Kaplan/newsweek have released their annual addition. One article particularly worth paying attention to is advice from Smitty:
What advice do you have for an average student who wants to go away but has no idea what to study?
Don’t go to college next year. Instead, take a “gap year” to work, do community service or dabble in courses at a community college. Grow up, find a passion, save some money. You’ll get far more out of college when you’re ready—and not everyone is at age 18. College is too important and too expensive to waste on those who aren’t prepared.
My take: Totally agree. I am a huge fan of the gap year. Have a look at my Gap Year section.
Is it worth doing the optional college interview?
The interview shows genuine interest in the college, allows the student to demonstrate interpersonal skills, interests, and maturity. At the same time, it’s good to have questions about the college answered by a reliable source.
My take: Ditto. Just keep your expectations in check. The reality is that the interview counts little in the admission process, with some notable exceptions such as MIT, Scholarships or UK universities.
Do colleges really put ceilings on the number of students coming from a specific high school?
Admissions committees often accept a large number of applicants from a high school with extraordinary students, but even the biggest admirer of a high school would like to put some cap on the number of admitted kids. Keep this in mind: in their search for geographical diversity, selective colleges try to limit the number of acceptances from a region.
My Take: This is a frustration for many of us. While colleges will repeatedly state they have no quotas, and certainly I have seen a specific college take lots of students from my school one year and none the next.
Are private college counselors worth the money?
As someone who spent almost four decades working in public schools, I’m sad to admit that private educational advisers often have more expertise and passion about admissions than school counselors. The best advisers constantly visit campuses to stay up to date. And as budgets are cut, counselors’ loads are likely to increase in coming years. The good news is that i still meet many top-quality counselors at schools.
My take: Lots of people have lots of advice to offer–and lots of opinions. And you get what you paid for. There is good advice and bad advice. Paying for the advice does not guarantee it is good, but at least keeps it accountable.
How many colleges should students apply to? How many should be safeties? How many reaches?
Ahhh, the numbers question. One of my students sent out 28 applications last year, and that was not a record. I think eight apps is more than enough. Ten and over means the student really isn’t focused on what he or she wants. By the way, I don’t like the term “safety”—who wants to end up spending four years at a “safety” campus, anyway? I call them “target” schools because a student’s grades and test scores make them a good target.
My take: a Proper search should bring your list down to 5 to 7 schools. I love the idea of a target school. Much better terminology than safety school, which often sounds like lame school–too many students have the Groucho Marx college admission attitude that I do not want to go to school that would actually accept me.
Do you recommend applying early decision?
If you’ve found the college of your dreams, apply ED. After all, statistics show that early applicants have a better chance of admission. But if you’re a typical 17-year-old who has changes of heart, avoid binding early applications.
My take: ditto. But I am a big fan of early action.
Do colleges give preference to students who take advanced placement exams?
Admissions offices like AP exams because the A average at one high school is a B at the neighboring school, while scores on the tests are easy to compare. Yes, take AP courses, delve into them, and study for the exams.
My take: College admission folks chant the mantra: Rigor! They love not just AP, but also IB and any other advanced curricula.
What is the single most important element of the application? The essay? Grades? Standardized-test scores? Activities? And how do they rank in importance?
First, you need a rigorous program and top grades. Second, you should have high scores on standardized tests. Then write a great essay and get strong recommendation letters.
My take: Ditto. More over you need to show the college that you belong there. They why college X question is more important than you think.
If students are close to 2100 on the SAT and/or 30 on the ACT, how many times do you recommend taking the tests to push them over the bar?
Do some self-assessment. If the scores are consistent, retesting probably won’t boost them significantly. I recommend taking the tests no more than three times—and don’t be afraid to try different kinds of test prep.
My take: My own experience suggest the third test rarely makes a difference. Why not use number 2 to get a handle on the testing time line.
In this economic climate, are “need blind” schools really need-blind, or do students have a better chance of acceptance if they say they don’t plan to ask for financial aid? Colleges are doing their best to honor the “need blind” policies, but quite a few endowments have tanked. I’m sorry to say that when you get beyond Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and others with billion-dollar reservoirs, a youngster’s ability to pay can give them an edge over less-fortunate applicants.
My take: This is more pronounced for international students.
How much do colleges weigh recommendation letters?
Some admissions officers are very influenced by a rec letter that gives a surprising insight into a student. That’s why students should get to know teachers and counselors well.
My take: Ditto. You choose your recommenders. Make sure you chose them because they know you well. This means going out of way to connect with them. There is a difference between sucking up and connecting.
Are there some schools that you should not apply to if your scores are mediocre?
I think schools place too much emphasis on scores, but if yours are well below a college’s median, you’d better be a champion athlete or the inventor of gene therapy. Or you’d better have an administration building named after your family.
My take: Pay close attention to not just the mid 50th test scores but also tools like NAVIANCE help to clarify exactly where you stack up in context of applicants from your school.
How useful do you think college rankings are for assessing which schools to apply to?
Parents hate to hear this, but I toss rankings in the trash. Come on, could you rank the best sports shirt? The fit matters, not the name. Also, it’s not where you go but what you accomplish. Just ask kids who have dropped out of the most prestigious universities—the ideal school for one person is a nightmare for another.
My take: Say after me: The fit matters, not the name. Oh he said it too.
Is it better to get lower grades in more challenging courses than straight A’s in easier classes?
The most competitive colleges want it all, but they’re especially keen on students who take challenging courses and do well. Relax, though. If the AP curriculum is too difficult, go for the lower-level class and make the most of it. Schools appreciate curiosity.
My take: Take a balanced yet challenging program.
How important is it to visit a college before applying?
If you have any chance of visiting a school in advance, do so! Your parents wouldn’t put a bid on a house before seeing it. If you can’t get there, e-mail or call students and recent grads to ask them what they liked and disliked the most.
My take: I am also a big fan of student blogs, podcasts and sites like unigo. Check out the college 2.0 spreadsheet for quick access.