Prep, Panic & The Real Importance of PSAT Scores (which are coming Soon)

November 21st, 2022 by

When you attend a live concert (assuming of course that you could get tickets –  hello, Swifties);  or even when you watch someone give a motivational Ted Talk on YouTube, you can bet those presenters probably had a ‘realistic’ rehearsal with a sound check. You know: “Testing, testing,1, 2, 3. Am I coming in loud and clear?”

Doing so helps them prepare themselves for their big performance gig and ensures they sound just right in the particular venue. Even before that sound check test on the stage, the band you’re seeing in your hometown on their cross-Atlantic tour, or the local stand-up comedian readying himself to crack jokes took countless hours to rehearse their acts over and over again to make sure they could do their best when the red lights went on.

You’ve probably heard the adage: hard work will beat talent every time. I’m not sure this applies in every setting, but it works in most. That’s because we have learned that intentional preparation and practice performed under realistic conditions will reduce anxiety and set the stage (pun intended) for your own peak performance – whatever that may be – every time.

If you’re an athlete, you may also spend time practicing on the field before you play in the big game coming up that weekend. Personally, I have spent hours trying to improve my swing and stance on the driving range, so I feel prepared and confident in my abilities on the actual golf course (and trust me, it’s a tough blow for me when I come up short – ask my family how I react when I come home after a tough day on the tennis court or golf course).

For those of you interested in STEM, you may spend hours tinkering away with a code to make that AI bot do a certain action, or mix different chemicals in a lab to develop just the right concoction for your experiment to prove your hypothesis correct.

You get the picture, right?

I obviously believe in practice and preparation. So when my clients – especially those with 11th graders ask, “When do we start with taking the diagnostic test for SAT/ACT? When do we start test prep and take the actual test’, my knee jerk reaction is to tell them to start prepping for the SAT and ACT NOW.

However, like everything in academia, the best response requires a more nuanced, personal, and thoughtful approach. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to standardized testing strategies, and the timing of test prep. Here are a few considerations you should be mindful of as you consider your own testing goals/needs/opportunities.

One consideration is to evaluate the math courses you have completed so far. My first question I ask families who inquire about testing is “When did you take Algebra II?” For 11th graders, if you have already taken this course, feel free to take the SAT or ACT in your first semester. If you have NOT yet taken Algebra II, or you’re in 11th grade and taking it now, then wait until 2nd semester to sit for the SAT and ACT. The rationale behind this is to make sure students are prepared on test day without any surprising material that they haven’t yet covered in school.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020 (and frankly for nearly the decade prior to that), many colleges and universities have opted for test-optional or test free policies for college admissions. Many schools have continued to relax their stance towards considering test scores as part of college admissions, and have been evaluating students based on other factors such as their grades, extracurricular activities, and their personal essays on the Common Application instead. In fact, according to Higher Ed Dive and, 1,835 colleges will be making SAT/ACT test score submissions optional for Fall 2023 applicants, including but not limited to the Ivy League, UNC Chapel Hill, the New England Small Colleges (NESCAC), Stanford, Rice, WashU, and even here locally in Florida at University of Miami and others.

Florida public universities such as Florida State University and University of Florida still require their applicants to submit their test scores as well. And still other schools with more rigorous academic programs, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Georgetown University require applicants to still submit their test scores since they may require more stringent mathematics programs and want to further evaluate each applicant’s performance, according to and The Washington Post.

The College Board has announced that, starting in 2024 the SAT will be fully digital, making sections of the test shorter, and decreasing the amount of time to receive test results from weeks to only days after taking the test. The changes to the soon-to-be digitized SAT will include two hours instead of three to take the test, shorter reading passages with one question per passage, and will allow students to use a calculator for the entire math section.

To all 11th graders who have already started prepping, and some who have even taken their first test – good on you. But for those 11th graders who have not (or 10th graders who are in Algebra 2), the time is most definitely NOW to investigate tutors and to begin the preparation now or right after the New Year, so that you can be prepared for either a February or March test. There are many different approaches to take when preparing for a standardized test like the SAT or ACT. At the end of the day, do what you think would make you the best candidate for the schools you’re considering.

In just about 3 weeks from now, many students in 10th and 11th grade will receive the results of their PSAT tests. Unless you are among the small percentage of 11th graders trying to qualify for national merit opportunities, the PSAT should be viewed as a practice test and absolutely nothing else. Colleges will not ask for, nor will they care about, your PSAT score. Period. Full Stop. The PSAT score report should be considered an opportunity to identify where to focus your aforementioned preparation! It also kicks off your college admissions ‘season’ in that colleges will begin marketing to you in earnest. Within weeks of receiving your PSAT score, you’ll become inundated with college brochures/emails etc. It’s important to remember that there are nearly 4000, 2-year, 4-year and vocational schools and that you shouldn’t fall in love with a school because they have a big marketing budget. It’s best to fully explore your academic interests, post-high school aspirations and your family’s budget — and then formalize an admissions strategy  (and testing strategy) that considers all of these factors. 

How to Save Both $100s and then many $1000s on College

October 17th, 2022 by

‘Tis definitely the season – and no, I’m not referring to the fact that Home Depot has Christmas decorations for sale. For me, my colleagues and our college-bound families, we’re plowing through this year’s admissions/applications season. (We spent the weekend wishing the best to all our Florida applicants as they submitted their FSU applications this Saturday, as well as those who sent apps to UNC-Chapel Hill).

