Successfully Navigating a College Fair

  Dave Bergman   Mar 17, 2017   Careers, College Search/Knowledge   0 Comment


Without a solid game plan, a college fair can easily devolve into a blur of smiles, handshakes, and the accumulation of enough glossy pamphlets to wallpaper your bedroom twenty times over. However, with proper planning, a college fair can be an illuminating experience that will provide you with newfound insight into prospective colleges as well as flesh-and-blood contacts you simply cannot get from paging through a Princeton Review guidebook, or our own The Enlightened College Applicant (shameless plug).

Adopting the right mindset

We encourage students to first think about the big picture of college admissions. The college selection process is not merely about “getting in”—it is about becoming a discerning and thoughtful consumer ultimately capable of selecting an undergraduate institution that aligns with your long-term academic, career, and financial goals. Can you afford the full tuition price of your potential destinations or will you rely on scholarships, merit aid, or loans? Does the school you are considering fit in with your post-undergraduate plans?

The tools of the trade

On an extremely practical level, make sure that on the day of the fair you bring with you a backpack or other carrying apparatus (perfect occasion to dust off your dad’s neon fanny pack!) with which to store materials, a notebook containing potential questions for reps, and a writing implement (although free pens with school insignias will be available by the ton). Be prepared for the fact that all schools with whom you speak at the fair will request that you fill out an information card. Students wishing to streamline this process and avoid developing carpal tunnel syndrome may wish to preprint self-stick address labels containing their name, contact info, intended major and extracurricular interests. Make sure that if you include an email address that it is appropriate and not like our example here. Additionally, if a given school asks for info that doesn’t happen to be on your pre-made label, be sure to add it in by hand.

Dress and hygiene

Inevitably, you will see some of your peers dressed to the nines in clothes so stiff and unfamiliar that they are moving from booth to booth with a Herman Muster-like gait. This simply isn’t necessary. There is absolutely no need to show up to a college fair in a three piece suit—just don’t show up in a humorous, alcohol-themed t-shirt and dirty sweats (trust us, some will). Dress for a college fair as you would for a dinner with your grandmother – a “business casual” look will more than suffice.

Study up for a productive Q&A

When you have the ear of an admissions rep at a prospective college, take advantage of the opportunity by asking penetrating questions. Find out whether a typical freshman class at their school is a classroom of 20 students intimately engaged in discourse with the professor or whether it involves 300 anonymous faces in a lecture hall. Ask about graduation rates, career services, internships and study abroad opportunities, and employment statistics in your field of interest. It can also be beneficial to ask specific questions about life on campus. What are the options for freshman housing? How does the college select roommates? What are the meal plan options? What is the neighborhood surrounding the campus like? This information can be challenging to find online or in guidebooks but can be easily answered by a college rep.

Of course, any conversation is a two-way street so it is wise to come prepared to talk about yourself as well. Our tips for acing the college interview will help you brainstorm your answers to common questions that reps may ask you. Remember, even if you are not engaging in a formal interview, it’s still a face-to-face opportunity to make a strong first impression.

Your endgame

Since admissions officers typically attend college fairs within their assigned regions, there is a very strong chance the rep that you meet will be one of the people reading your application down the road. Aim to make at least one or two “human connections” at the fair and stay in contact with this individual in the coming months. Send them an email thanking them for their time and ask follow-up questions as they arrive. Believe it or not, demonstrating interest in your school is actually a factor in the admissions process.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, a college fair will have provided you with several useful contacts and a plethora of useful information that will help you, the college consumer, better determine which schools should jump to the top of your list and which can be eliminated.

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Out-of-State Deals

  Dave Bergman   Mar 05, 2017   Application Strategies, Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

At risk of sounding like famed 60 Minutes resident curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, the world has changed drastically in so many ways since 1986—landlines have been replaced by cell phones, actual socializing has been replaced by social media, and America’s highest office is now held by a reality star rather than a B movie actor…okay, so not much of a leap on that last one.

In our much narrower world of college admissions, the doubling of the number of freshmen attending out-of-state universities over the last 30 years would be among the top headlines. This may seem like an insignificant change compared to the aforementioned technological and social shifts, but an admissions professional from the mid-80s would raise his wayfarers and spit out his Bubble Tape gum in pure disbelief—it’s that much of a departure.

Back then, public universities served a straightforward purpose, allowing residents the opportunity for a good education at a reasonable price. Today, the situation is far more complex.

As public universities search for new ways to overcome budget shortfalls, they’ve had to get creative, and that means looking beyond state lines for sources of revenue. We’ve written previously on the out-of-state admissions edge enjoyed by applicants who are willing and able to pay full tuition freight, thus filling up the university’s coffers. But that is only one consequence of the altered landscape.

