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Expert Opinions on the College Admissions Process
by Dave Berry

Getting A Fresh(man) Start

Be it hereby known to all Politically Correct (PC) Policemen … In this article, I will refer to a first-year college student as a “freshman” or, as a group, “freshmen,” regardless of their gender. I’ll leave the terms “freshperson,” “freshwoman,” or even “freshwomyn” to others more socially astute than I am. I’ve even heard PC addicts propose “fresh carbon-based unit” to further nullify gender bias, but I’ll save that jewel for a future opus.

Now that we have disclaimers out of the way, let’s get to the point of offering some advice to all of you about-to-be college freshmen out there. Your life is about to change in significant ways and you may need some tips on adjusting your behaviors and thinking in order to negotiate the major changes you’re about to experience.

In surveying the Web for inspiration on the the topic of getting off on the right college-freshman foot, I came across a solid roundup article on U.S. News: 10 Tips College Freshmen Should Know.

freshman move-in

Let’s take a look at some of these. I may even add a few comments of my own. More »

Posted in College Life, General, Parents    

Your Rising-Senior Summer: Taking Stock

August is on the horizon and will soon be here. All you rising high school seniors know what that means: school looms. Many of you have been actively involved in the college process already, having worked with your counselors to craft a meaningful and challenging course schedule. Your planning may have begun as far back as junior high school.

Most of you who are planning applications to competitive colleges, or even so-called “elite” colleges, no doubt began your planning in 9th grade, the beginning of your high school career. Your planning may have already included college visits and detailed research regarding finding the best match between your needs and colleges’ abilities to meet them. I’ve written at length here and on College Confidential about the preparation cycle, those actions that well-prepared applicants should take to make their college decisions count.

Speaking of preparatory actions, one of the best actions rising seniors can take, as you head toward the end of summer and the start of senior year, is to take inventory of where you are and where you’ve been with your overall academic and extracurricular profile. So, what I’d like to present today is a kind of “roundup” form into which you can put all the important data that comprises who you are as a potential college applicant.


The purpose of this End of Summer Inventory (pioneered by College Confidential’s Sally Rubenstone) is to give you a comprehensive overview, on one page, of what you have accomplished so far in your high school career. It also serves the dual role of showing you what you haven’t done and likely will need to do early on in your senior year.

So, if you’re motivated to take my advice and assess your accomplishments to date, copy the following form and paste it into a Word document. Once you have done that, you can begin to compile your data.

After you’ve finished entering all your information and double-checked it for accuracy, you may want to print out the finished form and give it to your school’s college counselor for his/her information. Granted, your counselor has access to all this information, but it is not likely available in such a convenient, concise format. This will also exhibit your proactive attitude toward your college goals. That may endear you to your counselor who, as you may recall, will be responsible for providing your school’s “flagship” recommendation for all your college applications. That certainly can’t hurt.

So, here’s the form. Consider its advantages and fill it out as completely as possible. More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, Parents    

College, Money, and Success

High school seniors, as far as why you want to go to college, I have just two words for you:  core motivations. Think about it for a moment. Why, exactly, do you want to go to college?

From what I’ve seen over the years, perhaps the most fundamental core motivations include getting a degree, getting a good job, and then earning a lot of money in order to live the good life or at least being able to buy a lot of “toys.” There are other motivations, such as gaining professional credentials in order to secure work to serve your fellow man, such as in the field of social work, medical research, and other humanitarian endeavors.

The issue, as we have considered before is: Does (or can) college fulfill your needs in and goals for life? I discovered two recent articles that address this issue from different perspectives:

1. The potential earnings power of a college education, and

2. Realities of life that many times escape youthful idealism.

reality vs idealism

The two articles that speak to these points are entitled, addressing #1 above, College Graduates Don’t Always Out-Earn High School Grads. Number 2′s realities vs. idealism point gets consideration from 5 Important Things That Promising Young Students Lose Sight Of. Let’s examine the wisdom put forth by Allison Schrager and college student Blake Thompson, respectively. You may find a nugget or two to help you discover your true college-bound motivations. More »

Posted in College Life, College Search, General, Parents    

Moving from Home to College

It’s that time of year again. I got an email the other day from the mother of a college-bound daughter. The mother was in a tizzy about what her daughter should take to college. I responded with some thoughts about packing for college and told her about my own family’s experience in assisting two children with their transitions from a home-based bedroom to a college dorm.