At the same time, we’re now also neck deep into financial aid season. Since Oct 1, when the FAFSA and the CSS Profile ‘officially opened’ we’ve assisted with many financial aid applications on behalf of our student applicants. We have proprietary software that helps us process these forms efficiently, but the real work takes place in the planning, well before we complete or submit a single financial aid form. Just as ‘smart’ holiday shoppers plan out their lists, leverage early sales, etc. to get ahead of the curve to maximize savings and availability of best items when gift-shopping; the ‘smartest’ ‘college shoppers’ will create an integrated admissions and funding strategy well before their child’s 12th grade year to optimize their admissions choices and to get the best ‘deals.’

College planning is more than keeping track of important deadlines, submitting test scores, and filling out the proper forms – that’s the bare minimum. The way to truly maximize your college admissions and scholarship options is to create a college plan early in high school. For our practice, the ideal time to begin is just before you/your child chooses their 11th grade classes (the 2nd semester of 10th grade). This allows us to start working with our students before they get into the really heavy academic lifting of 11th grade, and just as the prior-prior look back period (that’s a legit technical term and thing) for all financial aid decisions begins.

Now, because I know we have far more readers than we do actual one-on-one clients and not everyone has been able to get started this early in the process, we also like to pass along tips that can help anybody save money, regardless of where their student is in the process.

For example, there are a lot of hidden fees in the admissions process – and these fees can add up. For example, you have to pay to submit your college applications to most colleges, AND you also have to pay a fee to submit some of your financial aid applications. Yes, I do realize the irony that the nonprofit College Board charges you to submit the most challenging – and beneficial – financial aid document, the CSS Profile.

In addition, they (the nonprofit College Board SAT and its evil twin the ACT) also charge you to send test scores to the schools on your list. And if you’re a little late in this process, they’ll charge you a rather exorbitant rush charge. But nowadays at many schools, YOU (yes, you) can personally self-report these test scores to colleges – at absolutely no cost – and then, once you’ve decided where you’d like to attend, you can have the official report disclosed prior to enrolling. If you click here (, you’ll see the list of colleges that will let you self-report and avoid paying multiple reporting fees.

Now that said, this test score reporting/sending decision can get trickier than it appears. Again, this is where planning matters. Many schools don’t require you to submit your test scores at all to be considered for admissions. When working with our students, we base the decision on when to submit scores on how you performed relative to the 50th percentile of matriculated students at any school. We often will recommend that you submit scores to some schools but not to others (an email for another day – or you can search my blog for all that I’ve written on Test Optional Strategies for Admissions and Scholarship $). Again, the answers are in the planning. Nonetheless, check out the link above to figure out whether and where you can save a few bucks in the sending process and self-report instead.

As we mentioned, to all the Florida-based students who applied to FSU by October 15, we wish you the best of luck and hope to hear good news about your application on December 15. University of Florida applicants: you have a bit more time to check once, twice, and even three times to make sure you submit your best admissions application. UF applications are due November 1. Early Action deadlines for college applicants applying out of state should also remember to submit by November 1 (or November 15 – check with your school).

If you have any questions about any of the topics above, please feel to reach out. Have a great week!

BIG Drop in US News College Rankings – What’s It Mean for You? (HINT: Not much)

September 13th, 2022 by

The annual US News & World Report college rankings were released yesterday, and the media (both social and traditional) were abuzz with folks either a) touting their schools or b) ‘splaining away their precipitous falls from ‘grace.’

Columbia University – you know, the Ivy one – had a lot to say after dropping 16 slots, from number 2 in the country last year to number 18 this year. Cue the hand-wringing!

Now before I share how I really feel about the ubiquitous, yet entirely uninformative rankings ( spoiler alert – I’m completely indifferent), let’s examine the facts.

This year US News reported yet another change to their ranking methodology, particularly with respect to how much weight was given to SAT/ACT scores. In short, standardized test scores count  a lot less than they used to.

In addition to the reported test scores of incoming freshmen, there were tweaks to other areas of the formula, which considers about 15 other ‘academic quality’ measures of the Freshman class (class rank, gpa etc.), the anecdotal opinions of other so-called higher ed officials, and a teeny tiny set of outcomes criteria (e.g., alumni giving, Pell Grant recipient grad rates, etc.).

Note that the bulk of the rankings criteria consists of measuring the high school performance of the previous year’s matriculating class. Almost none of what is utilized to determine a school’s ranking truly captures the type of education a student actually receives at a particular institution. Think about that.

The statistical measures that make up the rankings methodology offer little insight into whether a school is “good”, or more importantly, a “good-fit” for your child.

The broad-stroke rankings that so many put so much stock in mostly measure the high school achievement of its matriculating freshmen. Is that really the best way to determine whether a college is ‘good’?

I would counsel no… that perhaps there’s a better way to analyze the value of a school. In my practice, and in those of many of my colleagues including many school counselors, we caution families against relying solely on any ranking when defining the value of a school. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to evaluate a school based on the progress that students make from August of freshman year to May of senior year? Or to identify and rate student achievement six months to six years post graduation? Or to quantify the commitment to teaching and career development among the faculty and administration? Wouldn’t that better reveal the educational merit of a particular school?

Yet measuring that progress, or that commitment, with data is extraordinarily difficult, so it’s not included in the US News or most other broad-brush rankings. There are faculty measures in the methodology including class size (important!) at 8%, faculty compensation (debatable) and percentage of faculty with terminal degree in field (i.e. Ph.D.)  – yet nothing about faculty commitment or influence in the real world. What good is it for my undergrad child if she never meets personally her Ph.D. professor who has written 19 books because he’s too busy conducting research with graduate students?

