Advanced Placement Courses

August 29, 2006

If your school offers AP courses, take them. When admissions officers look at your transcript they are looking to see which courses you took and how well you did in them. These elements are of equal importance. If your school offers AP classes, take the ones that interest you and fit into your schedule. If you elect not to take the challenging courses that your school offers, admissions officers will be left wondering why. Your job is to leave as few questions in their minds as possible.

You are not expected to take each and every AP class offered. Admissions officers understand that it may be impossible to take all APs based on scheduling.  They also understand that it may be impossible to maintain sanity by taking too many APs. Sure, there may be other students who are taking one more AP than you are but the idea is not to drive yourself insane with an impossibly difficult schedule. There will always be another hypothetical student who has done a little more than you. Letting this imaginary individual affect your choices will not necessarily help you get into your dream school.

The ideal compliment to a rigorous courseload is a passionate, eager to learn student. Burn out isn’t compelling so keep yourself on the sane side of crazy.

If your school does not offer AP courses, don’t panic. Yes, admissions officers are looking closely at your course selections but they will not hold you accountable for courses that are not available to you. Common sense, right? That said, people will be circumventing the restrictions by taking college level courses at local colleges and/or taking summer classes. The idea is really quite simple – you want the admissions officer to see that you’re interested in learning, that you’re curious, passionate and inquisitive. These are qualities that they want in their college classrooms. Lists of AP classes are one way to show this intellectual passion but it is not the only way. Pursuing academic challenges wherever you can find them has the potential to convey the same qualities. Those students who are industrious and do not take curriculum restrictions as destiny reveal a highly desirable perseverance that admissions officers highly value.


First, the PSAT is good practice for the SAT. But, since no one really likes taking the SAT no one’s going to like taking a practice test. So this isn’t always terribly compelling. 

Second, the PSAT can help you get scholarships. If you do well enough on the PSAT you can get money for college. 

Third, schools use PSAT scores to help determine which students receive their mailings and which high schools get visits in the fall.

When you perform well on the PSAT quietly, very quietly, things start being set in motion. So, you want scholarships? Money for college? Invitations to visit campuses during the summer and fall? Lots of flattering mail? Take that test.

It seems to me there are two types of students: those who freak out about the SAT and those who don’t. In other words, some students take it numerous times, know exactly the score they want, know their friends scores, take prep courses and buy all test prep books. Other students know it’s required, don’t see the big deal, wish they didn’t have to take it, get bored mid-test and run the risk of filling in bubbles according to patterns rather than according to potential right answers. 

What these two types of students have in common is that they both hate this test. No matter how you approach standardized tests, they are an important part of the application. 

[side note – some students take the ACT instead of the SAT. Find out from the schools you’re applying to which they require. Many schools will accept either/both.] 

Not all schools require these standardized tests. Increasingly, more and more schools are reevaluating the role that the SAT or ACT plays in their decision making. Your guidance counselor should be able to share with you schools that don’t require that you take the SAT. 

Those colleges that do require the SAT may rely on it heavily. One of the most common questions that admissions officers receive is, “how much weight does standardized testing receive in the admissions process?” This question is almost impossible to answer because a) you can’t quantify any one element in an application and b) you can not answer that question out of context.  For example, one student may have a 2300 but have mediocre recommendations, decent grades, no meaningful activities and an interview that reflected little engagement, interest, or spark. Another student may have much lower test scores, but have outstanding accomplishments in other areas. The only way to evaluate these two students is within the context of the broader applicant pool.

Can the SAT be a piece that tips the scales and gets a student in? Sure. Can a particularly outstanding recommendation combined with summer research (for example) tip that same proverbial scale? Absolutely. Do admissions officers keep track of exactly what element of an application was what did it? No. That’s not how it works. Asking how much SATs count will usually get you some form of the same answer. Yes it matters. Yes, it can matter a lot. And, well… yes, it can sometimes matter not so much.

