Episode 38: Colleges in the Southwest Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the four states of the Southwest region: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. We talked about public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states. Today, we will continue our tour of the Southwest states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

Virtual audio tour of private colleges and universities in the Southwest Region on the NYCollegeChat podcast. Episode and show notes available at http://usacollegechat.org/38We are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a few small liberal arts institutions. Almost all of them happen to be located in Texas. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Southwest that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

As we say in every one of these episodes, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are entirely our own choices.

1. Private Universities

Let’s start with a relatively small, academically prestigious university—that is, Rice University, located in Houston, our nation’s fourth-largest city, but situated on a beautiful tree-lined campus in a residential neighborhood that makes you feel like you could not possibly be just minutes from downtown. Established by businessman William Marsh Rice in 1891, the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art first held classes in 1912. According to the charter, students went to Rice tuition free (until 1966).

Today, Rice enrolls about 4,000 undergraduates and just over 2,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of just about 6,500 students. Rice is on everyone’s list of top 20 or so U.S. universities and has an acceptance rate of about 15 percent. Incoming freshmen have average SAT scores well over 700 on each subtest. In 2014, about half of the freshmen from the U.S. were from Texas and half were not.

Rice is serious about its academics and boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 6:1—a shockingly low ratio and the lowest we have seen in our tour or are likely to see anywhere. This means, of course, that students have incredible access to faculty in class and a real chance of having meaningful interactions with faculty members. Undergraduate students study in 50 majors across six schools: music, architecture, social sciences, humanities, engineering, and natural sciences. Rice also has a graduate school of business, among other graduate programs.

Undergraduates at Rice are randomly assigned to one of 11 residential colleges—each with its own dining hall, public rooms, dorm rooms, and competitive website. About 75 percent of undergraduates live in their residential college throughout their time at the University. Each residential college has a faculty master, who lives in an adjacent house and encourages a rich intellectual and cultural life and a plan for self-governance at the residential college. Rice offers its students over 200 student organizations and seven men’s and seven women’s Rice Owls sports teams (as well as club sports and intramurals). The baseball team has earned 19 consecutive conference titles, and the football team has gone to bowl games in four of the last eight years.

At $42,000 in tuition and fees annually, Rice is certainly not cheap—but neither is any other world-class private university.

Moving north from Houston, we come to Baylor University in Waco. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas and first opened in Independence, Texas, Baylor is an “unambiguously Christian” institution—and, specifically, a Baptist institution—though it welcomes students of all faiths (including students with no faith at all) from more than 85 countries. The mean SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1231, so a pair of scores in, let’s say, the mid-600s might get a student into Baylor, especially a student from a faraway state.

Baylor offers its almost 14,000 undergraduate students about 140 bachelor’s degree programs, housed in eight colleges and schools—arts and sciences, social work, engineering and computer science, business, nursing, health and human sciences, education, and music. The University, which enrolls another approximately 2,500 graduate and professional students, also has a graduate theological seminary and a law school, among other graduate programs.

Students can participate in 260 student organizations, including a slew of fraternities and sororities, and Baylor is the home of the first college chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The University fields 19 varsity sports teams and has won 50 Big 12 Conference titles. You will get an idea of the level of school spirit (believe me, it is high) by watching the virtual campus tours on the Baylor website—and you will also see how really lovely the campus is.

At $41,000 in tuition and fees annually, Baylor’s costs are about like Rice’s—again, not cheap. Even so, I feel as though Baylor might be one of those universities that bears a close look from good students in other parts of the country. While Baylor does have intriguing programs for top-notch students—like its combined eight-year bachelor’s degree/M.D. in cooperation with highly respected Baylor College of Medicine—the University also seems to be in reach for good, if not perfect, students.

Let’s move about 100 miles north of Waco to Dallas to take a look at Southern Methodist University (SMU), located in the residential neighborhood of University Park, minutes from downtown Dallas. Technically an urban university, SMU’s campus seems more suburban in style, and it is one of the prettiest campuses ever—gorgeous red brick buildings with white trim, some placed around a huge quadrangle, anchored at one end by the Meadows Museum, which houses one of the most impressive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain and which has an interesting partnership with Madrid’s famous Museo del Prado. Founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church and opened in 1915, SMU does not operate as a faith-based institution today.

SMU enrolls about 6,500 undergraduate students and almost 5,000 graduate and professional students. About half of its students come from outside the State of Texas, including from almost 100 foreign countries, and about 25 percent are minority students. The average SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1308, and that score has increased significantly over the past decade.

