We receive so many questions from parents and students all of the time about the highly selective college admissions process. We thought we’d provide you with a college admissions FAQ to help you answer some questions that tend to pop up quite a bit!:
Q. With a near perfect grade point average and SAT scores, would I be guaranteed admission to the colleges to which I apply?
A. That may be true of most state universities or less selective colleges. But in the world of highly selective colleges, there are never any guarantees. Each year, we hear reports that the most competitive colleges in the U.S. could have filled their classes with valedictorians or students with perfect SAT scores. So, besides your grades and standardized test scores, the rest of the application needs to tell a story of your talents and passions and how, if accepted, you will be an asset at a particular college.
Q. Is it better to earn a “B” in an AP course or an “A” in a regular course?
A. That’s an easy one! It’s always better to earn an “A” in an AP course 🙂 ! With that said, a student should take the most challenging courses available and excel in those courses.
Q. I’m trying to decide on senior year courses. Since admissions counselors will only see my transcript through my junior year, how will they know what courses I am taking in my senior year?
A. On most high school transcripts, there is a space for “courses in progress”. On every college application there is also room to include senior year courses. On the Secondary School Report of the Common Application, (see chart below) the student is expected to complete the top portion prior to submitting it to his/her guidance counselor who is required to verify its accuracy and attach a letter of recommendation. To see what this chart looks like and for more questions and answers on senior year courses read our blog – Senior Slide and its Impact on College Admissions.
Q. I’m registering for my senior year courses and I really don’t want to be on overload, especially since I still have to study for SAT’s and Subject Tests and I’ll need time to write college essays. By the end of my junior year I will have 4 Advanced Placement courses. My guidance counselor is fine with whatever I decide, but my parents are pushing me to take at least 4 more Advanced Placement courses next year. My dream is to get into Princeton University. I would love to hear what Ivy Coach thinks I should do.
A. If you’re looking to get into Princeton, then studying for SAT’s and writing college essays should have nothing to do with your senior year course load. It’s not unusual for students applying to Ivy League and other highly selective colleges to take 5 or 6 Advanced Placement courses in their senior year. So if you want to Princeton (and any other colleges to which you’ll be applying) to think of you as a student who enjoys academic challenges then you need to take as many Advanced Placement courses as your schedule allows. If that means taking 5 or 6 Advanced Placement courses, then we recommend that you do just that.
Q. I’m a sophomore in high school, I’ve been swimming for ten years and I’m actually really good. My friends all play lacrosse and they’ve been trying to convince me to play on their team. If I did that, I would have to give up swimming. Is this a bad idea?
A. If you have devoted ten years to swimming and during that time you have developed into a strong swimmer, then it may not be in your best interest to switch to lacrosse. On the other hand, if you’re not passionate about swimming, and you truly want to play lacrosse, then take a season off from swimming and try it out. Just understand that if you decide to return to swimming at the end of the lacrosse season, you’re going to have to train especially hard to get back to the best times that you previously accomplished.
Q. I want to get a job for the summer, but my mom thinks that I should take a course at a college instead. What do you think?
A. Why is it that you have to make a choice and that you cannot do both? While a course at a local college might look very good on a college application, there is also room on most applications for summer jobs.
Q. My parents are telling me that the summer is the best time to visit colleges since we’re on vacation. When would you suggest I visit?
A. Only a campus visit can help you decide if a particular college is the right place for you. On those visits, you need to see the facilities, the academic, extracurricular, cultural and social life, the surrounding neighborhood, and, of course, the students. The best time to visit colleges is when classes are in session and you have the opportunity to sit in on a class or two. It is best to begin those visits during the fall, winter, or spring of your junior year.
Q. I was thinking of visiting colleges after I got accepted. What are your thoughts on that?
A. Some colleges rate you on your interest and a college visit is a major factor in the IQ (Interest Quotient) that colleges so often measure. Besides, by visiting a college before you apply, you will be able to write a more powerful essay on why you consider that particular college to be a good match for you.
Q. I will be applying to 20 colleges. What is the average number of colleges to which most people apply?
A. Although there is no standard number of colleges in which to apply, we recommend that students apply to about 3 “reaches,” 3 “possibles,” and 3 “likelies.” The task of applying to nine colleges can be overwhelming and stressful enough. A student who is applying to 20 schools has obviously not done his/her research. When writing essays for 20 different colleges, it’s less likely that those essays will be powerful statements. Since some high school guidance departments have very specific policies concerning the number of applications each student is allowed to submit, students who are considering applying to 20 colleges need to check with their guidance counselor to see if this is permissible.
