Honors Programs: Why you should consider applying and what to look for

  Dave Bergman   May 22, 2017   College Search/Knowledge   1 Comment

honors programs

Are you craving the in-class intimacy of a tiny liberal arts college but also find yourself drawn to the bright lights of a vibrant, sprawling campus, the big-time sports, and the chance to be part of a large and passionate student community? Not to sound like a middle-of-the-night infomercial but—now it’s finally possible to enjoy the best of both worlds—the honors college!

While honors programs have existed in one form or another since the GI bill first brought an influx of talented but cost-conscious students to public universities in the post-war era, the full-blown honors college is a more recent phenomenon. The majority of honors colleges were born in the 1990s, designed to lure Ivy-league caliber students to public institutions. Today, it is hard to find a large, public university that does not advertise some type of honors distinction. Yet, with new programs sprouting up faster than dandelions in spring, determining the quality and value of a university’s honors experience can prove quite challenging. Fortunately, we are here to help. What follows are the most important factors you should consider when exploring honors colleges/programs.

Will I get accepted to an honors college?

Acceptance into some honors colleges is relatively formulaic and simply involves meeting a defined set of criteria. The University of Pittsburgh automatically allows applicants to take honors classes if they have a minimum SAT score of 1450 and graduate in the top 5% of their high school class. Virginia Commonwealth will only consider applicants with a 1330 SAT and a 3.5 unweighted GPA. Clemson’s Calhoun Honors College will consider applicants with a 1380 SAT and above but warns that the average accepted applicant possesses a 1480 and also graduated in the top 3% of their high school class. Clark Honors College at The University of Oregon takes a very different approach, explicitly stating that there are no minimum academic requirements and that qualities such as creative potential and community contributions are given serious consideration in the admissions process.

These four examples illustrate that honors admissions runs the gamut from automatic acceptance with certain credentials to minimum scores/GPA required to even apply to more holistic approaches, as in the case of Oregon.

Class size and number of honors courses

Ideally, an honors college will offer a wide variety of honors-only courses with class sizes commensurate with those of elite liberal arts schools, typically in the 15-20 range. In reality, the numbers of courses offered and the numbers of students in the classroom vary widely across schools.

Despite its large size (over 1,000 honors students), The University of Mississippi boasts over 70 honors courses and class sizes of fewer than 15 students in its Barksdale Honors College. A perusal of Barksdale’s ample and diverse honors course selections reveals that they also offer a large number of sections per course—for example, there are 29 sections of the freshman honors seminar set to run in fall of 2017.

Arizona State, Indiana, Penn State, and Temple offer a similarly vast array of honors courses as well as class sizes under 20. Unfortunately, some programs may only a smattering of honors courses with 15-20 students, supplemented by a majority of classes in 300 seat lecture halls. As such, make sure to ask your prospective college for a complete list of honors courses (if this cannot easily be found online).

Does the “honors” experience extend outside the classroom?

As a fairly serious student, you may benefit by being surrounded by other academically-minded students outside of the lecture hall. Sharing a living space affords honors students the chance to easily study or complete group projects together and partake in unique intellectual experiences. Toward this end, it is important to find out if your prospective school offers special honors living arrangements and if so, what the offerings and policies look like, as they can take a variety of forms.

The University of South Carolina encourages freshman to live in their honors-only residence, which even includes three lecture halls that allow students to get to class without stepping foot outside. Boston University actually requires members of its Kilachand Honors College to live in a designated honors dorm as a freshman. Drexel University makes separate housing totally optional but offers an honors dorm that features special guest lecturers and faculty dinners on a regular basis. Pitt also makes honors housing optional and, interestingly, allows non-honors students to elect to live in the honors residence hall (though honors students get first dibs). Other schools such as Michigan State have honors floors in eight of their residence halls across campus, rather than all in one building.

How does the cost compare to private colleges?

It’s no secret that state schools (sans merit aid considerations) have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges. Since honors. Let’s say a Pennsylvania resident is choosing between Bucknell University, a well-regarded private school, and the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State. Here’s how the financials break down:

Bucknell (room/board/meals/fees): $64,616 x 4 years = $258,464

Penn State Honors (room/board/meals/fees): $35,068 x 4 years = $140,272

For those scoring at home, that’s a savings of more than $118,000.

It’s no secret that state schools (sans financial aid) have a significantly lower sticker price than most private colleges. However, given that many “honors” students also qualify for substantial merit aid from the larger university at which they enroll, honors programs can be an absolute bargain. For example, students admitted into the Schreyer Honors College automatically qualifiy for an Academic Excellence Scholarship valued at $4,500 per year, while students at Arizona State’s Barrett Honors College have exclusive access to scholarship ranging from $1,000 to as much as $20,000 per year.

