Sunday, December 9, 2012

Never Too Soon to Plan for College/Never Too Late, Either

For those of us in certain parts of the East Coast, it has been one messed up school year. For high school seniors, it has been particularly painful as Sandy caused kids to miss a week or more of school, forced the cancellation of SAT and related testing, made it tricky doing homework and applications in the cold, by headlamp.

Many colleges have extended their due-date for applications. The problem is, that just makes the agony of application season last longer. In our house, we are trying to get another four or so out the door before Christmas so that the holiday isn't too frantic. All will be sent before Jan. 2, when school starts again.

College Board has introduced a new element to its online offerings, Big Future, a soup-to-nuts website designed to help families organize the college planning process. Even if your child is a freshman, it's a good idea to start thinking about this college stuff. And I like the vignettes used -- tends to bring the process to life through the eyes and minds of students.

Here's a recently published blog that looks at the process year by year. It's by April Bell, the director of counselor advocacy for the College Board.

Meanwhile, seniors, back to work on those supplemental essays!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fielding the College Question: New Sport for Seniors

How did your high school senior answer "the question" that certainly came up at Thanksgiving dinner? You know, "So, Susie, where are you applying?" Or, "Mark, where will you be going to college?"

Our daughter, for the most part, isn't talking. She finds that it is easier this way. It was her decision, and I support it. In solidarity, we are posting a notice on the front door asking Christmas dinner guests to refrain from asking questions about college.

Maybe that is too dramatic (though I still think I will do it.) Still, there are alternative approaches to handling college questions during the next month or so of holiday gatherings.

Here's where we stand today -- standardized testing is done (until AP exams in the spring), all transcripts sent, letters of recommendation have reached their destinations, the Common Application is completed. Now it's time to get the supplemental applications wrapped up, including what seems to be about 20 or so essays of varying lengths and difficulty.

It's a long road, nearing the end. Or at least it's nearing the end of the application process that our senior can control. Soon enough it will be out of her hands. That alone will be cause for celebration.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What Good Are AP Classes?

Is the emphasis on AP classes a good thing? Today the College Board offers 39 different AP tests. Many kids believe that the greater the number of AP classes taken, the better than chance of getting into more selective schools. I read that one high school guidance counselor once told a group of parents that if their teens didn't have nine AP classes on their transcript, the so-called best schools wouldn't even look at them.

I have no idea if this is true -- but if it is, shame on all of us. AP classes, like most, are only as good as the teacher. But good teacher or not, it's a two-semester sprint to get through all of the material covered on those big exams given in the spring. Here's a piece from The Atlantic that certainly may make you rethink the whole AP situation. Some of the worries listed: it limits discussion time or expansion of topics -- gotta move on to cover all of the work; some schools let anyone take an AP course (no pre-testing or grade requirement) which means that thousands of students are in the classes and struggle to do the work, holding back other students; the courses are usually not equivalent to an introductory course in college; and most colleges do not let you skip a semester or whatever due to an accumulation of AP credits.

Now, our teen is taking two AP classes her senior year. She has not taken all that her school offered, by any stretch -- primarily because a significant number are in math and science which she never believed were her best subjects or interests. I would have worried if she hadn't taken any -- afraid that colleges wouldn't think she was a contender.

If you want to get really upset about the whole AP thing, here's something pointed out in the article: "The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program -- more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined." Wow. So that's where that $89/test fee goes!

Lots of education needs to happen before this dependence on AP tests subsides: colleges, counselors, parents, students all need to think carefully about whether the AP approach offers the best education -- or does it just give colleges an easier way to reject?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rutgers Has a Winning Attitude!

And I am not just talking football, since I know so little about it.

Something else caught my eye recently besides the win over Syracuse. It was full-page ad in the Star-Ledger that stated, "Research universities ask questions. A great research university asks GREAT questions." Here's a closer look at some research done by undergraduates. It's impressive.

Some may think that such an ad, in a time of rising tuition, is a poor way to spend money. But I think institutions sometimes need to remind people about what makes them great, what makes them matter -- especially when thousands of New Jersey's high school seniors are getting ready to apply to college.

So that brings up a question close to my heart/mind/anxiety levels -- how is your senior doing in the midst of application craziness? How's the Common App going? Has your little darling tackled some of the supplemental applications?