Q. Do colleges prefer to see applicants submit SAT’s or the ACT’s?
A. It doesn’t matter whether you submit SAT’s or ACT’s. What matters are your scores. All colleges will accept either test results.
Q. In your experience do students typically perform better on the SAT or the ACT? Which test do you recommend?
A. While some students perform better on the SAT, others perform better on the ACT. If you’re a bright student who doesn’t have to put much effort into studying and can still earn respectable grades, we typically recommend that you take the SAT. If on the other hand, you study very hard to achieve your grades, you might do better on the ACT. Our advice is for you to take both an SAT and an ACT practice exam and go with the one where you achieve the best results.
Q. Does test prep or SAT, ACT, and Subject Test tutoring really help improve scores?
A. At Ivy Coach we believe that the only way to significantly improve SAT, ACT, and Subject Test scores is by one-on-one individualized tutoring. And while we cannot speak for other SAT, ACT or Subject Test tutors, we can certainly speak for Ivy Coach SAT, ACT or Subject Test tutors. Our experienced tutors are all graduates of Ivy League colleges, are experts in their fields, and have been able to help our students achieve significant increases in their standardized test scores. Ivy Coach not only tutors for the SAT, ACT and Subject Tests, but we also tutor for the SSAT, ISEE, AP, MCAT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT and TOEFL exams. Read more about Ivy Coach tutoring for standardized testing.
Q. When do I take SATs and ACTs?
A. The ACTs can be taken multiple times during a student’s sophomore, junior, or senior year, and the student is able to release only the highest score. Since not all colleges are abiding by Score Choice, it is advisable for the student to take SAT exams only when prepared. While most students take the SAT twice, some take it three times. The optimum time, assuming the student is primed, is in January and March, or March and May or June of the junior year. Occasionally, a student needs time over the summer for additional study, and then an October testing might be necessary.
Q. I have all my SAT and Subject Test scores and they’re not as high as I would have liked them to be. How many tests are too many and should I take them again?
A. In general, colleges will use your highest scores from two or three SATs and Subject Tests. Most students take the SAT twice and each Subject Test once. Occasionally a student will take the SAT three times and repeat a particular Subject Test an additional time. Now with Score Choice, it’s important to check each college’s policy as it relates to the student releasing scores. In most cases, the November SATs and October ACTs are the last test dates for early decision or early action, and the January SATs and the December ACTs are usually the last test dates for regular decision. Since each college has their own policy as far as testing dates, it is always wise to check with the individual colleges.
Q. What are Subject Tests?
A. Subject Tests are one-hour exams administered in 20 different academic subjects. These exams are required by most of the highly selective colleges and along with SATs or ACTs, they are used to evaluate applicants for admission. Students can take up to three Subject Tests on a given day but cannot take SATs and Subject Tests on the same day.
Q. How do I know if I need to take Subject Tests?
A. Before deciding which Subject Tests to take, you might want to make a preliminary list of colleges you’re considering. Then, review the college websites to find out if they require any specific exams. For example, UCLA and Berkeley require that all students who intend to take a math Subject Test, take only the Math 2. If you’re a student applying for admission to an engineering program, a Math 2 and a science Subject Test will most probably be required. Some colleges require two Subject Tests while others require three.
Q. When is the best time to take Subject Tests?
A. If you’re a strong student, you’re taking advanced placement courses and you hope to be applying to highly selective colleges, even if you don’t yet have a list of colleges in mind, you should consider taking SAT Subject Tests. The perfect time to take these exams is in May or June while the material that you studied for the AP exam is still fresh in your mind.
Q. I didn’t do as well as I expected on the May SAT exam so I was thinking of retaking it in June. I was planning on taking Subject Tests in US History, Chemistry and Math II in June, but now I’m thinking of taking these Subject Tests in October. Is this a good strategy?
A. May or June is the prime time to take Subject Tests because you’ve been studying this material all year. While you can certainly wait and take the October Subject Test in Math II, you most likely won’t do as well on the Chemistry and US History Subject Tests if you wait until October. A better plan would be to take the three Subject Tests in June and then repeat the SAT in October. This way you can continue to study for the SAT over the summer. Another option would be to also take the ACT in June. You might just do better on the ACT than the SAT, and then you would not have to repeat the SAT at all.
Q. Is there a general guideline of how much preparation time or tutoring it normally takes to achieve a best score on an SAT?
