The college admissions process is an exciting adventure, but it can also be an overwhelming and stressful time for families.


More often than not the cure for such anxiety is to achieve clarity of thought and to gain understanding regarding the college admissions process. We have decades of experience guiding Ross School students through this very process and have pooled all of the knowledge and insights we’ve acquired to create this guide for parents. Here you’ll find answers to all of your college admissions questions and instructions on what steps to take and how best to take them, along with invaluable resources to use throughout.


Ross School’s College Counseling Compass

A parent workbook to navigate the college application process

By Andi O’Hearn, Head of Advancement and Operations


1. Introduction

As one of my college counseling clients once told me, “I am trusting you with the most important decision in my daughter’s life.” This kind of statement is perfectly indicative of the strong emotions students and parents feel throughout the admissions process. To make matters worse, the post secondary education is a huge investment. In four years, families can spend upwards of $175,000. Investments on that level deserve careful consideration and tremendous thought, yet most teenagers often have no idea what they want to do when they grow up! In other words, not only are the financial stakes as high as the stress, but we’re essentially dealing with the course of kids’ lives.

Looking back over 30 years of admissions and college counseling, I real- ized I had strong ideas on how to navigate this process. I seem to alter- nate between Director of Admissions and Director of College Counseling, and at several schools, I have done both at the same time. In 1992, I established an international, educational consulting business, Academic Answers, which has provided me with another viewpoint in working with parents.

Applying the knowledge I’ve gained through my years of experience, I wanted to create a workbook for families that offers a different lens through which to view the process and would help remove some of the emotional distress. College Counseling Compass provides a comprehen- sive high school guidance approach to college admissions, starting in ninth grade, so that decisions made along the way will positively impact the choices made during a student’s senior year.

This is one of the most amazing journeys parents and children take together, and honesty and humor are crucial to a smooth and calm experi- ence. With that in mind, let’s get started!


2. Parents, Let Go!

My oldest child, Tyler, was a junior in high school when all of my words of wisdom, spouted over 20 some odd years, came back to haunt me. It began innocently enough.

“Mom, you do this college thing. I am busy with homework, lacrosse and working. I want to go to school in Maine. You pick a college for me.” Of course the professional side of me could not allow such nonsense. We talked about it and agreed that it was important for him to be involved in the process. We would wait until the academic year was over, but that summer we would go up and see Colby, Bates and Bowdoin and throw in both the University of Maine at Orono (UMO) and the University of New Hampshire. We had a list!

That summer we set out to visit colleges. I took Tyler to see Colby, Bates, Bowdoin and the University of New Hampshire; his father took him to UMO; and Tyler visited the “Maine Three” by himself in the fall. We started with Bates, traveling there with my best friend and her daughter Emily, Tyler’s close friend. About five minutes into the tour we should have just gotten back in the car. I watched both children roll their eyes at the tour guide and despite anything we tried after that, neither was going to Bates. The visit to Colby seemed neutral and then we headed on to Bowdoin.

I immediately decided that Bowdoin was the school for Tyler. We had a great tour guide and both kids really liked the school. There seemed to be a lot of spirit, a great town and I loved the location. As far as I was con- cerned we had found his school. But then there was UMaine. I was vaca- tioning in Narragansett when the dreaded call came through. “Mom,” he yelled excitedly, “this is what I have been looking for! I love UMO! What do I need to get on my SATs?”

“1300,” I responded in shock. I made up the number! “Why in the world do you want to go to Orono? Is Orono still in the US? What about Bow- doin?” I could not believe what I was hearing. Tyler could not precisely de- fine what it was about UMO, or why he was so set on going there; he just knew. He applied early action and on December 15 received his accept- ance. I could not even convince him to apply anywhere else.

This was not what Tyler’s father and I wanted. We both felt strongly that Bowdoin was the perfect fit for him, and Tyler did not have a substantial reason for his choice of UMO. We were concerned that he was going to a big, public university. How many times had I calmly told parents to trust that little voice inside their child? Still, I actually went through a period where I was embarrassed that Tyler was going to UMO. Out socially, other parents would ask me, “Don’t you do college counseling?” As Tyler’s sen- ior year unfolded, he was accepted into the honors college at Maine and he was so happy to be a Black Bear that it was contagious.

