores, medical schools are looking at a student’s seriousness of purpose.

Volunteering or working at a hospital or other healthcare setting will help you be sure that you really do want to become a doctor and demonstrate your commitment to medicine.

Research experience is also helpful.

Being able to deal with people from different cultures is a plus, so students who know a second language and have studied abroad may have an advantage.

Many aspiring physicians think they need to go to the most prestigious undergraduate school in order to have a chance at a good medical school. This isn’t the only path, and sometimes it’s not the best path.

 A student who is strong in science, has a lot of self-confidence and is assertive about pursuing research opportunities will probably be successful in an intensely competitive environment.

But for the student who doesn’t immediately grasp complex physics problems or is shy about asking for help, attending college with many driven and accomplished pre-med students could be the end of the dream of medical school.

Students will be prepared to apply to medical school if they attend a college where they can earn strong grades, engage in research and develop relationships with professors who are invested in their success and will write strong recommendations. Being at the top of the class at a less competitive college can put a student in a stronger position for medical school applications than being an average student at a more competitive school.

There are many colleges that may not be prestigious but have a good track record of sending graduates on to medical school.

And by targeting schools that are either lower in cost or where a student is likely to get merit aid, a family should not have to pay much more than they would for a University of California or other public university education.

Since most students take out loans to attend medical school, it’s nice to start without the burden of debt from your undergraduate education.

What the Shy Student Needs to Know About College Admission

Just be yourself. You hear it from counselors, this column and Mom. It’s good advice. But what if being yourself means being rejected by your favorite college? That’s exactly what can happen to someone whose only “deficit” is being reserved. In a society where the extrovert gets the guy, gal or school, the shy student can be left behind.

Admissions officers are looking for students who will contribute to the campus community. Nothing wrong with that. But why does everyone have to be a leader? How can everyone be a leader? The sorority president who organizes a charity fundraiser needs other people to stuff envelopes and run the event to make her idea a reality. And what would the director of a play do without a crew working behind the scenes to carry out his vision?

At a National Association For College Admissions Counseling conference some years ago, I was delighted to see this issue addressed at a session titled “Promoting the Shy Student.” Panelists agreed that shy people get lower ratings in the admissions process. A teacher who writes a recommendation letter saying a student has a quiet depth or is insightful but doesn’t often share her ideas in class may unintentionally sink that student’s application. One admissions officer who had worked at a prestigious university started a shyness awareness workshop for the school’s readers, to counteract their bias toward shy people.

Everyone would be better served if admissions officers had a broader perspective as they look for students with something to offer the community. The shy student who rarely speaks in class might be the person who helps classmates with physics homework. The student who doesn’t initiate group activities in the residence hall may be the great listener that other students turn to when they need to talk. And what about the student who trembles at the thought of an oral report but writes a beautiful poem for the literary magazine? Don’t these students make a valuable contribution to the campus community?

Of course, there’s also the possibility that a student who is shy in high school might become more outgoing and contribute more in college than the student who was very involved in high school and doesn’t join a single organization in college.

We hear that colleges want racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. It would be nice if they also valued diverse personality types. But the preference for extroversion is not likely to change soon. So the question for shy students is whether to embrace your reserved nature or try to change it.

I think shy students who feel good about themselves certainly are entitled to decide they don’t need to change. But the truth is that many shy people struggle with a lack of self-confidence, and it may be worth pushing beyond their comfort zone, not just for college applications but to feel more engaged in the world.

There are steps that shy students can take, short of a total personality transplant, which will enhance their chances of getting into their best colleges. Establishing a one to one relationship, perhaps by volunteering to tutor a younger child, can be a safe and rewarding way to contribute to the community.

Shy students might also ask teachers for help in finding less threatening ways to contribute to class. Students who really want to challenge themselves could even take an acting or public speaking class to become more comfortable talking in front of people.

For those who are not ready to venture out of their comfort zone, highly selective colleges may be a tough admit, but with strong academic records they will still have many options.

Aaron F., Columbia, MD

September 19th, 2017 by

Thank you so much, Audrey, for your help with my essays. I was amazed at how much time and thought you put in – your input greatly improved my essays. I also want to thank you for the way in which you helped me. You were able to give criticism in a way that was easy to digest, making the already stressful process a little smoother. I know that I couldn’t have been as successful with my essays without your generous effort.

A.R., Ringwood, NJ

September 19th, 2017 by

At first, I was skeptical about working with someone long-distance, but you were always there for him. We are so grateful for all your help.

Angela L, Oak Park

September 19th, 2017 by

I’M GOING TO U CHICAGO!!! Just saying that makes me so happy, and all of this wouldn’t have been possible without you!!! Thank you SO much for EVERY single thing you’ve done for me!!!

After the PSAT

Students who took the PSAT in October can use the test score report to create a plan for additional testing. Students with strong PSAT scores can relax a bit, knowing that they should be in good shape for the SAT.

There is no reason to panic if the PSAT scores are on the low side. These scores are not sent to colleges. They are just an indication of how a student would do on the SAT at this point. For some students, low scores may mean that the ACT is a better test for them. All colleges accept either the SAT or ACT, and many test prep companies offer diagnostic tests to help students determine which exam is better suited to their strengths. Once students have identified which test is best, they can focus on that exam.

Most students benefit from some kind of test preparation, and there are lots of options. Students who are very motivated and self-disciplined can take advantage of free SAT preparation offered by Khan Academy, in collaboration with The College Board. The program uses PSAT results to identify areas that need strengthening and offers full-length, official practice SATs. The ACT offers its own low-cost online test preparation program as well as an online live classroom program provided by Kaplan Test Prep.

Many companies offer test prep classes, which are usually less expensive than private tutoring. Some students like the classroom approach, and if they take the course with friends, they can help each other with homework between sessions. Classroom prep programs can be time-intensive, and students need to be available to attend all sessions in order to get the best results.

Individual tutoring can be tailored to each student. Another advantage is that students may feel more accountable and attentive when working with a tutor, and they may feel more comfortable asking for a math problem to be explained several times in the one-to-one meetings. Sessions are typically an hour and a half per week, and can be scheduled at the student’s convenience. Tutoring is most effective if the student completes practice test sections between sessions. Getting the right tutor is also important, and if you are dealing with a test prep company, you can ask for a different tutor if the first one is not a good match.

While test preparation can help some students boost scores by 100 or more points, it doesn’t work for everyone. It may be extreme test anxiety, or just the fact that standardized tests are not the best way for some students to demonstrate their knowledge.

It is understandably upsetting to try your best and still not end up with test scores that reflect your academic ability. But it doesn’t mean that student won’t have great college options. Each year, more schools are becoming test-optional. While it’s true that University of California and most highly selective schools still require test scores, there are some very selective schools that do not require test scores, including Wesleyan University, George Washington University, Wake Forest University, Bryn Mawr College and Bowdoin College, as well as Pitzer College here in Southern California.

You can find a complete list of test-optional colleges at I always encourage students to find a couple of test- optional colleges they really like before they take the SAT or ACT. Then they can go into the exam knowing that they don’t even have to send the scores to schools they’re excited about attending. This helps reduce anxiety, and that can make the entire college admissions process less stressful and more successful.

Visiting After Admission Helps In Making Your Final Decision

So many students worry about getting accepted to college, but in recent weeks I have talked to seniors facing a different problem. They have 10 or more offers of admission. It may be a good problem to have, but choosing a college when you have so many options can feel overwhelming.

This is the time to visit the colleges, even if you’ve seen them before. The schools can look different now that you’ve been admitted and the prospect of spending four years on a campus is real.

Programs for admitted students can be exciting, and you will meet other prospective freshmen. But these events are designed to persuade admitted students to enroll, and it can be more helpful to visit on a typical day. Ask to sit in on at least one class in your major as well as another class in a different subject. If you don’t know your major, choose something that sounds interesting. If you visit the same class at each college, such as introductory psychology, you will be able to compare the class sizes and student/professor interactions and class discussions at the different schools. This is especially important if you are considering large universities and small liberal arts colleges, as the classroom experiences will be different.

Try to meet students in your major. Ask what they like and don’t like about the program, how helpful their professors are, what kind of internship and research experiences they have had, and if they are seniors, what are their post-graduation plans.

Spending the night in a residence hall can help you get a sense of life outside the classroom. If you can’t do an overnight, make sure to eat in the dining hall and talk to as many students as possible. Ask friends and relatives to put you in touch with current students at the college.

College is a major investment of time and money. You need information about outcomes. Ask about graduation rates. Visit the career services office and ask how they help students get internships and jobs. How do they utilize their alumni network? What companies recruit on campus?

If you are an aspiring pre-med student, schedule a meeting with the pre-health advisor at each college. Ask about the school’s track record with medical school applications as well as how advisers support students in preparing for and applying to medical school. It can be tricky to compare medical school admission rates because some colleges only support and count the applications of students who have a high GPA, resulting in what looks like a higher success rate than colleges which count all students who apply to medical school.

Students who plan to go to any graduate or professional school need to think about where they will be able to earn excellent grades and establish relationships with professors who will write strong letters of recommendation. Whether you plan to go directly to a job or to graduate school, choosing a college where you believe you will be academically successful and feel good about yourself in the college community will help you reach your goals.

If you can’t visit campus, do your research online. Read course descriptions and make sure there are enough classes that interest you. Check general education requirements as well as requirements for your major. Go the department website and find out if any professors are doing research that sounds fascinating. Ask the department chair about research and internship opportunities as well as where recent graduates in that major have gone after graduation. Investigate student organizations that sound interesting and email members for more information. Start reading the school paper online to learn about activities on campus as well as the political and social atmosphere.

If you applied to colleges that are good fits, any decision you make will be the right one. Sometimes it comes down to cost. A generous merit scholarship from a third choice college can be compelling. You will probably love it just as much as your first choice school, maybe even more.

Take Control of Your College Admissions Process

If you are a high school junior who is starting to think about potential colleges, you have a choice to make about how you approach this process. You can read magazine rankings and lists of “best” schools. You can apply to the colleges your relatives have attended, or the schools your friends are talking about. You can focus on the many colleges sending brochures and emails urging you to choose them.

But these are passive approaches that allow your choices be determined by other people, and that’s not the best way to make a major life decision. It is very empowering to tune out the outside influences and look inward. Think about who you are and what you want in a college experience, and then you can make sure to find the schools where you will be able to have that kind of experience.

You might not know what kind of experience you want, and that’s fine. It can take some time to figure out what is important for you in choosing a college. There are many factors that go into this decision.

If you know you want to study architecture, or nursing, or another subject that is not offered at every college, finding schools with that program will narrow down your options considerably. If you are contemplating majors that are offered at most colleges, there are other ways to determine what kind of college would be right for you.

In what type of environment have you flourished in the past? Think about your favorite classes in school. What made you love them? Is it a passionate teacher who got you interested in the subject? Class discussions where you enjoyed having your say and hearing what your classmates thought about an issue? Do you enjoy talking to your teachers outside of class? You might want a smaller college that offers a lot of interaction between professors and students. Do you like being one of the top students in your classes? If so, you might be happier at a college that’s not overly competitive.

And if you are clueless, no need to panic. Start by visiting some local colleges, both big universities and small liberal arts colleges, and those visits can help you begin to clarify what you want and don’t want in your college experience.

Even if you have it all figured out, you may find that your preferences change once you start visiting colleges. Students who grow up in quiet suburban neighborhoods may fantasize about the excitement of living in the middle of a major city, but sometimes they end up falling in love with a sprawling, peaceful, grassy campus.

Unlike high school, where you go home at the end of the day, college will be your world for four years. It needs to be a world where you are engaged and challenged, and where you feel part of a community. There is more than one college where you can thrive, but not every college is a good fit.

It’s all about individual preferences, which is why it makes no sense to use other people’s preferences in choosing which colleges are best for you.

So spend some time thinking about what you want in a college and then you can start researching schools. If you plan some campus visits for spring break, you’ll have a chance to make sure you are on the right track with your college list.

Going to college is a major life decision, and you are much more likely to be happy with your decision if you are knowledgeable and in control of the process.

Admission Decisions & Wait-Lists

It’s that time of year.  High school seniors around the country are celebrating or commiserating as college admission decisions are released.  Application numbers at highly selective schools continue to break records.  With more students applying to more colleges, it’s difficult for colleges to predict how many admitted students will actually enroll.  Many schools are being conservative with offers and using wait-lists to round out the freshman class.

All University of California campuses except Merced use a wait-list.  Private colleges use them as well.  The number of students offered admission from a wait-list varies from one school to another, and can be dramatically different at the same school from one year to the next.

California students are a priority at many colleges, and if a school does not receive enough enrollment deposits from California residents, that could mean good news for some local wait-listed students.  Colleges that are primarily need-blind in admission decisions can become need-aware when they go to the wait-list.  If financial aid resources have already been committed, they can only bring in students who don’t need aid.

Schools have other institutional needs, which can change.  At a recent meeting with an admissions officer from a highly selective university, he said the school is building its athletic program, which means recruiting athletes.  The school has a new art building and would like to bring in more aspiring art students.  So there is an element of luck and timing in applying to college.  If you happen to apply in the year that a college is starting a new bioengineering program and that’s your field, you may have better prospects for admission.

Some colleges ask wait-listed students to write a brief essay about why they want to attend the school.  Even if a college does not ask you to do anything other than opt-in, it’s essential to let the admissions office know that you are very interested in attending the school.  There may be thousands of students on the wait-list, which can be bigger than the size of the freshman class.  If an admissions officer is able to take two students from the wait-list, he will choose them from the 30 who emailed him rather than the hundreds of students who made no effort to convey their interest.

If you are certain you would accept an offer of admission, write that that in the email.  If you cannot honestly say the school is your first choice, you can still cite the reasons that you are excited about attending the school.  Rather than focusing on how that college will help you get into medical school or help you get a job, focus on the experience you will have at the college.  Mention an unusual academic program and describe how it meshes perfectly with your interests.  Perhaps there is something about the campus culture that especially appeals to you, like a student run honor code.

Once you have made your best case for admission, send the email and turn your attention to the colleges that have admitted you.  Once you invest emotionally in a school, you will find much to love about it and could very well end up turning down any offers that come from a wait-list.

Take Time to Write “Why Our College?” Essay

Demonstrated interest has become increasingly important at many colleges, as they try to predict yield, which is the number of admitted students who enroll in the college. Since the Common Application makes it easy for students to apply to a dozen or more schools, many colleges have added supplemental essays, in addition to the college essay, in the hope that students who are willing to do the additional work are seriously interested in the school. One of the most common supplemental essays is some version of “Why are you applying to our college?”

I have seen hundreds of the “Your university offers outstanding academic programs in a dynamic urban location with great access to internships” essay. It is a very efficient approach, since students can just change the name of the college and use the same essay for each application.

It is also a very ineffective approach. If the same essay can be sent to different colleges, you are not answering the prompt, which asks why you and this college are a good match. After students have spent many hours perfecting the main college application essay, I can understand the urge to rush through these extra essays and be done with the applications.

But this is an opportunity to set yourself apart from all the other applicants who dash off a generic essay. This question should prompt students to research the school and think about whether it is in fact a good fit.

Flattering the college is not a good strategy. Neither is telling admissions officers what they already know about their school. You don’t need to tell University of Pennsylvania that Wharton School is one of the top business schools in the country. You do need to tell them what unique academic programs, research opportunities, and extracurricular activities make Wharton a perfect fit for your background, interests and goals.

The first step in responding to this prompt is to spend time on the college website. If you plan to major in political science, read about the course offerings and look for any unusual programs and opportunities. Does the school have a polling institute that uses undergraduates to conduct interviews? Have many students completed internships with local government agencies? Does the school offer a Washington semester for students who want to study in the nation’s capital?

The student life section of the college website should list clubs and organizations. If there are any unusual clubs that sound especially interesting, you can name them. Again, the focus should be on why this club is perfect for you. Perhaps you have been on your high school debate team and you are excited about this college’s winning debate team.

You can also access a school newspaper online, and if you read it regularly, you will learn what groups are active on campus and what issues are being discussed in the campus community. How do you see yourself contributing to this community?

Reading about a school’s programs and talking with current or former students is the kind of research students should be doing before deciding to apply to a college, but very few invest the time that’s required to really understand what a college has to offer and whether it is a good fit.

Writing this essay is an opportunity to make sure that each of the colleges on your list is right for you. It is true that if you know you want a small liberal arts college, many of the schools on your list will have similar characteristics. But you should still be able to find something specific that appeals to you at each school. If you can’t think of anything that excites you about the college, you still have time to revise your list.