A. Ivy Coach tutors typically begin preparing students for SATs in July prior to the student’s junior year. Since only juniors can qualify for awards as a result of their score on the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) and this test is only administered in October, by beginning tutoring for the SATs in July, we’ve found that our students can reach their potential on the PSAT/NMSQT. Then, depending upon the score on this exam, we encourage students to either take the January and March SAT or the March and May SAT. Since not all colleges are allowing students to select Score Choice, we advise that students only take SATs (and Subject Tests) when they’ve been prepped or tutored for them.
Q. How many Advanced Placement courses should I take in my senior year?
A. While the answer to this question of course depends on the student and the courses he or she has taken throughout high school, as well as the grades earned in those courses, the highly selective colleges want to see that the applicant is maxing out on the AP curriculum that is available at the high school. A senior course load of 5 to 6 AP courses is considered the norm for applicants applying to these colleges.
Q. My son is a junior in high school, and although he’s enrolled in Advanced Placement classes this year he’s not planning on taking his AP exams because he’ll be in Florida for a DECA competition that week. Since he’ll be applying to Wharton, he feels that this DECA competition is more important for him than taking AP exams. This baffles my husband and me and we would love to hear Ivy Coach’s advice.
A. Your son has his priorities a little mixed-up. Admissions counselors at Wharton are going to care more about his AP test results than his DECA competition. That said, in some circumstances, ETS allows students to take make-up AP exams. Your son should talk with the Advanced Placement Coordinator at his school who will then need to contact AP Services and find out if he would be eligible to take one or more AP exams during the late testing period. But just for you to know, in past years the AP exams given during the late testing period have been more difficult than the AP exams given during the regular cycle.
Q. How do I find colleges that would be a good fit for me?
A. Based on your high school courses, grades, standardized test results, talents, skills and interests, you need to do a self-assessment that includes the following aspects: the selectivity of the college, your chances of admission, the level of difficulty of the college, the location of the college, the size of the student body, the setting (rural, suburban, or urban), the athletic programs, the diversity of the student body, the cost which includes tuition and room and board, and, lastly, a major that you may be interested in pursuing. While many of these factors are available in college guide books and on college websites, you will find more of these answers when you visit the campus, take the tour, attend the information session, speak with current students, and sit in on a class or two.
Q. I just received a postcard from one of the colleges to which I applied that they don’t have my official SAT scores. I know my counselor had my scores typed on my transcript and the college has my transcript, so what do they mean when they say they don’t have my official scores?
A. When a college requires official standardized test scores, this means that the scores need to be sent directly from the testing agency for SATs or for ACTs. Prior to the exam, a student can designate the recipients of the scores on the registration form and then the first four reports are free. However, if the postcard arrives past the application deadline, it is advisable for the student to call the college and find out if they accept rushed scores and, if they do, for an additional fee plus the fee for each report, the scores should be rushed.
Q. Is applying early decision a benefit?
A. Colleges love to be loved and by applying early decision, a student signs a contract that if accepted, he/she will attend. With the highly selective colleges, this can be a true benefit for a student who knows by the early decision deadline that there is no other college that he/she would rather attend.
Q. I’m applying to 12 colleges and they all use the Common Application. But a few colleges to which I’m applying also have their own application. I read on your website that it may not be to my advantage to apply to the schools that also have their own application with the Common Application. Can you explain?
A. Colleges that subscribe to the Common Application make a pledge to honor the Common Application and “give equal consideration to the Common Application and the college’s own form.” You can find this quote on the Common Application’s website. But, don’t believe everything you read. If this is really the case, then participating colleges would not offer discounted fees or waive their fees to students who use the college’s own application when it is submitted electronically.
Q. How important is the college essay?
A. Very important! An excellent essay can make all the difference. You need to view your essays as an opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee. In your essays you want to convey just who you are, what is important to you, and what makes you unique. There is no point in discussing your grades, courses or standardized test scores since all that information is elsewhere on your application. Good essays, powerful ones, can separate you from thousands of other applicants and can make the admissions officers want to accept you!
Q. We are trying to figure out how colleges look at GPAs. We are confused between weighted, unweighted, 100% scale, 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 scales.
A. When comparing students from different schools, a GPA can oftentimes be misleading. So what’s an admissions counselor to do? The GPA could be ignored and only the courses and grades considered, or the GPA could be recalculated. In recalculating GPA’s, some colleges only use core courses, some use other academic courses but eliminate music, art, health, technology, and physical education. And still other colleges eliminate all added weight. Read more about this in our blog on Weighted vs. Unweighted GPA: Is there an advantage?