Only recently has he been able to articulate his thoughts on UMO. It seems that as he was growing up, he always had a vision of what college would be like. Although he could see himself at Bowdoin, it was not the school he had envisioned. Bowdoin reminded him too much of his high school. He wanted a university with a lot of school spirit and the feel of a big school in the north.

What Parents Want

I realized that I wanted Tyler to pick Bowdoin because it was what I had envisioned for myself. When I walked around that campus I wondered why I hadn’t looked at Bowdoin. This is what I had wanted. I felt that Bowdoin was much better than a big university and that made it even harder for me to let go of it for my son. I saw UMO as similar to the school I attended, and I wanted what I believed would be a better experience for my son.

It is not bad for parents to want this for their children. In fact, I think it is normal. However, too many parents are stuck on what they want that they fail to listen to what their children want. They want to impress people with the “right” college sticker on their cars, but they should let go of personal hopes and dreams, because it could set unrealistic expectations for chil- dren, which is potentially harmful. There is nothing more important than a child’s happiness.

Many of my friends have children in college who are having a tough time and are quite unhappy. I have had many seniors in my office hoping they are not accepted to a certain school because they are afraid their parents will force them to go there. Keep in mind, there is always graduate school for that fancy sticker!

Despite my initial reaction, Tyler was very happy; he loved his school and did very well there. He received a great education, had fun, and without question, all of us believe that UMO was the right school for him.


3. A Four-Year Road Map

Developing a Strong Profile

  • >  Assess strengths and weaknesses.

  • >  Select a path through high school that includes the toughest courses possible, including AP courses, if available.

  • >  Find a balance between challenge and success.

  • >  Develop a passion or interest.

  • >  Encourage child to develop skills to advocate for themselves.

By the time a family arrives in my office with their child who is a junior, many of the most important decisions regarding college counseling have already been made and my role is more of a marketer than a counselor. The college admissions process starts in ninth grade. As they enter high school, students make decisions that affect their paths to the colleges of their choice.

A close friend called the other day with many questions, because her twin eighth graders need to select courses for ninth grade. What math should they take? Having completed Spanish One, should they move on to Span- ish Two, or is it better to repeat Spanish One to fill in any gaps? How about science?

These are all excellent questions, and if we had a crystal ball that allowed us to look ahead three years, we could easily make the right choices. Un- fortunately, at the point of entry to high school, there are no clear “right” answers. What is right for one child may be wrong for another. So where to begin?

Student Profile

First, parents must take a long, hard look at their children and examine their strengths and weaknesses. Highly competitive colleges require a dif- ferent profile than a less competitive one; however, all colleges are inter- ested in decisions that were made when there was a choice.

Common sense says that if students compete for entry to a school where less than 10% of the applicant pool is offered admissions, it is important to show they are worthy of that admissions spot. Students should select a path through high school that includes the toughest courses possible, including AP courses, if available. Figure out what is required to be able to take those courses. Then, create a four-year road map for each academic department. The workbook section can help with this process.

After School Activities

Admissions officers judge the choices students have made since ninth grade, There are many choices to consider beyond just academics.

  • What should be done with free time?

  • How important is it to be involved in a team sport?

  • Are there musical or artistic abilities to develop?

Remember, these choices must be made by the students, not the parents.

Parents should guide their children to follow a passion or interest. For ex- ample, a student that loves playing a certain sport could volunteer as an assistant coach, work with a group clinic or referee a local tournament. Do not force children to do community service in a retirement home unless that is what they want to do. Taking a passion and developing it over four years makes a student much more interesting than one who volunteers at a senior home simply because it will attract the right college. It will not. Admissions officers read through thousands of applications and can easily identify a true passion from a manufactured interest.

Making Good Decisions

Good decisions enable children to pursue the path that leads them to their goals. However, families can be easily derailed. The most at-risk parents are those of high achieving students that have above average intelligence but work so hard that their grades are higher than their intelligence would predict. It is the most difficult counseling I do. Usually, this profile has high expectations for a competitive college, yet the test scores are not at the level that highly competitive colleges desire. I will hear phrases like, “She just doesn’t test well,” or “It’s not fair; she deserves to go to a great school.” While these statements may be true, the reality is that parents must consider schools that value their children’s strengths.

