Campus Visits: How to Go Beyond the Tour and Get an In-Depth Look At Your Prospective Schools

Guest Post by Isabella Luaces. Isabella is senior at Denison University.
For some people, it only takes seconds for them to decide which school is right for them. A lot of my friends at Denison tell me that the minute they stepped on campus, they knew it was the right place for them. To them, it just felt “right.”
However, this is not how the decision process works for everyone. I never had a gut feeling about which school was right; instead, I gradually realized which school was right for me through the information I gained and the experiences I had during my on-campus visits. Taking a campus tour may or may not give you a great first impression. It’s what you do in addition to the campus tour that will really help you make the right decision.
In the spring of my senior year I spent an entire day at Denison taking classes and talking to students and professors, and by then end of my visit I knew I could see myself going there. Below are just a few of the ways you can gain some in-depth knowledge during your time on campus.
1. Talk to students. No one knows the school better than the students that attend it. Many admission offices will help connect you with students who have similar interests as you so that you can meet them and talk to them. I had a strong interest in being involved with an organization called YoungLife in college, and I was able to talk to students at various schools who could tell me what that organization was like on their campus. Find the Right College has a great blog post with questions to ask current students to get to know the school you’re visiting.
2. Sit in on a class. Try to sit in on at least one class during your time on-campus. Most schools allow this but it may not be widely promoted so you may have to ask for the opportunity. It is important to find the learning setting that is right for you because so much of your time will be spent in the classroom. Sitting in on a class can help you see how big or small classes are, whether they are lecture-based or discussion-based, and how much students interact in the classroom. When I sat in on a class at Denison, I loved how small it was and how heavy the discussion was, and that really sold me on wanting to go there.
3. Meet with the head of your academic departments of interest. As a senior in high school, I was interested in being an International Studies major. During my visit to Denison, I sat down with the professor who ran the department, and she gave me a great snapshot of what it would be like to be an International Studies major on campus. I was able to see a list of courses and learn about the different events the department was hosting for the semester. Even if you are undecided, this can still be helpful. Look at the majors the school offers and connect with two or three of the departments that sound the most interesting to you.
4. Go for an overnight. All of the things listed above are best supplemented by staying the night in a dorm with a current student. As a senior I only did one overnight visit but it was worthwhile. I ate in the dining hall, saw what students did after classes ended, and had the opportunity to ask a current student unlimited questions about their experiences at the school. The entire trip gave me a lot of insight, and by the end of my trip I knew that the school was not right for me.
These are only a few suggestions, and every college will offer different things that you can experience as a prospective student. Some opportunities are widely available (like taking the campus tour) but others may take some inquiring (like arranging an overnight visit). So don’t be afraid to ask your prospective schools for extra information! Making the most of your time during on-campus visits will help you make a confident and informed decision about your future school!

Starting Your College Search Part 3: Plan Your Standardized Testing and College Visits

Note: This is the third post in our Starting Your College Search series. Read Part 1: Three Ways to Help Parents and Teens Communicate and Part 2: Do A Critical Review of Your 5 Key Application Components.
In this series, I previously addressed learning to communicate well about the college process, and then reviewing your application package to evaluate what needs to be done. Now, this final blog focuses on a very important, part of spring semester – planning your standardized testing and campus visits!
Not everyone enjoys looking ahead and making plans. However, parents and students feel grateful when I encourage them to look ahead and make plans, because the semester goes so quickly. Without the right planning, you can miss opportunities that you need to successfully apply to college.
From the review of your application package (as discussed in Part 2), you might have a few plans already – raise a grade in one of your classes, try out for a new team or event, or create a resume. Add any other goals you have, and then create your plan to be successful in finding the right college. In this blog I will review the two most critical components you need to plan now: standardized testing and college visits.
Planning Your Standardized Testing
First, get out your calendar and plan your standardized testing. Remember, you want to take your test of choice at least twice. So, starting with that goal, here is what needs to be in place:
1. SAT or ACT? If needed, you need time in the near future to take practice tests of SAT and ACT and decide which test you are taking (you can also use PreACT and PSAT to compare). This needs to happen as soon as possible so that you can make the rest of your plan.
2. Prepare. Make time to prepare, and make a plan for that preparation. Whether you are going to self-study or take a class, you must prepare for your test of choice. Most classes run about 8-12 weeks and include taking practice tests, so that represents a good standard for preparation timeline.
3. Choose Test Dates. Many people don’t realize that you can only take these tests on certain dates, but the tests aren’t offered that often. Identify test dates that work for you. Many students have conflicts with some test dates – spring break, sporting event, vacation, exams, etc.
4. Register well in advance. Some test dates and test centers fill up, and also registration deadlines are earlier than you might think. Registering well in advance will allow you to get the most convenient or ideal testing center. If you need to move your registration, you can, but you can’t add in a registration to a test date that is late or full.
Planning Your College Visits
After you have a great plan for standardized testing, move on to make a plan for your college visits.
1. Start near home. Identify 2-3 colleges near you that you could visit but only miss a teacher workday, or a half day of school. Try to see different types of schools, and do these as soon as possible to help inform other visits.
2. Look at your existing travel schedule and breaks. Are there holidays from school that would allow you to see colleges without missing too much school? You can access our college map to search for colleges and also see where they are in relation to each other as you plan.
3. Book visits well in advance. In my experience, almost all normal school holidays fill up at some schools – holidays like Presidents Day, spring break, etc. get booked up early with students and parents. You need to register with the admissions office to do an information session and a tour in order to have your name in the register as having been on campus. Check out our guest blog from a former Dean of Admissions to get more advice on college visits.


In conclusion, you should literally be looking at a calendar of the spring semester and plotting out where you will be able to take tests and visit colleges. I push my students to do more visiting and testing than they might do on their own, but when they get to 12th grade, they see why! If you are applying Early Action or Early Decision somewhere, you need to land in the fall of 12th grade with a solid set of test scores and a good idea of what you might want in a college.
Creating a plan for the semester ahead will ensure that you end up with the information you need to find a great college fit for you!

Starting Your College Search Part 2: Do A Critical Review of Your 5 Key Application Components

Note: This is the second post in our Starting Your College Search series. Read Part 1: Three Ways to Help Parents and Teens Communicate and Part 3: Plan Your Standardized Testing and College Visits.
A basic way to start thinking through how to prepare for college applications involves reviewing each of the main components of the process. As you consider each component, I have listed a few tips below to help you think about what you can do to be ready for next fall. For each of the following components, you should develop a game plan and a to-do list for the next 6-9 months, and stick to it.
1. Your Transcript
This document represents the most important piece of any college application and includes grades from all courses 9th through 12th. The first step in reviewing your transcript involves requesting a copy from your school. Take a look –are there any errors? Is everything clear? Beyond a basic review, reflect on what this transcript says. Are you strong in one area? Have you challenged yourself in a certain way? Finally, think about what you would like your transcript to represent. Are there classes you need to add or change for next year? Keep in mind that the level of rigor in your curriculum, combined with the grades you get, shows colleges how ready you are for college. If you haven’t shown colleges your true potential yet, brainstorm ways to make spring semester stronger, and set some goals.
2. Your Resume
“Resume” here really represents your extracurricular activities. You can actually create a professional-looking resume for colleges using our resume builder, but if you aren’t ready for that, at least think about your activities. Are you demonstrating desirable qualities to colleges – commitment, discipline, service, leadership, creativity, etc.? If not, now might me time to try out for the spring play, or the track team! Colleges review extracurricular activities differently, so understand the role they play and how you can strategically add to your application. Secondly, do you remember all of your activities and awards from high school? I find that once students and parents start making a list, they remember other things. It’s a good idea to begin that list if you have not already.
3. Your Standardized Test Scores
Now is the time to make a plan for taking the SAT or ACT if you have not already. You can read more about the tests and how to make a plan in our membership materials, but your plan should include, at a minimum, the opportunity to take your test of choice twice, and some time and resources to prepare. Keep in mind if you have to take additional tests (TOEFL, SAT Subject Tests, AP/IB exams, etc) you will want to budget in the time and study time for those as well. You need to register for these tests well in advance, and not be at a sporting event or traveling during the test, so planning ahead makes all the difference in having a great test date. Registering in advance of deadlines can also help you get a spot at your preferred testing center, as many of them fill up. Check out the ACT and SAT websites for test dates and registration deadlines
4. Your Recommendations
Many college applications include letters of recommendation from a counselor, teacher(s), or outside source. These letters can add personality to your application and help highlight the intangible qualities that college admissions officers value: hard work, character, collaborative nature, etc. While many students wait until the fall of 12th grade to ask for these, smart applicants are considering this in 11th grade. 11h grade teachers will have the advantage of teaching you for an entire year, and many of your difficult classes take place in 11th grade. These teachers are the perfect people to speak with authority on your behavior in the classroom and your academic potential. Additionally, your counselor might be a person you know well, or someone to whom you need to introduce yourself. Don’t wait until applications are due to let these key people know that you’ll need their help in applying to college. Giving them a heads-up this year can help them prepare to submit the best possible applications, might help motivate you to perform at your best ability, and also gives you a built-in support team as you work towards your goals.
5. Essays
Essays represent the component that you probably will not spend a lot of time on right now. However, some information is already available – the Common Application has already confirmed prompts for next year’s application, for example. While I would not recommend beginning the writing process yet, you can begin the reflection process. In my experience, identifying a great topic is often the most challenging part of writing, so giving yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and reflect can be powerful. I recommend starting a document, note, or small notebook where you can jot down any ideas that come to you – during class, at dinner or practice, anywhere. The questions you will have to answer can really challenge you to think deeply and reflect on your experiences, so brainstorming examples or moments, and giving your thoughts plenty of time to marinate shows in the final product.
After you have finished your review, be sure to identify clear goals that need to be accomplished in each category, and put them on the calendar. Preparing to apply to college isn’t overly difficult, but it does take some organization and commitment to doing the work!

Explore 1,800+ Colleges and Universities on the FTRC Map

Did you know there are 1,800+ four-year colleges and universities in the US? It’s not realistic to know them all, much less what makes each one distinctive.
How are Miami University and the University of Miami similar to one another… or more importantly, wildly different from one another? And then, who can keep straight that the Universities of Pennsylvania, Southern California and Richmond are private, while the Universities of Pittsburgh, Texas and Louisville are public?
Taking this another step, why does it make so much sense to consider Davidson and Denison if you already know you like Dickinson? Unlike the two Miamis, these three colleges’ similarities go way beyond their names. They’re all exceptional liberal arts colleges in quaint suburban communities with about 2,000 undergraduates.
So, how can you develop and refine your skills in identifying the similarities between colleges?
It’s important to identify similar colleges because the hallmark of a thoughtful college application list is a set of similar colleges grouped into categories related to cost and likelihood for admission.
The Find the Right College Map can help you start to recognize important similarities. Of course, visiting a college’s website or – better still – making a campus visit will take your understanding to another level. This map is your jumping off point to push your search to a higher level.
So, how can you use it?
1. Note that the map includes six main parameters. Start experimenting with parameters by adjusting just one at a time.
2. Note that the SAT/ACT filter and the Admission Rate filter provide a quick read on the colleges’ selectivity, while the Undergraduate headcount relates more to campus/academic culture.
3. Graduation Rate is my favorite filter. High graduation rates speak volumes about strong campus offerings and academic culture.
4. Make sure you use the MY COLLEGE LIST feature to create lists of colleges that catch your attention. Many people like to create and save lists of like institutions for their future reference.
5. Browse, save and share the PROFILE page for colleges. These pages are a great way to learn about a college and access their key social media sites.
If you visit and love Kansas University, for instance, exploring the map may point you to the Universities of Missouri and Illinois. If Middlebury caught your fancy, the map will help you see how it resembles Bowdoin.
Through your search, keep a pulse on what draws you into considering different colleges and – then – go searching for other colleges with those traits. Ask yourself, “who are the peer institutions for my top choice college?”
What are you waiting for? Start exploring the map right now!

