Are As More Important than APs?

January 17th, 2022 by

Though we’re but three weeks into the New Year, it’s time for many of our teen readers (and the parents who love them) to pick NEXT YEAR’s classes. Yup, many high schools have already distributed 2022-23 course cards and the rest will do so soon. Though often overlooked or done in haste, choosing the right high school classes is actually one of the most important steps in planning for the right post high school experience for you/your child.

Fact: the single most critical aspect of a student’s college application is their high school transcript. The first question every college will ask, of even the most celebrated student athlete or artist is, “How are your grades?” That said, grades comprise only half of the academic transcript-  and are rarely considered independently from the other half – the rigor of the coursework undertaken by the student.

In my practice, we spend a lot of time helping high school students and their families find the right balance, the right level of academic rigor and success for their children. Each student is different, has unique skills, post-high school goals and scholarship needs. Thus each must seek their own academic equilibrium.

There is no magic number of advanced level courses that a student should take. Some high schools simply offer more AP-level courses than others, some schools have IB programs, or a comprehensive AICE (Cambridge) curriculum, so colleges try not to compare students from different schools where the offerings are grossly imbalanced. Colleges receive a profile on every high school in the country and will evaluate rigor on a school by school basis.

When it comes to rigor, the key question is, “how much?” This will certainly depend on the individual student, how much rigor s/he can handle, and the student’s higher ed goals. A great question I often hear from parents and students this time of year is,

“Is it better to get an A in an honors class or a B in an AP class?”

There is no simple answer to this question, but if you’re seeking entry to the Ivy League, Duke, Stanford, or other highly selective universities, you’ll want to take the AP class…and get an A. (If your high school offers a large number of advanced-level courses, and you are seeking admission to a highly competitive university, you’ll need to have a transcript that includes such rigor.)

Some other common questions I hear this time of year:

“Do AICE classes count for college credit?”

“What about Dual-Enrollment? Will these classes ‘look good’ on my transcript?”

“Do I need to take more than 2 years of Spanish (or other foreign language)?”

“Are colleges impressed with the IB Program?”

The answer to all of these questions is, annoyingly, “it depends”... on how much academic rigor your student can handle; on how your student performs on the AICE/AP/IB exams when determining college credit; on where your student wishes to enroll in college, on where his/her actual academic interests lie, and how selective the college might be. Otherwise, if s/he is eyeing a less selective college and can muster a B, then take the AP class…s/he’ll be awarded for the rigor and – who knows? – maybe s/he’ll be able to bring home an A (this is not always the case, but a rule of thumb as far as I’m concerned).

The importance of course selection may begin as early as middle school. Some high school credits are offered in middle school, such as math, foreign language, or even biology. An accelerated curriculum can reap benefits in later years, propelling students into advanced level math and sciences and enhanced rigor.

I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not so sure it’s healthy for middle school kids to be worried about their college admissions prospects before they’ve set foot in high school. But I do think it’s perfectly appropriate for advanced middle school students to be taking high school courses, and I want parents and students to understand that the decisions they make in 8th and 9th grade will impact their standing in 10th and 11th grade, when AP courses are offered in multiple subjects.

By way of recent example, I currently work privately with a student who was recently admitted to Northwestern University. His academic record was exemplary, with AP courses in various subjects. But when I met him in 10th grade he was in algebra II-honors, while many of his peers were in pre-calculus or even AP calculus. His mom regretted not pushing him in middle school to take advanced (GEM) math so that he could progress more rapidly and have the opportunity to take AP calculus in 11th grade. So this boy decided to double up on math and take pre-calc over the summer so that he could take AP calculus AB his junior year. Fortunately for him he had the option, the time (by taking advantage of the COVID quarantine), the foresight and the desire to take on additional rigor. Not everyone has this combined luxury. The decisions that students (and parents) make throughout high school can impact the decisions that admissions officers make during senior year.

As a general rule, students who wish to be competitive candidates for admission should take the most rigorous curriculum they can handle, and then perform to the best of their ability. When the dust settles and the transcript is sent to the college, hopefully you can look back and be proud of your effort.

And here’s an important side benefit: a strong performance with a rigorous curriculum will not only improve admissions chances, but it can also increase a student’s opportunity for merit scholarship.

College admissions remains highly competitive, and in a COVID-19 world there is confusion, uncertainty and unique challenges. With test scores still an optional criteria at many schools, the academic transcript takes on added focus. If your child is going through the process of selecting courses for the next school year, now is a great time to begin to answer many of the questions presented above.

A good place to start is with your child’s high school guidance/college counselor. If, however, you would like additional insight, are worried or concerned about your son or daughter’s high school choices or performance, or how their current transcript may affect their college admissions prospects, or if you need assistance with understanding how financial aid works (and how their high school transcript may affect their college scholarship prospects), let us know. You can email us at, or give us a call at 954-659-1234. It’s what we do, and we enjoy doing it. I look forward to chatting with you.

Spider-Man, College Admissions ‘Decisions v Offers’, When/How To Appeal

December 20th, 2021 by

My kids and I went to see Spider-Man: No Way Home last Friday night. It was pretty awesome – 2 and a half hours of non-stop blockbuster adventure – with a teeny tiny, small but important lesson for college-bound high school students.

Quick PSA for those who haven’t seen it yet: This post does NOT contain any spoilers! What I’m about to talk about has nothing to do with the main plot of the movie, nor does it spoil the many sub-plots which are numerous.

As Spider-Man aficionados know, Peter Parker is the ultimate high school science geek. Naturally (said with tongue only slightly in cheek), he and his fellow classmates all aspire to attend MIT.  But with a 7.3% admit rate, it wasn’t a surprise (at least to me) that, fictional or not, none of them actually were admitted. What did surprise me was the side conversation about ‘appealing their rejections’ (which they deemed to be ‘mistakes’) that took place among Peter and his buddies upon learning their MIT admissions fates. And lest we confuse fact with Peter Parker’s fiction, I wanted to clarify a few things about college admissions and funding decisions v. admissions and funding offers, deferrals, rejections, and appeals.

First, let’s start with college admissions. College admissions officers are people – just like you and I (only usually much younger than I). They have emotions; they make decisions with a specific set of data; and of course, sometimes they do make mistakes (real or perceived).