CT’s quick take

Honors colleges can be a cost-effective and highly rewarding undergraduate experience for top-notch students. In the best-case scenario, you can enjoy all the benefits of a large university (research opportunities, athletics, and a diverse student body) while still benefiting from an intimate, rigorous, and individualized experience usually reserved for elite liberal arts colleges. It is critical, however, to do sufficient homework on any program you are considering as not all honors colleges are created equal.

Below, College Transitions has compiled a list of top honors programs (in alphabetical order):

Arizona State University (Barrett)

City University of New York (Macaulay)

Clemson University (Calhoun)

New Jersey Institute of Technology (Dorman)

Ohio University (Honors Tutorial College)

Penn State University (Schreyer)

Purdue University

Temple University

University of California – Irvine (Campuswide Honors)

University of Connecticut

University of Delaware

University of Georgia

University of Illinois (Campus Honors)

University of Kansas

University of Maryland

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

University of Oregon (Clark)

University of South Carolina

University of Texas at Austin (Plan II)

University of Virginia (Echols)

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5 Tips to Jump-Start your College Application this Summer

  Dave Bergman   May 15, 2017   Application Strategies   0 Comment

Summer Application TipsFor many high school students, summers are a time to hang by the pool, work a summer job, or simply take some time off from coursework and extracurricular demands. Whether your summer plans involve serving tables, lounging on the shore, or participating in a summer program, we recommend five simple steps that won’t overly-detract from your summer vacation but will give you a leg up in the college admissions process. If you follow this advice, you stand a much better chance of avoiding a potential meltdown during the frenetically-paced autumn months that loom ahead.

1. Request Letters of Recommendation

Separate yourself from the panicked masses who, in a few months time, will be begging their favorite teacher(s) to crank out a recommendation 48 hours before their application deadline. Fact — recommenders will appreciate your proactive approach and may even utilize the extra time to write a more thoughtful, detailed letter. Additional tips include supplying your recommender with a resume (tip #4) to better inform their testimonial as well as picking an individual who knows you intimately rather than someone prominent who doesn’t know you at all (admissions officers see mountains of generic letters from elected officials signed in autopen).

2. Create a Common App Account and Write the Common App Essay

The Common App now allows students to rollover their account for the 2017-18 application cycle, meaning that students can go ahead and create their account, even though the 2017-18 application won’t technically launch until August 1.

Earlier this year the Common App released their essay prompts for the 2017-18 admissions cycle, which means students can begin writing now. Of course, your first challenge is to brainstorm and pick a personal and compelling topic on which to write. Let’s define those words in the context of the college essay. By personal, we mean talk about something that happened to you, where you are at the heart of the action. If you write about a trip to Haiti and chronicle the culture of the Haitian people, then the essay is not really about you – it might as well be a homework assignment. Colleges want to know who you are and how you view the world – the essay may be your only chance to provide them with this type of insight, so it’s worth spending a fair amount of time to craft your message.

3. Demonstrate Interest

Carve out a few moments to show your prospective colleges some love by demonstrating interest.  Trust us, with yield rates causing admissions officers many restless nights, making schools feel wanted can leave a favorable impression. Whether or not a student showed interest in the form of a campus visit, an e-mail to an admissions counselor, or by requesting info through the university website can become a factor come admission time. Colleges want great students, but they really want great students who are genuinely interested in attending their institution.

4. Complete the Students Activities Resume

When it comes to listing your extracurricular achievements, the goal is not to fill a single-spaced page in 6-point font with a record of every single action you’ve ever taken as a human being. Admission officers are looking for depth over breath and want to see evidence of leadership, commitment, and flourishing passion that will carry over to their respective campus. In other words, leave off that afternoon as a freshman when you attended a Model U.N. interest meeting, only to embarrassingly realize that it was not, as you assumed, a club for building miniature replicas of embassy buildings.

5. Finalize your College List

Developing your college list can be much more challenging than it sounds. It’s easy to get caught up dreaming about one’s top choice school, yet it’s important to have not just multiple irons in the fire, but the right irons (all you blacksmiths out there know what I’m talkin’ about!). Remember that admission to Ivy and other uber selective colleges can never be taken for granted so you’ll need to diversify that portfolio. Also make sure to pick at least one financial safety school in case you end up on the short end of the merit aid chase.

Rising seniors, enjoy this well-earned respite from hard work. Relish the opportunity to enjoy a late breakfast while taking the time to relax. However, if you can also spare a few hours here and there to work on the above activities, you will thank yourself in just a few short months.

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Do I need to enter college with a major?