Considering a Gap Year? Maybe You Should (Part 2)

Note: This post is a companion post to Considering a Gap Year? Maybe You Should (Part 1).
Twenty-two year old Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray (University of Oklahoma) will decide soon whether he’ll go pro as a football or baseball player. That’s a huge professional choice forced on him at a young age. I bet he wishes he had more time to make that call. As an 18 or 19 year-old High School Senior, you may not be facing such a clear fork in the road, but you are tackling a critical decision: where and when will you go to college? Like Kyler, I trust you’d like and/or benefit from more time. Unlike Kyler, you can probably pump the brakes on parts of your decision making.
Most colleges will allow you to defer your enrollment for a year. And many students would benefit from taking a year between high school and college because of a premise I borrow from a sharp-minded recommendation letter I remember from 20 years ago. It read, “unlike most 17 year olds, she’s intentional in everything she does.” Though this assertion was likely a stretch – after all, I’m still striving to be more intentional at greater than twice her age – the recommender’s central premise is strong.
That foundational premise – we tend to become more intentional as we age – is the backbone to my support for a Gap Year in Part 1 of this blog. Makes sense, right?! We get to know ourselves better by expanding our experiences and take better advantage of opportunities thanks to broadening our experiences.
So, what can you do with that in terms of practical steps? If you now want to take a Gap Year, first, look into the Gap Year policies at your college of choice. Most colleges are happy to have you defer your enrollment for a year. They just ask that you complete basic forms after you’re admitted. A few even commit their own resources (in the form of advisors and financial assistance) to helping their admitted students make the most of a gap year.
Next, explore potential activities and work you’ll tackle for that year. The resources to help you with that research are expanding quickly, because more and more American teens are pursuing Gap Years. The Gap Year Association will give you access to many resources. They use the following graphic – that I love – as a framework for considering your gap year options and, more importantly, identifying purpose.

You can also attend fairs about Gap Years in many cities around the U.S. Online resources about gap year options also abound. Lists such as this one for brainstorming ideas or this one for seeing specific overseas job options or this one for volunteering opportunities will help you refine your thinking. Many Gap Year students also seek entirely different types of education experiences through programs like those offered at NOLS. In your research, don’t forget to keep the above graphic in mind.
While insightful, that graphic may mask the importance of identifying what YOU NEED MOST from your Gap Year. Maybe it’s most important for you to save money, take a break from the grind of academics, have time to practice a sport, gain a specific credential or support a family member. All of these primary goals (and others) can serve as the foundation for a meaningful Gap Year. And being mindful of these primary goals can help nudge you toward greater intentionality… toward a richer college experience.

Starting Your College Search Part 1: 3 Ways to Help Parents and Teens Communicate

Note: This is the second post in our Starting Your College Search series. Read Part 2: Do A Critical Review of Your 5 Key Application Components and Part 3: Plan Your Standardized Testing and College Visits.
In my years as a school counselor, I witnessed a lot of problems that could have been avoided through purposeful and open communication between parents and students. Communication doesn’t always come easily in the teen years. But don’t let that discourage you. Give it a shot! It’s worth the work breaking through barriers to get on the same page. In my experience, most teens and parents still love each other a great deal and even enjoy the process of working together towards an important goal.
If you are ready to sit down together this January and make a plan, here are three tips to help facilitate that conversation.
1. Set a Specific Time or Occasion to Talk and Agree On That Time
The biggest complaint I hear from students is that parents won’t stop bugging them about college, when they feel they are working hard. On the other side, parents feel in the dark about what is happening and just want a bit more communication to feel good about important things getting done.
So set a specific time to talk. (In my work with families, I typically recommend this strategy throughout the college search and application process.) Agreeing on a meeting time together helps students feel like they have some say and haven’t been blindsided, and helps parents not nag once the time is set. For example, if little sibling has soccer and is gone from the house next Saturday at 10:00am, identify that as a time you can all focus only on this task.
Setting a specific time to talk about college-related matters takes pressure off other times and frees everyone up to enjoy family dinners, sporting events, and other occasions that sometimes get clouded by the college process.
2. Be As Honest As You Can With Yourself and With Your Parent/Child
I have counseled hundreds of families through the college process, and the families who start off with honesty, even if it’s difficult honesty, always end up happiest. Probably the area that causes the most difficulty in my experiences has been talking about MONEY. Many parents don’t want to talk to their teens about the financial status of the family, for one reason or another.
Yet failing to tell students what options are financially possible leaves them feeling confused and less focused on what needs to be done. Other common scenarios I have seen through the years involve students not telling parents what they really want to do out of fear of disappointing them; divorced parents not communicating well (or at all) with each other; and both adults and teens hiding how a part of the process made them feel (pressured, left out, sad, etc). Honest and effective family communication can go so, so far towards identifying the right college goals for your situation and generating great options, because you are working together as a team!
3. Embrace Conflict… and Humor :0)
In my graduate work, the professor of my Adolescent Psychology class said something I never forgot – “If your teen is fighting with you, that’s a good thing.” He went on to explain that conflict is a healthy form of individuation, which is the job of adolescence and early adulthood.
So, parents who stick with their teens through arguments, and teens who are fighting with their parents (at a healthy level) are actually in productive, growing relationship. Each year, I relive the emotional intensity of the college process with families, and I know it can be exhausting!
Prepare yourself for, and welcome, opportunities to disagree, hear each other’s perspectives, and fight it out ‘til the end, where you can reach mutual resolution. It will take energy and good listening and a lot of love. I’ve seen so many families do it that I believe overwhelmingly in the power of parents and children to love and help each other through this time.
Finally, one of my favorite tools for navigating emotional intensity is humor – don’t forget to have a laugh when the opportunity arises, even at your own expense!

Starting Your College Search: A Three Part Series

Each year, January brings a new set of weight loss, home organization, and fitness goals for most Americans. However, if you are a junior in high school, no goal is more important than planning a path to your future! Parents, you are likely focused on this goal of your child’s as well.
January represents a great starting point in many ways – new semester, new calendar year, and the perfect time to begin a college search. I recently took a few minutes to reflect on how to best advise families and students starting out on their college search. So, if you and your family are ready to get going – and believe it or not, it’s time to get going – follow the suggested steps in this blog series. You can thank yourself later for getting ahead of the game!
The tips provided in Parts 1-3 will guide you to a strong foundation in this important spring semester as you launch your search to Find the Right College:
Part 1: 3 Ways to Help Parents and Teens Communicate
Part 2: Do A Critical Review of Your 5 Key Application Components
Part 3: Plan Your Standardized Testing and College Visits

Finding the Right College as an Athlete

Guest Post by Isabella Luaces. Isabella is senior at Denison University.
Growing up, I used to dream of playing college sports in front of sold out crowds. I was a basketball player, so playing for Tennessee under Pat Summit was my goal. When I got to high school, my athletic aspirations made it difficult to find a school that was the best fit for me, because my college search process became limited to schools that were interested in my athletic ability. My dream of playing Division I basketball conflicted with finding a school that matched my academic and location needs, and I eventually realized that Division I was not the best fit for me.
The recruiting process can make the college search hard, but here are a few quick tips that will help you find a school that fits ALL of your needs.
1. Research the various levels of college sports and figure out which is the best fit for you. Less than 2% of all high school athletes will compete at the Division I level in college. While this may feel disappointing, there are still plenty of ways to play the sport you love at a school you love. Many college athletes compete at the Division II or III level, and a lot of schools offer club or intramural sports for students who don’t play on the varsity team. Division III was the perfect level for me, because I was able to play competitively without committing my entire life to the sport. I was able to be involved with a lot of other clubs and activities on campus, which is not as easy to do at the Division I level.
2. Take an active role in your recruitment process. There are millions of high school athletes out there, and it’s impossible for coaches to know everyone. If you find a school that you would love to attend, it doesn’t hurt to put yourself on the coaching staff’s radar. In another post, Find the Right College explains how students can demonstrate interest on their own. But your high school coach can be a big help if you are an athlete because they can advocate on your behalf and get you your stats and film, which most college coaches will use to gauge if you would be a good fit for their program. My high school coach helped me make a highlight tape after my freshman year, and he pointed me towards schools that he believed I could do well at athletically and academically. I also did my homework to make sure I was eligible to compete for NCAA institutions. The NCAA provides students and parents with a “stress free” eligibility checklist. These steps allowed me to really take charge of my recruiting process.
3. Remember that athletics is only one aspect of the college experience. Being a college athlete is great, but it can be hard to enjoy when the rest of your college experience is bad. If a school does not have any majors you’re interested in, or you don’t like the culture, there is a good chance that it won’t be a good fit you. A lot of my friends from high school let athletics be the sole factor when deciding where they go to college, and I’ve watched them all transfer because sports was not enough to make their experience enjoyable. Playing Division III sports at a school you love will always pan out better than playing Division I at a school you hate.
Being an athlete can be one of the most rewarding parts of your college experience, but only when it’s done at school that is the right fit as a whole. As you go through recruiting, stay open-minded and consider all your options. Your perfect fit is out there, you just have to go out and find it!

3 Tips For Talking To Your High Schooler About College This Holiday Season

In this season of reflection, holiday, and rest, sometimes families with high school students in their ranks find it hard to strike the right balance of wanting to talk about what lies ahead (college!) and wanting to give space to each other and take a break from the busy pace of high school. From my years of working with families and students, here are 3 tips for peaceful and enriching conversations this holiday season.
1. Focus on the Journey
First, if you are a family member making conversation and trying to learn about or support a student’s college ambitions, focus not on the result, but on the process. Ask questions like, “How has the experience of preparing for college been for you?” Or, inquire about their current lives – “What has made you feel excited or caused stress this year?” These types of questions allow teens to tell you what they want to talk about, not force the conversation to topics that might bore, stress, or distress them. Note: this article in Forbes makes a great suggestion of asking a senior “What excites you about college?” and getting them to talk about aspirations or dreams. Anytime you can get a teen talking about aspirations and dreams, you’ll have an incredibly rewarding conversation. Incidentally, this type of conversation – where high school students look inward to figure out what they might want to become – helps them discover the best college or colleges for them.
2. Develop a Game Plan
Next, if you are a parent, dedicate some time to planning and practicalities. Have you talked thoroughly about financing college with your student? This article from The Detroit News gives suggestions for talking with younger students about planning for financing college. You might need to get out the calendar and decide which colleges you need to visit, or plan for important upcoming events such as standardized testing or graduating. While teens will generally moan and groan at this type of planning, I find that if you can make a good plan with key, critical steps in place that you know need to happen, it takes stress out of every week and weekend in the spring semester. Most high school students know this deep down and will accommodate your helping them to plan if you just make them sit down and do it. Be sure to leave a planning session with delegated items, and then you can check in on accomplishing each goal (registering for the SAT, or calling to ask about accepted student orientations). Also don’t forget to incorporate fun events into this planning such as graduation parties, proms, special sporting or artistic endeavors, or meaningful family occasions or trips. (Tip: for help planning, download our Essential College Search Timeline.)
3. Find Time to Relax/Recharge and Cherish This Season

Finally, allow unstructured time and time for true rest. When possible, encourage your teen off their device for a few moments to walk the dog or grab your favorite ice cream. Allow them to catch up on sleep, chill out with friends, and eat what they want without nagging. Introduce some humor or joy by trying an adventure together (New restaurant? Yoga class? Board game?). For both students and parents, this precious time together will end too quickly. While many students are focused on peers and themselves at the high school age, they still very deeply need the time and attention of their parents, and parents need to connect with their kids as they grow and change into adults. Making time to spend together can keep lines of communication open and help you know how to better support each other when the pressures of academics and future plans take center stage.
From our Find The Right College family, we wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, and hope that you find meaningful time together to converse, plan, and rest as you approach 2019!

