Episode 109: Early Decision and Early Action Anxiety in College Admissions–Part II

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This is the third in our series of episodes discussing issues in higher education, and it’s the second part of a two-parter that looks at the Early Decision and Early Action options for high school students who will be applying to colleges next fall. I mentioned last week that I was infuriated by this issue. I meant that I was infuriated on behalf of the kids and families who are trying to figure out how to play this college admissions game, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of various Early Decision and Early Action options at various colleges and how those options interact with each other.

Last week, we discussed the pros and cons of Early Decision. I won’t repeat all of the reasoning here, but I will repeat my conclusion, which is this: Early Decision is better for an individual applicant than it is for the pool of applicants. In other words, Early Decision might be great for your own teenager, even though it could well be concerning for the futures of all of our teenagers collectively. Of course, you have the luxury of thinking only about your own teenager. You aren’t setting policy for colleges or high schools across the country, and you don’t have to be fair to all high school seniors. You are likely to do what is best for your own teenager.

In that world, I believe that many of you will end up considering an Early Decision option very seriously, given everything we said last week. However, if your teenager just isn’t ready to make such a big decision around November 1–a decision that will be a binding decision–then let’s look at an alternative option for you. That alternative option is Early Action, the option that some would call the kinder, gentler option in the early admissions game.

1. Early Action

Under the Early Action option, high school seniors can still apply early–around November 1–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college and only that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules.

In counseling students myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. And it can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however. Students have to take the SAT or ACT early enough to have the scores before November 1, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by November 1 is about as good as he or she can get. Because most students are going to take the SAT and/or the ACT more than once, that means taking the exam in the late spring of the junior year and again in the early fall of the senior year. Or, perhaps, it means taking the exam in late summer and again in the fall. There are, of course, pros and cons to these choices.

For example, we often advise good students who have had a rigorous high school program to take the test in the late spring of the junior year, to study and prep over the summer, and to take it again in the early fall of the senior year. Students who might not be as strong and who are not well prepared by the spring of their junior year might be better off studying and prepping over the summer and taking the test for the first time in September of the senior year. Here is one thing we do know: Taking the test just a couple of months apart and doing nothing to prepare in between the two testing dates is a waste of time and money; not much is going to be gained in regular school learning or in maturation in a couple of months.

Here is another option we have recommended. Apply Early Action to one or more colleges using your available test scores if you think you are likely to be accepted. In this case, the Early Action colleges would likely be your safety schools–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

2. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

Let’s look at a mixed approach that has now been taken by some colleges, including some prestigious ones, and that is an option called Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action. This option means that applicants cannot apply to any other college under an Early Action or Early Decision option, but may apply on a regular decision timeline. If an applicant is admitted under this single-choice or restrictive option, that student may have until about May 1 to make a decision. Could it get any more confusing?

So, Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action, is like Early Decision in that the student is permitted to apply to only one college early, but it’s like Early Action in that the student is permitted to wait until regular decision acceptances come in before making a final decision about enrolling. You can see how that is pretty good for the student and pretty good for the college, though not ideal for either one. You can also see how this option just further complicates an already-complicated admissions process. This option, we believe, is not nearly as widespread among colleges as either Early Decision or regular Early Action.

3. The Craziness of Some College Admissions Options

I must confess that I myself have had to read and re-read some colleges’ website information on admissions many times to figure out what all the options meant. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason. That’s probably the subject for an episode of its own!

Before we look at a few examples of colleges with crazy admissions options, let’s put one more option on the table: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II. (By the way, colleges may also have Early Action I and II, though Early Decision I and II appear to be more common.)

So, why Early Decision I and II, with Early Decision II having a later deadline? One reason is that some students want the college to have access to later college admission test scores or to their first semester senior grades, in case either of those is better than earlier scores or grades. Another reason is that a student who gets rejected from his or her first-choice Early Decision college in December can then apply to his or her second-choice college in a round II of Early Decision. Both of these situations happen to favor the student.

But another reason is that having two rounds of Early Decision is a way for a college to improve its own statistics–in this case, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students who are admitted and then attend. It has been said that this statistic might affect a college’s ranking on some publication’s list or other. So, that might be reason enough for how we got to this place.

