Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say?

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Episode 52: So, How Many Colleges Did You Say? on NYCollegeChat podcast: How many colleges should your high school student apply to on NYCollegeChat podcastToday’s episode is an official stop on our blog tour to get the word out about our new book—How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. We appreciate the hosts of the other blogs we have visited on our tour—both through written guest posts we have done and recorded interviews where we have had the chance to chat with great hosts. We have enjoyed all of it. Here are the links to our virtual tour so far:

November 2: ParentChat with Regina

November 4: The College Money Maze

November 5: Parents’ Guide to the College Puzzle

November 6: Mission: Authors Talk About It

November 11: Together with Family

November 12: NYCollegeChat

November 13: The Staten Island Family

November 16: Road2College

November 18: Viva Fifty

November 19: Paying For College 101 Facebook group

November 20: Underground Crafter

November 24: High School Survival Guide

How To Find the Right College is now available for sale as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback workbook on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The great thing about the tour was that the hosts of the blogs we visited told us what they wanted us to talk about, so all we had to do was talk. On this stop, we had to decide what to talk about. As we thought through what is likely to be going through the minds of our listeners who have high school seniors right now, we decided to talk about a question that will keep coming up over the next two months: How many colleges should my child be applying to?

You would think that this question would have gotten asked and answered at the beginning of the college search, but we believe that it gets asked and answered over and over again as the time to finish up college applications gets closer and closer.

In the interest of full disclosure, it happened to me. When my daughter was applying to colleges five years ago, we developed our list carefully—partly because she was looking for a dance major and that limited our choices significantly. We got almost to the end of the application season before we realized that she didn’t really have a safety school on the list—that is, a school that we were confident she would be admitted to. At the last minute, I remember saying something like, “Oh, no. We had better get a safety school on this list. Let’s choose a great campus of The City University of New York.” And we did, and that put our minds at ease—even though she didn’t end up needing that acceptance after all.

So, let’s talk about safety schools and about how many schools should be on your list. For more information on both of these topics, check out our book as well as our recent episodes of NYCollegeChat, which have taken our listeners on a virtual tour of public and private colleges in every region of the U.S.

As we said a few weeks ago when we did an episode about putting the final touches on that all-important college application essay, we had an opportunity recently to talk with about 100 high school seniors from one of New York City’s best public high schools—the kind of high school where students have to take an admissions test to get in. In addition to looking at their college essay topics (go back and listen to Episode 49 for that discussion), we asked them to make a list of colleges that they intended to apply to and a list of colleges that they would like to apply to, but weren’t for whatever reason (e.g., it was too expensive, it was too far from home, it was too hard to get into). After looking over their lists, here is what we noticed:

  1. Too many students do not spell the names of colleges correctly. Okay, I know this seems like a low hurdle, but you would be surprised at the mistakes we saw. For example, one of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Stony Brook University, which we talked about in Episode 50.  That’s S-T-O-N-Y, not S-T-O-N-E-Y. Another of the premier campuses of the public State University of New York is Binghamton University. That’s B-I-N-G-H-A-M-T-O-N, not B-I-N-G-H-A-M-P-T-O-N. And here’s one that adults sometimes get wrong, and it’s not really a spelling mistake: It’s Johns Hopkins University, not John Hopkins University—named for its benefactor, 19th-century philanthropist Johns Hopkins, an entrepreneur and abolitionist.
  2. For most students, there appeared to be little difference between the two lists of colleges—they were equally hard to get into, equally near and far away, equally expensive, and so on. In other words, I couldn’t figure out why the students weren’t applying to colleges on both lists. This observation led me to believe that they had not done a very good job of sorting through college options and applying their own criteria (that is, their own deal breakers, as we call them in our book) to the full set of college options in order to create their own list.
  3. As good students in a highly respected New York City high school, these kids had two great options for safety schools—the campuses of the public State University of New York (SUNY) and the campuses of the public City University of New York (CUNY). And yet, there were a lot of second-tier and third-tier private colleges on their lists—colleges that I imagine were meant to be safety schools for these kids students from a well-known high school. These second-tier and third-tier private colleges were not as good or as respected as many of the public SUNY and CUNY campuses. So, why were they on the lists? As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, there is no prestige in going to a private college—just because it is private—when it is worse than a good public university.
  4. Very few students had any public flagship universities outside of New York State on their lists. As we have said repeatedly in our NYCollegeChat episodes, we believe that public flagship universities are the hidden jewels of the higher education system. Here’s what we said in our book:

For many students, the public flagship state university is the place to be. Just remember, the best and the brightest high school students who live in the state really want to go to their flagship state university. Why? Because these universities are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, often very competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for lots of their high school classmates. What could be better?