My wife and I are eight-year veterans of college packing. We have a son and a daughter who went through their college years with tons of stuff shuttling between their college homes and ours. Now, many years after their graduation, a good deal of all that stuff takes up space in our downstairs storage areas, a tribute to this family’s pack-rat syndrome.

I also mentioned to the befuddled mother that I was interviewed by a reporter some time ago about the art of packing for college. The article was sagely entitled “What to pack for college and what to leave behind.” I say “sagely” because the “art” of packing includes knowing what to pack and, perhaps more importantly, what not to pack. The inquiring mother seemed most interested in which items to leave behind. Historically, girls want to merely transport their home bedrooms to their college dorm. This would assure that every last needed item for surviving day-to-day preparation rituals are close at hand. Many boys, on the other hand, apparently couldn’t care less about what to take.

One of the best ways to determine what you need to live at college is to do a “lifestyle inventory.” A lifestyle inventory is a chronicle of what you use in your everyday life to maintain your current standard of living. It involves taking some notes and pausing for thought, but the result can be quite practical.

Pick a week when you anticipate that your life will be “normal” within the context of your family’s lifestyle. Then pick two weekdays and either Saturday or Sunday as your three sampling days. Get a small notebook and devote two pages to each day. Divide each day’s pages into sections for morning, afternoon, and evening.

For each of your three sampling days, make entries in your notebook at the end of each day’s three periods. At noon, review the morning and write down everything of yours that you needed during the morning. At dinner, recap the afternoon, and before bed review your evening’s needs. You’ll then have a list of 85-90 percent of everything you’ll need to pack for school. The other 10-15 percent will come in the form of suggestions from your mother.

As I mentioned, girls tend to pack much more than guys. In fact, guys tend to forget stuff they need, requiring supply runs during the year. If you have to travel long distances to get to your school, it will pay to do your research now. A good generality is to think cool for early Fall and late Spring and think warm for late Fall and early Spring. At a minimum, you’ll need your fan and a warm coat (and gloves) to meet this requirement.

moving van

There’s a sea of advice out there about packing strategies for college, especially for uninitiated first-year students. The mother who wrote to me for packing advice wrote back to me to thank me for my thoughts. She also implored me to post that advice here, in an article to help a broader audience, including frustrated fathers.

So, following her prompt, and taking a negative approach — as in what not to pack (or didn’t need) for college — I did a review of my past articles and rounded up some insights that bear repeating.

Here they are. I hope you find them helpful. More »

Posted in College Life, General, Parents    

List of Test-Optional Colleges Grows

In the world of marketing higher education, the race is on to gather as many applicants as possible. One obvious reason for this is so that colleges can deny more applicants. The goal is to lower the schools’ acceptance rates. More applicants rejected = higher “selectivity.” In turn, this most likely will raise a college’s standing in the seemingly all-important world of rankings. Of course, the 500-lb. gorilla of college rankings lives at U.S. News. There are also myriad other rankings published each year. The goal, as with U.S. News, is to bring attention to whatever print or online publication is presenting the rankings. In other words, let’s sell more magazines or bring additional eyeballs to a Web site.

Marketing higher education is like marketing any other product, except with college, the aura of the product appeals to both intellectual pride (“Our son just got his Masters in climate change studies.”) and economic practicalities (“A B.S in chemistry or related field is required for this position.”). To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the gullibility of the American public. Case in point: for-profit “colleges.” For example, check this ABC News story:

Santa Ana, California-based Corinthian Colleges Inc. announced that the campuses being closed operate under the Everest name and are scattered in 11 states. The company faces multiple state and federal investigations …

… Last month, the Education Department put Corinthian on heightened financial monitoring with a 21-day waiting period for federal funds. That was after the department said it failed to provide adequate paperwork and comply with requests to address concerns about the company’s practices. The department said the concerns included allegations of falsifying job placement data used in marketing claims to prospective students, and allegations of altered grades and attendance.