Each year, the most popular schools receive tens of thousands of applications for admission. Last year alone, schools like MIT (33,000), Harvard (57,000), and UCLA (139,000) all broke records for their largest applicant pools on record. That’s a lot of transcripts to review and stories to read about marching band, Speech & Debate, or soccer tournaments. It’s estimated that each application gets around 12-20 minutes of attention. It’s competitive – most of the applicants to any given school will meet that school’s requirements. Plenty – in fact, most –  ‘qualified’ applicants will be rejected. With that in mind, I’d say quite a few “mistakes” are made every year, as in students who should get admitted do not.

But this is where Spider-Man got it wrong: While there are some limited exceptions, those “mistakes” are rarely something that you can appeal with the admissions office.

If you were denied admission to MIT or another highly selective college, appealing your decision will likely not get you very far. When it comes to a denial, or rejection, decisions tend to be final. At that point, it’s time to pick up the pieces and set your sights and ambitions onto the next school. Period. To this point, we encourage all of our families to focus on having multiple, good admissions options, as opposed to falling in love with any particular school (more on our students’ early results below).

Walking out of the theater, my son did, of course, remind me of his friend who successfully appealed his admission decision. And the University of Florida explains that admissions appeals can be considered but under rare circumstances. Those rare circumstances tend to refer to instances like: your transcript sent by your high school was inaccurate; or there was some other flaw in your application that was out of your control. Again, these are the very rare and unlikely exceptions, and the successful appeal is also very rare and unlikely. Put simply, you should not expect an admissions office to change its decision from deny to admit. It really is a rare occurrence.

Now a deferral is another story, and here is where Peter Parker’s conversation with his friends offers a lesson for college-bound students and their parents.

Getting deferred does NOT mean the same thing as being denied. In the past, we have had multiple students over the years go from ‘deferred’ to ‘accepted’! That said, it does mean that you’ll have to live with the ambiguity of ‘wait and see’, which we know is much easier said than done! Yet ambiguity is part of the college admissions process and part of life.

There are many reasons, and rumored reasons, for a ‘deferred decision’. Among them: they want to see your 1st semester grades, perhaps they want you to take the SAT or ACT once more, or they had more applicants than anticipated. Perhaps they were truly overwhelmed by the number of applications received and they didn’t yet review your application. Maybe they’re waiting to see the size of their overall applicant pool to manage their ‘Admit Rate’. Perhaps they are waiting to see who withdraws, now that binding Early Decisions have been received, in order to manage their ‘yield.’ We’ve discussed all of these with our colleagues and with admissions officers directly, and we’ve heard all of these reasons floated. Perhaps we’ll never know about your application specifically, but what we do know, is that unlike a rejection, you can actually do something about being ‘deferred’. And doing the right something(s), can help a deferred applicant become an admitted one!

If you have been ‘deferred’ AND it is truly a school that you want to attend, here is your opportunity to communicate with your admissions officer (yes, you can actually talk to them), demonstrate some interest and possibly move the needle in your direction! Granted, you should have been corresponding with them already – either way, now is an opportunity.

For starters, deferred students should a) let your school counselor know of the decision and b) send a brief, polite note to your Admissions rep that lets them know that you are still very much interested in attending. c) If feasible, plan a visit for early/mid January to show your interest, especially if you haven’t yet shown your face on campus. Xceed and YCC students should contact us immediately after the New Year, and we can review your options together.

Now let’s talk about financial aid offers and scholarships – it’s here that appealing decisions gets really interesting.

Unlike admissions decisions, financial aid offers are far less final, and therefore you have more room to maneuver, to appeal, even (gasp!) negotiate. Notice the language difference: admissions decisions, and financial aid offers. The latter can be countered, as in a counter-offer or appeal. Oftentimes there are very good reasons to appeal a financial aid offer, such as a recent job loss, a medical issue that results in high expense or time away from work (lost wages), a natural disaster, or some other event that has a significant financial impact (i.e. this thing going around called COVID-19). I have written about financial aid appeals before, and surely next spring I’ll have an update for you on that topic.

With admissions decisions, at the end of the day you’re either admitted or denied. There is no in between, no gray area (OK, you could get wait listed but that’s a Spring post). Appealing admissions decisions is largely a waste of time unless you have unique circumstances. Becoming a National Merit Semi-Finalist, winning the Spelling Bee, or earning a First Place Scholastic Art & Writing Award are all noteworthy and important to communicate when it comes to a deferral, but they will not likely change the decision from denial to admit. To move that needle, you will either have to demonstrate a legitimate mistake in the communication of your transcript, etc. and/or have recently saved the world from evil, power-hungry super-villains. For the rest of us not named Peter Parker, I suggest that you put that ‘appeal’ energy into communicating your value and interest to the next school(s) on your list!

Finally, a word of congratulations to our students who applied early and have already been accepted to a number of fantastic institutions including (but definitely not limited to) Alabama, Appalachian State, Arizona, Babson, Brown, Dayton, Delaware, Drexel, Embry-Riddle, Elon, Emory, FAU, Florida Institute of Technology, Georgia, Georgetown, Indiana, Loyola-Chicago, Lynn, Marist, Mercer, Penn State, Northwestern, SCAD, SMU, UCF, UNF, UMass, University of Miami, Univ. of Tampa, USF, Vanderbilt…

Congratulations to all of you and to all of your families. And to all of our senior students who will be hearing from their schools this winter and spring  –  we know you have worked so hard, we’re so proud of you and we know that you’re going to experience a ton of success! And if you are a 10th or 11th grade parent looking for guidance on the college admissions or financial aid process, feel free to reach out to us. You can email us ( or call us at 954-659-1234.

Wishing all of our readers a wonderful and safe holiday season and a new year full of good health, happiness, and good college fortune!

A(nother) Common App Outage – How To Avoid A College Admissions Meltdown

December 2nd, 2021 by

Yesterday I was working with one of my students. We’ll call her ‘Bethany’ (named changed to protect the innocent). Bethany was admittedly scrambling to submit a last minute Common Application to meet a December 1 Boston University scholarship deadline. At approximately 10:42pm, Bethany pasted her essays and writing supplements into the app, hit ‘submit’ and then this happened.

