Wednesday, January 09, 2008

U.S. Universities Applications

Thanks to a sharing of a fellow ReComer.

Do go to New York Times to ask questions on U.S. universities applications, or at least read about it.

3 veteran counselors are sharing there. They are Bob Sweeney of Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y., and Frank Casso and Linda Lauerman of the Upper Academy at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey.

Just to capture the questions, in case the URL no longer works. Please read the following. It is quoted fully from the link above.


Families today agonize over a bewildering array of deadlines and policies. How does early decision differ from early action, or single-choice early action? Does an honors course carry the same weight as A.P.? What’s the best tack for an essay?

Guidance counselors are enlisted to help students navigate the shoals of high school, educationally and vocationally. Three veteran counselors — Bob Sweeney of Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y., and Frank Casso and Linda Lauerman of the Upper Academy at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey — will answer questions on the college admissions process this week.

To ask a question, post a comment below. Questions will be accepted until Jan. 9.


Getting In: A Mixed Bag

Q. I am an academic tutor and parent of a senior who is going through the college process right now. Here are some of the questions I just can’t get answered:
1. Do colleges really consider the complete SAT or just the critical reading and writing sections?
2. Why do some colleges accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT plus two subject tests? Doing well on the SAT plus two subject tests seems a much greater achievement than just doing well on the ACT.
3. With all the jockeying for position as the most socially involved, many high school students are taking one- or two-week “community service” trips to exotic (read: poor) countries in Central America or Africa and using this experience (no doubt honestly moving for that student) in their applications. Aren’t colleges getting less and less impressed with this “instant community service”?
4. How strict are colleges generally about application deadlines? I mean, if they are inundated with, as one admissions secretary said when I called to check on my son’s application, “buckets and buckets” of applications on Jan. 1, do they really refuse to consider the application of someone who files a week late? —Karen

BOB SWEENEY: 1. My sense is that many colleges, as they wait for validity studies, are not paying much attention to the writing section.
2. ACT subtests are more subject driven and in line with SAT subject tests.
3. The community service trips seem to have become part of the conventional wisdom as a “must” for college admissions. My advice is to do what comes naturally, not what you think is expected. The “designer kid” often comes through in an application. I always wonder how all those kids doing community service during the summer after junior year spend their summer after senior year? Club Med maybe.
4. Every piece of paper does not have to be in the admissions office by the deadline. Much trickles in, often through no fault of the applicant. But at the least get the application itself there close to deadline.

Q. My daughter is a junior in Orange County, Calif., and plans to go to the best university she can. Is it a good idea to hire a counselor to help her get into the best possible university? — Mark

BOB SWEENEY: I am not quite sure what you mean by the “best university she can.” Those of us in counseling offices tend to want to help find the “best match.” It may be a highly selective and prestigious school but my advice is to focus on the fit given who your daughter is, her ability, interests and goals. A paid counselor can help her find that fit but is not always necessary. I would hope you can trust and use your guidance counselor. There are some good private consultants out there, if that is not the case. But I do think what many are charging is excessive. This is not brain surgery.

Q. My son is a junior. His PSAT scores could be projected to a 650 in verbal and 550 in math on the SAT. Writing was 610. His cumulative index is 3.2. He is taking A.P. biology, honors physics and A.P. economics and U.S. government. He would like to major in biology and is leaning toward veterinary medicine or premed. What level of college do you think would accept him? We are hoping either one of the more competitive state universities or a higher level private college such as Wake Forest. A good Catholic college would be fine. — Patrice

LINDA LAUDERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Based on the PSAT info, your son should be tutored or take an SAT prep course to raise his math score, especially if premed is in his future. His academic body of work is a plus for a competitive state university but his G.P.A. needs to be elevated by the end of junior year. And he should put biology as his major rather than premed to increase his chances of being accepted.
Some good Catholic colleges are Boston College, Villanova, Fordham, St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia and Seton Hall University, to name a few.