High School Juniors! You Just Took The PSAT, Now Take These 5 Steps

If you took the PSAT or Pre-ACT this fall, you will have your scores soon—if you do not have them already. Once you have received your score report, what should you do next? If you are a junior in high school here are five steps that we recommend you take now:
1. Take a moment to congratulate yourself. You have taken a grueling standardized test and lived to tell about it. Reflect on what you’ve been through and use the experience to give you confidence as you take future standardized tests.
2. Assess your results. Students can log onto the College Board website to view their full PSAT score report. The College Board also publishes a detailed PDF to help students and parents interpret their PSAT scores.
Juniors who score in the top 3-4% of students in their state on the PSAT are named Commended Scholars. Juniors in the top 1% of students in their state qualify as National Merit Semifinalists. Outside of those two top distinctions, we check if students meet the college readiness grade-level benchmarks for each section:

PSAT/NMSQT 11th Grade Benchmarks (2018)
Score Percentile
Evidence-Based Reading and Writing 460 42%
Math 510 62%

When we work with students, we tell them: your scores are somewhat predictive of how you would fare on the SAT or ACT if you took the tests today. But you aren’t taking them today. If you aren’t happy with the scores, don’t overreact. Keep in mind that no college will ever see them. Most importantly, know that it is common for students to improve their outcomes when they take the actual SAT or ACT.
3. Build on your results. Use your scores as a starting point to determine areas to focus on in preparation for taking the SAT or ACT. For example, if you aren’t happy with your score on the math section, focus your preparation on that area. Find a helpful SAT test prep book (or ACT test prep book) and online practice tests (College Board | Khan Academy | so you can begin to study for future tests.
4. Chart your course. Now is the time to chart your course for taking the SAT or ACT. Look up testing dates (SAT registration dates and deadlines | ACT registration dates and deadlines) and make a plan for when you will take the tests over the course of your junior spring and senior fall. It is wise to try both the SAT and the ACT and see which test you prefer. Once you have taken practice tests in both formats and determined your preference, you will want to take that test at least once more.
5. Engage with colleges that interest you. For those colleges that interest you, read their emails and sign up for their mailing lists. (You may want to create a special email account for all admission-related emails so you can keep them separate from your other mail.) Use the Find the Right College map to discover schools you might otherwise overlook. Engaging with these colleges early on will help you in this discovery phase. Don’t be afraid to reach out to their admissions office. Colleges will appreciate your early engagement, or demonstrated interest, when it comes time for you to apply. And your knowledge about the school may make it easier for you to complete your application as you demonstrate why you would be a good fit.

7 Questions To Ask To Find a College Where You Thrive

It’s crazy hard to get into Yale or Harvard or any other elite university. There’s no mistaking that. And the media loves stories about single digit acceptance rates (see, e.g., Washington Post | New York Times) and students with straight A’s or perfect SAT scores who get denied from Stanford, Princeton, Duke, and the like.
Culturally, we tend to fixate on only one question – Will I get in? But really, that is a terrible question to ask. If we limit ourselves to just that simplistic view of your application or even your entire future teetering on a fence, ready to fall into either the “admit” or “deny” bin, then we fail to focus on how many other critical fences an applicant may face.
By considering just this binary (admit vs. deny) question in applying to college, we forget the strength of an application (including the essay) also determines critical things such as the possible receipt of merit scholarships, placement in the Honors Program or access to a specific major.
But more importantly, if we focus on just the near-term view of whether we get in, then we strike out on asking the most important college search question:
How do I find the college where I will thrive?
There are zillions of questions – many of them very personal – about class environment, academic offerings, climate, out-of-pocket costs and so much more that should supersede the “will I get in” question. Below, I’ve listed 7 questions that encourage families to focus first on THRIVING.

  1. Affordability. Can we as a family sustain these out-of-pocket expenses for four years?
  2. Making the Grade. Does this scholarship require maintaining a college GPA that seems reasonable?
  3. Changing Majors. If my academic interests change, will I still enjoy being enrolled at this college?
  4. Changing Interests. If my athletic interests or opportunities change, will I still enjoy being enrolled at this college?
  5. Changing Relationships. Is my interest in this college dependent on friendships or other relationships that may change?
  6. Personal Growth. Will this college challenge me to consider new ideas and encourage me to interact with a wide range of people?
  7. Personal Commitment. Am I ready to make a personal commitment to challenge myself to make the most of my opportunities at this college?

Quantifiable data makes plain that a rich college experience improves the course of your life. College graduates earn more money, have more opportunities for leisure and are better positioned to successfully adapt as the world changes. Less than half (48%) of students entering college as full-time first-year won’t graduate from that college in 8 years. Of course, that means very few make it in 4.
To prevent yourself from landing at the wrong school or in the wrong major, focus on asking yourself careful, highly personal questions about finding a college where you will THRIVE.

Attn: High School Juniors! 3 Reasons to Ace Your Winter Exams

I have heard many students worried about the difficulty of this period of time in 11th grade, and how hard it can be to juggle all of the requirements of teachers. I know it’s hard, and I’m here to help you get motivated and keep your eyes on the goal of finding your best college option. So, find your favorite study spot, get settled, and read on…

Why should you ace your winter exams?

1. Your grades and classes continue to be the most important factor in your applications to college.
Even studying a little bit more could edge you up one grade, and that can matter in college admissions processes next year. A recent report from NACAC confirms that has been true year after year. So there you have it – these grades matter, a lot. Most college admissions officers will tell you that 11th grade results are your most important grades of all.
2. Your next semester is built upon this semester.
The way you end this semester is the way you start the next one. Yes, you get a new year to start, but if you’ve not mastered some of your math concepts, or haven’t read all assigned texts, you will find those missed steps coming back to haunt you on cumulative work later in the year. This content can also impact your standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, AP, Subject Tests, IB Exams). You may be called upon to regurgitate knowledge or conceptual understandings in five or six months, and if you have cut corners, your scores may suffer.
3. Good will with your teachers pays dividends later.
Finishing strong creates goodwill with your teachers. They are the source of your grades – don’t forget! Attending study sessions offered by teachers, reaching out with questions, and demonstrating a desire to do well can go a long way toward creating a positive impression of you as a student. This will not only help your grades; it will also set the stage for having a great teacher recommendation next year.


All of this work will pay off when you have a nice, long winter break with luxurious mornings to sleep in, fun-filled evenings hanging out with family or friends, and extra time to work, travel, or whatever else you need to do. Keep your eyes open in the next couple of weeks for our blog on the release of PSAT scores this month.

College Application Pep Talk: 5 Tips For a Strong Finish

For high school students, the first semester of senior year is crazy, stressful and all kinds of other things. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, most seniors applying to college feel only one thing right now: exhaustion. Nevertheless, now is the time for a final push!
Parents frequently ask me for advice to help their kids stay focused on their college applications during this busy time. There’s no way to sugar coat it because the process is not easy but there is cause for optimism. My pep talk emphasizes five distinct points:

  1. Give Yourself Multiple Choices. Think back to last April. How much have your thoughts about college changed since then? Likely, quite a bit. You are going to think differently and feel differently about your college choices in a few months, and you want to make sure your options allow you to make the best choice. Finishing out these last few applications helps you keep your options open until it’s time to decide what’s the next right step.
  2. Take Nothing For Granted. While you and everyone you know may be convinced you will get into Amazing University, the truth is that college admissions is tough these days. Even if you are feeling confident, finishing out your list of reasonable admission schools is a MUST. Ideally, you will never need to worry about these schools. However, if you are not admitted to your top choice schools, these applications will be the most important you do, so do them, and do them on time, and to the best of your ability.
  3. You Can Reduce or Avoid Student Loans. Your future self will thank you if you can reduce or avoid student loans. So do not leave applications to schools that are backups, likely scholarship opportunities, or in-state options until the last minute. These schools could provide you with the best value and turn out to be the perfect match for you. You also do not yet know what your financial aid packages will look like so position yourself so that schools will compete for you. Finally, remember that you have no idea what could change with your parents’ jobs or even the stock market. Finishing these last few applications will help you plan for those scenarios as well.
  4. Your Grades Still Matter. If you can finish up applications by the end of Thanksgiving break, you will have cleared the decks for a strong academic finish to the semester. Even if you’ve applied under an early admission program, in some instances, your first semester grades from senior year could be a critical factor in admissions or scholarships. If you are still stressed or overwhelmed by the admissions process, you will not do your best work on exams. Grades continue to be the number one factor in almost all admissions processes; it is imperative that you make the time to do your best possible work for first semester grades.
  5. Once You Finish, You Are Done Forever! The good news is – the college application process is a finite amount of work. Check off all of the items on your list: submitting applications, requesting recommendations, sending test scores, signing up for interviews, and whatever else needs to be done. Once you have finished checking all the boxes, you will be free to wait for answers from the admissions offices while you concentrate on prioritizing your schoolwork, spending time with your family over the holiday season, and enjoying all that senior year has to offer.

To Find The Right College, Get To Know Yourself First

Before you begin narrowing down your list of colleges, take time to get to know yourself. What drives you as a student? What is your personality like? What are your interests and goals? Where can you imagine yourself next year?
Knowing yourself will help you to forge a clearer, more certain path as you search for colleges and it will help with your applications. The better you know yourself, the less likely you are to be plagued by writer’s block when it’s time to write your essays and the more easily you will be able to portray your real self and make the case for why you are a good match for a college. Knowing yourself will also prove valuable down the line when you make your final decision about which college to attend.
To help students get to know themselves better, we advise college-bound students to take the following steps:

  1. Self-Assess. Complete all three of our recommended self-assessment tests. These tests are specifically designed to guide your college search.
  2. Envision Yourself Next Year. Utilize our Find the Right College Map to discover schools you might otherwise overlook. Use the filters to search for colleges that meet the criteria defined in your self-assessment tests. Imagine yourself in different parts of the country and on different college campuses. Where can you see yourself fitting in?
  3. Put Yourself First. Remember to put your interests and your goals first during your college search. As we tell students in the Deeper Dive for Section 1.2 of our 15-Part Video Series course, it’s okay to be a little bit selfish during this time. Finding the right college is all about learning which colleges best suit you and your personality.

Obviously, we caution students against becoming so unglued from reality that they completely ignore factors like cost or distance from home or their chances for admission. But now is not a good time to become timid or bashful. Part of knowing yourself is acknowledging your potential so we encourage students to get a little bit out of their comfort zone, to cast a wide net, and to dream big. Many college-bound students may think they know themselves already.
But self-reflection leads to self-discovery. And self-discovery leads students to better understand who they are and what they want. It is better to embark on this journey of self-discovery while in high school than to wait until after you’ve enrolled in a new college so why wait? Go ahead and dive in.

Three Free Self-Assessment Tests To Find the Right College

We advise students to start their college search by taking a self-assessment test. Fortunately, there are a number of self-assessment tests available online for free and they are specifically designed to guide your college search and help you determine what type of college learning community is most appropriate for you.
Here are three of our favorite self-assessment tests:

  1. U.S. News & World Report offers a College Personality Quiz in which students complete a self-assessment on ten topics, ranging from learning styles and enthusiasm towards school to social consciousness and self-understanding. This quiz will take a little time, but the simple process of answering these questions will get you thinking. Don’t expect quiz results to yield a list of your “best match” colleges. Instead, the quiz provides valuable, thought-provoking information to guide students in their search. You will probably come away with more questions than answers at the end of the quiz, which is the intention.
  2. The College Board’s Answer 10 Questions and Discover Your Future is far less comprehensive than the U.S. News quiz, but it is still a helpful exercise that will encourage self-reflection. You will be asked about things that challenge you, favorite classes, people you admire, and even what you like to do for fun. Use these 10 questions as a jumping-off point for further introspection.
  3. The Find the Right College College Fit Worksheet will ask you about your preferences regarding four important aspects of a college: campus size, location, academic offerings, and student culture/activities. Be true to yourself and your own desires as you answer these questions. Don’t answer them with a certain college in mind; keep the focus of this exercise on you.

It is never too late or too early to take a self-assessment test or even re-take one after a few months. It is common for your self-assessment test results to evolve over time so don’t be surprised if that happens. It’s perfectly healthy. Just be mindful of changes to your priorities and goals as you progress through your college search.

7 Steps To Connect With Your Admissions Counselor

Here is a course of action you can follow to get on your Admissions Counselor’s radar. Please tread carefully. YOU DO NOT WANT TO STANDOUT FOR THE WRONG REASONS! That means:

  • Be polite.
  • Respect their time.
  • Proofread your correspondence.