Now, let’s look at a few real examples of colleges, all of which shall remain nameless:

  • Take this private Southern university, which has both Early Action and Single-Choice Early Action options, but no Early Decision option.
  • Or this public Southern university, which has three options: Early Decision I (with notification in late December), Early Decision II (for those who need a little more time to apply, with notification in mid-February), and Early Action (with notification in late January).
  • Or this Midwestern college with only about 1,000 undergraduates, which offers Early Action I and Early Decision I as well as Early Action II and Early Decision II options (with all decisions no later than February 15)–plus a regular decision option, of course. That’s five options!
  • Take this private Northeastern college, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

Students who apply by the November 15 deadline for [Early Decision] Round I will be notified of the decision on their application in mid-December. Those who apply by the January 15 [Early Decision] Round II deadline will hear by February 15, as will those who convert Regular Decision applications to Early Decision by February 1. While Early Decision candidates may initiate applications to other colleges, if they are accepted under one of the Early Decision plans they must immediately withdraw all other applications and enroll at [this college].

  • Or this Ivy League university, which offers the following information, quoted from the website:

If you are a Single-Choice Early Action applicant to [this university], you may apply to another institution’s early admission program as follows:

  • You may apply to any college’s non-binding rolling admission program.

  • You may apply to any public institution at any time provided that admission is non-binding.

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Decision II program, but only if the notification of admission occurs after January 1. If you are admitted through another college’s Early Decision II binding program, you must withdraw your application from [this university].

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Action II program.

  • You may apply to any institution outside of the United States at any time.

My view is this, not that the university asked: If a student can follow that, he or she deserves to be admitted right now!

And one last word, parents: Remember that your teenager can be deferred when applying early, in which case the application will go into the pile to be considered with the applications submitted on the regular decision timeline. Or, your teenager can be rejected, in which case he or she cannot re-apply in some cases on the regular decision timeline. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle that you will need to consider.

4. A Personal Anecdote

Permit me a final personal anecdote. It may give you an idea of what awaits you next fall. This is a real story about a high school senior we worked with last fall. Let’s call her Kate. Kate had great grades (straight A’s, including in AP courses and honors courses), great activities (including excellent community service activities, a variety of school activities, and championship school and community sports teams), and satisfactory (but not great) SAT scores.

We helped Kate apply under Early Action plans to three universities, where we thought she would be accepted, based on her record. In fact, Kate got three Early Action acceptances in December: from Binghamton University (one of New York State’s best public universities), from the University of Colorado Boulder (a great public flagship university in one of the most beautiful settings in the U.S.), and from Baylor University (a very good private Southern university, which gave birth to one of the great medical schools in the U.S.). Kate got good scholarships from both the University of Colorado Boulder and Baylor. By the way, listeners, this is what it means to get outside your geographic comfort zone; be the New Yorker applying to colleges in Colorado and Texas. So, three Early Action acceptances are making life in Kate’s household a lot easier these days–while she waits on answers from eight more highly selective private universities, including two Ivies, in April.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that I lobbied hard for Kate to apply to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences under its Early Decision plan. Kate wants to go to medical school eventually, and the Ag School (as we Cornellians call it) is a good stepping stone to that. I believed that she might barely get into the Ag School on the Early Decision plan, given her academic record and the high proportion of Early Decision applicants who are accepted into the Ag School’s freshman class. Furthermore, she is a New York State resident, and the Ag School is one of the State-supported colleges within Cornell (which is a unique private-public partnership that we have spoken about several times at USACollegeChat). Finally, I did not believe that Kate would get into Cornell on a regular decision timeline, largely because of her less-than-stupendous SAT scores.

Here was the problem: Kate had her heart set on Yale or Georgetown. I was pretty sure she would not get into Yale, and I doubted that she would get into Georgetown. I thought Early Decision at the Ag School would be her best chance to get into a highly selective university, but that meant giving up any hope of Yale or Georgetown. In the end, I was not persuasive, so I settled for getting her to do those three Early Action applications. Now we are all waiting for April. Since I believe she will be happy at either Boulder or Baylor, I am less concerned than I might otherwise have been. She is less concerned, too–thankfully–and that is the beauty of Early Action.

So, what’s our advice? Well, it’s nothing straightforward. You are going to have to lay out the Early Action and Early Decision options and rules for each college your teenager is going to apply to next fall and figure out the best path. We are afraid that each case is unique. We are convinced, however, that making some use of some early options is likely to be in your teenager’s favor. Good luck, and call us when you get stuck.