SMU offers 104 bachelor’s degree programs across five colleges and schools: humanities and sciences, business, engineering, education and human development, and the excellent Meadows School of the Arts, with especially good music, dance, and theater programs. Along with many other graduate programs, SMU also has a school of theology and a law school, where pro bono legal work is a graduation requirement.

SMU fields 17 Mustang varsity teams and offers 180 student organizations, along with fraternities and sororities that count about one-third of undergraduates as members. I think it is fair to say that the social life at SMU is a real plus for students.

Interestingly, SMU has a site in another of our Southwest states, New Mexico. SMU-in-Taos offers summer credit courses in 28 buildings in a variety of subject fields, including an annual archeology field school. The site of the campus holds a pre-Civil War fort and the remains of a 13th century Native American pueblo.

SMU’s tuition and fees for an academic year are about $44,000, unfortunately high and in keeping with the cost of attending either Baylor or Rice.

2. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Three of the 44 institutions profiled are located in our Southwest region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are Austin College in Sherman, Texas; Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas; and St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Let’s focus on St. John’s for a minute because it is one of the most unique colleges we have looked at in our virtual tour. Though called St. John’s, it is not a faith-based college. To start with, it is one college with two campuses: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico, both located in picturesque and charming state capitals. St. John’s was founded in Annapolis in 1696 as King William’s School and was chartered in 1784 as St. John’s College. The Santa Fe campus was established almost two centuries later in 1964. While it is not unusual, of course, for a college to have two campuses, it is unusual for a college to have two campuses almost across the entire country from each other and to have two campuses that allow students to transfer back and forth between the two. Many students do spend a year at the campus they did not start at.

But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor—all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year.

Students are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one remarkable liberal arts curriculum.

Each campus enrolls between about 450 and 475 undergraduate students (there are also a couple of graduate programs), drawn from all 50 states and about 20 foreign countries—tiny student bodies, to be sure. The student-to-faculty ratio is an enviably low 8:1—much lower than most colleges, but not actually as low as Rice’s 6:1, our all-time winner.

Students at St. John’s Santa Fe can take advantage of the hiking, skiing, and camping options in the nearby mountains and in Santa Fe National Forest, and the school’s Search and Rescue team trains students to serve the community. The campus also has the usual array of student organizations, including intramural sports. Of course, to many people, Santa Fe is a dream location, full of artists and culture and natural beauty and plenty of things to do.

Students interested in St. John’s are expected to have taken a rigorous course of study in high school and must complete a “short set of reflective essays” (quoted from the website) as part of the application procedure. SAT and ACT scores are optional, though students are encouraged to provide them.

Undergraduate tuition is, not surprisingly, quite high at about $48,500 per year. But you can see why. I believe that it is probably worth it, which is not true of some colleges charging that much.

According to the website, St. John’s “is in the top 2 percent of all colleges in the nation for alumni earning PhDs in the humanities, and in the top 4 percent for earning them in science or engineering” (quoted from the website), which seems remarkable for a tiny college with a liberal arts curriculum. You can see why this college changes lives.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region (for example, about 90 percent of students at Southwestern University are from Texas), it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted.

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  • Why you might like the new Houston, a great place to be
  • What is so great about Dallas
  • How appealing Santa Fe might be

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Episode 32: Colleges in the Southeast Region—Part IV

In our last episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by focusing in on the six states in the Northern Southeast region: Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia. We looked at public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states—in last week’s episode. In this episode, we will continue our tour of the Northern Southeast states by switching our focus to private colleges and universities. Virtual Tour of Colleges in the Southeast Region Part IV on NYCollegeChat podcastAgain, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are entirely our own choices.

Some of the colleges we will spotlight in this episode will require that your child have very good high school grades and college admission test scores to get in. Others will be a bit easier to get into, especially if a college is looking for out-of-state students to enhance its student body’s geographic diversity.

One note: Because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or really huge.

1. Private Universities

The Northern Southeast states have a wide array of private higher education institutions—from small Bible colleges to small liberal arts colleges to larger universities. Let’s start with two private universities that most people have long considered two of the best in the South and that also enjoy a great national reputation: Duke University and Vanderbilt University. Your child would need very good high school grades and college admission test scores to be admitted to either one.