Nancy Pullen, director of recruitment and enrollment at Rutgers, offers good advice. If your child is interested in Rutgers, she recommends applying now. "There is a required essay on the Rutgers application—be sure to answer the question, but do so in a way that helps us know more about you and the activities that have been meaningful to you. No need to wait until the deadline and get stressed out about the application process. Get a copy of your high school transcript from your guidance counselor so you can complete the 'Self-Reported Academic Record' online. We DO NOT require a copy of your high school record from the guidance office until such time that you are admitted and decide to enroll."

Now that's sage counsel as well as a nice, straightforward process. It could also be confidence-boosting to get an application out the door. And who knows, if the essay is good, it just might be worth reworking for another application.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Seniors: As the leaves fall, keep your spirits up

Fall is my favorite time of the year. It's gorgeous blue skies, crisp clean air, misty nights, lovely multi-colored leaves.

And there are gloomy, rainy days, too -- better suited to the mood of high school seniors who may not exactly be savoring the season. Instead you might be cursing it as you work to keep up grades, take the SAT one final time, and write essay after essay after essay for the applications.

Here's some advice for seniors that's practical. Oh, there's a little about recommendation letters and essays. But the most interesting is the simple suggestion that seniors take long walks in which they spend the time imagining themselves at each of the schools on the list. Why did it make the cut? Can you honestly see yourself at the school? As you think about why the college matters to you, you might also come up with some ideas for supplemental essay questions that try to get to the heart of why you want to attend.

Keep your spirits and energy up, have fun when possible, and remember, this portion of your life will be over soon enough.

Meanwhile this mom is wishing for another freak October snowstorm that closes schools. Our senior could sure put a snow day to good use!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Damn Essays: Major Cause of Application Woe

Never has so much been written about roughly one page of single-spaced sentences. Never has such a relatively short writing assignment -- maybe 250 words or so for some questions on a supplemental app to 500 for the Common App essay -- inspired so much fear and dread. In the entire college application process, there's little else that brings out the worst in parent and child.

It's late September, and the hope of having a solid first draft, or even a completed essay, remains on the to-do list of many seniors.

But don't be too censorious. Do you think you could easily write something that enables a college to know who you are -- and also what you will bring to the college? Something that's authentic, truthful, helps the applicant stand out (in a good way) and could conceivably tip the scale in getting you into dream college? The thought makes me feel queasy.

So how can we encourage our kids to get going, or get polishing, or get the essay to a respected reviewer (an English teacher, maybe, or a family friend who gets what the essay is about.)

First, they've got to get stuff on paper. Here's a useful and funny essay on first drafts by writer Anne Lamott. Take a look at it if only to read the title.

And they need to think like a storyteller, as Hollywood producer Peter Guber suggests. I think his points are valid for essay writers, even if he wasn't thinking of high school seniors when he wrote this.

Finally, here are comments from an admissions officer at a major university. I featured her thoughts two years ago, but the information is timeless - and worth repeating.

Good luck and godspeed, kiddos and their parents!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Confessions of a Parent of a Senior

When I started Mom's College Cram Course about two and a half years ago, the concept of college admissions was still theoretical.

Our daughter was finishing up freshman year and I wanted to start learning about what it takes to get into college today. The closer she has come to participation in the actual application process, the less eager I have been to write about it. Now it's personal.

There have been times recently when both daughter and husband seemed ready to do an intervention with me. As my teen said, "You are a good mom, but the college stuff is making you crazy." Or words to that effect.

As a friend pointed out, maybe it's just my way of dealing with the fact that our only child will be leaving the house in less than a year. It's easier to nag about college deadlines than it is to tackle the feeling of loss that will surely surface.

But meanwhile, the process must go on. Our teen is using some days off in September to get organized on what is needed for each school, to see which colleges recommend interviews, and to determine if she wants to look at a few more options. It will be a heady mix of Naviance, essay writing,logistics and old-fashioned soul-searching.

Meanwhile, the countdown on standardized testing begins. October, SAT. November, another subject test. And then, not another No.2 pencil exam till APs in the spring.

As for senior year, classes and teachers look good. That driving permit should be in her hands soon. Flute lessons start again tonight and she's happy about that.

And I have made our daughter one promise. I may not be able to help myself on some of the nagging from now till the end of the year. But I will let her alone second, even earlier. She can take her January midterms without my hassling and complete her last few months of secondary school without Mom annoying her.

I trust her to do the right thing, and always have. It's just that my ability to keep the faith has gotten a bit porous during the run-up to the application process. I've apologized on this issue before, and will likely do so again in the next several months.

