Episode 23: College Admissions Tests

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Whether test preparation courses are worth it
How to take a practice test at home and how not to
Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out our show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23 to find links to the schools and programs we mention in this episode

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

College Admissions Tests on NYCollegeChat

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether test preparation courses are worth it
  • How to take a practice test at home and how not to
  • Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 13: Focus on Students with Academic Issues

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about student with academic challenges.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/13

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how options for students with academic issues.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

Focus on Students with Academic Issues on  NYCollegeChat podcast

Every student’s high school record is not as perfect as his or her parents might wish. The two most common problems are that the GPA (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) is not as high as it could be or should be or that the SAT or ACT scores (that is, the scores on the standardized college entrance examinations) are not as high as they could be or should be. Either of these problems makes choosing colleges to apply to a tense discussion.

Who is in the more difficult situation? Is it a student whose high school GPA is lower than ideal for whatever reason—sports teams, time-consuming hobbies or other outside activities, interest in the opposite sex, laziness, mediocre teachers, or family issues? Or is it a student whose SAT or ACT scores are lower than ideal for whatever reason—unfamiliarity with the test, refusal to study for the test or take practice tests, unavailability or unaffordability of a prep course to get ready for the test, test anxiety, or just a lackadaisical attitude toward standardized tests or college preparation generally? Let’s look at these two scenarios.

1. Students with Mediocre Or Low SAT/ACT Scores

What do we mean by mediocre or low scores? Let’s take the SATs as the example. If a student scores below 600 on any of the SAT subtests (reading, writing, and mathematics), that is a mediocre or low score. Scores in the low 600s are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too.

Having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades. While students’ SAT or ACT scores are important to most top-ranked colleges, there are some colleges—including some really good colleges—that do not put so high a priority, or indeed any priority, on these test scores.

If you read the admissions blurbs on college websites, you will quickly see quite a few colleges that declare that SAT or ACT scores are not as important as high school grades and that the real picture of a student comes from the long and hard work the student has—or has not—done in classes over the course of the high school years. Those colleges will state that high school grades will tell them more about a student—about the student’s determination and perseverance and motivation, for example—than his or her performance on one test given on one Saturday morning. Indeed, they will cite research that says that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores—for all of the reasons that common sense would tell you.

For years, a relatively small number of colleges had said that SAT and/or ACT scores were not required in their admissions process. More recently, more colleges have been added to this list—so many, in fact, that this group of colleges now has a name: “test-optional” colleges. One very recent addition to that list is Bryn Mawr College. Professor Marc Schulz, a member of the Bryn Mawr admissions committee was quoted on the Bryn Mawr College website in July, 2014, as saying this: “We looked not just at the national data, but also took a very hard look at our own data over the last several years. It was clear that the standardized tests added very little predictive information after accounting for the strength of applicants’ academic work in high school and the admissions staff’s review of the whole application.”

Here are a few more of the “good” colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admissions (although a student may usually submit the scores if he or she feels they will help the application and “accurately reflect his or her academic ability and potential”): American University, Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Sarah Lawrence College, Smith College, Wake Forest University, and Wesleyan University.

Now, there is also something called “test-flexible” colleges. These are colleges that give students a choice of which standardized test scores to submit during the application process. Some of these policies are more “flexible” than others. Here are a few of the “good” colleges that have some flexibility in choosing test scores to submit: Colby College, Colorado College, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, and New York University.

By the way, you can search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online. But, because admissions policies change from time to time, you really need to check on a college’s website to tell just exactly how the college does or does not require or use SAT or ACT scores. For example, some colleges require standardized test scores for some applicants, like home-schooled students and international students, and not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S.

We will talk more about SATs and ACTs in an upcoming episode in a future series—how to prep for them, when to take them, how many times to take them, what the SAT IIs are, and more.

2. Students with Mediocre Or Low High School Grades

What do we mean by mediocre or low high school grades? If a student has a GPA below 3.0, that is a mediocre or low GPA. GPAs of 3.0 to 3.3 are going to be problematic for most selective colleges, too. If the high school GPA is on a 100-point scale, a GPA in the low 80s or lower is a mediocre or low GPA.

Unfortunately, there are no “high school grades optional” colleges that we know about. Certainly, most colleges will claim to look at the whole picture—a complete profile—of a student during the admissions process; but, that whole picture always includes high school grades. While there can be reasons that high school grades are lower than the student is capable of earning—such as difficult family situations or personal problems or trauma—those reasons would have to be explained compellingly in an essay or an additional letter of some sort to the college. In short, it is very difficult to explain away mediocre or low high school grades.

When a student has mediocre or low high school grades, it is ideal if that student happens to have high SAT or ACT scores. Then, the college can imagine that the student is bright, but perhaps had some reason for not performing as expected in high school classes. None of those reasons would be a great excuse, but some colleges will make an exception for such a student.