There is a delicate balance between pushing children to reach their highest potential and supporting the quality of their education. There is no right or wrong answer to this dilemma, and the decision is different with each child. Parents should try to answer the following question: “If everything goes perfectly throughout high school, what type of college would make my child happy?” If the initial answer is an Ivy League school, then look deeper.

Generally speaking, the top 4% of students attend an Ivy League school. Parents should review their children’s standardized testing profile. Has he consistently scored above 96% of the country in his test scores? Have her grades constantly been at the top of her class? Has he regularly been recommended for extra work or top sections? If the school has gifted pro- grams, has she been identified as a student for these programs?

Parents that carefully assess their children’s skills will see early indicators of the type of college that is right for them. A lot also depends on specific desires. Students deserve to go to the colleges that are best suited for them, and a path should be determined so that they are as competitive as possible when they reach the admissions process.

Look at each academic decision with the goal of balancing the right amount of challenge with success. College websites and free databases offer good information about what colleges are seeking in their freshman classes, including what courses are required and the average test profile of the freshman class. If Johnny is a strong history and English student, these may be areas to push him ahead. If math has always been a strug- gle, shore up the foundation. I have seen many weak math students taste a little success and suddenly become much more confident even taking a tougher math course later on. Think with a four-year plan.


There are points in anyone’s life where extra help is needed and tutoring is a great way to help brush up on a skill, or master a process at a higher level, but balance and common sense are key. It is not wise to push chil- dren into courses that are too difficult and supplement their studies with a tutor every day. I know many parents that have taken this route and would do it again if they had to. They believe that the end justifies the means. But many times students that have moved through high school with constant tutoring to stay in the top groups, bomb out on the admissions testing and have no confidence to be successful without someone helping them one- on-one. Parents may decide to simply pay for a tutor in college as well, but eventually, their children will need to achieve alone. Let them develop those skills early in life.

Public vs. Private High School

As parents, we are always working to give our children the best advantages that we can in life. I remember my parents saying to me when I was young that the biggest gift they could give me was my education. That said do not simply choose a private school solely for the purpose of getting accepted to a better college. That may not be the end result.

Recently, I worked with a young lady who was in the bottom half of her highly competitive prep school senior class. Had she remained in her pub- lic school, she would have been in the top 25% of a much larger senior class. She would have been an “A” student instead of a “C” student. She also would have more confidence in her academic ability than she has. This is something interesting to think about. Given everything else as equal, I think this young lady would have been more successful applying to colleges from her public school instead of her private school. In this particular situation, I also think the quality of her education would have been fairly equal. While there are too many unknowns in this scenario to state definitively that she had no advantages from the private school in her life, in general, parents should think through these decisions carefully.

I went to boarding school and it was a sacrifice for my parents, both of whom were teachers. For me, it was a wonderful experience. I thrived at boarding school in ways I do not think I would have grown had I stayed in my public school. Granted, there were some things that I missed, such as not having my parents at my sporting events in high school. Still, I felt much better prepared for college, both academically and emotionally than students I knew who had come out of public school systems. I knew how to be responsible for myself and I knew what to expect living away from home. While I did not go to boarding school to get into a better college, I did better in college because of my educational experience at prep school.

If parents are considering a change, evaluate the public and private schools closely. Each child has different needs going through puberty and the teenage years. Do not measure fairness with children by money. Just be- cause child number one went to private school does not mean child number two needs to go as well. They may have different needs. Just because it costs more does not mean it is better.


4. Putting Together a Good List

Students should apply to between 4 and 12 schools. There are many varia- tions to this rule, but let’s start with a basic plan. Beginning in January of junior year, students can start developing a college application list. Here are some basic questions parents can ask:

  • Location (Where does my child want to go?)

  • Campus (Will she thrive at a big or small campus? Will she be happier in a city or in the country?)

  • Majors (What academic path will he want to pursue?)

  • Needs (What will she need to be happy and successful?)