But in truth, I know that all will be okay. That things will work out just fine. And that my temporary insanity will recede.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Big, New Option for Textbooks

College costs a boatload of money, as we all know. And after you've shelled out untold thousands of dollars for tuition and board, the high cost of textbooks adds salt to the cost-of-college wound.

Here's some interesting news. Amazon has entered the textbook market through rentals. The rental, prices will vary depending on the book, is for 130 days. It's accompanied by a free 6-month trial of the student version of Amazon Prime. You may want to tell your college students to take a look. The books are new or gently used. Light underlining/highlighting is ok -- but if the marking goes overboard, the book must be purchased. Books may also be purchased outright, too.

Other similar sites include and It might be worth sampling costs of specific books at all sites (and for a laugh, at the campus bookstore)to determine which offers the best prices.

Happy studying -- especially if you can save some money.

Monday, August 13, 2012

When Packing for College, Include New Friend Bait

It's a bittersweet time for families of college-bound kids. Their teens are about to start their own lives, away from the day-to-day rules and structure they've known for 18 years or so. It's exciting, it's an adventure, it's scary. It makes most parents sad to think about it.

For the teens, though, the biggest fear, probably, is not difficult courses or managing to do the laundry and keep track of expenses. The most frightening part of going off to school may just be the challenge of making new friends as close friends are left behind.

Here are some practical ideas on how to make your teen's dorm room a friend magnet -- or at least a room that attracts people who just might turn into friends. And it's stuff that can still be easily packed into the car for the big trip to school.

One of the suggestions - bring old movies along. Our daughter is a film aficionado. I suspect she will bring a boxful of her favorite movies -- old comedies (Some Like It Hot is an all-time favorite), Bogart classics, some musicals would be part of her collection. How wonderful to invite friends for a night at the movies. And it's even a way to identify friends with similar tastes in film fare.

I can smell the microwave popcorn already!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Typos Make Me Laugh, Till They're In a College App

We've all made typos in our lives, but some are more public than others. Take this headline I just saw: "25 Education Bogs Perfect for Parents (And Anyone Else)

First, I sort of agree that education in the U.S. is at times one messy sinkhole but somehow I don't think that's what the writer meant. Next, did the blogger go back and re-read the piece before publishing? Was the typo validated by spell check, since bog is a word? Or was it just a careless mistake?

Before spell check, we just had to proof our own work. There were no helpful tools. Or are they helpful? Maybe they are dangerous if we rely on them blindly and don't take responsibility ourselves. Here's a funny piece on the problems with Autocorrect -- some of the "corrections" can be pretty embarrassing.

This is a long way of saying that as your seniors begin working on their applications for college, remind them to proof carefully, because autocorrect may have a warped sense of humor. After all, was it really the teen's intent to give heartfelt reasons for wanting to attend Duck University?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

You Tube Helps Admissions Process? Who Knew?

Not only do teens need to understand what a college is about -- academics, culture, diversity, feel of campus -- before it makes the list, they also need to know enough about the college to sound smart when asked, "So why do you want to attend our school" on the inevitable short answer question on the college's own application that generally supplements the Common App. You Tube, it turns out, is a good source for some decent information. More than 400 colleges now have tours, lectures and other information available on You Tube. So take a look. It's sure to be more lively than a catalog or a directory of colleges. Also, an update in another area. Remember how the College Board said it would institute new security measures? The new regimen has begun with the October SAT. Students must submit a photo of themselves online along with registration information and payment. Then the College Board emails the ticket, with photo, which must be presented on test day.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ivy Students Have Less Debt - Not Sure Why

Through this blog, I just learned about the Institute for College Access & Success, what looks to be an admirable organization founded to "to make higher education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds. By conducting and supporting nonpartisan research, analysis, and advocacy, the Institute aims to improve the processes and public policies that can pave the way to successful educational outcomes for students and for society." The Institute issued a research report showing that although Ivy League colleges tend to cost the most, their graduates leave the four years with the lowest debt of any group of students with debt. The average debt for all college students today hovers around $25,000. Now, looking at Brown, the averages sync, at close to $22,500. Cornell came in at close to $21,000. But Harvard was half that at $10,000 and Princeton half that again, at a little over $5,000. Is it that some of these schools provide more aid because of huge endowments, or that parents on the whole are wealthier and can pay for more costs at the start? I don't know. But I hate to say it -- looking at some of these schools, I'd have to say it pays to go Ivy.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

If Done for the Right Reasons, Gap Years Are Goodn Be Good

A gap year before starting college can be a wonderful thing. It gives a student who may feel worn out from the pressures of senior year breathing space before tackling college. Or, maybe the teen wants to travel, and realizes that once college starts the rat race of life is in full swing.Or, just as likely, a student may not feel he or she knows which direction to take once in college and wants time to figure it out - maybe working in a potential field or taking some courses in an area of interest. Here's an article on some of the options. From the parent's side, I can see where gap years may make sense. But I would sure hope my teen had been accepted to college and gotten a year's deferment so that the year could be focused on the gap experience and not colored by college application worries.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Is Senior Year Obsolete?