Back when I was in college, my school (Tufts) wasn’t ranked, because the school refused to share data with US News. Many other colleges, mostly of the small, liberal arts variety, also withheld information as an act of defiance against the ‘flawed’ methodology. As a young college student I was slightly bothered  because I wanted to know (and maybe brag about) how Tufts compared with others.

Ironically, today, Tufts is ranked at 32- tied with UC Santa Barbara and a notch below UF, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest (all at 29) . These universities couldn’t be more different in terms of class size, curriculum, social scene, cost of attendance…yet their ranking is quite similar. Do I know any more about how Tufts compares with its peers because of the US News rankings? Or whether Tufts would be the right school for me today, or for any other applicant, based on a single number (it’s rank)? Very little, I’m afraid.

So what good are the US News rankings?

As a whole, the rankings offer a single place where data on schools can be collected. When researching colleges, students and families may find certain data points that they prioritize, and the rankings may provide this data. BUT to suggest that Columbia was a far better school last year when it was 2 than it is now, or that the 17th ranked school is better for your child than the 27th ranked school is nonsense.

Do yourself and more importantly your child a favor and look at factors beyond rank when considering where to apply.

When I speak in public I like to joke that the only college rankings with any real consequence are the College Football Playoff rankings. As senseless as that sounds, the CFP actually determines a real outcome, however flawed you might think it is and whatever little consequence it has on society.

When my kids were in high school, there was a sign hanging in their school’s college guidance office that read, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” There are many great colleges that are not in the top of the rankings but still offer a great education and considerable scholarship opportunities (See The US News rankings are more about a false prize.

Oftentimes, the match is harder to measure. 

September 6th, 2022 by

Last month I was up in New England (a little business and a little vacay before the Oct crunch). I stayed just outside of Boston, not far from where I was born and pretty close to where Jill and I met (first day of college, to be exact). Coincidentally, it was move-in week and the city was brimming with newly minted, excited and anxious soon-to-be college freshman (and their equally excited and anxious parents).Thinking about it has made me nostalgic. As a parent, college drop off is one of things you plan for, imagine, anticipate, maybe dread from the time your kids are little.

In fact, if you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably thinking about your own child/ren’s college drop off. Hopefully you have been reading my emails, watching my videos, absorbing all of the information we’ve been sharing over the past 15 years. In the last email I sent, I mentioned the deadline-intensive nature of the college admissions and financial aid processes. If your have a college-bound teen, I want to remind you to take action on what you’re learning!

(Like, hopefully you got your seat for my free ‘college planning night’ – Sept 15)  

After all, ‘without knowledge, action is useless… but without action, knowledge is futile. So, with that in mind, I wanted to share with you a couple of stories that I think help illustrate the importance of both knowledge AND Action!

Long time subscribers might actually recall the first story. It’s from eleven years ago, but still relevant today. The story about the father of a rather brilliant, well rounded 12th grader from Connecticut. ‘Marissa’ excelled both in the classroom and out of it; and in April of 2011, we received this email from her father.  Fair warning: it was gut-wrenching and raw: “I have a daughter freaking out at home… The price of a college education now is comical and… the struggling middle class get screwed.  This financial formula that FASCA (sic) figures… is a joke. They decide that going into huge debt seems to be the American way.  This country is going into the crapper.”

There was more, but you get the gist.

He was clearly in a panic; his daughter had just been admitted to her dream school and he had just awoken to the fact — literally days before the deposit was due — that he could not afford it. Marissa’s father (a do-it-yourselfer type; an accountant in fact)  had made a couple of fatal errors with both Marissa’s admissions strategy and in his financial planning for college.

The first error was that he assumed  that his highly ranked, highly motivated daughter would get a scholarship from any school to which she applied. But most highly selective, competitive colleges are very generous to students who demonstrate financial need, not so much for merit or talent.  And Marissa’s schools did not give merit scholarships whatsoever.

The second misfire was in how he had saved for Marissa’s college in the first place. Like many families, Marissa’s Dad had used UTMAs, 529s and similar vehicles to reduce his tax burden while saving for college. While this is often a sound tax strategy, it can be very costly when it comes to demonstrating financial need. Under the Title IV Department of Education Regulations, UTMAs are the student’s assets (and are penalized at a 20% rate), while 529 plans are considered parental assets and are ‘taxed’ in the formulas at a much lower rate (about 5-6%.  Marissa’s Dad had his assistant  (yes, his assistant) fill out her financial aid applications.

After reviewing their forms, we estimated that Marissa’s EFC was inflated by at least  $20,000 – $25,000, per year, which at Marissa’s dream school would have meant that she could have enjoyed at least $80,000 in grants over the four year period. The unfortunate ending to Marissa’s story is that although these were easy adjustments to make, by the time we heard from Marissa’s Dad (April)  it was way too late to credibly do so. All of Marissa’s hard work – monumental efforts taking APs and other challenging courses, excelling outside the classroom and kicking butt on her SATs – were kind of for naught. Which was awful and worse, totally avoidable.

The second story has a much happier ending.  Mathew’s parents came to us, first, for help with his older brother, and then again in September of Mathew’s 11th grade year to start working on Mathew’s plan. He was a ‘B’ student, decent ACT scores and ranked just below the 50th percentile in his class. We put together a sound admissions strategy, full of schools that while not necessarily brand names, were well known in academic and professional circles. Quite a few are considered ‘Colleges that Change Lives’.