Q. My daughter is a junior in a good public school in the San Francisco Bay area. She is keen on doing international business. She is open to out-of-state colleges as well. What are some of the best schools for this? What do you recommend she do to position herself well to get into one of these programs with a scholarship? She is part of a business leaders club and already won a national competition in international business. — Ram

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Some of the finest business schools are at the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Yale, U.C.L.A., N.Y.U., Boston University and Northeastern, providing her G.P.A. and SAT’s (which can earn merit money from colleges) are within the institution’s acceptance range. Keep extracurricular activities and business interests active to enhance your résumé.

Q. What is the true hierarchy in what fine colleges look for vis-à-vis SAT’s, G.P.A., essay, recommendations? Also, does it help to apply early decision and does doing so cut down on your chance for financial aid? — Luisa

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: All that you mention are important but larger schools tend to count G.P.A. and SAT more, where smaller colleges also value recommendations and essays. Before applying early decision, check with each college to see how financial aid/merit money will be handled. We have not encountered a reduction in financial assistance for our students.

Q. My daughter, a junior at a specialized high school, has a 93 percent average with SAT’s in the 2200 range. Do you think this is enough to get her into a university like Brown? She’s interested in English and law, and wants a midsize school in or near an artsy city, within four hours of New York City. — Centa

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Your G.P.A. and SAT do meet the requirement for Brown, but keep in mind its eclectic nature and tailor your application to that through your essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations and community involvement. Since you are interested in English and law near New York, you may want to apply also to N.Y.U., Boston University, Boston College, Columbia, Barnard, Penn, Fordham, Georgetown, Yale, George Washington, American University or M.I.T.

Q. I will be applying to two or three of the University of California campuses. As a backup, I will be applying to two or three of the California State universities. I am not familiar with the strengths and reputations of the C.S.U. schools. I would like to get an outside perspective on which are known to be a cut above, other than referencing U.S. News and World Report and Kaplan. Are there any sources you can refer me to? I’m curious if any California State colleges are on the radar of East Coast counselors. — Jesse

BOB SWEENEY: I am afraid I am one of those East Coast counselors not so familiar with California’s public colleges. I am jealous of all the choices you have there but it can be daunting. My one advice is to think about what is important to you, not so much where each college ranks. How far do you want to travel from home, do you want a bigger or smaller campus, what kind of location are you looking for? Are you leaning in a direction for a major that may influence your choice? Your school guidance counselor should be a good reference. Where have other students from your school attended and where are they happy?

Q. I’m a good student (in top 12 percent of my class) and have played varsity basketball and volleyball for three years. My coaches have all told me I am good enough to play at a Division II or III school. However, I do not do well on standardized tests. Do I stand any chance at an Ivy with just fair SAT scores? — Deborah

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Good athletics alone will not likely get you into the Ivies (Division I), which do not give athletic scholarships. Try to raise your standardized tests to Ivy standards. It is our opinion that you also look at other colleges in which to participate as a student athlete. Just remember that Division II schools give scholarships, and Division III do not.

Q. My son is a junior in a private high school in Austin, Tex., and is in the process of choosing colleges he would like to attend. Do you have any tips on organizing and writing his personal statement? What information will he need to consider when he writes his statement? — Richard

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: All the info you need can be found in “The College Application Essay,” revised edition, by Sarah Myers McGinty; it’s available at for $15.95.
Applying Early

Q. Do the admissions staff at nearby colleges compare applicants? There is a five-college consortium in Northhampton, Mass. If your child applies early action to one school, does that hurt her chances for getting into another regular admissions? — Lynn

BOB SWEENEY: To the best of my knowledge, colleges do not compare lists of applicants, even in such a consortium, and chances are not hurt by an early application to one of them. Applying early action, which is not binding, makes sense; knowing at least one college wants you, you will sleep better between now and March. I don’t think the others will be jealous and hold it against you. But when applying to the others, it is important to state that you are aware of the differences of each and how you fit in and what you bring to each.