Our junior finished her last final on Friday. She is now doing time -- in the classroom. To fulfill the state-mandated 180 days of school, she and her classmates are supposed to spend three more half-days in school. What a waste. What's worse? Some educators think the entire senior year is a waste and should be abolished.

There's the belief that colleges really only look at junior year grades and nothing beyond that. That's simply not true, as counselors and educators explain constantly. The rigor of the classes, and the performance in them, does matter. Recently, Texas Christian University sent letters to 100 accepted students, telling them to explain the drop-off in senior year grades. Here's the letter, and some interesting reactions to TCU's steps to overcome senior lethargy, no matter how understandable it is.

Others think that senior year is a time to re-engage students, so that they are ready to deal with the higher academic expectations of college. It seems that high schools are constantly seeking ways to keep the academic fires burning during senior year, that last hurdle before college Here's a compilation of different viewpoints, from Education Week.

Well, here's a toast to all rising seniors: May you rise to the occasion, taking full advantage of all of the opportunities senior year offers. Cheers!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

College Board Screws Up a Good Idea

In the words of the earnest but awfully deaf Emily Litella, a Gilda Radner character from Saturday Night Live in the 70s, "Never mind." The phrase sure applies to an action taken in April and then rescinded this week, by the College Board. The sad thing is the basic concept wasn't bad: Offer the SAT in the summer, after AP tests and high school finals and major papers are all behind the students and they can take the big test in a calmer frame of mind. Except the College Board decided to test the viability of summer SATs in a very odd way. Here's a description of the plan. In summary, students attending a three-week summer program for gifted and talented kids (and whose parents sprang for the $4500 program) would receive intense SAT coaching and then take the SAT on Aug. 3. Apparently this would have been the first time in decades the test was offered in the summer. It took a while, but in the past week, educators and bloggers began complaining about the inherent unfairness and hypocrisy of this arrangement. Where to begin? -- Who thought it would be valid to do a trial of the concept of summer testing with a group of privileged kids at one location? -- Didn't anyone consider that these kids would have been given a lot of tools for success (taking it without other school pressures, immediately after intense coaching) that might put them at unfair advantage to others competing for the same slots at colleges? -- And afraid that colleges wouldn't recognize the August testing date, the College Board was going to back-date the tests to show the June test date. -- Wait, there's more. Here's what the College Board says about SAT prep: "Research continues to show that short-term, for-profit test-prep courses don't increase test scores significantly, and such courses can't replace years of solid work in the classroom. The best way for students to get ready for the SAT is to take rigorous, challenging courses in high school and to become familiar with the test...we do not endorse the use of expensive test-prep courses." An organization charged with evaluating how well high school students think has demonstrated an inability to think through ramifications of actions and a disinclination to adhere to its own stated beliefs. Seems to me the College Board needs some prep courses in ethics and PR.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What's Up? It's the App!

The Common Application for 2012-2013 college admissions is now available in preview form. Students can't submit it yet -- it won't be available for filling out online till August. But starting to think now about the information needed to complete it and what might make a good essay can save a lot of heartache and agita later. The Common App was begun in 1975 as a way to make the college application process easier. Today, 450 colleges use this form as their primary application. But many will also ask for additional short answers and essays geared to the specific school. Most of the information is straightforward. It asks about activities (but don't feel compelled to put something in all of those spaces) and includes forms for teacher recommendations. But here's what everyone really wants to see -- this year's essay topics, which don't differ greatly from previous years: Please write an essay of 250-500 words on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below, and attach it to your application before submission. Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate box. This personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. NOTE: Your Common Application essay should be the same for all colleges. Do not customize it in any way for individual colleges. Colleges that want customized essay responses will ask for them on a supplement form. * Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you. * Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you. * Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence. * Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music or science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. * A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you. * Topic of your choice. Summer vacation? Nonsense. It's essay time.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Double Deposit

