Colleges That Change Lives, and the Admissions Journey

Each spring, the media frenzy around record low college acceptances sends students and parents into a tail spin of nerves. And then the breath of fresh air arrives – the Colleges That Change Lives College Fair.  Here, executive director, Maria Furtado, calms the hysteria and imparts a smile with her reality check of today’s college admissions landscape. 

“The average admission rate at four-year colleges over the last 10 years is roughly 65%,” noted Ms. Furtado. And the percentage of college freshmen who say they are at their first choice college ranges from 80 to 88% year to year.  So the important take-away is that high school students are much more successful with their college journey than one would perceive from the entire buzz.

Liberal Arts for the Sciences

The Colleges That Change Lives consortium consists of 44 liberal arts colleges throughout the US. These are the undergraduate institutions first profiled by Loren Pope 20 years ago as smaller schools offering superior education experiences that enrich students’ lives.  To be clear, liberal arts colleges are not just for students interested in the humanities.  If you have a teen who is science/math oriented and looking for a strong STEM program, these colleges are excellent options for several reasons.

Liberal arts colleges have a great deal of research underway and undergraduates have greater opportunities to get involved in research earlier than they do at larger universities. That’s because there are few or no graduate students at colleges competing for choice research positions.  The lack of grad students impacts classroom learning as well. At the liberal arts colleges, full professors are teaching the introductory courses as well as the electives, and more often than not, their doors are always open.

As a college counselor, I’ve heard countless students at the top universities tell me “my lab teacher is a grad student who speaks with such a heavy accent, I barely understand him,” or “it’s impossible to schedule a meeting with my professor because he hardly has office hours.”   I’ve never heard these sentiments from my students who attend CTCL colleges.

A unique flavor of the college experience

On the contrary, it is the warm campus atmosphere and nurturing philosophy of CTCL institutions that make them stand out.  Speaking to admissions reps at the individual colleges, their enthusiasm is palpable; these people really love their students. The McDaniel College rep beamed as she boasted that over 10 thousand people from all over Maryland come to the school’s homecoming game.  At Willamette, the rep highlighted the plethora of trips - from weekend jaunts to weeks-long adventures - that almost all students participate in.  Each campus offers its own unique flavor of the college experience.

Another pleasant surprise is the criteria with which most of the CTCL schools view their applicants. Yes, the student's academic record is first, and foremost, but standardized test scores fall further down the list than they do at other institutions. And a good number of CTCL colleges are test-optional which can make the admissions process far less stressful.

When CTCL reps tell me they take a holistic approach to applications, I believe them (I typically don’t at other schools).

If you missed the fair, I urge you to explore ctcl.org  and get to know these schools. You’ll be glad you did.

Summer Steps for Rising Seniors and Juniors

Rising seniors gain a huge advantage by starting college applications in June. Rising juniors have a relatively "new" SAT to worry about so now is truly the best time to tackle the question "which standardized test is best for me?" This summer take the important steps necessary to reduce the stress of the fall.

Seniors:

  • Finalize your college list – At the very least, review your school list and decide which colleges to eliminate and which to keep. Schedule a meeting with the college advisor at your high school before this semester ends and ask him/her to suggest additional options.
  • Continue test prep for fall SAT/ACT and/or SAT Subject Tests – Many students hope to improve upon their scores by focusing on test prep over the summer and re-taking exams in the fall. Some students consider taking an SAT subject test, or two, in order to enhance their college applications. This is recommended even if the colleges to which you will apply do not require subject tests.
  • Application Essays – Summer is the perfect time to get started on actual college applications. While many students have summer jobs/internships or are taking summer classes, there is time on weekends and evenings to begin composing the personal statement – the main college essay.

It is strongly recommended to draft some of the supplemental essays that certain universities require. The school website details the application requirements so you can check what the supplemental essay(s) ask you to write for that particular college. Be prepared to spend a few weeks on each essay as you will need several revisions

Juniors:

  • Begin Sat/ACT test prep –  Whether or not the student has taken the PSAT and/or PLAN, it is advisable to take a diagnostic SAT and ACT over the summer to determine which exam makes the most sense. If it is possible students should begin practicing for a fall test. This leaves ample time for re-testing in the winter and/or spring.  
  • Start perusing the college guidebook - Parents can pick up any of the college guide books on bookstore shelves and start a preliminary list based on location, size, and possible majors (liberal arts vs. sciences). For parents who want to take the next step, use the guidebook to identify colleges of interest and spend time on each school’s website.
  • Website Research – You can spend hours on college websites as they are chock full of information. One piece of information that can help discern if the college is a real possibility or a long shot, is the 'student profile' for the incoming class. This includes the SAT and ACT scores; GPA range; and a slew of demographics. If your student’s current GPA falls close, it may be worthy of consideration. And certainly you will learn the SAT score range this particular school is looking for.
  • Start planning fall college visits – Starting campus tours in the fall gives students a huge headstart and takes the pressure off of the spring when exams, school work, and extra-curriculars ramp up. The more schools you visit, the more focused students become.