Q. I applied early decision to Columbia and was deferred in December. I sent all my other applications last week but was wondering what I can do to make Columbia among my choices come April.
I have already called the admissions office and spoke to the lady who read my application. I told her that though I was disappointed with my deferral, Columbia is still my first choice. She seemed pleased with my initiative and made a note of it in my application (I followed up with a thank you e-mail that night). My guidance counselor and school principal have sent further letters of recommendation.
I plan on submitting an addendum closer to March to update Columbia on my accomplishments since December. Is there anything else that could maximize my chances? — Rohi

BOB SWEENEY: You have done all the right things, and I can’t think of anything else to do at this point. I am glad the admissions person you spoke to was receptive. They are usually inundated with calls after the letters go out. No matter how big the college, it is amazing how well they get to know applicants; believe me, the decisions are not made haphazardly or lightly.
All that is left is to get good midyear grades. Send them directly to the person you spoke to, in addition to having your counselor send them. Add a note confirming your desire to attend Columbia. Just as important, you now need to generate enthusiasm for the other colleges on your list. You can’t count on Columbia. I am a firm believer that students can be happy at more than one place. I like your spirit and initiative. Hopefully, a few admissions officers will feel the same way.

Geographic Diversity

Q. How much of a factor is geographical diversity at the top schools? — Laura

BOB SWEENEY: Diversity in every aspect, including geographical, is important to a director of admissions charged with bringing in an interesting freshman class. In some ways, selective schools are “engineering” their perfect society, and the balance may change year to year. There are certain factors that can influence your admissions decision that are just not in your control. That may not be good news but take solace in knowing it is not always your fault that you were not accepted.

Q. We are from Louisiana and my son has high SAT’s (2230 with an 800 in math) and grades (>4.1 weighted). He wants to look at top math-oriented schools like M.I.T., Carnegie Melon and Stanford. How might we use geographic diversity to my son’s benefit? — Guy

BOB SWEENEY: Better to be from Louisiana than Westchester County or other Northeast suburbs. Try to work in somewhere in your application what life is like in the bayou or the flavor of your town.

The Transfer Shuffle

Q. If I complete my associate degree at a county college, what would be the minimum grade point average for transferring to a university like Rutgers or N.Y.U., for example? And if I participate in College Assembly and volunteer, would that be counted when I transfer? — Ruchik

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: It is recommended that a 3.0 or better be established at your county college before applying to colleges. Participating in your college assembly and doing volunteer work would be important to N.Y.U. but only to Rutgers if you are applying for a specialized program; otherwise they require only a strong G.P.A. and SAT or ACT scores.

Q. Do students have a better chance of getting into prestigious schools by transferring after their freshman year? — Lia

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: It depends on the school, and how popular the major. The college will still look at your high school records but also want to see your progress during freshman year.
What I Did for Summer Vacation

Q. My first two children (one at Cornell, one at Michigan business school) attended serious summer programs. Now that it is child No. 3’s turn, I am wondering, how important is it for their college admissions? Can we just let our kids do what they want even if it means that their summer résumé won’t be that impressive? — Joanne

Q. How important is it to a university that a student spend their summer participating in organized academic or service programs vs. working, or traveling with family? — Cindy

BOB SWEENEY: You may hear different opinions on this, but my view is, you should do what you want to. If you have the opportunity to travel with your family, do it. If you need to work, then work. Some of the best essays have been written by students who spent their summer at the checkout counter of their local supermarket. There is no formula or expectation and sometimes college folks see through the voluntary service. Just don’t spend the summer in front of the TV.

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Any activities that are out of the ordinary will be looked on with favor by colleges and universities, especially by the higher profile academic schools that want a well-rounded résumé with additional academic enrichment programs.
What’s Your Major?