I find these questions to be very helpful when formulating a list. However, it is rare when students know the answers to these questions and some- times parents have completely different ideas. If parents cannot answer at least two of these questions, they are not ready to begin developing a list, and more research should be done.

Keep in mind, schools change. Schools that I considered “country clubs” twenty years ago may now be rated at the top and hard to get into. Schools often become “hot” for one reason or another and change rap- idly—Skidmore, Rollins and Elon, for example. There are also fantastic schools outside of the “Ivies” and New England. Loren Pope has written a wonderful book on this called Schools That Change Lives.

Visit Schools

Choose a variety of schools that are nearby and in close proximity to each other. None of them may end up on the list in the end, but that is not the point. These visits help to start answering the four questions above. When I sit down with students after they have visited colleges, they have a much clearer idea of their likes and dislikes. This is highly valuable when parents consider the investment they are going to make in the next four years. A long weekend research trip can get this process on the right track and it is time well spent.

Make a List

Once parents get a feeling for their children’s needs and likes, they can begin putting together their college lists. Do not be swayed by friends, family or other students. What is perfect for one child may be a disaster for his best friend. Do not be swayed by judgmental friends or family. The col- lege admissions process brings out insecurities in everyone.

Find Commonality

On the college list, it is important to have a range of schools with a com- monality—a reach or two is important, then a cluster of schools that are possibilities and finally at least two schools that are safeties. The two safety schools are usually the hardest to pick but the most important. When I look at students that are applying to 18 schools, I know they do not have the right safety schools. As a college counselor, my skill is mostly tested with the safety schools. Finding two schools that students are ex- cited to attend if the proverbial substance hits the fan is a challenge.

Recently, I sat down with a junior who had developed his own college list. I was able to pinpoint his exact criterion by reading through his list. He had done his homework by visiting schools and researching online. He may need something from me down the road, but he had a very good sense of his ability, his direction and what he needed to be happy. This was clearly an exception to the 95% rule, but it felt wonderful to tell him what a great job he had done.

Do the homework and refine the list so that the schools honestly meet the needs of your child.


5. Effective Campus Visits

A Successful Campus Visit

  • Study the school’s website prior to the visit.

  • Bring a notebook and write down observations.

  • Sit and observe students on the campus.

  • Visit the student union

  • Peruse student publications

I once heard the phrase “kicking the tires on a college visit” and just loved the concept. Much like buying a car, parents and students should gather good information when visiting a campus. Take a scheduled tour and at- tend an information session. It is important to get a sense of what admis- sions people think visitors should see and learn. This skill helps prospective students (and their parents) become better consumers. For some families, this is the best way to see a school; others may need a different approach. No matter what, remember to have fun.

Many parents ask me if they have to visit schools. I think it is important for students to have a good sense of college campuses. Often they pre- fer to visit after they hear the admissions decisions. My biggest con- cern, however, is that the child will not like any of the schools to which he or she is admitted. That said it could be cost and time prohibitive to visit all the schools on the list. Students should study school websites carefully and work closely with their college counselors. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is also helpful in providing a good feel for a specific college campus.

When visiting a campus, each person on the trip should bring a notebook. After finishing the tour, write down thoughts and observations before dis- cussing the overall experience—it is impossible to remember everything later on, and this way no one can accuse another of “just saying that to upset me.” Most of my clients do not want to do this at first, but when they do, they always find it useful. Also make sure to take quiet time to sit back and observe students on a campus. Ask, “Can I see my child in that student body? Can I see my child’s friends?”

Beyond the Scheduled Tour

Good information is often gleaned in the student union, in the student pub- lished paper and on the posters and announcements around the campus. The tour guide shows the best side of the campus. Pay attention to the in- dicators that are not pointed out. For example, when touring a dorm room, ask which students tend to live in that dorm. If there are freshman specific dorms, ask to see them. Or get the name of a freshman dorm and look it up after the tour if it is not included. Usually, colleges offer all sorts of dorm options, including quiet, substance free, coed and single sex dorms.

It may also be helpful to get a sense of the number of kids on campus on the weekends and the type of activities that are popular.