ReadySetCollege has a unique approach to getting more from these crucial steps than families and school counselors alone. Contact Franca today.

 

How to Enhance Teacher Recommendation Letters

Juniors!  If you have not already done so, it’s definitely time to request teacher recommendation(s) that will accompany your college applications.   Students are sometimes tempted to leave this part of the process until the fall of their senior year, but that leaves very little time for teachers to complete the recommendations, particularly when confronted with application deadlines as early as October 15th.

Tips to keep in mind:

·         The best recommendation is not necessarily from the teacher who gave you the best grades. Often, a stronger recommendation comes from the teacher in whose class you’ve struggled.  This teacher can address your academic drive and perseverance, qualities that admissions readers love to see.

·         Ideally, recommendations will come from teachers of your “core” academic subjects. Yet, if you feel that another teacher has gotten to know you well and can write about qualities that other teachers will not, by all means. Furthermore, you may want to check with the colleges that you are interested in to see if they require recommendations from specific teachers for some specific majors.

·         Whenever possible, provide your recommenders with a “Student Resume.” This is a list of the clubs and organizations you have joined in high school student as well as leadership positions in these clubs, academic honors, volunteer experiences and employment.  This enables a teacher to put their classroom experience with you into the overall context of your academic and extracurricular life.

Should You Hire an Independent College Counselor?

Parents often ask me what can I do for their teen on the college journey that the high school counselor cannot. Having been in their shoes, I understand the need for parents to weigh cost versus benefit. Parents want to know that I have something valuable to offer that the high school counselor does not. The answer is yes. A recent article in the NACAC Journal of College Admission explores the advantages of having an independent educational consultant (IEC) and the school counselor collaborating in the best interests of the student.

There's been a three-fold increase in the number of independent counselors across the country in the past five years. This is partly due to the overload of students that school counselors must manage. As the article states: "with school budgets being cut right and left [school counselors] don't have time."  Furthermore, while the cost of going to college continues to go up every year, the cost of hiring an IEC has remained stable.

Available 24/7

Every family comes to the college admissions journey with expectations and concerns, and lots of questions.  The number one value that an IEC provides is the availability to answer questions anytime and to offer as much customized guidance as each individual student requires. I tell my families that I am available 24/7 and both students and parents have my cell phone number to reach me evenings, weekends, holidays. The school counselor obviously cannot provide this level of commitment and may have very limited office hours especially in a large school.

Get the Best of Both Worlds

Nevertheless, the school counselor is the student's best ally and I emphasize this to all of my students.  Only the school counselor knows the senior class: where are the student's classmates applying? given this school's track record, what are the student's chances of acceptance to the colleges on his/her list? The school counselor is privy to "inside information" that can be crucial.  If both counselors work together, the student gets the best of both worlds.

By keeping in touch and talking directly to one another, the IEC and the school counselor can not only avoid duplicating efforts, but they can share their expertise and knowledge base about colleges. IECs build relationships with college admissions personnel just as school counselors do. Hence the addition of the IEC's connections to the school counselor's network can only benefit the student. In addition, because the IEC gets to know the student on a more personal level, the consultant can share insights that help define the colleges that are truly a best fit for the student.

Achieve Results

Because IECs have experience working with schools, parents should ask a prospective consultant how he or she has handled this in the past and how the parent should broach the topic with the school counselor. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that both counselors sincerely want what's best for your teen and will do whatever it takes to achieve the best results.

 

 

Back from College Vists, Now What?

The answer is really in two parts: part one addresses how to assess the individual visits, and part two entails the steps with which students should follow-up.