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Episode 95: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 3

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In our last two episodes, we have been talking with you about how to narrow down your teenager’s long summer list of college options in case it is too long. As that list begins to get shorter, I am beginning to feel as though we should have let you keep it long. Well, not crazy long–but 15 colleges or so is still reasonable to me, at this point in the process. As we have said before, there are quite a few colleges out there that would likely be a good match for your teenager. Don’t feel that you need to take colleges off the list if you can imagine your teenager’s being happy there. You should not be aiming for some arbitrary number of options.

Again, let us remind you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Fill it out and file it now. Get whatever help you need to fill it out. But do it, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting to qualify for a lot of financial aid.

And, let us remind you again, that those Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are coming up quickly–mostly around November 1. I cannot see any good reason not to apply for Early Action if colleges your teenager is interested in offer it.

In Episode 93, we took Step 1 in narrowing down your teenager’s list by looking at college selectivity–in other words, is your teenager likely to get in. In Episode 94, we took Step 2 by looking at the availability of your teenager’s current favorite major, the presence of any core curriculum or distribution requirements, and the attractiveness of traditional and innovative college term schedules or grading practices.

1. Step 3: College Enrollment Filter

Today, we are discussing Step 3 in narrowing down the list–if you think it needs to be narrowed down any further–and that is using college enrollment as a filter. In our previous episodes, we have looked at college enrollment in a variety of ways, and you might want to use some of those ways as a filter now.

First, does the size of the student body matter? You can look back at summer Assignment #1 (in Episode 81) and double check the size of the undergraduate enrollment (and the graduate enrollment, if you think it is desirable to send your teenager to a college that also offers graduate study). Personally (and I think I might be alone in this attitude), I think that this filter is over-used by lots of teenagers and their parents.   I hear kids say things like this, “I think I would like to go to a small school. (Fill in the blank) university seems too big to me.” Okay, I get it. A big university might seem overwhelming at first to a high school senior. But perhaps that is because that teenager has had no reason at all to be in a large university setting, and I believe that a teenager has no rational basis for making a valid judgment about it.

Furthermore, I don’t think you can judge the size of a college based on the size of your high school, though I am sure it is tempting. I can understand that a teenager coming from a small public high school or a small private school might feel that he or she would get lost in the shuffle in a large university. I can understand that, for such a teenager, a large academic setting might be outside his or her 17-year-old comfort zone. But that is no reason to assume that such a teenager would not do well in that larger academic setting, given half a chance.

When my husband was applying to college many years ago, his parents thought that he should go to a small liberal arts college. I am not sure why they thought that, but they did. As a result, he applied only to good small liberal arts colleges, and so, of course, he ended up attending one. He did well at it and liked it, but I believe he would have done equally well at a large university and would have liked it equally well. (By the way, he went on to Columbia University for graduate school and did not seem one bit fazed by its size.) In other words, size should never have been a filter for him–and I believe it should not be a filter for most teenagers. My guess is that many of you parents have some intuitive feeling about the best college size for your teenager (just as my in-laws did)–let’s call it a bias. I don’t know where you got it–perhaps from your own college education or from your own view about how outgoing and self-sufficient your teenager is or isn’t. Unless you have some kind of actual evidence that you are right, you might want to think twice about using college size as a filter for taking colleges off your teenager’s list.

Second, let’s look at size a different way, as we did in Assignment #5 (in Episode 85). There we took a closer look at both student-to-faculty ratio and class size (that is, how many students are sitting in the classroom when your teenager is trying to learn organic chemistry). As we said in Episode 85, student-to-faculty ratios are usually lower at small private colleges than at large public universities, which is not surprising. Small private colleges advertise the college culture that comes with a low ratio as one of the reasons to choose a small private college instead of a large public university. Further, when you see a very selective private university with a student-to-faculty ratio that makes it look more like a small private college, you have to be impressed. And I have to admit that there might indeed be a difference in faculty accessibility between a college with a student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 and one with a ratio of, say, 18-to-1. If personal attention from and personal relationships with professors is something that is quite important to you or your teenager, you might want to think about a student-to-faculty ratio filter.

Let’s recap the class size discussion we had where I claimed that class size might just be a matter of personal choice. I said that I had preferred large classes in collegehuge lectures by a brilliant professor. But I allowed that many students prefer small seminars where students get to express their own opinions and talk back and forth with each other and with the professor. What I truly believe is that there is a good chance that your teenager doesn’t know which of these he or she would prefersince most high school students have never experienced huge lectures by brilliant professors, or indeed small seminars that are intellectually demanding, for that matter. Does that make it difficult to choose class size as a filter? I would say that it does.