A tour guide is only one source of information. Unfortunately, first impres- sions are strong and a tour guide who is not right for one student can re- ally turn him or her off to the whole campus. Even though I always warn parents and students about this, my own son drew a specific opinion about Bates based on the tour guide, and there was nothing I could do to change his mind. Teenagers are very sensitive to nuances that adults sometimes miss. The same can happen with an admissions representa- tive. If parents see their children drawing conclusions about a school based on one or two people, remind them that there are many other stu- dents at the school. If their minds are made up, there are many colleges and universities to choose from, and it may be best to simply move on to the next one.

Parents should take their time, not over schedule their day and try to enjoy this opportunity with their children. This can be a wonderful time to re- member.


6. The Art of Interviewing

In an ideal world, the interview is an equal exchange of information. The interviewer gains an understanding of the applicant and the applicant gains an understanding of the school. Based on this mutual exchange of information, both parties can decide if there is a match. As the number
of applicants has grown, the interview has changed. In many cases, especially schools with large applicant pools, an interview is no longer an important part of the admissions process. As a result, more importance is now placed on the transcript, test scores, recommendations and the actual application, all items that can be viewed by each voting member of the admissions committee. At best, the interview was not a part of the process that committee members were able to experience for them- selves. So perhaps it is fairer across the board to devaluate the interview as an integral part of the college admissions procedure.

Still, some schools continue to offer interviews and for those students preparing for these exchanges of information, begin by researching the school, looking at its website and informational materials. Take notes be- cause in the beginning, schools may blur together, so notes help remind students what drew them to these schools in the first place. In addition, it is always good to write down questions. Don’t worry if the tour guide an- swers those questions; simply explain to the admissions officer that the tour guide was great and answered everything. A word of caution: do not ask a question that was answered in an information session or on the front page of the website. It is not worth asking a question just to ask one.

Try not to worry too much. People who go into admissions work are gen- uinely nice and enjoy getting to know high school students. Admissions officers are fun! My husband, who has been a Head of School for over 20 years, always says admissions conferences are the most fun to attend. By nature, the profession attracts people who like people. They are not look- ing to keep people out. They want to get a feeling for students and they want to sell their school. Students have power in this process. It is a two way street and the competition goes in both directions.

Getting To Know You

Students tend to get nervous when the interview turns personal. A little work ahead of time can alleviate anxiety and build self-confidence. Spend time thinking about each of the following questions and write them down, along with the answers, on index cards:

  1. What three words best describe you?

  2. What are your strengths and weaknesses (personally and as a student)?

  3. What is important to you as you begin the next phase of your education?

  4. If you were to live your life over again, what would you change?

  5. What do you like about your current school? What would you change?

  6. What do you look for in your friends?

  7. What do you like to do in your free time?

  8. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

  9. Why have you selected this college as a possibility?

  10. What did you do last summer?

  11. Have you read any books that have had an impact on your life?

Answering these questions prepares students for any number of ques- tions in an interview. For example, use the answer to the first question, “What three words best describe you?” to respond to, “How would your friends describe you?” or “If I asked other students at your school about you, what would they say?” By taking a little time to answer the above questions, and then reviewing those answers on the way to the interview, students place themselves in the correct mindset for an interview. In addi- tion, before answering an interview question, students should pause and compose their thoughts. It is also appropriate to say, “Wow, that is a tough question. Could we come back to that later?” Just don’t say it more than once.

It is impossible to predict how an interview may go. Sometimes admis- sions officers or senior students who help with interviews do not even ask personal questions, but simply talk about the school. I call these “informa- tional interviews.” If that happens, do not feel snubbed or upset. I believe an interview should be 25% selling the student to the school and 75% learning about the student, but that is my opinion and each school has its own policies. Students should enjoy, be observant, and not feel they are bragging when answering questions. The best part of each student should shine. Find a nice balance but be honest.

Off Campus Interviews

Many schools now offer off campus interviews with alumni or with a local admissions representative. While I do not think these interviews carry as much weight as some on campus interviews, it is still a good opportunity for an exchange of information and a positive endorsement from the inter- viewer is not going to hurt. Prepare for these interviews as if they were on campus interviews.