Assessment – Here’s where I advise parents to keep their comments/opinions to a minimum (ideally, to themselves).  Most students don’t want to hear how impressed Dad was with the Economics professor who suggested stopping by the Career Center or how touched Mom was to hear how warmly the tour guide spoke of her roommates. Alert! It is your son/daughter who is spending the next four years at college so it is crucial that your son/daughter process the information, campus vibe and student sentiments on his/her own.

Instead, ask the questions that will help your student form an opinion. For example:

·         what stood out to you at X University?

·         what did you hear at Y College that surprised you?

·         what turned you off at W College? Why?

·         can you see yourself at Z University?

Have your student jot down responses in a notebook as well as details that he/she may have noticed. Was there something on this campus that you didn’t see elsewhere? Did you hear stories/anecdotes from students that resonated with you? Did it sound like there was too much emphasis on sports or Greek Life? Did students on campus look happy or stressed?

Next Steps – First, and foremost, make sure your student sends an email thank you to both the college rep who presented the information session and the student tour guide. If you do not have this information, call the admissions office and ask who spoke on the day/time that you were there and the name of the tour guide who followed.

*Students: In the email to the college rep, ask for the name/contact info for a current student majoring in your intended major. Even if you are clueless what you want to study in college, ask to contact someone in a subject area that interests you. Simply asking for some student contacts shows that you are genuinely interested in this college and want to learn more about the nitty gritty of being a student there.

Request a meeting with your teen’s college counselor to review the trip. He or she can help guide the conversation to important points and provide some expertise about the colleges visited. Having an independent third party asking questions can be very helpful.

The college journey is evolutionary, not linear. Priorities change and different realities set in with each visit. What was once on the top of the school list can fall to the bottom of the list, and new options come onto the horizon. But at every step of the way, make sure to allow your teen to take the lead, it is his/her ride!

 

 

Why College Fairs Are Important

Most juniors are now returning from campus trips and processing what they’re learned. Chances are that students and parents would like to keep the momentum going and continue visiting colleges closer to home on weekends. For those who cannot make any further trips, college fairs can be the next best option.  Many high schools have college fairs in April; here's how to make the most of them.

Let your son/daughter take the lead - College fairs are meant to be an opportunity for students to confer with admissions reps. Parents, no matter how well-meaning, interfere with that valuable time and may be viewed by the reps as “helicopter parents.” If you have a question or two that you want your student to ask, write it down, and ask him/her to jot down the response.

Head straight to your first choice(s) - Every college fair provides a map of the colleges represented. Because the lines grow quickly, begin with those where you may wait a few minutes to introduce yourself. The less popular schools tend to have shorter lines anyway so you can save those for later.

Be open-minded, explore options.  It’s only natural to stop at the colleges you’ve heard of, and those already on your list. Yet, college fairs are precisely the place to expand your thinking and to explore alternatives to the few colleges you might already be considering. Widen your net and take a chance on a college rep whose table is quiet. He or she may truly surprise you!

Don’t be shy.  While it can be difficult to simply walk up to someone and start asking questions, the reps do want to meet you. It helps to have some prepared questions, but do not ask questions whose answers you can easily find on the college website. In other words, don’t ask how many majors a school offers or if it has club lacrosse. Do ask questions that may be more nuanced – “can you explain how I can get involved in research as a freshman?” or “tell me the most unique feature about X College” or “how would you describe the quintessential X University student?”

Write it down. Keep a college notebook with the details that you’ve gleaned and the name of the person you met. Don’t be embarrassed to request a business card (sometimes they’re right on the table) and make sure to send an email thank you to the rep with whom you spoke. When application time comes in the fall, you may interject those details in the supplemental questions on your application. And if you plan to visit a particular college after the fair, email your contact person and let him/her know when you will be on campus.

Always fill out the ‘contact card’ - Most college reps give you a card to fill out. These are an expression of your “demonstrated interest” so always hand them back. Many schools monitor how many contacts you’ve made with their college so every connection counts.

 

 

Making the Most of the College Visit

In the previous blogpost, I explained the importance of the college campus visit and how it impacts “demonstrated interest.”  How can your son or daughter make the most of these trips?  The answer, simply put, is pay attention to everything you see and hear; ask smart questions; take notes; and maintain connections.  Here’s how.

Visit colleges on your preliminary list – this may seem obvious, but many families do not yet have a college list in place and make a trip to a college nearby just to begin the process.  If your son/daughter has not yet met with the high school’s college counselor, make an appointment to speak with a guidance counselor to get some idea of which colleges make sense based on your student’s grades, and PSAT scores (if available).  For students who do have a preliminary list, try to visit one “reach” school, and one “target” school to start.  Leave the “safety” schools for later in the process.  If you have time to visit several colleges, aim to see more “targets” than “reaches.”