Fear and Uncertainty Can Lead to Bad Behavior on All Sides

At the same time that many families are in a state of high anxiety over the competition to get into college, admissions staffs at the majority of colleges are worried about enrolling enough freshmen.

According to the recently released 2017 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors,  only 34% of colleges had met their fall enrollment goals by the May 1 deadline for students to accept an offer of admission.

If a college is significantly short of its enrollment target, it will have to make budget cuts because of the loss in tuition revenue. Colleges that don’t have large endowments and are very dependent on tuition are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in enrollment. Nobody wants to lose faculty and staff, and every college will be working hard to meet enrollment targets this year.

Admissions offices at many colleges are likely to be dealing with enrollment pressures for a while. In many parts of the country, the number of high school seniors has peaked, and for the next few years, there may be fewer students applying to college. International recruiting has become more important as colleges seek to broaden the applicant pool.

Families are no longer so willing to take on big loans for expensive colleges, and this has impacted private colleges as well as nonresident enrollment at some public universities. Some schools are trying to reassure families worried about the costs going up every year by guaranteeing that tuition will remain the same for four years. However, additional fees as well as residence hall and meal plan costs can still increase each year.

Fear and desperation can bring out the worst in people. When students feel the pressure of competition for college admission, they sometimes resort to exaggerating or fabricating their achievements. Some students even have someone else write their application essays.

Admission offices are not immune to the temptation to cheat. There have been cases of colleges reporting higher average SAT scores to the US News rankings, and it’s would not be surprising to learn that other schools have engaged in this practice.

In recent years, as fear of competition and the desire to compare costs motivates students to apply to more colleges, it has been increasingly difficult for colleges to predict how many students will accept an offer of admission. There have been reports of admissions directors recruiting students who had already committed to other schools. Doing this after the May 1 decision deadline is a violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice, and the fact that it happens is a sign of how desperate some schools are to meet their enrollment targets.

While some colleges may be engaging in unethical behavior, that doesn’t mean students get a pass to violate the rules. If knowing that you have conducted yourself honorably is not enough motivation to complete your applications in an ethical manner, be aware that dishonesty could jeopardize your admission. Some colleges may ask for proof of your community service hours or extracurricular activities, especially if the hours you claim on the application seem excessive. Admissions officers will be suspicious if the “voice” or the quality of writing in an application essay is not consistent with the essay you wrote as part of the SAT or ACT, or does not seem to match your academic performance in English classes. Parents who are tempted to provide too much help with essays should know that admissions officers are quite capable of recognizing essays that were written by 45-year-olds.

It can be challenging to stay on an ethical path, especially when other people, and institutions, may stray from that path. But applications that are authentic stand out, and there’s nothing better than getting an acceptance from a college and knowing you earned it.

Start Those College Applications

When the school year ends, rising seniors need some time to breathe after final exams and SAT/ACT tests. They should take a week or two to relax. But then it’s time to start working on college applications.

If you haven’t finalized your college list, this is the time to do more research. In addition to reading about academic programs and student life on the school’s website, be sure to check out the student newspaper. Even if the newspaper is not publishing over the summer, you can read stories from the academic year. The admissions office won’t tell you that students are upset about a housing crunch or cutbacks in library hours, but you will find out by reading opinion columns and letters to the editor. The school newspaper is a great resource for learning what students are talking about as well as what organizations are active on campus.

Be sure to register with the admissions office, and you will be invited to local information sessions. Most colleges will resume these local sessions at the end of the summer, but Colleges That Change Lives, a group of 40 student-centered colleges, has events scheduled through the summer.

Register with an e-mail address that makes it easy for colleges to identify you, preferably something with your name. You should use the same e-mail address on college applications, so that the schools will be able to track any demonstrated interest. For example, if you have visited a college or attended a local information session, and used one e-mail address for those contacts, but another e-mail for your applications, admissions officers may not know that you visited campus. Many colleges, especially private schools, use demonstrated interest as a factor in admission decisions, though the most selective colleges do not generally consider interest. For those that do, even the time you spend on a college website may be tracked.

While I recommend visiting colleges when they are in session, many families need to schedule college tours during the summer. You will see other high school students on the tour, and these potential future classmates will be a good indication of the types of students who are attracted to this college. But the campus atmosphere is completely different, and can even feel desolate in the summer, especially at small schools that don’t have summer sessions. You don’t want to rule out a college that would be very appealing if you saw thousands of students walking across campus. It’s also helpful to sit in on a class, which you can only do when school is in session. Many colleges begin in August, and if your high school does not start until the end of the month, you may be able to schedule some visits during the first week of the college semester.

In the meantime, even if you haven’t finalized your college list, you can start working on application essays, which always require several drafts. While the University of California application will not open until August, you can access instructions for the UC Personal Insight Questions now.

The Common Application will open August 1, but the Common Application Essay Prompts  are available now, and you can also access the Coalition Application Essay Prompts. Additional essay prompts for schools that require supplemental essays should be available in August. If you finish the main essays now, you can focus on the supplements in August.

The more you do during the summer, the less stress you will have in the fall.

The Importance of Being Nice

Niceness is rarely mentioned when people talk about college admission. And it’s probably not going to be a factor at huge public universities that make decisions strictly based on a high school transcript and standardized test scores. But it does come into play when humans are involved in admission decisions. While you might want to believe that these decisions are objective and based on the merit of each application, it is a subjective process. This is especially true at selective colleges that use a holistic approach in evaluating applications. Once you have met the admissions criteria, what will distinguish you from the thousands of other students with strong grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?

Here’s an example of how you don’t want to distinguish yourself. One admissions officer told me that when he was interviewing a student in a coffee shop, the next student arrived early for his interview and interrupted the admissions officer several times to let him know that he was waiting. The admissions officer thought this student was rude, which is not the impression you want to make. If the student had been a very strong candidate, perhaps this would not have impacted his admission prospects, but he was already a borderline admit, and this lack of courtesy did not inspire the admissions officer to want to advocate for him.

As they spend hours perfecting their college applications, most students think the goal is to impress admissions officers. But do you like people who try to impress you with their accomplishments? Most of us don’t. In fact, we tend to prefer people who show a little humility. We also respond to people who seem to have something in common with us and who find a way to relate to us. So rather than trying to impress admissions officers, students should be trying to connect with them. The real goal in college applications is to create a genuine bond with the person who is evaluating your application. As one admissions officer put it, when he reads an application, he asks himself if he would want to eat pizza at midnight in a dorm with that student.

Some students have a knack for creating relationships. One student met an admissions officer during a campus visit and kept in touch via email. When she learned that the admissions officer would be coming to her city for the first time, she sent her some restaurant recommendations. It’s a small gesture that is about making that human connection. Offering to take her to dinner at one of those restaurants would have been inappropriate and manipulative, but thinking about someone coming to a new city for the first time and offering a suggestion was just nice.

Part of the college application process is determining whether a student will fit into a campus community, and qualities like kindness and consideration for others are valued. Admissions officers are thinking about how you will interact with roommates, professors and staff. If a college is known for having a close, caring community, why would they want to admit a student who could disrupt that community?

It’s not just admissions officers who are influenced by how a student behaves. Counselors and teachers are more likely to write a strong recommendation letter for students they see as good people, not just smart students. It makes sense. Do you want to go out of your way to help someone who has been unkind or disrespectful? Younger high school students should be aware that the relationships they are creating now will impact the kind of support they receive when it’s time to apply to college.

This goes for parents too. Stories about unpleasant parents circulate through admissions offices and that does not help your child’s application. Admissions officers may be reluctant to admit a student whose difficult parent will be making life miserable for their colleagues at the college for the next four years.

During the college application process, showing common (or what is now uncommon) courtesy in all contact with the staff at a college will help set students apart. It’s not about manipulating people to get what you want, or it shouldn’t be. I think you’ll also find you feel better about yourself when you treat people with genuine kindness and respect, and the world will feel like a better place.

The ability to get along with people is important, and not just in college applications. Being able to collaborate on projects is important in classes and also in the workplace. Cultivating qualities like kindness and consideration for others will help you create satisfying relationships in all areas of life.

Bringing Down the Cost of College

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Wesleyan. Families around the country are touring colleges during spring break, some visiting a dozen or more schools in search of that perfect college. While gleaming new science buildings, low faculty to student ratios and beautifully landscaped campuses may be enticing, finding a good college fit also means looking at affordability.

The most selective, wealthy institutions often provide generous need-based financial aid. But very few schools have the resources to meet full need. And at a time when tuition, room and board at a private college can add up to more than $65,000 a year, cost is a major concern even for families that don’t qualify for need-based aid.

The good news is that there are ways to bring down the cost of college. Most schools offer merit-based aid, also known as scholarships. Every year, I see many students receive offers of $15,000 to $25,000 a year.  Some schools will consider leadership and service, but these offers are generally based on a student’s academic record and test scores. It’s important to target colleges that offer substantial merit aid, and you need to be in the top of the applicant pool to receive the biggest scholarships.

If you live in a region that has a tuition reciprocity arrangement, you may be able to attend a public university in a nearby state without paying full nonresident tuition. Qualifying students in California pay 150% of in-state tuition at participating public institutions through the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program. Some students are paying less than $10,000 a year in tuition at these schools.

There are also colleges that have a lower cost of attendance. They may offer less need-based aid and smaller scholarships but charge lower tuition for all students. They may be located in parts of the country where expenses are lower and that’s reflected in the cost of attendance. They may be public institutions that want to attract out of state students and keep their nonresident tuition relatively low.

It may take some research to find them, but there are affordable options for all students.

Start Planning Your Summer

Summer may be months away, but it not too early for high school students to start making plans. There is so much anxiety around college admission that choosing the “best” summer activity can be intimidating, but there are no rules about how you should spend the summer.

Perhaps there is one rule. The more money you have to pay for a summer experience, the less impressive it will look on college applications. Admissions officers want to see what the student has done, not what kind of experience her parents have bought for her. They are looking for evidence of initiative, leadership, intellectual curiosity, creativity, long-term commitment, impact on the community.

Academic programs that are selective and require an application with teacher recommendations, like the California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) or California State Summer School for the Arts, enhance college applications.

Internships can be a great way to explore a potential career. One student completed an internship in a science lab, and her work was compelling enough that she was invited to present it at a conference. The experience enabled her to write an essay that demonstrated her intellectual curiosity as well as the impact she was already making in the field.

Work experience is also valuable. I have heard admissions officers say they would love to read an essay from a student who spent the summer bagging groceries. In addition to learning how to manage time and take on responsibility, students who have a job gain confidence as they find they have something to contribute to a workplace.

Taking a summer course at a college is a way to explore a possible future major or study interesting subjects that aren’t offered in high school. Some colleges offer online courses. If you want to experience life on a college campus, attending a residential program at a college is an opportunity to try life in an urban environment or a college town. Some of these programs offer enrichment courses, which do not provide college credit but allow you to explore a subject you find fascinating. If your high school grades are not as strong as they need to be, taking a course for college credit can help demonstrate that you are capable of college level work. This strategy only works if you are willing to work hard during the summer, so choose a course you are excited about taking and commit to doing well in it. One student whose grade point average was a bit low for the college he wanted to attend took a summer class at a local university, and because he picked a subject he loved, he not only got an A in the class, he got a strong letter of recommendation from the professor, and best of all, he ended up getting into his favorite college.

Students who have a demanding course load during the school year often devote more time to community service during the summers, and that’s certainly a worthwhile activity. A long-term commitment to one organization, where you have taken on increasing responsibility each year, has more impact than occasional volunteer days at a variety of places.

While more colleges become test-optional each year, test scores are still an important factor in admission decisions at most schools and summer can be a good time to focus on test preparation.

There are so many possibilities. Be careful not to overload your schedule. Admissions officers are looking for quality, not quantity. More important, you don’t want to have a miserable summer. Protect your mental health by building in some time to relax and hang out with friends.

Prepare For College Applications By Doing What You Love

While some students will be going off on costly service trips or educational programs during the summer, others are finding less expensive ways to explore their interests. When a student takes the initiative to pursue her interests, that experience is likely to be more meaningful to her and more impressive to colleges.

In a case study session at a recent professional development meeting, admissions officers talked about activities that stand out on an application and mentioned a student who was an aerial artist. That doesn’t mean you need to run out and sign up for trapeze lessons. What matters is finding something you enjoy doing.

Last summer, a student who had already taken the basic psychology course offered at his high school signed up for a summer class in social psychology at a nearby university. His excitement about the subject impressed the professor, who asked him to help with a research project. While the student’s initial motivation was his intrinsic interest in the subject, and a desire to explore a potential college major, he ended up with great material for a college application essay. Admissions officers like to see genuine intellectual curiosity, and this student was able to demonstrate his love of psychology through his coursework and research experience. Despite the fact that his extracurricular activities were not particularly impressive, he will be attending one of the most selective universities in the country.

Admissions officers like to see long-term commitment and leadership. Leadership isn’t just being elected president of your school. It’s what you do with the position. One newly elected student council president had enjoyed volunteering at a center that provides services for people with disabilities, and he made it his goal to have the school do more service projects. His first act as president was to create a committee that assessed the needs in the community. But you don’t need an official position to demonstrate leadership. Persuading a group of friends to start an after school program for low-income elementary school kids shows that you can influence people in a positive way. Even more ambitious would be getting additional students involved and expanding the program to other communities.

Not every essay needs to impress admissions officers with a grand achievement. A student who loves cooking got together with his best friend every week to experiment with new dishes. He wrote a lovely essay about how they keep each other in check when one gets too carried away as they explore New Orleans Cajun cuisine with a Japanese fusion twist.

The impact of coursework beyond the high school curriculum or ambitious service projects depends on the college and on the student. It can be both frustrating and comforting to realize that there isn’t one clear path to an offer of admission. Evidence of intellectual curiosity and impact on your school or community is more important at highly selective colleges. But these factors only come into play when a student has an excellent academic record, and the strongest essays won’t overcome an unimpressive transcript and mediocre test scores. While rising seniors can use the summer to get a head start on application essays, younger students who have struggled in school might spend part of the summer brushing up on their most challenging subjects and developing study skills so that they are prepared for a successful school year.

Finances and Final Decisions

College have made their decisions, and once the initial euphoria or despair passes, high school seniors need to evaluate their options. They have until May 1 to make their final decisions, and with student debt reaching one trillion dollars, cost has become the primary factor for many families.

Financial aid packages are often disappointing. Even if your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is $30,000 and the cost of attending a college is $65,000, that doesn’t mean you will receive $35,000 in grants to cover the difference. Aid packages generally are a mix of grants, loans and work-study employment, except for a few wealthy institutions that are able to provide packages that do not include loans. Private colleges that ask for the CSS Profile form in addition to the FAFSA will use institutional methodology in awarding non-federal aid. This can result in a higher family contribution.

Then there is the fact that most colleges do not have the resources to meet full financial need. There can be a substantial gap between the student’s demonstrated need and the aid package. And they don’t necessarily allocate those resources equally. Many colleges use preferential packaging, offering the best aid packages to the students they don’t want to lose to another school.

It is possible to appeal a financial aid package. If a parent has lost a job or there is some other change in a family’s financial situation, financial aid officers can use professional judgment to increase an award.

Some parents try to negotiate an increase in a merit scholarship, and that is less likely to be successful, especially at more selective colleges that don’t need to worry as much about filling the freshman class. It doesn’t hurt to ask as there are cases where an award is increased, especially at schools that may be struggling to meet enrollment targets.

Whatever you are asking for, it’s important to be honest, respectful, and courteous. While admissions and financial aid officers do want the students they admit to enroll at the college, like most people, they don’t respond well to threats or manipulation. If a parent calls and says that other colleges are offering more money and this school needs to come up with a better package or his son will go elsewhere, he may be told that he should do just that.

Even if you can afford to pay full fare at an expensive college, you may be wondering if it is worth the cost. As competition for admission to the most selective schools has become more intense, many high-achieving students have been turned away. Those students have gone to other colleges and raised the quality of schools that might previously not have attracted such strong students. This means there are more excellent colleges out there, and unlike the most selective schools, many of them offer merit scholarships.

Some families are concerned that attending a less prestigious college will mean fewer job opportunities. This is a real concern and admitted students and their parents should use the next few weeks to do more research. If you will be visiting the school, go to the career services office and ask for list of companies recruiting on campus this spring. Ask where recent graduates are working or attending graduate school. You might also want to talk to graduating seniors and ask how satisfied they are with the career services, and whether the school helped them get internships as well as job offers. How happy are they with the education they received at the college? Did financial aid keep pace with the increase in costs over the four years or are they graduating with significant debt? If they had it to do over, would they choose this college again?