She received an error message about a Common App outage.

I got Bethany’s email at 10:43 pm yesterday, a mere 76 minutes before the 11:59 pm ET deadline.

Below is a screenshot showing the spike in the number of outages reported on the Common App last night:

Common App Outage 12-1-2021

Can you say Panic! Well, I’m sure for many students, but not for Bethany.

Of course she was rightfully worried, but she seemed to take it in stride. Here’s why. One, she had a real, live and knowledgeable, been-there-seen-that, go-to person (me) who she knew would advise her – even at literally the eleventh hour. Two, she knew that I had put great emphasis on having my students establish relationships with the admissions counselors at the schools to which they apply. And three, she knew that I often counseled that snafus and questions could often become great opportunities to establish and/or nurture those relationships.

During our quick conversation I reassured her that this has happened before (more on that below), and that she should take action by doing the following:

  1. Continue trying to submit the app until midnight. 
  2. Take a screen shot of the Common App outage. Email the admissions officer at the school and explain the situation in the hope that she can receive an extension.
  3. Don’t panic – Admissions Officers are human beings who experience the same frustrations and occasional technical difficulties as we all do.

In fact, Bethany’s experience quickly brought me back to the (now, infamous) Common App Crash of October 14, 2013, merely hours before the deadline for UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools. Students across the country panicked that evening, posting their frustrations on social media and desperately seeking assistance from the Common App, which had absolutely no response nor any call center to handle the myriad inquiries. The short term response by many colleges was to extend their deadlines. Back then, there was no alternative to the Common App – they were the only game in town. The long term response was an effort by a subset of colleges to create the Coalition App, which continues to this day albeit supporting fewer schools (150 schools vs. 973 on Common App), Boston University among them.

But last night at 10:43 pm there was little time to begin a new Coalition App. Communicating with her admissions rep seemed like the most appropriate response. After all, and again, it’s important to remember that admissions officers are human beings, and they recognize that technology sometimes breaks at no fault of our own. Extensions have been granted in the past.

Bethany emailed the BU admissions rep and continued to try submitting her app. Good news was that at 11:30 pm Bethany’s submission was successful. And, she had re-introduced herself (in a very mature manner) to her admissions rep just a few minutes earlier as a precaution.

The lessons here are twofold:

1. Obviously, don’t wait until the last minute to submit your college application. Snafus and glitches can happen, and in the world of college admissions, assume they will happen. 2013 isn’t the only outage on record. There have been additional outages since, including October 31, 2017 on the eve of the Early Decision deadline. While these outages are beyond our control, we can control our work pace and when we are ready to submit. While the occasional last minute addition can happen, it should be the exception (never the rule). Plan to submit all applications at least several days prior to the deadline.

2. Establish communication with your admissions officer waaaay earlier in the process than an hour before the deadline. I frequently share this advice with students and parents, and if you’re a long-time reader you’ve heard it here before. Admissions officers are people, human beings with emotions, and they chose their job because they enjoy communicating with interested students (parents, perhaps not so much) about their institution. There are ample opportunities for students to communicate and connect with admissions, even in a COVID-restricted world. These include email, phone, Zoom, website, virtual sessions, and more. Many colleges are open for visits and tours.

I frequently tell students, “Don’t be a stealth applicant by flying under the radar!” Connect with your admissions rep early, so that if such a snafu occurs, or perhaps if you need something later (additional financial aid?), you have an ally to help you in your cause. Recently I wrote about the importance of relationships, specifically in the context of teachers writing recommendations. The idea can just as easily apply to admissions officers. Relationships can and do make a difference, both in admissions AND in financial aid/scholarship decisions.

In Bethany’s case, she had the tools, preparation and guidance to avert real (and the stress of imagined) disaster. If you’re the parent of a 10th or 11th grader, it behooves you to help your child avoid unnecessary stress by planning, and applying, earlier in the process. To get a head start, simply email me ( and let’s connect.

What You Need To Know About What Is Happening in College Admissions & Funding, Fall 2021

October 26th, 2021 by

With admissions and financial aid priority deadlines rapidly approaching, I’m buried neck deep in paperwork. So I was pretty excited to see Corin Porter, SUNY Binghamton’s Florida Admissions Representative, on my calendar last week.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting and spending time with Admissions and Financial Aid representatives from colleges across the country. But this meeting was extra special.

For starters, it was in person! The fact that Mr. Porter was in town, once again making the rounds of the local college fairs is notable. Last year admissions travel was ground to a halt, with all admissions outreach completed online through virtual events. Though nearly every college and university still offers plenty of virtual options on their websites – virtual tours, virtual info sessions – sometimes there is just no substitute for human, face-to-face interactions. This is one of those times.

Aside from that, I couldn’t wait to discuss the many changes – peel back the curtain so to speak – on what’s happening in higher ed — since the last time I had met in person with the Admissions and Financial Aid team.

A lot has changed…. like, for example:

– Florida public universities notwithstanding, most colleges and universities continue to de-emphasize standardized test scores in their admissions practices. None of the SUNY schools require test scores from their applicants.

-Also, many smaller colleges and universities are doing away with legacy advantages (even among early decision applicants). Combined, these two trends are having quite an impact on ‘selectivity’ ratings in this way. The more applicants a school has, the lower it’s admit rate which is determined by dividing the number of applicants (which has gone up exponentially for most ‘test optional’ schools) by the number of applicants accepted (which has remained the same). It’s simple math – and while the lower the admit rate, the higher a school gets ranked, it does not really tell us anything about whether a school is ‘getting better.’ It does tell us that the whole process is getting more competitive – which means you have to become more strategic in your planning.

– Which brings me to another trend, one that we’ve been predicting, factoring in our counsel and writing about for years. That is this: the firewall that was once firmly installed between the Admissions office and the Financial aid is becoming increasingly porous. In many cases, the two offices are now fully integrated – with both positive and negative results for applicants. (You can read more of our analyses on this trend here).

But, as it relates to today, and on the plus side, there is this: many universities are adopting the practice of using ‘scholarship’ to offset the cost of attendance (to discount their ‘gross’ price to a more palatable and affordable net price adjusted for each student in a bespoke manner). SUNY Binghamton is one of those universities.