Q. I have too many activities to list on the application. Can I just snail mail a resume?
A. In general, the answer is “no.” Most applications, including the Common Application will have instructions for you to complete the activities section and then under “Additional Information” upload a document if you need additional space. On the application itself, include the highlights of your extracurricular involvements. Then, for the uploaded document, it’s okay to repeat the same information as long as you give more details and include your other activities.
Q. If I apply for financial aid, will this hurt my chances of gaining admission?
A. Although some colleges have different offices that review financial aid applications, students need to know that many colleges are not “need blind” but rather “need aware” and these colleges may be limited in their allocation of scholarship funds. If your family has the ability to pay for four years of college, then they should not be filing a financial aid application.
Q. How does legacy factor into admissions?
A. Colleges are keenly aware that alumni are responsible for donations and a college’s endowment is of the utmost importance. Colleges also want to see family traditions continue. At some universities, legacy means that a parent attended the undergraduate college while at others, an applicant is considered a legacy if a father, mother, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent attended. At some colleges, a candidate is also viewed as legacy if a parent or other relative attended the graduate school. Answers to questions with regard to what is considered legacy at a particular college can best be answered by admissions counselors at that college.
While legacy is certainly a factor in the admission decision and it definitely does have its perks, it will never replace the importance of academic credentials. That’s not to say that if mommy or daddy were to offer to pay for a new library if their daughter was accepted, that the college would reject Suzie if her SATs were 200 points below their mean. At some colleges, legacy applicants are admitted two to four times the overall admissions rate and can also sometimes have up to a one hundred point advantage on the SATs. Legacy candidates generally compete with other legacy candidates.
Q. Location, Location, Location. I am curious as to how much emphasis colleges place upon where you are from. Is it easier to get in to a college in the northeast if you’re from Nevada or Texas? Does location make a significant or insignificant difference?
A. Geography certainly plays a part in the admissions process at many private colleges. However, at state universities, this factor may be less important or not considered at all. When a college is attempting to fill its class with students of diverse interests, backgrounds, and ethnicities, the applicants’ place of residence may positively or negatively impact a decision. Whether or not this is a significant difference depends on where the student resides and the college to which he or she applies. A former dean of admissions at Dartmouth College once said, “If only we had one student from the state of Nebraska who could read, we would have accepted him.” Obviously, this is an exaggeration as it was said in jest, but it makes an important point that geography can be an influential factor in an admissions decision.
Q. I received my first semester grades and I was disappointed. What should I do?
A. When making final decisions, a college will look closely at a student’s mid-year grades. If the colleges on the original list are not in line with the student’s grades, the list of schools needs to be reevaluated, deleting some reach schools and adding more likelies. There are also colleges that have later deadlines than January 1st, and those college may need to be considered and added to the list.
Q. I already sent in my application but just found out that I received an award for a poem that I wrote. How do I update my application?
A. Call the admissions office and find out the name and e-mail address of the admissions counselor who is responsible for your geographic area. Then, e-mail that person with a brief note explaining the award.
Q. I just received a letter that says I was deferred from my early decision college. What should I do?
A. Too often students who are deferred at their early decision or early action college do absolutely nothing! Instead, they just sit back and wait for a decision to be made in April. In the form of an essay, but without repeating any information that you already sent, you need to let the admissions counselor who represents your geographic area know that even though you’ve been deferred, the college still remains your number one choice. You might also want to include any new information that was not on your original application. Your senior year grades are going to have to be stellar so make sure they are and have your guidance counselor send a copy of your report card. If your SATs could be better, take the exam again in January.
Q. Thanks for your excellent blogs on being waitlisted. I read every one and learned a lot. I also love your videos! I’m hoping that you can help me. I was waitlisted at Stanford, and wrote what I think is a good “letter of enthusiasm” but there’s a place on Stanford’s website where I can update the university with any information. The thing is the update has a maximum of 600 characters and my letter is about 600 words. Should I just shorten this letter and submit it here?
A. You do not want to submit your letter through this link, not if you want to be taken seriously, and not if you want to make sure that some one will read it. Instead, you want to email your admissions counselor with the letter. In regard to what you can submit via the link, you want to write about any recent awards, any accomplishments, any recent grades (assuming they are excellent of course), and / or anything else that you think would be meaningful. If there’s still room you can also mention something about one or two of your favorite classes, but if you do that, make sure that you sound intellectual in the process. Besides our blogs on the subject, you might also want to read our newsletters – here’s our latest one – The College Waitlist.
