College Admissions

College Selection

Making Your Final Decision

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Down the Cost of College

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

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

The most selective, wealthy institutions often provide generous need-based financial aid. But very few schools have the resources to meet full need. And at a time when tuition, room and board at a private college can add up to more than $60,000 a year, cost is a major concern even for families that don’t qualify for need-based aid.

The good news is that there are ways to bring down the cost of college. Most schools offer merit-based aid, also known as scholarships. Every year, I see many students receive offers of $15,000 to $25,000 a year. One student was recently awarded a scholarship of $38,000 a year at his first choice college. Some schools will consider leadership and service, but these offers are generally based on a student’s academic record and test scores. It’s important to target colleges that offer substantial merit aid, and you need to be in the top of the applicant pool to receive the biggest scholarships.

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

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

Finances and Final Decisions

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

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

Financial aid packages are often disappointing. Even if your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is $30,000 and the cost of attending a college is $55,000, that doesn’t mean you will receive $25,000 in grants to cover the difference. Aid packages generally are a mix of grants, loans and work-study employment, except for a few wealthy institutions that are able to provide packages that do not include loans. Private colleges that ask for the CSS Profile form in addition to the FAFSA will use institutional methodology in awarding non-federal aid. This can result in a higher family contribution.

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

It is possible to appeal a financial aid package, and colleges have been getting more appeals in recent years from families impacted by the recession. If a parent has lost a job, financial aid officers can use professional judgment to increase an award.

Some parents try to negotiate an increase in a merit scholarship, but that is less likely to be successful. It doesn’t hurt to ask as there may be cases where an award is increased, but remember that financial aid officers are hearing pleas from students in desperate financial straits. If a family does not need the money, financial aid officers are reluctant to divert limited resources from students who need the funds to be able to attend the school.

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

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

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

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

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



Visiting Colleges During Spring Break

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right Price For the Right College

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Budget cuts at the University of California and other public universities have resulted in overcrowded classrooms and mandated enrollment cuts, leading more families to  consider private colleges. The good news is that tuition increases at private colleges will only average 4.5 percent for 2010-11. That still outpaces inflation but is lower than pre-recession average annual increases of 6 percent. 

The better news is that despite lower endowments, which have forced all schools to look for ways to reduce expenses, many colleges are still offering substantial merit scholarships. This year, some of my students received offers of $20,000 a year, making a private college education much more affordable. In addition to having smaller classes and receiving more personal attention, students at private colleges can get the courses they need to graduate in four years. Certain colleges are known for offering generous scholarships, which they use to attract the most desirable students. Applying to schools where you are at the top of the applicant pool will enable you to maximize your scholarship offers.

You may also find good deals at public universities, particularly those in neighboring states. For example, the Western Undergraduate Exchange enables students in Western states to pay the bargain rate of 150 percent of in-state tuition at some public colleges in the region.  

While cost is certainly a major factor in choosing a college, it’s not the only consideration. The cheapest college is no bargain if you would be miserable there for four years. Being in an environment where you’re happy and engaged means you’re more likely to be productive. A successful college career will lead to graduate school acceptances and job offers. It’s worth the extra effort to find colleges that are a good fit educationally, socially and financially.

Making the Most of College Fairs

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Your Final Decision

Friday, April 9th, 2010

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



College Admission Update – Another Competitive Year

Monday, April 5th, 2010

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


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


Applications increased at all UC campuses. UCLA received 57, 578 freshman applications, and Berkeley had a record 50,312 freshman applications this year.  Harvard and Stanford saw applications increase by roughly five percent.  Both Princeton and University of Pennsylvania received over 4,000 additional applications this year, close to a 20 percent increase at each school.  Brown and University of Chicago each had increases of more than 5,000 applications.  Even a relatively modest 3 percent increase at Columbia means 750 additional students competing for admission.