Public’s recruiting high school superstars

The University of Alabama is one school that has begun aggressively recruiting students from around the country who have Ivy-League credentials. Over the last decade, the University’s total merit-aid offerings have risen from $8.3 million to over $100 million.

Process those numbers for a moment.

In an effort to rise to the level of prestigious flagships like The University of Michigan and The University of Virginia, Alabama is willing to pay for top talent. Free rides are available for students with high test scores and competitive high school transcripts.

The University of Alabama is hardly the only school employing this recruiting strategy. Louisiana Tech hands out merit aid to 65% of out-of-state applicants with an average award of over $17,000. Bowling Green University in Ohio offers 86% of non-homegrown Buckeyes an average of $10,000 in aid. Even if to a lesser extent than the aforementioned examples, just about every public university has followed the game plan to some degree.

What is their motivation?

It’s not hard to deduce why public institutions lure out-of-state applicants who will pay full tuition. Universities’ reasons for recruiting non-resident teens on full scholarships are a bit more complicated. When a state college manages to lure one top student from a distant high school, they put their brand on the radar of future graduates of that school, including ones who might pay in full. The guiding theory is essentially the old cliché: you’ve got to spend money to make money. The next year, five students from, say Ohio for example, might apply to The University of Maryland; the next year it could be ten.

Even recipients of large scholarships end up forking over a good deal of money to the school whether through room & board, meal plans, or even overpriced mugs, banners, and teddy bears sporting the school insignia.

How you can take advantage

If you are going to college on any sort of a budget, you and your parents should be on the lookout for bargains. Non-exceptional students (relative to the school to which they are applying), will not fare well financially at out-of-state flagship universities. In these belt-tightening times where state funding evaporates more each year, such out-of-town cash cows are the very students keeping the campus lights aglow.

Yet, those well above the school-specific mean SAT/ACT and GPA can take advantage of this trend by receiving a high quality education at a greatly reduced cost. As a prospective college student, simply being open to the value that out-of-state publics may be willing to offer you can help uncover some of the best college bargains on the higher education market.

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The Importance of the College Visit

  Andrew Belasco   Feb 24, 2017   Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

Residing in the digital age, it’s tempting to forgo more and more tasks that, a decade or two ago, involved an actual trek out into the real world. Hassles such as buying paper towels or searching for the perfect used car that used to require legwork, human interaction, and possibly even wearing pants can now be done with a click of a mouse from one’s own living room.

Similarly, parents and students may find themselves considering skipping the annoyances of long car rides or plane trips, days away from work/school, and the slew of hotel bills that come from visiting your teen’s prospective colleges. After all, it’s possible to take a virtual tour of campus, chat with an admissions officer in an online forum, and find answers to most questions about anything from dorm life to financial aid on a school’s FAQ page. So, given the availability of fairly comprehensive virtual excursions, is it still worth the time and expense of a physical trip? We at College Transitions believe that, when feasible, it is for the following reasons:

1. Use your senses, including your gut

For many, college will be life’s greatest expense outside of buying a home and should thus be given every bit as much attention. Would you ever considering buying a house, sight-unseen, from an online listing? What looks like a lush backyard may actually be swampland, the beautiful hardwood floors may be rotting and moldy, and two of the three alleged “bedrooms” may feel more like medium-size closets.

Just as with a new home, it helps to see, smell, feel, and fully experience a college campus before forking over that tuition money. Equally important will be the gut-sense you get around campus. Have a meal in the cafeteria, sit in on a class, read the student newspaper, and talk with a few current students. Does it feel like it could be home for four years? Does it have a positive vibe? Do you feel safe and comfortable walking around campus? The only way to answer these questions is to plant your feet on campus and soak it all in.

2. Distance is more than an abstract concept

There are a multitude of reasons that 72% of college students choose to attend school in their home state, the chief one, of course, being reduced tuition at public universities. Yet, many teens are equally influenced by the proximity to family. After all, it’s comforting to know that a home-cooked meal, a free washer and dryer, and most importantly, a network of love, support, and guidance is no further than a few hours away.

If you don’t visit your prospective colleges then you are missing out on accurately assessing how important distance to family is to you. In the abstract, a school that is 200 miles away isn’t that much different than a school that is 2,000 miles away. One can rationalize that a 4-hour plane trip and a 4-hour car ride are roughly equivalent. As an armchair globetrotter it’s easy to acquire a false bravado. Actually packing your bags for the opposite coast, waiting for hours in the airport, crossing time zones, experiencing jet lag, and seeing how it feels to be so far from home is an appropriate test that will bring clarity to the geographical parameters of your college search.

