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Articles / Applying to College / 2014 Highlights (Part II)

Dec. 22, 2014

2014 Highlights (Part II)

Continuing here with Part II of our look back over 2014, I've chosen some excerpts from this year's past Admit This! posts, some of which you may have missed. Hopefully, if you have missed some, perhaps these snippets will motivate you to check out the complete posts.

So, here we go (again) …

Your SAT Scheduling Plan

Perhaps one of the most overlooked components of a high schooler's college search and admission plan is a “smart" strategy for taking standardized tests. These would include the SAT, Subject Tests, and the ACT (if applicable). The speed with which high schoolers advance through their academic years sometimes makes it difficult to plan ahead, and some students end up in their junior (even senior) year wishing that they had been more thoughtful about when and how to prepare for the requirements for these tests.

Developing an testing strategy can be a challenge. It doesn't have to be, though, if you observe some basic considerations. First, define your goals. Obviously, you want your score to be as high as possible. But what is high? Over 830 four-year colleges view the SAT as optional. For students applying to these schools, low SAT scores are no problem; they don't submit them. Schools that do require the SAT have a published range of scores, called the middle 50 percent, which tells you where yours should fall if you want to meet their SAT guidelines. Most high schoolers take the SAT well before they know these ranges.

Getting SAT experience early is a good tactic. Often, your first encounter with the SAT should be in ninth grade. Some sixth and seventh graders take the SAT as a qualifier for Johns Hopkins University's Search for Talented Youth program. So don't be upset by the prospect of a ninth-grade SAT. In terms of how many SATs to take, sometimes more is less. Most students will have achieved an optimum score by the third taking of the SAT, assuming you take the final one in the Fall of your senior year. A rule of thumb states that SAT scores tend to rise naturally at the rate of 100 points (total) for each school year that elapses after the student's first SAT. Coaching, however, can make a difference.

Don't forget about the SAT II when planning your SAT I. The SAT II exams are the former Achievement Tests (now called Subject Tests). The three most commonly required Subject Tests (required by most highly selective colleges) are Writing, Math, and the sciences (Biology, Chemistry, etc.). You can't take both the SAT I and the Subject Tests on the same day. The best time to do the Subject Tests is in June of the year you had the subject your testing. If you want to do the SAT I and Subject Tests in the same year, do the SAT I in January or May and schedule the Subject Tests for June.

If reading this is making you feel a bit queasy (or even panicky), you're not alone. Ever see the original movie Godzilla or its remake? Some scenes recall a familiar and unfortunate attitude of high school seniors that happens every October: SAT panic. Obviously the fear and anxiety isn't quite that of those poor Tokyo residents or New Yorkers fleeing that big reptile. There is tension, though, and misunderstanding. Students want to flee the test. Let's take a look at what one SAT expert says about approaching the SAT as a sophomore. …

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.

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. …

College Costs: Where Will They End?

How much is enough? How much is too much? How much is way too much?

In a previous article, I noted how one particular school of a university in New York City has an annual total cost (including NYC lifestyle expenses) of over $75,000. That's for one school year. Nine months, actually. Granted a student there might get some financial aid, but the students I've worked with who have been accepted to NYU have not been overjoyed with the school's financial aid. The big draw for NYU appears to be the city of New York. NYU certainly has some outstanding educational aspects, but a $300,000 gross-cost price tag presents a challenging hurdle for most families, regardless of financial aid.

So, once again, we're faced with the old maxim: Return on Investment (ROI). I'm not picking on NYU. I'm just using it as an example of the runaway cost of higher education. Speaking of runaway costs, I often wonder how families are making ends meet these days with the prices of food, clothing, gasoline, and just about everything else climbing sharply. But, heading (or nearing the top of) the list of heavy expenses is college.

Some time ago, an interesting article from Bloomberg BusinessweekAre College Costs Reaching a Breaking Point? — made this interesting statement:

The growing attention to universities' soaring prices is pushing some private colleges to a tuition tipping point, according to Standard & Poor's Rating Services. In a new report, S&P said costs have risen so much, “many of their customers can't afford tuition without significant financial aid." If some schools don't keep their tuition under control, they'll shoot themselves in the foot and face the need for more drastic cost-cutting, such as layoffs, and potential mergers or closures, S&P says …

There has to be a solution to this dilemma. However, there is a kind of Catch 22 to all of this. That happens to be the old Law of Supply and Demand. As long as colleges have no problem filling all the beds in their dorms, they have no real incentive to lower their fees.

If you ran a business that sold a product and every year you had no problem selling 100% of your manufacturing capacity, you would have confidence to keep bumping the price of that product, not only to cover the rising costs of doing business but also to maintain whatever profit margin you have set. Of course, you may eventually reach that “tipping point" mentioned in the Bloomberg article I cited above. Knowing when the tipping point is reached is not an objective skill. In other words, you may have already reached (or surpassed) the tipping point, but clear evidence of that may not become tangible for some time. By then, it may be too late to take corrective action and recover the customers you've lost due to what they viewed as excessive costs. So, what about college costs?

I wanted to do a little research on both ends of the college cost spectrum, so I searched for “most expensive colleges" and “least expensive colleges." This took me to a helpful U.S. News article cited in Huffington Post during the fall of 2013. Getting right to the heart of the matter …

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 prioritiestranslates 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?

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? …

Assessing Your College Admissions Profile

Have you ever looked in the mirror at yourself and wondered how others see you? It's very hard to be objective about how you look, since you're seeing yourself from inside of your own head.

The same applies to how you see yourself as a college applicant. What you perceive about yourself may be completely different than what the admissions committees see when they examine your overall profile, as it comes through on your applications, Common or otherwise.

In my work as an independent college admissions counselor, I use several questionnaires to evaluate a college applicant's chances for admission to the schools s/he is targeting. I thought I would share some background about those questionnaires with you prospective applicants here, so that you might be able to better examine how you may stack up against the “competition" you'll face in the applicant pools at your chosen colleges.

The first questionnaire I use discerns personality and temperament preferences. It's a quick and easy way to learn about who you are and why you think and behave the way you do. If you care to take a look at it, it's located here. This is essentially a mini-Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that produces sample personality type profiles for students (or anyone else) to review and learn about themselves from a life-preferences perspective. I use this information to help me understand what types of behaviors my advisees most likely will display during our time together, such as promptness in responding to assignments, expressiveness in their writing, and intellectual slant, among other aspects. Try it, you may like it.

The second questionnaire I use is called a Stats Evaluation. It's a rather long form that probes into a student's academic, extracurricular, writing, and other areas of their school and non-classroom life. Here's a sample of the information it provides: …


So there you have it. An even dozen of 2014 Admit This! highlights across Parts I and II. I hope that you were able to find some helpful information that maybe you missed over the past year here. Here's to college knowledge!


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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