college admissions

Four Steps to Getting More Out of Test Prep with a Mindful Approach

Four Steps to Getting More Out of Test Prep with a Mindful Approach

I realized that the upper limit to my student’s test day performance wasn’t set by how much material she knew or how well she understood test-taking techniques. Rather, her performance was limited by how she was thinking about and experiencing the test. So that’s where we put our attention. And that’s where I suggest you put your attention: allow yourself to become aware of your thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs and how they impact your experience. You are then empowered to choose thoughts and behaviors that create a better experience.

Because it is Harvard, plus my parents want me to apply

Our current system works to perpetuate this cycle of selectivity and prestige with an unhealthy fixation on this handful of institutions. Change happens from both the outside in and the inside out. Employers, the media, popular culture and college applicants must not rush to judgment or default to perception. Meanwhile, the college admission profession must re-examine the messages we send and the processes we create that perpetuate this unbalanced system. As parents and educators, we must raise children who think critically about brand, marketing, success, happiness, fulfillment and personal choice.

How college admissions has turned into something akin to ‘The Hunger Games’

In an ideal world, college preparatory education would encourage students who crave knowledge, seek community engagement, desire connection and live their values. We say we want our children to feel secure, be inspired and take risks with their curiosity. The reality of “Hunger Games” comes closer to the truth, where students battle to survive in application pools seeming to demand perfection.

SAT Subject Tests: Another Testing Task or an Opportunity to Shine?

A high score on an SAT Subject Test is a valuable asset for applicants to certain highly selective schools. Making the most of this opportunity can be difficult, however. When student and parent fatigue surrounding pre-college planning is already quite high, the need to make additional decisions can feel overwhelming. Armed with a little knowledge and guidance, however, students can make informed choices and increase their chances of success on these tests.

How to Major in College Touring

Many articles have been written offering advice about how to get the most out of your college tour, but they are commonly written from a one-tour-fits-all perspective. I’ve come to believe that there are actually three levels of college tours and, as students become more familiar with what different types of colleges have to offer and more certain about what they want from their college experience, they should approach the tour with different outcomes in mind. College Touring 101: The introductory Course 

I love college tours - and I go on a lot of them - but I would estimate that a third of what I hear is the same at almost every school I visit. There's a lottery system for housing, there's a blue light system for safety, there's a swipe card for use in the dining hall, and everyone gets to keep their mailbox for all four years. I encourage you to make your first two or three visits to ANY college just to get the patter down and to learn about the features almost all colleges share. The purpose of the first round of tours it to get an overview so that you'll be better able to focus on how colleges differentiate themselves.

Before the tour: Create a fairly broad list of colleges to visit – don’t make your criteria too specific too soon or you might rule out some excellent options.

HINT: You don’t need to travel far for this round of visits; find schools in your area.

During the tour: Listen carefully. Some of what the tour guide talks about may not make sense to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – you’re probably not the only one who doesn’t understand.

After the tour: Think about what features of that type college appealed to you and what features really didn’t appeal to you without concerning yourself with whether or not you will ultimately apply to that specific college.

College Touring 201: The Survey Course

Once you are able to recognize the features that most colleges share, for the next round of tours you should visit colleges that more closely match your interests and emerging preferences for size, location, major, extracurricular activities and so on. But don’t narrow the list of schools too much yet – you still want to cast your net broadly enough to see how a school a bit bigger, a bit more rural, a bit more pre-professional, or a bit more liberal feels to you. Try not to make any assumptions until you’ve had a chance to see for yourself. The goal of this round of tours is for you to be able to articulate which specific features, qualities, and programs are important to you and why.

Before the tour: Don’t schedule visits at more than two colleges in a day. Plan to attend both the tour and the information session whenever feasible.

HINT: It can be prudent to sit near the door during these early information sessions. While some sessions are studded with valuable information, others can be painfully tedious. If you’re not finding the information being shared to be particularly useful and enthusiasm is waning, slip out.

During the tour: Ask your tour guide questions about what it’s like to be a student at that college. Look at what is being posted around campus, find out what happens on the weekends, learn about the school’s traditions. Try to get a sense of the culture of the college.

 HINT: About halfway through most of the tours I’ve been on, people stop asking questions. At that point, I move up to the front and engage the tour guide in conversation. They have a wealth of first-hand information so don’t miss this opportunity to learn more about the college from a student’s perspective.