Mathew had great results; the kind that left his classmates scratching their heads. He was accepted at 80% of the schools to which he applied. Better still, each school came back with an average merit scholarship for him of $20,000 per year before his financial needs were even considered (remember, Mathew was just below the 50th percentile in his class). When all the dust settled, Matthew enrolled in the 2nd ranked Regional College (according to US News and World Report). And he was given a total financial aid package (scholarships and grants) of $37,900.00.

Mathew’s story is pretty typical of the students who receive and take action on the information and guidance we provide. The lesson, the “aha!” moment you should take away from these stories is that, although it’s been said before, you will not derive the full benefit from all of the valuable information you’ve been receiving these past few months (years) if you do nothing with it!

Delays can not only cost you thousands of dollars, but as in the case of Marissa, it can cost your son or daughter the opportunity to attend their dream school. Needlessly.

Now, can you do this college thing yourself? Yes. absolutely you can, just like you can do a lot of other things yourself. You can practice law yourself, you can diagnose yourself on the Internet and do your own taxes. By the same token, when was the last time you did something really well the first time you tried it?  What if you fill out a form incorrectly, or include an exempt asset, or apply to a ‘safety’ school that doesn’t offer a major in your child’s chosen field…or you do apply to safe academic schools, but you find out after the fact that those schools don’t have any money in their coffers to give you a discount?

We know you’re probably getting inundated with information about college from every source imaginable. And if you’re like most people, you’re so overwhelmed by all the information that you’re not sure what to do next, or you have so many unanswered questions that you don’t even know where to begin.

Well, we’d like to help! On Thursday, September 15 at 6:30pm we’re holding a free LIVE  training class where we’ll be sharing with you the exact tools and techniques that we use in our private practice to help our families and their children find and get accepted to great colleges…that offer great discounts to boot.

We’re doing this live and will try to keep the ‘lecture’ short, so that we have enough time to answer your personal questions and  provide you with the information that you need to take control of the college process and make sure your son or daughter is on the right path to getting into a great college that you can actually afford.

So, join us on Thursday Sept 15  (6:30pm EDT) to get the edge you deserve.

Register here now while there’s still room.

Common App Opens for Class of 2023 – Find Out What’s New!

August 5th, 2022 by

The Common App opened this past Monday, on August 1. Needless to say, it’s been a busy week helping students as they begin the application cycle. It’s a great feeling to witness a student take ownership of their future and launch the college application. I did that many times this week, and I know that these kids are growing before my eyes.

Fact is, most of my students started their Common App months ago. Most are now finishing up their personal statements and activities lists — and looking ahead to completing their supplements. Monday was simply the “rollover” day, when the application opens for students applying for 2023-24 enrollment. That means students can actually start submitting applications, but most don’t. Not yet, anyway. What students can and should do at this point – in addition to finalizing their personal essay and activities list (and starting any supplements) –  is invite and assign teachers to write recommendations, and complete all of the easy/data entry stuff (student profile section, parent information, etc.).

NOTE: As of this writing, some schools like University of Florida, Princeton and Yale have not yet opened their applications on Common App (Hey, Gator Nation, I want to feel the love for my putting UF in the same sentence as Princeton and Yale!). We expect these and other remaining applications to open by the end of August.

There’s not much new to this year’s common app. The personal statement prompts are all the same, and other than some new deadlines (i.e. FSU October 15 for FL residents applying Early Action) and new schools (Texas, FIU, Texas A&M, Alabama), the main change is really with individual school supplements. These should not be overlooked or considered optional.

What’s important to understand is that October 15 is only weeks away. It’s now crunch time. Not next week or September 1. 12th graders need to get to work NOW.

And their parents need to get prepared for financial aid season. The FAFSA and CSS Profile open October 1.

Univ. of FL: Holistic v Competitive Admissions – Separating Fact from Urban Legend

July 20th, 2022 by

At the University of Florida, they get right to the point.

I visited UF yesterday, and the opening remarks at their info session were all about numbers (SAT 1330-1470, ACT 30-34, GPA 4.4), deadlines (Nov. 1) and the selective nature of their admissions process. Note to students: Apply by Nov 1. Period. End of story.

And yet, the admissions counselor leading the presentation, Melissa Sisk, was clear to point out that UF follows a “holistic” process (like many other colleges), as opposed to a competitive process when considering applicants. In other words, grades and scores are not all that they look at. They also take a look at rigor of the transcript (including 12th grade courses), the extra-curricular record of the applicant, and the personal statement. In fact, as I’ve mentioned a time or two-hundred about all colleges, this last piece is closely scrutinized by the UF admissions team.

There is considerable evidence to back this up. Over the years, many highly qualified students with strong GPAs and test scores have been denied from UF because the non-numerical aspects of their application did not meet whatever standard UF requires – or did not differentiate them from the other myriad applicants with similar numbers. Perhaps you’ve heard the examples: admitted to Cal-Berkeley, denied from UF; admitted to Cornell, denied from UF; admitted to Emory, denied from UF. The University of Florida is uber-selective: they know it, they’re proud of it, and they’re not shy in letting you know it.

Ms. Sisk also dispelled some myths that students and parents hold about UF. For example, there is no advantage in applying for summer admission vs. fall admission at UF. Students make their selection, and the admissions office tries to meet that preference, but there is no admissions advantage either way. Similarly, UF doesn’t look at chosen major on the application as any kind of factor in the admissions process. So if you apply as a mechanical engineer it offers no advantage over a student applying as a psychology major, or vice versa.