With these guidelines in mind, we encourage you to connect with the Admissions Counselors at the schools you apply to. A common mistake is to only reach out one time. It is better to make contact multiple times as described below. Knowing that you will contact the counselor more than once helps you keep your correspondence brief and to the point, which is to everyone’s benefit.

  1. Make the Decision. Reach out to the Admissions Counselor once you decide that the college is among your top choices.
  2. Find the Contact Info. Locate the name and contact information for the Admission Counselor as described in our How to Find Your Assigned Admission Counselor post.
  3. First Contact: Choose an Appropriate Strategy. Some students will contact their counselor before visiting the college to arrange a meeting. This can be a wise move at small colleges where staff members work with fewer students. But if you do this, be sure you prepare for the meeting. Ask in-depth questions—questions whose answers cannot be found easily on the college’s website. Address topics that speak to your interests. Be respectful of the person’s time, limiting the meeting to five or ten minutes. At larger colleges, do not expect the counselor to be able to meet with you. Instead, send him or her an email after your visit. In either case, explain what you appreciate most about the college. Be specific to the institution so the counselor knows your interest is sincere.
  4. Second Contact: Follow Up After You Apply. Reach out to your representative once you have submitted your application. Let him or her know that the college is high on your list (if not your top choice).
  5. Optional Contact: Early Decision / Early Action Follow Up. If you are deferred during Early Decision or Early Action, which means that your application will be reconsidered in Regular Decision, reach out to your counselor to find out if there is anything you can do to improve your chances. He or she may be able to give you clear direction, such as telling you the Admissions Committee wants you to retake a certain standardized test.
  6. Third Contact: Provide Updates. If you have applied Regular Decision and you have updates to share after you have submitted your application, you may want to check in with the counselor in February. Share any new information that you would like to add to your application.
  7. Optional Contact: Wait-Listed Follow Up. If you are wait-listed during Regular Decision, make contact every few weeks, from early May into June, to express your continued interest in the college.

How to Find Your Assigned Admission Counselor

At most colleges, prospects are assigned to a specific admissions counselor, often based on geographic region. Here’s little known trick to give you a leg up on your competition: you can usually find the name of this person online and their contact info! For example, look at this page for Georgia Tech or this page for Emory University. To find the Assigned Admission Counselor for the schools you’re applying to, use a variation on this Google search:
Admissions Counselor University of Georgia <– Click to see search results
As a prospective student, you should obtain this information for each school you apply to. It is likely that this individual will be one of the people to review your application, and it can be helpful for that person to recognize your name in the review process. Your counselor may even advocate for you in the Admissions Committee as final decisions are made.
Keep in mind that not every college operates under this exact model. Some have admissions counselors traveling to certain territories and reading applications from other areas of the country. But at colleges where you can make contact with a specific counselor, be a savvy prospect and take advantage of the opportunity to do so! This is not a time to be bashful. Know that many admissions counselors entered the field of college admissions because they enjoy interacting with people, especially high school students like you.
Just be careful not to carry things too far. You do not want your admissions counselor to know you for the wrong reasons. Every admissions veteran has a story of a student who emailed incessantly in an attempt to stand out in the process so they made a very bad impression. And chances are good that this veteran also has received an email mistakenly addressed to the wrong college, in which the student professes a deep love for that college. Be sure to proofread every piece of communication you send! Be polite, calling the person by their formal name, and be respectful of his or her time.

A Framework to Examine College Cost vs. Probability of Admission

It is easy to get caught up in “college application hysteria” where it feels like you need to apply to 15 colleges. The truth is that you don’t need to submit that many applications. To stay calm and prevent things from spiraling out of control, we find it helpful to examine your list of schools through a slightly different prism – one where you weigh your chance of getting in along with the cost of the school. In this blog post, we suggest that every college application falls in between one of four different scenarios shown in the diagram and described in further detail in the text below.

college cost versus probability of admission

Recall that your mission is to receive 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions and to limit your total number of applications to a reasonable amount (let’s say 5-7 total) so use this framework to make sure you have exciting options this spring without getting burned out from completing too many applications. Let’s examine each quadrant in more detail.

Quadrant I. Safety School

Description: You can definitely afford it and you can definitely get in.
Suggested Number of Applications: 2
You need to cover your bases in terms of being admitted to at least one college that you can afford tuition costs. If there is a school that checks off these two boxes and that you feel is generally a good fit for you (a state or local school, for example), you may only need one college to secure a certain path to college. If there isn’t one school that easily checks those boxes, you may need multiple options in this category.
If it makes sense, we advise students to identify a school that accepts Early Action applications. If your Early Action application is successful, a school that you might normally classify as a Target or Reach turns into a de facto Safety School and you can add another Target or Reach school to your list.

Quadrant II: “High Value” School

Description: You can definitely afford it, but it’s a reach.
Suggested Number of Applications: 2
These schools provide the most “bang for the buck” and frequently appear on lists that rank the “Best Value Colleges”. They tend to be highly competitive but offer generous financial aid packages to those who are accepted, and especially to those who are accepted and demonstrate a need for financial aid. Amherst College may be the poster child for this type of school. (Princeton too.) And state schools like University of Virginia and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill also tend to be featured on such lists.
Schools that fall into this category will vary from student to student because their willingness to offer financial aid often hinges on a family’s income. Top Colleges Are Cheaper Than You Think (Unless You’re Rich). So wealthy students may have fewer options in this category compared to students from more modest backgrounds.

Quadrant III. Scholarship Opportunity

Description: You might not be able to afford it, but you can definitely get in.
Number of Applications: 2
You might look at this list and ask, “Why would someone apply to an expensive safety school?” Well, if earning scholarship money is a top priority, this type of school can be a good match for you! You place yourself in the running for scholarship money from colleges by applying to schools where you have a stronger academic profile than the average applicant – starting with GPA and test score data and searching on our map is a simple way to begin researching colleges where this might apply to you. This process takes some research and also means you may need to cast a wide net, because no scholarship is guaranteed.

Quadrant IV. Extremely Competitive

Description: You might not be able to afford it, but you can possibly get in.
Number of Applications: 0-3
For many students who aspire to attend highly selective colleges, the cost of tuition is not a primary factor. Furthermore, applying to several of these types of colleges makes sense because the odds of admission are so low. If you want to stretch for several dream schools (regardless of cost), that’s great! Usually, these applications involve extra writing and larger application fees, so be sure to cover your bases and do your scholarship schools early (maybe even first) so that you don’t run out of energy applying to the Ivy League.
Alternatively, if you only have one dream school and want to focus on that one, choosing one (especially via a binding Early Decision plan) can be a wise, strategic choice, too. You can spend more time proving fit and interest to that school if you are only focusing on one.

3 Steps for Deciding How Many College Applications You Need

Many students wonder, “How many applications should I submit?” The conventional wisdom is to apply to 5-7 schools. The conventional wisdom goes on to say that you should select a mix of Safety Schools, Target Schools, and Reach Schools. That sounds easy enough. But the conventional wisdom is not perfect. In this blog post, we explain why the conventional wisdom is flawed, and we offer three specific steps to help you achieve the best possible outcome from your college application process.

Step 1: Factor in the Cost

The conventional wisdom does not factor in COST. Many students only look at academic requirements like SAT/ACT scores when deciding where to apply. However, the annual cost of college is a critical factor when it’s time to make your final decision. Is there any college degree worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt? We don’t think so. So it is wise to factor in cost right from the start!

Step 2: Aim for 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions

It’s helpful to think about your end goal come springtime: you want at least three “admit” decisions that you can afford so that you can explore and choose the school that best suits you. What is the best way to ensure you receive at least three letters of acceptance from schools you can actually afford?
There are two attractive paths to ensuring 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions:

  1. 1 Safety School, 1 Early Action Admit, 2 Target Schools, 2 Reach
  2. 2 Safety Schools, 3 Target Schools, 1 Reach

The takeaway is that the best way to get to 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions is to have at least two “guaranteed locks” and a handful of likely possibilities. As long as one of the likely possibilities comes to fruition (along with your two “locks”) you will have reached your goal of 3+ Affordable Admit Decisions. Note that a successful Early Action application – assuming it comes with a favorable financial aid package – is like having a second Safety School because you know you’re in but Early Action is non-binding so you don’t have to commit right away.

Step 3: Avoid Application Burnout and Too Many Rejection Letters

It’s a numbers game so submitting more applications will typically yield more acceptance letters. Students who seek admission the most selective schools need to submit more applications than average. However, reaching for too many schools can lead to burnout and a lot of “deny” letters at a time when you want options and celebrations. Therefore we urge students and parents alike to be intentional as you add schools to your list.

What is Early Decision? Three Questions, Three Answers

In this blog post, we examine Early Decision. We compare Early Decision to Early Action and explain why Early Decision is truly binding – not something that you can easily escape from.

  1. What does Early Decision even mean? Early Decision is an application plan offered by some colleges in which a student applies during the fall (usually a November 1st or November 15th deadline) and receives an admission decision by mid-December. This plan is binding, meaning that when submitting the application, the applicant agrees that if admitted Early Decision, he or she will enroll at that college and withdraw all other applications. The enrollment agreement is due around January 1st.
  2. How is Early Decision different than Early Action? Early Action is a much more flexible plan that is offered by other colleges. Like with Early Decision, a student applies during the fall (usually a November 1st or November 15th deadline) and receives a decision by mid-December. But here is the difference. Early Action is not binding. The student does not have to pledge to enroll at the college if admitted, and therefore it does not carry the stress of Early Decision.
  3. Can a student withdraw from an Early Decision contract? Technically, yes. If a student is admitted, and, upon reviewing the financial aid offer, the family decides it is unable to afford the cost. But do everything in your power to avoid this scenario! In many cases, the student must withdraw from the entire application process at that college and may not be considered for Regular Decision. This creates a sticky situation for the family and the college, and it creates great disappointment for the student, especially if the college is his or her first choice.

Early Decision plans are a wonderful option for the right student, but be sure to approach your decision with caution. Do your research and use our Early Decision Calculator (coming soon!) so that if you choose to submit an Early Decision application, you can do so with confidence. If your application is approved for admission, you will have something to celebrate.

Five Steps to Gauge a College’s Career Development Opportunities

As you research colleges, take time to examine the resources they have available to prepare students for future careers. Can graduates find good jobs? What is their starting salary? To put it another way, you need to know if the colleges you are considering can deliver a favorable return on investment.
Of course, colleges are not shy about singing their own praises. So judge carefully. The reason we published this road map is to help you compare one school to another and figure out which school will create the greatest “lifetime value” for you. Follow the steps below at each college on your list to determine the best fit.

  1. Evaluate the School’s Website. Consider how easy it is to find information about career planning. Is the career development program’s webpage informative, or does it appear to be an afterthought? Outcomes and alumni success should be highlighted on the college’s website and in its publications.
  2. Visit The Career Development Office In Person. Think about its accessibility. Is it in a central location, where students pass by its doors every day, or hidden in a dark corner of campus? Check out the space. It should be a comfortable place for students (and recruiters) to spend time. It should be equipped with the latest technology to support students in their search.
  3. Ask Who Has Access to Career Development Support. Does the office seem primarily concerned with advising seniors, or does it work with students from their first year through their final year to put graduates in the best possible position to be successful? Learn about the career services staff, and consider its size relative to the undergraduate population.
  4. Explore Internship Opportunities. How does the college help students access internships and other potential development opportunities? Find out what activities are in place to help students investigate various fields and industries. Some colleges host career fairs, while others hold monthly programs focused on specific sectors. Also inquire about what employers come to campus to conduct interviews and the history of post-graduation placement at these companies. These employers would likely be from corporations that recruit students early in their senior year. How does the college connect students with opportunities in other fields that do not usually send recruiters to campus?
  5. Inquire About Alumni Engagement. How does the college connect students with alumni for career advice? Look for a strong relationship between the career development program and the alumni office. The college should have an online alumni career network for students to access. See if you can find any relevant measurements about the level of alumni engagement, perhaps through data or outside sources.