It’s part of an application package that includes many elements.  Your job is to make sure that each element is as high quality as you can make it.  Once you do that, you start crossing your fingers. 

One of the best ways to study is to take practice tests. Whatever you do, don’t want into test day cold. Know what’s coming. Know how it’s graded. Know when to guess. Know how to pace yourself. SAT is game day – a really boring game day, but game day nonetheless. 

What not to ask.

August 17, 2006

When speaking with college admissions officers, the following is an example of how not to start your questions:

 “There was this student at my school, who graduated last year, who got a [SAT score] and was captain of [sports team] and president of [club] who volunteered with [non-profit organization] but DIDN’T get in!”

At this point, the question usually becomes, “so what do I have to do to get in?!?”

Just stop yourself. There is no answer to that question and it sounds a little desperate. The admissions officer will have no idea who you’re talking about and will be rolling his or her eyes while crafting some bland, non-committal, vague answer. In other words, there’s no particular formula for getting in and even if there were, it wouldn’t be discernible with the sample size that is your high school.

Don’t worry about your peers.

Don’t worry about who’s been accepted or rejected in the past.

Don’t even bother speculating about the reasons behind these past decisions.

Focus on presenting yourself as best you can.

Thus far, I’ve been writing about what to do and expect when visiting schools. Truth is, most applicants can and do not visit the colleges they will apply to. If you are not able to visit college campuses this summer you are not at a disadvantage. Colleges are not keeping score of who visits, how often and in what capacity. Admissions offices are not websites tracking hits. Many students choose not to visit schools until they are admitted. This strategy is a good one that saves lots of time and money.  

In the spring, when acceptance letters are mailed, admitted students will likely be invited to come to campus for an overnight visit. These weekends are planned to showcase the best a school has to offer. They occur during the semester so you would have a chance to see the school in action – unlike during the summer when most students are not on campus. You get meal tickets, lists of classes to sit in on, panel discussions, tickets to games, parties, the works!  

Those weekends are available to all students whether or not they’ve visited campus already. They can be very fun, but I get ahead of myself. 

This fall, keep an eye out at your college/guidance office for a schedule of college visits. Admissions officers spent the fall on the road visiting high schools and talking with students. These are the same people you’d meet if you were able to visit the campus but better (in a way) because the person visiting your school is likely to be the one ultimately reading your application. If you had visited a college campus for the tour, info session and interview, you are unlikely to meet the person who will be reading your application. This means two things. First, it’s a chance to make an impression on a key decision maker. Second, don’t overdo it. This person is not visiting on a secret mission to meet you in particular. Your goal is not to kiss up or box out your peers. These acts are humorously transparent (humorous to the admissions officer, damaging to the applicant). 

Some teachers do not let students out of class to hear a college admissions officer speak. If you can’t get out of class, don’t worry. Have a friend pick up some information for you and get a form to fill out. Often admissions officers will hand out cards/forms for students to fill out. Again, this isn’t to track student’s interest or keep a tally. It’s to create mailing lists (and you can bet the admissions officer is not terribly concerned with mailing lists). 

In my experience, meeting students at the school can be better than meeting them on the college campus because the students are in their element and are more relaxed. Plus, they’re excited to be missing class to come hear about the school so the dynamic is more vibrant and easy going. The information is more free-flowing.  

For students of color, many schools have specific weekends or programs to share their schools. These programs are not widely advertised and tend to be self-perpetuating – same high schools, same cities, lots of word of mouth. One suggestion I have for students of color looking to get a feel for schools is to contact colleges you’re interested in and ask if they have specific programs you might be eligible for. 

If you are worried that you have had no contact with any admissions officer or representative of the school, you can always call the office and ask questions. This is rarely done, but I think it’s because most people don’t know that they can. It’s ok to call the office – but make sure you’ve actually got a question.