Duke is located in Durham, North Carolina—not far from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University at Raleigh, both of which we talked about in our last episode on public universities. This part of North Carolina is known as the Research Triangle, taking its name from Research Triangle Park, home to high-tech companies for more than 50 years, and now embracing the one private and two public research universities that anchor it. Duke has a total enrollment of approximately 15,000 students, about 6,500 of whom are undergraduates. After the states of North Carolina and California, New York sends more students to Duke than any other state. Duke has an impressive 95 percent four-year graduation rate, which is especially impressive, given Duke’s high academic standards. The University boasts 10 undergraduate and graduate schools and colleges, with 80 percent of undergraduates enrolling in the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, with its 49 majors, and with the remaining undergraduates enrolling in the Pratt School of Engineering. And, by the way, Duke has a national championship men’s basketball team.

Turning to Nashville, a great Southern city known, of course, for its country music scene, let’s look at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt enrolls approximately 13,000 students, about 7,000 of whom are undergraduates. Undergraduates study in four of Vanderbilt’s 10 schools and colleges—namely, the College of Arts and Science (with the largest enrollment, by far), the Blair School of Music, the School of Engineering, and the well-known Peabody College of Education and Human Development. In addition to graduate and professional schools of medicine, nursing, management, and law, Vanderbilt also has a graduate Divinity School. After Tennessee, Illinois and then New York and Texas send the most students to Vanderbilt. An enviable 88 percent of its students graduate in four years—another good showing, like Duke’s. Railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt gave $1 million to create the University in 1873, a university that would “contribute to strengthening the ties that should exist between all sections of our common country.” He got his wish for a national university.

Let’s talk about one more private university—Wake Forest University, located on a beautiful campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It has one undergraduate college of liberal arts and sciences, plus graduate and professional schools in liberal arts, divinity, business, law, and medicine. “Wake Forest College stands as the cornerstone of Wake Forest University. It is a distinctive academic institution that values and maintains the liberal arts tradition within the context of an internationally recognized research university,” as explained on its website. This is an interesting model, designed to give students the best of both worlds: a smaller, more personalized liberal arts undergraduate education, set in the broader context of graduate and professional studies. Founded in 1834, Wake Forest now enrolls about 4,800 undergraduate students, drawn internationally and studying in about 40 majors. Its graduate and professional schools enroll another approximately 2,800 students. Of special importance to prospective applicants is the fact that Wake Forest has been a “test-optional” college since 2008. As the website states: “If you think your scores are an accurate representation of your ability, feel free to submit them. If you feel they are not, don’t. You won’t be penalized.” Wake Forest would say that its student body diversity has increased and that its academic standards have not declined at all as a result of its position on college admission testing.

2. Single-Sex Colleges and Universities

Let’s highlight one of only a handful of men’s colleges remaining in the U.S.: Hampden-Sydney College, a liberal arts college located in Hampden-Sydney, Virginia, which is in southern Virginia. It enrolls about 1,100 men from 30 states and 13 foreign countries, with about 70 percent of those students hailing from Virginia. It offers its students over 25 liberal arts majors and a required Rhetoric Program, which focuses on making students into highly competent writers. Its history is quite impressive:

In continuous operation since November 10, 1775 (Patrick Henry and James Madison were among its first Trustees), Hampden-Sydney is the tenth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, holds the oldest (1783) private charter in the South, and is the oldest of the country’s few remaining colleges for men. (quoted from the website)

Virginia is also home to two well-known women’s colleges: Hollins University (in Roanoke) and Mary Baldwin College (in Staunton). Hollins enrolls just about 550 undergraduate women in 27 liberal arts majors and a couple hundred men and women graduate students. Mary Baldwin serves about 750 residential undergraduate women and almost 600 undergraduate men and women adult students in over 50 majors and minors; it also enrolls about 400 men and women graduate students. Founded in 1842, Mary Baldwin is named for one member of its first class of 57 students, who later became the head of the institution. (A third well-known women’s college in Virginia, Sweet Briar College, is closing in 2015.)