After the tour: Make time to take notes about what you saw. Very quickly your college tour memories will become indistinct from one another.

HINT: Bring a pack of ruled sticky notes with you. After the tour, go through the viewbook and, where a picture triggers a memory about an important detail, write that down on the sticky note and post it next to the image. That way, when you try to remember which college had the rock climbing wall and which had the amazing theatre, you’ll be able to trigger your memory both visually and verbally.

College Touring 301: The Independent Research Course

By now you’ve visited many campuses and you have a much clearer understanding of what you are really looking for in your ideal college and you are narrowing your list. Now you are ready for some really serious college touring – the type where you look in every nook and cranny, ask hard questions, and evaluate carefully how well the program suits your abilities, interests, and goals. The purpose of this final round of tours is to determine whether the college is a place where you would flourish and thrive.

Before the tour: Do a lot of research. Write down questions about those things you need to know more about and identify the parts of the campus that you want to see and the people whom you want to connect with.

Specifically, if there is something that is going to make or break your college experience (being able to have your own radio show, being involved in an a capella group, getting academic support) this is the time to explore those opportunities and resources.

During the tour: Listen and watch carefully. Ask questions. Be fully engaged in the tour.

HINT: I believe that you can tell a lot about the culture of a college by how the students treat the facilities. Watch to see if students are respectful of each other, the classroom spaces, the dorms, the grounds/kitchen crew, the faculty, and the visitors.  This is an important piece of a school’s culture that often goes over-looked. Students who take good care of themselves, others, and their environment are typically good students because they also take good care of themselves and their work. And they are just good people to be around.

After the tour: Leave time to go back and re-visit parts of campus or see the facilities that weren’t shown on the tour. If you have a specialized interest, ask when you schedule your appointment if there will be an opportunity to see those facilities. For example, arts majors should see the studios, athletes (even recreational ones) should see the athletic center, and physics majors should see those lab spaces whenever possible.

Note: Typically on the third round of tours, students also interview while on campus.

Make the most of your college tours – there are things to be gained even from a bad tour. The college process is a time to learn more about yourself and to think carefully about what you most want from your college experience. This is a big decision, so take the time to gather the information you need, even if it means returning to a college for a second visit. The more engaged you are in your college tours, the better your final college list will be.

Behind Closed Doors: How Admissions Offices Evaluate Applications

What goes on behind the closed doors of the admissions office is a mystery to most and decisions can seem to reflect more “artistry” than science. In fact, the process varies from school to school and depends on the size and type of institution, its selectivity, and the school’s own culture. However, every college and university assesses the strength of each application relative to the applicant pool as well as the school’s enrollment objectives.

Applying Early Isn't Right for Everyone

For seniors who are unwavering in their decision about their first choice school and who are positioned to present their strongest application in November, applying Early Decision or Early Action can be a prudent course of action. However, the pros and cons should be weighed carefully before deciding if applying early is better.

Making the Personal Statement Personal

Writing the Personal Statement can be a torturous exercise for many seniors. Fears of sounding like a braggart - or, worse - having nothing worthwhile to say, leave even strong writers paralyzed. While the temptation might be to adopt a distant, academic tone, and tackle a safe topic, it’s important to distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool by making your Personal Statement personal.

All’s Well That Begins Well

The hallways are beginning to fill with the buzz of seniors talking about their college choices. It’s hard to believe that just a year has passed since they started their college search – so many campuses have been visited, so many interviews have been had, and so many essays have been written! As the junior class embarks on their own college process, we offer these tips to get their college search off to a strong start: • The process of finding and applying to the colleges that are the best fits for you takes a considerable amount of time, thought, and energy. In the months ahead your ideas about the “right” college will evolve, your selection criteria will change, and what you most value in your college experience will shift. Give yourself the time and space to consider what is best for you. • Commit yourself to working on your college search as if it were an additional class. Set aside time each week for your “college process homework”. • Finding the right college involves many steps and even more details. To keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed, set up organizational systems early. Designate a place to store all your college materials. Set up folders in your email account specifically for college related correspondence. Create file folders to store hard copies of materials and ask for help from a parent or a friend if organization does not come easily or naturally to you. There is so much to do, you won’t want to waste time looking for materials. • Go into this process with an open mind. Don’t put too much weight on your preconceptions about a particular college or rely too much on what your peers tell you. Your unique impressions are what matter most. • Understand that this year-long process is about more than just “getting in”. It’s a process of self-discovery, values clarification, and taking responsibility for yourself. Be sure that you are at the center of the process, not your parents, or you will deny yourself the opportunity to learn these valuable lessons. • For most, going away to college marks the beginning of your real independence from your family. Just as leaving home is a big step in your life, so to is it for your parents. Understand that they are going through their own version of the college process and will need time to process just as you will.