Of course, finding a job is ultimately the responsibility of the student. The onus is on the student to show initiative and use career development resources. However, colleges have a role to play in putting these resources in place. An early focus on career development greatly increases the value proposition of a college degree. For both the student and the college, good career placement is a positive outcome and a measure that should factor heavily into your search.

Considering a Gap Year? Maybe You Should (Part 1)

Note: This post is a companion post to Considering a Gap Year? Maybe You Should (Part 2).
Can anyone actually prove the value of a Gap Year? Probably not, but I wish I had taken a year off between high school and college. I bet that gap year would’ve done wonders for me. Of course, that’s easier said in hindsight.
At 18, I just wanted to get to go to college ASAP. After all, a zillion people had told me it’d be the “best 4 years of my life.” And my parents weren’t on board with my idea to delay college. They worried I’d never enroll if I waited. Adding to that, everyone I knew expected me – and other good students – to go straight to college.
The momentum of going straight to college was simply too great. How could I justify acting on my hunch that waiting a year would help me when so many others disagreed? So I didn’t do it. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even spend much time contemplating it. Off to college I went… into the blur of my first year, I partly blame that blur on my immaturity and not taking a gap year.
Back then, I didn’t realize my hunch about the benefits of a gap year was far from farfetched, even though most college-bound students in the US don’t do it. But support for taking a gap year comes from many places nowadays and countless educators recommend them.

Recently, even Harvard’s Dean of Admissions has encouraged students to wait a year for college. In many foreign countries, 18 and 19 year olds commit a year or two to public service prior to pursuing a degree. And today, my parents believe I would’ve been well served by a gap year. My dad, now well into his 70s, says he should’ve taken one, too.
Of course, none of us can prove with 100% certainty whether college would have been even more fulfilling if I’d waited. But I do know – without a shadow of a doubt – that I got a lot more out of my sophomore, junior and senior years than my first year.
And I also know that the three years I took between college and grad school made me appreciate the opportunity to be a student more. Consequently, it feels like a slam dunk to think I would’ve gotten more out of college if I’d spent a year working, exploring… and most importantly—growing up—before I enrolled in college.

Demonstrate Your Interest to Colleges on Your List

Grade point average, strength of curriculum, standardized test scores, essays, activities, recommendation letters. These are many of the criteria that are used to measure a student’s academic strengths and personal qualifications for college admissions. But there is another important factor that colleges often use as an additional important reference point: demonstrated interest.

What is demonstrated interest?
It consists of actions that a prospective student (and the prospective student alone) takes to engage with a college, often to learn about academic offerings, campus life, and the admission process. Examples of demonstrated interest include a campus visit, attendance at a college admission presentation in one’s hometown, or participation in an admission interview.
Why does demonstrated interest matter?
Consider the application evaluation process from the perspective of an admission committee. Each year, the admission committee is responsible for building a class of students, and that class must be in place by August (ideally, by June). The committee must feel confident that some of the students who are admitted to the college will ultimately enroll. This percentage of students who move from “admitted” to “enrolled” is called “yield.” Managing yield is top of mind for admission committees because it is essential to building a balanced and diverse class, as well as ensuring that the target number of students for a class year ultimately enroll. In addition, yield influences college rankings, and a lower yield relative to peer institutions may have a negative impact on future rankings.
A key benefit of using demonstrated interest in admission decisions is that students who are sincerely interested in the college are more likely to be a good fit. Thousands of applicants apply for a limited number of spaces in a college’s first year class. Many of these applicants have the baseline grades and scores to qualify for admission, as well as appealing personal qualities. Demonstrated interest is a critical additional measurement that admission committees can reference to select a pool of qualified applicants and ultimately yield a strong class.
How can you, the applicant, demonstrate your interest?
Stay engaged from the point of joining a mailing list to the point of applying. Your engagement is most important during your senior year because it signals to a college that your interest remains high even as you have narrowed your college list. Below are some ways to demonstrate interest:

  • Sign up for mailing lists. Early on in your search, sign up for mailing lists for each of the colleges that interest you. You will likely be inundated by emails, so it may be wise to set up a separate email account for collecting these messages. Many of these messages will include helpful information about the college and about the application process.
  • Schedule a campus visit. This is a prime way to demonstrate your interest. If you enjoy your visit, send a follow-up email to the admission office to thank them for the visit and to highlight what you value in the college. If visiting campus is not possible due to distance or financial constraints, there are many other ways to demonstrate interest.
  • Attend events in your area hosted by admission representatives or local alumni. Be sure to sign in so there is a record of your attendance.
  • Participate in an online admission chat hosted by the college.
  • Register for an admission interview in your area or at the college.
  • Send a select and limited number of emails to the admission office with relevant questions.

A word of caution:
Do not take this too far. Colleges are not quantifying the number of times you contact them, and you will make a negative impression if you hound the admission office. Be thoughtful about when and how you contact the college.
While some colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in the evaluation process, some do not (and it is often impossible to know). Regardless of the admission committee’s policy regarding demonstrated interest, it never hurts to engage with colleges throughout your search. Admission committees devote a lot of time and energy to finding the right students for their colleges. They will appreciate that you too are willing to put forth the extra effort to make a good match.

When Your Dream School is Calling

I still remember the way I felt the first time I walked onto the University of Virginia campus more than 20 years ago.  Golden with sunshine, history, and tradition, the school felt like the only place I could possibly be happy spending my undergraduate years. In 7th and 8th grades, I had prominently displayed my Duke paraphernalia all over my room, and then after a family trip to Boston in 9th grade, I never stopped wearing my Harvard hat.  But headed into 12th grade…I had a dream, and that dream was the University of Virginia.

When it comes to dream schools, I say – GO FOR IT.  Out there in the world of admissions, there are a lot of reasons to feel like you aren’t going to get into the most prestigious schools, whether that is your state flagship institution or a highly selective private school. It’s true, you very well may not get into those schools.  However, I would argue that chance of admission doesn’t matter when it comes to a school you love. First, when you are striving hard for a goal you want, you will work harder, feel more excited, and experience more motivation to get top grades or write that amazing essay.  That hard work will pay off in your applications overall.  Also, when you enroll finally in whatever college you choose, you should feel no regrets.  Nobody wants to chart a path toward more “what if?” scenarios. You want to be able to step forward into your future feeling like you did your best, got the results of your best efforts, and made a great choice from those available.
While I believe in having a dream school to keep you motivated, the dream school thing can also get a little out of control.  If you know you are a long shot to the Ivy League, and yet insist on applying to eight Ivy League schools, you are going to set yourself up for having few or no choices.  That is not smart. If you spend all of your energy on unrealistic applications, you won’t generate several reasonable choices for yourself.  Also, if you focus too much on one school, you could fail to thoroughly research and vet your more reasonable choices or even scholarship programs.  That closed-mindedness could keep you from considering other great options that may be even better than the one you’ve identified, or cause you to dismiss schools you’d be more likely to attend.  Keeping an open mind is an important factor in landing happily with a great college choice.
Just as I remember well that day I visited UVA, I also still remember clearly the day I sat at my kitchen table and read my rejection letter from them. The good news is that while I had my sights fixed on one school at the age of 18, I had also applied for a variety of other options. Though the rejection was tough, my aspiration to a dream school helped me craft a stronger application, and that motivation paid off in my other choices.  And here’s the best part of the story: landing at Vanderbilt was financially and academically a better match for me.  My eventual college home became the source of my career, my acapella group, my friends, and even my sports allegiance.  When I took a campus tour of Vanderbilt for the first time on April 23 of my senior year, I liked it even more than UVA and was almost grateful for the denial that had kept that door open.
Do you have a dream school like I did?  I would encourage you to keep your dream alive and work towards being the best applicant you can be to that school, no matter how long the odds against admission.  However, don’t let your dream overtake the process. Keep it in its place, and be sure that practical, reasonable criteria are guiding the rest of your list. Don’t totally close your mind to alternate pathways just because you have a first choice school.  Then, no matter what, your adventure begins! You will either attain what you wanted all along, or you will move forward into a different, but still exciting future ahead.

Advice to High School Seniors, by Patrick Shea (Class of 2018)

Guest Post by Patrick Shea. Patrick graduated from high school in 2018 and is a rising freshman at Providence College.
Heading into the college process can be kind of stressful, especially piling it on top of school. It just kind of hangs over your head like a cloud and adds just a little bit to the strain of school. If I have one piece of advice regarding this, it’s to get a head start. A few of my close friends just waited it out, and they were very stressed come January.

One way to make this a bit easier on yourself is to apply early to schools. Not only do you find out about a school sooner than everyone else, you also do all of the work at the beginning of the school year, when none of the teachers are doing anything. I applied early to over half of the schools that I applied to, and it was a huge relief knowing before Christmas break that I was into a few schools. During this first semester, the admissions counselors will be a lot easier to reach; they won’t be dealing with nearly the same amount of students as they will second semester. This will make it way easier to reach them and ask questions if you need, and it will give them more time to help you out. And lastly, you have a slightly better chance of getting in! Applying early to a school will show that school that you have an interest in going there, so they’ll be more likely to let you in.
Another way to make the whole process easier is to pick common essay topics. Essays are the single most time consuming aspect of the college application process, and are infamous for being the hardest, but they don’t have to be. If you’re applying to five different schools, you don’t want to write a different set of essays for each school, that’s insane. Find common ground between the prompts, so you can write essays that you can use for multiple schools. My personal record is using one essay to answer a prompt from 4 different schools. This may be tough at first, having to think of something that covers different questions, but it will save you so much time and energy. It will also help you write a stronger essay, because you’ll be focusing on fewer topics. Really if you find a topic that you’re particularly passionate about, then it won’t be hard to make it work for other prompts.
After your essays are finished, it will feel like you’re done with school; but trust me in that you want to make sure you keep your grades up. Your grades senior year could be the difference between getting a huge scholarship and getting nothing for your freshman year. After a few months of normal school, then the decisions will start to roll in, which is one of the toughest times of the year. It will be kind of weird, with some of your classmates having different experiences and responses from colleges. Focusing on what you want is really important during this time, but in the end, trust your gut, and the feelings of those that know you best.
Everyone makes their decision in a different way; sometimes a person will know the second they set foot on campus, others may need to think long and hard. No matter in what fashion, the decision will come, and you will make a good one. I put down my deposit at the beginning of April, but I think I had made my decision in February, on a campus visit, during a hockey game. You will know when a place is right for you, and you’ll make a great choice in the end.

How I Navigated My Own College Process

Guest Post by Julia High. Julia graduated from high school in 2017. She is a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina.
The first thing I’m glad I did during my college search was make my own decisions. Although that sounds simple, it is not easy to stray from the popular opinion of colleges, or to have an opinion that differs from your parents, but I would not have ended up where I am if I did not think independently on the matter. It is easy to hear a friend speak negatively of a tour or a school and assume the same opinion. Also telling my parents early on that I did not want to pursue college tennis made the rest of the process much smoother with that out of the way, and not having to fake anything for their benefit.

The second choice I am glad I made was applying everywhere early, none of the schools I applied to had binding early applications, so I finished all my applications and turned them in for early action which not only made senior year much more enjoyable, but getting my acceptances back before April gave me some time to make a decision and time to plan, I had friends who did not know where they were going until May, making the end of their senior year a mess.
The third aspect that helped me a great deal during the college search was consulting my college counselor. She was incredibly helpful as far as talking about what different schools had to offer and what different parts even meant, it was not rare for there to be at least seven of us senior sitting on the floor on her office calling out questions and working through applications together. Her office also provided a space for senior to work together, reading one anothers’ essays and helping one another through applications. Having my counselor to look over my applications before I hit submit and to talk to step by step definitely made the process less stressful. It was also nice to simply have an outside source to listen to my pros and cons of each school and help ensure that I was being rational throughout the process, it was a crazy time and taking advantage of my counselor was a definite good decision.
As well as taking advantage of my college counselor, taking advantage of my other resources on my high school campus was a great idea. Being on a high school for eight hours a day means you’ve got time to use a lot of resources. I got a great deal of applications completed at school, just taking advantage of spare time and working on them with teachers, who were brilliant, and also more than willing to read my essays. My AP English teacher as well as several others were always ready to give feedback on essays. With all the essays that the application process requires it is easy to get passive or sloppy, I quickly learned the more eyes I could get on my essays the better.
Avoiding taking college stereotypes into consideration was also something I found important during the application process. I heard many of my friends saying things like “I can’t apply there because it’s a party school” or “I don’t want to go here because it is easy to get into and I don’t want people to think I’m not smart.” It seems silly, but concerns like these are very real for many seniors, and it made their decisions 10x harder, resulting in a lot of unnecessary stress, not taking into consideration what people would think about me based on where I went to college was one less thing to worry about and I think I did a good job on not allowing this to be a factor in my college decisions.