One item was absolutely clear – the UF admissions deadline is November 1. They say they will review applications “on a space-available basis” after November 1, but Ms. Sisk was quite clear in expressing that if you want to get into UF you must submit your application by November 1, plain and simple. Again, they’re selective, they’re desirable, and they know it. So meet their deadline.

As far as the personal statement is concerned, UF takes this part of the application very seriously, just as most other selective colleges do. Which is why when we are working with students we pay particular attention to this part of the application. In fact, we’ve been working with students throughout the summer, helping them express themselves in a clear, specific way so that their personal statements stand out from the pack. “Specific” is a word that Ms. Sisk used when explaining what they are looking for, and it’s something we emphasize in our practice. My students understand this, and we challenge them regularly to be more specific. This summer we’ve seen some great essays so far, and our kids are making amazing progress.

The Common App opens on August 1, which is less than 2 weeks away. For the Class of 2023 the admissions season is nearly upon us. Are you ready?

If you’re unsure where to start, or you need help reaching your child’s admissions goals, or you are wondering how you’re going to pay for college, then let’s start the conversation. This is not something you want to wait on. When it comes to college admissions and financial aid, earlier planning is always better.

The most frustrating part of my work is when I must inform a parent that I’m not able to help them because we’re too late in the process. For 12th grade families that time is approaching. For 10th and 11th grade parents, take advantage of this opportunity while the window remains open. I don’t want you to be one of those parents who says to me, “I wish I contacted you earlier”. This happened to me just yesterday, and it’s an uncomfortable discussion to inform a parent that it’s too late to assist them. So don’t be that parent. Instead, be proactive so that you and your child enjoy the best chance for success. I look forward to hearing from you.

NEW! Earlier College Application Deadline, Plus More

July 12th, 2022 by

After a two year Covid-induced college tour sabbatical, I’m finally back on the road. And so yesterday, while on route to a secret, undisclosed, Smoky Mountain hideaway, I had a chance to first tour FSU and then visit with Julie Rubin, the Associate Director of Admissions (see our lovely picture at the bottom).

It was an excellent visit!

Note to all college-bound teens (and the parents who love them) – FSU is most definitely ascending! I’ve been all around the country, visited colleges, large and small, private and public. And, after hundreds of these visits you get a vibe – you can intuit when a school is about to become the next up and coming hot spot. FSU has that vibe.

The numbers support this upward trend. In fact, since joining the Common App circa 2018, the number of FSU applicants has soared – up by 157%!! Not surprisingly, admissions standards and selectivity have similarly risen. It’s not easy to get into FSU. (MORE ON WHAT YOU CAN AND CANNOT DO ABOUT THAT IN A MIN). But first, a quick word about the rich academic life and diverse co-curricular opportunities (beyond top tier athletics) that are increasingly part of the FSU community appeal. FSU is investing both in campus life (e.g., a new student union) and in academic diversity and expansion (e.g., a nationally recognized forensics program, state-of-the-art nursing and public health programs, hospitality, film, meteorology and a new, expanded business school is planned). If you want to do something, chances are you can learn how to at FSU. Furthermore, FSU’s global network of engaged alum and supporters, offers students research and employment opportunities while on campus as well as upon graduation.

That said, FSU still definitely likes to have its fun, especially on Fall Saturdays! I have never before attended a college tour that essentially began on the ground floor of the school’s famed football stadium. This one did. And after the information session, the student ambassador-led tour started with a stroll by the baseball field, the tennis courts, the circus tent (!), and the volleyball facility. Perhaps 20 minutes into the tour I heard the first discussion of academic life on campus.

With all of the exciting academic opportunities and community engagement, FSU remains a true value in terms of tuition and return on investment. And should be top of mind for many students. The challenge, of course, is getting admitted. To that point, this is not your father’s (or mother’s) FSU. It’s really competitive (really really).

So, at the end of my visit I sat down with Julie Rubin, Associate Director of Admissions. Here are a few interesting notes Ms. Rubin shared with me that might help you/your student in your admissions effort.

Side Note to my rising seniors:  we’ll continue discussing this information (and more tips from the trenches) during next week’s class – and throughout the summer/fall application season.

First, FSU has created a new ‘Early Action’ application category AND DEADLINE for in-state applicants. To be considered for early action, students must submit their application by October 15! If you’re a Florida applicant, I highly, highly suggest you do so! Notifications for early applicants will take place on December 15. Further, the application process officially begins AUG 1. You can begin submitting your application in just 3 weeks. FSU admissions counselors will begin reviewing those applications upon receipt, though no decisions will be made until December 15.

Also of note, FSU neither considers nor tracks “demonstrated interest” as a factor in their holistic process, and the rationale is quite straightforward: it’s not easy to get to Tallahassee. With Miami-Dade and Broward representing the two largest counties in their applicant pool, and with access to higher ed an important priority at FSU, why penalize those students who may not be able to visit? Hey students, this means your essay really counts at FSU!

In addition, Rubin also shared with me some insights on investments that the school is making in specific programs, thereby creating opportunities for applicants in those areas. I’m looking forward to sharing these insights with my students when I meet with them privately.

Finally, a quick reminder that FSU offers both merit and need-based financial incentives to both in-state and out-of-state students. In fact, there are some very interesting ways that FSU helps off-set cost for out of state students, which I’d be happy to discuss privately.