Note: Binghamton’s tuition for out of state students is under $25,000 – high when compared to the in-state Florida tuition (c. $6,300), but quite low when compared to other out of state universities (nearby Penn State is $36,000; Indiana University is $38,000). Furthermore, Binghamton considers all applicants for scholarship, so if you find yourself in the top 25% of their applicant pool in terms of GPA and test scores, you stand a good chance of earning a big discount off the cost of attendance. That, in a nut shell, is the upside of the marriage of financial aid (business) with admissions (academic) and it represents a huge opportunity for many middle income families.

So, what hasn’t changed in higher education?

Quite a few things:

1. Going to college – even one that seems too expensive on paper – can still be affordable. IF you choose the right schools for your child’s academic and professional aspirations AND your budget at the outset, then you will be able to execute a college plan that will provide your child with real opportunities of happiness, future success and financial freedom. How?

2. Well, that’s the other thing that hasn’t changed. Algorithms and technology aside, it is still people (just like Mr. Porter) who make admissions and financial aid determinations about other people (just like your child). And herein, lies the true secret to a successful admissions and funding plan.

Like most of his colleagues, Mr. Porter is young (more likely closer in age to the students than to you or me), full of positive energy, and he’s eager to meet and speak with students who are interested in his school. Tell your kids that he’s not scary – and – as we tell our students, ‘he’s an Admissions officer – NOT a denial officer. He wants to find students for his school – and he wants to help them get into and afford to stay there!’ His great preference is to speak with interested students, as opposed to fielding calls from parents of interested students. So if you are tempted to call an admissions office on behalf of your child, please resist for his or her benefit. Don’t be that parent.

Schools like SUNY Binghamton, with its location in upstate NY, admittedly may be a stretch for many of my readers, who may be based in South Florida. But the principles of strategic planning remain the same.

When it comes to selecting colleges, wherever you choose to apply, it’s important to have an integrated strategy – one that combines your admissions prospects with your family’s ability to pay the bill. If you need financial aid and/or scholarship to offset the high cost, then you need to consider a separate set of schools than the student whose family can afford the entire cost of attendance. You may not think that’s fair, but a successful admissions strategy must take this into account. If you get admitted to a number of schools that you cannot afford, then you need to be prepared to take on onerous debt to earn your diploma. This could have disastrous consequences for your future.

I’m obviously a strong proponent of higher education and the benefits of earning a college degree. Not only do the majority of jobs being created require training beyond what our high schools are offering, but college graduates also have higher earning potential over their lifetimes, and they are more likely to keep their jobs during a financial downturn. But there has to be value in the equation. There IS a proper college and/or post-high school program for everyone. You don’t need to take on burdensome student loan debt to earn a quality education, even at a private university or out of state school.

If you want to learn more about developing an integrated admissions strategy for your child – one that incorporates your admissions prospects with scholarship and your family’s ability to receive financial aid, then either reply to this email or give us a call, 954-659-1234. We’re here to help.

Oh, and, if you’re looking for a change of scenery, and you want a diverse academic experience with students from across the Northeast United States, then schools like Binghamton should be on your radar. With a strong liberal arts tradition, an excellent business school and an engineering program with a variety of different programs, SUNY Binghamton is worthy of consideration for students everywhere.

CAUTION: This May Infuriate You

October 4th, 2021 by

Last week I had a conversation with one of my students that made me so furious that I still can’t shake it. So I decided to write about it.

Warning: Rant to follow so please don’t read if you’re easily offended.

Anyhow, here’s the story.

I have a student I work with, let’s call him Joe. Joe is a senior and extremely busy trying to complete his college applications. He’s been making excellent progress towards his November 1 Early Action deadline for some highly selective schools. Joe has written an essay and several supplements, he’s enrolled in several AP classes, and he’s over-committed as an officer of 3 different clubs at school. This kid is busy.

Yet now he’s having trouble securing teacher recommendations.

It turns out that many of Joe’s teachers from last year (11th grade) are refusing to write recommendations – not just for him but for all students – because last year’s curriculum was delivered entirely online and they had little chance to get to know their students.

This speaks volumes about The Lost Year of 2020-21 and the COVID-impacted school year. It makes me wonder what, if anything, our kids actually learned. Most kids didn’t go to school, neither physically nor mentally.

It tells me that for many, the school year was at best, a joke; and at worst, a year-long lesson on how NOT to adapt on the fly, build resilience and relationships, find your own accountability and independence, etc. (all CRITICAL skills for the future).

Unfortunately, this is what happens when we have an outdated, underfunded (or mis-funded) system no longer capable of delivering on its original and frankly, sole, obligation – educating young people for the future.

Yes, I know it’s harder for teachers to form relationships  — or to impart information to a screen with no requirement for participation from your “absently present” pupils who were, by their own admissions, often asleep, or playing video games, or watching Netflix, or swimming in the pool, or who knows what else…

Ok, it’s harder to connect, to teach and to learn. But it’s not impossible. We can and should expect and do better.

What a missed opportunity the last year has been. What if, instead of throwing up our arms at how hard it was to teach/learn under these circumstances, we, instead, found little ways to adapt – maybe with outdoor learning or using empty office space with built in connectivity to provide more options for in person learning.  Think about it – in your own life, you’ve had to adapt. It’s a truism, that the more ability you have to pivot, the more options become available.

As an independent counselor, I found ways to adapt. Other industries found ways to adapt. If we hadn’t, we would no longer be in a position to continue to provide our services. In other fields, with other service providers, if something isn’t working, it’s on the providers to make a change. It’s not acceptable to simply ‘lose a year’ because it was challenging… or to use those challenges to abdicate responsibility.

It’s not too late to change that narrative.

Which brings me back to Joe… because he’s trying to make it work. After his 11th grade teacher issued a blanket refusal to recommendation requests, Joe then turned to one of his current 12th grade teachers. This teacher suggested to Joe, “write the recommendation yourself…I’ll sign it”.

