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Questioning College

What are students and parents asking about? A sampling from our weekly online chats.
University Business, Dec 2006

Each week, we sit ourselves at our respective desks, either in the office at noon on Wednesdays or at home on Monday evenings, and log in to our accounts at A few years ago, we worked with Peterson's to create an online educational and college planning resource for families. The site includes a one-on-one, telephone-based counseling program that links students and parents with trained, professional counselors. There are many free materials available to families, including articles we write for a monthly college planning newsletter and podcasts. One of the elements we enjoy the most is the regular chat we host. We began by designating weekly topics for the discussions, but gradually shifted to an open "Educational Planning and College Admissions" format. Students, parents, and counselors can submit questions in advance on any topic of interest. We then go live for an hour, picking questions from the queue and fielding new ones as they arrive. The results of each chat are archived on the website, and both the chats and archives are available free of charge.

The range of topics covered and diversity of questions and participants continue to astound us during every chat session. Yes, some submissions are way off track, and sometimes unintelligible, but that is nature of the process when students and parents from as far afield as Nigeria, Nepal, and the Netherlands are asking about how they can take advantage of American educational opportunities. Each week, we see a mix of basic to extremely complicated questions about American colleges and admissions from American private and public school families. Add to that questions about scholarships and financial aid from international students across the globe, highly specific inquiries about graduate programs, and often poignant narratives from "nontraditional" students seeking to enter or re-enter the college environment from the workplace, the family home, or the armed forces.

We thought university readers would find the content of the chats of interest, precisely due to this diversity of topics, levels of knowledge, sophistication, and backgrounds. Admissions personnel will likely find much of this confirmatory, given that they come into contact with inquiries from prospective families on a regular basis, in person, by telephone, and on the internet. Nevertheless, we suspect that what appears on an independent forum such as ours might be revealing and give everyone within the university a glimpse of what is on the minds of families today, what they need to know about colleges and the admissions process, and what we are advising them to do. Below is a selection of questions and answers from some recent chats, with a little cleaning up here and there (remember, we are writing "live" at high speed) with names and e-mail addresses removed to protect the families. We thank Peterson's for allowing us to share these with you, and encourage you to visit the website and archives if you have more interest.

Q: I'm only a Junior in my school but it seems as if most of the college planning is focused around us. Should I really be that prepared for college already?

Most of the college admissions process has been pushed back into junior year, at least in terms of setting the foundation for most of what will happen senior year. That is somewhat due to the focus on Early Decision/Action, but not entirely. Regardless of applying early or not, you will need to prepare for SAT/ACT this year, visit colleges, focus on your grades this year and your academic/course planning for next year, and so on. Yes, it does seem early, but juniors should start thinking seriously about college now, and take the steps that will help reduce stress, and open up more options next year. You don't need to know where you will be applying, or what you will major in, but you do need to know what it takes to get into college, and how to go about determining which colleges might be appropriate for you.

Q: On the common application, where it asks to self-report your test scores, do i have to report all of my SAT IIs, or just the ones I like? I took the Math IIC twice, hoping to boost my 680 to a 700+ the second time around. However, I scored 20 points lower, a 660 the second time. Do I have to write both of them? Or just the higher one?

You can report your highest SAT Subject Test scores there, the ones you would like colleges to review, but should report all of the SAT section scores from each test you want colleges to review. Colleges will see all of your scores from SAT and SAT Subject Tests when you send a score report, so you're not hiding anything. Some colleges do ask you to list all scores from SAT/ACT/Subject Tests, regardless of which are high or low. We seem to remember Yale doing so this year. Thus, they are looking at your overall testing pattern, even if they review your highest scores as indicative of your potential on these exams. We don't believe the Common App requires you to list everything.

How do I get qualified for financial aid? I cannot afford tuition.

Q: Are there any downfalls to the Yale Early Action admissions program? To me, it seems like there is no reason not to apply early. Also, could you lend me any suggestions regarding who offers a good biology program (preferably in the northeast or midwest, competitive/highly selective, university or liberal arts college)? Do you think the Ivies are too much of a stretch for me (30 ACT, 5 on AP exams, 4.0 unweighted/4.2 weighted GPA, involved in several activities including a varsity sport, being cheerleading captain and president of community service club, enrolled in all AP and honors courses)? I am already planning on taking PSAT, SAT, ACT again, and AP Exams. Is there anything else I can do to better my chances?