Regardless, I strongly encourage you to take your college-bound teen on a college visit. There is no better way to learn about a school, and perhaps to motivate your student to start “acting like an applicant”. For rising seniors, the “season” has already begun. We’re just a mere few weeks from being able to hit submit!! Many of my students are already on their way to completing their applications, including crafting some of the most compelling personal statements I’ve ever read.

For more information about admissions and financial aid, download my Ultimate College Application Guide.

It Only Takes 15 Minutes, On Average

June 23rd, 2022 by

Yesterday I joined a private webinar led by two admissions representatives from highly selective universities- one from an Ivy League school, and the other representing a highly selective, private, southern university.

Every so often I participate in these kinds of webinars to stay fresh and to stay on top of any trends or changes in the admissions process. Yesterday’s program was more about reinforcing what I’ve already known to be true. Still, I’d like to share some of the highlights – and tips for your children –  both as reinforcement for all of our subscribers and as a primer for those of you who are newer readers and may be going through this process with your children for the first time.

1. Your child’s application will be given consideration for just about 15 minutes, on average. 
When I share this piece of information with students and parents they’re aghast with bewilderment, and I get it. Your child spends 3.5 years of high school attending classes, preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT/AP exams, joining clubs, volunteering, playing sports, leading student government, raising money for causes, visiting colleges, performing in plays and concerts, attending camps or pre-college programs, pursuing internships and working in different jobs…not to mention writing college essays/completing college applications —

And then, they get 15 minutes of an admissions officer’s attention, on average! The two panelists appeared noticeably uncomfortable with the question (“How long does it take you to review an application?”), with the first counselor responding “it’s a lot less than what you think”, after stumbling through a meandering explanation of how different teams are reviewing the application at various stages, yet she failed to specify an amount of time it takes to review an application. Granted, some applications could undergo a lengthy evaluation that might extend into several hours of review, but the first read, the one that serves as a gatekeeper of sorts, “usually lasts about 15 minutes because we’re experienced and we know what to look for” in an application, as expressed by the 2nd panelist.

15 minutes is all you get to distinguish yourself as an applicant, and that’s not going to change.

So, how do you maximize your 15 minutes?

Clearly, it’s critical to write a strong essay. You need to grab the reader’s attention, and then keep it. That’s why we spend considerable time working with students on their essay, helping them make it expressive, specific, emotional and relatable.

It also helps to have a strong transcript. Nothing impresses a reader quite like a regular pattern of strong grades in rigorous classes. The transcript is far and away the most important set of data used in the evaluation, but it’s important to note that about 90% of all applicants to any particular university will have relatively similar grades and rigor.

And it definitely helps if your admissions rep (who is usually also the first application reader) knows who you are before even reading your application. There are several ways you can stand out to your reader, to meet him/her before your application arrives. The most obvious is to visit campus and meet your reader in person. Yes, you can do that, and summer is a good time to plan such a college visit. You can also meet your reader if s/he plans a visit to your high school, or at a college fair in your neck of the woods. The point is, college admissions is relationship driven.

Bonus tip: The critical relationship is the one you have with your admissions counselor, but it also helps to have a relationship with your guidance counselor at school. After all, it’s your counselor who will be writing a recommendation on your behalf, which is sent, along with your transcript, directly from your high school to the colleges on your list.

2. Is Test Optional something that is here to stay? According to these two schools, Test Optional is a part of the admissions process that will undergo regular evaluation. While both schools will remain test optional for the upcoming 2022-23 admissions season, they will also reevaluate that policy at the end of the next cycle. I’ve written about test optional in the past – I support test optional and the idea of giving students the choice on whether they should submit test scores. And according to preliminary data from the two schools represented on yesterday’s panel, admitted students who did not submit test scores still demonstrated strong academic performance during their first year of college.

Some of my students (and even my colleagues) remain skeptical that admissions counselors secretly frown upon an application that doesn’t include a test score, but every admissions officer I’ve heard from has stated categorically that they don’t miss a test score if it’s not included. For many reasons, not the least of which is related to how schools are evaluated for ranking purposes, I believe this to be true! Click here to read more about the connection between test optional, admit rates and school rankings.

Admissions counselors consistently state that for those students who choose not to submit scores (where that option exists), they will evaluate the remaining parts of the application with fairness and thoroughness. If you have a strong test score that is above the middle 50% range for a particular school, then surely it will enhance your application and you should include it. If you’re unsure whether your score is competitive for a particular school, then you can refrain from sharing your score and it will not hurt your chances.

3. How important is Legacy in the admissions process? Both of the schools on yesterday’s panel consider Legacy status when evaluating candidates. Legacy status specifically means that an applicant’s parent or grandparent attended the school. Uncles, aunts, even siblings who attended the school have little to no weight in the evaluation. In the case of some schools, the Legacy status also includes parents/grandparents who attended graduate school.

There has been some pushback on Legacy admissions lately, with some colleges like Amherst and Johns Hopkins recently eliminating Legacy status in their admissions decisions. The two admissions counselors from yesterday’s panel expressed no plans to eliminate Legacy status from their admissions process. Remember, alumni remain a powerful constituent at many colleges, and Legacy status is likely to continue, fair or unfair. As I often tell my students and parents, the admissions process isn’t fair. Legacy is only one example of that.

What you need to do as an applicant is find a way to operate within the rules of admission so that you can stack the odds in your favor, however that might be. Of course, Legacy admissions is directly at odds with the effort by many selective colleges to admit more students who are first in their family to attend any college. But those same first gen students will someday enjoy passing their Legacy status to their children in 30 years.