  Dave Bergman   May 08, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

The high school student who is the ultimate type A, planner extraordinaire can probably lay out an accurate vision for the next decade of their life, including their college and career path. Whether due to rigidity or innate passion, there are teens who truly know what they want to be when they grow up from an exceptionally young age. For these folks, picking a college major is easy—they pretty much did so when they were seven. For the rest of us, the undecided majority, selecting a major is often a burdensome and stressful endeavor, and one that weighs heavily on the shoulders of 17 and 18 year olds whose energy is better focused elsewhere.

What follows are data, research, and big-picture advice that should alleviate some of your/your teen’s angst about major selection.

There are more choices than you think

Let’s begin by demonstrating that the very concept of forcibly selecting a major before starting your postsecondary studies is flawed. While students often believe that there are only a handful of majors to choose from, like entrées at a fancy restaurant, the college major smorgasbord more closely resembles the menu at the Cheesecake Factory.

We’ve met many accomplished young people who, due to limited exploration and sometimes excessive parental pressure, live in a world where there are only a handful or career choices: doctor, lawyer, scientist, engineer, computer programmer, investment banker, and a few other high income, high prestige professions. This narrow lens carries beyond top students as evidenced by the number of degree-earners in certain fields. Nationwide, over 20% of college grads earn business degrees, followed by massive numbers in health professions (primarily nursing), psychology, biological sciences, social sciences and history, and education. These 6 areas account for well over half of all college graduates.

Based on these statistics, you might never know that the U.S. Department of Education presently recognizes over 1,500 academic programs offered by the nation’s colleges and universities. You read that correctly—there are 1,500 different majors including areas like: Golf Course Management, Juvenile Corrections, Greenhouse Operations, Documentary Filmmaking, and Military Technologies, just to name a handful.

You are likely to switch once…or twice

Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their postsecondary experience. It is estimated that 80% of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, an internal study revealed that 70% of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo at some point in their collegiate careers.

The takeaway here is that many of those who enter college with a major already declared are not really far, if at all ahead of their undecided peers. The majority of students from both camps will eventually change course anyway.

Don’t delude yourself

While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway because of poor planning, lack of information, or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first- and second-semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Any student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of advanced math and science classes in high school. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in 12th grade.

Return on investment is important, but don’t think purely in dollars

Too many students who declare their major before starting college selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students — almost two-thirds — select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in four years. This seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue what are considered the most economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.

Don’t believe us? Here’s a stunning fact—Philosophy majors outpace their peers who studied marketing, pre-law, and even chemistry in both average starting and mid-career income. You read correctly—philosophy majors!

Different paths, same destination

Even if you believe that you know you’re 100% committed to certain profession or graduate school down the line, there are typically more than one major that will successfully prepare you for those next steps.

For example, countless students with an eye on med school mistakenly believe they must major in the biological sciences. This can be a prudent path but is far from a compulsory one. In fact, only about 50% of students enrolled in U.S. medical schools majored in the biological sciences. The other half majored in everything from mathematics to the humanities. “Yeah,” you’re probably thinking, “but how do humanities majors fare on the MCATs?” Out of all matriculated med students, the humanities majors actually outscored the biological sciences majors by a sliver of a point on the MCAT.

Many aspiring lawyers assume that selecting a Pre-law major is their best bet. Interestingly, the American Bar Association states that it “does not recommend any undergraduate majors or group of courses to prepare for a legal education.” There are good reasons for this as average LSAT scores for those who major in the classics, philosophy, and math are far greater than those who studied law in undergrad. Criminal Justice majors actually have the lowest average LSAT score of any group.

A case for exploration and flexibility

There is nothing wrong with selecting a major prior to setting foot on a college campus. There is equally nothing wrong with taking a full year or two of college before committing to an area of concentrated study. Follow these three pieces of advice and you’ll not only make the best decision for your future but you’ll also feel significantly less stress:

1) Approach this decision with an open mind and learn of the many (1,500!) options that are available.

2) Follow your passions and enthusiasm—the long-term outcome will be better than staying the course in an area you thought you would enjoy but do not.

3) Understand the bigger picture of the fields you are considering—there are often a multitude of undergraduate pathways leading to advanced study and/or professional success.


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Are college guidebooks useful?

  Dave Bergman   May 03, 2017   College Search/Knowledge, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Two decades ago, opening a college guidebook made you feel like the ultimate insider—suddenly, you were holding in your hand data that felt like classified information. Only fellow purchasers of these phonebook-sized texts were privy to these “secrets” of the college application process. Prior to the advent of the modern internet, data-starved applicants had to head over to Barnes & Noble or another, now defunct retailer (remember Borders and Waldenbooks?) to find insights beyond those contained in the official glossy brochures that arrived in the mail.