The only potential negatives to applying Early Action to Yale is if you are not able to present yourself at your very best by early November of senior year. This could mean that your grades are not as strong as they might be by the end of the fall semester, or you are doing excellent work in Advanced Placement courses that can enhance your profile or your test scores from junior year that are not as impressive as they might be in the senior year due to intensive summer time preparation, or you will have significant leadership opportunities in the senior year, or you are not ready to present an outstanding set of personal essays required on the application. Any one or combination of these factors should be considered before applying Early Action or Decision to any selective college. It is also possible that Yale may not continue the Early Action plan in future years if it follows Harvard and Princeton's decision to do away with early plans after this present application season. Your profile thus far is impressive and may well qualify you for admission to a most selective college. Keep up your grades, try to raise your test scores as best you can, and take on leadership roles in one or several of your present activities. Do not overload on extracurriculars in the hope of impressing the admissions committees. Be consistent in your commitment and active engagement in several key areas in which you are already involved. There are so many outstanding biology/life science programs at selective colleges and universities in the Northeast and Midwest. Here is a sampling rather than a complete list: Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, Tufts, Columbia, U Penn, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Chicago, Washington U (St. Louis), U Michigan.

Q: How many extracurriculars do you need to go into a UC system? What if you don't have leadership skills, but volunteered before?

The University of California system does not place too much weight on extracurricular involvement due to the large size of the individual campuses and the large pool of applicants. Acceptance is based primarily on high school grade point average, quality of course selection, and SAT I and II scores. Put your emphasis on school performance, but do engage in some volunteer activities for your own development and service to your community. This can be taken into consideration if all the academic criteria are met.

Q: How much do tests such as the ACT/SAT play into your admission into a university?

These tests can be fairly important at selective colleges, but they are less important than the number one and two factors in admission: choice of demanding college prep courses; and grades in those courses over time. Depending on the college or university, standardized test scores could be optional (Bates, Bowdoin, Franklin and Marshall, others) or a very significant element of a larger university's selection process. As a rule of thumb, standardized test scores are less important at smaller liberal arts colleges and more important at larger universities, particularly public institutions. There are, of course, exceptions, especially at the most selective colleges, such as Swarthmore, Williams, or Pomona.

How does your total family income affect your chances for admission?

Q: I am currently considering Clemson University. SAT Scores: Critical Reading, 430 and 470. Math, 450 and 440. Writing, 490 and 470. And on the Essay I received a 7 both times. I have a ACT Composite of 23 with a essay of 10 and a 22 with a essay of 8. I have been very involved but only able to do every activity for a year. I quit ROTC early because I didn't know what the new program was going to be like when I switched schools. (A new high school in the area opened closer to where I lived.) I was very successful winning two end awards as top orienteering cadet and naval military excellence. I did Student Government for a year and never won election a year after that. I wanted to do sports all throughout school but my parents wouldn't let me. They wanted me to focus on academics and I was at Sylvan for two of my high school years. (I mentioned Sylvan in my application.) I did get to do Wrestling and Lacrosse in my junior year with lack luster performance but received a varsity letter in wrestling. I plan to continue playing lacrosse this year but my parents don't want me to wrestle and I don't really have the time right now. My dad is a alumni of Clemson, I live in South Carolina, and my grandparents live 30 minutes away. I plan to take the SAT and ACT again but I have 17 days till my SAT and less for my ACT. I have just started cramming. Do you have any last minute test prep/ advice and do you think I have a shot at being accepted?

A: We respect your goal of entering Clemson University and determination to improve your record in order to make it happen. Clemson will give some weight to the fact you are the son of an alumnus. However, your test scores are below the university's usual profile of admitted students. If you do not improve on this next attempt, you should consider starting your college first year in a smaller college that is less competitive for admission. If you have a successful academic year you can then consider transferring into Clemson. This is the route that many students have taken to arrive at the college of their dreams.

Q: How does your total family income affect your chances for admission? My husband is self-employed and his income fluctuates monthly and is also impacted by his expenses.

Income typically doesn't affect admission chances at all. Most selective colleges do not consider income in most admission decisions, so you should apply for need-based financial aid if you might need it. You also should write an explanatory letter to each college's financial aid office describing income fluctuation from year to year. Many consultants, writers, actors, salespeople, and others see great variation in their income from year to year and financial aid offices will try to figure out what is an appropriate estimate of current- and coming-year parental-income when adjusting your Expected Family Contribution and projected Financial Need as produced by the FAFSA and PROFILE calculations. Yes, most colleges do at some point in the admissions process take into account their overall financial aid budget and some applicants' level of financial need when shaping their final class, but we find in most cases this doesn't affect applicants who do not need full or very significant amounts of financial aid.