Some students left comments on the Everest Facebook page expressing concerns that their degrees would be worthless. Corinthian was reaching out to those students individually and asking them to call for more information …

One has to have empathy for the students and their families involved in this debacle. However, the point here is to try to understand why colleges do what they do. From my viewpoint, regardless of the rhetoric pouring forth from college marketing departments, it all comes down to … three guesses … money. Either directly or indirectly, institutions of higher education need money to sustain and justify their existence. How they go about getting those funds varies greatly, from naming buildings after wealthy alumni to no-nonsense, no-pretense annual giving.

test-optional quote

But I digress. The actual content of my article here is not so much how colleges market themselves but rather how many schools are moving into the so-called “test-optional” category. Those two subjects are not unrelated, at least from where I sit.

A test-optional admissions policy means that applicants can choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores. Of course, there are exceptions and variations on the test-optional approach. If you need more resolution on what test-optional means, check these details for more clarity.

I’m always curious to see what others think about seemingly significant college admissions policies. That’s why I was intrigued by some of the comments from posters to this College Confidential (CC) discussion forum thread entitled “No, the SAT is not Required.” More Colleges Join Test-Optional Train. It references a USA Today article by the same name. The original poster of that thread poses this thought and question:

Many people consider standardized testing to be a staple in the college admission process, but some universities now perceive it as irrelevant. Does standardized testing serve a true purpose in admissions, or is it really unnecessary?

Let’s see what some equally thoughtful CC posters have to say about that. More »

Posted in College Admissions, College News, College Search, Parents    

A Cool College-Cost Tool

Have you ever heard that old joke:

Question: What’s the most dreaded statement you’ll ever hear?

Answer: “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help!”

I’m sure that we all can point to myriad examples of the dreaded “help” the government (local, state, or Federal) has given. However, I discovered one example of Federal government help that could (with a few caveats (see below)) actually be beneficial to families who are in the college search and admissions barrel these days.

It’s called the College Affordability and Transparency Center. Don’t let the name fool you. There’s some down-to-earth, downright helpful information on this site. Check out these categories:

Which colleges have the highest and lowest tuition and net prices?

Use the options below to generate a report on the highest (top 5%) and lowest (bottom 10%) academic year charges for each sector. Tuition reports include tuition and required fees. Net price is cost of attendance minus grant and scholarship aid. Data are reported by institutions and are for full-time beginning students.

How fast are college costs going up?

Select a type of institution below to see which ones have the highest increases in tuition and fees and net prices (cost of attendance after grant and scholarship aid). Data are for full-time beginning undergraduate students.

How much do career and vocational programs cost?
Begin typing the name of a program (for example, “Cosmetology”) to generate a list of institutions that offer the program and the tuition and net prices they charge for the entire program. Data are reported by institutions on their largest program and are for full-time beginning undergraduate students. Not all institutions offering these vocational programs are included on this list. For a full list of institutions offering a program, go to College Navigator and search by program/major.

This is the kind of information families need. Perhaps one of the more creative applications of the CAATC would be to first figure out how much your family can afford to pay each year for your son’s or daughter’s college education. Then, using the CAATC’s net-price search, identify those schools that fall into your affordability zone.

Once you have a list of those schools, you can then cross-correlate those schools with your favorite rankings resource to see which ones offer the best return on investment for your hard-earned dollars.

capitol building

What do others think of the CAATC? Let’s take a look. More »

Posted in College News, College Search, General, Parents    

Paying for College: Where Do Parents Come In?

I recall the sacrifices my parents made for me so that I could to go to college. Times were tough for my father back in the mid-Sixties. Our family was the classical nuclear, Leave It to Beaver-type. My mother was a full-time homemaker and my Dad was the 100% breadwinner. Like many men from my working-class community, he came out of WWII and went to work directly for the railroad, which was pretty much the reason my hometown grew over the decades. He worked his way up through the ranks and had a number of technical and professional accomplishments to his credit. He went from machinist, to master mechanic, to supervisor of work crews.

Speaking of sacrifices, his rise through the ranks earned him a significant promotion opportunity when I was a sophomore in high school. However, the catch was that our family would have had to relocate and move to another part of the state. Although I was never directly aware of why my Dad turned down this promotion, looking back, I now realize it was because my parents chose not to pull me out of high school and disrupt my education. This was a big sacrifice for my parents because it meant that my Dad turned down a nice increase in pay but he also had to (what the railroaders called) “bump back” to maintain local railroad employment. In other words, he had to take a lesser responsible, lower-paying job in order to stay in our town.