The entire exercise of selecting colleges and then applying is unique for each student, and to do it right requires effort, attention to detail, and considerable introspection. This is a hard thing to do by yourself. We’re here to help you make your 15 minutes count.

‘This is Crazy!’ What’s Happened To All The ‘Safety’ Schools?

April 22nd, 2022 by

On the very first page of the very first book I ever wrote (ok, co-wrote) about college (Never Pay Retail For College) I referred to college admissions as being in a ‘Code Yellow’ State of Emergency. Since I’m pretty sure there were only about four people who read that book (including my mom), here’s the gist of why I’m bringing this up today.

Among my many concerns at the time was the increasingly hyper-inflated nature of college selectivity – the result of a confluence of newer intentional and unintentional factors (read: technology, aggressive marketing tactics, price differentials, ratings targets, etc.). While I went on to explain those factors ad nauseam in the book, for our teens specifically, as well as the parents who love them, and the high school counselors who support them, I expected this to cause quite a shock to their fragile emotional systems. Uh, ya think?

That was 14 years ago.

And if it seems to you as if the ‘selective’ colleges have only become increasingly so since I first published, you’d be right. Take Tufts, where Jill and I met. For its Class of 2015 the admit rate was 22%, with 17,000 applications. This year Tufts admitted only 9% of its 34,000 applicants. Or Tulane, where my youngest is finishing his freshman year: back in 2018 Tulane boasted of a drop in its admissions rate from 30% to 17%. This year Tulane admitted only 10% of its 42,000 applicants. And perhaps the largest change was at UCLA, which in 2015 received almost 93,000 applications with a 17% admit rate; today that number is a record 149,772 applications, with only about 10% admitted.

Considering this trend of increasing selectivity, NY Times Money columnist and higher ed author Ron Lieber has referred to such schools not as ‘highly selective” but rather “highly rejective”.

I get that this is frustrating to all involved. I truly do – as a professional sure, but equally important, as a parent. It seems absurd when a hard-working, high-achieving, strong student and good kid doesn’t get admitted to a school where that student appears to be more than qualified.

In any given year, I’ll have a few eye-brow raising, head scratching moments. Like this year, when I learned that a student was admitted to UC Berkeley, but not UF…another who was admitted into Georgetown, but not American University down the road…or still another who was accepted at Cornell, University of Chicago, Rice and UF, but not Boston University.

There’s more: for example, did you know that this year Northeastern University’s acceptance rate (7%!) is equal to Northwestern’s? For parents who applied to college back in the 1980s or early 1990s, that’s a shocking fact. But Northeastern made a strategic decision about 20 years ago to boost its selectivity in order to rise in the US News rankings. That strategy has worked, with Northeastern now ranked #49 in what I believe is mostly a meaningless formula.

I’d certainly understand if you are a parent and looking at the data in a mild state of panic. I understand if it makes you angry. It makes me angry… but after 15 years, I also know that it’s far better, and more productive, to get educated (about the process) than to get angry about it. I guarantee you that your ranting won’t move the needle on your child’s admissions chances – at least not in a good way.

With proper information AND admissions planning, the college application experience should not be a soul-crushing, frustrating endeavor. Each of these students I mentioned above has really great options – despite (and sometimes because of) this data. This is by design. By intention. With each of my students, we set expectations early – before the first application is even started, and our goal is not perfection but greatness of fit – and multiple options.

So what can you/your child do right now to tip the odds in your favor?

For starters, they need to go the extra mile with admissions offices at schools they are considering well before they submit a single application – reach out and ask questions, make yourself heard, attend virtual sessions, even visit campus if you can and then follow up with an email to admissions. Show that you care, that you’re interested in their school.

And all students, parents, GRANDPARENTS and counselors need to reevaluate what is meant by “safety school”. Parents who applied to college 30 years ago may recall some schools that were deemed to be “safe”, only to look at the admit rates of those schools today, as well as average SAT/ACT scores, and react with shock at their current selectivity. Examples may include FSU, and the aforementioned American University and Boston University, with admit rates of 23%, 32% and 14%, respectively.

I know it might be easy to just throw up your hands and succumb to the notion that all college admissions is a “crapshoot” or a “lottery”. While sometimes it can feel this way, this sentiment misses a larger point, which is that high school performance does still matter. Getting denied admission to a school where you feel you are qualified might hurt, but it’s not an indictment on who you are or will become! By and large students do end up where they are supposed to be. Especially when they have and follow a thoughtful college plan!

It’s true, the admissions process isn’t always fair. There are inherent advantages as well as hidden landmines all over the admissions landscape – to the privileged who can afford test prep and other counseling services; to Legacy students whose parents may have attended the school; to people of color who may benefit from affirmative action programs; to athletes who are recruited by coaches who may fast track their application; to Development Cases, or students from families who donate significant money to the school.

It’s ok to acknowledge these benefits and challenges. I recommend that you do what you can to learn how the process works so that you can make it work in your favor. It’s not that I’m out to change the system; I’m making no such recommendations in this column. Rather my mission is to help you and your student to navigate the system – both admissions and financial aid – so that you can identify advantages for your student and then act upon them.

I sometimes hear from people that “where you attend college doesn’t really matter, anyway, so why all the fuss?” I agree that where you go to college is less important than what you do when you get there. But I also emphatically believe that where you go can have a big impact on what you do once there. Not only do some schools offer unique research opportunities, or co-ops, or other experiential learning benefits. But also there are, or at least there can be, major advantages derived from those with whom you surround yourself. The people you meet in college, the connections you make, could prove far more valuable years down the road than the simple name on your diploma.