Q: My daughter who is a Sr. in H.S. had taken only up to Honors level courses-- she has a GPA of 4.3 and is ranked 26/450. She signed up for AP Bio & hit a brick wall. She felt she was not prepared for this class (had a first-year teacher in 9th grade Bio). We tried to w/draw her (a couple other kids got out without penalty). She also had a couple of personal negative experiences impacting her at the start of this class. t went all the way up to the Superintendent of Schools & we still could not get her withdrawn based on her "solid" background. My husband finally had her withdrawn, but with an F for the year!! (she's probably had 1 C & no D's in her life!) Also, she did not need this course, it was a challenging "elective." She has only applied early action to 1 local, private college because of this devastating development. I want to know if there is any way she could possibly hope to get into a public 4-year college at this point & is there anyway to minimize this disastrous grade. Do all schools request mid-year grades & would it be helpful to have her take an online Honors Biology course through an accredited high school? (She really felt she was lacking the background for AP Bio so I thought this might help her fill in the gap). Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Sorry to hear about this unfortunate situation. In the end, it would have been better, it sounds like, for her to stay in the course, but clearly you all had concerns about her lack of preparation. We do not understand the rationale for applying EA to a college due to this situation. Are you trying to get in prior to their seeing her Bio grade, while AP Bio is still listed on her transcript? It won't work. Guidance counselors and students are required to notify colleges of any change in curriculum, and typically also a radical change in performance. Even if the college does admit her EA, she will need to send semester grades and the new curriculum in the midyear report, and a final transcript in the spring, at which point she might have her admission offer withdrawn due to the class change and F, and her strategy will be apparent for what it is. So, better for her to focus on her other courses and doing as well as possible; applying to a balanced list of public and private colleges (she still has a great GPA and good class rank-- not sure of her test scores--though she doesn't have the most demanding curriculum); and, importantly, writing an explanatory note in the applications about what happened. She doesn't need to "overshare" and come across as bitter or angry at the school. Rather, she should indicate that she signed up for the class, but saw she had not been prepared for it. She tried to withdraw, but the school chose to give an F for the course, which is totally inconsistent with the rest of her profile. And, she hopes the university will not hold it against her or as indicative of her other strengths/qualities.

Q: I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote for Notre Dame. However, the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. I might be able to cut a few sentences, but I feel as if the rest is necessary. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? Thank you very much.

We always ask students if they like what they have written as their personal statement for their college applications. Do they feel that it reflects their essential characteristics and interests, and also do they feel that all the content is essential to the message they wish to send? If this is the case, then it is absolutely okay to have more than the suggested guideline of 500 words. Six hundred words is not excessive, we can reassure you.

Q: Hi! I am planning to go to college next year. I graduated a bachelors degree (Accounting) in the Philippines. I heard that Phil. standard of curriculum is low compared to US standards. I would like to know what are the steps that I should take before going to college. Do i need to take SAT, ACT and GED? I am currently enrolled to a GED class in a our community. Based on all my scores, they said that I really don't need it. I also tried some practice tests of SAT that I got from the library and found out that I am weak on my writing skills. I would appreciate it if you could give me a list of things that I need to do because I really don't know how and where to start. Thank you.

You do not need the GED certificate if you are a graduate of an accredited high school in the Philippines (and especially not necessary if you have a college degree as well). American universities require that all applicants from countries where English is not the first language take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). You can learn all about this test by going to the website. You can also search for the type of study and degree program you are interested in on the College Board or Peterson's websites.

Q: How do I get qualified for financial aid? I cannot afford tuition.

The great majority of students planning to attain a college education today cannot afford to pay the full tuition for the public and private colleges and universities. Over half of applicants will apply for financial aid. The primary step is to have your parents or guardian complete the FAFSA forms after January 1 of your senior year in high school. This is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that will qualify you for educational loans and outright grants from the federal and state governments. In addition, most colleges have their own scholarship funds to award to needy students. Some require the applicant's family to complete the College Scholarship Service's Profile form as well. You can learn all the details on how to apply for aid on the Peterson's Scholarship website and The College Board's website. There are many millions of dollars available to students who complete these forms and show that they will need financial aid to attend college. Go for it!

Q: What would be the best way to contact a college when in the process of early college searching? As a high school junior i am not capable of traveling and going to see a school. Is there another way to "see" the schools?

The best way to begin your search is online. College websites are full of information, and you can "register" online as a prospective applicant. The college will begin to e-mail or mail you information after that. Many colleges have virtual tours, sometimes including 360-degree "on-the-green" cameras that show you live views of campus. You can learn a lot about admission requirements, academic programs, and extracurricular offerings as well. Additionally, many colleges have started blogs or student-led chats. Sites like Peterson's also have information of a more or less formal nature about the colleges. Once you have initially narrowed your list, or selected a few colleges of interest, you can plan some campus visits. The websites will list tour and information session schedules for you and sometimes let you sign up online. Next step: Pick up the phone.