That had to hurt. My Dad and grandfather had just competed building a new home for my mother and me and money was tight. With a mortgage and his now lower-paying job, the squeeze was on. I was only vaguely aware of the pressures my parents experienced, once the realities of their decision to stay put sank in. I’m sure that things got much more difficult than I ever knew because my folks didn’t want to burden me with the stresses they had on their plate. This is what parents do many times. They shield their children from the downsides of adult and family life. Granted, some parents let it all hang out and the children share the brunt of difficulties. That’s unfortunate, but I was spared.

When it came time for me to go to college, things were still touch-and-go in my family. My Dad had invented a new kind of fire alarm system, received a patent pending, left the railroad, and formed a business with one of his brothers. It was a risky but promising decision that had its ups and downs for a year or so, but it never quite gained the traction my Dad needed to be successful. So, he found a supervisory job with a local manufacturing operation and that stabilized our family’s financial situation, but just barely. By this time, I was a high school senior and, as I’ve mentioned before in other articles, I was recruited to play tennis for a small Division III liberal arts college. Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships but they do give financial aid. Our family qualified but my folks still had to deal with their EFC (Expected Family Contribution). This was a big challenge, but they wanted me to be able to go to college, since only one other member of both sides of my parents’ families — a cousin — had gone to college before.

So, my Dad located an education loan company that enabled me to go to college and allowed my parents to make monthly payments to cover their EFC. It was a true sacrifice for them. Then, my Dad died suddenly at the age of 49 and I inherited the balance of this loan, since my mother didn’t work, along with the balances of my Federal loans. Even back then, in the early Seventies, it was a real challenge to cover those payments. I can’t imagine what it must be like today for students and parents struggling under the weight of many tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

parents talking to teen

What started me thinking about parental sacrifices for college costs, along with inspiring those memories of my own situation, is a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum. It’s entitled How much responsibility do parents have for helping pay for college? The poster who started the thread says, “Curious how families are dealing with this question. I feel guilty I cannot do more to help but I can’t afford everything that my student wants.”

I’m sure that there are many other parents out there today who, when they see the staggering costs of college, feel the same way. Let’s take a look at some of the responses from parents on this thread. While you’re reading them, take inventory of your own position on this crucial issue. More »

Posted in College Admissions, General, Parents    

Getting In: What Do Colleges Really Want?

Based on my experience as an independent college admissions counselor, I would put the issue of discovering the secret to what colleges really want in their applicants right up there with finding the fountain of youth. In other words, it’s an ongoing elusive quest where the rules are constantly changing and each college has its own set of so-called “institutional priorities.” The phrase institutional priorities translates simply into “The kinds of students we’re looking for this year.”

As you decide on the colleges to which you will apply, how can you know the kinds of students those schools will be looking for? Well, if you ever figure that out successfully, drop me a line, because you and I will then become rich. It’s a highly illusive art. Yes, there are general trends and tendencies, but the exact answer is unavailable. To cite a lyric from Paul Simon’s song, Slip Slidin’ Away, “The information’s unavailable to the mortal man.”

So, we do our research, develop our theories, and take our best shot. It’s rather like playing the lottery. In fact, with the most competitive colleges out there — the so-called elite schools — it seems exactly like a lottery. There are so many dazzlingly qualified applicants that selecting the best ones could likely be done by pulling their names out of a rotating drum.

One famous dean of admission at an elite university once said that their admissions staff could throw all the applications down a staircase and then randomly pick up the number needed to form the incoming class. Upon doing so, they would find that this randomly selected class would be just as good as any in the past. So much for scientific approaches, eh?

Anyway, I was inspired to discuss this topic after reading an interesting article written by Nathaniel Haynesworth: Colleges Admission Boards Want Students with Character: Five Valuable Soft Skills Preferred by College Admission Boards. He poses this significant question:

How can “soft skills” help high school students gain admission into selected colleges and universities?

application image

So, what are “soft skills”? Haynesworth notes that “‘Soft skills’ is a simple term for a complex system of traits and habits commonly sought by college admission boards. Examples include confidence, flexibility, honesty, and integrity, the ability to see things from different perspectives, optimism and common sense.”