Some of my favorite colleges to talk to kids about are these great flagship universities, which many families, especially here in New York, never even consider. Many of the best flagship universities are as hard to get into as any top-tier private college—for example, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, UC Berkeley, and more. But some are less selective than those, making them super-appealing choices from many perspectives, including cost, caliber of the students, caliber of the faculty, and campus life. High on my list of great universities you didn’t consider: the University of Colorado Boulder. High on my list of intriguing universities you never dreamt of: the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. High on my list of interesting choices that a good, if not quite great, student from the Northeast can likely be admitted to: the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford and Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. For a good out-of-state student from a different part of the country, Ole Miss and LSU could serve as interesting safety schools.

So, looking at your child’s college list one more time, how many colleges is enough? Here is what we said in our book:

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 or three colleges sounds like too few and that applying to, say, 15 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 depending on how many deal breakers you and your teenager have [when it comes to the types of colleges to put on the list].

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). Such a 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. Such a student might feel that even a dozen 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 you and your teenager have decided to limit your applications to small, private, four-year colleges in upstate New York that have French majors. With all of those restrictions, four or five applications might feel like plenty (though you might need a safety school, in that case, and perhaps a public one).

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 it is not nearly so obvious to high school students as you might think. We find that students sometimes cannot explain why they are considering a certain college and sometimes cannot even find it on a map—even on a map of their home state. We have often used this minimum standard: If a student cannot find a college on a map, then he or she probably shouldn’t apply to it. Such students need more help in applying their deal breakers to a 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 eight to 12.

So, we notice that a couple of sources, like The College Board, are suggesting that the right number is probably from five or six to eight colleges. I think five or six is low, and here’s why. I want every kid to have some options—after any acceptances come in—for two reasons. First, a kid who has some choices likely feels better about his or her decision about which college to attend; a student who has only one acceptance—unless it was based on an Early Decision application and it is the kid’s dream choice—might feel a bit less excited about attending that college. Second, a kid who has some choice likely feels better about himself or herself when chatting with classmates in school and outside of school as all the kids compare their college acceptances. Now, I admit that maybe this is the mother in me speaking and that this is what I wanted for my own children. But I would like kids to feel satisfied with—even proud of—their college choice so that they will do the very best they can when they get there.

So, College Board or not, I am sticking with eight to 12 applications. By the way, as you are looking over the application requirements for each college on your list, we think you are going to find that some applications require little to no more effort than the work you have already done to complete others, especially if those colleges accept the Common Application and have no required additional essays. Other than perhaps paying an additional application fee, you really lose nothing by going ahead and applying.

Even though it is the second week of November, if you have a senior at home, we believe that you still would find our book to be helpful in these next two crucial months. And if you have a younger teenager at home, you will definitely find our book to be helpful as you and your child discuss your deal breakers and make that perhaps life-changing college list.

Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…

In New York State

Outside of New York State

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why you should check out the percentage of applicants a college accepts when choosing a safety school
  • Why your child should apply to more than one SUNY or CUNY campus at a time
  • Why eight is not enough

Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us 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

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Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
  • Why talking to an adult can really help your child think through an essay
  • How to think about family responsibilities as topics for essays

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Episode 14: Focus on The City University of New York and The State University of New York

This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by focusing on the City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY).

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

Guaranteed admissions to CUNY and SUNY campuses

Impressive SUNY campuses most people never heard of

Impressive CUNY programs most people do not know about

Episode show notes are available at http://usacollegechat.org/14

Our next episode of NYCollegeChat will air on Thursday, January 8, 2015. We will still be working if you have last minute questions about college applications!

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 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 focusing on the public college and university options in New York State.