The Importance of the College Essay

Angst about the “college essay” lives viciously in many college bound juniors and seniors.  I believe this angst exists in such magnitude partly because students and parents don’t accurately understand the function and impact of essays in the college process.  After years of coaching students to produce strong essays, I want to share a few points of clarification that might help reduce the stress associated with this particular piece of the application process.

What’s the point?

First, I want to unpack the reasons why admissions offices ask students to write college essays at all.  For starters, admissions offices ask students to write essays to give them a qualitative (or non-numeric) perspective on the student.  I have heard the essay described as adding a “third dimension” to a student’s “2-dimensional application,” or as “bringing a student’s voice to the application.”  In essence, “hearing” a student’s thoughts on the essay prompts provided allows an admissions office to try to understand more of the student than just the numbers, test scores, and activities provided.
However, another equally-important purpose is for an admissions office to review a sample of the student’s writing.  Yes, this piece of writing may have been proofread or coached a bit by adults, but in general, colleges want to see that a student, when motivated, can produce a piece of writing that demonstrates maturity of thought, precision of grammar and wording, and effectiveness in communication.  I find that many students (and parents) get stuck on finding an essay topic that’s good enough or will wow or impress admissions officers. I would say that, generally, very few essays are memorable to the point that students want them to be, but having a thoughtful, genuine, well-written essay goes a long way to demonstrating that you are college ready, even if your essay isn’t a particularly dynamite topic.

Helping to Make the Right Choice

Finally, essays help students demonstrate their fit for the institution. If a student is wiling to do research and write a supplemental essay demonstrating his or her fit for the institution, this can help a student stand out from other candidates.  In my experience, students spend too little time refining the supplemental essays (which are often as important some places than the primary application essay), and even will send these in with errors or written last-minute, when, in actuality, each opportunity to write should be approached as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to put thought into what you are writing and execute a college-ready piece of work.
As for potential impact of the essay, the importance of admissions essays can be so, so difficult to determine from the outside.  First, I will acknowledge that the essay is one of the only things left within a student’s control by the time he or she is filling out the application. Grades, test scores, recommendations – these are already established. Often, students funnel all of their anxieties into the essay, and feel that it means everything – which is neither helpful nor accurate.  However, downplaying the essay as unimportant can also be unhelpful – an essay can be an impactful piece of the application in some scenarios.

Breaking It Down

For a student who is applying to a college requiring one main essay or personal statement, where the student is comfortably within the range of the schools mid-50% GPA and test score, and the chances of admission are reasonably high, the essay is unlikely to be the most impactful part of the application. Similarly, if a student is applying to a highly selective college, is well below the average GPA and test scores, and is hoping the essay will put this student in the game for admission, disappointingly, the essay is unlikely to do that in most cases.  Every now and then, a student will have something to say that does change the game, but most of us are inclined to think of ourselves as an exception, when, realistically, we are not.
Another way to say it is that essays are unlikely to change likely outcomes. In cases where other factors point largely toward admission or denial, an essay is important for the purposes of verifying what other facts in the application already show, but no more.  However, in a different scenario, where a student is borderline for admission or scholarships based on quantitative factors, the essay could literally be the differentiating piece of the application. In a competitive admission or scholarship process, essays can be one of the biggest factors at play. In these scenarios, where test scores, GPAs, etc. have gotten a student’s application “in the door,” the essay can be the piece of the application that grabs the attention of admissions officers and helps a student stand out over others with similar qualifications.  In these cases, laborious time working on essays is justified and well-spent.

How important is the essay?

Well, it depends on the colleges you are applying to and how competitive you are for them. How much time you spend going from a strong to an excellent essay should depend on if you are marginal for admission or might be eligible for scholarships at that college and might be reviewed by professors or administration.  The important thing is to be reasonable about understanding how your essay is going to fit into your process of admission, allot your resources of time and energy accordingly, and do your best.
In my experience, most students let the essay hang over them and grow in importance and nastiness, thus exacerbating the angst involved in the process.  Yet, when I sit students down in my office to brainstorm and free-write essay topics, consistently they can produce a rough draft by the end of 3 hours. My best advice is to find a way to set small blocks of time each week and always accomplish something.  Stuck on the essay? Do a 15-minute brainstorming essay. Or, open your Common Application account and complete one section. Still stuck on your main essay topic? Knock out one of the supplemental essays at your top choice school. Spend 15 minutes researching one of your colleges in preparation for a scholarship essay or an interview.
Overall, use common sense and don’t let the essay angst overwhelm you.  Get someone to proofread it, and feel great that you have put your best foot forward. Practice adult skills by demonstrating that you can take the task of applying to college, complete it thoughtfully and on time, and set reasonable expectations for yourself both in the schools you apply to and the applications you complete.

College as a Milestone, Not an Endgame

By Leigh Thompson, MBA – Launchgrad Consulting
During your child’s junior and senior year of high school, it’s easy to focus everything on getting into a “top choice” college. But what if college is just an important milestone, not the endgame? What if setting our students up to launch well AFTER college is what it’s all about?
Why think about life after college when your family is consumed with sports practices, theatre rehearsals, finding the SAT tutor, deciding how many APs to take, and visiting colleges? Because the reality for our young adults is that launching well is not a given. Over 50% of recent college grads are under– or unemployed; 75% carry students loans. Because paying rent and making student loan payments is tough when you work in a coffee shop, one-third of young adults live at home with their parents. Bottom line, students who take a long-term view during the late high school and college years are more likely to launch into future success.
What can parents of high school students do to move the goal line past college graduation and towards a good job and independence?

Share what you do.

Informational interviews are the most underutilized yet powerful job search tool. These short conversations are all about gathering information from someone in a field of interest. No amount of googling can top a face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) conversation between a student and someone currently employed in the trenches. Starting these dialogues with parents is a safe, low stress beginning. Many clients are so busy playing the “get into/do well in college” game that they’ve never really dialogued with mom and dad about their jobs. Tell your child how you picked your path, what obstacles and victories and pivots you’ve experienced along the way, and why your career fits you. Tell them what gets you excited about your work, what you like and don’t like about your work environment and colleagues. The more you share, the better they’ll understand how you connected your college experience to your own first job and how different the working world is from academia. And, once they’ve had these conversations with you, encourage them to talk with other family members and friends. Having worked with hundreds of students, I can count on one hand the number who landed a job without conversations with “insiders”. Starting informational interviews now sets them up for all kinds of productive conversations down the road. And, they just might have new respect for all you do to keep your family afloat – well, maybe that’s pushing it!

Help students define themselves beyond courses and extra-curriculars.

High school students are so busy with academics and extracurriculars, not to mention their 24/7 social lives. They have little time to reflect on strengths, talents and goals beyond the next test. When clients begin working with me, they typically label themselves according to their academic and extracurricular pursuits. “I’m a math-science kid” OR “I’m a sports person” OR “I’m artsy”. Parents can help students expand the aperture on how they view themselves. Help your math-science student discuss what it is about math and science that they enjoy. Do they enjoy analysis? Love concrete answers to problems? Enjoy setting up and working in the lab? Diving below the surface of the “math-science” description helps students identify innate talents, strengths, interests and, ultimately, good-fit career paths.
No doubt your high school student has a bright future ahead. Remember how fast your own four years of college blew by? Set your child up for long term success by moving the finish line out a bit – keep ultimate success after college in mind and your student will win the endgame.

Application Anxiety

Each August, I get hit by a tsunami of anxiety and stress. Though it happens year after year, I’m still startled when I look up and see it above me, overshadowing the peaceful laziness of summer that came before.
Call it a professional hazard: Students and parents cannot help but look toward college with apprehension, and their apprehension arrives in force (in my office) in August. Whether stemming from the unbelievable cost of college, or the incredible odds against getting into a dream school, these fears are grounded in the realities of today’s college admission world.
College-bound students transitioning to adulthood face myriad challenges – living on their own, finding friends and partners, declaring a major, looking for a job. The percentage of students who enter college and do not persist to graduation because of depression, academic failure, substance abuse, or financial concerns is high. And more and more students who do complete a degree are graduating without jobs and heading home to live with parents.

Change Can Be Tough

I see on a daily basis the anxiety associated with these transitions. For many students, feelings of fear, anticipation, and self-doubt continuously circulate, even as they set high expectations for their final year of high school. Rising seniors want to enjoy time with friends and family, make good grades in challenging classes, apply to college, perhaps take the SAT, make it to state in their final year on the team….and the list goes on. These young adults have a lot to do as they approach what is arguably the biggest role transition a person experiences until becoming a parent.
Parents face different challenges, but intense ones nonetheless. In addition to hoping/wondering/praying that their children can actually survive in the real world, they are trying to figure out how they can afford to send the child they have nurtured, supported, and loved all these years to his or her dream school. In many cases, they can’t. Parents feel their children’s stress, self-doubt, and anxiety and help as best they can. But also, for one of the first times, they have to cede control of a process that has lifelong importance for their child. In my experience, parents across the spectrum fight valiantly to keep their own egos out of their child’s college process, but at times feel inferior to other, braggadocious parents. All the while, they are crying at senior slideshows, sponsoring that last prom party, and buying snacks for the final big game. Parents are showing up, but feeling themselves disappear into the background, knowing that leaving their child in a college dorm room will be an act of faith, hope, and love, and a heartbreaking one at that.

It Comes From Nowhere

I choose to describe this tide of emotion as a tsunami, not a wave, because I believe it takes us all by surprise. Intellectually, folks recognize the stressors and transitions associated with being or having a 12th grader. Yet what I forget time and time again is that knowing it doesn’t protect you from living it. In my office, I see the college application process exacerbate family dynamics, financial stressors, and transition anxieties. For instance, the stress over whether to take the SAT a fourth time often has more to do with a father’s feelings of helplessness to give a child her dream than with the SAT. It takes compassion to acknowledge the look of fear in a student’s eyes when we open a Common Application account, and to take a deep breath with that student and acknowledge how scary it is to think about going to college and making a life in the adult world.
I have always believed that the process of applying to college is a catalyst for psychological issues such as family dysfunction, self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The pressure and work associated with the process cracks facades and touches on hidden expectations and fears. Knowing this offers professionals who work in the field an incredible opportunity. I remember being astonished once to hear a colleague say that the moment a student starts to tear up in his office, he finds a way to leave the room. In my mind, the moment a student or parent becomes vulnerable enough to reveal fear, anxiety, or pain is the moment that person has become brave. That is the moment a person is looking for you to look back with confidence, acknowledge the truth that this is a scary moment, and help him or her step forward into the future.
This August, I remind myself and other college admission professionals that we are working with human beings. Not numbers, or resumes, not demographic groups or well put-together packages. We are working with people who have looked up and seen a scary wave about to crash down on their shores. The ways they are trying to get to safety may be annoying or add extra work to our lives, but by acknowledging the bigger issues at play, we’re better positioned to help both students and parents safely weather the transition.

Self Care When Starting College

No one takes a picture of herself sitting in her dorm room crying.
Come August, Facebook and Instagram will soon be filled with pictures from freshman orientations, fabulous dorm buddies, newly pledged Greek members, and other activities that make college appear to be indeed very much like 22 Jump Street says it is.  College students will appear to the world as if they do nothing but have fun. There are no lonely moments, no feelings of insecurity, no financial hardships, and no academic adjustments on social media.
However, most college students find themselves feeling lost or without friends or direction at some point in their college careers, particularly in the first year. In fact, according to the American College Health Association, more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year. These are staggering statistics about the mental health challenges U.S. college students face.