Q: I am a U.S. citizen educated in Scotland. I am moving back to the States either next year, or the following year, and I am determined to get into college. But, the education system differs here and I am not sure if my high school leaving exams will be accepted in lieu of a six semester transcript and GPA. I have emailed numerous colleges and received NO replies. I understand I may have to sit the GED. That's fine, but I now need to know if "I do" or "I don't." There's no more time for lingering, and I need to know what my next step should be. This would be a whole lot easier if I was already back in the states I imagine, but hence, I am not, and the benefit of your experience would be greatly appreciated. Thanking you in advance, a very frustrated expatriate.

Well, you do sound (even in an e-mail) very determined to work your way into an American university. We cannot tell from your description if you have completed the Scottish educational system's requirements for high school graduation and qualification for entrance into a university. If you have, or will, then you do not need to qualify for the GED to be considered for university entrance. You do need to take one or the other of the two national standardized admissions testing program; these are the SAT and the ACT. You can learn about both of them on their respective websites ( and American colleges have great respect for the British A level standards so if you have or will be preparing for two or three A level or the comparable program in Scotland, you will be in good standing for entrance to universities here.

Q: hello sir i request u to guide me how and where to get the admission forms of the colleges i wish to apply, how to get the scholarship for colleges like :-boston university, brown college, state university of new york and florida institute of technology. plz suggest some good colleges even , i'l b really grateful to you for your help


You only need to locate each of the colleges you mention by doing a search on Peterson's college search program. The process for applying for scholarships is also to be found on their websites. Please keep in mind that American universities on the whole award little to no scholarships to international students at the undergraduate level.

Q: Many people always praise ivy leagues and nobody ever has anything bad to say about them. What, in your opinion, are the negative consequences (or cons) of going to an ivy league?

Good question, and a topic we often find ourselves discussing. In our book, Inside the Top Colleges, we talk about the "halo effect" surrounding the elite colleges and universities. Basically, this refers to the tendency of people to assume everything is and must be perfect at these highly selective institutions since they are so prestigious, wealthy, and desirable. The fact is, there are a lot of issues on these campuses, not so dissimilar to those at less selective institutions. The Ivies and other top colleges have a great deal to offer students, including their faculty, campuses, resources, reputations, academic programs, extracurricular activities, bright students, and opportunities during and after college. However, they are a very diverse lot, from large city universities to middle-sized small town campuses. They serve different students in different ways, and the challenges of substance abuse, academic pressure, poor counseling services, lack of contact with faculty, and other issues are prevalent on these campuses just as they are on other college and university campuses. We encourage students always to look beyond the name and perceived prestige factor of any college in order to assess whether it is a good fit for them.

Q: I'm a high school senior and a Wisconsin resident. I'm going to apply for University of Wisconsin at Madison. My current unweighted GPA is 3.4. ACT score is 30 with writing (11). English 11AP score is 3. Calculus AB score is 3. I'm currently taking Calculus BC, French AP, Biology AP for my senior year. How much chance do you think I'll have for UW-Madison? Reach, Match, or Safe?

You certainly are taking a very strong academic curriculum, which will be much respected by all universities to which you apply, including Wisconsin, Madison. Your ACT score of 30 seems in line with recent accepted classes. The problem with estimating the odds for acceptance is that this early in the admissions process the university does not know how many students will apply, and this will determine the cutoff scores and GPA for applicants. Of course, as a Wisconsin resident you will receive priority consideration. Our bet from afar is that you have a good 50/50 chance based on the statistical profile of this year's first-year class at Madison. Note the explanation that these numbers represent the middle 50 percent of the class. They are not cut-offs. Good luck! From the UW website: Profile of Admitted Freshmen, Rank: 85-96th percentile, GPA: 3.5-3.9, ACT: 26-30.

Q: I have been doing a lot of reading practice but my reading scores don't improve from 590 at all. I really have tried everything to improve but to no avail. Could you please tell me how I can improve it?

A: That's a tough one. We assume you are talking about the Critical Reading section on the SAT, which is scored out of 800. Your 590 is above average, but not in a range desired by the more selective colleges. Practice is the right way to go, and focusing on learning the specific intent and assessment of that SAT section. You need to learn to use your time wisely, and attack the questions with the intent of answering them correctly, not with a focus on remembering or truly understanding the meaning or wider implications of the topic. That is, this is a test that you must get through, and these reading passages are different than reading a book for English or history class. Now, if working on your own, with a class, with an online program, or with a tutor doesn't help, you may just have to accept your score. Keep your focus on your grades and curriculum, which are more important than SATs. If they are strong, then you might apply to some colleges that do not require SATs at all. Oh, and don't forget about the ACT. That test could work for you as an alternative.