Younger students who will be going through this process in the next few years can learn from older siblings and friends. Seeing someone receive a merit scholarship worth $15,000 or $20,000 a year can be very motivating. Freshmen and sophomores have time to improve their academic record and juniors can still make sure their college list includes schools that offer merit-based aid and where they are in the top quarter of the applicant pool.

Preferential packaging means having a strong academic record is also important in securing the best need-based financial aid package. All of this means if you work hard and earn excellent grades and test scores, there could be a real payoff. If you spent 40 hours preparing for the SAT, and that effort resulted in a $10,000 a year scholarship, which would add up to $40,000 over four years, you would have earned $1,000 an hour. Even the best babysitting gig doesn’t pay that kind of money.



Visiting Colleges During Spring Break

Spring break will be coming up soon and that’s the perfect time for a college tour since colleges are usually on a different vacation schedule.  You will have the opportunity to see the students and get a feel for the atmosphere on campus.

The more colleges you visit, the better you get at evaluating whether the school is a match.  That’s why I suggest starting with local colleges, even if they’re not on a student’s list.  After visiting a few schools, you’ll know what to look for and will be in a better position to assess what you’re seeing.

On college trips, it’s hard to resist the temptation to see as many schools as possible.  But visiting more than two schools a day becomes a frantic rush from one college to the next, with no time to fully experience each school.  Plan on spending at least three or four hours on campus so you have time for a tour, information session and a meal in the dining hall.  When possible, it’s also helpful for parents to give students a little time to experience the campus on their own.

Sitting in on a class is something few students do, but it’s a great opportunity to get a sense of academic life on campus.  If you plan to major in psychology, you might sit in on a psychology class at each college.  You’ll see if students are engaged in discussion or sleeping through a boring lecture.  You can also ask students about other professors in the department.  Great teachers who are excited about working with undergraduates can transform a student’s life.

Many colleges list tours and information sessions on their website, and often you can just show up, but it’s a good idea to call the admissions office and let them know you’re coming, especially during the busy spring season, and definitely if you want to sit in on a class.  Be sure to sign in when you arrive so that they know you were there.  This is important at colleges that track demonstrated interest.

While student tour guides are very knowledgeable and will usually answer questions honestly, they’re also likely to put the most positive spin on the school.  That’s why it’s important to talk to other students on campus.  All of these students have gone through the college admission process in the last few years, and most are happy to share their wisdom.  I always ask students what has been their best experience at the college.  How has the school met their expectations or disappointed them? What kind of person is a good fit for this college?  What are their three favorite things about the school and what are three things they wish were different?  If you know your major, you might want to ask about the reputation of that department.

You also want to know if students have trouble getting courses they want.  While a student might expect to be shut out of popular classes at a large state university, it can also happen at small colleges that are committed to keeping classes small.  Get a feel for the intellectual climate by asking what the best classes are and how much time students spend studying.  It’s also important to get a sense of what they do for fun.  I like to ask students what they did last weekend.  Check bulletin boards and pick up a school newspaper to see what lectures, concerts, and club meetings are scheduled.

Look at the people.  What kind of community is this?  Do you see groups of students talking or are most people walking alone?  Do students look anxious and stressed, or like they’re enjoying life?

Be sure to check out the surrounding community.  Can you walk to a movie theater and market?  If not, how far is the nearest town?

For a prospective student, ultimately it comes down to a gut reaction.  Do you feel excited being on this campus?  Can you see yourself walking to class, hanging out with these people, being part of this community?  If you feel good about yourself while you’re visiting this college, if you see people you’d like to get to know, you’re that much closer to making a good match.

So Many College Applications, So Little Time

Early application results are coming in daily, and my students who have been admitted to Boston College, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Occidental, Princeton, Rice, Tulane and University of Chicago are now able to enjoy a relaxing winter break.  This is one of the rewards of applying early.

Students who still have five or more applications to complete by January 1 won’t have such a relaxing break. Some students need the adrenaline rush of a tight deadline to perform at their best.  Others have been avoiding their college applications because of fear. There is fear of failure.  If I don’t finish the applications, I won’t get rejected. And fear of success. If I’m accepted, I have to leave home and everyone I know.

Whatever the reasons for the procrastination, at this point, students who have not worked on college applications are likely to feel overwhelmed.  The best way to deal with that feeling is to make a plan, with small, attainable goals every day.

Organization is crucial, especially when you are working with tight deadlines.  The first step is making a list of all the application tasks you need to complete.  Start with the things that are easy to do, like sending test scores and filling out the basic information in the Common Application.  Finishing just one task will give you a feeling of accomplishment and begin to generate a sense of momentum.  Once you are working and getting things done, the anxiety will dissipate.

Create your own deadline for each application, and make a detailed daily schedule, with time allotted for all the tasks you will complete each day.  Knowing that you will work on your activity list for the Common Application from 9:00 to 10:00, and your NYU supplement from 10 to 11:30 gives you a structure.  You won’t waste time thinking about what to do next if you have a detailed schedule.

Essays are the most time-consuming part of college applications.  Print out all the essay prompts so that you can see where you will be able to recycle or modify essays.  You may not need to write as many essays as you think.  Break the essay writing process down into manageable parts.  First task is to brainstorm a list of ideas for the essay prompt.  Next, choose one or two ideas that seem promising and flesh them out a bit.  Choose the idea that you are most excited about writing, as your enthusiasm will propel you through the work and make the essay more interesting for admissions officers.  If the prospect of writing a full draft is intimidating, try brainstorming the ideas you want to include in the essay, and then put those thoughts into a logical order, perhaps in bullet points.  Once you have those bullet points, it should be easy to expand them into sentences and paragraphs, and you have your first draft.

Some students are paralyzed by the fear of perfection.  Remember that the first draft is not supposed to be perfect.  The goal is just to get your ideas on paper.  Essays take shape in the rewriting process.  But for now, put your first draft aside and go through the same process for the next essay.  Then you can go back and rewrite your first essay.  Most essays require at least three or four drafts.  That may sound impossible when you don’t have much time, but the first draft is the most time-consuming.  Subsequent drafts go much more quickly.

You want to submit the strongest applications.  Focusing on the task is crucial.  That means eliminating all distractions.  No video games, Instagram or texting while you are working.  This is a huge challenge for most students, who believe they can multi-task.  You probably don’t do it as well as you think.  Make sure you have a quiet, uncluttered space for working on applications.  Put the phone in another room. You can check it when you break for lunch.

Getting started is the hardest part.  You will pick up momentum as you work.  Remember that this will be over in a few weeks.  Think about how great it will feel to have all your college applications done.

Keep Working On Applications While Waiting For Early Decisions

Many students are anxiously awaiting the results of their early applications before they invest time in other applications.  This is a big mistake.  If students are deferred or rejected from their early application schools, they need to be ready to submit their strongest applications to other colleges.

That’s why it’s important to keep working throughout November and December.  Getting a rejection in mid-December can be a crushing disappointment, and it is very hard to recover from that emotional blow and do your best work on seven other applications when you have just two weeks till the early January deadlines.  While it may be difficult to push yourself to work on applications while you’re waiting to get into your favorite college, it will be much harder after a rejection.  If you have finished your other applications and you are denied or deferred by your early school, you will be very relieved that your applications are ready to submit.  Best case scenario is that you are accepted at your early school, and in that case you will be so excited that you won’t care about the unnecessary work you did on other applications.

Students who did not submit early applications really have no reason to wait, and if they haven’t completed an application yet, it’s especially important to get started.  In addition to writing essays, you need to complete the activities/community service/work experience section, and you want to write those descriptions concisely and accurately.  Admissions officers appreciate an application that is clear and easy to read.  Print out the application so you can proofread it.  You may find that some of your activity descriptions are cut off, requiring you to rewrite them.  All of this takes time.  Add the stress of rushing to finish seven supplements in the last few days and you are more likely to make mistakes.  You also risk your computer or the server crashing, or a winter storm that knocks out your electricity right before the application deadline.

Remember that with the Common Application you need to submit the application, supplement and payment separately.  Students sometimes think that once they submit payment, the application automatically follows.  Since it can take up to 48 hours for your payment to be processed, waiting until the day of a deadline means your application might not be submitted in time.  Check the My Colleges page to confirm that your applications have been submitted.  You can also see if your counselor and teacher have submitted their forms.

If you have questions as you’re working on the Common Application, the “Help” button at the top of the Common Application will take you to the Applicant Support Center.  If you don’t find the answer to your question there, you can contact technical support.

What Seniors Should Be Doing Now

While some seniors are immersed in application essays, others still need to finalize their college list. Wherever you are in the process, you want to continue learning about colleges so that you can prepare your strongest applications.

Admissions officers will be offering local information sessions and visiting high schools throughout the fall. Check with your school’s college counseling center for a schedule of college visits.  Prepare questions to ask about the college, ask for a business card and follow up with an email thanking the admissions officer for visiting. It’s also a good idea to mention something the representative told you about the college that resonated with you.

Many colleges have special programs for prospective freshmen during the fall, so if you haven’t visited the schools on your list, you might want to plan on seeing some of them in the next couple months. If you can sit in on a class or two, even spend the night in a dorm, you’ll know if it’s a place you can really see yourself. Visiting a college can also enhance your application, as you are demonstrating interest, and you’ll be knowledgeable enough to write a more compelling “Why are you applying to our school?” supplemental essay.

Some colleges have changed early application options this year. A number of schools have established earlier deadlines, which allows more time for admissions officers to review applications. Being able to notify students earlier can also help win over students who may invest emotionally in that college before hearing from other schools.

A number of schools have earlier deadlines for scholarships or honors programs. For example, University of Southern California has a January 15 application deadline, but if you want to be considered for scholarships or certain programs including performing arts, you need to apply by December 1. Some public universities have November 1 priority deadlines for scholarship or honors program consideration.

Check with each college on your list to make sure you have accurate information about application and financial aid deadlines.

If you plan to submit early applications, it’s especially important to get started on your essays so that you have time to complete several drafts. You need to build time into your schedule for weeks when you have too much schoolwork to even look at a college application.

If you are applying to Common App or Coalition App schools, or other colleges that require teacher recommendations, be sure to ask your teacher in the next few weeks, especially if you need the letter for a November 1 early application deadline.

A calendar with all of your deadlines will be extremely helpful. Include registration deadlines and test dates for any final SAT, ACT or Subject Tests. In addition to official application deadlines for each college, create your own deadline for each application at least a week or two before the real deadline.

You are more likely to make mistakes if you’re racing against the clock when proofreading an application. If that’s not enough to motivate you to finish your applications early, how about the fact that some schools require you to pay the application fee before you can submit the application? Since it can take a day or two to process your credit card payment, this is not something you want to be doing five minutes before midnight on the deadline date.

Most private colleges, and some public universities, will ask for a midyear report, which includes your fall semester grades. This will be the final piece of the application, and you want your grades to be as strong as possible.

You can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) beginning October 1, and you can learn about the financial aid process at If you plan to apply for scholarships not awarded directly by colleges, be sure to register with or another scholarship search engine.

Make a schedule for application tasks so that you know exactly what you need to do each week. This process will be much less stressful if you start now and pace yourself.

Demonstrating Love of Learning sets Students Apart on College Apps

How will you benefit from attending our college? What will you contribute to our college? While you may not see these questions on college applications, if you have answered them in your applications, you will be setting yourself apart from other applicants and making a persuasive case for your admission.

Students sometimes lose sight of the fact that colleges are academic institutions, and they are looking for people who love to learn. Someone whose idea of fun is discussing Kant’s moral philosophy will take full advantage of the opportunities for intellectual engagement in college. When admissions officers read an application from a student who has demonstrated this kind of love of learning by pursuing opportunities beyond her high school classroom, they know she will benefit from attending their school.

Many students have taken years of piano lessons, but one of my students is so passionate about music that she also led monthly workshops to study composers, because she believed that learning about their personal history would help her understand their music. She attended music festivals and entered competitions, where she embraced new musical perspectives. She wrote poetically about her love of music, and was accepted at several highly selective colleges because admissions officers understood that she will be committed to learning from professors and peers.

Admissions officers make assumptions about what you will contribute to their college based on what you have contributed to your high school or community. The more selective the college, the greater the impact your contribution needs to have in order to stand out. While tutoring children in a shelter for homeless families is certainly a valuable contribution, organizing a program to match every child with a mentor, recruiting other students to participate, and expanding that program to other shelters would have the kind of impact that stands out.

If the activities you pursue have a theme, you can focus your application on that theme, which helps admissions officers get a clear picture of your values and interests. When an aspiring anthropologist has volunteered every Saturday at a museum, taken anthropology classes at community college, and spent a summer on an archaeological dig, he will be able to put together a cohesive and compelling application.

But not everyone has a defining intellectual or career interest, and students shouldn’t feel pressured to choose one area to pursue in depth just because it will look good on applications. In fact, balancing a scientific or technical side with an interest in something artistic is another way to stand out. A young woman who loves science and wants to major in physics, but also writes poetry that she reads at a local coffeehouse would be very interesting to admissions officers.

Summer is a good time to explore your interests by getting involved in community service or research opportunities. If you can’t find an established program, try creating your own.

For example, a student who is on his school’s basketball team might combine his love of the sport with community service by volunteering to coach or organizing a program for children at a recreation center.

One of my students found a scientist who was doing research that sounded interesting, so she arranged to meet him. She ended up volunteering in the lab and enjoyed it so much that after spending much of the summer there, she decided to continue volunteering during the school year.

Find something you love to do and any impact it may have on your college applications will just be a bonus.

What It Takes To Get Into the Most Selective Colleges

Every year, when admission decisions are released by the most selective schools in the country, thousands of high-achieving students are disappointed and wondering why they were rejected after working so hard throughout high school.

Unless you work in college admission, it is difficult to understand the level of competition. There are thousands of applicants who have 10 or more AP courses, straight A grades, and SAT scores above 1400. When it comes to Ivies and similarly competitive schools, it’s not enough to be valedictorian, varsity athlete, and editor of the school paper.

When I look at the students who are admitted to the most selective colleges, what they have in common is a genuine intellectual passion. It’s more than taking the most rigorous curriculum offered at their high school. These students take the initiative to learn about subjects that fascinate them.

Several years ago, a student told me the highlight of his weekend was reading Scientific American in bed on Sunday morning. He loved science and politics, and especially enjoyed discussing how one impacts the other. Most high school students, even if they take loads of AP classes and earn top grades, just do not spend their time outside of school thinking about how a decrease in the rate of population growth will lead to an aging work force and smaller industrial base, and how we can deal with the ramifications. In his first semester of Stanford, this student met with one of his professors every week because he couldn’t get enough of their discussion about contemporary African politics.

Another student who was accepted at MIT found a summer internship at a major research facility while in high school. He sought out experts in his field of interest and attended their lectures, because he was truly excited to learn everything he could about astrophysics. He even wrote a science fiction novel during summer vacations, creating a model of the solar system in his bedroom while doing research for the book.

What set these students apart from all the others who also had a long list of AP courses, perfect grades, incredibly high test scores and a slew of extracurricular activities, is their real excitement about a subject and the initiative they demonstrated in finding ways to deepen their knowledge. These students would take AP and college classes even if they weren’t important for college applications. They just love learning.

The other common thread I see in students who are admitted to the most competitive colleges is that they have had an impact while in high school, and are likely to have a real impact not just at their college, but in the world. Of course, the vast majority of students who graduate from elite colleges will not be political leaders, Pulitzer Prize winning writers or scientists who change the world, but looking like you have that potential surely helps when you apply to these schools.

There will also be plenty of graduates of less selective colleges who will make major contributions to the world, and even more who will have happy and productive lives. If you are one of the thousands of disappointed seniors wondering why you worked so hard in high school, know that the work ethic, motivation and self-discipline you developed will serve you well in college and in life. Your commitment to achieving your goals is clearly reflected in the success you have had in high school and no college rejection changes that. The fact that you applied to the most selective colleges means you are driven to excel, and that drive will enable you to continue to be successful at whatever college you attend.