3. Go on an official and unofficial tour

It’s wise to begin with and official tour and information session (be sure to register beforehand). While sanitized and sales-pitchy, you’ll likely get a good sense of the heart of campus, and of the school’s main architectural and social attractions. It will also be a chance to ask your tour guide questions about dorm life, the social scene, and other anecdotal information that is tough to glean from websites and guidebooks.

After the official tour ends, we recommend setting off on a self-guided tour to make sure the infomercial version of the school appears to align with reality. Chat up a few random students about their favorite and least favorite things at their school. Visit a class, dine in a campus cafeteria, and grab a copy of the latest student newspaper. The more information you can take in, the better, whether of the school-sanctioned or unofficial variety.

4. Connect with an admissions officer

If you are visiting a liberal arts school or a mid-size university, you will likely be able to schedule a one-on-one evaluative interview (for a complete list of colleges that offer interviews click here). If you are attending a larger university that does not offer a formal one-on-one interview, try to participate in an information session with an admissions official. Either way, you’ll want to come prepared to talk about your academic interests and achievements, extracurricular activities, and also have a number of thoughtfully-crafted questions for the admissions officer about their institution. Particularly at small liberal arts colleges, making a positive and lasting impression as a nice and engaging human being can pay dividends when application review time rolls around.

For more on how to prepare for a college interview and what type of questions one should expect, revisit our previous blog on the subject.

If you can’t swing an in-person tour…

As we stated at the beginning, we believe that visiting a college is immensely helpful, when it’s feasible. Sometimes due to budgetary or time constraints, seeing some of your prospective schools simply isn’t possible, especially if you have a lengthy and geographically diverse college list. If you aren’t able to view a campus in person, there are still actions that you can take to better form an assessment of a school’s fit.

For those who can’t make it to campus, attempt to schedule an alumni interview at a location near you. Doing so will still afford you the opportunity to humanize your application and make a lasting impression with someone affiliated with the university.

Connect with current students at your prospective college through social media or via your high school’s guidance department. Chances are, unless you attend a tiny high school, a recent alum is currently attending your institution of interest and will be willing to share his or her experiences.

If you aren’t making a pilgrimage to campus, there are plenty of other ways to please the demonstrated interest gods. Attending a local admissions event, following a school on Facebook, and corresponding over email with an admissions counselor are all excellent ways to show a potential higher education destination that you have a genuine interest in attending.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line

There’s nothing wrong with buying paper towels online but when it comes to a six-figure purchase like a college education, an in-person inspection is recommended. If a school is within reasonable driving distance but doesn’t feel worth the time, effort, and money to visit, then it should be eliminated from your list.

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So you want to be an accountant…

  Dave Bergman   Feb 16, 2017   Careers   0 Comment

accountantsWelcome to the latest installment of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a….” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.

Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?

If your aim is to get offers from the major accounting firms such as Ernst & Young, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or KPMG, then the undergraduate school that you attend can boost your career prospects. Schools such as Villanova, Notre Dame, and Boston College are among the top feeders to the Big Four firms. Other less-selective schools such as Binghamton University, Bentley University, and Fairfield University have strong connections to the one or more of the big four (i.e. Binghamton’s PwC Scholar’s Program) and can also serve as a direct pipeline to employment at the high-end firms.

Do I have to major in accounting?

For those who enter college 100% sure that they want to be accountants, majoring in accounting is the most direct route to your desired destination. While the majority of CPAs nationwide possess a bachelor’s in accounting, other CPAs studied related areas such as finance, economics, business, or even completely unrelated fields. It is important to note, however, that non-accounting majors may have to take additional courses in accounting or taxation before being eligible to sit for the CPA exam.

The pathway to CPA

States have varying requirements about how many hours of upper-level accounting classes one needs to sit for the CPA exam, but unless you live in the Virgin Islands, if you want to become a Certified Public Accountant, you’ll need to rack up 150 credit hours. Since a traditional bachelor’s degree program is only 120 hours, you’ll either have to continue your college education beyond four years or set sail for St. Thomas in the Caribbean (hmmmm, this might actually not be the worst option).

After completing your hours of study it will be time to tackle the CPA exam — a four part test that covers auditing, regulation, financial accounting and reporting, and business environment and concepts. The test is rigorous and failure rates are high. In fact, in 2016, pass rates for three of the four sections were under 50%.

Consider a dual BS/MS program

Since you’re stuck having to log 150 credit hours to sit for the CPA, you might as well consider earning a master’s degree along the way. Many universities offer 5-year BS/MS accounting programs which can be slightly more efficient than earning a bachelor’s and then adding the master’s down the road. Yet, most master’s degrees in the accounting field only run between 30-36 credits anyway, so you’re not exactly shaving off that many credits.