Q: Some colleges provide for the submission of supplementary arts materials (such as a CD of a musical performance). Yet even some of those schools appear to discourage such submissions. Is it your experience that it is possible to damage an otherwise strong application with an arts submission?

If the supplementary art or music material is substandard, it could potentially take away from an otherwise strong application. In general, though, if a student is working with a school teacher or outside instructor who helps prepare and approve the material, the material is likely only to help, or perhaps not count at all. In a recent survey of about 100 selective colleges and universities of a diverse nature, a colleague of ours found almost all encouraged the submission of a music CD and r?sum? from students applying to a liberal arts track, and potentially not even considering a music major. These extra materials can help the colleges get a sense of what makes a student special, and what she or he will bring to campus outside the classroom.

Q: What kind of help do Colleges offer to talented international high school students with annual family income of less than 4 thousand dollars and no one to help them in their applying to college.

Most American colleges are eager to enroll international students. They consider the diversity and perspectives that foreign students bring to campus an essential component of their educational process. They like to expose American students to peers with different backgrounds, and they seek to educate internationals about America. The problem for most colleges here is that financial aid for international students, even highly qualified ones, is limited. Most need-based financial aid in the United States is provided by the federal (national) and state governments and is limited to U.S. citizens, resident aliens (green card holders), and other limited groups. Most non-U.S. citizens or resident aliens do not qualify for the bulk of aid available in our system. Canadian and Mexican citizens often qualify for more aid than other internationals, depending on the college. Thus, for a college to offer financial assistance to an international student, it must pay for the financial aid package from its own budget (endowment or tuition dollars). Those colleges that do offer aid to international students usually only have a limited number of awards. They may reject excellent students who otherwise qualify for admission because they do not have the funds to support that student's studies. Only a very few highly selective institutions (such as Princeton) are able to offer unlimited, need-blind admissions to international students. We have, in our writing, noted a number of colleges that offer more aid to internationals than others--some, like Mount Holyoke College, Colorado College, Bates College, or Dickinson College, might be unfamiliar and surprising to you, but believe us, they offer excellent undergraduate preparation for careers and/or graduate school admission. If you qualify for American colleges academically, consider applying to a broad list of schools, and contacting the colleges individually to inquire about aid and application advice and assistance for international students. Most colleges have an admission officer focused specifically on international admission.

Q: I am a high school student from Montenegro. My high school records are the best, but the financial situation in my family doesn't allow to pay for my studying. I have addressed to more than 30 colleges, and received answer only from 5. All of them informed me that financial assistance is impossible for first year. I am afraid that I am being late (haven't registered for TOEFL and SAT yet), my hope is being smaller and smaller.... What do you suggest me to do?

You should not take personally the lack of response from the many colleges that you contacted regarding availability of financial aid. Those colleges that do not have their own scholarship funds for international students are not likely to reply. You may want to investigate the category of two-year public community colleges that are very popular in the United States. They are financially supported by their local and state districts and their tuition costs are very low. The community colleges are an excellent stepping stone for a motivated student to complete a college education as transfer students for the last two years. If you were able to afford the community college costs for the first two years and excelled in your studies, you would have a good chance of receiving financial aid from the four-year college or university to which you transfer.

Q: Hi, I finished my associate degree in NIGERIA i need to know if i could have a transfer.

Yes, if you have your Associate (two-year) degree, you would be eligible for transfer admission. However, universities in the United States to which you might apply would look to verify your transcript and the accreditation of your Associate program, and then would likely negotiate with you, once you were admitted, about how many credits they would give you. You might, in other words, need to complete three years of additional study, instead of two, to complete your Bachelor's degree.

Q: I am an international student currently in my last year of high school. I intend on writing SAT's the following year in hope to be eligible for a college in the US. How can i achieve a scholarship without regard to my immigration status?

Strong SATs, and grades, a good TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score, and any other appropriate credentials (national exam results, A level results, International Baccalaureate grades, etc.) would help to establish your ability to succeed in an American college, and would make you more eligible for the limited funds available for international students. First, you would need to be admitted to a U.S. college, and they would need to have the resources available to support your studies, which they would allocate out of a limited pool of funds. You'd be competing against other talented internationals, in other words, for the same funds. You might also apply for scholarships from your home country government (check with your national Department/Ministry of Education), or scholarships from U.S.-based organizations that support students with your interests, or from your country.

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