Students who will be applying to highly selective colleges in the next few years may be up against similarly low admit rates, so expanding their list of “good” colleges can save a lot of grief. Whenever I meet a student who plans to apply to the most competitive colleges, I share the story of the young woman who attended a public university in her home state. She was admitted to several highly selective colleges, but was not ready to venture far from home. So after a few moments of wondering whether she would regret giving up the opportunity to attend a more prestigious school, she accepted a full ride scholarship at the public university, where she was a top student in the honors program and also found time to have some fun. She is graduating from Harvard Law School next month and has said she is very glad she did not attend an Ivy League school as an undergraduate. She enjoyed being at the top of the class in college, and she received the most glowing recommendations from her professors, which she might not have gotten at a more selective school. After four years of building her academic confidence, she felt ready to take on the intense, competitive environment at Harvard. She was also able to use her college savings account for law school and is graduating with no debt. That’s what I call smart.

Colleges Use Personal Applications to Increase Application Numbers

A few weeks ago, one of my students called to tell me the good news. She was so excited about getting a personal invitation to apply to a college she had thought was out of her league. The school was waiving the application fee and making it very easy to apply. The student’s parents were pleased that admissions officers at this fine school were recruiting their daughter and perhaps wondering why I had not suggested she apply to this school. I tried to gently explain that the flattering letter from an admissions dean does not mean the student will be admitted, but the expectation has been created, and since the family would rather believe an offer of admission will follow, the student has been set up for a big disappointment.

Many colleges buy names of students from the College Board as early as sophomore year. While students may think they have been identified as strong candidates for admission, the schools are likely to cast a wide net. That “distinguished scholar” or “fast track” application could be sent to more than 100,000 students. It’s a cruel game, like the most popular guy on campus flirting with all the girls and leading them to think he’s interested, because he enjoys the ego boost. But for colleges, the rewards are more than psychological. Generating more applications is important because it means the school will accept a lower percentage, and the school is then seen as more selective and desirable. Alumni and other donors are impressed, and often decide that the increasing selectivity is evidence of the school’s quality, resulting in more generous donations. Being seen as more selective can also help a college recruit top faculty.

Admissions officers are under pressure to improve the numbers every year. Thanks to the Baby Boomers, the number of students graduating high school and applying to college was increasing every year, but as that growth leveled off, predictions of fewer prospective students, especially in certain parts of the country, led colleges to expand their recruiting efforts. Also contributing to the rise in applications at wealthy, highly selective schools are new, generous financial aid programs designed to recruit more middle and low income students. In addition to putting more resources into recruiting students from around the country, many colleges are now recruiting internationally. So even though the number of American students graduating high school may have peaked, there are plenty of students from other countries to keep application numbers up.

Larger applicant pools do not mean a college will select better students they admitted last year. There are already thousands of students with top grades and scores, as well as impressive extracurricular accomplishments, applying to these colleges. Admissions deans at highly selective schools acknowledge the fact that the majority of students applying are well-qualified. So when more students apply to these schools, the quality of the freshman class is unlikely to change. But more of these excellent students will be rejected.

While it’s bad enough that students will be feel disappointed and manipulated when these flattering invitations turn out to have been nothing but a cynical attempt to inflate application numbers, the worst part is that students who believed they would be admitted to these schools often don’t apply to schools that they perceive as less selective and therefore not as good. They miss out on opportunities to attend other excellent schools and can end up without any appealing college options.

It’s easy to understand why students would respond to these personal applications. With no application fee and often no essay to write, what do you have to lose? While the colleges may be cynically encouraging applications from students they have no intention of admitting, students are playing their own game when they apply to colleges they have no intention of attending, either because the competition has them so fearful they add a lot of “safe” schools just to be sure, or because they want to rack up admission offers. When a college is inundated with applications from students who may not be seriously interested in the school, the admissions staff will feel pressure to generate more applications to ensure sufficient enrollment, and will look at demonstrated interest to try to figure out which students are likely to matriculate. Students then feel pressure demonstrate interest in schools they really are not interested in because they are afraid of being wait-listed or rejected for not showing interest. Uncertainty and fear on both sides leads to increasing manipulation and it’s hard to see where this will end.

Students can avoid getting caught up in the “priority” application game by choosing to apply to the schools they know are good matches. If you get a letter telling you that you were selected because of your outstanding qualifications, and your grade point average and test scores are well below the average at that school, understand that the flattering words may feel wonderful, but if you allow yourself to be seduced into thinking you’re the one, you could be in for a rejection. If you can’t resist the easy application, know that it might get as little consideration as the effort you are putting into it, so don’t invest emotionally until you get a commitment.

Choose Your Highly Likely Colleges Carefully

One of my students recently told me she had her “safe” schools, and she tossed off the names of a couple universities where she will easily be admitted. But she hadn’t visited or researched the schools, and she couldn’t tell me one thing she liked about either school. She also did not want to discuss them. It was almost as if talking about the schools meant she could actually end up going to one of them. When she said she’d rather concentrate on the colleges she really likes, I told her she should really like her “safe” schools, and perhaps the first step was to call them “highly likely” rather than safe, since we tend to devalue things that come too easily.

The biggest problem with not having any interest in the colleges that are most likely to admit you is that when April comes around, those schools could be your only options, especially if most of your applications are to “reach” schools. If you haven’t applied to at least one or two schools that are both accessible and a good fit, you could end up without any appealing choices. You may feel stressed now, but imagine how you’ll feel in six months if your only option is a school that you never took seriously.

So choose your highly likely schools carefully. The only reason to apply to a college is if you would be willing to attend that school. You need to spend as much time on the schools that are likely to admit you as you do on the schools that are likely to reject you. Start by identifying the characteristics you like about your favorite colleges. Whether you’re looking for a certain academic program, internship opportunities, big sports and school spirit, active Greek life or an urban location, you can find these things at schools where you will be admitted. You just need to be open to the many wonderful possibilities.

It’s not always easy to figure out whether a college is a highly likely admit, partly because your chances can actually change from one year to the next. If a school enrolls a bigger than anticipated freshman class, it may admit fewer students the next year and your admission prospects may move from highly likely to possible. If a public university has funding cuts, it may be more selective and no longer a highly likely admit. Then again, if you are a nonresident student applying to that public university, the need for out of state tuition dollars might make it a highly likely admit for you.

In general, you can get an idea of your chances by looking at a school’s freshman profile. Instead of reporting an average SAT score or grade point average, many colleges report a 25 – 75 percent range, meaning that 25 percent of admitted (or sometimes matriculated) students are below that range, 50 percent are within the range, and 25 percent are above the range. When your GPA and test scores are above the 75th percentile, at most colleges this means you are highly likely to be admitted, because while many colleges look at extracurricular activities, recommendations and essays, your academic record is much more important.

But you cannot assume anything at very selective schools. If you are applying to the Ivies, Stanford, Tufts, Duke, or any school where the acceptance rate is below 20%, even if your grades and scores are at the upper end of the applicant pool, you need to consider the school a reach. At these schools, a stellar academic record is just the first step in the competition for a place in the freshman class.

It’s understandable that many high school students are more concerned than ever with getting into the “best” college. They want to know that they will have good job prospects in the future. And their parents would rather spend the money on a school they perceive as securing their children’s future.

But there are advantages to “highly likely” schools. You might get a merit scholarship that would bring the cost down considerably. If you are one of the stronger students at your college, you may have a better chance of earning top grades, especially in science classes where exams can be graded on a curve, and that can be important for pre-med students. One student who ended up at her highly likely school was initially disappointed that she wouldn’t have the prestige of an Ivy, but she got an excellent education, made good friends, built her confidence when professors recognized her as one of their brightest students, graduated with no debt because of the scholarship she’d received, and will soon graduate from an Ivy League law school.

If you have carefully chosen your highly likely schools, they will be colleges where you can be just as happy as you would be at the more selective schools. If you do end up at one of these schools, the sting of rejection by your first choice school will pass quickly. Once you are on campus, you will find other interesting students and get involved in campus life, and the prestige factor will be much less important than the great experiences you are having.

College App Essays That Try Too Hard to Please Admissions Officers

Recently, the mother of one of my students asked why her son was having a hard time with his college application essays. My response was that he was trying too hard to please the reader. It’s understandable that when there is so much competition for admission to selective colleges, students would be especially eager to write what they think admissions officers want to read. Unfortunately, the reaction they are likely to evoke is exactly the opposite of what they want.

Students often think they need to impress the reader with their accomplishments. Well-meaning parents or friends may tell them that this isn’t the time to be modest. But you don’t want to come across as bragging. Confidence is appealing, arrogance is off-putting. If a student writes that a project to raise money for a new children’s playground would not have been completed without her, admissions officers are likely to decide that their freshman class will be quite complete without her.

It is important to convey what you will bring to a college community without alienating the reader. One student wrote that he is far too humble to try to be the center of attention, not realizing that praising himself for being humble doesn’t make him sound very humble. He is a genuinely modest person but had been told that if he didn’t sound confident in the essay, he would be at a competitive disadvantage. What he meant to communicate in the essay was that he is a reserved person who feels uncomfortable in the limelight, and so he learned to become an attentive listener, which has enabled him to work collaboratively with others and serve as a mediator during conflicts.

There is no need to tell the reader that you have certain qualities. It is much more effective to share an anecdote that illustrates those qualities. Give the facts and allow the reader to come to the conclusion that you are a leader or an exceptionally creative person.

If students sometimes try too hard to impress in their main application essay, they can really go overboard in the “Why are you applying to our college?” essay. You see this prompt on a lot of Common Application supplements, and it can be more challenging than the longer essay because it is tough to respond in a way that doesn’t come across as sucking up.

It may be a shorter piece, but this essay can be as important as the long application essay. Admissions officers at some schools believe the response to this question tells them how much effort a student has put into getting to know the school and whether she is a serious applicant who is likely to matriculate. A student who has researched a college and knows it’s the right place for her is also less likely to transfer or drop out, and that means a higher retention rate for the school. While some students use this essay as an opportunity to demonstrate fake interest in a school, they usually end up with a generic answer that won’t enhance their application. For students who are genuinely interested in a college, the process of answering this question helps them assess whether the school is a good fit and enables them to write a meaningful response. Some admissions officers actually pay extra attention to this essay or to other short essays, because students are less likely to get help on them, so they may be seen as more representative of the student’s writing skills.

When responding to the “why our college” prompt, in addition to writing what they think admission officers want to read, most students tell admissions officers what they already know. They are aware that their college has a reputation for educational excellence. They know the low student-teacher ratio and the great internship opportunities. This is the kind of essay that sounds it was lifted from a school’s viewbook or website.

You need to use this essay to show that you and this school are a perfect match, and flattery is not the best way to do that. Telling a school that it is respected will get you no respect. Instead, think about your interests, strengths and goals, and look for how they mesh with those of the school. If one school’s mission statement talks the importance of the life of the mind and another stresses its commitment to preparing students for the job market, you get a sense of the different approaches each college has to education. You may realize that one school is a much better fit for you. Taking the time to review course offerings in the catalog, and reading up on professors, research opportunities, and student organizations will help you make sure you are applying to schools that are truly good matches. Instead of trying too hard to win over admissions officers, you will be able to make a compelling case for admission, in a matter of fact way that is ultimately much more effective.

Demonstrated Interest Helps With College Admission

If you are a girl, hoping a boy will ask you to go to the prom, you need to give him a clue that you are likely to accept his invitation or he may not want to risk asking you. If you find out he really wants to go with another girl but is asking you because she’s out of his league and he’ll drop you if it turns out she is available, the self-respecting response would be to turn him down.

Colleges don’t like rejection any more than students do. This is why applying Early Decision can boost a student’s prospects for admission. It’s also why demonstrated interest has become a factor in admission decisions at many schools. If you submit an application but have had no contact with the college, admissions officers will wonder if you are serious about their school. It’s like if a guy who’s always ignored you suddenly asks you out. You could be pleasantly surprised that he likes you, but you might also question his motives.

Nobody wants to risk disappointment. Students often ask whether they can apply to colleges now and then visit the schools in the spring, after they have received admission decisions. They don’t want to fall in love with colleges that may turn them down. The problem is that if you don’t visit a school, especially one that is within easy driving distance, and if you don’t find other ways to demonstrate interest, you may end up with the disappointment you are trying to avoid, when you are wait-listed because admissions officers think your intentions are not serious.

The Common Application makes it easy for students to apply to more colleges. When a college joins the Common Application, it typically gets a boost in applications. Many colleges benefit from the increase in applications, as they can then admit fewer students and be seen as more selective and desirable. The downside for colleges is that they receive frivolous applications from students who are applying because it’s easy, they are worried they won’t get into their favorite colleges and they want to be sure to have choices in the spring. But colleges won’t look so desirable if their yield, or the number of students who accept an admission offer, is low. So admissions officers look for evidence that you are truly interested in their school. A well-qualified student who is not seen as likely to matriculate may end up wait-listed so that the school isn’t wasting an offer and risking a lower yield.

Many colleges track prospective applicants, noting every contact with the admissions office. They also know whether you open the email they send you, as well as how much time you spend on their website, including which parts of the website you visit (academics, student life, virtual tour, etc).

That doesn’t mean you should start emailing the admissions office at Harvard every week. The Ivies and other elite schools don’t need to be reassured that you really like them. Most public universities also don’t consider demonstrated interest in admission decisions. But for schools that not super-selective, attending a local reception, meeting the admissions officer who visits your high school, and having an interview can boost your prospects for admission. I’m not suggesting you declare your undying love for a school you really don’t want to attend. That kind of cynical manipulation is dishonest. But when you make a genuine effort to learn about a school, by spending time on the website, engaging in conversation with admissions officers, or visiting the college, you are demonstrating interest as well as making sure the school is a good match and preparing to make your best case in the application.

Even though the most selective schools do not track every contact you have with the college, admissions officers will be evaluating whether you are a good fit for the school. I recently attended a counselor conference at a highly selective university. Every year, before admissions officers begin reading applications, they have a three day retreat, where they discuss the mission of the university. If admissions officers are concerned with the mission of the school, you should be too. Read the mission statement and think about how your goals and values align with those of a college before you complete an application for that school. Clarifying your interests and goals will help you make sure that school is right for you, as well as enable you to tailor your application to that school, and that is how you demonstrate your genuine interest.

If your goal is to study engineering but you also love dance, and you have spent many hours tutoring children in an after-school program, when you find a school that offers these programs, you can make a compelling case for admission. If you have researched University of Southern California, you will know that the school makes it possible for engineering students to minor in dance, and that the Joint Educational Project (JEP) offers volunteer opportunities in local schools. Citing these reasons for applying to USC will set you apart from the thousands of students who write about the University’s outstanding educational opportunities in an exciting urban environment.

Some students think they just need to attend an information session or visit a college campus and they have demonstrated their interest, but the time and thought you put into the application is the most important way to show that are a serious candidate. When you provide specific reasons that you and a school are a match, and give evidence that you will benefit from and contribute to that college community, you make a compelling case for admission.

How Many College Applications and When Should I Submit Them?

One question I hear every week is “How many colleges should I apply to?”  I wish I could give families a definite answer, but there’s not one right number. I have had students apply to as few as three or four colleges, when the schools they are most excited about also happen to be schools where they are highly likely to be admitted.

I do think it’s important to apply to more than one college, because even if you know you will get into your favorite school, your preferences and your family’s financial situation could change during the year, and you want to be sure to have choices in the spring. But some students and parents get nervous if they haven’t submitted at least twelve applications, especially when they hear about other students who are applying to 15 or more schools. The anxiety and feeling of competition leads them to apply to additional colleges that they are not seriously considering, resulting in extra work for students and admissions officers, hundreds of dollars in unnecessary application fees, and more stress for everyone.

Some students want to apply to the most selective schools in the country and think that they will improve their chances of being admitted to one of them by applying to all of them. While I have seen students admitted to one Ivy and not another, it doesn’t follow that the more schools you apply to, the more acceptances you will gather. It is very possible for good students to apply to 15 of the most selective schools and end up with 15 rejections. In fact, a student who might have been admitted to one of these schools could end up sabotaging her chances by rushing to complete so many applications that she doesn’t take the time to tailor each application to a particular college. It’s very difficult to prepare 15 excellent applications. You are better off focusing your energy and submitting fewer thoughtfully prepared applications.

While it is essential to include some highly likely schools, the exact ratio of reach to highly likely schools depends on a number of factors, including your tolerance for rejection. If you dread the prospect of numerous rejections, apply to more highly likely and 50/50 schools, with just one or two reach schools that you just have to try for because if you didn’t apply you would always wonder if you would have been admitted.