Less common but far more advantageous are the dual-degree programs that can be completed in four years, giving their students a chance to emerge with a graduate degree to sit for the CPA exam a year early. LaSalle University offers an accelerated program for particularly ambitious future number-crunchers that allows students, through a boatload of summer work, to graduate with a BS in accounting and an MBA in just four years. Butler University has a four-year program that results in a B.S./Master of Accounting dual degree.

Accountant salaries

As long as taxes and businesses exist, accounting is sure to remain a steady and predictable field offering solid compensation. Professionals with an accounting degree but no CPA license presently average just over 50k while those with CPAs earn between 5-15% more. The top ten percent of earners with the CPA credentials earn 118k and up. As with most professions, those in major metropolitan areas, specifically San Francisco, San Jose, and New York enjoy the highest annual earnings.

For those with sights on even higher dollar figures, CPAs can ascend to corporate leadership positions such as CFO or corporate treasurer—jobs that can pay a few hundred thousand per year or more.

Plan the financial end

If your goal is to become a CPA, it’s important to keep in mind that a 5th year of study will be required. This translates, of course, to an extra year of tuition and an extra year of not bringing home a salary. Fortunately, job prospects for accountants are solid, expected to grow by 11% over the next decade, which means that at least you’re likely to have a steady income to pay down any undergraduate debt incurred.

To read previous installments of the “So you want to be a…” series, click the links below:

So you want to be a lawyer…

So you want to be a doctor…

So you want to be a teacher…

So you want to be an engineer…

So you want to be a software developer/engineer/programmer…

So you want to be a financial analyst…

So you want to be a journalist…

So you want to be a psychologist…

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Changes to Common App Essay Prompts for 2017-18

  Dave Bergman   Feb 09, 2017   College Essay   0 Comment

This week, The Common Application essay prompts underwent their most substantive changes since 2013. While two prompts remained unchanged, three were revised, one was introduced, and one oldie-but-goodie was resurrected. The team at College Transitions will walk you through the changes and tell you what it means for current juniors who want to get a jump-start on the most important 650-word essay of their young lives.

Staying the Same

There are no revisions to the following prompts:

#1. Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

#4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.


Three prompts were revised. Changes are italicized and our analysis follows:

#2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The key change here is that “failure,” a harsh and perhaps off-putting term in the eyes of many applicants, is now softened to include the more sanitized “challenge” or “setback.” We are fans of this prompt and believe it can be refreshing for admissions officers to hear someone willingly talk about their shortcomings and less-proud moments. Subsequent growth in the wake of failure can give insight into your character, resilience, and depth. In brainstorming this one, reflect on your life’s setbacks and whether they led to maturation or enlightenment. Also try starting with periods of growth in your life, and work backward to what rejections/disappointment/failures led to your personal development.

#3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This prompt now asks for the “outcome” of the situation. Don’t be enticed to enter the world of exaggeration and hyperbole when describing the consequences of your actions. Colleges do not expect you to have brought down a dictatorship, brokered peace in the Middle East, or single-handedly eliminated the gender pay gap. In literary terms, this is The Society vs. The Individual type of conflict and it needn’t take place on a grand stage.  Standing up to peer pressure, going against a family tradition, taking part in a local protest, or not following a directive you found to be immoral or unjust are just a few of the “real life” examples that can make for a gripping storyline.

#5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Jettisoned are the phrases “transition to adulthood” and “culture, community, or family.” Perhaps colleges grew tired of slogging through tales of bar mitzvahs, facial hair growth, and awkward, early romantic experiences. This prompt is now conducive to the sharing of more meaningful growth that showcases your growing self-awareness and/or connection to large-scale human events. We do caution against using this prompt to talk about your trip to South America where you highlight obvious linguistic, cultural, or culinary differences. Remember not to write a travelogue—the essay should be revealing about you.

Brand New/Returning

The folks at The Common App generously gave us one newborn prompt and one brought back from the dead. We present them below along with our reaction:

#6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

This one is all about your greatest passion and the ways in which you pursue knowledge. Whether it’s aerospace engineering, classical guitar, British Monarchs, the French language, lacrosse, or vintage arcade machines, this newbie offers a solid platform for showing off your unique interests as well as what makes you tick. Elite colleges adore students whose love for learning extends well beyond the classroom. This is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate your most lovable, nerdy obsessions and the verve with which you independently pursue them.

#7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

It’s back—the college essay version of a free-write! Previously, we recommended that students who had a topic that was off the beaten path find a way to connect their idea to prompt #1. Now, applicants are free to mold their essays from a formless, lump of clay into, literally, whatever shape they desire. Just be sure to read our Five Essay Topics to Avoid before finalizing your topic.

College Transitions’ Quick Take

The revisions made to The Common Application raise the expectations for depth and substance for existing prompts and open the door to increased creativity and imagination through the introduction of brand new topics. With the return of the “topic of your choice” option, there is no reason to force yourself to answer one of the other prompts unless it is a 100% perfect launching-pad for your strongest, most revealing composition.