Q. Is it still best to apply “undecided” when completing an application to a highly selective school? — Abby

Q. What role does the choice of major play in admissions? My friend’s son got admission to a University of California college with international relations as major and changed it after two years. — Mahesh

BOB SWEENEY: Most of my students don’t know what they want to major in. They often know what they don’t want to major in. It will not be held against you if you are undecided. Even if you indicate a major, there is usually plenty of time to change your mind — one of the reasons you go to college is to discover what you want to study. Don’t make a major up because you think that is what they want to hear. The undecided group is often the majority in a freshman class.

Don’t Mind the Gap

Q. We are expatriots living in the United Kingdom. Our son is thinking about going to the United States for college. It is common here to take a gap year to travel and work after finishing high school. Would this be frowned on by U.S. universities? Should he apply during his last year of high school and defer entry once he has been accepted, or should be apply during his gap year?

BOB SWEENEY: Colleges welcome students willing to try something new and will defer an acceptance for a year. Better to try to secure acceptance first during senior year.

Advanced Placement

Q. Is it a waste of money to send official A.P. test reports to all the colleges you’re applying to or is self-reporting the scores on the application enough? Nowhere do I see that the (expensive) reports are required or recommended to complete an application. — Marcela

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Correct. A.P. score reports are not necessary. You get one free score report sent when you fill out your answer sheet. If your test score is good and could get you academic credit, send an official copy rather than having the counselor type it on transcripts.

Q. My high school freshman has straight A’s except for his A.P. English class, where he has a B. Will his college application be stronger with a B in A.P. English, or should he drop back to a regular English class, where he can probably earn an A? — Lillian

Q. A.P., A.P., A.P. Freshmen now take multiple A.P. courses, and juniors take five or six. The guidance counselors say, “It’s the strength of the schedule that is so important,” so families feel pressured to sign the kids up for more A.P. classes than they should. The kids are stressed. So can you clarify? Will kids who are making C’s and B’s in A.P. fare worse in the application process than kids making A’s and B’s in honors and regular classes? — Pat

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: The rigor of courses and your willingness to challenge yourself is always important to colleges. When speaking of an A or a B, stay with the A.P. class. You’ll be better prepared to handle college academics.
As for Pat’s question, it all depends on how selective the college is you are applying to. Consider mixing two or three A.P. classes in your strongest subjects and honors in the rest if you are getting C’s.

Q. My daughter is a junior and has taken A.P. chemistry, physics and economics this year. During spring and early summer, she will take the SAT and two subject SAT’s, probably in chemistry and math. Given that she is already taking these three tests, how important is it to take the three A.P. exams? — Marion

Q. Does a 3 on an A.P. exam earn any sort of recognition in a college application (besides college credit)? — Sajni

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: One benefit of taking an A.P. test is that you’ll experience a college-level exam while in high school. You can also be granted credit or placement into upper-level classes in your field of interest and earn an A.P. Scholar award, which is a plus on your résumé.

Q. Why is it that most colleges refuse to tell prospective students their formula for determining the G.P.A.? That is, how do they weight A.P. and honors classes, do they count nonacademic courses toward the G.P.A.? I have been on dozens of college visits and not once has an admissions officer given me a straight numeric answer to this question so that we could look at the G.P.A. numbers colleges post on their Web sites and determine whether my student is a reasonable candidate for this school. — Karen

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Your high school determines the formula for G.P.A., not colleges. The colleges will look at your classes and determine the quality of your course work through A.P. and honors classes. Most colleges set a minimum G.P.A. for entrance and will use it to evaluate you for admission.

Q. My kid’s large urban high school does not weight grades, but they do rank kids. This seems wrong to me. I have been told that it is not a problem to graduate from a school that has unweighted grades as the colleges reweight them with their own system anyway. Is this true? I doubt our school will start to weight grades anytime soon. But they should give up on ranking the kids. It potentially puts a kid with lots of A.P. courses at a lower rank than a kid who took a very light load. — Kristen

BOB SWEENEY: I am not in favor of weighting grades. It is correct that many colleges unweight grades so applicants are on a level playing field. A student with a light load but higher G.P.A. and rank is not at an advantage over a student with a more demanding program and lower G.P.A. I am not a fan of overloading kids, but if they hope to be competitive at very selective colleges, A.P.’s or honors classes are standard.
Ranking creates an unhealthy competitive atmosphere in a school. My high school provides an unweighted G.P.A. and a distribution chart showing G.P.A.’s for the class. The chart allows colleges to determine rank in percentage (top 10 percent, for instance) if they want to know that. I previously worked in a school where seniors were told their exact rank in class. Once they were announced, for weeks, students and parents were asking, “What number are you?”