We know we shouldn't double dip a chip, or double park. Now, add double deposits at college to the list of no-no's. That's when a student and his family say what the heck and send deposits to two (or more) colleges to ensure a spot in the freshman class of that school. You might do it because you still haven't made up your mind about the school for you, are still negotiating financial aid at another school, or are protecting yourself while waiting to hear about waitlist status. Why is this a problem? -- It's a waste of money. You send a few hundred dollars sent to the college you do not attend. -- It's not nice. You are lying to at least one college about attending. -- It's mean. By taking up space for however long, you are denying a kid on the waitlist a place at the college. Oh, and you could get in trouble and see your acceptance rescinded. For a look at admissions ethics, including double deposits, take a look at this College Board discussion.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Don't Despair: Good Colleges Still Have Openings

After an even tougher admissions season than last year, just about all high school seniors heading to college now know where they’re going; May 1 was the deadline. That means colleges found out if fewer kids accepted admission than anticipated -- and how many slots they still had open. For kids who felt they weren’t left with decent choices for college, including the financial component, here’s The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC)list of 375 colleges that have room in their classes of 2016. This is a noble task that NACAC takes on, one that colleges and students can appreciate. And it reminds us that there are always open doors, always second chances. If you are still looking for a college, good luck and study this list well.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tit for Tat in the Education/Entertainment Sphere

My daughter is a huge Stephen Colbert fan -- despite the fact he did not even bother to respond to her heartfelt request for a summer internship opportunity. She has forgiven him, I have not. And apparently some people at MIT aren't in a forgiving mood either. In a recent interview Colbert did with an education expert, MIT was mentioned. Colbert scoffed, calling it a "tech school" and the "Harvard of DeVrys," that chain of for-profit schools. So, MIT's dean of admissions did a take-off on Colbert. For a little weekend amusement, take a look. Comedians, admissions officers -- gee, do they share some DNA?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Juniors -- You Will Survive, As the Song Says

Juniors right now are dying. Not actually, of course, but they may feel like it. The standardized tests, the pressure to finish junior year with flying colors (if applying in the fall, these are the last grades colleges will see); trying to figure out how to spend the summer. It's enough to make a teen weep. Here's a list of the things to consider during these last six weeks or so. One of the important reminders: start asking for letters of recommendation this year in order to beat the fall rush. This gives your teacher more time to write a thoughtful letter. And always remember to ask whether the letter will be a positive one. If not, move on. Good luck, juniors, and just keep your eye on the prize. No, not college! Getting this spring behind you.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Good Grief, It's Just a Test. Hah!

It's test season for high school juniors -- SAT or ACT, subject tests, AP exams. And then there's finals. It's enough to make a kid go crazy, enough to create sympathy pains in parents. We all know that the best advice is to stay calm and remember it's only a test. Even if you happen to believe that it's a test that could well determine your future happiness, earnings, professional and personal success. See, these tests aren't important at all! Just as a refresher, here are some tips on successful studying, ranging from changing the environment (at your desk for a while, then at the kitchen table) to taking lots of practice tests, which is more effective than just going over notes again and again. On the day of the test, try to remember these hints. It's pretty basic -- eat breakfast, take deep breaths, stay upbeat as possible. And parents, be kind and understanding. The stress is greater than when we were applying to college, and so are the odds of getting into a college of choice. But help them understand that you are there for them through the process, the good, bad and confusing. Here's to successful testing, and to getting it over with.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wait List Hell - It Does Exist

It takes a major miracle, it seems, to get off a wait list and onto the acceptance list at a highly selective college. In other words, the wait list email isn't a whole lot better than the deny message.

It appears the wait list is where kids are sent who, while appealing/intriguing/definitely smart, just didn't make the first cut. This year, for instance, Princeton had a 7.86% admission rate, with 1,472 waitlisted. In the past several years, Princeton has taken from none to 164 students from the list after May 1, when most schools will know how many kids are accepting them.

Here's the depressing look at news from the wait list that appeared in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. Last year, Stanford admitted only 13 from a list of 1,078 applicants. This year, it shrunk the list to 789. But waitlisted students shouldn't, for one moment, think the smaller list increases their chances. Says Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, comparing last year's chances to this year, is "like playing the state lottery versus the national lottery. It's a million to one instead of a billion to one that you're going to get it."

Meanwhile, students need to make sure they've accepted a position on the wait list, if they want it, and are figuring out one or two ways to update the application, write a letter that makes a difference, etc. Here are some additional thoughts.