Joe’s teacher wants Joe to write his own recommendation. And this isn’t the first I’ve heard of this horribly unethical request. The first time, a few years ago, I thought it was an aberration, a one-time occurrence. Back then I remember discussing this request with some college admissions officers, and we agreed that such a request is unconscionable. But apparently it’s now becoming an insidious pattern, part of a get-ahead-at-all-costs mindset and an avoidance of responsibility. Glorify your own academic character and slap a professional name to the authorship. It’s flat out wrong for teachers to make such a request of their students, or for students to follow through with the effort.

The only proper student response is to run for the hills and find another teacher, which is what I advise my students and what I told Joe. Unfortunately there may be students out there who follow through with this exercise and attempt to write their own rec letter.

What kind of society are we going to build if the lessons we’re imparting to our children are antithetical to how to build a society? We can and should do better.

Maybe we can start with some of those “highly selective universities” and higher education more generally. Because we need it – now more than ever. So long as our K-12 system remains as it is, all students will require some level of post-high school education to be successful (this is delineated in multiple studies of the labor market).  Therefore bashing higher ed in a blanket fashion, which I see too often by today’s pundits, is not the solution. Reforming it is.

That notwithstanding, I’m going to bash one of Joe’s schools a little bit right now. This highly reputable university has one of the most selective admissions processes in the country, admitting only 14% of applicants (which, as a tool to measure educational quality, is a matter of debate for another day). At a time when many other selective colleges have gone test-optional due to COVID, including the entire Ivy League, this school has remained inflexible, insisting that students continue to submit scores. They also demand that teacher rec letters come from 11th or 12th grade teachers and, depending on which school you apply to (business, liberal arts, nursing, etc.) that they come from a specific subject (i.e., math or social studies for the business school).

This school and others like it should offer some short term flexibility when it comes to teacher rec letters. You are already demanding SAT/ACT scores at a time when most of your peer institutions have waived that requirement. Show a little flexibility in an area where many students – especially public school students who were largely remote during their entire 11th grade year – are at a significant disadvantage. Let them request a 10th grade English teacher if that’s the best way to exemplify their academic ability and grit. We live in unprecedented times that require us all to adapt. You should, too.

Last month I wrote about the importance of relationships, speaking mostly to current 11th graders about the need to establish rapport with their teachers. It was a more proactive message at the start of the school year so that they can avoid the situation that Joe and many of his classmates find themselves. If you’re a 10th or 11th grader, or the parent of one, please don’t let my rant today overshadow this important message especially if you’re seeking admission to a highly selective university.

Take heart, despite a news cycle and popular narrative that speaks to at most 150 different universities, there are 3,000+ institutions of higher learning in the US. Finding one that meets your child’s unique needs and budget is completely within your reach.

If you’re looking for a way to be more proactive when it comes to the college admissions process, email us at or call our office, 954-659-1234. Perhaps we can help.

And, if you have a similar story to Joe’s I’d like to hear about it for some research I’m compiling. Please send an email to briefly explaining your experience. Thank you!

The Importance of Relationships

September 21st, 2021 by

A common question I get from parents and students alike, especially in 11th grade, goes something like this:

Hey Pete, what can I do right now to improve my college admissions chances at a highly selective college?

Aside from the standard answers (take rigorous classes and do well; perform well on the SAT/ACT; engage in activities and take on leadership roles, etc.) there is one that may go overlooked, especially if you are seeking admissions at a competitive, highly selective college.

High school students should take the time to develop and nurture relationships with faculty, especially teachers who may be candidates to write recommendations.

Often, the more selective a university, the more emphasis they will place on teacher recommendations when deciding among candidates. Which means that students should be trying from Day One to establish and maintain solid relationships with teachers, especially 11th grade teachers. These relationships are not developed overnight, and the foundation for these relationships should be established during classroom discussion, debate or lessons.

The best way to get a teacher to notice you is to participate in class discussion. If you spend your class time hiding in the back row and flipping through your phone to check out the latest fashions at the Met Gala, then your teacher will have a harder time getting to know you as a student or a person, and even if you are a top performer in a particular class, a teacher will not be able to write a thorough and sincere recommendation if they have never heard you speak up, answer a question, ask a question, or share an opinion. By participating in class you not only demonstrate a curiosity for the subject, but you also establish rapport with your teacher. And, you make your teacher’s job easier by aiding in the delivery of the lesson plan. This will not only help you in getting a better recommendation, but if you ever need any leniency from your teacher – i.e. a review of a particular grade on a test or paper, an opportunity to earn extra credit or grade forgiveness – your chances will be far enhanced if your teacher knows you, has heard you speak, and appreciates your respect for the class and the subject matter.

We recently held a Back in Action Video Challenge, and in one of the videos I discuss the importance of teacher recommendations, and how students should take the time starting at the beginning of the school year (now) to develop and nurture relationships with teachers. These relationships will surely pay dividends down the road. They also make for a richer academic experience, which will better prepare you for life after high school.

If you are the parent of an 11th grader, then your student should pay close attention to the importance of relationships, specifically with teachers. 11th grade teachers are the most likely target for recommendation requests, which should be made at the end of the academic year in May or June. Furthermore, now is the time to sit down and plan out the academic year so that your child is prepared for the busy admissions season to come. Don’t wait until the end of next summer to get started, or your student could miss out on some important opportunities to separate from the pack.

College Planning Advice for the Dog Days of Summer

July 21st, 2021 by

For most of my life, I thought the Dog Days of Summer began in mid-August. That’s when the predictability of another sweltering hot morning, followed by yet another afternoon thunderstorm would inevitably lead me to experience a certain, strange combination of lethargy mixed with anxiety. As a child, I was, by this point in the year, done with ‘downtime’ and  ‘over’ the slower pace of summer, but also just beginning to tie myself up in a knot knowing that the start of school was just around the corner. Dog days.

Well, turns out I was half right. Technically, “Dog Days” refers to a very specific time of year, July 3 – August 11, when the sun shares the sky with a constellation known as Canis Major, or Greater Dog. Everything else associated with the Dog Days– including the anticipated feeling of panic of another school year about to start — is entirely made up in the human imagination. Powerful thing that imagination, which brings me to what all of this has to do with you and your college planning efforts.