Going Abroad; Coming From Abroad

Q. My daughter will graduate early to spend her senior year as a foreign exchange student. Should she complete applications prior to leaving in August and will most colleges hold an application a year knowing the student is abroad? — Jeanie

BOB SWEENEY: Your daughter is eligible to apply in the year she expects to graduate as long as she is actually getting her diploma at the end of the year. It is a little confusing to call her year as a foreign exchange student her senior year if she has already graduated. If she does apply in her junior year (the year she plans to graduate) and is accepted, colleges generally allow a year’s deferral before attending. However, the student does need to make a binding commitment to the college she plans to attend if she wants it to hold a place for her.

Q. My daughter, a junior, is spending a year in Peru in a student exchange. This basically takes a year from her U.S. high school transcripts. Does the international experience offset that in the eyes of college admissions professionals? How can we maximize the impact of the international experience? — Ben

BOB SWEENEY: In my view, the experience in Peru will only enhance a college application, not diminish it. I assume she is taking an academic program comparable to what she would at her own school. I don’t think there is anything to do to maximize the impact — just let her enjoy it and learn. The experience may give her something to write about in an essay, which should not be a travel log but more about what she learned about herself from the experience. Having spent a year in Peru, she will likely be much more ready to leave home and go off to college when the time comes.

Q. I have been thinking about the possibility of moving to another country, but I am hesitant because of my young daughter. How difficult is it to enter into an American university after having lived as an ex-patriot for most of your life? I studied at Ivy League institutions. Does legacy still count? — Jacqueline

BOB SWEENEY: My sense is that students are not at a disadvantage. Before moving, you do need to check what international schools are available, their programs and track record for placing students in American colleges. Many international schools have top-notch college advising, with counselors well versed and familiar with our schools. I think it is safe to say legacy helps, but when it comes to an Ivy League school, students need the credentials. These days the competition is incredible, far different from when you attended. I am glad I am not applying to college now.

Q. I am an American living in Switzerland and my son attends the local schools. My son is now a junior, having started school here in the fourth grade. First, in the Jan. 6 article on guidance counselors, Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale, is quoted as saying that one of the counselor’s main tasks is “helping students understand the range of colleges to which they are reasonably likely to win acceptance.” Any suggestions for good resources for answering this question for those of us who don’t have access to a guidance counselor? Second, what are the advantages that an ex-pat kid might have that could be emphasized in an application? And what are the possible obstacles that he should be aware of? — Andrew

BOB SWEENEY: Being in Switzerland without access to a well-informed counselor is a problem, not only in determining how “reasonably likely” they are to get in but also in understanding from a distance where your son may be best suited. College Web sites provide an academic profile of their freshman class to give you some idea of their selectivity and how your son’s academic record compares.
While American schools nearby may not make their counseling services available, they may be able to recommend a consultant who can help you, at a reasonable fee.
An ex-pat living in Switzerland since fourth grade certainly adds to the diversity factor and has likely had a rich cultural experience to write about and bring to an American campus.
The possible obstacle is that your son’s academic program and transcript needs to be fully explained and understood by those evaluating him. Another one is having to pick a college sight unseen.

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: You may want to seek a private counselor to compile your son’s application materials. “Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges” lists the degree of admissions competitiveness at institutions and will tell a prospective student the G.P.A. and SAT or ACT scores required. There are many other resources, including “The College Handbook” and “The Fiske Guide to Colleges.” Google for a list of resources since it seems you will have to do much on your own.