The internet has made some of these extra-thick volumes a bit less essential. After all, finding basic admissions data like SAT range, average GPA, tuition costs, and acceptance rate can be done through a fast and free Google search. Yet, guidebooks remain quite relevant as their benefits and insights go well beyond sheer basic stats.

What follows are College Transitions’ reviews of some of the most popular college guides on the market, with some of the pros and cons of each text. It is important to note that our “cons” are not necessarily criticisms (although sometimes they are). Rather, this is our analysis of what each source lacks so that you can properly identify the correct complementary source to fill in the gaps. After all, your own learning process for a subject this expansive and important should involve more than one book.

Princeton Review’s The Best 381 Colleges

Since 1992, The Princeton Review has released its “Best Colleges” editions each year based on surveys of over 140,000 students at institutions across the country.

Pros: This guide is an excellent starting point for any college-bound high school student. It covers many, but certainly not all, of the finest institutions in the United States, placing a spotlight on top programs, popular majors, and notable campus attributes. Its wealth of lists will also help students looking to find like-minded peers by highlighting schools that are known for their: LGBT friendliness, religious student bodies, intramural sports, quality college towns, study abroad opportunities, Greek or non-Greek-dominated social scene, and so on.

Cons: Anecdotes and generalizations of a less-than-helpful nature abound in this guidebook. Examples include statements such as “hard liquor is popular on campus” or “no one cheats.” In reality, there are students at every school who are more focused on illicitly purchasing bottles of hard lemonade than attending class, and someone at even the allegedly most honest campus is plagiarizing a term paper on the resurgent popularity of Alexander Hamilton as we speak.

The Best 381 Colleges is available on Amazon.

The Fiske Guide to Colleges

Now in its 33rd edition, this annual, authored by Edward Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times, highlights those institutions that he deems to be the “best and most interesting” schools in the United States. Typically, around 320 colleges and universities make the cut.

Pros: The Fiske Guide is extremely well-written and the school profiles are a pleasure to read. Incisive quotes from students and professors are interspersed throughout each school profile. Rich descriptions of the overall academic milieu, programmatic offerings, and notably unique extracurricular/recreational opportunities give the reader an excellent overview of the strengths of each school. In addition to detailed profiles of hundreds of colleges and universities, there are also some helpful lists breaking down the included schools by cost as well as by graduate debt load.

Cons: Do you care that Brown University has “a building that resembles a Greek temple and buildings in the Richardsonian tradition”? Me neither. There is a healthy dose of space devoted to campus architecture as well as the same type of generalizations about the student body that are spewed by the Princeton Review (i.e. students are happy, preppy, leaders, world-citizens, etc.) that may or may not be helpful to your college search.

Fiske Guide to Colleges is available on Amazon.

Colleges That Change Lives

Loren Pope, another New York Times education editor, penned this classic as well as other worthy reads such as Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Pope’s was the first national voice to popularize the idea that what actually takes place on campus and in classrooms is far more important than name recognition and prestige. In advocating for small, liberal arts schools, he highlighted 40 schools that are not highly-selective but still provide students with a superior educational experience.

Pros: There are two groups of students that can benefit from this book—those with Ivy tunnel vision who can be enlightened about amazing schools that have been off their radar, and solid but not spectacular students who may be unaware of the incredible and one-of-a-kind educational opportunities that are actually within their reach.

Cons: While this book is undoubtedly a worthy read and was groundbreaking in leading the charge encouraging high schoolers to consider less-prestigious but excellent colleges, there are some negatives. Many of the school profiles are purely observational and some of the anecdotes get a bit repetitive. For example, Pope will stroll by the library at night, see a pack of students studying and conclude that this affirms an atmosphere of serious scholarship. One other important note is that some of the material is outdated, and was so even at the time of publication. Most egregiously, Antioch College, included in the 2006 edition, actually shut down for a four-year period due to financial difficulties just months after the book’s release.

Colleges That Change Lives is available on Amazon.

The Enlightened College Applicant

We authored this book to fill what we saw as huge gaps in the guidebook literature: What can academic research in the field of higher education tell us about college selection? How can we measure return on investment by undergraduate institution and major? How can teenagers, even those unsure about their future paths, make decisions about college that will keep their lives flexible enough to pursue their dreams, as they begin to take form?

Pros: Since we wrote this book, we’ll let the national book critics speak to its worthiness. As Kirkus stated, our book is a “destressing trove of data that will help readers make more well-rounded college decisions.” It arms families and students with research-based advice to help make their college decisions more “rationally and reasonably,” to quote The American Library Association (Booklist). We think our text should be the first college book you read, as it will provide you with a framework and philosophy to guide your search for an undergraduate home. Publisher’s Weekly agrees that The Enlightened College Applicant is “a voice of reason” that will “provide comfort and direction to those starting the application process.”