You can blame California for some of the increases. The state’s ongoing budget crisis and severe funding cuts at California’s public universities have led more California students to apply to out of state schools. Anxiety about the competition for admission and the desire to compare financial aid packages and scholarship offers may also be leading students around the country to apply to more colleges.


When applications increase, acceptance rates decrease. At Penn, the admit rate dropped from 17.1 percent last year to 14.2 percent this year. Stanford admitted 7.2 percent of applicants, while Harvard’s acceptance rate dropped just under 7 percent, a record low for the school.  Georgetown had a 19 percent admit rate. University of Virginia admitted 24 percent of out-of-state applicants. Duke’s admit rate dropped from last year’s 17 percent to a new low of 15 percent.  One of the most dramatic decreases in acceptances was at University of Chicago, where 27 percent of students were admitted last year and only 18 percent this year.


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


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


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


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


Juniors Should Start Planning Now

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

High school juniors who have just watched older classmates go through the stress of applying to college might want to avoid even thinking about college right now, but that will only make things more difficult later. Some of my seniors finished their college applications by Thanksgiving and were able to enjoy their recent winter vacation, while others waited until the last minute and had a miserable winter break rushing to get their applications done by January 1. 


If you will be applying to college next year, getting started now can make the process less stressful and more rewarding. Knowing what you need to do is the first step in taking control. Then you can make a plan, which further reduces anxiety.


Most students take the SAT and/or ACT this semester. If you haven’t decided on a testing schedule, this is the time to choose test dates and register. If you plan to take a March or April exam, you’ll want to give yourself two months to prepare, which means you should be starting soon.


Talk to older friends or relatives who are currently in college. They can give you great information about their school. But they also have wisdom to share about the college admission process. Ask them how they approached the college search and what they wish they had done differently when they were applying to college.


Start putting together a list of colleges that appeal to you. Read guidebooks and research colleges online. Go to each school’s website, where you can learn about academic programs and student life. You can also access most college newspapers online. This is a great way to learn about activities on campus, as well as what issues students are discussing. You can read about concerts or lectures on campus this weekend, budget cuts that will impact course offerings next year, or a recent crime wave in the surrounding neighborhood.


You get better at visiting colleges once you’ve done it a few times. So start with local colleges, even if you’re sure you want to go farther away. By visiting a small liberal arts college and a big university, you’ll get a sense of which environment feels right for you.


If you can travel during spring break, that’s the perfect time to visit colleges that are farther away. Once you have decided which colleges you most want to see, check the tour and information session schedules, which should be available on each school’s website, and make reservations where they are required. Some admissions offices will arrange for prospective students to attend a class and have lunch with a student, or even stay overnight, and this can help you get a better sense of what it would be like to be a student at the college.


Check the admissions requirements for each college you like. If you find that you need SAT Subject Tests, better to know now so you can take those exams in May or June, rather than finding out in September that you should have taken the Chemistry Subject Test when you were finishing the course in June. Researching admissions requirements in the spring also gives you time to find a summer college course or enrichment program and choose senior year courses that will enhance your application.


Learning about financial aid now will enable you to choose schools that are realistic financially as well as academically. You can also start researching scholarship opportunities by registering with a scholarship search engine.


While these suggestions are aimed at juniors, ambitious sophomores can also start researching prospective colleges and learning about admission requirements, which can help them make good choices about courses, extracurricular activities and summer plans.

Making Your Final Decision

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Just one more week till the May 1 deadline for making your final decision about college. Some of my students have been agonizing all month about which school to choose, and they don’t always appreciate it when I point out that this is a good problem to have. But if you’re having trouble deciding between two colleges, that means you really like both of them, and you can be happy at either school. Once you make a decision, you’ll invest emotionally in that school and you’ll start to feel excited about going to college. 


Some students decide to double deposit in order to keep their options open, but this is considered unethical, and if colleges find out, your admission can be revoked at both schools.  If you’re on a wait list, you do need to submit an enrollment deposit at another college so that you have a place to go in the fall. If you are admitted from the wait list at your preferred school, you just forfeit the deposit at the first college.