Dealing With Learning Disabilities

Q. Seems all counseling is for gifted achievers. What about those with learning differences, who are intelligent but test differently, need vocational as well as academic guidance? Where can I get counseling for a graduating high school student in special education. — Lisa

BOB SWEENEY: My advice is to start with the school, first with the counselor and then the special education department. If the student is a classified student, schools by law must assist with a “transition” plan for after high school. You need to ask about that plan. If you are in a community where emphasis is on college planning, the student with special needs or vocational training can be overlooked. You need to speak up. Also keep in mind, there are an increasing number of specialized colleges, as well as two- and four-year colleges that do not require standardized tests.

Q. Are you aware of colleges where students with A.D.D./A.D.H.D. have been consistently successful? Are there specific schools where these kids will get the academic support they need and still have the independence they need to grow? — Roger

BOB SWEENEY: I am hard pressed to name specific colleges where students with learning disabilities are consistently successful because so many factors come into play. There are many colleges with programs and extensive services. In New York, Marist, Adelphi, the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and St. Thomas Aquinas come to mind. The University of Denver and University of Arizona are also worth looking at.
The question about support for A.D.D./A.D.H.D. students should come up in determining if the college is right for your child. Don’t hide it.

Q. How do you suggest students with learning disabilities and other special needs identify themselves during the admissions process. Many of these kids are no longer (or never were) classified under special education so they do not have formal school plans or evaluations. — Cynthia

BOB SWEENEY: My advice is to tell the college about the disability, whether classified or not, or give your counselor permission to mention it in a letter. Colleges need to see your application in the context that you may be dealing with a disability. Better they know more about you so they can provide the services you may require once there.

Seeking a Special Program

Q. How does one go about choosing the best college or conservatory for acting, singing, dancing? Our counselor is not well informed about career preparation for the performing arts. — Kathy

BOB SWEENEY: One resource I use is “Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges.” The guru Fred Rugg looks at colleges by departments. In the current edition, there is a listing of recommended colleges for dance and theater, for music and for musical theater. Some colleges may be on all three lists. There should be a copy in your guidance office or local library. A similar book is “The Gourman Report: Undergraduate Programs and Professional Programs in American and International Universities.”
If a college is not listed, though, it doesn’t mean it is not worth looking at. But these guidebooks are a good place to start. Your counselor may not be familiar with arts programs but may be able to tell you where other students from your school have attended. Then try to get in touch with them.

The Cost of College

Q. If my income is too high ($150,000) for financial aid, should I bother to apply? I do not want loans but maybe work on campus. — Dan

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Everyone should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the Fafsa, to find out about any available aid. Some private scholarships may require a Fafsa on file, and you might become interested in a Stafford, a low-interest federal loan. But you will likely not qualify for need-based aid, which work-study programs are.

Q. What is the best approach for financial aid for a foreign student in the United States as an exchange student in high school? — Tam

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Questions regarding financial aid should be directed to or by calling 800-433-3243. You don’t have to wait forever for a knowledgeable operator to assist.

Q. My wife is in the advanced stages of breast cancer. She is receiving palliative care, and it is uncertain how long she will survive. We have a 16-year-old daughter who is an excellent student, with accomplishments in music performance, musical theater and model U.N. Our income is modest (I’m a public school teacher). My daughter would fit in well at a top-notch school, but that would cost much more than we can afford.
Are there specific scholarships that my daughter would qualify for on the basis of her mother’s illness, disability status or (eventually) death from cancer that might allow her to try for more expensive private colleges? — James

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: First fill out the Fafsa to see if you qualify for need-based aid. Also, based on your daughter’s academic achievement and SAT scores, many colleges offer academic awards. Some of the most elite colleges (Amherst, Princeton, Harvard) have the resources to replace loans with grants or reduce expected family contribution, significantly lowering the sticker price.
You can also explore private scholarships at, which has a page containing information about scholarships for cancer patients, cancer survivors, children of a cancer patient or survivor, and students who lost a parent to cancer. Other sources are or

Q. Are most college admissions truly financial aid blind? I suspect that candidates able to pay full tuition have better success in securing admissions than candidates with financial aid needs. — Sam

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Colleges are interested in attracting the best candidates they can, financially able or not.