In both my professional experience as a counselor to students and advisor to schools and parents (and in my personal day job parenting my own, now college-going children), I’ve found the best way to ease nearly any anxiety is to take action… nearly any action. We have a saying in my practice and in my house: ‘progress begets progress.’ Making progress is uniquely beneficial in that it acts as both a de-stresser and a motivator.

With current circumstances as they are (unknowing), the strange brew of anxiety and complacency that mark the Dog Days is more acute among our young people than perhaps at any other time I’ve seen. Those students who are feeling most comfortable are those who are using this time to do something for themselves, to make progress.

For many of our rising 12th graders, that means they are finishing up the most difficult components of their college applications, including their personal statements and activities lists/descriptions. Note that the Common App for Fall 2022 Admissions will open officially on August 1 (less than two weeks from now), but students can be completing many of the basic fields within the App right now.

For many of our rising 10th and 11th graders, they are completing test prep courses or completing a summer learning experience.

I mention these measures of progress with a full appreciation that every student should work at their own pace. Figuring out what you want to do post-high school – and then how to do it – is NOT a race to be won. There is no benefit to you for finishing first… the opportunity (as in the relief you’ll feel) lies in getting started.

The same benefit (relief) is also true for the parents we counsel. Most of the parents we work with feel the angst as deeply as their college-bound children… only theirs comes with the added burden of worrying how they’ll pay for whatever said child winds up doing post high school.

In this way, the slower Dog Days can serve as a valuable opportunity for our parents of college-bound students as well. Very few (almost none) of the families we work with pay as much as what is on the ‘rate card’ or what they think they will have to for their child’s education. That’s because many of our parents come to us with enough time for them to learn how the rules of how college pricing really works and how to make those rules work to their child’s advantage. Hint: there are two prices for college: there is the published or sticker price for college and then their is the net price, or the percentage of the sticker that you’ll actually be expected to pay.

Now, when it comes to paying your net price for college, the earlier you get started, the better. Financial aid “season” opens on October 1, but success with financial aid forms, both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, depends both on how well you understand the rules, and on when you start taking action to maximize your financial aid eligibility.

While it’s almost never too late to improve your bottom line and to relieve your anxiety, the earlier you take action the better your results and your peace of mind. For example, for students graduating high school in 2022, the income year that colleges will be analyzing to determine financial aid eligibility is 2020. For students who will soon be 11th graders, the income year in question is 2021 (as in this year), which should give you an idea of how early planning can translate to increased financial aid dollars.

In our practice we not only help students gain admission to college, we also help ensure that those same students can afford those opportunities without excessive student debt. We ‘treat’ the whole family, ensuring that the students have post-high school plans that their parents can afford. In our practice we help each member of a family do their part. We coach the students from an academic standpoint and we help their parents navigate the complex financial aid process so they can maximize both aid and scholarship opportunities.

If you find yourself spending your Dog Days of Summer in a dog fight with your rising senior, or in some difficult discussions with your soon-to-be 10th or 11th grader, we can help.

If your 12th grader is stuck and you’re at your wits end trying to get them motivated to complete their applications, we still have a few spots left for the Class of 2022. If you’re the parent if a younger high schooler, feeling nervous or overwhelmed about the whole college admissions process… or in a panic because you saw yet another report on the outrageous costs of college, then reach out to us and we’ll talk you through it.

We’re here to help.

Some Common College Questions

June 10th, 2021 by

Yesterday was the official last day of school in our local district.

In the coming days and weeks, students will be set free to enjoy their summer fun. And unlike the COVID cancellation of many 2020 activities, there are numerous outlets for fun in the months ahead. Many of our students have some exciting summer plans, and I hope your child has something to look forward to in the weeks ahead.

With the approaching hiatus, I’m hearing some familiar questions from parents, some related to summer but all involving the college application process. I thought I would share some of them, as it’s possible that you may have similar questions.

What is the right number of services hours that I should target?
Summer is a great time to give back to the community and volunteer. Many students hope to use this time to earn service hours, which are often required for graduation depending on your school district. Here in Florida, service hours are also required to earn a Bright Futures Scholarship, with 75 hours required for a 75% tuition/fees scholarship and 100 hours required for a 100% tuition/fees scholarship.

When it comes to service hours, quality of hours is more important than quantity. Colleges don’t really focus on the number of hours, instead they are more interested in exactly what you did, who you helped, and the value of your experience. And let’s face it: many students earn excess hours for service they perform – a 3 hour volunteer activity cleaning up the beach can yield 10 hours from a generous supervisor. While it’s important that you earn enough to graduate (check your school’s requirements) or to earn a certain scholarship, achieving 500 service hours or more does not ensure admission to any college.

So, while there is no magic number of service hours that should be earned, try to earn them gradually over the 4 years of high school rather than all at once during senior year. Identify a group of people or a local cause that could use your help, and volunteer your time. Start now, and be sure to enjoy the experience.

Will a pre-college experience look good for my child?
Many students like to spend their summer on a college campus, taking classes in subjects that are not taught in high school. These experiences are known as “pre-college”, and they are offered on campuses throughout the country. Some programs remain virtual this summer, but there are still many opportunities even as of this writing to apply and attend an on-campus pre-college program. Examples include Summer Discovery, EXPLO, and the National Student Leadership Conference.

Pre-college programs are intended to be fun more than anything else. Attending a summer program at UCLA, Michigan, Yale or any other campus does not by itself impress a college admissions office. And yes, they can be expensive. Still, the benefits of attending a pre-college program are numerous and include meeting new people from different backgrounds, learning to live with a complete stranger, learning a subject not taught in high school, exploring a particular interest without any academic pressure, and growing/maturing while enjoying some independence from mom and dad. Also, if you have a certain experience that is life-changing you may wish to write about it in your college essay.

When should I start test prep, and when should I take the SAT/ACT?
Prepping for the SAT/ACT is the most uninteresting part of the college admission process. But it remains very important, even if it invites controversy around the fairness of standardized testing. I won’t elaborate on the fairness other than to say that I welcome the test optional movement. I should also note that the SAT/ACT remains highly relevant to the admissions process, and test prep is extremely important. I often compare test prep to visiting the dentist – nobody wants to go to the dentist, but we all need to go because it’s the right thing to do and provides clear benefits.

