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Expert Opinions on the College Admissions Process
by Dave Berry

What’s The New SAT Like?

By now, anyone who has an interest in college admissions knows that there is a “new” SAT out there waiting to debut in the spring of 2016. Well, this is the spring of 2014, so for the next couple years, we’ll be seeing a concentrated public relations effort by the College Board to convince all concerned (mainly aspiring college applicants) that the new test will be a revolution in college admissions sanity. (By the way, I think the terms “college admissions” and “sanity” are mutually exclusive, if not oxymoronic, with emphasis on “moronic.”)

As you may have seen from other of my recent articles, the insanity of college admissions reached new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view) this year. Stanford University led the pack with a mindbogglingly low 5.1% acceptance rate. A healthy group of other colleges boasted similarly frightening low numbers. One wonders what the ultimate resolution of this spiral (or nosedive) will be. Maybe some day a few colleges will attain the pinnacle of selectivity and admit no one. It will be hard to top a 0% acceptance rate, although some will try. I can see the headlines now: Harvard sets new record with -3.2% acceptance rate; 213 undergrads told to leave.

There’s something to be said for being #1. I doubt that it will ever get to that point, but The College Board (they like that “The” to be capitalized in their name) has purposed to ease all this insanity by making their vaunted SAT more practical, eschewing arcane vocabulary words and putting a happier face on those little answer sheet circles. The story behind the story, however, emits a fragrance of competitiveness. The College Board has seen their main competitor in the field of standardized testing — the ACT — make huge strides over the past decade, not only in market share but also from a reputation and admissions benchmark standpoint.

For The College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), it must be hard to look in their rear view mirrors and see #2 emerging from that former cloud of dust and closing the gap. Thus, in this writer’s jaded opinion, the story of the “new” SAT is really about that “old” story of market dominance, a phrase that really means “more money now!”

new sat

So, what is so new about the 2016 SAT? Of course the national media have been eager to report on this story. They seem to know that mentioning or printing the letters “S-A-T” draws immediate attention. The heavyweight PR campaign began a day or so ago with CB’s (I’m dropping “The” formality) release of some sample new questions from the redesigned test. Here are a few, along with some comments from media sources. More »

Posted in College Admissions, Parents, Test Prep    

Working A Job While in College

I don’t have to tell you how expensive college is. In fact, just the other day I saw a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum about the total per-year cost at New York University. By “total,” I mean everything: tuition, room and board, fee, living expenses in NYC, health insurance, etc. The figures are staggering. Take a look at the far-right column of this chart:

School Tuition & Fees Living Expenses Health Insurance Total
Stern School of Business US$ 46,516 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 73,955
Gallatin School of Individualized Study US$ 45,028 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 72,467
Polytechnic School of Engineering US$ 45,028 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 72,467
Tisch School of the Arts US$ 49,422 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 76,861
Silver School of Social Work US$ 45,028 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 72,467
College of Nursing US$ 45,028 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 72,467
The Liberal Studies Program US$ 45,028 US$ 24,000 US$ 3,439 US$ 72,467

The Tisch School of the Arts boasts (if that’s the right word) a total annual budget of almost $77,000 per year! Of course there’s the financial aid factor, but NYU isn’t known for its generous aid. So, Moms and Dads (and undergrads who will be facing massive loan debt) your four years at Tisch will come in at around $300K. The mind boggles.

Anyway, for those of you high school seniors heading to college this fall, and for you parents of those about-to-be frosh, it may be time to consider the possibility of students working while in college. I’m not talking about those relatively low-paying Federal Work-Study jobs. I’m talking about being an entrepreneur and finding a need among your college peers and filling it.

college student working a job

I did some research about college students working and found some interesting takes on that topic. Becoming an entrepreneur and interning rank high on the list of preferred initiatives. You may wonder why college students should run a business. Let’s take a look. More »

Posted in College Life, General, Parents    

College Visits: In Summer, April, or Not at All?

I’ll address high school seniors and juniors (and parents) here today. The issue: college visits — to visit or not to visit (and when to visit). Those are the questions.

Since we’re approaching the middle of April as I write this, the main focus of the college-visit world is now on high school seniors. Almost every senior who has applied to an institution of higher learning has by now received his or her application results. Unless you have struck out at every college to which you have applied (extremely unlikely, in my view), you now have to make a decision.