Q. My daughter has decided she would like to become a pharmacist. We live in New Jersey and are looking into Rutgers. Both my wife and I struggle to make the bills for her (and her sister) in Catholic high school, and worry about how we’re going to pay for college. Are there any alternatives out there? — Bruce

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: A good alternative would be the New Jersey Stars Program, which provides free tuition at community colleges. Enroll in an associate program at your local college or any county college, then with two-year degree in hand transfer to a four-year university. You must be in the top 20 percent of your class, and tuition and fees will be covered up to five semesters.

Inside the Guidance Office

Q. Do you limit the number of colleges your seniors apply to? I have students who are applying to 10, 12 and in one case 16 schools. It seems prudent to cut the number to somewhere around eight. — Hugh

BOB SWEENEY: I can urge students to limit how many schools they apply to, but I don’t insist. With the uncertainty these days, 10 applications are not unusual. More than that and the student has not done homework about colleges, is getting bad advice or is looking for notches on his or her belt. I try for reason and common sense, but when it comes to the admissions game these days, that is often hard to achieve.

Q. How does a counselor guide students from the same high school who want to apply to the same top-10 colleges. Not all of the 30 to 40 qualified students will get in. How do you guide them to be successful collectively? — Laura

BOB SWEENEY: I think that issue, when 30 to 40 students apply to the same few colleges, is more prevalent in private schools than publics. I really don’t know if anything specific can be done other than to encourage students to expand their horizons, and drum home what it says about the experience when a college accepts only 10 percent of its applicants. In our school, we will not in any way try to manipulate the spread or discourage someone from applying because there are too many candidates from our class.

Q. Colleges say that taking rigorous courses, such as A.P.’s and honors courses, is the most important criteria in their evaluation. When you fill out your Common Application School Recommendation, how do you determine whether a student has taken the “most demanding” curriculum or just a “very demanding” one, and what percentage of your students, on average, earn the higher designation? — Jane

BOB SWEENEY: I take it you are a school counselor. I often hesitate over the same question. Generally, if a student is taking mostly honors courses, Advanced Placement or the highest level courses we have, I check “most demanding,” and if the program has a couple of hours of A.P., I check “very demanding.” I really worry about students who feel the need to be in the “most demanding” category. As the teacher and author Walt Gardner reminded us: “High school is the only place in life we are expected to be good at everything.” Of the 40 or so seniors I have every year, only two or three are in an honors or A.P. course in every core academic area.

Q. Congratulations on 9 of 10 of your early decision applicants getting accepted. How do you deflect students (and parents) who are determined to apply early to places where they are unlikely to be admitted? Looking at cold hard SAT scores doesn’t seem to deter some from believing they’ll be the exception, especially since colleges encourage everyone to apply. But we know rejection hurts. — Betsey

BOB SWEENEY: I was very fortunate with my group this year. They were strong but sensible. Each looked carefully at themselves and what they wanted and made choices based on what was a good place for them, not entirely on where the college fit in the pecking order. I do think students from my area (Westchester County) are taking a more realistic look at just how competitive each college is and where they stand compared to others from our high school who have been accepted or rejected at a given school. I am finding more of my students using early admissions programs wisely to apply where they have a reasonable shot. I explain to them that passing up on the early option at the more reasonable place may hurt them later with regular decision. It is a fine line we walk with that advice, and we sometimes risk the relationship, but I need to be honest with my students.