Q. My friend used an essay writing service and one of their consultants wrote all of her essays for her. How would a college know if I wrote the essays myself or had someone else do it for me?
A. Students are not expected to write like professional writers. Besides, there are several ways that college admissions counselors can detect professionally written essays. Now that the essay portion of your SAT can be easily accessed, it will be obvious when the style of writing from the SAT or ACT does not match the application essay. Also, at times the recommendations from a teacher or counselor can discuss how a student thinks and writes. It’s just not worth taking the risk!
Q. What do you think about taking a year off before entering college?
A. For different reasons, some students take a year off before beginning college. In most cases, however, it is advisable for students to apply to college in their senior year of high school. Once a student is accepted and has decided to attend a particular school, before depositing with that institution, it is recommended that the student call the admissions office to find out if he/she can defer admission. Most colleges allow students to defer a year, provided that the student does not attend another college for course credit.
Q. My son was just called for an interview for Harvard. Should he assume that this means he has a good chance of getting in?
A. This may be true with job applicants, but it’s not true in the world of college admissions. Chances are that your son’s application may not even have been read yet. The reason for the interview is because colleges love their alumni and want to make them happy. It’s as simple as that, and don’t read anything more into getting a call for an interview.
Q. One of the colleges that my daughter applied to has optional interviews. I know that she’s not going to interview well, and so we were thinking that she should not do this. But then yesterday she was called for an interview. What should we do?
A. If your daughter wants to be accepted at this college, then she must accept this invite. Consider that although an interview may be optional, it may still be evaluative. However, even if it’s informational, just think how it would look to an admissions counselor if the applicant turned it down.
Q. My alumni interviewer asked me if I had any questions for her and so I asked her if she thought that I would get in. Her response was vague and afterwards I thought that I probably shouldn’t have asked the question. Was I wrong in asking this?
A. The interviewer may have an idea as to your chances of admissions, but you’re right, this was not an appropriate question. You would have been better off asking about something that’s unique to the college, something that you couldn’t find information about on the college’s website.
Q. Why is a guidance counselor’s letter of recommendation important? My daughter’s counselor is responsible for 500 students and it’s not possible that she could know my daughter well enough to write a decent letter of recommendation.
A. In a high school with a large student population and counselor overload, it’s important for your daughter to go out of her way so that her counselor can get to know her.
Q. We are loyal readers of your newsletter and I was hoping I could ask you a question, even though we are a few years off from hiring your services. My daughter has a huge desire to go to Brown University and of course we want to help her make all the right choices. She wants to take their pre-college program in high school, but they also offer a “science for middle schoolers” summer program. Do programs such as these play into the admissions process at all, or is it just good exposure for the student?
A. While these programs are generally good for the experience, only admissions counselors of the college associated with the program will care that your daughter participated in this program.
Q. I’m applying to 15 colleges but I’ve only visited 3 of them. My mom says that we should wait until I get in because it’s just so costly traveling to all these schools. I’m not sure she’s right. What do you think?
A. Since most colleges judge you on your demonstrated interest, and since a college visit gets you the most points, we would suggest that you make those visits.
Q. I received a letter that I’ve been waitlisted from the college that’s my first choice. What does that mean and what are my chances of getting accepted off the waitlist?
A. Colleges have devised a waitlist system as a cushion so that they end up with what they estimate as a targeted freshman class. It’s important to understand that, sometimes, schools never go to their waitlist because they have received deposits from that targeted number. If you call the college, you may be able to find out if, in the past, they have gone to the waitlist, and if so, the number of students who were admitted from the list. You can also ask when you might expect to hear. Most applicants don’t find out about their status until June and, in some cases, later. Along with the waitlisted letter, there will be a postcard which you need to return acknowledging that if admitted you would enroll. Make sure that you return this card immediately and that you read the letter carefully.
In some cases, colleges are very clear about not wanting any additional letters of recommendation or phone calls on the student’s behalf. If that’s the case, then there’s nothing you can do except to make sure that your senior year grades are the very best that they can be and hope that you earn additional awards or honors in academic or extracurricular areas. Waitlisted students cannot afford to suffer from senioritis! If, however, the college is encouraging you to be proactive, then write a letter explaining just why you want to be admitted, and e-mail the admissions counselor from your geographic area a copy. This is where creativity counts! Whatever you do, you must send in your deposit to your second choice school. The deposit is due on May 1st. Read our blog – Getting off the University Waitlist and Getting off the College Waitlist.
Let us know a question you may have that we haven’t answered by posting your question below!