So far, it seems that I am arguing against a lot of these filters. All of these characteristics of colleges are good information to have, but maybe aren’t necessarily filters to use before even applying. Maybe I just hate for you to rule out too many options before you see where your teenager might be accepted and what decisions might be available to him or her next spring.

Let’s try a third filter, and that is whether the breakdown of the student body matters. You can look back at summer Assignment #4 (in Episode 84) and double check the percentage of part-time vs. full-time students, the male-female split, the variety and size of various racial and ethnic groups, and the states or foreign countries that students come from. For many students, none of these might be necessary as filters. However, your teenager might have some thoughts about attending a college where his or her own racial or ethnic group is only a very small minority of students. Or, your teenager might not want to attend a college that does not have a substantial mix of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as from many states and foreign countries. Attitudes about the inclusivity of students of all backgrounds might be linked strongly to your values as a family. Or not. Is your teenager more comfortable with students like himself or herself or with students just from your own geographic area? Should he or she be?

Now is the time to have that discussion with your teenager and to remember that college is one great time to broaden his or her views and explore key values about diversity. While you are doing that, take a quick look back at Assignment #10 (in Episode 90) to see whether you want to re-think your decision to include HBCUs, HSIs, single-sex colleges, or faith-based colleges on your list or to eliminate them at this time. Some of these colleges obviously offer less diversity than others, though they serve a different and perhaps equally valuable purpose.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, are you losing any colleges from your teenager’s list, based on filtering for overall enrollment size, the class size or student-to-faculty ratio, or the breakdown of the student body by race, ethnicity, gender, or some other important demographic characteristic? Try to let your teenager talk through his or her opinions about each of these, but let your teenager know that none of these has to become a filter.

In one sense, the fewer filters, the better. Each filter gives your teenager fewer chances to be happy next April.

So, Step 3 is done. Enrollment breakdown and size have been considered. Did you lose any colleges from your teenager’s list? I’m okay if you still have 15 or so on the list as we move forward to Step 4 next week. If you are already down to just a handful of colleges, you might want to take a few Steps back and reconsider some of those colleges that you have lost.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 93: Narrowing Down Your Teenager’s College List–Step 1

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

We have put off narrowing down your teenager’s long summer list of college options as long as we can. I hate to start the narrowing because it always seems to me as though the colleges taken off your list might be opportunities missed. But we all have to remember that there is not just one college that is a good choice for your teenager. There are likely quite a few colleges that would be not just good, but excellent, choices for your teenager. So, in that spirit, let’s see where we stand here at the end of September.

First, let us remind you that October 1 marks the opening up of the online avenue for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, lovingly known as the FAFSA. There is no earthly reason not to fill it out and file it ASAP. We are not FAFSA experts, but there are many people who are. If you are unsure about FAFSA, look at available websites or seek help from your teenager’s high school. But, whatever it takes, get the form filed, even if you are not sure you will need it and even if you are not expecting a financial windfall in financial aid.

Second, let us remind you, as we have been doing for the past couple of weeks, that the first deadlines are approaching for Early Decision and Early Action admissions–mostly around November 1. If your teenager is interested enough in a college to apply under an Early Decision plan or interested enough in one or more colleges to apply under an Early Action plan, then you have already narrowed your teenager’s list of college options. However, your teenager will need to keep a few extra colleges on the list in case the Early Decision choice or the Early Action choices don’t work out. In that spirit, let’s look at Step 1 in narrowing down the list.

Let’s review your 10 summer assignments because, if you didn’t do them, there might not be much of a list to narrow down:

We are hoping that you still have at least 20 or so on your list right now.

As we look back at the 10 assignments, we notice that some have to do with college location, some with size, some with selectivity, some with the student body, some with academics, and some with logistics, like housing and safety. We did not talk much this summer about the cost of attending each college because it is hard to figure out cost without knowing what kind of financial aid package your teenager might get from any given college, based on your family’s income, your state of residence, and the academic or other qualifications of your teenager. Everybody else seems to want to talk only about cost, so we would like to start somewhere else.

We found it difficult to choose which filter to look at first, knowing that it would knock some colleges off your list right away and being sorry about not giving those colleges a chance to stay on your list based on their other really great qualities. But something has to go first. So, let’s look at selectivity of the colleges on your list.

1. Step 1: College Selectivity Filter

As we said in our book How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (on sale at amazon.com through 2016), this question is the one most high school guidance counselors bring up first. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, though not guaranteed. Of course, that is really nothing more than common sense.