Interview Tips

August 14, 2006

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of prospective high school students for college admission. It was one of my favorite parts of the job. From that experience, I get to share with readers what students do that works, what doesn’t work, and what is going on in the minds of interviewers. 

1. Dress the Part. If you’re arriving at a college campus for an interview, dress like you knew you had an interview that day. If you’re dressed appropriately, it looks like you’re taking this process seriously. If you’re dressed like you just got out of bed, are heading to the movies with your friends, or are headed to the beach that’s not good. Stay away from jeans, sneakers, flip flops. If you’re wearing something that needed ironing, has buttons, or came off a hanger that’s probably good. Go with it. 

2. Be on Time. This one usually isn’t a problem because often, students are coming back from a tour or info session so they’re already on campus. One thing that seemed to stress many students was when an info session or tour would be running long, for whatever reason, and the schedule was off. If a tour is taking too long the prospective student as two options: bail or wait it out. My suggestion – bail. Keep an eye on time, and if you need to get back to the admissions office for an interview that is your top priority. Leave the tour, get to where you need to be, and ask your interviewer what you may have missed at the end of the tour and what he or she might suggest you see before you leave. If you’re sitting in a crowded info session that seems like it may never end and you’ve got an interview, get out. It happens every day. The person giving the info session will not be offended. Indeed, that person doesn’t even know who you are. He or she knows why you’re scooting out of their info session and they don’t care. Your priority is getting to that interview on time because it is that officer who will be getting to know you. It is that experience that will end up in your file. 

3. Be Prepared and Informed. Admissions officers want to know that you are interested in their school so be conversant and curious about school specific issues. However, do not use the interview as an opportunity to tell him or her all that you know about their college. The interview is a chance for the officer to get to know you. Be prepared to talk about your academic interests, extra curricular activities, your goals, your hobbies, your summer activities. Be able to answer and be conversant in the following questions:  what has been your favorite class? How have you spent your summer? Why are you interested in [blank] college? Have you decided what you want to major in? What do you like/dislike most about your high school? 

4. Relax and Be Yourself. This is by far the toughest but in some ways the most important. You’ve got about half an hour to make an impression and this impression may affect whether you get in or not. It is the one piece of, what will be, your application file that reflects your true self (aside from the essay). At the end of the day, most applicants have competitive grades and scores and are involved in similar activities. The interview is an opportunity to set yourself apart through your personality. Share your thoughtfulness, your charisma, your sense of humor, your grace, your spirituality but don’t force it. The interview is not a stand-up routine. Allow the interviewer to kick off conversation, but be able to guide it. A successful interview is one where the interviewer asks the usual formulaic questions and the prospective student takes the bland questions in new and fun directions. Trust that your unique characteristics will come across. Show some excitement – whatever it might be about. There’s no better interview than the one where the admissions officer hears a new twist on an old question. That’s memorable. 

5. Ask Questions. Many interviewers leave time at the end of the interview for the prospective student to ask questions. Have a few questions ready. If you do not, it can be interpreted as a lack of interest or apathy. What is best is when questions are asked that stem from pieces of the dialogue that took place during that interview. If, during the interview, you were being asked about your involvement in your school newspaper, ask your interviewer about the campus paper, opportunities to write for it as a first year student, and whether you can get your hands on a copy while you’re on campus. If you were talking about high school sports, ask about school spirit at games, intramural sports, club sports, or whether varsity teams can have walk-ons. If your interviewer is an alumni or current student, ask about his or her experiences, favorite/least favorite aspects of the school. Questions like this show that you’ve been paying attention and that you’re sharp and engaged. The interviewer just spent half an hour asking you questions, it’s good to be able to fire a couple back. 