What to Wear

Students should feel special but comfortable in their interview attire. If tak- ing a tour, be sure to have shoes that are easy to walk in. Brand new shoes are a bad idea. Also, pay attention to weather forecasts. It is not a good idea to tour a campus in the rain, unprepared, and then have to sit through an interview in wet clothes. An outfit should be clean, in good re- pair and nicely presented. A nice shirt, sweater and pants are appropriate for anyone.

Thank You Notes

After the interview, ask for a business card from the interviewer. It is po- lite to follow up with a thank you note or email. It is also helpful to follow up with someone if questions or problems arise down the line. In addition, college counselors should have a copy of the business card in case they need to call the school on the students’ behalf.


7. An Essay from the Soul

The essay is the most important part of the whole application process. Many colleges no longer interview the way they used to, so the essay is often the only place in the admissions process where applicants can share a part of themselves with each member of the decision-making commit- tee. While great essays do not get students in if they are lacking credentials, bad essays may keep them out even with the right credentials. Parents should not assume that their children are able to write great college essays even if they are fantastic writers. It is often hard for students to strike a good balance between “bragging” and marketing themselves.

I worked with a wonderful student who was ranked at the top of her class in a competitive high school. Her test scores, abilities and accomplish- ments put her squarely in the range of a highly competitive college. She applied to an Ivy League program early decision and was deferred. This brought her to me. Her mother came to my office with her daughter’s application. The second I read her essays I knew what had happened. Al- though nicely written, they said nothing about the student. In reality, they actually reflected negatively on a great person. Fortunately, she was a hard worker and caught on quickly. We were able to re-work her essays, and she is now enjoying her sophomore year at Harvard.

Writing a good college essay involves the author putting him/herself in the shoes of an admissions officer. Keep in mind they read about a hundred essays a day during “reading season,” so a strong essay is needed to catch their attention quickly and keep it. I call this the “hook, line and sinker” approach. Begin with a great hook in the opening paragraph that catches one’s attention, follow with a well-written middle that keeps them reading and conclude with why the essay has meaning to the author (and sinks the student right into the accepted pile).

Length of Essay

The essay should be no longer than one page unless the instructions indi- cate otherwise. Be sure to follow specific essay guidelines for length. If students are told to answer the question in 800 words or less, that is what they need to do. Otherwise, as an admissions officer, my first thought would be, “Is this child unable to follow directions?” Admissions officers have thought about what they want; respect their wishes. At the same time, if they want 800 words, 300 words will not make the grade either.

Topic of Essay

The essay should also be unique. This is the students’ place to shine. What makes them different from their peers? What do they care about? A word of caution to parents: almost every school has a standardized test that re- flects students’ writing ability. Parents must let their children write their own essays. Again, admissions people are not stupid. They can tell if a par- ent wrote the essay, or if it is so polished that it could not possibly have been written by a student scoring 550 on the writing section of the SAT or a 25 on the ACT.

This year one of my favorite students sent me his essay. I suggested some edits and sent it back. Four renditions later by Mom, Dad and Big Sister, I did not even recognize the essay! I called his mother and said, “This is not OK. We have lost the child in this essay and anyone who reads it will know he did not write it.” She heard what I said and we compro- mised by hiring an English teacher to work with her son. The resulting es- says were grammatically correct, but retained the child’s creative voice. He was accepted early decision at his first choice college.

Using a Sibling’s Essay

The temptation to use a sibling’s essay is strong. All seniors are stressed, have limited time, and feel they could not possibly write another essay. In a given admissions year, I might read 600 essays. Believe it or not, I re- member most of them at least enough to recognize if I have read it be- fore. If it feels familiar, it takes me about two minutes to check their sibling’s file. Do not plagiarize essays. It is not worth the risk. Maybe the older sibling did not apply to the same school, but admissions people move around, and frankly, it is cheating, plain and simple. Students should write their own essays, but have a proofreader review them to make sure there are no serious grammatical errors.


8. Marketing a Student

It may seem crass to think about marketing a child, but in reality, that is what parents are trying to do through the application process. There are many different techniques to use depending on the skills a child is trying to showcase. In the normal course of applying, there are methods to help children stand out in an applicant pool. Parents should think about the ways in which their children are unique. Some points will, and should be, covered in the regular application and do not require additional materials. If parents decide to use additional materials, there are a few “rules” to keep in mind.