Before you now are at least several acceptance letters and their associated financial aid packages. While it may be a relatively straightforward, objective process to select the best college from among that paperwork, the one element that’s missing is your subjective opinion about these schools. Sure, you may have already visited once when you were trying to compile your list of candidate schools to which you wanted to apply. But now the rubber has met the road, as they say, and it’s crunch time. The pressure is on to make your singular enrollment decision before May 1, melding not only the objective data of financial aid but also the much more subjective elements of your “gut” reaction to those schools, now that you have been accepted.

It’s one thing to visit a college before you have applied. At that stage of your process, your attitude may be like a shopper at the mall: “Just looking, thanks.” Now, post-acceptance, however,  your attitude is more like, “I’m just trying to make up my mind which one to buy.” Of course, college admissions  officers are rather like store sales associates on commission, hoping that it will be their “product” that you buy. That’s why you may have received along with your acceptance notifications some kind of “goody” package containing various trinkets emblazoned with the respective colleges’ names and even, if you’re really lucky, a cool t-shirt or cap.

college tour group

You may be wondering at this point, so close to the May 1 enrollment deadline, “Do I really have to visit a college before I make an enrollment decision?” Well, if you have read any of my past college-visit-related articles, you will have seen me state (at least 324 times) my mantra regarding this: You’ve got to trod the sod! That about says it all.

Making a college enrollment decision without visiting the school is creating a potential for unhappiness and possible transfer complications. So, for those of you seniors who have not visited the colleges that have accepted you, get on a train, bus, plane, or snag a car and go visit! If you don’t, you may regret it if you show up on campus this fall and find out that warning bells are going off in your head and heart when you look around you and contemplate living among the student body you see, not to mention living in the dorm you’re in and — perhaps worst of all — eating the food you see in front of you at the dining hall!

Okay. That’s my admonition to you seniors. How about you juniors (and your parents)? Summer’s coming. What should your college visit strategy be? More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, Parents    

5.1% Acceptance Rate: How High The Climb?

Did you apply to Stanford University this year? Were you accepted? If so, overall, you were more fortunate than 95 other applicants in any group of 100 Stanford applicants. Three years ago I wrote about the emergence of the single-digit acceptance rate in my article Ivy League: The Year of Single-Digit Acceptance Rates. This year, six of the eight Ivies were in single digits. As Peter Jacobs notes:

Princeton admitted 7.28% of applicants, down slightly from 7.29% in 2013, and accepted 1,939 students out of 26,641 applicants

The University of Pennsylvania admitted 9.9% of applicants to the Class of 2018, down from 12.1% last year. The Philadelphia-based university accepted 3,551 of their 35,788 applicants.

Cornell University, which has the highest admissions rate in the Ivy League, dropped over a percentage point this year, with a 14% acceptance rate, taking 6,025 students from 43,041 applications. Cornell accepted 15.2% of applicants last year.

Brown University accepted 2,619 of 30,291 applicants, or an 8.6% acceptance rate. Last year, the university had a 9.2% acceptance rate.

Yale University was the last to release their admissions data, but also posted a lower acceptance rate than last year’s 6.72%. Yale admitted 1,935 of 30,932 applicants for a 6.26% acceptance rate.

Other Ivies saw their acceptance rate rise from last year.

Dartmouth College took 11.5% of applicants to the Class of 2018, up from a 10% admissions rate last year. Dartmouth recieved 19,235 applications this year, and accepted 2,220 students.

Harvard University admitted 5.9% of applicants, up slightly from last year’s 5.8% admissions rate. Harvard accepted 2,023 of their 34,295 applications.

Columbia University admitted 6.94% of applicants, up from a record low 6.89% acceptance rate for the Class of 2017. Columbia accepted 2,291 of their 32,967 applicants.

And Stanford tops all the Ivies with their staggering 5.1%. MIT came in at 7.7%, rounding out the famous HYPSM abbreviation string.

steep climb

What can we make of this? On the surface, it appears that applying to The Ivies, Stanford, and MIT is apparently practically futile. If you were waitlisted at an Ivy this year, Nick Anderson at The Washington Post has some further sobering news:

For the thousands who didn’t get in but were placed on waiting lists, here are a couple of statistics: Last year, 168 students made it into Cornell via the waiting list, out of more than 3,100 offered positions on the list. Dartmouth admitted 87, out of about 1,700 initial wait-list offers, and Princeton admitted 33 out of an initial 1,400.

Are you thinking about getting in off an Ivy waitlist? Well, it’s not impossible, just nearly impossible, percentage-wise.

For all you high school juniors, sophomores, and other (even younger) up-and-comers, let me ask you a question: Do you want to go to the Ivy League? If so, here are some of my thoughts for you:

More »

Posted in College Admissions, College News, Parents    

College Admissions Decisions: What Now?