Once you have finalized your list of colleges, it’s time to make a schedule. Some students were rushing to submit the Common Application on August 1, the first day the application was available. But the college application process isn’t a race, and there is no advantage to submitting the first application. It is much more important to submit your best application, and that takes time. Essays often take shape in the third or fourth draft, and putting an essay aside for a week allows you to come back to it with fresh perspective.

Applying to college would be simpler if there was one deadline for all colleges. But each school sets its own application deadline, and many schools have more than one deadline. Some colleges offer Early Decision or Early Action, where students apply early, often by November, and receive a decision by late December. Early Decision is binding, so if the college accepts you, you are obligated to attend. If you apply Early Action, you can still apply to other schools and wait until the May 1 notification deadline to decide on a college.

But these aren’t the only deadlines. Some schools have earlier deadlines for students who are submitting an art portfolio or who need to schedule an audition for a music, theater or dance program. Some colleges have early deadlines, as well as additional applications, for scholarship consideration or for honors programs.

Many public and some private universities use rolling admission, and if you are applying to any of these schools, you might want to submit those applications before starting your other applications. You should get a decision within six to eight weeks, and having an acceptance before winter break makes for a much more pleasant holiday season for the whole family. Some of these schools also allow you to apply for housing once you have an acceptance, and that could mean getting your preferred housing choice.

Applying to college is a lot of work and pacing is crucial. Whether you use a chart, spreadsheet or other method, find a way to keep track of all the deadlines. It can also be helpful to give yourself a deadline a couple weeks before each school’s official deadline, so that you are sure to get the applications finished in time. This is a good project for students and parents to work on together. While students are ultimately responsible for completing their college applications, the amount of work can feel overwhelming, and if parents can help with the organizational tasks, that can make the process less stressful for everyone.


Creating Your College List

Fifteen years ago, parents would tell me they wanted their child to go to a college where they will be happy and get a good education. Now, affordability is one of the top concerns. High school seniors who are fine-tuning their college lists and juniors who are starting to create their lists need to be sure include schools that are realistic financially.

That doesn’t have to mean commuting to the nearest community college. There are private and public schools that offer merit scholarships to strong students, and these are usually renewable as long as the student maintains a certain grade point average at the college. If you are a strong student and will be applying for need-based aid, you can target schools that promise to meet full demonstrated need.

The cost of attendance is certainly important, but it’s not the only factor in putting together a college list. Attending the lowest cost school is not always the best option. If a student thrives in small classes with professors who take an interest in her education and would flounder in a big impersonal public university, the savings in tuition won’t mean much when she struggles academically or socially and doesn’t complete her degree.

Many of my colleagues no longer use the term “safety school” and that’s not just because the increasing competition has made predicting acceptances more difficult. Labeling a school “safe” or “fallback” is disparaging, and students can feel they are settling for an inferior school if they end up at one of their “safe” choices. But that’s just not true. If you don’t want to join a club that would have you as a member, you can miss out on some pretty great experiences. When your self-esteem hinges on an Ivy acceptance, you are going to suffer, because even if you are admitted to one of the most competitive schools in the country, the need for validation won’t end there, and that is a precarious way to go through life.

So how do you decide where to apply? Some students choose colleges based on an academic interest. If you want to study engineering or business, subjects that are not offered at every college, you need to make sure the school has a program. But if you plan to major in psychology or English, choosing a college based on the department is probably less important, especially at the undergraduate level. I do suggesting looking through the college catalog, which is usually available online, to see if the department offers enough interesting courses. If you visit a school, it’s a good idea to sit in on a class in your major and ask students what they think of the professors in the department. You might also want to find out how many professors are on staff and whether the department is hiring, as these facts tell you the program has the support of the school. But the quality of the major program is only one factor in choosing a college, and since students often change their major in college, making your decision about a school based solely on a program you might not even end up pursuing is not wise. When you are applying to graduate schools, the quality of a specific program may be the most important criteria. As a prospective undergraduate, you also want to consider quality of life issues.

I always ask students to list their three “must haves” so that they can focus on their most important criteria. If you love the outdoors and need to commune with nature on a daily basis, choosing a college in Colorado or Vermont might be ideal. But if weekend hiking or ski trips would provide enough access to the outdoors, you could also choose an urban school with an active outdoors club.

Preferences can change during senior year. One of my students only wanted to apply to colleges within driving distance. He hadn’t spent much time away from home and wanted to know he could come home on weekends. But he also wanted a traditional college experience, with big sports, school spirit and fraternities. Since there were very few colleges within 100 miles that offered the kind of college experience he wanted, he reluctantly agreed to apply to a few schools that were much farther away. When he finally visited Indiana University, he decided that getting on a plane was worth it if it meant going to a school that offered everything he wanted. Other students who are convinced they want the adventure of going across the country sometimes decide at the last minute that they really want to stay closer to home. So I urge students to include at least one school that is within driving distance as well as one that feels like an emotional stretch, because you don’t know how you’ll feel next year.

Understanding that financial situations and student preferences can change enables you to plan for those changes. If you make sure to apply to some affordable schools where you are likely to be admitted, you will have choices in April.

What to do This Summer to Get a Head Start on College Applications

Students who want to lower their stress level during senior year know that summer is the time to start working on college applications. The Common Application opens on August 1, but you the essay prompts won’t be changing, so there’s no need to wait until August to start working on essays. Some colleges will also make their supplemental essay questions available on their website before the Common Application is online.

In addition to working on essays, students should make a list of awards, extracurricular activities, and community service, so they will have all the information readily accessible once college applications are available.

The idea of writing application essays may seem overwhelming, especially to students who have just finished a junior year filled with SAT, ACT, Subject Tests, AP exams and final exams. It’s understandable that all you want to do is go to the beach and not think about anything related to college admission. Everyone needs a break, so go ahead and take a few weeks to relax.

But your college application process will be much less stressful if you get started during the summer. You’ll have time to work on your essays without trying to juggle homework and extracurricular activities at the same time. Essays take shape in the rewriting, so having enough time to do several drafts is crucial. Starting the essays during the summer means you can play around with different ideas and not worry about getting the perfect idea on your first day.

Before you start working on essays, you need to know where you want to apply. Make sure you have a solid college list, with at least one or two “highly likely” schools that you are excited about. It’s not enough to choose schools where you know you’ll be admitted. You have to be able to see yourself attending every school on your list.

If your SAT or ACT scores were disappointing, summer is a good time to do some additional test preparation before taking these exams again in the fall. You might also want to add a test-optional college or two to your list. Knowing that there are excellent schools that don’t require standardized test scores can help lower your anxiety when you take these tests. When you feel less anxious, you are more likely to do your best. Get a list of test-optional schools at Fairtest.

You need to have at least one financial safety school on your list, especially in an economy that is still unpredictable. This is the time for families to discuss any financial limitations, so that students don’t get too emotionally invested in colleges that cost more than what their parents are prepared to spend. Use the FAFSA4caster to get a preliminary estimate of your eligibility for need-based financial aid. If it looks like you won’t qualify for need-based aid, you may want to target colleges where you are likely to get merit-based scholarships.

In recent years, students have been applying to more colleges, because the increasing competition for admission is so anxiety-producing, and it may feel like you have better chances if you apply to more schools, though this is not always the case. If you choose wisely, there’s no need to apply to fifteen or twenty colleges. But if you are applying to a lot of schools, it’s even more important to start early so that you don’t end up trying to turn out eight essays in the week before application deadlines.

Be sure to register with each college, so that you will be notified of any local information sessions and receive important admission updates. You might also want to create a new email address to use for college applications, preferably something with your name, so that colleges can easily identify you. Get in the habit of checking email regularly, as that is how admissions offices will communicate with you, and you don’t want to miss a message saying that a college never received your SAT scores.

The process will be less overwhelming once you get organized. Make a chart of all the application tasks, so you know what needs to get done. Then you can make a schedule, with realistic deadlines for each essay draft. If you don’t give yourself enough time between essay drafts, you’ll start missing your self-imposed deadlines and then you feel like you’re losing control in this process. Too much time between drafts and you lose momentum. You want to set this up in a way that will enable you to produce quality work.

Having a solid application plan will enable you to get the work done in a low-stress way and still have time to enjoy some fun this summer.

College Choice for LGBTQ Students

It’s down to the wire for seniors who have a number of offers and still haven’t decided which college to attend. They may be getting phone calls from current students at the colleges that accepted them. If you are a prospective business major, you might be contacted by a student majoring in marketing who wants to tell you about the school’s great internship opportunities with local businesses. A saxophone player may get a call from a student in the jazz band. This kind of outreach has been done for years and helps prospective students feel connected to a college, which makes them more likely to enroll.

What’s new is that in addition to appealing to prospective students based on their interests, some colleges are identifying newly admitted students who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and letting them know that they will find a welcoming environment on campus. Times have changed, and there are many LGBTQ friendly colleges, but some campuses are more comfortable than others, and students need to make sure they are choosing a college where they will feel safe and accepted.

While college applications don’t typically ask about a student’s sexuality, some students write essays that indicate they are interested in LGBTQ issues, and they may receive information about a campus groups and resources.

One way to locate schools that provide a welcoming environment for LGBTQ students is to check the Campus Pride Index, which assesses the quality of life for LGBTQ students on more than 200 college campuses. Colleges receive up to five stars for overall campus climate, and for factors such as academic life, student life, housing, campus safety, recruitment and retention for LGBTQ students.

But don’t just rely on rankings to identify LGBTQ-friendly colleges. You can look through a school’s catalogue (available on the website) for courses with LGBTQ themes. When you visit the campus, you can also stop by the LGBTQ resource center, if there is one. A large LGBTQ-friendly university may have a resource center with paid staff and support groups. A small college may not have a designated center on campus, but should have a student organization that provides social activities and other campus events. Check the student life section of the school’s website for a list of student organizations, and contact the LGBTQ organizations to learn more about campus life. If there isn’t an LGBTQ organization on campus, the school might not be LGBTQ-friendly. In addition to researching the environment on campus, you need to check out the town. Is there an active LGBTQ community in the area, with LGBTQ-friendly businesses?

While it is important for LGBTQ students to find a college that provides a safe and welcoming environment, they also need to make sure the college meets their other criteria. If you know you want to study creative writing, an LGBTQ-friendly college that has no creative writing courses would not be the right school.

At the LGBTQ-Friendly National College Fair, students and parents can talk to representatives from colleges around the country.  The more important you have about prospective colleges, the better.

Studying Abroad in College

In the past few weeks, at least five students have asked me about colleges that offer study abroad programs. It’s not surprising, since interest in study abroad has grown in recent years. The opportunity to live and study in a foreign country is seen by students and parents as not just a fun part of college, but necessary preparation for working in a global economy.

In fact, study abroad is considered so valuable that Goucher College actually requires students to go abroad before graduating. Students can also do internships abroad to meet the requirement. In addition to semester or year-long programs, students can choose a three week intensive program abroad.

Other colleges are also offering more study abroad options as students demand experiences that go beyond the traditional year in Europe. In the past, students would spend junior year abroad, often studying the language of the country they were visiting. The trend is for shorter stays, with courses offered in English. Semester and summer programs have become very popular. At colleges that have a one month January term, professors may take a group of students to study theater in London or to study the rainforest in Latin America. One advantage of the short-term programs is that students can go on several study abroad trips while in college. Students who are studying engineering or preparing for medical school also may find the short-term programs easier to incorporate into their curriculum. The disadvantage of a brief study abroad program is you miss out on the total immersion in a culture that is only possible when you live in a country for an extended time.

Britain has long been a popular choice for study abroad as there is no language barrier. Australia also attracts many American students who want to spend a semester abroad for this reason, as well as the fact that the seasons are reversed, so students can enjoy beach weather in January.

Study abroad programs are often designed so students will have time to explore their host countries, with classes only four days a week.

Study abroad is now available as early as freshman year. Florida State University’s First Year Abroad Program sends students to London, Florence, Valencia or Panama City for twelve months. The FYA program offers some nice benefits. If students complete a minimum of 36 FSU credit hours during the year abroad with a 3.0 GPA, they pay in-state tuition while they complete their bachelor’s degree at FSU’s Tallahassee campus. Classes in the First Year Abroad Program are smaller than classes at the Tallahassee campus, and students have more interaction with professors. An academic adviser helps students plan coursework that will prepare them for their anticipated major. Interested students must apply to the First Year Abroad Program after being admitted to Florida State University.

Freshmen entering The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University who are interested in the arts, humanities, international studies and social sciences can begin their studies in Italy. In the Discovery Florence program, students live with host families and take courses that satisfy the same requirements as those taken on Syracuse’s main campus.

Freshmen in NYU’s Liberal Studies program can complete their first-year degree requirements in London, Paris or Florence. A special orientation program helps them acclimate when they arrive at NYU’s Washington Square campus for sophomore year.

The freshmen study abroad programs can provide smaller classes, closer relationships with faculty and a stronger sense of community than students find on the large home campus of these schools. But there are some potential drawbacks. While students who start their college career abroad become more independent and bring a broader perspective to their studies when they move on to their U.S. school, they do miss out on some of the traditional first year campus experiences, and may feel a little out of place when they arrive on campus as sophomores. Students who have never spent time away from home may find it challenging not to be able to come home for a weekend or for Thanksgiving. They need to be mature enough to handle the lack of supervision and availability of alcohol.

Whether students go as freshmen or later in their college career, studying abroad can be a valuable part of the college experience.

Public Liberal Arts Colleges Can Offer a Private College Education

When you think of public higher education, you’re probably not picturing small classes and accessible professors. Big public universities like Penn State and University of Michigan are not known for providing a personal touch. But there are some smaller public colleges where you can find the kind of intimate academic experience more typically found at private colleges, and the cost, even for nonresidents, can be much less than a private school.

Before the University of Virginia started accepting women in 1970, smart young women in Virginia headed for the University of Mary Washington. The beautiful campus is in the historic city of Fredericksburg, about an hour south of Washington. The 4,000 students pledge to live by the Honor Code. In addition to a full slate of liberal arts majors, including historic preservation, UMW offers a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Tuition for out of state students is less than $28,000 in 2017 and merit scholarships can bring the cost down significantly.

The University of North Carolina at Asheville is located in a small, artsy city that has a fun downtown area and offers great hiking, rock climbing and kayaking in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. UNCA offers a full range of liberal arts programs as well as accounting and management majors, and a health and wellness major. Students who are interested in weather can earn a degree in atmospheric sciences. Motivated students can apply to the school’s honors program, which offers challenging, interdisciplinary honors courses. Nonresident students can expect to pay $24,000 in tuition and fees at UNCA.

Despite the name, St. Mary’s College of Maryland is not a religious school, but the state’s public honors college. The name comes from the location in St. Mary’s City. A true liberal arts college, with fewer than 2,000 students, SMCM has a lovely riverfront campus. The somewhat isolated location contributes to the strong sense of community on campus. While the school doesn’t offer the excitement of city life, students who enjoy the water can walk down the hill to the boathouse and check out a kayak or sailboat. More than 15 percent of SMCM students are from outside the state. Tuition and fees for nonresidents total just under $30,000 and merit scholarships are available.

New College is the public honors college of Florida. This nontraditional school is for students who are intellectually curious and enjoy independent study. Students work closely with professors to design an individualized curriculum, and their progress is assessed by narrative evaluations rather than grades. All seniors write a thesis in their area of concentration. Students who are successful at New College are bright self-starters who have the maturity to see projects through to completion. With only about 800 students, New College offers a more intimate learning community. The waterfront campus is two miles from downtown Sarasota, and there are many beaches in the area. The school does not offer competitive sports teams, but students can check out canoes, sailboats and scuba diving gear. Out of state students who are admitted qualify for a $15,000 per year scholarship, cutting the $30,000 tuition by half.

At 7,000 students, The College of New Jersey is bigger than a liberal arts college, but small enough to focus on undergraduate education. With more than fifty programs, TCNJ’s seven schools offer majors in liberal arts as well as business, education, engineering and nursing. The lovely tree-lined campus is an hour from both Philadelphia and New York.

These are just a few of the public liberal arts colleges around the country. The application process at public liberal arts colleges is similar to private colleges, with admissions officers typically looking beyond grades and test scores to consider essays and recommendation letters. Learn more about public liberal arts colleges at the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

Applying to West Point and Other Service Academies

While the beautiful grounds and views of the Hudson River make for an idyllic campus, the U.S. Military Academy isn’t like any traditional college. The 4,400 students, who are called cadets, don’t spend their afternoons tossing Frisbees or enjoying naps, and you won’t find them eating pizza in the dorm at midnight.