A Resume

A resume is not necessary if it is simply going to restate everything that is on the application; however, a repetitive resume can be used for an alumni interview or for anyone writing a recommendation, including college coun- selors. When it is part of the college application, there should be a specific reason for sending a resume.

The “Specific Activity Resume” can be sent to a college department that might have interest in that particular skill. For example, a student that is very accomplished in theatre and dance, has studied both for several years, and has been in a string of performances should put together a the- atre dance resume highlighting important accomplishments and awards or performances. Keep the resume to one page. If visiting a college, the ap- plicant should also email the resume with a note to the head of the the- atre and dance departments, indicating the date of this visit and asking to meet with the directors of these programs.

If applicable, include in the email a link to a website with examples of work that can be easily viewed in several short video clips. Keep in mind that admissions officers are extremely busy and may not have time to view websites or read resumes, but program directors may have more time. This is not necessary for students that have no interest in participat- ing in a specific activity in college. Video clips on websites should be about three minutes long and total no more than 10 minutes, although in the case of athletes they may also have full games available for a coach to watch in addition to the clips.

Supplemental Materials

Many colleges offer an opportunity to submit supplemental materials. Each college has different instructions for submitting materials. While re- viewing their websites, pay attention to the instructions and provide the materials in the manner requested. Do not send more than is requested. If colleges are taking the time to explain what is wanted, send them exactly that. Otherwise, students will appear to either have not read the directions or be unable to follow them. Neither of these is a good quality.

Periodically, parents get “supplement happy” in their panic to make sure the college knows how wonderful their children are and push other par- ents to make the same mistakes through guilt and anxiety. This is not a good idea. Parents can actually hurt their children’s application prospects. Not all colleges want supplemental materials, or they may want the infor- mation in a specific manner. Stay on course, do the research and follow the directions for each school.

For students that excel in dance, theater, art and music there are usually procedures in place with specific directions of what to submit and how to submit the materials. In these cases, a supplemental resume is often very helpful and at times required. An essay describing a student’s interest and talent is also required at times.

Athletic Recruiting

Working with an athlete through the college recruiting process can be very stressful; however, the ends can clearly justify the means. I always tell par- ents to be prepared for a roller coaster ride. For a few lucky elite athletes, it is an easy process. For the athletes that are talented but not top recruits, it can be much harder. There are very strict rules for athletes and coaches during the recruiting process.

Visit the National Collegiate Athletic Association website ( and learn the dos and don’ts. Also review the NCAA rules and regulations, as well as calendars, information and the Eligibility Center. The overview chart and contacts are also helpful. Notify your college counselor if your child registers with the NCAA Eligibility Center. It is wise to take a look at the core courses required while there is still time to add them. Students cannot actually “clear” the eligibility center until they graduate from high school, but it is important to register while your child is in high school.

I have heard coaches make verbal promises to athletes that do not come to fruition. Do not simply take someone at his or her word. Consult the NCAA to clarify any confusion, and proceed with caution. When in doubt, check it out.

Start the recruiting process early. Make sure video clips are available, if possible, well in advance of the process. It is convenient for both coaches and parents to work through a website and email. The easier it is for a coach to view a prospective athlete and understand the potential match between the college, the program and the athlete, the better coaches can evaluate the possibilities right up front.

One of the most important factors in matching an athlete with a college is determining the personality of the coach and make up of the current team members. Observe the coach in action and make sure the prospective student spends time with members of the team. A scholarship is not worth a student being miserable because the coach does not meet his or her needs. There are many variations of this theme, but in all cases, knowing what a student needs from a coach and teammates is crucial to being successful and happy in the program.

Most coaches want to deal directly with the athlete, not the parents. Parents who are over involved with their athletic children and take the lead in the recruiting process can cause it to backfire. Students should take the lead in the recruiting process, but they are juggling so many activities that they often do not have time to address the correspondence with coaches. A good solution for this is to set up a new email address—that both parent and child can access—to specifically handle recruiting. Assemble a “tem- plate” response and inquiry for the typical questions. This way parents can sort through the emails to help disseminate information or identify those to which the child must respond quickly and personally.