6. Follow up. People have different thoughts on following up with interviews. Some believe that thank you notes are an important social grace and are one more way to set yourself apart. Personally, I’d get ‘em, read ‘em and recycle ‘em. I mean, everyone likes getting mail. But will a generic thank you note make or break your chances of acceptance? No. Might the admissions officer be more likely to remember you? Perhaps. Thoughtful, strategic correspondence that reflects a genuine interest and connection can be helpful. But don’t stress it. It’s much less important than people think. All schools conduct interviews differently. Some schools do group interviews and bring a 4-6 students into a room together for the interview. Some schools hire and train rising seniors to conduct the bulk of interviews. Still other schools keep interviews just between admissions officers and applicants. If you’re interviewed by a senior interviewer versus an admissions officer, it doesn’t mean that you’ve somehow been pre-selected, nor does it mean that the weight of your interviewer’s write up is somehow less than what it would’ve been had you met with an admissions officer. 

Bottom line – don’t overthink the little stuff and above all else, crack a smile, show some life, and claim the interview as your own. Be memorable for who you are because rarely is what you do going to set you apart.

Maximizing your visit

August 11, 2006

Visiting college campuses is perhaps the best way to research and learn about a school. You may visit New York University and decide that much as it may seem exciting to go to school in New York City, the lack of a campus feel turns you off. Or, you may visit Bowdoin College and realize the Maine campus is too isolated. Harvard carries the big name, but if you feel alienated by the size and culture, it may not be a good fit. In the end, the best way to know if a school is right for you is to set foot on its campus, talk to students, walk around and try to imagine yourself there for four years.

That said, it’s unrealistic to visit all the schools you might be interested in. Most applicants do not visit schools due to financial, geographic and time constraints. If your family is able to take time off and can afford to visits schools, great. If not, you are at no disadvantage.

Tips if You Visit

1. Try to arrange an on-campus interview.

This will give you some one-on-one face time with an admissions officer, or a hired interviewer. Not all schools do on-campus interviews nor can they accommodate the volume of interview requests. If you are unable to get an interview, don’t sweat it. It will not hurt your chances of acceptance. Most students don’t have on campus interviews. If you are able to schedule an interview, great. I will post in the near future with interview tips.

2. Take a guided campus tour.

Admissions offices take care to hire charismatic, informed, thoughtful tour guides to show you around the campus. These individuals are almost always undergraduates. Their own personalities, whether it’s fair or not, often translate into the prospective student’s impression of the college. Keep this in mind when touring a campus – don’t generalize too much from your one tour guide. Also, make sure you see the insides of buildings on the tour. I visited one college and never went inside a building – everything was pointed at but never entered. At a minimum, you should see the library, the student center, a classroom, a dorm room (if possible) and a dining hall on your tour. If your tour doesn’t take you to these places, snag a campus map from the admissions office (or see if they have a self guided tour booklet) and set off on your own.

3. Don’t judge a school by its weather that day.

When I visited colleges, I couldn’t help but allow rainy, cloudy weather to color my impression of a school. Gorgeous weather – loved the school. Torrential downpours – where’s the car. It’s easy to let your physical comfort or discomfort impact your impression, but try to keep that in check (unless, of course, the weather you experience is typical of the area).

4. Attend the information session and make sure your questions are answered.

Sometimes the information session is a rehashing of the information you received, or will receive, on the tour. If you’ve made the trip to the campus, make sure you leave with your questions answered. The information session is your chance to have an admissions officer for an hour. You will not have this opportunity again. Ask about the admissions process, financial aid, drinking on campus, diversity, athletics – hit ‘em with the hard questions. It your best and perhaps only opportunity to do so.

5. Stick around!

If you’re not rushing off to another school that same day, see what events, games, lectures or exhibits are going on that day. Eat in a dining hall. Talk to current students. Soak in as much as you can.

6. Make notes as you leave.

By the time you get home again, many schools may have blended together. If you’re seeing many schools in one trip, it can be challenging to remember the nuances of these institutions. Keep track of your impressions of individual schools and further questions you want to get answered. If you’re taking the time to visit the schools, spend a moment to jot down a few notes. They may come in handy later on especially when it comes time to apply.