Cons: None, because we wrote it! Just kidding. Our guidebook does highlight colleges that excel in particular areas (i.e. Top Feeders to Med School) but is not a comprehensive list of hundreds of schools with institution-specific admissions data. For that, we recommend Fiske, The Princeton Review, or any number of free internet sites.

The Enlightened College Applicant is available on Amazon.

Other books about college admissions on our shelves

The College Solution, by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, is one of our all-time favorite books on higher-education, as it masterfully argues for families to put undergraduate cost at the forefront of their college considerations.

How to Raise an Adultby Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a well-crafted argument for an end to helicopter parenting from a former dean of freshmen at Stanford.

The Gatekeepers, by Jacques Steinberg, is the story of a journalist embedded within the Wesleyan admissions office for a full admissions cycle. Lively accounts of the experiences of the admissions officers as well as several applicants make this a highly insightful and relatable book.

Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Easy Steps, by Alan Gelb, is a pocket-size manual that directly and succinctly walks you through the basics of college essay composition.

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Cast a wide net: Geographic diversity and college admissions

  Dave Bergman   Apr 29, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   Comments Off on Cast a wide net: Geographic diversity and college admissions


We think of matriculation into college as a time of great separation, the moment where the young leave the nest, spread their wings, and fly into the great beyond to meet their futures. It turns out, however, that most little birdies don’t fly too far.

How far from home do most students go for college?

A recent study revealed that 72% of college-bound students attend school in-state, while 58% choose schools within a 100 mile radius of their home. Only 11% of students opt for an institution more than 500 miles away and just a mere 2% of teens are adventurous enough to enroll in institutions more than 2,000 miles from their parent’s abode. One has to figure that a good number of this 2% involves individuals in Los Angeles or San Francisco making their way to hotbeds of elite schools on the East Coast, or vice versa. This makes the student who leaves, say, Casper, Wyoming to attend Bowdoin College quite the rarity.

In our increasingly mobile society, this finding is somewhat surprising, perhaps even discouraging. Although remaining close to home for college can seem the more comfortable and convenient option, there are significant benefits associated with casting a wider net. Most notably, a willingness to travel can lead to improved admissions prospects and better financial aid offers. Why? Because colleges crave something called geographic diversity; that is, a student body comprised of young people from all around the country and even the globe.

Why do colleges care about geographic diversity?

Like high test scores and low acceptance rates, geographic diversity improves a school’s selectivity, as well as its ability to increase enrollment and revenue.  All things equal, colleges will almost always favor the applicant coming from a more distant or exotic locale, and not just because the applicant brings a unique background and perspective to campus—it’s also a great marketing tool.

For example, let’s say that Denison University, a liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio, is seeking to improve its ranking. Nabbing a highly accomplished student from Columbus or Cleveland might help, but not as much as luring an equally accomplished student from, let’s say… Seattle. That’s because a student hailing from the birthplace of grunge can serve as a phenomenal marketing tool. Our fictional Seattle attendee could introduce the college to an entirely new network of potential applicants, who may now actually consider Denison over other, perhaps previously more attractive, Ohio-based institutions like Kenyon or Oberlin.

Does this apply to state schools?

A few years ago, the answer would have been a resounding “No!” In the past, the opposite effect was true, pretty much across the board. Being a hometown guy or gal gave you a big admissions edge at schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama, or Louisiana Tech. In today’s harsh economic climate, state schools, even excellent ones, are desperate for sources of revenue and have begun aggressively recruiting out-of-state students who can pay full freight.

While the institutional motivation may be completely different than in our Denison example, this is still a way that applicants can use their location to gain an edge in admissions. Of course, in this case, the university’s motivation is financial in nature and thus you are unlikely to have an advantage when it comes to netting a healthy aid package.

For more on this topic revisit our recent blog: Out-of-State Deals.

Not a huge help at Harvard but…

Not every college wants or needs to improve the geographic diversity of its student body—Harvard and Yale already attract more qualified Alaskans than they are able to admit. That being said, an Ivy League applicant from West Virginia or Montana will certainly stand out over the glut of applicants from cities in the Northeast. Likewise at other elite colleges and universities around the country. New England powerhouses like Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, Connecticut College, Vassar, Wesleyan, among many others, receive a flood of applications from teens hailing from East Coast metropolitan areas. As a result, the prospective student with comparable credentials from, again, Casper, Wyoming will certainly catch an admissions officer’s eye.

How to use this strategically

Taking advantage of the institutional desire for geographic diversity can be one tool of many in your arsenal, but it isn’t one you want to wield just for the heck of it. There’s a reason that colleges in the landlocked Great Plains region have trouble attracting candidates from the coasts—that type of experience isn’t for everyone. However, if your dream school happens to be far from home or if you reside in a remote region of the country, a school’s mission to achieve geographic diversity may just help you come out a winner in the admissions game.

