How to Enhance Teacher Recommendations

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 “memorable moments.”  These are papers, projects, presentations, labs that you are particularly proud of and you would like the teacher to highlight in his/her letter.  The more details and anecdotes a teacher can include, the richer the recommendation becomes.

“Making Learning Better for Others”

“The teachers are usually the only ones who can offer a perspective of the student’s behavior in class,” notes Peter Osgood, admissions director at Harvey Mudd College.  “I want to know  – how creative, how determined, how playful, how focused, how they make learning better for others, are they quiet, but offer pearls of wisdom?”

The ideal teacher recommendation will fully describe the student’s performance, participation and attitude towards learning and towards his peers.  Colleges want to see that the student knows how to be an engaged learner.

Why You Should Hire An Independent 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.

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.

Get 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.

 

It's Decision Time!

Just a few advice tips to help you make your final college decision.  This is a biggie, so don’t be in a hurry to get it over and behind you.  It is important to take your time, and carefully evaluate all of the information to make the choice that’s right for you.

Things to keep in mind:

  1. No college can require you to commit to attending prior to May 1, the National Candidates Reply Date, with the exception of Early Decision or NCAA athletic scholarship programs.
  2. If you have received financial aid offers, compare them carefully. Determine exactly what your out-of-pocket cost will be to attend each school. Ask questions about scholarships (are they locked in for all 4 years? Do they increase with the college’s cost of attendance, each year?).
  3. Attend prospective student events at the colleges to which you were admitted.
  4. Never submit an enrollment deposit to more than one school. It is an unethical practice that may result in your acceptances being withdrawn by the colleges involved.
  5. Once you have decided, notify the other colleges that you will not be attending and request to have your application closed.
  6. If you have been offered a spot on a college’s wait list, learn what you need to do to be an active member of the Wait List. However, be sure that you have a place to attend if you are not eventually offered admission. 

 

Back from College Visits, 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

Juniors returning from campus trips want to keep the momentum going and continue visiting colleges closer to home on weekends. For those who cannot make any further excursions, college fairs can be the next best option.  Many high schools have college fairs in April; the NACAC National Fair is in NYC on Sunday, April 22. 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 Campus Tours

In my October 16th 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 the downtown area 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?  What are the most popular clubs and organizations?  What are the traditions that make this college unique?

 

More Colleges Are Test-Optional

Three weeks ago, Fairtest announced that the number of test-optional colleges and universities has topped 1,000 institutions and now includes 300+ “top tier” schools.  The appeal of going test-optional has apparently ramped up in the past four years, with over 100 colleges jumping aboard the bandwagon in this time period.

A slew of articles followed the announcement, but The Conversation presented an excellent overview of the test-optional movement, its critics and proponents.  For years, critics contended that without standardized tests, colleges would be unable to attract high-achieving students.  Yet, just the opposite has occurred.  At Wake Forest, for example, “the average high school GPA of our incoming freshmen increased after we stopped using standardized test scores as a factor. Our students are better because we look at the whole person, not a test score.”

Grades are Key

Proponents insist that high school grades and overall academic performance are the best predictors of success in college.  High school transcripts are the most revealing portion of the application as they demonstrate grit, ability and accomplishment.  Standardized test scores say nothing about a student’s creativity, passions or community engagement. The article suggests that “nearly 70% of what matters to a young person’s college grades cannot be predicted by academic variables. College admission remains more art than science. Fairness and merit are best served in a holistic review than in a numeric cutoff.”

So the question becomes: should my teen even bother taking the SAT or ACT?  It is always worth taking an exam especially if a student prepares for it.  Let’s remember that while 1,000 schools may be test-optional, 3,500 colleges and universities do accept test scores.  Hence, applicants who plan to submit their scores will have more options.

Some Students Should Not Take a Test

That said, some students may simply be poor test takers regardless of how much they may prepare.  Others may be so anxious about a test that decides college entrance, they perform poorly.  And others may be strong students whose test scores don’t reflect their academic competencies.  From my perspective, each student must weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision he or she can live with. 

A student who is certain about not taking the SAT or ACT must also be realistic about how this decision will limit college options.  A student who is determined to at least try taking an exam can always decide later on whether or not to submit test scores. 

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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 subject tests or the Chemistry SAT.]

  • There is a huge bonus to getting a head start on campus visits. Start a preliminary college list and visit campuses this spring.  [See blogposts from November 30 and January 2 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.

Building the College List ~ Part Three

January 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.