Colleges have made their decisions and informed angst-filled applicants. Some results were amazing; some were disappointing. If you’re a high school senior heading to college, you’re probably sitting there with your big pile of decisions. You’re no doubt also comparing your financial aid awards with those decisions and, hopefully, with the cooperative help of your parents, trying to make the right choice. Striking the right balance between where you want to go and where you can reasonably afford to go can be tougher than walking a wire across the Grand Canyon. It takes a lot of hard thinking and embracing reality.

Of course, there’s also that sinister factor that sometimes gets overlooked amid all the excitement and rush of a coveted college acceptance: student loan debt. To give you an example of what I mean about loan debt reality vs. acceptance excitement, here a response to a client of mine who was thrilled by her acceptance to Boston University and New York University. She said that her parents informed her that any loan debt would be entirely her responsibility, so she agreed to accept that requirement. Here’s what I told her:

I can offer you a few thoughts on BU’s financial aid package. Since you will be responsible for all of your loans, that is, to pay them all back, you should really take a hard look at the loan situation from BU.

Their financial aid offer looks appealing at first glance. However, colleges have a nasty habit of what is called “front loading” financial aid. That means that they tend to give you their very best offer for freshman year. After that, there is no guarantee that they will continue to give you the same level of aid. Thus, it is rather likely that your aid packages in forthcoming years (after freshman year) will become less lucrative. That’s unfortunate, but–again– there are no guarantees.

Look at those loans in BU’s financial aid award letter (I’m always amused when a college lists a loan under “Other Awards”):

There are three loans in BU’s aid package: one Perkins loan and two Stafford loans, one subsidized, one unsubsidized. “Unsubsidized” means that interest will accrue while you are in college, thus making the final amount due larger than the face amount after graduation. The subsidized loan has the interest pain for by the Federal Government while you are in school. Here’s a link that explains that:

Adding up those three loans = $8,500 for freshman year. Let’s assume the unlikely scenario that these three loans will remain the same for all four years you’re at BU (assuming, of course, that you will graduate in four years). Not counting accrued interest (and that’s an important point), the mere face value of your loan indebtedness upon your graduation would be $34,000. I’m willing to bet that your debt will be significantly higher than that due to the front loading I mentioned, plus the accrued interest from the unsubsidized Stafford loan. It’s possible (although I hope it isn’t) that your loan debt at graduation could be in the $40-50,000 range.

If you’re planning on graduate school, you’ll be needing more aid. I think you’re getting the picture here. You could conceivably end up with a student loan debt that may take you decades to pay off, since interest never stops accruing. It’s like just paying the minimum payment on your credit card each month. Perpetual debt.

Once you see NYU’s “revised” offer, you may find it to be similar to BU’s. You have to do a projection of debt at graduation, keeping in mind that front loading factor, when you compare aid offers.

I know that it’s very hard for you now to focus on long-range debt consequences when you have the chance to go NYU or BU. However, student loan debt is completely out of control today. Here’s some good documentation on that:

I would be the last one to dissuade you from wanting to go to the college of your choice, but I would be the first person to ask you to consider the consequences of major loan debt. So, the choice is fully yours, since you are the one responsible for your loans.

So, that’s my sermon on student loan debt. :-)

clueless teen

Making your college enrollment decision involves a number of considerations. I feel that the most important consideration is the consequence of loan debt. That’s why I wanted to address it first.

What else do you have to consider? Let’s take a look. More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, General, Parents    

Good News, Bad News, and Purgatory

Many colleges are releasing their admission decisions early this year for the Class of 2018. When I type a date like that, I’m amazed at how fast the years have flown by. For those of you high school seniors who submitted your applications in late December or early January for Regular Decision (or even early November for Early Decision or Early Action), the last several months have dragged on, rather than flown by. Well, now it’s “go time,” as they say. Your decisions will be forthcoming any time now. These days, you’ll most likely be looking excitedly (perhaps with dreadful anticipation) at your computer screen for your admission results. The big question is: How should you deal with them?

When you play the high-stakes game of competitive college admissions, sometimes you may lose. The competition is tougher than ever and getting worse every year. Yes, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes you get rained out and postponed. Rejection comes with the territory. It can hurt badly. The good news, though, is that things seem to tend toward working out for the best … most of the time.