Although the road ahead is a long one, getting off to a strong start can set the tone for a successful and rewarding college search experience. Get organized, set aside time to work on your college process, and take advantage of the opportunities to show your emerging independence and self-sufficiency that this process allows and your efforts will be well rewarded.

The Envelope, Please....

Over the next few weeks, seniors will be anxiously attending their mailboxes, eagerly awaiting the delivery of the proverbial “thick envelope” as colleges begin sending out their first round of early admissions decisions. However, for many students, applying early isn’t in their best interests for a variety of reasons. The college process, when done well with care and thought, can be quite a time consuming process and many seniors simply haven’t had the time to do research and to visit campuses in order to make a well-informed decision by the early deadlines. For those who are just reaching their academic stride, the opportunity to include an additional term of higher grades will make their application all that much stronger. Not all students who rush to meet the early deadlines are doing so for the right reasons and those students feel compelled to apply early “just to get the process over with” often rue their hasty decision.

Why all this pressure on students to apply early? From the college’s perspective, early application options are useful tools to increase their selectivity as well as to manage their applicant pool. Many students’ inboxes are being flooded with pleas from colleges to apply, often with enticements that make this process as straightforward as possible. The math is simple – the more applications they receive, the lower their percentage of accepted students. If they can target students with high SAT scores, so much the better – that will raise the average standardized test scores of their applicants. In these ways, schools begin to appear more competitive.

The selectivity of a college is based on their yield – that is the number of admitted students who actually matriculate at their school. The higher the yield, the more selective the school’s ranking. While Early Decision applicants are committed to attending, even Early Action candidates are more likely to accept an offer of admission. Thus, a college can improve its yield numbers by offering early application opportunities.

Although some of the most talented students are in the early pools, some colleges use early applications for other strategic reasons. Often recruited athletes are asked to apply early decision to demonstrate their sincere interest in playing. Early decision also meets other institutional needs, such as legacies who might not be as competitive in the regular pool, but are accepted early because they are more likely to yield.

Without question, early applications can work to the college’s advantage and for the student who applies with care and thought, this is a tremendous opportunity. However, it is important to remember that of the 2,000 four year colleges in the country, only about 350 reject more students than they accept. The frenzy around submitting early applications is driven by only the most selective schools and it’s important that students use this opportunity to their advantage, not the college’s.

Fine Tuning the College List

After months and months of research, visiting schools, and interviewing, many seniors are faced with a new dilemma: how to cull what has become an impressively long college list into something more manageable and realistic. With more than 3,000 colleges from which to choose, the challenge is to develop a list of schools that both matches the student’s abilities, interests, and character and that also represents an appropriate range of selectivity. Generally, a college list of 8 - 10 schools is appropriate for most students. Even though the Common Application facilitates the application process, interviewing, campus visits, and completing supplemental materials can take a tremendous amount of time. Working on too many applications can compromise both the caliber of each individual application as well as detract from time and effort better focused on school work and extracurricular activities.

To hone the list, consider carefully why each school was put on the list in the first place. Likely, through the college process, search criteria became increasingly refined and those schools chosen early in the process may no longer be appropriate. Review the list carefully, and keep only those colleges that remain the best matches.

The next step in refining the college list is to check it for balance, making sure that there are “Reach”, “Eye-Level”, and “Likely” schools represented. Typically, the most selective, or Reach schools, are the easiest to add and lists quickly become “top heavy.” Because these schools typically have lengthy supplements, applying to many of them can actually backfire as it’s hard to put forth one’s best effort on each and every application. A better strategy is to submit thoughtful and well-polished applications to the top 2 – 3 Reach schools.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Likely” schools play a critical role and should not be just “thrown on” as afterthoughts. Like every other school on the final list, these schools should be places where the applicant would thrive academically and socially. If a Likely school is not a college the applicant would attend, then it shouldn’t be on the list at all. These 2 – 3 schools are the most difficult to find because they involve a compromise of some kind and they don’t have the same cache as the more selective schools.