A recent graduate who has been working as a recruiter said he would recommend West Point because it requires you to do things you wouldn’t do anywhere else. The rigorous, tension-filled experiences help you unlock your potential.

Freshmen, known as plebes, start in August with six weeks of Cadet Basic Training. Reveille is at 6am, and all cadets come out for formation and inspection. Belt buckles and shoes must be polished. It is a jarring transition to go from civilian to military life, and students need to be very sure that they want this kind of experience. There is no family contact the first four weeks, and it is a challenging time, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some cadets drop out in the summer, before the academic year begins.

Even when summer basic training ends, life is quite regimented. Where most college students spend about 15 hours a week in class, cadets can spend twice that much time in class, and they are required to participate in sports. Meal breaks are brief, study time dominates the evening, and lights are out at midnight.

Cadets take on increasing responsibility each year. Plebes have few weekend passes, but seniors have more freedom, and can have cars and leave campus on the weekend.

The core curriculum is extensive and there are no electives during the first two years. All students take three engineering sequences, as well as eight courses in military science, and a good number of courses in humanities, social sciences, math, basic sciences and information technology. Every student graduates with a B.S. degree, but can choose from 45 majors, including history, psychology, sociology, and even art, philosophy and literature, as well as many science and engineering majors.

Classes are small and professors are very accessible, giving their home and office phone numbers. About 80 percent of the professors are military and live on campus. There is a strong support system designed to help Cadets succeed, and the graduation rate is over 80 percent.

All cadets are involved in sports. Males take boxing class and females take self-defense, which help cadets learn how to overcome fears and develop a warrior ethos. Cadets somehow find time to squeeze in many extracurricular activities, and there are 100 clubs at West Point.

You must want to be an Army officer to go through this kind of training. Each graduate of West Point is a commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, committed to the values of duty, honor and country, and prepared for a career of service. West Point graduates who decide to transition to civilian life are in demand in the corporate world for their leadership skills.

The cost of attending the U.S. Military Academy or any of the service academies is paid by the taxpayers. Not only do cadets not contribute any money to the cost of their education, they are actually paid more than $10,000 a year to cover the cost of uniforms, books, computer and other expenses. That doesn’t mean anyone is getting off free, since graduates are obligated to serve for five of active duty and three years of reserve duty.

Candidates for admission to any of the service academies except the Coast Guard Academy must be nominated. In addition to having a strong academic record, they need to have demonstrated leadership potential, and must be in excellent physical condition, with no medical problems. Start doing those push-ups early.

Leadership potential is crucial, and a student who shows promise may be admitted even if the academic record is not stellar. Like most colleges, the service academies would rather see applicants with sustained involvement and leadership experience in a few activities than superficial participation in a lot of activities.

Admission to West Point is extremely competitive. If you want to be considered, you need to get a nomination from your congressperson, senator or the vice president. That means you have four chances to be nominated, and you should use all of them to maximize your prospects for getting a nomination. You have the best chance of getting an appointment to West Point if you apply early.

High school juniors who are interested in one of the service academies can apply for a summer seminar, a one week program where you get a taste of life at the academy and learn about the admissions process.

In addition to going to the website of each service academy, students who want to know more can get a lot of information at

Accelerated Programs for Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees

At a time when public universities are suffering budget cuts that can make it tough to graduate in four years, some students are still finding ways to earn a degree in less time. Students who have taken community college courses in high school, or who have AP credits, and take a few summer classes, may be able to finish college in three or three and a half years. While many colleges informally allow students who have the credits to graduate in three years, a number of colleges have added or are considering more formal three year programs.

But there are trade-offs. If students are taking a heavy course load during the semester, or going to summer school during the summers, they miss opportunities for internships and in-depth involvement in extracurricular activities that can be as educational as what they study in the classroom. A summer job is not only a chance to earn money, but to check out a possible career interest, do research that will enhance graduate school applications, make contacts and gain experience that could lead to a job after graduation.

In England, students typically earn a degree in three years, but they aren’t spending their first two years taking general education courses while they decide on a major. Students apply to a specific program and focus on that subject when they start their university education. This is one of the reasons that taking a gap year is popular there, as students can take some time to decide what they want to study in college.

Students who know what they want to study do have opportunities to fast track their education here. Accelerated programs enable motivated students to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees in less than the usual amount of time. Strong students who are sure they want to attend medical school can apply to a seven year program, where they begin medical school after three years of undergraduate work.

Students who want to go into law may want to apply to a six year program, where they spend three years as an undergraduate and then begin law school.

The advantages of accelerated programs are clear. You save a year of college tuition. Knowing that you have a place in medical or law school when you begin college can lower the stress level that comes with being a pre-med or pre-law student. It takes years of training to become a lawyer, and even more for doctors, so if you know that you want to enter one of these professions, getting started sooner can be very appealing.

There are also some trade-offs to consider. You won’t have as much time in college to pursue other interests in depth, and it can be more difficult to fit in a study abroad term. You may need to attend summer school and miss out on the opportunity to have a summer job or internship. If you choose a college just because it offers an accelerated program, you may overlook other schools that could be a better fit. You might also change your mind about attending the medical or law school at that university.

If you are interested in an accelerated program, it’s important to start preparing well before senior year.  Get some experience in the field by volunteering at a hospital or courthouse while you’re in high school. Arrange to shadow a physician or attorney. You will find out if this is the right path for you, and you’ll be able to make a more compelling case for admission in your applications and interviews.

Make sure you are taking all the required courses in high school. In order to be a competitive candidate for an accelerated medical program, you should take calculus and physics, and score well on SAT or ACT and Subject Tests. Application deadlines for accelerated programs may be early, so start researching those programs now.

If you don’t get into an accelerated program straight from high school, you may be able to do so once you’re in college. Many schools offer opportunities for students in different fields to begin graduate work early. Some schools offer a five year MBA/BA program. Students usually apply once they have completed a couple years of undergraduate work.

These are just a few of the opportunities available to students who know where they’re headed and are in a hurry to get there.

Colleges That Change Lives – Great Colleges You Might Not Know About

As admit rates continue to go down at the most selective colleges in the country, many students are being forced to expand their list of potential colleges. This can be a good thing, since they can find wonderful schools that might not have immediate name brand recognition but offer an excellent education.

You may need to change how you evaluate colleges. Rather than focusing on selectivity, think about what kind of experience you will have once you arrive on campus. A 4.2 GPA student should be successful at any college, but when a college routinely admits B students and transforms them into high-achieving, confident college students, that school is having more of an impact than a highly ranked college that only admits top students.

If you are immersed in the college search process, you may have heard about Colleges That Change Lives, a group of more than 40 colleges located around the country. They offer very different programs. What they have in common is a commitment to the undergraduate experience.

While most of the CTCL schools are private liberal arts colleges with a couple thousand students, Evergreen State College is a public school with over four thousand undergraduates. The wooded, waterfront campus in Olympia is less than an hour from Seattle. But what really distinguishes Evergreen is the unique interdisciplinary curriculum. Instead of taking four or five classes at a time, students sign up for one program, which is usually team-taught by several professors from different fields. A program called Foundations of Health Science integrates biology and chemistry, focusing on health, medicine and disease. The class includes lab work, lectures, seminars, group projects and case studies, as well as an internship with a local health-related organization. Another program, Memory and Conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean, incorporates archaeology, political science, Middle East studies and cultural studies, and includes a six week study abroad in Egypt and Turkey. Programs often include field projects, internships or travel, which are easy to schedule since students don’t have other classes. There are no majors at Evergreen and students create their own course of study, in consultation with professors who get to know them well since they spend many hours together during an academic program. Students receive narrative evaluations of their work instead of grades, although grades can be provided if necessary for graduate school applications.

New College in Florida has much in common with Evergreen, as it is also a public school with a waterfront campus, and students design their own curriculum and receive narrative evaluations. This small college of 800 students offers lots of opportunities for independent study and collaboration with faculty. And admitted out of state students qualify for a $15,000 per year scholarship, which cuts tuition by 50%.

While a number of CTCL schools, including Hampshire and Marlboro, allow students tremendous freedom to create an individualized course of study, St. Johns College has a mandated curriculum. There are no majors and no course choices. Students spend their four years reading and discussing the great books of western civilization, and everyone studies Greek and French, as well as four years of math and three years of science.

Students who like the idea of going to college in Florida but who want a more traditional college might like Eckerd College, which also has a waterfront campus, and offers a nice selection of liberal arts majors as well as terrific marine science programs. The school helps students make a smooth transition to college by bringing freshmen to campus three weeks before the fall semester starts, and having them take an interdisciplinary seminar with the professor who will serve as a mentor throughout freshman year.

If you want a beautiful campus with trees and space but need to be near a major city, Goucher College, just outside Baltimore, offers the best of both.

Most of the CTCL schools are not super-selective when it comes to admission, but that doesn’t mean you won’t work hard to earn a degree. Some of the schools require students to complete a major research paper, similar to a master’s level thesis. It’s no surprise that so many graduates of CTCL schools go on to earn Ph.D.s.

In addition to offering small classes and nurturing faculty, many of the CTCL schools also offer merit scholarships, making these colleges a real bargain for strong students.

How to Make the Most of College Fairs

If you are putting together a college list, reading guidebooks and checking out websites that offer information about colleges is a good start. Of course, visiting schools is the best way to see if a college is a match, but it may not be possible to visit every school you’re considering, and that’s why college fairs can be a valuable opportunity to get information directly from admissions officers.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) hosts the National College Fair in locations around the country. Representatives from hundreds of colleges will be available to answer questions about academic programs, student life, admission and financial aid. There may also be state or regional college fairs in your area. In addition, some school districts have their own college fairs.

It can be overwhelming to walk into a huge convention center or auditorium and see crowds of families, and row after row of college booths. Many students wander from one booth to the next, picking up brochures that will end up in the trash. This is a passive approach that will leave you exhausted and frustrated by the end of the evening, and wondering why you bothered coming to the event.

But if you approach the college fair, as well as the entire college admission process, in an organized and proactive way, you’ll have a much more productive and satisfying experience. This means you start researching prospective colleges well before the college fair, so that you know which schools you want to learn more about. Check the list of schools that will be attending the fair, and come up with some questions specific to those colleges. Bring a notebook so you can write the answers, as well as your overall impressions of each school.

Each college will have a card for you to fill out so that you can be added to their mailing list. If you bring printed labels with your name, address, email, high school name and year of graduation, you can stick a label on the card instead of having to write the information over and over.

If you’re attending a big national fair, with hundreds of colleges, you will receive a map and list of attendees when you arrive. Locate the schools on your list, and plan your route. At each booth, introduce yourself to the representative. At a smaller college fair sponsored by a high school, some of the colleges may have alumni representatives, who can tell you why they love their college and how attending that school impacted their lives. At larger fairs, you may be talking with the admissions officer who will read your application. If you engage her in conversation, ask intelligent questions and show genuine interest in the college, she is likely to remember you, especially if you follow up with an email.

In addition to asking about academic programs and student life on campus, you might want to ask admissions officers for their advice in planning a visit. Since they travel for college fairs and high school visits, they often have valuable travel tips, like which airline has nonstop flights to the closest airport. At the end of the conversation, thank the representative and ask for a business card. Sometime in the next few days, send an email letting her know that you enjoyed your conversation and asking any additional questions you have about the college. You will have begun the process of demonstrating interest, which is a factor in admission decisions at some schools.

If you have time and aren’t exhausted after visiting all the schools on your list, you can stop at other booths. That’s a good way to learn about college you might have overlooked in your preliminary research.

While I like the face to face contact you get at a college fair, it’s not always convenient to attend a fair. Even if you do attend, there may not be enough time to meet representatives from all the schools you like. Also, in this time of cost-cutting some colleges have reduced the number of fairs they attend.  College Week Live is a virtual college fair, providing an opportunity to connect with colleges around the world, without leaving your living room. You can chat with admissions officers and access college brochures, catalogs, videos and podcasts. There will be a student chat area where you can ask questions of students at some of the colleges.

Early Applications Can Benefit Students and Colleges

Every year, many selective colleges announce record numbers of early applications and lower admit rates.

There are several likely reasons for the increasing popularity of early admission programs. Early action applicants can have an acceptance before winter break, which lowers stress. Early decision acceptance rates are higher at some colleges, which may fill close to half of the freshman class early. Students who are hoping to get into the most selective schools feel pressure to apply early, even before they have thoroughly researched colleges, because they don’t want to miss out on the admissions edge they could get by applying early decision. Families see a diploma from an elite school as job insurance, and are often willing to commit to one of these expensive schools. Generous financial aid policies at the most selective schools enable needy students to apply without worrying about comparing financial aid packages.

There are benefits for colleges too. Admissions officers lock in a healthy percentage of the freshman class and don’t risk losing top students to other colleges. They see students who apply early decision as excited about attending the college and likely to contribute to campus life.

But there are other reasons for the high ED admit rates, including the fact that the early decision applicant pool is stronger. These are the most motivated students, who often have strong transcripts and test scores as well as impressive extracurricular accomplishments, and parental support in preparing early applications. Recruited athletes are also in the early pool, and there may be a good number of legacy applicants, and both of these groups can boost acceptance rates.

While applying ED can be helpful, it does not guarantee that you will have better prospects for admission. Sometimes it makes more sense to take the SAT or ACT one last time, earn top grades during fall semester and apply regular decision.

Juniors who want to be able to submit early applications should start preparing early in junior year. That includes setting up a standardized testing schedule and earning the best possible grades this year. Winter break is a good time to think about what you want in a college and to research the schools that seem interesting. Once you have a list of schools that you would like to visit, you can plan a college tour for spring break. If you find one school that you love, you will be ready to apply early.

Evaluating College Applications

Some years ago I attended a meeting with UC Berkeley admissions officers, where we evaluated two freshman applications. Berkeley’s holistic approach means that readers look at a full range of academic and personal achievements in the context of that student’s opportunities. They use specific information about a student’s high school in order to evaluate how that student made the most of the opportunities available at the school. For example, the application file includes the school’s California Academic Performance Index (API) rank, student to teacher ratio, how many seniors are applying to any UC, what percentage of students are eligible for free meals, the percentage of students who are the first in their family to go to college, how many AP and honors courses are available at the school, the percentage of students who receive passing scores (three or above) on AP exams and other factors that give readers an understanding of the student’s educational environment. The reader will also see how an applicant’s curriculum, grade point average and test scores compare to others applying from that high school as well as to other Berkeley applicants.

As we read the applications, the Berkeley admissions officer pointed out how a student could demonstrate leadership in untraditional ways. One student was given credit for leadership because she transformed her baking hobby into a mini-business filling orders for friends and family. For another student, serving as an aide in a special education classroom and tutoring students in an educational program for disadvantaged students were seen as evidence of leadership. You don’t need to be president of your class to show leadership qualities. It’s not about your title, but what you contribute to your school or community.  If you are responsible for organizing a fundraising drive, that could be evidence of leadership. But even if you don’t have leadership to write about, readers will consider significant time spent in extracurricular activities, community service or employment.

Students should use the additional information section of the application to answer any questions the rest of the application could raise. For example, you might need to explain that you had to choose between two AP classes that were offered at the same time, or why your grades dipped at the start of junior year when your family was going through a divorce.

At any highly selective university, students need to stand out in their applications. At a breakfast with admissions officers from Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia, I asked for examples of students who had stood out in positive and negative ways. The positive example was a young woman whose writing was so strong that the admissions officer predicted she would win a Pulitzer Prize. That is what it takes to impress admissions officers at Ivy League schools. What does not impress admissions officers at any college is when students try to make an application stand out by shocking the reader. It may seem ridiculous to have to tell students not to write about bodily functions in an application essay, but when the admissions officer at the most prestigious school in the country says she is seeing those essays, it’s time to get the word out. Judgment and likability are factors in admission decisions.

Despite App Increases, Colleges Worry About Enrolling Enough Students

Even when colleges meet their enrollment targets by the May 1 notification deadline, admissions deans worry about summer melt, which occurs when students who submitted enrollment deposits decide over the summer not to attend the college. This happens because students who are admitted to another college from a waitlist cancel their enrollment at the school where they submitted a deposit. Also contributing to summer melt is the practice of sending enrollment deposits to more than one college. Despite the fact that double depositing is not allowed and can result in both colleges withdrawing an offer of admission, more families may be doing it, which means colleges will lose additional students who have promised to enroll.