A Different Era

It is no surprise that college can involve difficult times. Students are separated from their family and friend support systems for the first time, and are doing the hard work of forging careers, relationships, and futures.  These tasks hold importance but also intense pressure for many students.
I think the age of Instagram has brought a new challenge – a reality in which everyone you “see” can be perceived as having mastered all of the growth required in college without having experienced any of the distress.
First, students should know who to call for help and how if that hard work seems too overwhelming.  Parents and counselors, you can help them research student services and go to college with a list of helpful phone numbers and emails – counseling center, tutoring center, health center, etc.  Students should also decide on trusted friends and family from home on whom they can call if they are feeling unable to cope with the challenges they face.

Before You Go

Most importantly, however, students should set their expectations of college appropriately. In college, you will experience incredible change.  Your job in college is to become an adult. And the tasks of growing up – finding trusted peers, charting careers, getting into graduate schools, engaging in meaningful hobbies – are worthwhile but not always easy.
Students preparing for college: You will cry in your dorm room. And you won’t take a picture.  And you will see a million pictures of other college students having the time of their lives and nobody else crying.  However: growth-producing experiences bring you to tears now and again. They are beautiful and rich. Soul-wrenchingly intense.  World-shattering. Thus, be prepared for the intensity of emotions that come with so much growth, and be proud of yourself for growing.  Feeling vulnerable means that you are open to the world and you are outside your comfort zone. Both of those qualities take bravery.
And if you are very brave, post a picture of yourself in your dorm room crying.  You may save a life.

Visiting a College Campus

A guest blog by Bill Shain

When should I visit a college?

It’s not a bad idea to stop by a campus when you are in the area any time from Ninth Grade on, and take the official tour. However, in terms of the college admission process, your first set of campus visits should occur during spring break junior year, and continue through the summer. During the fall of senior year, try to schedule overnight visits in a residence hall at the schools which most interest you.
You will hear people say that you should try to visit colleges when school is in session. There is good sense behind this recommendation, because you can experience what the campus feels like in the most complete way. However, it is simply not possible to visit as many campuses as you will want or need to without using the summer after Junior Year extensively. And there are advantages to summer visits. Tours will typically be smaller than in the spring and fall, and it is easier to meet with admission staff to get questions answered. It is also usually easier to organize your family for college trips during the summer months.
Avoid Saturday visits as much as possible. They are generally the busiest visitor days for admission offices, and tours can be very large. You will find the smallest tours and information sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Ideally, you will visit only one campus a day. If schools are within an hour of each other, it is possible to visit two campuses the same day. This is not ideal, but can be realistic when you have finite time to get to a number of locations. Under no circumstances should you try to visit more than two campuses in a single day.

How do I schedule a campus visit?

Some schools request that you inform them in advance if you are planning a visit. This makes it easier for them to plan appropriate space for an information session and make sure enough tour guides are available. In most cases, you do this is on the web site of the admission office involved, though it can also be done by phone. For other schools, generally larger ones, you simply show up for a campus tour and/or an information session. What is offered on any given day varies during the year, so be sure you check admissions websites before planning your trip.

What should I do during a campus visit?

Always take the campus tour, and attend the admission information session. Schedule your campus visit when both these activities are available. If interviews are offered, try to schedule one, but only if you are visiting after the end of your Junior Year. Note that interviews fill quickly, especially in late summer and early fall, and thus you should request one at least ten weeks before you expect to be on campus. Make sure that you fill out a card in the admission office so they have a record that you visited.
Most campus tours will run about an hour, though some colleges now schedule them to run even longer. Tour guides also often run over the time they have been allotted. Information sessions are more reliably limited to sixty minutes. While only one information session is offered in a given time slot, you may find that there are several tours leaving simultaneously. Consider dividing the family, and agreeing that you will ask a couple of the same questions on your tour. One issue with campus tours is that the students conducting them have a great deal of latitude to choose what they say (and not all if it may be correct). Having information from more than one tour guide reduces the chance that you will receive partial, skewed or inaccurate information. You may find this article on campus tours interesting.
You should, however, spend another couple of hours on campus. No admissions tour covers the entire campus, and you might want to explore other portions of the campus. Explore the neighborhood immediately around the campus. Have a meal in the dining commons if it is open (admissions offices will sometimes pay for all or part of this if you inquire), and perhaps dinner in the surrounding town. If school is in session, pay attention to bulletin boards and information kiosks. Pick up any campus publications available for free distribution, and a copy of the local town alternative newspaper (almost every city has at least one). These will give you an idea of recreational and cultural options locally available.
As you wander the campus (on tour or otherwise), make an effort to notice actively what is around you. Do students seated together in the dining hall, or walking together on campus, all seem to share a single ethnicity or social orientation?  Do people greet each other as they pass on campus? Do you notice an unusually large number of students eating alone or walking alone on campus? Does any portion of the campus or its neighborhood make you uneasy in terms of safety?
Make every effort to experience at least a few aspects of the area where the college or university is located. Try to make the visit interesting and enjoyable beyond its college admissions function. Walk a historic town, visit the seacoast, see a museum — do some of the things you would do if this were vacation time (which, in fact, it is).
And when you are done, perhaps in the car or plane when you are on your way home or to the next campus, carefully record your perceptions. College visits blue all to easily, and this is the only way you can accurately recapture your reactions months later when you will want them.

Some questions you might ask

Below are a number of questions you might consider using during a campus visit. However, there are other things which are undoubtedly important to you, so create your own as well. It is a good idea to ask each question several times to see if the response is consistent across the campus community.

Academic Questions      

Ask students:

  •   Who taught you in your first year and how large were the classes?
  •   How often are you unable to schedule a course you want or need?
  •   What was your best and most disappointing experience with a professor?
  •   How much do students study?
  •   To what extent are academic ideas discussed beyond the classroom?
  •   How up to date is campus technology?  How good is access?
  •   How easy is it to get a chance to do research and what years is this possible?

Ask admissions officers, faculty etc.

  •   What makes this college unique?
  •   How do distribution requirements work?
  •   What courses, if any, are required?
  •   What is the range of class and lab sizes?
  •   How can a student get to do research and how common is this?
  •   What distinguishes your students intellectually?
  •   How are courses structured — how many lectures vs. classes vs. labs?
  •   Which departments rely on T.A.s and how often?

Non-Academic Questions

Ask students:

  •   How do students spend their non-academic time?
  •   Are certain nights “party time”?
  •   How much do students discuss current issues?  The arts?
  •   Do students attend athletic events?  Concerts? Plays?
  •   How would you characterize the political orientation of the student body?
  •   What will my life here be like for someone like me who is “substance-free?”
  •   (If relevant), How important is Greek life?  When is rush and how is it conducted?
  •   To what extent do people of different backgrounds interact?
  •   What is the condition of the residence halls (aside from the one on the tour)?  How well maintained are they? What safety provisions so they maintain?
  •   What activities are hard to join?
  •   What is the campus like on weekends?
  •   What is available off-campus and how does one get there?  Do students use the surrounding area? The nearest large city?
  •   What is the procedure for students to get tickets to on-campus events: athletic contests, speakers, concerts, etc.?

Ask admissions officers, faculty etc.

  •   What improvements are planned for the four years I would be on campus?
  •      What services are available through the health center?  How are major medical situations handled?
  •      What percentage of students live on campus?  Is housing guaranteed and if so for which years?
  •      How confident can one be concerning campus safety?
  •      What activities are selective (publications, theatre, etc.)?

Get To Know Your School's College Career Counselor

This week, February 5-9, is National School Counselor Week, though few people realize it. This makes sense, because, in general, I find school counselors to be humble individuals.It takes a special type of person to be able to effectively counsel a distressed student or parent, create every student’s schedule, and also write letters of recommendation for college. These are just a few of the very important jobs schools counselors do in our schools.
So, what about your school counselor? Have you met him or her? If not, go say hello! This person will have a required role in your college process and can also be a resource or support during the season you are searching for and applying to colleges. To help you understand more about your school counselor and his or her role in your college process, I’ve listed a few common questions below.

1) What information do school counselors have about college?

School counseling offices hold a lot of information about colleges that you can access! They might have a library of brochures, a software you can login to, or a scholarship file or database. School counselors will also know if colleges are planning to visit your school and can keep you posted on those visits.Many school counselors are able to visit colleges or learn from college representatives, so they might be able to suggest a college you didn’t know about or give you more in-depth information about one of your colleges.

2) Does my school counselor have to write a letter of recommendation?

Your school counselor has to send in a Secondary School Report for your colleges – this report includes your transcript from the school and a letter from your counselor. Many counselors will ask you to fill out a survey or have an informational meeting to assist them as they fill in your forms. If there is anything they have asked you to do, you should do it well to best help them as they work to support your applications.

3) Does my school counselor send in my transcript and test scores?

In most schools, a school counselor or registrar will send the transcript to colleges, but every school has a different system. The important thing is to find out from your school counselors what the system is for letting their office know that you have finished an application and how to request the supporting documents be sent to the colleges.

4) Will my school counselor talk to colleges about me?

In some cases, colleges might make a phone call to follow up on something in your application. If that happens, they will be calling your school counselor. Be sure your counselor knows the information needed to be a strong advocate for you in case of this kind of scenario.
In the United States, funding for school counselors has become more and more limited. Even though school counselors are often responsible for widely varying, incredibly important tasks in a school, they are often over-tasked and under-appreciated in the roles. Yet most of the school counselors I know go above and beyond to do the work necessary in helping students apply to college and forge a path after high school. Take a moment this week to go say hello and thank you to your school counselor, and to forge a relationship that will help take you through the college process smoothly.

Picking a College That Allows You to Change Ideas

We all change our minds, right? It’s a natural outcome of engaging with the world around us. I used to love mayo and hate spicy mustard. Now, it’s the total reverse. And in college, I changed my major at least 4 times. Don’t get me started on how many ideas — or really they should be called uncertainties — I had about majors and careers during my college search. In hindsight, I know that’s ok; it was natural.
I now know there’s good reason so many people repeat the saying “the only constant is change.” That said, all those changes in my plans years ago gave me truckloads of strife. And changes can still be tough, but now, I plan with an understanding that I cannot predict exactly where changes lurk.

Solving the Puzzle

How do we manage that understanding when we also know it’s natural for some — though I’ve only know a few people like this — to recognize their singular professional dream at a very young age. You may know someone like this. For me, there was my 5th grade classmate who declared she would be a teacher and my middle school sidekick who knew he belonged in investment banking. Maybe you feel called to medicine or the ministry or something else.  
Even if you’re locked into a professional idea, your college search, academic planning and career thoughts should evolve. They should grow and develop as you learn more about your talents and your academic preferences. They should evolve as you study new subjects, meet new people, travel to new places and get older. They should evolve as the world — politically, technologically and environmentally — changes around you.

Making the Best Choice

So how do you plan for that change while also honoring what you want and expect now? There are two key points for you to keep in mind, in my opinion. The first is conceptual – pursue your interests with an open mind. The second is practical – consider a wide range of colleges and apply to ones where you’ll be happy if your academic plans change.
Said another way, don’t let your college plan or — more importantly — yourself be a “one trick pony.”


Lack of Sleep is Hurting Your ACT Score

A guest blog by Scott Hardin, Riverside Academic Tutoring
Every year I tutor dozens of students trying to boost their SAT and ACT scores to gain acceptance to the college of their dreams.  Many of them, despite strong motivation and consistent effort, are unwittingly hampering their own efforts by not getting enough sleep. In fact many students discover that fixing their sleep patterns improves their performance in all aspects of their academic life. Some students with ADHD even find their need for medication is reduced once they optimize their sleep patterns.  
How does a student know if lack of sleep may be hurting his or her performance? If you’re yawning during the day, you aren’t getting enough sleep. If you’re making more careless errors than you used to make, you’re probably not getting enough sleep.  If you find yourself having to spend more time reviewing new material than you used to, you’re probably not getting enough sleep.
Subjective measures aside, if you suspect there may be room for improvement the first step is to **get some data**. Self reported sleep is typically overestimates actual time asleep. Fitness trackers and smart watches will now record your sleep automatically. Newer fitness trackers like the Fitbit Charge HR not only track sleep time but sleep quality. How much sleep should you be getting?  That number varies from person to person but it’s typically between 7 and 8 hours. Don’t be surprised if your fitness tracker shows you’re getting less sleep than you think. We typically spend 10-25 percent of our time in bed awake!