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Extracurricular Advice for 9th and 10th Graders

  Andrew Belasco   Apr 23, 2017   Big Picture   0 Comment

Winston Churchill once quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Or did he? Ironically, the attribution of this quote may be a case of a lie whirling around the globe while the truth flails around in the dark, unable to locate his slacks; the origin of the quote is actually a matter debate. It may have been said by noted quote machine, Mark Twain, our third president and inventor of macaroni and cheese (seriously), Thomas Jefferson, or may just be an unattributed ancient Chinese proverb. Regardless, this witticism has relevance here, as one of the biggest myths in college admissions happens to also be one of the most widespread as the pervasive and hardened belief that colleges are looking for “well-rounded students” has made its way around the world many times over.

A well-rounded misunderstanding

Colleges are indeed worried about well-roundedness on campus. In putting together a freshman class they are looking for individuals who excel in sports, music, theater, entrepreneurship, volunteer work, foreign language, poetry, debate, etc. However, they aren’t looking for all of these talents to be wrapped-up in one human body. Rather, the core of their institutional desire is for collective well-roundedness to promote a healthy and diverse campus environment. In other words, they want an eclectic and balanced student body, comprised of individuals possessing one or two areas of high aptitude and zeal.

So, all of you ambitious 9th and 10th graders—please halt your plans to lug your bassoon, Latin textbook, and robotics kit to your JV baseball game so you can you cram in extra activities during any idle time in the dugout. Becoming the ultimate Renaissance man/woman is not actually a prerequisite for college admission.

How to approach freshman year

Now that the truth has at least put its pants on, let’s discuss how a typical freshman should approach planning their extracurricular pathway. To begin, it’s important to note that colleges, even Ivy and Ivy-caliber schools, do not expect you to be a finished product the moment you set foot in a high school. Sure, there are prodigies and savants out there who have been playing the cello since infancy or destined for the U.S. National team since the first day of pee wee soccer but most of us lack such early-formed destinies.

Our advice for 9th and the first half of 10th grade is simple—explore your options, try things out that sound interesting, and discover your passion(s).

Quality over quantity

Some applicants feel like quitting an activity amounts to a “sunken cost,” and should be avoided. This is a mental trap that needs to be avoided. Gutting-out activities in which you have little interest will get you nowhere in the long-run and will, in effect, actually waste valuable time you could be devoting to something you love.

If you tried Model U.N. and didn’t like it, then move on and devote more time to a preferred club or activity. If you hate sports, don’t play them. There is little to be gained by riding the bench as a back-up punter when you’d rather be prepping for Science Bowl.

Colleges want to see sustained commitment to 2-3 activities. Such commitment will typically lead to leadership positions by junior or senior year and will say more about you as a future campus contributor than a scattered and unfocused jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach.

Looking ahead

In a few years, you’ll be filling out the activities page on the Common App and refining your “brag sheet” addendums. Admissions officers will be asking themselves, “Do the applicant’s previous extracurriculars align with academic programs and/or activities offered on our campus?”

This is by no means to say that high school students should only pick activities that directly correspond with campus offerings. Instead, think of it in terms of a narrative that you will be able to express in an interview or essay. For example, you were heavily involved in buildOn in high school and plan to pursue volunteer work with an after-school program in a lower-income area near campus during college. Or perhaps you were passionate about robotics in high school and now plan to pursue an engineering major.

The bottom line

In summary, try to remember that no college, not even Princeton or Stanford, expect a 14/15 year old to be Leonardo da Vinci. Every high school student, including future applicants to elite colleges and universities, has a right to be a typical teenager who needs time to experiment, try and fail, contemplate, reassess, and change their mind a few times before settling on extracurricular activities that are the most fulfilling, worthwhile, and representative of them as an individual. Taking this path will invariably lead to a college applicant whom admissions officers will be clamoring to add to their well-rounded freshman class.

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Common App Updates for 2017-18

  Dave Bergman   Apr 17, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Flowers blooming, the crack (or ping) of the baseball bat, the storing away of sweaters and jeans and the end of hibernation for piles of t-shirts and shorts—April is a time of change and transition. So perhaps it is fitting that the Common App picks this time to announce its updates for the upcoming admissions cycle.

With juniors beginning their college visits and the march toward summer break picking up pace, the reality that the 2017-18 application is just around the corner becomes increasingly apparent. To help you get ready, we review the most significant changes to the Common App that are sure to affect everyone applying to college next fall.

Essay Prompts

Out of the seven prompts for the 2017 admissions cycle, five are either brand new or significantly altered from last year’s form. Visit our blog post from February to get a detailed breakdown of all changes to the Common App essay prompts along with advice for how to craft your most unique and compelling story.