3. Colleges That Change Lives: Six Choices

As we said in Episode 28, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Six of the 44 institutions profiled are located in the Northern Southeast states. You should read about them in the book or on the website, because you will learn much more about them than I can tell you in this episode. Here are the six:

Let’s look at Centre College for a minute. It is a liberal arts college, located in the geographic center of Kentucky in Danville—just about 35 miles south of Lexington, home to the University of Kentucky, which we discussed in our last episode. Centre College was founded in 1819 by Presbyterian leaders, when British spelling (centre rather than center) was still common in the U.S. It maintains its Presbyterian affiliation today. Here is the Centre Commitment:

All students are guaranteed 1) study abroad, 2) an internship or research opportunity, and 3) graduation in four years, or Centre will provide up to a year of additional study tuition-free (as long as academic and social expectations have been met). (quoted from the website)

Centre enrolls almost 1,500 undergraduate students, drawn mostly nationally and about half from Kentucky itself. Its students study in 27 liberal arts majors in courses taught entirely by professors—that is, no teaching assistants. Engineering, education, and nursing degrees can be obtained through partnerships with cooperating universities. About 85 percent of students study abroad at least once, and about 25 percent study abroad at least twice.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region, it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a decent high school record might have a good chance of being accepted.

4. Historically Black Colleges and Universities

In an earlier episode in Series 1 of NYCollegeChat, we talked about historically black colleges and universities (commonly referred to as HBCUs), which were established with the mission of educating African-American students solely or primarily—that is, a mission of serving students who had been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. You might recall that there are just over 100 HBCUs—public and private, rural and urban, large and small (even very small), two-year and four-year and graduate schools. Many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War, and these HBCUs share a proud history of becoming the first collegiate homes for family members of freed slaves.

As we explained in our earlier episode, HBCUs today enroll students who are not black. Some people say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students, who are now welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S. Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition and shared culture on HBCU campuses.

Just as we saw with our previous episodes on the Southern Southeast states, a large number of HBCUs are located in the six Northern Southeast states—31 public and private four-year HBCUs, to be exact. We have already talked about a number of the public HBCUs in our previous episode on public colleges in the Northern Southeast states, but let’s look at two very famous private HBCUs in this region, each of which has a long and impressive history.

Let’s start with Hampton University and its lovely campus in Hampton, Virginia. The history of Hampton University is so intriguing that I cannot do it justice here. Let me start simply with a long, slightly edited excerpt from its website:

The year was 1861. The American Civil War had shortly begun and the Union Army held control of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In May of that year, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decreed that any escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not be returned to bondage. This resulted in waves of enslaved people rushing to the fort in search of freedom. A camp to house the newly freed slaves was built several miles outside the protective walls of Fort Monroe. It was named ‘The Grand Contraband Camp’ and functioned as the United States’ first self-contained African American community… (Quoted from the Hampton University website. Read Hampton’s full history here.)

Regular listeners will recall that we talked about Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in an earlier episode.

Today, Hampton enrolls about 3,500 undergraduates and almost 1,000 graduate students. About 90 percent are black, and about 65 percent are women (that might be good news for young men looking for a college to attend). They come from across the U.S. and across the world, and only about 25 percent are Virginia residents. Hampton offers 48 bachelor’s degree programs in the School of Liberal Arts, School of Science, School of Business, School of Education and Human Development, School of Engineering and Technology, School of Nursing, and the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. Tuition is about $20,000 per year—making it about half as expensive as many other private colleges.

Moving back west to Tennessee, let’s look at Fisk University in Nashville. Another HBCU with an incredible history, this is the story of Fisk:

In 1865…three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville. The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville’s Union Station. In these facilities, Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning. (Quoted from the Fisk University website. Read Fisk’s full history here.)

As interesting as this early history is, my favorite time in Fisk’s story is right after the Harlem Renaissance in roughly the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the brilliant sociologist who was the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, left New York City to take a teaching position at Fisk. He later became its first black president in 1946. He eventually brought with him some of the artists and writers he had nurtured in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance—including inimitable visual artist Aaron Douglas and masterful writers James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps.

Today, Fisk serves about 800 students in its School of Humanities and Social Sciences, its School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Business, and its School of Graduate Studies. About 25 percent of Fisk students are home grown in Tennessee; the rest come from 22 other states and a handful of foreign countries. Like Hampton, tuition at Fisk is about $20,000 per year—making it a relative bargain among private colleges.

If you are interested in an HBCU for your child, the Northern Southeast region—like the Southern Southeast region—is a particularly fertile spot to find one. There are many more in this region that you can read about on your own. The White House Initiative on HBCUs has a complete list.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Hampton University’s great summer programs for high school students
  • Why single-sex colleges still make sense
  • Appealing smaller undergraduate colleges within larger research universities

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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

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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

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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

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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

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