Many parents want to use the summer months for test prep. I do not support this idea unless you’re planning on taking the July ACT, and even in that case don’t make test prep the cornerstone of your summer activity. For any student, plan on prepping for the test about 8-10 weeks in advance of the test day. In the meantime, read as many books as you can – fiction, non-fiction, biographies, fantasies – anything that exercises the brain and makes you think.

For most students, 11th grade is the year to sit for the SAT/ACT. The timing of your first test should depend on your math level – if you have already completed Algebra 2 then take the test early in 11th grade. If you are enrolled in Algebra 2 then wait until March of 11th grade. Schedule your test prep course 8-10 weeks in advance. And remember, a top test prep service is only as good as the student’s commitment to the process.

If you are looking for a test prep service, feel free to contact us for a recommendation depending on your needs.

Which teachers should write my recommendation(s)?
I recently wrote about teacher recommendations, so I won’t go into full detail here, but it’s important that you seek recommendations from teachers of core subjects (English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Foreign Language). You may also request a rec from a Computer Science teacher, but I would avoid seeking a rec from elective teachers (Drama, Band, Art, Business, Engineering, PE, Debate, SGA, etc.) unless colleges allow you to submit recs in addition to core teachers. Not all colleges require recommendations, but for those who do they will want core teachers and preferably from 11th grade. That may be a challenge for students who spent the entire year on Zoom and didn’t really have a chance to connect with their teachers. Contact the college admission office for guidance on this – they will be happy to take calls from students (NOT from parents!).

Choose teachers who can offer specific examples of your contribution to class discussion, your intellectual curiosity, or your resilience in the face of adversity. At the most selective colleges and universities, teacher recommendations can be an important part of the application so treat this with the respect it deserves. And remember, your teachers are doing you a favor. A teacher rec is not an entitlement.

When should we visit colleges?
Many families like to use the summer months to visit college campuses. Last summer was a complete shutdown, but campuses are starting to open up again for in-person visits. Be sure to check the admissions page and register with them beforehand. The best time to visit a college is when school is in session so that you can see actual students, but summer visits are convenient and the admissions office is usually open and welcoming to prospective students. Visiting campus is also a great way to show interest in schools, so if you are able to get out there and show your face, then it’s clearly worthwhile. It’s OK to visit even after you’ve applied and before decisions are made, but a visit before completing the application can save time and assist your student in answering the question, “Why here”? Many colleges ask this question as a supplement to their application, as in “Why BU?”, “Why Tufts”?, or “Why Michigan?” If you can focus on some specific reasons that you learned while touring, then your response will be far more impactful.

If your child is finishing 11th grade and you want them to get an early start on the application, then check out our Summer Application Program which starts June 30. Summer is a great time to get this done so that your child can enter 12th grade with confidence, knowing that this process is behind them.

How to Get Teacher Recommendations That Count!

June 9th, 2021 by

If you’re an 11th grader and you want to go about the college application process properly, then yes, you should be thinking about teacher rec letters right now. In fact, some high school guidance offices require that students ask teachers for rec letters prior to the end of the school year, and some of those rec letters are written before teachers even leave for the summer. In other cases, an early ask gives the teacher something to think about over the summer (you!), before they put words on a page in August or September.

For colleges that require them, teacher rec letters can be an important piece that admissions counselors consider, one that can provide a boost when your file is being evaluated. Or, they can have very little impact.

In the competitive world of college admissions, I’ll take the boost.

So what makes a good rec letter, and how do I ensure that my teacher writes one that will make a difference and provide a boost?

A good rec letter includes very specific examples that may highlight a student’s academic commitment, intellectual curiosity, or perhaps a resilience and grit in the face of adversity. It’s not enough to say that “Johnny is intellectually curious”; the strong rec letter gives a specific example from a real experience, witnessed by the teacher, that showcases this commitment/curiosity/resilience.

While students cannot “ensure” that a teacher writes a good rec letter (the power lies with the teacher), it is possible to help your teacher out, which in most cases will be welcomed by said teacher. When asking a teacher for this favor (and it should be treated as a favor rather than an entitlement), remind them why you are specifically asking them (e.g. your love for, or enjoyment of their class, commitment to certain academic pursuits, passion for particular subjects, demonstration of resilience and grit), and try to recall specific examples to feed your teachers. It’s the specific examples that make the rec letter stand out.

To be very clear, this does NOT mean that students should write the rec letter themselves and have the teacher sign it. I’ve seen this idea suggested by some teachers, and it is absolutely the wrong approach for any student or teacher to take. If your teacher suggests this, you’ll need to quickly move on and ask another teacher.

When asking teachers, it’s a good idea to have two requests as some colleges will require two, and be sure to consider core subject teachers only (English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Foreign Language). You may also consider a Computer Science teacher. With rare exceptions, do NOT ask teachers of elective subjects (art, band, theater, debate, culinary, health/PE, etc.). Some colleges do allow students to submit recommendations from elective teachers or even coaches, employers, mentors or others, but this is only in addition to core rec letters, not instead of them.

We discuss rec letters, essays, the Common App, and a whole host of other related topics in our College Application Program. We’re already in the middle of Session I, and our students are now writing their rough draft essays.

Session II starts June 30 and will last for 5 weeks, Space is still available (we do expect to fill up), and you can get more information and register here.

Check out what a recent student wrote to Carla and me about our program:

I couldn’t thank you enough for your meaningful help and advice. I’m really thankful for my college application experience not only because it was well-managed, but also that I learned how to write a compelling and truly unique essay. The advice you gave me for writing essays has been applied far beyond just college apps; it helped me succeed in AP Lang and sharpen my edge in communication. Having you as my college advisors was such a great experience. It was a pleasure to work with you and to learn from you.

-Mauricio T., attending Northeastern University in Fall 2021

Your child can approach the college application experience with similar support. If you want a comprehensive college guidance program for your child, then let’s get connected.

Total Madness! Our 13th #UniversityGenerosityBracketology

March 17th, 2021 by

It’s my favorite time of year, no doubt.

Yes, this is the time when students learn about where they’re admitted to college, but it’s also the start of March Madness, the single greatest sporting event on the annual calendar.