Google Drive Integration

With so many high school students now using Google Drive and Google Docs as commonly as us (relatively) old folks used Trapper Keepers, Mead notebooks, and #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, the Common App has made it easier to directly upload cloud-based documents into their applications. In addition to being more convenient across the board, the folks at the Common App hope this will help improve access for lower-income students who may not have a computer at home.

Self–Reported Grades

Beginning on August 1, 2017, the process of self-reporting one’s grades to colleges is about to get a whole lot more efficient. Rather than doing this individually for each institution that requires it, students will be able to fill out their self-reported transcript as part of the Common Application, saving time and meaningless labor. This new “Courses and Grades” section was added at the behest of students and counselors, who have long desired a streamlined method of inputting transcript information.

Schools Joining Common App

Another 40 colleges and universities have agreed to join as Common App members for the 2017-18 cycle, bringing the organization’s total membership to 740 schools. Notable additions include Farleigh Dickinson, Appalachian State, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Kent State, the University of Missouri, UNLV, the University of Houston, the University of Oregon, and the University of Wyoming. For a complete list of new members, visit the Common App site.

Keeping up with the Coalition Application?

Some changes to the Common App seem to mirror innovations put forth by the Coalition Application (for a complete overview of this organization revisit our earlier blog post). For example, the Common App will now allow counselors belonging to community-based organizations to have equal access to a student’s account as their high school counselor counterpart (say that three times fast, or better yet—don’t). Thus, advisors working with students, presumably from lower-income/minority/first-generation backgrounds, will be able to better assist their students with the application process. The Coalition Application grants such access to outside counselors beginning as early as 9th grade.

Also with an eye toward increasing access, the key information on the Common App will now be available in Spanish. This upgrade will be of obvious benefit to Latino students, their families, and counselors.

Bottom Line

The improvements with self-reported transcripts and Google Drive integration will save many applicants time and headaches this fall. The most Enlightened College Applicants will pay special attention to the revised essay topics and will begin brainstorming which prompt will best allow them to compose a winning narrative.

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The Truth Behind Private Scholarships

  Andrew Belasco   Apr 10, 2017   Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

money_capIn the early 1970s the U.S. auto industry received warnings from economic experts—if they continued to focus on the wrong thing, Japanese car companies would soon put them out of business.  Detroit’s Big 3 of GM, Ford, and Chrysler were told that if they remained attached to producing oversized, inefficient American-style models, they would soon be surpassed by the compact, fuel-efficient cars being made by the Japanese if the price of gasoline were to drastically increase. Laughing off these dire warnings, U.S. auto execs continued with business-as-usual. Over the course of the decade, due to a changing atmosphere in the Middle East, the price of oil skyrocketed and the American car companies crumbled. If you’ve ever seen Eminem’s 8 Mile or an episode of Hardcore Pawn, you have an idea of how things turned out in the Motor City.

It’s easy to become fixated on details that are new, shiny, and fun (like a ’72 Corvette) and ignore others that are counter to our belief system. Such is the case with how prospective high schools students and their families seek financial aid. For whatever reason, students and parents alike spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out private scholarships from employers, non-profits, and local organizations and not enough time focusing on where the bulk of aid money actually comes from.

The shocking numbers

Let us quickly disabuse you of this notion through simple numbers. In 2014-15 academic year (most recent data available) roughly $184 billion in student aid was awarded to undergraduate students. The vast majority of this was money awarded by the federal government and from institutions themselves. Only 6% came in the form of employer and private scholarships, a number that doesn’t quite support all of the hype.

Unclaimed money?

Some websites and guidebooks proliferate the belief are millions of dollars in scholarships that go unused. While there is some truth to that statement, the fact also remains that many of those scholarships are inaccessible because the qualifying requirements are so limiting.  For example, there may be a scholarship at a regional university specifically aimed at a student from a particular county, with a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher, who is majoring in interior design. If no incoming student meets these criteria, the scholarship may go unclaimed.

Private Scholarships can hurt your financial aid package

It is also important to note that since the federal government requires postsecondary institutions to consider private scholarships when calculating financial aid, outside scholarships can actually reduce your total aid package.  Let’s say, for example, that a family’s expected family contribution (EFC) is $17,000 and the cost of the college is $30,000.  In order to meet this cost the college offers $13,000 in its financial aid package to assist the family.  Now let’s say that the student wins a $3,000 scholarship from a local employer.  In this instance, most schools would then reduce their respective financial aid offers by $3,000.  Hopefully, these reductions target loan awards, rather than grant awards, although that isn’t always the case at every school.  All in all, private scholarships have very little impact on the “bottom line” for students requiring need-based aid since scholarships often lead to a reduction in their original financial aid award.  For affluent students who do not require aid, however, scholarships will undoubtedly impact out-of-pocket costs by reducing the amount they owe.