Summer melt lowers a school’s yield (the number of accepted students who enroll) and adds to the challenge of meeting enrollment goals. Too few students mean not enough tuition dollars to meet the college’s expenses. While the most elite schools will easily fill in any gaps by admitting students from their waitlists, less selective schools may have a more difficult time meeting enrollment goals.

Applications were up at many schools this year, but the number of high school students graduating high school and applying to college was not expected to be higher. The increase in applications was more likely a result of students worried about the competition for admission and about their ability to pay for college. These students applied to more schools so that they would be sure to have choices and could compare financial aid and scholarship offers.

When students submit more applications, they will need to turn down a lot of admission offers, so that even though a college saw an increase in applications, it can end up with fewer incoming students. The pressure to maintain or improve their yield has led admissions staff to reach out to newly admitted students early and often to get students to make a commitment, and concern about summer melt may lead some schools to look for more ways to keep students emotionally invested in attending the school.

A number of colleges end up accepting applications after May 1. Admissions deans at these schools hope to fill their remaining slots over the coming weeks with additional freshman and transfer students. For students who were not admitted to any colleges, or who are not happy with their college choices, being able to submit additional applications means they still have options if they want to attend a four-year college this year. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conducts a Space Availability Survey each year, and in early May families can check the list of four-year colleges still accepting applications for the fall term. While you won’t see any Ivies on the list, there are many fine schools that have openings. While financial aid may be limited at some schools, many indicate that they do still have financial aid available to students. Some of the schools are open to transfer but not freshman students. As students shift from one college to another, some schools will be added to the list and others will disappear over the summer. Students who are interested in applying should contact colleges directly, as admissions offices will have the most up-to-date information about space availability and application procedures.

Efforts to increase yield and avoid summer melt are likely to continue next year. Some colleges are paying more attention to demonstrated interest as a way to gauge the likelihood that a student will enroll if admitted. If you haven’t visited a college or attended a local information session, and don’t put the effort into preparing an application that communicates a real understanding of what the school has to offer and why you would be a good match, you could find yourself waitlisted at colleges that will accept students who may have less impressive grades and test scores but who seem more likely to enroll.

That doesn’t mean you should feign interest in schools you really don’t care about. Instead, take time to research and choose your colleges carefully, so that you can prepare an authentic application for each school. Rather than applying to 15 or more colleges, limit your applications to those that you really know and are excited about. You will have a less stressful and more satisfying college application process.

Making Your Final Decision

The hoping, praying and waiting are over. Colleges have made their admission decisions, and it is time for students to evaluate their college options. If you have a clear first choice, you can send an enrollment deposit and enjoy the last few months of high school. If you have been admitted to a lot of appealing colleges, you now have the enviable problem of needing to decide which school you want to attend.

After years of doing everything they could to impress colleges, students can now let the colleges try to impress them. From now until the May 1 notification deadline, admissions officers will be pursuing newly admitted students. There will be flattering letters, e-mails and phone calls, as well as invitations to special programs for admitted students.

These local receptions and on-campus programs are designed to get prospective freshmen excited about the college. You can get a lot of information about a school at an admitted student day. There may be presentations by professors and students, as well as an activity fair, where you can learn about campus clubs and community service opportunities. You get to meet some of your future classmates. But it is important to remember that the colleges are selling themselves at these events. You are meeting the most enthusiastic students and seeing the school at its best.

Some students prefer to visit on a typical day, without all the hoopla, so that they can have a more realistic experience of life at the college. You can ask the admissions office to set up a visit where you attend classes, eat with students in a dining hall, and perhaps spend the night in a residence hall.

Even if you visited the college before you applied, it’s worth making another trip. You see a school differently after you’ve been admitted.  It’s more real. You notice different things as you walk across the campus and picture yourself living there next year.

Whether you go to a special event or visit the school on your own, be sure to spend some time talking with students about the college. It is better to find out now how hard it is to get into popular classes, or that everyone goes home on weekends, or that you’ll have no social life if you don’t join a fraternity. This is also the time to talk to students in your major. How do they feel about their professors? Are they getting the advising they need? What are students in that major doing after graduation?

If any students from your high school are currently attending the colleges you’re considering, arrange to meet them on campus and ask about their experiences. Why did they choose that college and has it met their expectations? What do wish they had known when they were making the decision about which college to attend? Would they make the same choice today? Getting as much information as possible will help you make an informed decision.

Preferences can change during senior year. Look at these schools with fresh eyes. This is the time to review your personal priority list and consider what tradeoffs you are willing to make. If one school has big sports and school spirit, and another is located in a major city with access to internships but no sense of community on campus, which kind of college experience do you really want?

Students who start their college application process thinking they want to try living in another part of the country sometimes realize that they want to be able to come home for a weekend. This is the time to be honest with yourself, and if you know you are not ready to be a plane ride away from home, there is nothing wrong with choosing a school that is within driving distance. One of my students had grown up in California and always wanted to go to college in New York, but after he was admitted to Columbia, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to be all the way across the country. He ultimately chose Stanford for his undergraduate education, and plans to attend law school in New York.

Cost is another major factor in making your final decision. If your third choice college has offered a $15,000 a year scholarship, so that you would save $60,000 over four years, that college might move up to first choice. Financial considerations could be especially important if you’re planning to go on to law, medical or graduate school.

It may seem like an agonizing decision, but if you applied to colleges that are good matches, all of your choices should be good ones. There are no wrong decisions. You can be happy at any of these colleges. Once you make your decision, you will invest emotionally in that school, and it becomes the right choice.

For high school juniors who are thinking about where to apply, the key to having good college options at this time next year is to engage in a thoughtful process of self-assessment. If you focus on applying to your best matches rather than the most prestigious colleges, you should be happy with all your choices when it’s time to make your final decision.

Low Admit Rates Fuel Admissions Anxiety

At the end of spring break, many high school juniors and their families come home exhausted after visiting colleges. In addition to an often punishing schedule of two or even three college tours a day, the reality that they are beginning the high-stakes college admission process can put students and parents on edge.

Then there are the reports of the year’s admission decisions, which only add to the stress. Applications keep going up at many selective colleges, pushing acceptance rates at some schools to record lows.

The cycle seems poised to continue, as this year’s low acceptance rates will raise anxiety, and students will think they need to apply to more schools next year. While colleges may be able to boast of increasing selectivity, this situation really is not good for anyone. Families are more stressed, and when students apply to more colleges each year, admissions officers have a harder time predicting which students will accept an offer of admission.

Admissions officers at schools that are just below the super-selective level can find it especially difficult to distinguish serious applicants from the students who just want a “safety” school. This can lead some colleges to waitlist “stealth” applicants, those who have not had any contact with the school other than submitting an application. Admissions officers want to protect their yield, which is the number of students accepting an offer of admission. Stronger students may be waitlisted, while others with lower grades or test scores are admitted. The seeming arbitrariness of admission decisions raises anxiety for the next year’s applicants, who then think they need to apply to more colleges because they have heard stories of students with stellar academic records not being admitted to colleges they thought were safe bets.

So we have admissions officers and families worrying about numbers and taking actions that can raise anxiety levels on both sides. For students, one of the problems with applying to too many schools is that you are more likely to submit the kind of generic application that will get you waitlisted. Even if you are applying to schools that use the Common Application or Coalition Application, you will need to write additional essays for many of the colleges. Preparing a strong application requires research, so that you can write very specifically about why you and that college are a match. Students who apply to 15 colleges rarely put that kind of effort into each application. You might believe you can do a really great job on all your applications, but most students start to feel burned out by the time they are working on their eighth or ninth application.

This process doesn’t need to be so stressful. Juniors who have visited colleges in recent weeks should think about what they liked at each school. Beyond prestige, what is it that appealed to you at the school? If you identify the characteristics you want in a college, you can find schools of varying selectivity that have those features. Then you are ready to create a balanced list, with several highly likely, match and reach schools. The exact distribution may depend on your tolerance for rejection. Some students want to have a lot of acceptances, in part because their preferences may change by next year and they want to have options. It may also be important to compare financial aid and scholarship offers from different schools. Others only need one or two schools where they know they’ll be accepted and then they want to try for a lot of reach schools. If you choose carefully and plan on applying to somewhere between six and ten schools, you should be able to put your best effort into each application and have a successful college admission process.

Two Year College Route to a Four Year Degree

As student debt grows, the idea of graduating college without major debt is more appealing than ever, leading many students to start their college education at a low-cost community college. It makes sense when you consider that tuition is a fraction of what you pay at a four year college. Since most community college students live at home, they also save on living expenses.
Saving money isn’t the only advantage to starting at a community college. Students who may not be ready to leave home have a chance to get used to college courses, as well as a little more time to mature, before being immersed in college life. If they do well in community college, they can transfer to selective four year colleges that were out of reach when they were in high school.  
In the first year or two, students at most colleges take introductory courses to satisfy general education requirements, and these classes are often smaller at community colleges than at public universities. Students can talk directly to their professors rather than having to go through teaching assistants. 
Many community colleges have articulation agreements with four year colleges in the area that specify what courses a student needs to take in order to transfer. An articulation agreement makes the path very clear, but students who want to attend colleges that don’t have an articulation agreement will be able to transfer to other schools as long as they choose their courses carefully. Most community colleges have academic advisors who can help students make sure they are on track to meet the requirements for four year colleges.
Some community colleges have honors programs, which provide a number of benefits, including the opportunity to take small, discussion-based classes with the most experienced professors. Taking classes with other highly motivated students provides intellectual stimulation and helps student prepare for academic life at a four year college. 
Public universities in many states provide access to community college students. Students who want to attend UCLA or Berkeley know that it’s easier to transfer to those schools from a California community college than from another four year institution. Even highly selective private colleges respond favorably to transfer applicants from community colleges. And if you earn your bachelor’s degree at Cornell, the diploma won’t say that you started at a community college.
Smaller classes, the opportunity to get a diploma from a four year college, and all for thousands of dollars less than four years at a university. What a deal!
As in any deal, there are trade-offs. The big one is missing out on the total college experience. While parents may be just as happy that their children don’t have easy access to drinking, fraternity parties and casual sex, there is a lot of learning at residential colleges that goes on outside the classroom. Students have opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds, adjust to roommates, manage their time, and become more independent.   
While community colleges do offer some extracurricular activities, they do not, ironically, typically offer much sense of community. Many students work and attend school part-time. College is not the center of their lives as it is for students at a residential campus. A few community colleges offer housing, but the percentage of students living on campus is usually low, so campus life is not what you find at a four year college. For students who are not outgoing and assertive, it can be difficult to enter a university as a junior transfer, when many students have made their friends and created their social network during freshman year. There will be other transfer students, though, and most schools transfer housing and orientation programs, which help students make a smooth transition.  

3-2 Dual Degree Engineering/Liberal Arts Programs

Some students love learning how things work and think they might like an engineering career, but they also enjoy studying pure science and maybe even discussing philosophy or literature. Other students know they want to study engineering but also crave the close community of a small college. While there are some liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore, where students can major in engineering while also having a traditional liberal arts college experience, the trade-off is that the engineering major is a more general program. Students who want to specialize in mechanical, electrical, chemical or some other type of engineering, typically go to a university that has a full engineering school.
But there is another choice. A combined 3-2 program offers students the best of both worlds. In this dual degree program, students begin their studies at a college that does not offer engineering. After three years they transfer to an engineering school for two additional years, where they complete the coursework required for their Bachelor of Science in Engineering. The Bachelor of Arts degree is from their first college.
A number of excellent engineering schools participate in 3-2 programs, including Columbia University, CalTech, Washington University, Duke, Penn State University and Dartmouth. The list of colleges affiliated with these programs is long, and includes small schools like Occidental, Clark and Wesleyan, as well as bigger schools. More than 100 colleges have an arrangement with Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The combined program offers flexibility, which is especially helpful for students who are not certain about their academic interests and career goals. Students who are interested in science and engineering can start as a science major and have until junior year to decide whether they want to transfer and add the engineering degree or finish the science degree at their college in their senior year.
It might seem like students would be less likely to complete the engineering degree if they start in a Bachelor of Arts program, but I have seen quite a few students start in engineering programs as freshmen and transfer out because they weren’t prepared for the rigorous coursework. When I work with students who want to prepare for medical school, I often suggest they attend a small liberal arts college, where they get personal attention from professors who will help them get through the challenging science courses. This is especially important if math and science don’t come easily to them. The same advice applies to students who really want to study engineering but need more nurturing than they would find in a big engineering school. By getting a solid foundation in math and science at a smaller college, they are more likely to be successful when they transition to the bigger engineering school.
A combined program also gives a student who may not have stellar grades and standardized test scores in high school the opportunity to start fresh and put together a stronger academic record in college. This student will then have access to engineering schools that would be out of reach as a freshman applicant. 
While students don’t take engineering courses in the first three years, they do take math and science classes, including calculus, chemistry and physics, that prepare them for the engineering curriculum. With a 3.0 average and recommendations from math and science professors, students should have no trouble being admitted to one of the affiliated engineering schools.
When it comes to preparing for the job market, having three years at a liberal arts college can give students an edge. They have a more well-rounded education than students who have spent four years in an engineering school. Students who have a liberal arts degree bring creativity, critical thinking and communication skills that supplement the technical skills they gain in an engineering program, which can make them even more desirable to potential employers.
For students who are shy or who thrive in a smaller community, attending a smaller college for the first three years can be a great way to establish lasting friendships and build social as well as academic confidence.
While there are many advantages to 3-2 programs, the one disadvantage is that students have to transfer after three years. They won’t be graduating with their friends, and if they are happy at their college, it can be tough to move to a new school, possibly in another part of the country, and start over. For students who don’t deal well with change, and would rather know that once they start college, they’ll stay there until graduation, a 3-2 program is not the best choice.
For someone who definitely wants engineering, has a strong high school record in math and science, and is more excited about getting a job than spending a lot of time in college, going straight to engineering school is probably the best bet. For the student who wants a broader education, needs more time to build a foundation of math and science, or really wants a small liberal arts college experience, the 3-2 program could be ideal.

Juniors Should Start Planning Now

High school juniors who have just watched older classmates go through the stress of applying to college might want to avoid even thinking about college right now, but that will only make things more difficult later. Some of my seniors finished their college applications by Thanksgiving and were able to enjoy their winter break, while others waited until the last minute and had a miserable holiday week rushing to get their applications done by January 1. 
If you will be applying to college next year, getting started now can make the process less stressful and more rewarding. Knowing what you need to do is the first step in taking control. Then you can make a plan, which further reduces anxiety.
Most students take the SAT and/or ACT in the spring of junior year. If you haven’t decided on a testing schedule, this is the time to choose test dates and register. If you plan to take a March or April exam, you’ll want to give yourself two months to prepare.
Talk to older friends or relatives who are currently in college. They can give you great information about their school. They also have wisdom to share about the college admission process. Ask them how they approached the college search and what they wish they had done differently when they were applying to college.
Start putting together a list of colleges that appeal to you. Read guidebooks and research colleges online. Go to each school’s website, where you can learn about academic programs and student life. Follow them on social media. You can also access most college newspapers online. This is a great way to learn about activities on campus, as well as what issues students are discussing. You can read about concerts or lectures on campus this weekend, budget cuts that will impact course offerings next year, or a recent crime wave in the surrounding neighborhood.
You get better at visiting colleges once you’ve done it a few times. So start with local colleges, even if you’re sure you want to go farther away. By visiting a small liberal arts college and a big university, you’ll get a sense of which environment feels right for you.
If you can travel during spring break, that’s the perfect time to visit colleges that are farther away. Once you have decided which colleges you most want to see, check the tour and information session schedules, which should be available on each school’s website, and make reservations. Some admissions offices will arrange for prospective students to attend a class and have lunch with a student, or even stay overnight, and this can help you get a better sense of what it would be like to be a student at the college.
Check the admissions requirements for each college you like. If you find that you need SAT Subject Tests, better to know now so you can take those exams in May or June, rather than finding out in September that you should have taken the Chemistry Subject Test when you were finishing the course in June. Researching admissions requirements in the spring also gives you time to find a summer college course or enrichment program and choose senior year courses that will enhance your application.
Learning about financial aid now will enable you to choose schools that are realistic financially as well as academically. You can also start researching scholarship opportunities by registering with a scholarship search engine.
While these suggestions are aimed at juniors, ambitious sophomores can also start researching prospective colleges and learning about admission requirements, which can help them make good choices about courses, extracurricular activities and summer plans.

High School Curriculum – International Baccalaureate (IB) or Advanced Placement (AP)?