It appears as though Nathaniel is telling us that these are the traits that you should be highlighting in your college applications. How can you do that? More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, Parents    

Landing on Planet College

I’ve always had a favorite saying that has helped me deal with life: There’s a big difference between anticipation and the moment of truth. The “moment of truth” is also known as reality. I don’t know where I first heard this wisdom. Maybe I came up with it myself. The point is — it’s true — never more so than in the journey from high school to college. What your imagination may create in the way of anticipation will likely be miles (maybe even light years) away from the realities you experience on campus. Why is that?

First of all, we have to consider the power of anticipation. What college-bound high school senior hasn’t daydreamed about walking on an ivy-covered campus during a crisp, sunny fall day, headed to the football stadium, a concert, or a Nobel Prize-winning professor’s class? That’s not to mention imagining the parties, new friends, road trips, and the other social perks of higher education, especially the attractions of the opposites sex. Among those daydreams may also be an element of escapism. “I’ve gotta get outta this place,” you may be thinking about your hometown. “I can’t wait to be away from my parents who seem to be monitoring every move I make,” might be another anticipatory desire within your heart. “I need to get some new friends,” is also a common need, especially among those who have recently suffered some kind of embarrassment or wound at the hands of peers.

Thinking back to my own transition period from high school to college, I don’t recall having any escapist hopes, but I was strongly looking forward to the independence college offers. Although I was fairly self-sufficient during my teenage years at home, my parents were always there to take up any slack I generated in my life. We were a classical ’50s-’60s nuclear family. Yeah, you might say that we were an amalgam of Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best. Of course, I realize that probably all of you younger readers out there have no idea what I’m talking about when I refer to Father Knows Best et al. For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s just say that those days are long gone in our 21st Century American society.

rocket ship

Ironically (or maybe coincidentally; sometimes there’s not much difference between these two categories), when I was thinking about the difference between anticipating college and experiencing the reality of college, I happened upon an interesting thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled 5 Truths About College Every Incoming Freshman Needs to Know.

The thread references a student-written Huffington Post article the core of which is described by this comment from the writer: “Looking back on my own freshman year, there are a ton of things I wish I’d known; they would’ve saved me a lot of anxiety and confusion.” Again, we can see more evidence of anticipation vs. the moment of truth (a.k.a. reality). Let’s take a look at some of the points the article’s author makes along with some my own observations. More »

Posted in College Life, General, Parents    

College: Worth It or Not?

I’ve written before about whether or not college is worth it. Perhaps one way to look at it, to paraphrase a former United States president, would be to say, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘worth it’ is.” Is college worth it strictly from a lifetime earnings perspective or worth it from a life-enrichment aspect? Or both? There are two kinds of “value,” you know.

First, let’s take a look at the value of college from an economic (earnings) and “opportunity” angle. When you search the Web for answers to the query “Is college worth it?” you get the usual avalanche of responses. I chose two from the “About 465,000,000 results [found in] (0.32 seconds).” The first is by Jill Schlesinger, business analyst at CBS News. Her article’s thesis states:

As the Class of 2014 throws their caps into the air during this graduation season, many graduates must now face the stark reality of a mound of education debt. Given the still-tough job market, many families continue to wonder whether college is worth it. The answer is yes, with a caveat.

What’s the caveat?

… don’t go into hock up to your eyeballs — and parents, please don’t raid your retirement accounts and borrow against your home — to do so.

That makes sense, obviously, but easier said than done, in my view. Anyway, what are some of Schlesinger’s worth-it points?

- … the unemployment rate for young college graduates stands at 8.5 percent, much lower than the 22.9 percent for high school graduates.

- … household income of young adults with college loans is nearly twice that of people who didn’t attend college ($57,941 vs. $32,528).

- … a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that the average US college grad can expect to earn at least $800,000 more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime …

- … Priceonomics blog pegs the 30-year wage premium at $200,000 of extra income ($6,667 a year) compared to that of a high school graduate’s salary.

- Researchers at Georgetown predict that in the next six years, the share of jobs requiring post-secondary education will likely increase to 64 percent by 2020 …

question mark

Need more convincing? Let’s extract the main pro-college points from Anthony Carnevale’s testimonial about college’s worth. More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, General, Parents