By no means do we want to discourage you from applying for private scholarships; we just encourage you not dedicate an excessive amount of time to these pursuits. Should you remain interested, we will attempt to expedite and enhance your quest by offering the following ten tips for pursuing private scholarships.


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Moving Off the Waitlist

  Dave Bergman   Mar 29, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Is it possible to get off the waitlist?


After battling through the epic journey of the college application process, with all its emotional twists and turns, the torturous anticipation, the potential heaven of acceptance or hell of rejection, judgment day has finally arrived. You tear open the envelope and frantically scan the letter for a telling phrase. You have been “offered a spot.” So far, so good… “on the wait list.” Ugh. Welcome to admissions purgatory.

The good news…

Colleges do not place students on the waitlist to soften the blow of rejection or to spread false hope. The waitlist exists as a useful tool that provides institutions with a safety net against tough-to-predict yield rates. Thus the percentage of students plucked off the waitlist varies greatly from year to year. For example, in the last decade the number of applicants accepted off of Brown University’s waitlist has fluctuated between zero and 196 students. At MIT, the last five years have seen the number of students taken out of purgatory fall between zero and 65. It’s quite possible that you will simply luck into a good year for waitlisters.

The Bad News…

Of course, the odds are not exactly forever in a student’s favor. Stanford’s waitlisted students stand somewhere between a 0-5% chance of receiving an offer, depending on the year. Acceptance rates for those waitlisted by juggernauts like Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Middlebury average under 4%.

In the 2015 cycle, Emory students fared slightly better, with 8% eventually gaining acceptance. However, in 2016, that number dropped to a paltry 2%. UC-Irvine opened its doors to just 3% of the over 4,000 on its waitlist in the spring of 2016. At quirky/cerebral Bard College, a meager 10 students from a waitlist pool of 675 were eventually given the nod last year.

Bottom line, in a good year, chances may be half-decent. In a bad year, odds are more on par with a participant in The Hunger Games.

What You Can Do…

Carnegie Mellon offers students the option of joining their “Priority Waitlist,” which means you pledge to attend if admitted. While this will improve your odds, it is worth pointing out that only 4 of 2,835 students were offered spots in Carnegie Mellon’s freshman class last fall. However, a few years back in 2014, Carnegie Mellon took a comparatively massive 5% of waitlisted hopefuls.

For all other schools, the number one thing students can do while on the waitlist is communicate clearly, firmly, and respectfully to the admissions office that, if offered, you will accept a spot at the school. Admissions officers like knowing that they have students who will enroll if called upon. A sincere letter to the admission office and an occasional check-in from a guidance counselor will suffice. Waitlisted students who obsessively pepper the Dean of Admission’s inbox with crazed inquiries typically do not do themselves any favors. Remember, colleges are looking for the next productive member of their freshman class, not the next stalker.

Of equal importance to expressing a student’s intentions is, not surprisingly, maintaining a strong academic performance. Spring grades, another teacher recommendation, or a recent unique accomplishment can still sway an admissions committee.

You will still want to submit a non-refundable deposit at your first-choice school to which you’ve been accepted. There are no bonus points awarded for declaring that if you do not get off of the Tufts waitlist, you’ll skip college altogether and become a street performer.

If the call off of the waitlist never comes, allow your student to grieve as they must, and then move them on and get him/her ready to thrive at their second-choice school. After all, the second-choice school surely has a waitlist full of people stuck in their own purgatory who can only dream of being in your child’s shoes.

College Transitions offers updated waitlist statistics at America’s most competitive colleges. Click here to access the most recent waitlist statistics.

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Should you consider a “gap year” before college?

  Dave Bergman   Mar 24, 2017   Big Picture   0 Comment

volunteersBack in the 80s, parents’ worst nightmare was that their flaky Gen-X teens would defer entry into college, stating that they first needed to “find themselves.” After a year of goat herding in the Himalayas, being one with nature, and going on nightly vision quests, the best some parents could hope for is that their sons and daughters would eventually return, ready to hit the books, embrace Alex P. Keatonesque values, and eventually end up as Wall Street wolves.

While absurd, this introduction offers a kernel of truth – In the absence of proper nomenclature, a desire to step off the conveyor belt of formal education was not always encouraged in American culture. Rest assured, in modern times, the “gap year” is officially a real thing, and while only 2% of soon-to-be college students presently partake, the practice is greatly increasing in popularity.  No longer solely the domain of the wealthy, a growing number of middle class students are also taking a year off to foray into the “real” world, often emerging with a new sense of perspective, purpose, and direction. (more…)

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