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Colleges to Avoid

  Dave Bergman   Feb 08, 2017   College Search/Knowledge, Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

College to AvoidTo those expecting a straightforward bash-list of institutions that we do not think highly of—we apologize for disappointing you. The internet is littered with “click-bait” lists of this ilk and, we get it, they’re fun. Unfortunately while a pure and simple list of “Colleges to Avoid” would titillate, it would also be disingenuous and ultimately unhelpful to prospective college students. This is due to the fact that the colleges that should be avoided are context-dependent and will vary by individual circumstance. Factors such as geographic location, the strength of the applicant, and family income level are all determining factors. If you’re on any kind of post-secondary budget, there are a litany of schools that should be avoided; in fact there may be hundreds or even in excess of 1,000 schools that you will want to avoid.

What Type of College Should I Avoid?

For any money-conscious college student, paying exorbitant tuition amounts and taking on large quantities of debt for the sake of attending a low-to-moderately prestigious school can be a monumental mistake. Unless they are paying in excess of 40K on a school that can provide them with a high return on their investment—a proposition that may be more dependent on their desired field than the name brand of the university—it is worth pursuing better values in the higher education marketplace.

As you will see, many of the schools that students should avoid are not “bad” schools by any means. In fact, quite often they are excellent institutions, but not at all worth the sticker price when weighed against other choices that educational consumers, stunningly, rarely even pause to consider.

Net Price by Income

Duke University, for example, has an intimidating price tag of $67,000, yet the average price actually paid by attendees is $19,000 per year. Families making a net income under $75,000 per year pay an average of just over 14k per year, a 68% savings. The average student debt incurred during undergraduate study at Duke is $20,000, across all income levels. On top of the reasonable price of attendance, a degree from Duke, thanks to its reputation and powerful alumni network, can lead to a high return on investment.

Compare these numbers to a school like Baylor University in Texas, a school with a solid reputation, but one that wouldn’t be categorized as elite. Baylor’s official price tag is $59,000, which is less than Duke’s; yet, unlike Duke, most students, even those coming from families making under $75,000 per year, pay the majority of the sticker price. Those from lower-income brackets still pay nearly 27K while the average student qualifying for need-based aid still forks over close to 30k per year. As a result, the average Baylor freshman student (with financial need) can expect to take on nearly $12,000 worth of debt during their first year, which spread out over four years, is over $25,000 more, on average, than your standard Duke grad.

No one would put Baylor on a generic list of “schools to avoid.” It’s a reputable school that easily cracks many “top college” guidebooks. However, for students lacking unlimited education funds, crossing Baylor off of their list may be an extremely wise decision.

Low Prestige + High Debt = Avoid

While our previous example pits a top-flight school against a lesser, but still very competitive school, there are countless examples of schools that charge high tuition, offer minimal aid, and do not provide students with top-flight job prospects needed to pay down the debt they accrue.

Take, for example, The University of Tampa, a private school costing a little over $40,000 per year. The net price, what students actually end up paying, is roughly 27k and family income plays a minimal role in the distribution of aid, meaning that those in the lowest bracket still pay close to 25k per year. As a result, the mean debt-load a student graduates with is around $45,000, a number which easily eclipses the average salary a University of Tampa grad will find early in their career. Therefore, a cost-conscious teen should avoid The University of Tampa.

We’re not picking on The University of Tampa. There are countless other schools with similarly disheartening numbers. Other universities where the average student is saddled with a 5-figure debt total every year in which they are enrolled include Drexel, Loyola University in Maryland, and most likely, a handful of moderately-to-less selective private institutions not far from your home.

In the absence of a comprehensive list, how will you be able to spot a school along these lines? Simple. Look for colleges with high acceptance rates, high net price tuition (remember, not sticker price), and excessive graduate loan debt (as a barometer, the national average for four years is $30,000) and avoid, avoid, avoid.

Out-of-State Publics

Another category of institutions that wise consumers will do well to steer clear of are out-of-state public schools. Flagship universities such as Penn State, UCLA, Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, UVA, and UNC are all, understandably, a big draw to students from all over the country. However, flagship universities rarely offer significant aid packages to out-of-staters, leaving families stuck with the non-resident sticker price. Annual, out-of-state costs at the University of Michigan run more than 50 grand, roughly double what Michigan residents pay. UCLA charges nearly $25,000 more to those who hail from outside the Golden State. The University of Connecticut, a bargain for Connecticut residents at $12,700 per year, climbs to $32,880 for outsiders, and after accounting for (need-based and merit-based) financial aid, proves as more expensive than Wesleyan, Connecticut College, or Trinity—three elite colleges in the same state. Amazingly, thanks to the generosity of those three schools, each carries an average net price of 20k per year or less for students demonstrating financial need.