Keep the number of trips reasonable – The campus visit is not a quick tour, especially these days when so much emphasis is placed on students finding the “best fit.”  Prospective students need time to soak up the atmosphere on a given campus, to really look at the college students and to sense if this campus “feels right.”  If your son/daughter feels enthusiastic being on this campus, and can easily envision sitting in classes and hanging out with these college students, then he/she is closer to making a solid match.

Three Colleges A Week

Ideally, students should spend several hours at any one college so planning out the trips in a manageable way is important.  If a college is in a city, or even a small town, spend time exploring these also.  For these reasons, I recommend touring no more than three colleges in a week.

Pay close attention – to everything you see and hear and take notes. (Key Pointer: parents, this will inevitably become your job so make sure to write down your son/daughter’s thoughts and reactions.) During the information session, an admissions representative will recite a script about everything the college offers academically, socially, etc. Listen for what appeals to your son/daughter (and you!), and what does not. Most importantly, listen for features you have not heard from admissions representatives at other colleges as these are the aspects that make this school different.

Ask the Tour Guide

On the campus tour, a student guide will recite a script also, but here is the opportunity to go beyond the script.  Try to get an honest answer to: what is the one thing about “X” College that has disappointed you?  What is the number of students in your largest class and how many of these sized classes have you taken?  How much time do students really spend studying? What are the most popular clubs and organizations?

Building the College List ~ Part Three

February is typically the first time students, and parents, meet with the college counselor at their high school. This is an important meeting for several reasons so students should come in prepared.

More and more school counselors have a questionnaire for both students and parents to complete.  Don’t rush through this. Really spend time on thoughtful responses and include as many details and anecdotes as possible. The questionnaire becomes a template for the counselor’s recommendation letter which will accompany college applications so the more information he or she has, the more interesting the letter.

In order to make the most of this first meeting, here are other items to bring to the meeting in addition to the completed questionnaire.

Bring a preliminary college list  – Hopefully you’ve used the previous two blogposts to help you comprise a preliminary list of colleges. If you don’t have a list, be ready to share your thoughts as to what you are looking for in terms of size, location, academic major, etc.  These criteria will help the counselor recommend additional schools for you to research and visit.

Bring a resume – this can be a simple draft of achievements both in, and outside, school as well as community service, summer experiences and employment.  The counselor may not know that you are captain of your basketball team, president of the photography club or treasurer on the student council. If you play on several athletic teams, mention the position you play and any awards you’ve gotten over the years. If you’ve competed in competitions, even if you never won, include the when and where for the contests.

If you are unsure if a given activity or interest merits a place on your resume, put it down and ask the counselor if it is indeed appropriate. You want the counselor to know as much about you as possible, but you also want his/her advice as to what your final resume will include.

Be forthcoming – Remember, the purpose of this meeting is for the counselor to get to know you and to understand what you’re looking for in your college experience. Try to give as much information as you can even if you’re not 100% sure of what type of college you think is perfect for you. Are you excited about going to the football games? Might you consider joining a fraternity? Do you want to be surrounded by creative people? Musicians? Artists?

If your counselor asks a question you weren’t expecting, respond with “I’m not sure, let me think about it and get back to you.”  Make sure he/she knows that you want to keep a dialogue going especially after you’ve visited a few campuses. And always give the counselor feedback on your college visits.

Be open-minded - The counselor may suggest colleges you've never heard of or didn't consider as serious contenders. Ask the counselor to explain why he/she believes this school would be a good fit for you. Then take the time to research the college online and if possible, plan a visit to really understand if the counselor is right.

Do not rule out any school just because of the name. If the location is not appropriate, that's one thing, but you may be pleasantly surprised when you investigate other people's ideas, particularly if the person is a college expert.

 

 

 

College Steps for Freshmen and Sophomores

High school juniors are now in full swing of their college search.  Yet, college is certainly on the radar of parents (and some students) in earlier grades. 

With the ever-increasing competition, as evidenced by the continually decreasing acceptance rates at colleges, more and more families are beginning the college journey in sophomore year. The extra time is a true bonus on every level, and it can – and should – be used to the student’s advantage.

Here are the steps that your freshman or sophomore can take right now to ease the pressure, and boost applications, later.