While most high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, some schools offer another option for advanced studies. The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is a two year program that requires students to take courses in six academic areas. All students pursuing the IB Diploma also take the year-long Theory of Knowledge course, where they explore areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. They develop critical thinking skills, challenge their assumptions, examine biases and consider different cultural perspectives.

In addition to completing the required coursework, students must write an extended essay, which is a 4,000 word research paper. This is excellent preparation for writing papers in college. The final requirement is Creativity, Action, Service (CAS). Students spend a minimum of 150 hours fulfilling this requirement. They can choose a project that incorporates creativity, action and service, or become involved in different activities that address each requirement.

The IB program’s combination of coursework, extended essay and CAS hours is designed to develop the student as a whole person. Students become active rather than passive learners, and they gain a global perspective. If they complete the IB Diploma, they are well-prepared for a rigorous college curriculum, and colleges recognize that.

While some high schools offer both the AP and IB curriculum, and students pursuing the IB Diploma may be able to take some AP courses, many schools, especially smaller ones, can only provide one program. High schools have to pay the International Baccalaureate Organization a school membership fee as well as a registration fee for every student in an IB class. Since the College Board doesn’t charge these fees, it is less expensive to offer AP courses. The IB program also requires additional training for teachers as well as a designated IB coordinator.

Students can be awarded college credit for AP scores of three or above, though some colleges require a score of four or five. Students taking IB courses can also get college credit if they take the Higher Level exam and receive a score of five, but some colleges require a score of six or seven. While colleges generally require students to take Higher Level IB exams for college credit, some will allow students to fulfill their general education foreign language requirement by taking the Standard Level IB exam. Both AP and IB exams are given in May, and cost more than $85 for each test. Still, that is a bargain when you consider that a three semester hour college course can cost thousands of dollars. Some highly selective colleges restrict the amount of credit that can be awarded.

Students taking AP courses often have more flexibility in their curriculum. The IB program is a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach. Most colleges view both AP and IB favorably. Whether you take AP or IB classes, if you plan to apply to very selective colleges, it’s important to take full advantage of what’s offered at your high school. Earning the IB Diploma will enhance your application, but taking one or two IB classes is not very impressive. If your school offers 20 AP classes and you have taken two, admissions officers at competitive colleges will wonder why you didn’t take a more challenging curriculum, and that is not what you want them to be thinking as they read your application. Taking a rigorous curriculum in high school is important, and not just because it looks good on college applications, but to prepare for college level work. Being able to think critically and write clearly will be enormously helpful in college and beyond.

It’s January – Juniors, Start Your College Search

High school juniors who have just watched older classmates go through the stress of applying to college might want to avoid the topic of college, but that will only make things more difficult later. Some of my seniors finished their college applications by Thanksgiving and were able to enjoy their recent winter vacation, while others waited until the last minute and had a miserable winter break rushing to get their applications done by January 1. 
If you will be applying to college next year, getting started now can make the process less stressful and more rewarding. Knowing what you need to do is the first step in taking control. Then you can make a plan, which further reduces anxiety.
You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, but it is true that junior year grades are crucial. Since colleges look at the trend as well as the cumulative GPA, ending junior year with your best grades can give your application a boost, which is especially important if your  freshman year grades were not so strong.
Most students take the SAT and/or ACT this semester. If you haven’t made a testing schedule, this is the time to choose test dates and register. If you plan to take a March or April exam, you’ll want to give yourself two months to prepare, which means you should be starting soon.
Talk to older friends or relatives who are currently in college. They can give you great information about their school. But they also have wisdom to share about the college admission process. Ask them how they approached the college search and what they wish they had done differently when they were applying to college.
Start putting together a list of colleges that appeal to you. Read guidebooks and research colleges online. Go to each school’s website, where you can learn about academic programs and student life. You can also access most college newspapers online. This is a great way to learn about activities on campus, as well as what issues students are discussing. Here’s where you can read about concerts or lectures on campus this weekend, budget cuts that will impact course offerings next year, or a recent crime wave in the surrounding neighborhood.
If there is a college fair in your area, be sure to attend. This is a good opportunity to talk to admissions officers, and sometimes alumni, who can answer questions about colleges you’re considering.
You get better at visiting colleges once you’ve done it a few times. So start with local colleges, even if you’re sure you want to go farther away. By visiting a small liberal arts college and a big university, you’ll get a sense of which environment feels right for you. And you might find you really do like a school that’s nearby.
If you can travel during spring break, that’s the perfect time to visit colleges that are farther away. Once you have decided which colleges you most want to see, check the tour and information session schedules, which should be available on each school’s website, and make reservations. Some admissions offices will arrange for prospective students to attend a class and have lunch with a student, or even stay overnight, and this can help you get a better sense of what it would be like to be a student at the college.
Check the admissions requirements for each college you like. If you find that you need SAT Subject Tests, better to know now so you can take those exams in May or June, rather than finding out in September that you should have taken the Chemistry Subject Test when you were finishing the course in June. Researching admissions requirements in the spring also gives you the summer to find a summer college course or enrichment program and choose senior year courses that will enhance your application.
While these suggestions are aimed at juniors, ambitious sophomores can also start researching prospective colleges and learning about admission requirements, which can help them make good choices about courses, extracurricular activities and summer plans.

Don’t Annoy the Admissions Officer

Perhaps it’s because the stakes seem so high and they are so desperate to get into a favorite school, but the stress of the college admission process seems to lead some students to do things that are really not in their interest.

Sending eight recommendations when a college asks for two will likely annoy admissions officers who already have too much to read. In addition, you are communicating that you can’t follow directions, can’t count, or have so little confidence in your application that you have to try to pump it up with as many letters as possible.

Calling or emailing your admissions officer every week to let her know how much you want to attend the college is not the way to demonstrate interest in the school. Desperation is no more appealing in a prospective student than it is in a potential date.

Applying to college is like applying for a job in many ways. Any questions about judgment or integrity can mean the end of your application. You may be tempted to exaggerate or even lie about your accomplishments, but it is best to present yourself honestly. If an application raises some question or concern, someone will investigate. A student who claims to have won an award or done community service for an organization that doesn’t sound familiar may find that award or organization being Googled in the admissions office.

In order to be taken seriously, you need to communicate in a professional manner. That means no texting an admissions officer as if she’s your BFF. An email address that seems funny to a student could be offensive to an adult. While interviews are not usually a major factor in college admission decisions, you don’t want to be remembered for getting (and even worse, taking) four phone calls during the meeting.

Of course, students aren’t the only ones who can sink a college application. Parents who call and ask questions that should come from the student are not doing their child any favor. Even worse is the parent who pretends to be the student on the phone. Then there are the parents who insist on going into the interview and speaking for the student.

Annoying an admissions officer might not be reason for a denial, but if you’re applying to selective colleges, you don’t want to stand out for negative reasons. A student’s judgment and maturity can factor into admission decisions, so make sure your actions are communicating the most positive message about you.

How Parents Can Help

If you have a high school senior who is planning to attend college next year, the coming months may be an emotional roller coaster for the whole family. The college application process can feel overwhelming, and some kids cope with their anxiety by avoiding the whole subject. They never get around to narrowing a list of schools or writing an essay. Their procrastination makes their parents feel anxious, which makes the kids feel even more anxious, and nothing gets done.

It may seem like it would be easier to just complete the applications yourself.  But in addition to being unethical, taking over a child’s college application process communicates that you don’t think he’s capable of doing it himself, at a time when he needs to develop the confidence to go off to college and manage his life. It also deprives him of the opportunity to engage in a thoughtful exploration of his goals and interests, an important task for adolescents.

That doesn’t mean parents should be completely removed from the process. Most students need help getting organized. You can help your child make a chart with each school’s requirements and deadlines. Knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it makes the process less overwhelming.

If your child thinks he has nothing to write about, you can brainstorm essay ideas together. Pointing out some of his best qualities and recalling funny or interesting stories about his life can help generate essay ideas and boost his self-esteem.  If he asks you to read his application, it can be helpful to mention an activity he neglected to mention that demonstrates his caring nature or intellectual interest. But rewriting an essay undermines his confidence and could sink his application, as admissions officers can recognize when an essay is written by a 45-year-old.

You can be a valuable sounding board and supporter. Reassure your child that even though this is a stressful time, things will work out and he will go to college. Let him know that he can be successful and happy at more than one college. Ask what he wants in a college and encourage him to explore some schools he (and you) might not know much about that offer what he’s looking for. By allowing a child to be responsible for his college application process, you help him feel competent and ready for a successful college experience.

Engineering Your Future

The projected demand for engineers may be one reason that enrollment in engineering programs is increasing. If you care about saving the environment or alleviating human suffering, engineering could be a rewarding career choice. These are the people who create safer cars, and develop new imaging systems that enable doctors to provide earlier and more accurate diagnoses. They find ways to utilize alternative energy sources and help provide access to clean drinking water, improving the quality of life for everyone.

You don’t have to be a technical genius, but you do need to have some aptitude for math and science. If you’re thinking about studying engineering in college, you should take math and science every year in high school. Ideally, students will have calculus and physics in high school, but it’s not required by every engineering school. Taking AP and honors classes also helps you prepare for a college engineering program.

The engineering curriculum is rigorous, and coursework usually starts during freshman year. Engineering programs often include hands-on learning and internships. It is important to know that you want to study engineering when you are applying to college, because not every school offers engineering. Also, if you decide after freshman year that you want to study engineering, it will be difficult to complete the degree in four years.

If you think you are interested in engineering, it’s better to start in an engineering program and transfer into another major if you change your mind. In fact, it’s not uncommon for students to start in an engineering program and switch to business or liberal arts. The engineering curriculum is challenging, and since you don’t learn anything about engineering in high school, it’s hard to know in advance if it is really something you want to pursue. That’s why a number of colleges offer summer programs that give high school students an overview of engineering careers. Attending one of these summer programs is a great way to try out engineering and show that you are making an informed choice when you apply to engineering schools.

There are more than 25 specialties in engineering, and at a big university that has a school of engineering, you can major in mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical or another engineering specialty. There are some smaller liberal arts colleges that offer a more general engineering major.

Another option for students who want both a liberal arts college experience and an engineering degree is a 3/2 program. You spend three years at a liberal arts college, where you complete general education requirements, math and science prerequisites for engineering, and the requirements for a liberal arts major. If you have maintained the required grade point average, you go on to an engineering program at a university for two years. You end up with two degrees, a B.S. or B.A. from the liberal arts college and a B.S. in engineering from the university.

More women are studying engineering, and there are organizations that support women entering the profession, including the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). There are also summer programs for girls who want to explore engineering.

Even if you don’t want to work as an engineer, the curriculum provides great training for many other fields. You develop analytical, problem-solving and communication skills as you work with teammates on projects. Graduates of engineering programs go on to medical, law and business schools, where their analytical and problem-solving skills are valuable.

You can learn more about engineering programs and careers at TryEngineering and  CareerCornerstone.

Don’t Let Senioritis Bring You Down

Last month, I received an e-mail from one of my students, who was worried because she got a B+ in AP Calculus.  She had received an acceptance letter from Stanford in December, and as is the case with all colleges, the offer of admission is conditional on the student maintaining her academic performance through senior year. As I explained to my very conscientious student, a single B grade on her transcript, especially in a challenging AP class, would not threaten her admission to Stanford. Now if she had ended the semester with straight C grades, there would be cause for concern.


Unlike my anxious senior, many students think that because they have worked so hard throughout high school, they have earned the right to slack off senior year, especially in the last few months. By now, their mid-year grades have been submitted to colleges, and some students have already been accepted at their favorite school. Why not kick back and enjoy life?


Do you really want to risk everything you’ve worked so hard for these last three and a half years? Every year, colleges around the country rescind admission offers. You are admitted to a college based on the information in your application, and if there are any changes, you need to let the college know. If you have dropped a class that was listed on the transcript you submitted to colleges, your application has changed. Colleges receive your final transcript during the summer, and you don’t want to find out in July that you no longer have a place in the freshman class.   


There’s another reason to keep working hard in school. It makes the transition to college level work easier. If you start procrastinating during senior year, it’s difficult to get back to good study habits when you arrive at college, where there will be lots of distractions and no parents reminding you to finish your history paper before you go out for pizza with your friends. 


If you’re waiting to hear from your favorite college, you may be feeling especially anxious during this next month. Some students deal with the anxiety and uncertainty about where they will be next year by distracting themselves in unhealthy ways.  This is a good time to learn how to manage stress by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.


While you do need to keep your grades up, making sure you have some fun throughout high school will help you avoid burnout. Just don’t go overboard quite yet. Summer is only three months away, and you will have plenty of time to play before you go off to college.


Reducing SAT and ACT Anxiety

There are many ways to prepare for standardized tests, but the first step is to lower the anxiety level. Before taking the SAT, find some colleges you like where the average scores are close to your PSAT scores and some colleges that are test optional. The worst way to go into the SAT is thinking “If I don’t get these scores up 300 points, I’ll never get into a good college.” In addition to creating needless suffering, that kind of pressure can sabotage months of test preparation. Knowing that you will have good options, no matter what your scores, can help you to relax and you to do your best on any exam.

Setting up a schedule of test dates also reduces anxiety. Most students take the SAT or ACT two or three times. Knowing there is another chance reduces the “now or never” pressure that can cause you to miss questions you could otherwise answer.

Juniors usually take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the spring. In general, I encourage students to start preparing for the SAT about two months before their first test date. Whether you take a test prep class or do an independent program online, familiarizing yourself with the exam and learning how to pace yourself lowers the fear level. Many students take the test again at the end of summer or in the fall of senior year, and can spend time over the summer doing additional preparation.

Since all colleges accept both the ACT and SAT, before committing to one of the tests, students should take a practice version of each to see which is better for them, and then they can concentrate on that test. It’s also important to remember that many very successful people had less than stellar SAT scores in high school. While you may need to take standardized tests, you don’t need to let them determine your self-esteem.

Character Counts in College Admission

It was during a presentation at a local library. I had just explained the early decision process, where a student applies to a college, usually in November, promising to attend if accepted, and is notified in December. A father in the audience asked how a college would know if a student who applied early decision also applied to other schools. I explained that the student was signing a contract and would not be free to accept another offer of admission. He responded, “But how would they know?” Not only did he want to find out how his child could break a contract without being caught; he clearly had no shame about requesting this information in front of more than fifty people.

The early decision contract is just one area where ethics come into play during the college admissions process. Writing an application essay is another. While it can be very helpful to have someone provide feedback on essay drafts, students need to write their own essays. Parents can be tempted to cross the line, especially when they see a child struggling with multiple applications and facing deadlines on top of a heavy workload in school.

College applications require students to certify that all information submitted in the application process is their own work. But even if you put aside the dishonesty, and I am not suggesting that, submitting an essay that was written by someone other than the student is likely to backfire. Admissions officers read a lot of essays and they are pretty good at spotting the ones that are written by a 45 year old.

The point of application essays is to help admissions officers get to know the student, and if someone else writes the essay, the student’s voice is missing from that application. If students don’t write their own essays, they also miss out on the opportunity to engage in the self-examination that is part of the college application process and helps them clarify their goals. Students who prepare their own applications tend to feel more confident about their ability to handle their lives, and that will help them be successful once they are in college.

Ethical shortcuts don’t start with college applications. There is an epidemic of cheating in high school. Students who are anxious to get into “good” colleges are under a lot of pressure, and it can be very tough to resist the temptation to cheat. If everyone else is doing it, students can fear being at a disadvantage if they don’t cheat. Even strong students who don’t need to cheat might fear being labeled selfish if they don’t share the answers to a biology test.

We need to be careful about the messages we send to kids. That father who wanted to know how to get around the early decision rules is letting his kids know that cheating is okay. It’s not just about getting into college. Do we need more generations of business leaders who will take shortcuts when it comes to financial responsibilities or product safety?

While unethical behavior may bring rewards in the short term, kids who cheat can’t feel genuine pride in their accomplishment. Once they start, it’s tough to stop cheating, and they may be afraid they can’t manage in college without it.

They also can end up sabotaging themselves on the way to college. Integrity is one of the less discussed but very important parts of the college admissions process. When they review high school records, admissions officers may forgive a student who got in trouble for having a beer at the prom, but disciplinary action for cheating is a major red flag.

Of course, there are many students who do not cheat. They have earned their grades and scores, and can feel confident about their ability to succeed in college. They have integrity, and that’s good news for them and for the rest of us.

Success Stories

  • Annie S., Encino
    "It looks like I’m going to Macalester next fall!!! Thanks for all your help. I would not have been able to get through the process without you!"
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