My final advice? Sure, stay on lists if the school is one you'd attend, make sure (tastefully and in a non-pestering way) you let the school know the wait list acceptance isn't pro forma but that you'd really like to attend, and then start moving on. Start envisioning yourself at the favorite school where you've been accepted. Maybe some good news will come from the wait list school. If so, great! If not, you are already emotionally ready to embrace the school that did want you, first time out!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Testing, Testing, Testing

We're in prime test season now -- by which I mean, of course, SATs, ACTs, APs and subject tests. Here's a recap of some of the issues related to testing, particularly Score Choice vs. super scores, which many colleges do themselves.

With Score Choice, you tell either the SAT or ACT folks which test results you want sent to the colleges where you are applying. Super scores are created by the college: someone in admissions looks at all of your scores and takes the highest in math, reading and writing.

I asked the Mom's College Cram Course panel (parents and experts) what they believed was the best approach. Here are the responses.

Laura Wilson, founder of Wilson Daily Prep, likes Score Choice because it enables students to take the test as often they wish. "Superscoring is great, but all scores have to be sent. I've found that some parents fear that schools will penalize and not really take the highest. I trust the schools, and I do think they just look at the highest." But there is a hitch.

"Top tier schools ask to see ALL scores," she adds. "So, if you bomb a test they will see. However, colleges do not check with the College Board. That means students can still send only the scores they want the college to see. This is a family decision. Many families decide not to send all scores even though a college requests them, but an equal number of families do not feel comfortable with this decision and they send all scores as requested." A quandary.

Nancy Pullen, a Rutgers admissions officer, said Rutgers definitely super scores. "We take the highest score achieved on each of the 3 sections of the SAT to then make the highest combined best set of scores."

As Sue Boer, a guidance counselor at Columbia High School(Maplewood/South Orange) points out, "Score choice is when the students pick their two best test dates to send. They cannot choose the best scores. Students should use Score Choice, especially if they had a particularly troublesome test day."

Tina Squyres, mom of a senior and a college student, said, "We prefer Score Choice, which is essentially super scoring that you control - assuming none of your scores went down...which I think is unusual. Why send underwhelming scores when the student can and has done better?"

As for how many times, there's pretty much complete consensus. Tina says, "Three times is the maximum for SATs. We’ve heard in multiple info sessions that anything over 3 makes the student seem too intense." Sue agrees, saying, "No more than 3 times for either test; scores don't tend to improve after three times." Also, she adds that students should pick either the ACT or the SAT and stick with it. "There is no reason to take both tests. Students tend to score in the same percentile on both tests. They should do SAT or ACT practice tests and see which format they find more comfortable." And Laura concurs that 3 times is the limit for the SATs. But for the ACT, "most of my students take it 3 or 4 times and only send one or two scores to colleges."

Thinking about subject tests? Remember, as Sue says, "There is no need to take subject tests unless the schools you are interested require them. Some schools will take the ACT plus writing or the SAT and 2 SAT II’s. If that is the case, I suggest the students take the ACT instead of any SATs because it means less testing. These kids are hammered by standardized testing at this point in high school. You don't want to send poor subject SAT II scores to any school if they are not required.

Tina also makes a good point. "Subject tests are good if you have any idea about what you want to study in college. It gives the colleges a sense of what you bring to the table for that academic area. BUT if you are uncertain about what you want to study it would be best if you choose your tests carefully so that you are selecting tests that you feel fairly certain will give you a successful outcome. If the scores aren’t that good you really don’t have any options. They have to be sent."

And what's a good score? Laura says students should get a 670 or above on an SAT subject test to be competitive.

OK. Start figuring out your strategy now; there's lots to consider.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Getting Nervous Yet? Here Are Some Reminders for Juniors

If you have a high school junior in your house, college is in the air. And if the student has an obsessive parent, college (or thoughts thereof) permeates EVERYTHING.

Whether or not there's a manic mom or dad on the scene, here's the truth. At this moment, chances are that whatever stage the search is, it's probably where it should be. That said, there are a number of issues to consider right now.

1. Senior year courses -- some rigorous ones, but not taking AP for the sake of having those two letters sprinkled throughout the transcript. Read this piece for some more thoughts on AP, IB, etc.
2. Testing -- there's an SAT test this Saturday. Our teen is signed up to take it later this spring and she will likely take it again in early fall.
3. Subject tests -- some schools want them, most don't. But if there's no firm list yet and you want to play it safe, spring is the time to take a subject test (up to three can be taken the same day). For example, if a student is taking an AP test this year, go ahead and take the subject test too. One test down while the information is fresh.
4. College tours -- start planning spring break to include some campus visits. Of course you can visit schools in the summer, but an empty campus doesn't give the full picture of a school.