The next step is to fix your artificial light exposure.

Ideally you will avoid artificial light 2 hours before bedtime.  At first glance this may seem impossible. Even if you were to give up your iPhone after 8 or 9pm, you’d still need to finish your homework on your laptop.
The good news is there’s a hack for that: limit your exposure to the blue light. Scientists have learned that it is the blue frequencies specifically which tell the brain that it’s daytime and to put off producing melatonin (the sleep hormone).  Electronics manufactures know this and that’s why they’ve started adding features like “night-mode” which reduce the blue light emitted from your device. While this is a good start, if you want to get your best night’s sleep you need to eliminate all blue light exposure.
The easiest way to fix this problem is to **wear glasses specifically designed to block the blue frequencies of light.** 90 minutes to 2 hours before you plan to go to sleep, put on the glasses and do not take them off.  Often students find this technique works the very first night. The effects are not subtle. Many people describe an extreme sleepiness setting in just about 90 minutes after putting on the glasses.

Does this really work?

For most people, the answer is definitely “yes!” If you’ve ever been camping you know how often you end up falling asleep just a few hours after sunset, even if its just 8 or 9PM!  In a natural environment, once the sun sets, our eyes are starved of blue light and the brain knows it’s time to prepare for a restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep. When you’re working on your laptop to finish a paper, this natural process is interrupted.  The light from your laptop convinces your brain that its still daytime. Once you’ve finished your work and shut down your devices it often still takes a couple of hours for your brain to produce adequate levels of melatonin.
To improve your sleep even more you need to make sure you are getting some exposure to sunlight during the day. Direct sunlight on the skin and in your eyes makes it significantly easier for your body to tune into natural circadian rhythms.  This step is definitely easier in the spring and the summer but its even more important in the winter months. The bright light of the sun, even on cloudy days, is thousands of times brighter than even the brightest artificial light. Exposing yourself to that contrast on a daily basis will help your body keep its circadian clock tuned.

"Fair" Thee Well: How to Make the Most of a College Fair

Many people think of fall as football season, but I think of it as college fair season. College fairs can be a great way to research colleges you know you are interested in and to meet some schools you haven’t yet considered. But getting the most out of a college fair means going in prepared. Here is some football-themed advice to make the most of your 100-yard dash through the convention center hosting your local college fair this fall.

Ready? Break!

Parents and students often attend fairs together, but you will cover more ground (literally) if you divide and conquer. Have mom or dad stop by the tables at the big state universities where you are less likely to make a personal connection or have a one-on-one conversation. Parents can sign up for the mailing list and grab a brochure just as well as a student can. The student’s time is best spent chatting with reps from smaller schools more likely to take “demonstrated interest” into account.

Go Long

As soon as the fair doors open, head all the way to the back of the room and then work your way forward. Popular schools close to the entrance get mobbed in the early part of the fair while representatives in the back are eager for conversation.

Go the Distance

Just as you will do well to start in the back of the room and work your way forward, you should prioritize visiting with those colleges you are least likely to be able to visit before you apply. While a school halfway across the country won’t hold it against you that you can’t get to campus for a visit, they might wonder why they haven’t heard from you when they come to your hometown.

Follow the Playbook

Before the fair, you should have given some thought to the questions you wanted to ask of the representatives. If you are just getting started, you might ask open-ended “fishing” questions like, “What kind of student really thrives on your campus?” If you have an idea of what you want to major in, you can ask about what kind of special opportunities the college offers to students in that field. Do they help finance majors setup internships on Wall Street, for example, and what year can nursing students start working with patients? Ask at least one question that gets the representative talking at each school you visit. As soon as you step away from the table, take two minutes to jot down three things that you want to remember about the school (good or bad).

Huddle Up at Halftime

Halfway through the fair, parents and students should meet at a pre-arranged spot to compare notes and switch strategies if needed. Parents can tell students where they have been and what they have learned so far, students can check their progress on the list and re-prioritize if necessary. Have a drink of water, grab a granola bar and then get back out on the gridiron.


If you are still standing at the end of a three-hour college fair, congratulations, you are a winner! Now, it’s time to head home and get started on those follow-up notes to the representatives at your favorite schools…

When Things Get Stressful, Don't Lose Perspective

For many college-bound students, the spring semester and the summer following it will be their last months living at home as a child with their parents. This marks the beginning of your entrance into adulthood. Many students in the fall semester are focused on completing applications, taking the SAT or ACT, and making good grades for the first semester report card. However, the time for all of those things has now come to an end. Never again will you take the SAT, likely you will never again fill out an application to an undergraduate institution. And you will never again have to answer relatives’ questions about where you want to go to college!
Yet, the end of this season means the beginning of another. It is the beginning of the time in which you become an adult. It is the beginning of the time in which you choose a career path and start to follow it. You will have to become financially independent in the coming months and years. You may be taking on student loans, which you will be responsible for paying back when you graduate from college. Now begins the time that you live apart from your family, travel independently, make more decisions by yourself without any influence from your parents. Now begins the time you choose your partner will be in life, how much money you want to try to make, what impact you want to have in the world.

Frayed Nerves

Last year, I met one of my students at a coffee shop in her neighborhood. In addition to maintaining a very difficult course load, this student had been working since the summer prior on application essays. She had put great effort in and had done an excellent job with everything involved — she was almost finished! However, she has a few more applications to go, and the fatigue and stress were beginning to show. This student really just wanted it all to be over so that she could know where she would be going to college and could finally move on with her life.
For my student and many others like her, December represents the final stretch. They are almost finished with endless editing of college application essays that are often tedious to write. They are almost finished with the waiting game of knowing what sweatshirt they will be wearing on college football Saturdays. They are almost finished answering questions about the future from teachers, family and friends. However this season marks not only the end, it is also the beginning. And that is important to keep in mind.

Don’t Give Up the Ship

I think it is important to acknowledge that for college applicants, the next six months really include both an end and the beginning. It is important to celebrate the results of the end of high school, the end of applications, the end of deciding where to spend the next chapter of your life. However, many students and families forget to take time and make space for the transition that is to come because it is easy for college applications in school work in senior senior year to overwhelm everything. This next semester might be your last chance to take a spontaneous weekend trip as a family, learn to do laundry, or spend time at your favorite restaurant for awhile.
I reassured my student from the coffee shop that the end is indeed near. One final push to January deadlines and she will be finished, and she will be very thankful. I’m proud of the work she has done, and I know that she is too. However I took a moment to talk with her about the beginning that is coming ahead. The beginning of her adult life and all that that means, and while it is a relief to end the process of applying to college, I counseled her not to wish away the time available to her in the next available to her in the next few months to appreciate what she has now before she moves onto the next season of life.
For all students and parents out there who are feeling the fatigue and strain of the fall semester of 12th grade, I encourage you to take a breath and finish up the work that December holds. Then, step foot into the season that follows — transitions, last-times, and preparing for your future.

Dealing with Waitlists and Deferrals

Colleges turn to giving you a Deferral or a Waitlist decision due to some level of uncertainty about your application. Three main uncertainties drive these decisions.

1. Broad Uncertainty

The admissions team may not yet knowing enough about their application pool to understand how you compare to their other applicants. This scenario tends to result in Deferral Decisions for students who apply earlier in the academic year. A Deferral in this instance tends to imply that the admissions team wants to compare your application to other later applicants.

2. Applicant Numbers

Colleges have a very tough job of trying to predict how many of their admitted students will choose to enroll. Oftentimes, colleges offer a place on the Waitlist to many students. Having this Waitlist gives the college the ability to admit more students if a smaller-than-expected pool of admitted students choose to enroll.

3. Academic Performance

Lastly, some Admissions Team members may determine that they cannot make a decision on your application until you can provide more grades from your senior year. There really isn’t much that can be done about this, it’s just the case with some institutions.
Whether you are Deferred or Waitlisted, it is always best for you to evaluate whether that decision changes how you feel about that college. Some students get turned off by these decisions; others make it their mission to try to gain admission after receiving one of these decisions.

What can I do about it?

First, return any forms that the Admissions Team sent you to make plain that you remain interested in the college.
Second, contact the Admissions Team to express your interest and clarify what additional materials might strengthen your application. Make sure you submit all appropriate materials in a timely fashion. In contacting the office, you should also clarify the timelines for their decision making process if it is not already clear to you.
Lastly, stay in touch with your Admissions representative. I’d recommend contacting that person once a month. And in doing so, you should mention your ongoing and strong interest in the college as well as any other new accomplishments/grades that strengthen your application.

Wait — a Resume? For College?

If you haven’t applied to college recently, you might be surprised to find something there that wasn’t before — a resume. Whereas this used to be something that was developed after college and when on the job hunt, colleges and universities are finding them helpful in making their final decisions.
Every Spring, most of my juniors are working on putting together their resumes in anticipation of application season ahead. I truly enjoy working with students on their resumes, as it gives us a chance to reflect on what they have done and what they value.
However, the dominant question in a student’s or parent’s mind at this point is often less about what a student values and has accomplished, and usually more focused on what colleges want to see on a resume. Most students and parents believe that colleges want to see community service on a resume, along with school involvement and especially leadership. While these are good activities, I think it’s important to break down what colleges care about on a resume and how you might think about fine tuning your resume to make the most out of your college application process.

What’s really important?

I can confirm that what most people believe about college resumes is generally true, colleges like to see student involvement in schools and communities — for example, sports, school clubs, community organizations, or musical groups. They do like to see leadership, where students have been elevated by peers or teachers to a level of responsibility, and community service where students are helping others and helping make the world better. A “good” college resume is one that demonstrates to a college your personal qualities (leadership, altruism, musical talent, commitment, etc.), and also demonstrates to the college that a student will join in and be a part of the college’s community – play sports, volunteer, be in clubs, etc.
Probably the biggest misconception among students and families is that students are required to “check” all of the above “boxes.” The example I hear most often is that a student “has” to have community service to have a good resume. That is not true – colleges appreciate seeing a variety of activities, and the most important thing is to have a set of activities that demonstrate involvement and personal qualities, priorities, and values.

Don’t just “go through the motions.”

Over the years, I have learned that trying to check off certain boxes on a resume isn’t helpful for two reasons. First, colleges, don’t have clear-cut criteria about what they actually want, so the goal is unclear.
Second, students need to find activities that help them learn, grow, gain skills, and discern paths (career, social, etc), so following a set recipe for activities can hinder students in the very growth that colleges want them to demonstrate. In my opinion, working to be the best teenager you can be – by taking risks, helping others, and gaining experiences and skills – you actually become the best applicant to college you can be.
Often, after an initial draft of a resume, I will ask a student “what does this resume say about you and what you prioritize?” or “What qualities that you have are not reflected here?” From there, we will discuss ways to fine tune the resume so that students can use their time efficiently and put together a best possible resume.

What’s next?

If you are asking what else you could add to your resume, or what would make it look better to colleges, I would encourage you to think about what you are learning or demonstrating from the experience. Have you taken any risks outside of your normal geographic or social groups? Have you demonstrated a desire to help others? Have you taken on responsibilities and learned about running a group or a project? Even within the activities you already have on your resume, you can take on a responsibility (organize something), demonstrate concern for others (collect used gear for donation), or risk taking (try a new location or join with a group from another part of town or the world).
Finally, while the resume is a part of your application for college, I would encourage you to consider it a double-sided exercise. Your resume reflects your life – your values, your priorities, where you spend your time. Thinking about your resume not only helps you refine your college applications, but also helps you have a stronger sense of who you are and what you are committed to. Think about what experiences will help prepare you for college, the world of work, and the world of adulthood, and cultivate as many of those as you can find! You might find that in the process of trying to engage in the world and grow as a person, you actually become more of the type of mature, prepared, and thoughtful student that colleges like to admit.