(Note: To my soccer-loving friends, the World Cup only comes around every 4 years. And while I have learned to appreciate the Beautiful Game, nothing in sports compares to the frenetic pace of an NCAA basketball game.)

In addition to the great competition and spectacular upsets, what I also love about March Madness is my accompanying #UniversityGenerosityBracketology.

If you haven’t been paying attention, I dissect each of the 32 first round matchups based on the financial aid generosity levels of each school. I’ve been doing this every year since 2008, and with last year’s event canceled due to COVID-19, we are thrilled to be back.

Why is this important?

When it comes to financial aid and paying for college, schools will vary greatly in the awards that they offer. And some schools award only need-based aid, while others are more generous with merit scholarship awards based on grades, test scores, or other talent assessments.

And so, each year we get a new collection of 64 (or 68 to be precise) Division 1 colleges and universities to dissect and put under a statistical microscope.

Our Top Secret Method for Turning March Matchups into May $cholarships

We take a look at the financial aid generosity levels of every school in the tournament, and we combine that with the 4-year graduation rate and a proprietary bit of pixie dust to create a generosity and efficiency rating. The school with the higher rating advances.

Russian hackers, IBM Security Engineers, and US Dept. of Homeland Security specialists have tried to de-code our methodology, but they’re left as stumped and befuddled as Jay Bilas trying to figure out if 12th seed Georgetown has the goods to take down 5th seed Colorado (we have the answer – see below!).

I realize that my methodology may seem like crackpot lunacy to the average sports fan. But truthfully, you and I both know that your bracket, based entirely on basketball predictions, will very likely look absurdly flawed and nearly hopeless come Monday evening when the 2nd round is over.

And so, I’ve posted my NCAA 2021 UniversityGenerosityBracketology for all to see. Below I’ve highlighted a few key matchups worthy of additional attention:

#1 Illinois vs. #16 Drexel: This matchup is intriguing for several reasons. The Drexel Dragons are making their first NCAA appearance in 25 years and bringing an estimated need-met number of 80% to the Big Dance. And while their 4-year graduation rate may be statistically low at only 27%, the average reader probably doesn’t know about Drexel’s co-op program, where students spend full academic terms away from their studies to find work opportunities in fields related to their major. A better reading would be Drexel’s 5-year graduation rate, which is 67% – not great, but on par with the 4-year rates of University of Florida (68%) and Syracuse (70%). (Full Disclosure – my daughter attends Drexel, and she’s about to start her 2nd Co-op. She’ll finish college with work experience and a solid resume). Illinois is clearly the better basketball school, but they only meet 70% of demonstrated need. Illinois does graduate 70% of its students in 4 years, a very good rate for a state university. But I’ll take the Dragons and their 80% need met. They also offer some good merit money to offset their high sticker price, and there’s something to be said for family harmony.

#5 Villanova vs. #12 Winthrop: Villanova is a perennial basketball powerhouse, and they also boast a pretty good financial aid number (80% need met). In addition, Villanova offers some decent merit award opportunities. For students seeking a competitive university in a suburban, residential setting near a major city, Villanova checks many boxes. And with an 87% 4-year grad rate, you’re likely to be finished on schedule. Winthrop only meets 60% of need, and their 4 year grad rate is an abysmal 38%. While some may be tempted to take the 12th seed (a common upset matchup), I’ll stick with the Wildcats over the Eagles.

#8 UNC vs. #9 Wisconsin: These 8 v. 9 matchups are always tossups, and this battle of two flagships is no exception. Still, with my methodology it’s not even close. Traditional basketball power UNC enters following a down year on the hard wood – in fact just 3 weeks ago they were considered a bubble team. But the Carolina Covenant is one of the most generous financial aid programs of any state university in the land, meeting 100% of demonstrated need to qualifying candidates. And at 84%, UNC’s grad rate is near the top for state universities. Go Heels!

#8 Loyola-Chicago vs. #9 GA Tech: Another basketball tossup that requires some statistical dissection. LUC meets 84% of demonstrated need, a respectable number compared to the Ramblin’ Wreck’s 65%. A look at GA Tech’s graduation rate is deceptive (see Drexel above), as many students take time off for co-ops and other experiential learning, or they double-major. If you’re a GA resident then you benefit from in-state tuition at an elite university; otherwise, you will need to hope for one of the few highly competitive merit awards for any discount. When it comes to both financial aid and basketball, Hope is not a strategy. I’ll go with the Ramblers from Loyola, though I don’t expect to see Sister Jean on the sidelines in Indianapolis this year since attendance will be limited due to COVID-19.

#3 Arkansas vs. #14 Colgate: Two years ago I went with Colgate over another SEC school. While Colgate lost that matchup to Tennessee, I’m sticking with the Raiders and their 100% demonstrated need over the Razorbacks, who don’t report their financial aid numbers (how bad must they be?). Furthermore, students are twice as likely to graduate in 4 years from Colgate than their counterparts in Fayetteville (88% vs. 42%). With the Ivy League absent this year, Colgate might top the bracket as the most generous school in the field.

#12 Georgetown vs. #5 Colorado: Basketball purists know that the 12 vs. 5 matchup is always precarious, and many pundits will take a chance and go with Georgetown in this one. If they follow my methodology it’s a no-brainer: while Colorado does offer merit scholarships to attract out-of-state students, Georgetown meets 100% of demonstrated need with a 90% 4-year graduation rate. I’ll stick with the Hoyas.

Click to download my NCAA 2021 UniversityGenerosityBracketology.

So what’s the real point in all of this?

When it comes to selecting colleges with your child (for admissions, that is), it’s important to know their financial aid generosity levels and their 4-year graduation rates, among other data. For most colleges these numbers are published and available – it just take some time to research them. Not all schools meet financial need in the same way, but because of financial aid some of those high-priced, elite private colleges (like Colgate and Georgetown) can be more affordable to middle class families.

When it comes to your #MarchMadness bracket, follow my advice at your peril. But when it comes to selecting colleges to attend, be sure to consider these additional data points. And you never know – my bracket advice might help you win a few games and take some pesos from your friends in the coming weeks. More likely, it will help you save literally thousands of dollars in additional financial aid.

Enjoy the games this month, and may the best (and most generous) school win!