NINTH GRADE

  • Visit your guidance counselor to discuss next year’s course selection. You want to take the most advanced classes available at your school, but only if you feel confident that you can handle the academic rigor. Discuss which AP or IB (HL) classes might be appropriate for you.

  • Stay focused on schoolwork. Freshman grades will  appear on your high school transcript so aim to finish the year on an upswing.

  • Participate in after-school activities and clubs. Find the one that interests you most and stick with it.

  • Volunteer for community service events in and out of school.

  • Talk to your teachers about possibly taking an SAT subject test this June.  It’s best to take these as soon as you complete a course so that the subject matter is fresh in your mind. [Most 9th graders are taking biology now and many do take the SAT Biology exam.]

  • If you do plan to take a subject test, make sure to enlist some test prep at least three months before the test. Also, register with the College Board in due time.

    TENTH GRADE

  • Focus on schoolwork. Colleges want to see an upward trend in grades throughout high school.

  • Concentrate your time on one or two extra-curricular activities that you are most passionate about.

  • Consider a summer program that enriches your extra-curricular interests and investigate internships and classes.

  • Speak with your school counselor or contact an outside tutor to assess your PSAT or ACT Aspire results.  Plan to start test prep this summer for the SAT or ACT in fall of junior year. 

  • Begin test prep now for the SAT subject test you plan to take this June. [Many sophomores take one of the History SAT subject tests or the Chemistry SAT.]

  • There is a huge advantage to getting a head start on college visits. Start a preliminary college list and visit campuses this spring.  [See blogposts from November 26 and January 8 for details on building a college list] 

  • If you do visit colleges this spring, take careful notes and make sure to send an email thank you to the college official who spoke at the information session and to the student tour guide (yes, get the student’s email address at the end of the tour!!)

Building the College List ~ Part Two

Part One of this blogpost (November 26) outlined the essential factors students should consider as they embark on their college search.  Now that those broad strokes have been taken, let's look more closely at how to evaluate the academics at colleges.

Ask Yourself:  Do you have a favorite subject or long-time passion, or do you enjoy many subjects and don't feel ready to choose a major yet?

Some students know what course of study they wish to pursue in college, but most apply as "undecided" and rather begin their freshman year exploring options. If you already know what you will major in, your website research will be narrowed to that department and everything it offers. Some colleges have separate webpages for each of their individual schools (engineering, business, arts & sciences, etc.) and it is important to look for your intended major here so that you understand the requirements of each particular school. [Key tip: make sure you are looking at the undergraduate departments, not the graduate program!]

For students who are not yet certain, it is especially important to review all of the majors and minors a college offers to insure that there is more than one that appeals to you. Here too, it is advisable to explore the majors/minors within each school. You may find areas you never considered studying and decide to investigate these further.

In either case, take notes on what appeals to you as you surf the websites and jot down questions. Then open the conversation with that department by emailing your questions to the department chair or even a specific professor. In your email, ask if the person can put you in touch with a couple of students majoring in that field so that you can ask some first-hand questions of current students. Do not be afraid that you are bothering these "important" people; you will be pleasantly surprised how many of them reply directly. If they cannot respond, they will forward your query to someone who will.

Ask Yourself:  What type of learning environment is best suited for you? Do you prefer smaller classes with lots of discussion time or do you work better in a lecture setting taking lots of notes?

Most colleges list on their website the student to faculty ratio; the smaller the ratio, the greater number of small classes. Many schools will also include the percentage of classes under 20 which also gives a good sense of class sizes in general.

Aside from class size, you may wonder about your classmates themselves. One benefit of being in a "better" school is being surrounded by strong and motivated students who make discussions more interesting and collaborative projects more successful. Furthermore, since professors must often tailor the level of their classes to the students in them, chances are better that you'll enjoy a more challenging curriculum with brighter classmates.

Pay Attention To:  the "extras."  Some colleges have an Honors College within them for top students which is worth investigating. Other schools have a "first year experience" with a broad variety of courses that may be particularly helpful for students who need to figure out their prospective major. The variety and strength of the internship opportunities and even study abroad programs can also tell you a great deal of what a college has to offer.

 Stay Tuned ~ next week's blogpost, Part Three, will offer good ideas for making the most of your meeting with the college counselor at your high school. This can be particularly important if you are in a large high school where the college counselors are responsible for hundreds of students. You want the school counselor to get to know you!