However, most students who have mediocre or low high school grades do not have high SAT or ACT scores. For those students, the choice with the highest cost-benefit ratio is probably a public two-year—or maybe public four-year—college. By the way, great public four-year colleges can be just as difficult to get into as private four-year colleges, so many of them are probably out of the running, too.

Instead, look at two-year community college, which gives a student a chance to erase a poor high school record with a better community college record. As we said in our first series, Understanding the World of College, a student who completes an associate’s degree at a two-year college can transfer that entire degree—that is, all the credits that were earned in completing that degree—to a four-year college and be well on the way to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. When a student has earned that two-year associate’s degree, the spotty high school record is really a thing of the past for most, if not all, four-year colleges.

To be sure, there are four-year public and private colleges that take students with mediocre or low high school grades. The question for parents is whether those colleges have as good a reputation as the kind of four-year public or private college a student might be admitted to after a successful experience at a two-year community college. It might also be a matter of money. Doing the two years at a community college could save money that could then be put into a better four-year college for the final two years.

Of course, for parents of younger students, remind them that there is no easy route to a good college if high school grades are poor.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Using letters of recommendation to good advantage
  • Using the last essay option on the Common Application to good advantage
  • Talking to current seniors who learned the hard way

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 12: To Visit Or Not To Visit?

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about campus visits.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
When your teenager should visit a college without you
How to take advantage of financial help from colleges to cover travel costs
How to arrange a weekend visit to a college for your teenager

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/12

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how many colleges should be added to your list.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat Episode 12: To Visit or Not to Visit? - How important is the campus visit?For many decades, one rite of passage for American high schoolers and their parents alike has been the “college tour,” where a parent takes an anxious or blasé teenager (depending on your child) on a tour of colleges that might or might not turn out to be appealing schools to attend. During these college visits, there are campus tours led by college students, question-and-answer sessions with administrators, sometimes a chance to sit in on a class or two, and perhaps the nerve-wracking one-on-one admissions interview.

So, as you and your teenager enter the college applications process, let’s ask this question: How important are college visits? You will actually hear, in our three options, that the answer is always “very important.” Just the when or how those visits occur is what we are going to talk about.

1. Very Important, So Visit Now . . .

. . . because there is no substitute for standing in the main quadrangle or in a classroom building or in a dorm or on the soccer field or on the library steps. It is impossible to convey the feeling of a college’s physical and social and intellectual environment without being there. Why would anyone want to sign up to spend two years or four years at a place that he or she had never seen? By the way, this is true for students who are living on campus and who are living off campus. Your teenager will spend a lot of time at the college—regardless of living in the dorms—and should want to get a feeling for its buildings and its grounds and its setting within its surroundings and, of course, its students, staff, and faculty.

Visiting colleges before applying to them makes a lot of sense because even all colleges of a certain type are not the same. In other words, you cannot visit one or two private four-year colleges and, based on them, know what private four-year colleges are like. You cannot visit one or two public community colleges and, based on them, know what public community colleges are like. You cannot visit one or two urban campuses (or urban colleges with barely any “campus”) and, based on them, know what urban colleges are like.

Visiting a college before applying might convince your teenager not to apply, thus saving you that time and effort and money. But, visiting colleges is not free—especially when they are not in your hometown. Many families cannot afford to take the time off or spend the travel money that it takes to make a college swing through several states—or even through your own state, if it is as large as New York, where you cannot make an inexpensive day trip from one end to the other.

On the other hand, if you have decided to limit your applications to colleges in your hometown or very close by, then you absolutely should visit before applying. Make sure you take a tour of the campus, that you talk with current students, and that you sit in on a class or two, if possible. There is no reason to miss out on this chance to find out what everyday life is like on that campus and how different it might feel from another college campus that could be just minutes away. For example, if you live in New York City and want to stay in New York City for college, you would find out how different the campuses of just these four-year colleges were if you were to visit them: New York University and The New School in Greenwich Village, Columbia University and Barnard College in Morningside Heights, Fordham University at Lincoln Center, Hunter College in midtown, Pace University in downtown—and we have not left Manhattan yet. All of these schools are just a subway ride away for New Yorkers.

2. Very Important, But Visit Later . . .

. . . after acceptances have been received and your teenager is trying to decide which college to attend. After all, it is cheaper to pay the application fee for a college than to spend the money to visit it ahead of time (unless it is in your hometown).

If your teenager is accepted at more than one college, perhaps that is soon enough to spend the time and money to visit those colleges if you are trying to decide among them. It might be that visiting your teenager’s first choice is all that is needed—if the visit is successful and confirms that that college is indeed the right one. Nothing is more cost-effective than that.

3. Very Important, But Visiting Is Not an Option

Sometimes it is just not possible for a family to arrange for a campus visit to several colleges or even to one college, even after acceptances have come in.

In that case, you all can—and should—talk to anyone you can find who has visited any college on your list as a kind of substitute for making the trip yourself. That might be a family friend, a high school friend, a teacher, a school administrator, a guidance counselor, or someone else. Some colleges use alumni interviewers, who could serve this function nicely, too.