Here's a summary of the things juniors should be doing to get ready for the college app process.

Happy college hunting!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tell Your Kids to Play It Safe on Spring Break

Among the many things we tell our kids -- brush your teeth, take your vitamins, do your homework, think about where you want to go to college -- we all need to add a discussion on how to play it safe when they are away from home.

And now that they are getting older, we need to be specific, especially as they go on class trips or on spring break.

Marcia Peot, a police officer and Chief Safety Officer at StreetSafe, offers the following safety reminders:

1. Don’t let your guard down. Being on vacation is not an excuse to throw caution to the wind and do something you wouldn’t normally do or put yourself in an unsafe situation.

2. Research the place you are visiting before you go, especially if it’s a foreign country. Find out if there are dangerous areas you should avoid, familiarize yourself with local laws and customs, and know where to go and what to do in case of an emergency.

3. Stay in groups or use the buddy system. You are more of a target when you are by yourself.
A stranger is still a stranger, even on vacation. Do not accept a ride or go off somewhere alone with a person you don’t know.

4. Do not drink excessively. When you are intoxicated, your physical reflexes, awareness of your surroundings, and ability to make decisions become impaired, making you an easy target.
Never leave your drink unattended and do not accept beverages from anyone other than the bartender or waiter.

5. The beaten path is the better path. Stick to populated and well-lit areas, don’t take short cuts, and familiarize yourself with the area before heading out.

6. Make sure your hotel room is locked at all times. Do not advertise your room number, open the door for anyone you are not expecting, or bring strangers back to your room.

We can all remember terrible headlines about spring breaks and other trips that have gone bad. Send these tips to your kids. Even if they just glance at them, they'll be somewhat more aware, somewhat more prepared.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I Wouldn't Want to Be in Vassar Admissions Today

I know mistakes can happen. I know that as wonderful as technology is, it can cause headaches and even heartbreak. Here's an illustration: on Friday afternoon,Vassar sent "congratulations you've been accepted" emails to students who'd applied to the school's via Early Decision II. Except, the email had been a test, a placeholder, that was sent in error. So for about 30 minutes, 76 kids who were not accepted thought they were -- and alerted friends and family. Read here for more of the sad details.

One elated student went back to read the happy news again, and saw that in truth he'd been declined. Of course Vassar is mortified and apologetic, but geez, isn't the admissions process emotionally difficult enough without getting accepted when you've actually been rejected.

It has happened at other schools - this is not a first. But this morning, those disappointed students and their parents will be calling Admissions -- it will be the first time since this all happened Friday that they have been able to scream, cry or try to be rational in speaking with an admissions officer.

I wouldn't want to be on either side of that call. But one thing is almost certain. This sure won't happen again, at least not at Vassar.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Take a Look at these Small Public Universities, Including TCNJ

Most state universities seem so massive. Will attention be paid to an undergraduate? Will a freshman feel lost? Are there public options that offer great resources on a smaller scale?

There are a number of higly ranked smaller public institutions that focus on a liberal arts education. Here's a list of some good ones.

I've heard of most of them, and know good things about St. Mary's (MD), College of Charleston (SC), UNC - Asheville (NC) and the University of Mary Washington (VA). But here was the revelation: The College of New Jersey. I'd read that it was a good school but it wasn't till I looked at its profile and this chart comparing TCNJ to other colleges, private and public, in New Jersey and saw it comes in second after Princeton in SAT scores.

I was surprised and impressed. And I bet there are lots of other good surprises out there. It's just a matter of looking, and not being too restrictive in the college search.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tracking Costs of College

During the State of the Union address last night, the president spoke about the need to lower interest rates on student loans and urged colleges to figure out how to lower their costs, too.

These are actions beyond the control of families with children heading off to college -- and who knows how long it will take for improvements to occur. But families can take steps to ensure that the college education doesn't turn into a financial nightmare -- or what's more likely, a constant stream of requests for more walking around money from the student followed by agitated texts or calls from home saying enough already.

It all starts with the Discussion: what the family can afford; what level of debt (if any) is acceptable; understanding what it means to take a college loan and how it will affect options post-college; what can the student contribute to defray costs, etc. Teens really must be a part of the conversation -- it will help them on the course to becoming financially responsible adults. And this is true even if the family was able to save enough to cover most college costs.