The middle tier of schools that appear on a balanced college list are the “Eye-Level” or “Moderate” Schools – those institutions where the applicant stands an even chance of being admitted. These 3 or 4 schools are the backbone of the college list and should be chosen with tremendous thought and care. Chances are, it is one of the schools in this category that the student will end up attending.

Developing a balanced list of appropriate schools takes time but should reflect a range of schools at which the applicant will be a happy, successful student. While there can be compelling reasons to have lists that are longer or shorter than the recommended 8 - 10 schools, the most important thing is that the list is balanced between Reach, Moderate, and Likely schools and that the applicant puts his best effort into his applications at each and every school.

Making the Personal Statement Personal

Writing the Personal Statement can be a torturous exercise for many seniors. Fears of sounding like a braggart or worse, having nothing worthwhile to say, leave even strong writers paralyzed. While the temptation might be to adopt a distant, academic tone, by making your Personal Statement personal you help the admissions office gain a richer understanding of your unique character and qualities.

No One Said Applying to College Was Easy: 7 Tips for Parents

Time and time again parents sit in our office and reflect, “I don’t remember it being like this when I applied to college” and, indeed, the process has changed in some important ways. More colleges are making standardized testing optional, schools are becoming increasingly competitive, students are sending out more applications and parents are more involved in the process than ever before. For parents of rising seniors, we offer these words of advice: 1. Help your child remember that college is first and foremost about the academic experience. Colleges are offering some very enticing options including gourmet food service, dorm suites with full kitchens, athletic centers with state-of-the-art equipment, and cyber cafes at every turn. All this is very appealing, but students can lose focus on what should be at the center of their college experience – the academic program. Enjoy all the amenities colleges have to offer, but help your child assess the breadth and depth of courses offered and the level of academic rigor. While these intangibles can be hard to evaluate, it is important to help your child to keep the rightness of the academic fit at the center of the decision making process.

2. If your child has been a procrastinator for 17 years, going through the college process isn’t going to draw out Type A qualities. Know your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and proceed accordingly. If he is disorganized, set up organizational systems. If he needs to read about colleges to really understand them, buy him guide books. Tech savvy kids can gather a lot of information from YouTube videos, podcasts, and school websites. Learning and behavioral styles are hard to change, so play to your child’s strengths.

3. Remember, this is not your turn to apply to college. While you’re college years may have been the best of your life, that doesn’t mean that your alma mater is perfect for your child. Let your child decide what is the best place for him/her to spend his/her undergraduate years.

4. It’s hard to be objective and supportive at the same time. If you start more sentences with “Tell me more about what you think about …” and fewer with “I think that…”, you’re well on your way.

5. Applying to college is probably the longest, most involved, and most difficult decision your child has ever had to make. Give him plenty of time and space to process all the information and don’t undervalue the emotional component. This is important practice for making even the even bigger decisions which the lie ahead.

6. View the process of applying to college as just that – a process. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and each child will go through the process in his own way, in his own time, hopefully taking on increasing responsibility and ownership. Ultimately, this is not just about “getting in”, but about developing self-awareness, clarifying values and becoming self-sufficient and self-directed. When parents become too involved, the student is denied the chance to go through this very maturing, self-actualizing process.

7. First row seats don’t always provide the best view. Sometimes the best place to watch this process is from the bleacher seats.

One Tour, Two Different Perspectives My daughter is a high school junior and last week we took our first official tour of colleges specifically for her. Although I had, of course, anticipated this moment for years, looking at colleges through the eyes of an invested parent instead of a detached consultant, was an extraordinary experience for me, unexpected in many ways. I worried about how she would find her niche in this new community, I tried to imagine her taking a semester to study abroad, and I wondered how she would be shaped differently by her experience at each college.

Read more:

Predicting who is more likely to retake the SAT

Does your SAT score end in "90"? Tomorrow Juniors head off to take the SAT with varying degrees of preparedness and nervousness. While most students will sit for the SAT and/or ACT at least twice, we don't encourage our students to take these tests over and over in pursuit of that ever-elusive "highest score possible". Standardized tests are only one piece of the college application. While an important part, they shouldn't be given undue time or weight.

Good luck, juniors!