CT’s Final Thoughts

If you do your homework, the colleges and universities that grace your personal “avoid” list may surprise and, on the contrary, schools that you may never have considered as being financially within-reach may end up as viable options.


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How to Plan Extracurricular Activities

  Dave Bergman   Feb 01, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

“What extracurricular activities look good on a college application?” We hear this question a lot–often from students who have come to view the college application process as an exercise in spin, rather than an opportunity to exhibit passion. While the temptation to amass activities is strong, especially given the overwhelmingly competitive nature of college admissions, it’s important to realize that superficiality will not get you far in life, and it certainly won’t help you get into the college of your choice. College admission officers are interested in meaningful engagement, not perfunctory participation, and are smart enough and experienced enough to distinguish between the two. That being said, here are a few rules to abide by as you plan your extracurricular involvement:

Keep it real. Every admissions season, colleges strive to admit a diverse community of students with a wide range of talents and interests. If you’re not interested in sports, student council, or some other typical extracurricular activity, don’t worry about it. Colleges are just as intrigued by the student filmmaker or poetry club founder as they are by the power forward or student body president. Provided that you demonstrate a deep and consistent commitment, admissions officers will take notice, whatever the activity.

Focus on depth, not breadth. Students who assume leadership roles and participate extensively (10-20 hours per week) in one or two pursuits will always outshine comparable applicants who merely dabble in several or more activities. If you want to have a meaningful impact, find your niche, and improve your college admissions prospects in the process, forget the laundry list and commit to the wholehearted following of your true extracurricular interests.

Take advantage of the summer. Do you want to show colleges that you are serious about your extracurricular pursuits? Then, use your summer to secure an internship, take a class, or enroll in a camp that will allow you to further explore your interests outside the classroom.  There is no better way to impress an admissions rep than to forego those lazy summers days and use your vacation instead to better yourself.

Get a job. A job, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates to an admissions committee that you are mature, practical, and ready to take on the responsibilities associated with adulthood. If you can get a job in your area of interest, great; if you can’t, get one anyway. Most of us, at one time or another, have had to find alternative, less attractive ways to fund the pursuit of our passions. Show colleges that you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.

Be honest about extracurriculars

When it comes time to fill out your college applications, make sure not to exaggerate your level of volunteer, work, or extracurricular experience or the number of weekly hours that you spent engaged in such activities. The notion that you somehow volunteered at a nursing home 20 hours per week, while playing three varsity sports, taking four AP classes, and editing the school newspaper seems logistically impossible and, if it somehow was true, still sounds more unhealthy than impressive.

There is no reason to be less than 100% honest about what you did in your spare time during high school. Some students, short on activities, panic at the sight of so much blank space on their extracurriculars section that they resort to grossly embellishing or completely inventing clubs, sports, jobs, and the like. This phenomenon is seen way too often in admissions offices around the country—the applicant from the Great Plains region who founded a spelunking club, the do-gooder who alleges to have volunteered more hours than exist in a week, and the teen who claims to fluently speak five languages but seems to have trouble remembering any of them during the interview. If you need proof that this way of operating always ends in disaster, see George Constanza’s antics in just about any Seinfeld rerun.

CT’s final thoughts

All in all, extracurricular life is not about building a resume (you’ll have plenty of time to do that later); it’s about finding yourself and your true calling. Follow your heart, strive for authenticity, and college will take care of itself.

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A Guide to High School Course Planning

  Andrew Belasco   Jan 25, 2017   Application Strategies, Navigating the Admissions Process, Testing   0 Comment

The answer to what students should strive for in most areas impacting college admissions is a straightforward, “More/higher is better.” Whether you’re talking about GPA or standardized tests scores, the goal is always going to be to max out your potential. Yet the problem of selecting an appropriately rigorous high school course load is a bit more opaque. More is not always better and for some, more is not even an option.

It’s all relative

Part of the paperwork your guidance counselor fills out as part of the Common App Secondary School Report (CASSR) asks them to rank the rigor of your course load as one of the following: Most Demanding, Very Demanding, Demanding, Average, Below Average. Of course, these distinctions are relative to your individual high school’s offerings.

There are 34 AP courses offered by the College Board but very few schools offer even half that number. Roughly 86% of U.S. high schools offer AP testing on site and out of those, the average number of course offerings is eight. If you hail from an under-resourced high school that offers a limited number of APs, this will not be held against you as long as you take advantage of the opportunities that are accessible. Attending a high school teeming with Advanced Placement options means that the expectations for participation are raised.