My experience has shown me one thing for sure: There are no sure things. Much of life is a series of carefully, and sometimes not so carefully, considered ventures. Quick-and-dirty folk wisdom tells us to “Do our best and good things will happen.” Sure, that’s neat. Many of us, though, suffer an excess of after-the-fact self-criticism. “If only I had done [this] or [that], things would have been different.” Those are words of torment. We can second-guess ourselves until the Mother Ship arrives, but it won’t change reality.

looking at computer screen

Maybe worse than being denied admission outright from Early Action or Early Decision is being deferred. Being deferred is like holding your breath for more than three months. Ending up on a waitlist is like going to purgatory. Nevertheless, you do have some active marketing options available to you, which I’ll explain in a moment. These can accomplish two things. First, this structured approach to promoting yourself and your position will help time seem to pass more quickly. In the case of deferrals, you’ll be waiting up to three-and-a-half months to find out your fate. If you’re just going to sit and wait, doing nothing, these months can seem endless, especially if you live in a cold and snowy climate where there’s a conspicuous lack of sunshine. Snowy weather sometimes seems to hang on until July.

So, then, what’s a non-admitted applicant to do? Here’s some advice from my keyboard to your brain:

I wrote an article on College Confidential about this very situation that bears repeating this time of year. It’s called Denials, Deferrals, and Waitlists: A Plan B for Success. Here are a few excerpts: More »

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

Your College Major: What to Choose?

I was watching a women’s gymnastic meet on the Big 10 Network the other day. They always do a decent job of providing background information about the athletes. One thing that really surprised me, though, was the number of of gymnasts who had no specifically declared major in their profile. The phrases “Undeclared Major” and “Major Pending” appeared more than several times on the screen as the participants from the three Big 10 schools prepared to execute their routines. This got me to thinking.

I recalled my own transition from high school to college. In high school, I fancied myself as a reasonably decent writer but back in those dim days of higher education, there were no fancy majors that focused on developing specialized kinds of writing skills, like there are today. I could have studied journalism but that was a bit “dry,” as I explained it to anyone who was inquiring about what I wanted to study in college. There were so-called “creative writing” courses, but nothing more elaborate than that. Thus, any creative writing inspiration I sought was available only as a mere elective. Consequently, I made a “default” decision about choosing a major and chose Business Administration, which, back in those plain-vanilla practical days got approving nods from my friends’ parents and my older relatives.

“Solid choice, Dave! You’ll always be able to find a job with a degree in business.” I heard a number of variations on that theme during Thanksgiving break. One problem, though: I hated my introductory business courses, especially accounting. Even now, I cringe at the memory of my first ever all-nighter, trying to get my balance sheets to balance as I raced to complete that particularly nasty end-of-semester project. Clearly, I wasn’t a numbers guy. I was a word guy trapped by my circumstances and forced into a bad-fit major.

So, for those of you high school seniors who will be soon receiving your college admission decisions, both good and not so good, a quick but important question: How do you know that the major you have chosen is the right one for you? Oh, and a follow-up question: If you haven’t yet selected a major, how should you go about choosing one? That’s what I’ll try to help you with in this article.

puzzled teen

Some students are certain about what they want to be after earning their degree. Others have no idea what they want to study or what kind of job they might want after graduating. The majority of students, however, fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The uncertainty that so many college students possess is often a barrier that makes it difficult for them to declare a college major — one of the more crucial decisions a person makes in his or her lifetime. If you’re a high school senior or college freshman who is lost inside this black hole of indecision, what can you do to help right your educational path? More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, General, Parents    

Surviving Spring Break

Well, it’s that time of year again. How will you be spending your spring break?

If you’re a high school student, you may be going on some kind of vacation with your parents. Or, if you’re a high school student with the flexibility and permissions of a college student, you may be heading with some of your school chums to a warm beach somewhere, assuming that your parents trust you enough not to get involved in any illegal activities denied to young people your age.

If you’re a high school student from the Mid-West or Northeast, you may be celebrating a shortened spring break due to the brutal Winter of 2013-14, which is still in progress, by the way, as of this writing (which so happens to be happening on the Official First Day of Spring). The reason that your spring break may be shortened this year is because of all the snow days you experienced earlier during the seemingly endless onslaught of snow and ice over the past three or four months. Even though you high schoolers may also be enjoying the perks of a spring break, the thrust of my article here is aimed at collegians for whom spring break is traditionally a period of hedonistic revelry that takes place on the beaches of the Western Hemisphere and lubricated with plenty of suntan lotion and alcohol.

It’s not 1955 anymore. Hardly. Thus, there’s need for caution and some restraint while large crowds of behaviorally altered young people gather to find fun in the sun as they are “stunned in the sun,” as a friend of mine puts it. So, being the dutiful father of two former spring breakers, allow me to offer some common sense advice for those of you who will be taking in the sights and sounds of surf, sand, and silliness either here in America or in points south of the border.

spring break

I did a comprehensive search for spring break survival tips and found a seemingly never ending supply of advice on the Web. I would be curious to see what a list of spring break cautions would look like if written by parents. We might see such wisdom as, “Don’t forget to take your vitamins!” or “Be sure to check in with us every day.”