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

NYCollegeChat podcast: Focus on the City University of New York and the State University of New York. Brought to you by Policy Studies in Education.

Because we are NYCollegeChat—emphasis on New York—we want talk in this episode about choosing between The City University of New York (CUNY) and The State University of New York (SUNY) as well as choosing among the branches of each of these college systems. Though most of our episodes have information useful for parents anywhere, this episode is especially for New York City and New York State parents—or indeed for parents anywhere who might like to send their children to our public higher education institutions.

1. Students Interested in CUNY Campuses

As we said in an earlier episode in our first series, Understanding the World of College, CUNY serves about 270,000 students taking credit courses on 24 campuses—11 four-year colleges (which CUNY refers to as “senior colleges”), 7 two-year community colleges, The Macaulay Honors College for undergraduate students, and 5 graduate and professional schools, located throughout New York City’s five boroughs. CUNY is the nation’s largest urban public higher education system.

If you currently have a high school junior who is an outstanding student, with a high GPA (in the 90s) and excellent SAT/ACT scores, you should have a look at The Macaulay Honors College right now. Tuition is free, and there are other financial incentives, too. There is also the prestige factor to consider. The Macaulay deadline is a bit earlier than the regular deadline for most colleges (it was December 1 this year, so it is too late for current seniors), so you have to be ready when school opens next fall to get the application put together. This year’s application was not too difficult (for example, it had just two relatively short essays), but you will need to get teacher and/or counselor recommendations lined up. During the admissions process, a Macaulay prospect is accepted first to whatever CUNY four-year campuses the student listed in the application. So, if the student is not accepted to Macaulay, he or she will still be able to enroll in one of CUNY’s four-year colleges and might even be accepted to an honors program at one of those colleges.

Now let’s look at the 7 two-year community colleges and 11 four-year colleges. The first question, of course, is whether you are interested in a two-year or four-year college. We talked extensively about this in our last series, Understanding the World of College. Generally speaking, stronger students with better high school records should choose four-year colleges, while students in need of boosting their academic skills and improving on their high school academic record should choose two-year colleges. But which two-year or four-year college?

The obvious next thing to consider is location. Because most New York City residents are likely to live at home while attending a CUNY college, the commute to the campus is an important factor in college choice. While subway transportation is relatively reliable, fast, and inexpensive, no student really wants to be commuting from the far end of Brooklyn to the Bronx to attend classes every day. Furthermore, some campuses are not as public transportation friendly as others. For example, Queensborough Community College is in a lovely, rather suburban location in Bayside, Queens, but there is no subway service close by; or, to take another example, unless you live on Staten Island, the College of Staten Island is not a quick ride away.

Another thing to consider—and likely the most important thing—is what majors the college offers. Because the colleges are part of a public system, all majors are not offered at all colleges. This is one way the government saves taxpayers’ money—that is, by not duplicating majors on all campuses and, thus, not running smaller-than-cost-efficient programs on campus after campus. For example, you can earn a bachelor’s degree in German at just two CUNY campuses or a bachelor’s degree in archeology at just one CUNY campus. Then, you also need to think about the colleges that specialize in certain fields—like New York City College of Technology, which specializes, obviously, in technical fields (like engineering and architecture and computer studies) or John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which specializes, obviously, in criminal justice, but also in pre-law, fire science, forensics, and studies focusing on social action.

Another thing to consider is reputation. All colleges are not created equal. You can learn about the two-year and four-year colleges by reading about them on their own websites (for example, the history of City College is fascinating and quite moving), and you can learn about their reputations by talking with professionals in any field who have lived in New York City for a while, by talking with graduates of the colleges, and by talking with some high school teachers and counselors, if they have experience with more than two or three of the CUNY campuses. For what it’s worth, five of the CUNY four-year colleges are ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the top 20 regional public colleges in the North: In no particular order, they are Baruch, Hunter, Queens, Brooklyn, and City College.

2. Students Interested in SUNY Campuses

As we said in an earlier episode in our first series, Understanding the World of College, SUNY serves about 460,000 degree and certificate students in 64 higher education institutions, including research universities, state colleges, colleges of technology, community colleges, medical schools, and an online learning network. The institutions are located throughout New York State—from Plattsburgh in the far north to Buffalo in the far west to Stony Brook in the far southeast. Looking at a map of New York State with the campuses located on it is actually quite impressive.