St. Olaf, the elite liberal arts school in Minnesota states that, “Ideally, an applicant will have taken as many honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as available to them in their school.” St. Olaf isn’t saying that you need an exact number of courses; only that you should avail yourself of every opportunity and that they expect your counselor to be circling “Most Demanding.”

How many AP classes do elite schools require?

While it’s difficult to locate precise statistics on the average number of AP courses taken by admitted applicants at prestigious colleges, some information is publicly available. At highly selective Kenyon College, the average admitted applicant took 4.8 AP courses in high school. The University of Georgia’s Class of 2019 averaged six AP courses while in high school.

Some schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill have stated publicly that they will not grant favor in the admissions process to students who took more than five AP courses. This proclamation came a year after over 60 percent of UNC applicants hit double-digits in the number of AP courses taken, leading to concern about high school burnout.

Most elite colleges aren’t as concerned about your work/life balance in high school. If you are aiming for an Ivy League school, you need to be at or very near the top of your graduating class, which means you’ll need to take as many AP courses as the other academic superstars at your school. Since weighted GPAs work in favor of those taking APs, it would be impossible to take eight APs and beat out members of your class taking twelve APs.

B in an AP/Honors or A in regular course?

The verdict on this frequently posed question is, in most cases, a B in an AP course. If you’re aiming for an Ivy or equally selective institution, the answer would be you need an A in the AP course. For students eyeing the 99% of four-year colleges that have an admit rate of more than 20%, turning in a solid B performance in the most demanding course available will leave you in good shape.

You don’t have to be a renaissance man/woman

The fallacy of needing to present to colleges as “well-rounded” causes high school students to do a number of foolish things including joining a dozen clubs in which they have no genuine interest, attending costly summer programs in exotic locales just to appear more worldly, and most commonly, taking honors and AP courses across the board.

Many intelligent people who have a knack for math and science are not as comfortable with or motivated by reading the plays of Samuel Beckett. Likewise, many young people who elect to read Shelby Foote’s Civil War Trilogy on summer vacation are not thrilled at the idea of learning Calculus or Advanced Physics (nor are they capable of mastering the material).

Those who are brilliant across the board and are dead-set on attending Yale or Stanford have to take on an insane course-load; that’s just reality. Everyone else can afford to pick and choose their battles in areas of strength and interest.

The bottom line

If you have your heart set on an uber-elite institution, then you need to take as many APs as the other top students in your class. In the case of students not aiming for Ivies, we wholeheartedly recommend taking AP classes only in your expressed areas of interest/strength. Try an AP class as a sophomore (if available) or as a junior and go from there. If you’re successful, take another AP class or two as a senior. This schedule will be rigorous enough to satisfy 99 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities and won’t drive you to the brink of insanity.

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How can I pay for my MBA?

  Sarah DeGraaf   Jan 23, 2017   MBA Admissions   0 Comment

Whether you do or don’t receive a scholarship to help with the cost of your MBA, here are some financing recommendations to consider well in advance of starting the admissions process:

Don’t start applying to programs under the assumption that you will receive a scholarship. You should know how much the programs you are looking at cost and how you would pay for the degree without scholarships. If you do wind up receiving an award, that’s money back in your pocket that you weren’t expecting, which is exponentially better than shelling out money you didn’t plan to part with. It’s also not a good use of your time or money to pay hundreds of dollars on application fees only to decide you can’t afford the program to which you have been admitted.

Run the ROI

Look closely at the cost of attendance and include all expenses:

  • Tuition
  • Program fees – These can be upward of a $1,000 per semester, you may be able to find more concrete numbers on the financial aid, bursar, or registrar sections of a school’s website
  • Cost of living – This will depend on your lifestyle, habits, and where you are looking to study
  • Books and materials – Plan to spend at least a few hundred per semester
  • Potential global study or MBA-related travel you might take advantage of – These travel and program fees can really add up depending on where and how often you travel; you will find that this is probably something you want to do once you start your MBA as this is an oft quoted pivotal experience for many MBAs

Future salary post-MBA. Many schools publish the average graduate starting salary by industry, which is more accurate than a general average, so use the industry specific salary in your calculations. For example, a starting salary in Finance or Consulting will likely be quite different than one in Nonprofit.

Foregone earnings while in the MBA program. I.E. the salary you won’t make while you are a full-time student and not working.

Interest you expect to pay on loans both during school and after you graduate. Congress did away with deferred interest for graduate students in 2012 and they also upped the interest rates on student loans, so be sure to account for interest you’ll accrue during enrollment and after you complete your program.

Here are more specific instructions for making these calculations. To get a general idea of the numbers you could be looking at, check out this debt to starting salary chart from top business schools. The average starting salary for graduates across all MBA programs is about $90,000, but this varies widely by school and region. Cost of attendance will vary as well. It’s cheaper to go to school in Atlanta, Georgia than in New York City, in large part because the cost of living is much lower.