Q. What effort are counselors making to persuade all institutions to accept a Common Application packet, not merely a preliminary Common Application with custom designed supplements for each institution, to ease the burden on students? — Brijen

BOB SWEENEY: Counselors do voice their concerns about the many supplements now required with the Common Application. I do find the application helpful, especially now with online technology. However, I am not so sure colleges could come to an agreement about a form that fits all. Each college will tell you they have institutional needs and unique requirements for evaluating applicants. I can’t argue with that, especially if I wish they would forego their reliance on standardized tests, which I believe is a greater disservice to students than asking for supplemental information, which may say more about the student.

Q. How important is it in an average-size high school (if financing permits) to have a staff member who specializes in “college counseling” opposed to more generalized “guidance counseling”? — Caroline

BOB SWEENEY: As a public school counselor, I prefer the model we use. Each counselor has responsibility for a caseload for grades 9 through 12 and we stay with the same students for the four years. It gives us time to build a relationship and know them well by senior year. Besides, I like the variety of the work. Most public schools in our area (Westchester County) follow this model. There are advantages to both. My guess is much would depend on the makeup of your staff and what they like to do and how they see their roles. Some would prefer to leave college admissions to a specialist.

Q. Our public high school’s policy is for all seniors to submit completed applications to the guidance office, and then the office adds the transcript and mails the package to the colleges. I am uncomfortable with this. I am nervous that the department is more likely to miss something when they are responsible for so many applications, whereas my son and I would be more thorough because of our obvious motivation to get things done perfectly. Is the policy of my high school typical? Do you recommend I follow their rules, or should I insist we send the applications ourselves and ask them to provide only the transcript to the colleges? — Boomer

BOB SWEENEY: Personally, I prefer the way you suggest. I don’t want the responsibility for the application. I prefer to mail just my recommendation and transcript. Teachers also send recommendations on their own. We do not collect it.
It doesn’t hurt to ask, but your school has probably been doing it this way for years, and it’s a fairly typical policy. One advantage of their method is everything arrives in the admissions office in one envelope. Colleges love that. Sometimes it can take weeks for all the paper to meet up.
I wonder how your school deals with online applications? Most students apply online these days, bypassing the need to give completed applications or paper to the guidance office. Danger with that is students forget to tell us they applied and wonder why the college doesn’t have their transcript and recommendation.
By the way, most schools set up an e-mail or online account with each applicant so you would know quickly if the application did not get there. Besides, if you handed the material into the high school, the college might be understanding if you missed a deadline through no fault of your own.

Q. I have been writing recommendation letters for seniors in my 12 years of teaching. Nobody ever taught me how to write such letters. How do I know if I’m doing it well enough? I’ve asked a few colleagues for samples of their own writing and was put off by some, as they seemed either too intimate (e.g., “Kendra was my little treasure this year”) or too flattering. — Robert

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: Recommendation letters vary in style, but if you are getting no help from colleagues, we found a good source in “Letters of Recommendation: All the Hints, Tips and Tricks You’ll Ever Need to Write Lively Letters That Make a Difference!” by David Craig (Paperbacks for Educators; 800-227-2591).

Q. Can we call colleges to make sure information is reported accurately? We’ve had a number of errors/issues with our counselor, but we cannot see the final result. Also, we are worried about repercussions, as we still need the person for midyear reports and scholarships. — Asayys

LINDA LAUERMAN/FRANK CASSO: It is your right as a parent or student to check the status of your application online or by phone. A professional should not be insulted, especially a novice, if you check with colleges for information regarding your child.

Q. Has the counselor’s job changed since U.S. News started ranking colleges? Do you have any opinions on its rankings, good or bad? — Joe

BOB SWEENEY: I hate the rankings, and most counselors I know share that feeling. I applaud the small group of college presidents, many from the Midwest, who are not participating in the U.S. News survey and urging their colleagues to do the same. I think the rankings distort what is really important and are a distraction from what students should be looking at when deciding what college is best for them.
I am fighting the perception that if the college they attend is not in the U.S. News top 25 it is not worth attending, and that lives are ruined if they don’t get accepted to one of them. That is absurd.
Another good question, this one for directors of admissions: how has their job changed since U.S. News started ranking colleges? Not for the better, in my opinion.


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