Firsthand impressions from someone who has walked on the campus in different seasons of the year, has seen inside the dorms, has talked with faculty or visited a class, has talked with current students or recent graduates, has eaten in the cafeteria, has attended a sports event or a cultural event—all of these impressions can help your teenager make a better decision about where to enroll. Ideally, at least some of those substitutes would be individuals who had been on the campus recently—and preferably someone with a more in-depth feel for the college than one can get from simply walking across the campus. A current professor or current student or recent graduate would be a great choice.

Remember that it is not only about the physical surroundings, but also about the intellectual and social surroundings, which the casual visitor might not be able to pick up on so readily. Photographs in a brochure or on a website or even a virtual campus tour on a website might resolve your questions about the physical surroundings, but cannot answer your questions about the intellectual and social surroundings, which are more likely to affect your satisfaction with your college choice.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • When your teenager should visit a college without you
  • How to take advantage of financial help from colleges to cover travel costs
  • How to arrange a weekend visit to a college for your teenager

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 11: How Many Options Are Enough?

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by looking at how many colleges you should include on your list.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
When one college option is enough
Why adding more good colleges to your child’s list might not help him/her get an admissions offer
How colleges wind up on students’ lists without enough input from them

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/11

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education http://policystudies.org/parents/
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by talking about how many colleges should be added to your list.

NYCollegeChat is now available on iTunes, Spreaker, Stitcher, and TuneIn!

NYCollegeChat How Many Options Are Enough - how many colleges should your child apply to?

Let’s look first at students for whom one option might be enough. Then, we will look at everyone else.

1. One Option for Some Students

Some students—though not many—know exactly where they want to go to college and believe they have a reasonable chance of being admitted to that one college. If you have such a child, here is what the college application process might look like.

If that one college, your teenager’s perfect choice, has an Early Decision plan, your teenager can apply to that college in the fall of the senior year (usually in early November). By doing that, however, he or she is agreeing to attend that college if accepted. An Early Decision offer of admission is binding on both the student and the college. Fortunately, if your teenager is not admitted when Early Decision offers are sent out (usually in December), there is still time to meet the application deadlines of other colleges.

If your teenager’s perfect college choice has an Early Action plan, he or she can also apply earlier and receive an answer earlier. Early Action works a bit like Early Decision, except that an offer of admission is not binding on the student. That is the crucial difference: A student can apply to more than one college with an Early Action plan, can even apply to other colleges with regular application deadlines, and does not have to accept an admissions offer as soon as it is given. Of course, if your teenager really wants to attend one college and that college has an Early Action plan and he or she is accepted, then the admissions game is over.

On the other hand, your teenager’s perfect college choice might have rolling admissions—meaning that applications are considered as they come in and decisions are made throughout the year. If the application is submitted early enough in the senior year and the decision is made fast enough by the college, then you might not have to consider other colleges. However, the exact schedule for reviewing applications at colleges with rolling admissions is often not knowable—meaning that a student might or might not get an answer about admissions quick enough to save the trouble of applying to other colleges.

For students whose perfect college choice does not have an Early Decision, Early Action, or rolling admissions plan, it would obviously be dangerous to apply just to one college on a regular deadline and not to look at some additional choices.

2. More Than One Option for Everyone Else

For all of those students who have not narrowed down their search to one college, how many applications should be made? Of course, there is no right answer to that question. Through some common sense thinking and discussion, we could probably agree that applying to just two colleges sounds like too few and that applying to, say, 10 colleges sounds like too many.

The right answer for your teenager probably lies somewhere in between, depending on how much variety there is in the kinds of colleges you are considering and, as we said in the first two episodes of this series, depending on how many deal breakers there are in considering the kinds of colleges your teenager might apply to.

For example, you can see right away that deciding to keep a student close to home for college—maybe even within commuting distance—would limit the number of options available to that student (unless, of course, home is a major metropolitan area, like New York City). That student might feel that five or six applications would be a reasonable sample of the variety of opportunities available close to home. On the other hand, deciding to send a student away to college would open up an almost limitless number of options. That student might feel that even 10 applications would not be an adequate sample of all the opportunities out there.

As you and your teenager add more deal breakers—that is, more restrictions on the colleges you want to consider—you probably will feel better that fewer applications can cover the remaining college options. For example, let’s say your and your teenager have decided to limit your applications to small, private, four-year colleges in upstate New York that have French majors. In that case, five or six applications might feel like plenty.

One more point: Your teenager should apply only to colleges that he or she actually knows something about and wants to attend. That might sound obvious to you. But, we find that students cannot always explain why they are considering a certain college and sometimes cannot even find it on a map. Those students need more help in applying their deal breakers to a long list of possible colleges, in finding out about a good many of them, and then in narrowing down the possibilities to a reasonable number—probably about five to eight.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • When one college option is enough
  • Why adding more good colleges to your child’s list might not help him/her get an admissions offer
  • How colleges wind up on students’ lists without enough input from them

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