Target institutions with merit-based aid

If you want a good shot at a significant institutional or merit-based scholarship, you may need to change your admissions strategy to target schools that award scholarships and where you would be an exceptional candidate compared to the typical class profile. Most schools award scholarships at the time of admission and will have a question on the application asking if you’d like to be considered for scholarships. You might also consider applying to public universities in the state in which you are a resident, which likely provide an in-state discount.

Look for on-campus employment

Once enrolled, check out on-campus jobs like working as a TA or in an administrative office; you could earn around $5,000 each semester by working part-time. Keep in mind that this may be easier said than done, given the rigorous schedule you must balance while an MBA student. But on-campus jobs do offer the potential to chip away at that overall bill.

Don’t forget summer opportunities

Summer internships can be very helpful. You might get lucky and land a decently paid summer internship, but this is hard to predict unless you know exactly the industry and type of company where you’d like to intern. Paid internships are more plentiful in finance, consulting, tech, and corporate positions than start-ups or the social sector.

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Summer Programs for High School Students: An FAQ

  Dave Bergman   Jan 12, 2017   Navigating the Admissions Process   0 Comment

leadIn the 1990s, while the rest of society was busy squirting each other with Super Soakers, listening to the Gin Blossoms, and carving Nike swooshes into their hair, colleges apparently realized for the first time their campuses were deserted during the summer. Then, in a Copernican moment, an administrator at a prestigious university had a revolutionary notion, “What if we filled up our dorms with high school students whose parents are caught up in the admissions hysteria and charged triple our normal tuition rate for the privilege?” Hence, the college summer program for high school sophomores and juniors was born.

Cynical pseudo-historical accounts aside, the merit of summer programs varies greatly from campus-to-campus and it is important to do your homework before reaching for that Visa card. The following Q & A seeks to address the most frequent queries we receive from parents on the topic.

How much do they cost?

Most elite schools charge between $2,000 and $3,000 per week for the privilege of sleeping in their dorms, sitting in their classrooms, and having a few idle faculty members impart wisdom about the transition to college life. Programs abroad can be even pricier. On the other hand, some programs are actually free-of-charge, and can be far more valuable both in the experiential and admissions sense (more on this in a moment).

Will they help my child’s chance at admission?

In most cases, no. A summer spent strutting around a storied college campus in a borrowed tweed jacket will be viewed by an admissions committee as equal in merit to spending your break restocking Horsey Sauce packets at an Arby’s in a mall food court. Admissions officers know that very few students have the resources to drop ten grand on a four-week equivalent to summer camp and will not grant favor to those who attend. Doing so would be as absurd as NASA deciding to send a group of Space Camp attendees into orbit. Never mind that this scenario actually occurs, albeit by accident, in the 1986 Hollywood mega-flop, Space Camp.

Do they have any admissions-related value?

Indirectly, perhaps. As with any experience a young person undertakes, a high-cost summer program could indirectly have a positive impact on a future application. For example, a summer program attendee might work on a project that ignites a passion which becomes ideal fodder for a future application essay. In some cases a student may impress a faculty member to the point where they are willing to write a glowing, committee-swaying letter of recommendation.

Yet, it is critical to be aware that the programs with the highest admissions-related value are actually the ones that are cost-free and highly selective. Identifying the programs that are competitive, rewarding, and will actually impress an admissions committee can be tough—fortunately, we can help…

Competitive Summer Programs for 2017

Students interested in STEM have a bevy of excellent choices including Michigan State’s HSHPP Program, the RSI Program at MIT, or the PROMYS Program at Boston University.

Those pursuing study in the field of economics or business would do well to check out Wharton’s Leadership in the Business World Program, Economics for Leaders which is hosted by a number of different schools, or MIT Launch.

Excellent opportunities also abound in the disciplines of journalism, global studies, and mathematics. For those unsure about their exact area of future study, programs like Notre Dame’s Summer Scholars offer a wide array of topics from 1960’s Activism to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Click here for a comprehensive list of College Transitions’ Best Summer Programs for 2017, and be sure to also visit the Build Your College Knowledge section of our Dataverse to access additional college lists.

College Transitions’ Bottom Line:

If you have unlimited resources and your son or daughter feels they would benefit from the experience, there is absolutely no harm in attending a high-end summer program. However, it is important to be realistic about what you’re paying for. Some “elite” programs accept as many as 80% of applicants. Again, we recommend first exploring more selective, cost-free programs that are merit-based and geared toward a discipline of genuine interest. And, if all else fails, don’t underestimate the value of a normal teenage summer experience. After all, you have to admit, the Sisyphean task of Horsey Sauce packet replenishment would make for an original essay topic.

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