As for a safety school, we like to say that you should consider public four-year colleges (especially branch campuses of your state flagship public university, rather than the main campus, or a second-tier state system of public colleges that is not as prestigious as the state flagship university system). Some states have more public options than others, thus providing an array of safety school choices. We continue to focus only on four-year colleges in our search, believing that you can add the local public community college as an option at any point without too much difficulty.

As we find we still have to say to parents of teenagers, it is our opinion that not-very-selective private colleges that could reasonably serve as safety schools for most high school students are not likely to be academically better or more respected than whatever well-regarded public colleges are available in a student’s home state. Why would you pay more money to have your teenager go to a college that is not better? And, as we said many times during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges in Episodes 27 through 53, there is no prestige in going to a private college that is not as good as a great public college.

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind that applying to colleges is time consuming and not free (unless you have application-fee waivers, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on a student’s excellent high school record). Applying to reach schools that enroll a majority of students with significantly higher high school GPAs (that is, the grade point average of high school courses) and/or or with significantly higher SAT or ACT scores than your teenager has might turn out to be a waste of time. So, should your teenager rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even if he or she is a good student? No, but perhaps consider applying to just two or three–and only if your teenager is truly interested in going to them. Applying to too many will likely make a disappointing acceptance season for your teenager.

What should you be looking for in terms of selectivity? I would say that you should feel okay about colleges where your teenager’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores are average or just above average for that college. But, further, you should feel good about colleges where your teenager’s grades and test scores are above the 75th percentile of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen. This is part of the information–along with class rank–that we asked you to research and record back in Episode 82 in Assignment #2.

As we have said before, the two obvious academic problems for applicants are that their GPA is not as high as it might be or that their SAT and/or ACT scores are not as high as they might be. Either of these problems makes choosing to put too many truly selective colleges on your teenager’s list a risky move. However, as we have said before, having mediocre or low test scores is likely an easier problem to solve than having mediocre or low high school grades.

While students’ test 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 almost any priority at all, on these test scores. Check out our book or earlier episodes of USACollegeChat for more information about and a long list of what are referred to as “test-optional” colleges and “test-flexible” colleges, which might be a help for your teenager if those scores are not what you had hoped for. You can also search for and find all kinds of lists of “test-optional” and “test-flexible” colleges online, including at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing website.

Remember that admissions policies change, and you should 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 homeschooled students and international students, but not for others, like students who are U.S. citizens and went to high school in the U.S. So do your homework–again.

The next part of the college selectivity filter is something less obvious, and that is to double check the number of credits or courses required or recommended for admission to the college or to the college or school that you are interested in within the university, along with any specific courses required (e.g., Algebra II). We asked you to research and record this information for each college on your list back in Episode 83 in Assignment #3. Keep in mind that a college does not usually penalize a student whose high school does not offer a course that the college requires for admission–like the third year of a foreign language. However, the closer your teenager can get to meeting all of the required courses and all of the recommended courses, the better chance he or she has for admission–obviously.

2. Do You Have Enough Left on the List?

So, what I would do if I were you, is look back at the data my teenager recorded for Assignment #2 and compare each college’s figures to my own teenager’s high school GPA, SAT or ACT scores (that is, whatever scores you currently have, even if he or she will retake the test this fall), and class rank (if he or she has one). I might divide the colleges into three piles: (1) those that look out of reach or almost out of reach, given the grades and scores of admitted or enrolled freshmen; (2) those that post average grades and scores about like my own teenager’s; and (3) those where my teenager’s grades and scores look well above average.

With that done, I would keep all of the colleges in the second pile on the list for now, especially if my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses.

Next, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the first pile–that is, those that seem like a real long shot academically. I would look particularly favorably on those where my teenager had taken or will take this year the required and recommended high school courses. I might keep my teenager’s two or three favorites from that pile on the list for now, but I would try to help my teenager let the others in the first pile go.

Finally, I would talk with my teenager about the colleges in the third pile, where my teenager’s grades and scores are well above average, to see whether my teenager is holding on to too many “safety” schools, especially ones that are not truly appealing to him or her. I often find myself saying something like this to kids: “Why is that on your list? You are going to get into a better private college than that and you are also going to get into a better public flagship university than that. You don’t need it on your list, and you shouldn’t go there even if you get in.”

So, Step 1 is to narrow down your teenager’s list of college options by being brutal in reviewing the first pile (those that are too academically demanding of their applicants) and equally brutal in reviewing the third pile (those that are not academically demanding enough). We would like you to have at least 15 still on the list as we move forward.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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