We parents trend to forget what we were like as 18-19-year-olds or early 20-somethings. That’s fortunate because if we had access to videos of our behaviors back then, we would probably have a huge struggle allowing our children to go on spring break. Our brains have a convenient way of suppressing a large portion of our youthful stupidity.

So, without further delay and self-deprecation, here are some highlights from my spring-break-cautions research. More »

Posted in College Life, College News, General, Parents    

For Next Year’s Seniors

Will you be a senior this fall, for the 2014-15 school year? Just like a champion sprinter’s style, it’s important to get a fast start senior year. This is a good time to do a personal attitude survey in anticipation of your final high school year, which, if you’re planning to go on to higher education, will also be when you apply to college.

A strong, positive attitude is very important during your college quest. The crucial high school years — ninth through twelfth grades — present many obstacles to young people who are also struggling with another challenging situation — being a teenager. The pressures of teenage life, when mixed in with the stress of day-to-day high school, can be a strong demotivator for young people.

If you are a high school student or the parent of one, it’s time to take inventory of the attitudes that leave home with you or your child every school day. Here are some questions to consider:

- Do you have a college plan? If not, why not?
– Do you know what milestones you need to accomplish this school year as part of your college plan?
– Do you know who can help you accomplish those milestones?
– Do you have specific goals set within your college plan?
– Have you begun to accumulate information about possible colleges and universities?
– Do you plan to visit some soon?
– Are you familiar with the general financial aid options available to students and families?
– Do you know how to begin building a college plan?

If you answered “No” to any of these questions — especially the first or last one — it’s time to get moving. There are two pieces of folk wisdom that apply here. First, it’s not just what you know or whom you know that counts; it’s what you do with what you know. Also, attitude determines altitude. Got that?


You don’t have to know everything about college planning to put together a successful college plan. However, you do have to know who and where the resources are. Three good places to start are college counselors, the public library, and the Internet.  More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, General    

Springtime for College Applicants

Maybe there is still snow in your yard from the Winter of 2013-14. Maybe the wind is howling outside your window right now. If you have a front yard and it’s mercifully not covered with snow, your grass is no doubt brown and looking dead. For college-seeking high school seniors, this has been a long, hard winter for a number of reasons other than the weather. The college application process can be a long, agonizing process. The actual application submission season traditionally stretches from November 1 to January 1, with a number of exceptions that can add days before and after that two-month window. Some schools have rolling admissions and others offer an elongated calendar that stretches into February, or even later in the year. Thus, many of you seniors have been under some level of stress and deadline pressure for some time.

Cheer up, though. Spring is just around the corner, just a week away as of this writing. With the arrival of spring comes the arrival of admission decisions, good news, disappointing news, and limbo news. The good news, of course, comes in the form of happy “thumbs up,” welcoming you to some (or maybe even all) of your sought-after schools. The bad news, naturally, brings you thumbs down. Some of these southern-pointing thumbs can be terribly distressing, especially if you have rationalized a list of reasons extolling all the virtues your applications have trumpeted about yourself. Your detailed research may have revealed that you appear to be a perfect fit with past accepted applicants, as reported by those colleges of their Web sites. When you come face to face with the reality of rejection, many times it’s hard not to feel like you’ve had a punch in the stomach.

Perhaps the worst news you can get is the “limbo” news. This is the infamous waitlist letter (or email) that informs you that you’re neither in nor out. The college is saying, “We think you’re good enough to attend here but we’ll let you in only if enough of the others we’ve already admitted don’t show up and we have a slot for you.” Yuck. That big fat “if” condition puts you squarely on the road to Suspense City. What will happen? You have no idea. You cling to a tenuous shred of hope but know in your heart that a waitlisted applicant’s chances for ultimate admission are slim, indeed. Yes, some do get in but very few, if any, do. That’s the agony of the waitlist.

tulips in spring

So, the metaphor of spring — a refreshing of life (warmer temps and “greening”) after a long season “repose” (frozen solid and buried in snow) — can apply to the world of college admissions. Hopefully, you seniors have planned your college applications according to the tried and true Reach-Ballpark-Safety formula that, if carefully plotted, will assure you at least some good news and you won’t be “frozen” out. But what if those thumbs down are in the majority? More »

Posted in College Admissions, College Search, Parents