Just as with considering CUNY campuses, the first question when looking at SUNY campuses is whether you want a two-year community college or a four-year college—and, as we said earlier, we have already talked a lot about that decision. So let’s talk about the three other questions we raised about the CUNY campuses because they also apply to SUNY campuses: location, majors, and reputation.

If you thought that the CUNY campuses were spread out over the five boroughs of New York City, the SUNY campuses are really spread out—over virtually the entire state. For a student living in New York City, going to a SUNY campus in upstate in New York is hours farther away than going to a college in New Jersey or Connecticut or even parts of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. As we have said before, we had students at the high school we co-founded in Brooklyn who had no idea where many of SUNY campuses were, yet they thought about going to them. To repeat our minimum standard for choosing a college is this: You should not go to a college you cannot find on a map.

And part of location, when it comes to SUNY campuses, is whether you want to be in a more urban, suburban, or rural location. They are all available—from the University at Buffalo or the University at Albany and the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan (which people often forget is a SUNY campus) in the more urban category to Nassau Community College and the State University College at Old Westbury and Westchester Community College in the suburban category to the College of Technology at Canton and the State University College at New Paltz and Finger Lakes Community College in the rural category.

Just as with CUNY campuses, the most important thing to consider is what majors the college offers. Again, because the colleges are part of a public system, all majors are not offered at all colleges in order to save the taxpayers’ money, so you have to check carefully if your child has an interest in a particular subject field. What is definite is that almost whatever your child can think up to study, it is being taught on one SUNY campus or another.

Just as CUNY has New York City College of Technology, specializing in technical fields, SUNY has colleges that specialize in technology in Canton, Cobleskill, Delhi, and more. But SUNY also has colleges specializing in other technical fields—like the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Maritime College, the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and the New York State College of Ceramics (which actually includes both engineering and art and design majors and is located at Alfred University, a private university).

For some students, the three public colleges that are part of private Cornell University are a great financial bargain. Cornell houses four private and three public colleges: the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, and the ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations) School—an Ivy League education at State tuition prices.

So what about the reputation of the SUNY colleges? There are probably many opinions about which colleges are the best and probably no way to prove which colleges are the best. In a list of top national public universities, U.S. News and World Report lists the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at number 30 and Stony Brook University and Binghamton University tied at number 38. In terms of campuses being known for specific academic programs, one of the clearest examples is Stony Brook, which is well known for its undergraduate and graduate science programs, including its School of Medicine, and for its co-managing of the prestigious Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

Generally speaking, among the four-year choices, the SUNY universities have more prestige and higher admissions standards than the SUNY state colleges and the colleges of technology—though that does not necessarily make one of the SUNY universities a better choice for your child.

3. Choosing Between CUNY and SUNY Campuses

The choice between applying to and indeed enrolling at a CUNY campus vs. a SUNY campus is probably most present in the minds of high school students who live in or near New York City. For those students, there are several factors to consider—including, at least, living arrangements and prestige (assuming, of course, that the campuses offer the right major). For New York City residents, CUNY colleges and SUNY colleges cost just about the same (and some New York State residents who live outside of the City might be eligible for the same CUNY tuition rates as City residents are). But the living arrangements can be substantially different. Is it cheaper to live at home in Queens and attend Queens College than to live in the dormitory at SUNY Albany? Of course it is. But would the student rather have the chance to live away at school as part of the whole college experience? If so, then attending a SUNY college outside of the City is the better choice.

Is a SUNY college automatically better than a CUNY college because it is part of the bigger State system? Definitely not, even when comparing the four-year SUNY universities and the four-year CUNY colleges. Again, which individual colleges are “better” than which other individual colleges is a matter for debate among educators and graduates and faculty members and interested observers. But it is clear that there are some excellent choices in both systems—choices that are right for New York’s best students as well as for New York’s average students.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Guaranteed admissions to CUNY and SUNY campuses
  • Impressive SUNY campuses most people never heard of
  • Impressive CUNY programs most people do not know about

 

Check out these higher education institutions and programs we mention…

In New York State

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

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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

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Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC
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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…