So, while I do believe that some fuss is deserving, I think it far wiser to help our students to be pragmatic and assemble the right list of schools to maximize their chances of success with admissions, with financial aid/scholarship, and while on campus. What I still see are far too many families stuck chasing the herd, doing the same thing as everyone else…and this becomes a problem in spring of 12th grade when the numbers dictate that too many qualified students will needlessly get waitlisted or denied from the same batch of schools.

The fact is, 80% of colleges admit more than 50% of their applicants. There are some good schools in that group, both private and public, that are worthy of your student’s consideration. The trick is knowing which of these is appropriate for you (or your child). When it comes to college admissions, students (and parents) should place less emphasis on the names of schools and more on the type of learning environment where they will thrive. Such a strategy will result in far greater success in the long run.

The ONE Course That All Competitive Colleges Want You To Take in High School

March 23rd, 2022 by

I have, for several years now, been tracking and recording a considerable amount of data (both anecdotal and empirical) on college admissions and financial aid decisions. And yes, I do know that I’m a bit of a geek! That notwithstanding, I do use this information to help inform my opinions and how I advise my students and their families.

For about a decade now, I’ve noticed a new pattern emerge with respect to high school students who are seeking admission to relatively competitive colleges and universities: those students who take calculus, and especially AP calculus, are better positioned for admissions success than those who do not. Period.

It used to be that Calculus was a baseline need for students interested in STEM pursuits. Increasingly, calculus has become a minimum requirement for all students seeking admission at highly selective universities. Academically, I’m truly torn on this issue; but nonetheless, when counseling my students in course selection, I’ve always paid very close attention (starting in middle school) to their math track and performance – so as to give them an option to take calculus in 12th grade.

Inclination aside, the reality is that not all students have the opportunity to take calculus in high school due to a variety of factors. For many it’s a matter of inadvertent choices made for them well before most students are thinking about college (as in 6th or 7th grade).

That’s right – decisions made in middle school, in particular whether the student completes Algebra 1 before entering high school, can theoretically (actually empirically – see study below) have a major impact on a student’s success in gaining admission to a most selective college. You may find this to be ridiculous, or unfair, or both. But it remains true. Taking Algebra 1 in middle school opens up the opportunity for Geometry and Algebra 2 completion by 10th grade, which offers the student the chance at pre-calculus and then calculus (possibly AP calculus) by 12th grade.

For the record, evidence-backed data now supports the trends and anecdotal conclusions I’ve reached – a recent joint study from NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) and Just Equations highlights the importance that admissions counselors place on calculus in their decisions to admit or deny applicants. As one admissions dean from a selective, private university noted in the study, “Calculus is the gold standard that people in this business use as a shortcut,” whether the student chooses a STEM major or not.

Clearly, if a student is pursuing a major in engineering, chemistry, physics or math, then calculus is an important measure of a student’s ability to succeed, and admissions officers should look at calculus when making such admissions decisions. But calculus is considered by highly selective schools in their admissions decisions even if a student is pursuing other subjects like English, humanities, or political science. For me this raises an academic dilemma. Why continue this emphasis on calculus if it will have little impact on a student’s educational or career path?

For years I’ve been torn on this issue when advising students. Taking calculus will boost one’s chances of admission, even if taking statistics is likely the more relevant course for most careers, and for life. Should I offer advice for a specific end – getting in? Or should I offer advice based on which class will be more useful over their lifetimes? The reality is, students want to get admitted – in fact, in a 2017 study cited in the report, 81% of student respondents chose to take AP Calculus not because of a love for math, but because “AP Calculus looks good on college applications”.

I’ve always hated that expression, “looks good”, because I find that it trivializes the entire high school experience as well as the college application process. I prefer that students follow a passion and do what they love (or like), rather than subscribe to set of high school activities based on a packaged formula. Still, there is a certain reality. Course selection is a real contributor to admissions success. The transcript – both grades and course selection – is the single most important factor in admissions (it’s really not even close!), and calculus remains at the center of a student’s course selection process.

But herein lies an opportunity for change. Admissions officers don’t necessarily like change – for example, many of the more selective schools resisted the test-optional momentum until COVID-19 forced them to change their practices. Today, calculus remains a pivotal high school course, unless admissions offices decide to de-emphasize its importance for non-STEM students. Besides, not all students have the opportunity to take calculus simply because it’s not offered at their schools. According to the study, 50% of high schools offer calculus, but only 38% of schools with predominantly Black or Latinx students offer calculus. Requiring a course that is not even offered by thousands of high schools prevents millions of students from having a fair shot at admissions.

When it comes to advising students, I like to start with a student’s goals. Do you want the Ivy League? Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt or Stanford? Year after year, these schools look at their applicant pool and the vast majority take calculus, or even AP calculus, in high school regardless of their proposed college major. That’s the reality, so if you want in then that’s part of the formula.

But those schools aren’t for everybody. The “best school” is not necessarily the highest ranked school. I believe in finding the right fit for students. Indeed, sometimes the right fit is a top ranked school. Sometimes it’s a school that you or your child never heard of before coming to my office. Either way, it’s the journey getting there, and what you do there, that is often the most exciting, the most challenging, and the most rewarding.

If you agree in starting with your child’s goals, and then creating a customized approach to best help him or her in meeting those goals, then let’s chat. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.