Then when students learn where they've been accepted and how much financial aid, if any, they have received, having held the Discussion will make it somewhat easier to narrow decisions.

Once students are off to college, they should be responsible for adhering to a budget. Here's a good breakdown of costs of college for one family, including the day-to-day expenses for a freshman. (Note: public college, in the midwest, so figures may not look real to those of us on coasts. But that doesn't matter. It's the tracking that does.)

Learning how to keep a simple budget should be a part of prepping for life away from family.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Thinking Way too Much about SATs, etc.

If you have a junior in the house, it's quite possible you are obsessing about SATs, subject tests, APs -- the whole mess of tests that are just one more hurdle in getting into college. You are probably already sorting through scheduling of tests, too. The SAT in March is the morning after the opening of our school musical -- doesn't seem like propitious timing. So, that means taking the SAT in May, subject tests in June, and quite possibly, the SAT again in the fall. My head aches.

Here's an at-a-glance range of scores that some of the most select colleges are looking for. As the article points out, numerical scores are one consistent way to view applicants. Even if SATs and ACTs still remain an important part of the application, remember one important thing about these ranges: these are the median scores, and 50% of accepted students fall within the range. Another 25% are above, the other 25% below.

Even if we think that these kinds of tests don't really predict that much about the ability to thrive in college (and schools that are dropping the testing requirement seem to think that), they are part of the non-monetary price of admission. So get a tutor or have your child take some SAT classes. At minimum, persuade them to take lots of practice tests at home. Practice may not make perfect in this case, but it sure can help.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Doctor, Help Me! I'm the Parent of a H.S. Junior

Deborah Gaines, a mother of a junior who's mired in some of the same questions and concerns I am, has ably reviewed the neuroses of parents like us, in Huffington Post. I'm sort of embarrassed to see myself reflected, on any given day, in every one of the comments these people have. We're all parents seeking good fit, good name, good value from colleges. On a sane day I say good grief!

As i have been saying to anyone who will listen, I need to be less obsessed. But it isn't that easy to go cold turkey on the college stuff.

Any suggestions on how to help me help myself?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wise Words for High School Seniors (and Juniors, too)

I thought we could be ahead of the admissions game, visiting colleges early, trying to get a sense of what attracts our teen, and what she hates, about various colleges.

The truth is, our junior's ownership of the process will occur when she's ready, not when I am. No amount of parental guidance makes it happen more quickly or efficiently.

That said, I hope my teen and others read this thoughtful, sensible piece on how to choose the right college the first time.

Meanwhile, I don't suspect there will be any revelations anytime soon. We've got midterms and the school musical taking precedence. But maybe after that?

Early Admission a Rejection Nightmare

Apparently for many years early admission was "owned" by students attending private schools, or, according to The New York Times, early admission was "once the almost exclusive preserve of the East Coast elite."

But the secret got out and the number of early admission applicants has increased by as much as three-fold at some schools. And that has left far more disappointed students this year, particularly in some of the famous New York prep schools.

Another factor contributing to greater numbers of unhappy kids is an increase in international students applying for early decision, who are also willing and able to pay their way without any financial assistance. On the other hand, more public school kids are applying early -- and getting in.

If a student is absolutely sure one school is the school, and there's a reasonable chance for acceptance, by all means, apply early. But as kids learned this year, make sure you're ready to go with the regular decision applications. Given the early admission environment in 2012, it's nearly impossible to believe next year will be any better.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Who's a Candidate for a Gap Year?

With all of the stress that comes with the college admissions process, I can understand why a gap year might be appealing. Here's the thinking on this. You apply, are accepted at a college you like, you send in the deposit and then request a deferral of admission. (You might want to talk to someone at the college first, so that you know the school's policies on this.)

Then the student pursues a dream -- works on a research project. spends time building Habitat homes, finally gets comfortable and competent in the foreign language she has studied for years. It doesn't really matter. In theory, you then go to the college of your choice a semester or a year later really ready to learn.

Gap year has been a topic of discussion at The New York Times college blog. Middlebury's dean of admissions thinks it's a good idea. He thinks a gap year gives a student a greater sense of direction, and that translates into a more dedicated, serious student once the gap year is over and college begins.

Here are more thoughts on this concept.

Parents may not like the idea but it might make sense for a student who has reasonable plans for the gap year -- and who has been accepted and then officially deferred at the college of choice. What's a bad idea? Trying to apply to colleges during a gap year, especially if the student is traveling, or living overseas. It could be a logistical nightmare that turns the gap year into a really bad idea.