A final word for over-involved parents: If coaches call the house, unless they ask for a parent, they want to speak with the athlete. Parents should not try to chat or “sell” their child. These coaches would not be calling if they were not interested, and the athlete’s relationship with the coach is most important. Celebrate the fact that college coaches are call- ing and let go.


9. A Testing Plan

College Tests Overview

This is a practice test for the SAT. Scores are rarely disclosed to colleges.
Timeline: Ninth – Eleventh Grade

This is a practice test for the ACT. Timeline: Ninth – Eleventh Grade

Most colleges require this test and/or the ACT.
Timeline: Eleventh/Twelfth Grade

Course-based test required by some colleges.This can sometimes replace the ACT.
Timeline: Eleventh/Twelfth Grade.

Most colleges require this test and/or the SAT.
Timeline: Eleventh/Twelfth Grade

Let me begin by saying I hate standardized testing. As far as I can tell there is little correlation between success in the classroom and SAT scores. Yet, these tests are a necessary evil. I prefer the ACT (American College Testing). Historically a west coast test, the ACT is rapidly becoming more accepted in the northeast. In fact, some colleges require either the SAT 1 with two SAT 2s or simply the ACT. That is an easy choice for me! Seven hours of testing on two different Saturdays or three and a half hours on one Saturday. However, many students still prefer the SAT combo. As far as the “NO Testing Needed Schools,” or “Test Optional Schools,” students should submit additional materials, such as graded papers. Do not bypass the testing; most admissions officers will question why a student bypassed the testing, because if the test scores were high, a student would send them.

Getting Prepared

Tests are a necessary part of the process and preparing for them is essen- tial. There are many ways to go about it: Enroll in a course, hire a private tutor, buy a test prep book, take an online course, or any combination of the above. Once again, this decision depends on a student’s strengths and weaknesses. I like a program that allows students to take several diagnos- tic tests under real test conditions. I also like programs to pinpoint specific strategies needed to improve scores. The course should be as individual- ized as possible.

Because these courses can be cost prohibitive, each family should strike the right balance. Do not spend more than is comfortable. Students can feel additional stress that may cause them to perform poorly if they are aware of the financial burden of prep material. Also, recognize that the testing process is stressful for parents as well because they feel helpless and struggle with the idea that their children will be judged by a test. I know I felt that way. Try to stay focused and do not get caught up in all the craziness.


Many schools begin the testing process in the ninth grade with the PSAT, an early indicator of future performance on the SAT. The PSAT is given once a year in October. Generally, a student takes the test during the school day or on a Saturday depending on school policy. While I do not begin to predict SAT performance until the junior year PSAT, which is the official test for national scholarship recognition, early indicators can be helpful.

Do not panic if scores are lower than expected. Most students raise their scores considerably, especially if they use the PSAT to help them recog- nize and then strengthen areas of concern. For example, memorizing the SAT vocabulary words can lead to a 100 point score improvement for most children. However, for most eleventh graders, the importance of memorizing these words has not yet set in. Until they are at the point where they want to learn the words, parents may find themselves frustrated.


There is also a prep test for the ACTs called the PLAN. This test is usually given in the tenth and eleventh grades. It is considered to be an early indicator of the eventual scores on the ACT. PLAN scores seem to run a bit high compared to PSAT scores. I like to see a student take both the ACT and the SAT at least once in eleventh grade. They can take the ACT in either April or June and the SAT in either May or June. The dates do not conflict.


Testing requirements are starting to shift rapidly. Colleges and universities are recognizing that AP exams, IB testing and graded papers can be a significant part of the evaluation process. As the testing requirements shift, there are ways to protect specific tests through a process called score choice, which allows students to decide which testing date information they wish to release. Once students release the scores from one date, all three scores for SAT 1s go from that date. However, some schools do not permit applicants to use score choice.

The SATs are given through College Board and information can be accessed at Information for the ACT can be found at Both websites are highly informative and offer other search and placement advice and options. The answer for when children should take these tests is child specific. The strategy depends on a child’s courses in school, the college wish list and the test prep that is needed.

There are currently about 12 schools in the United States that require the SAT 2s and will not substitute the ACT for them. That list includes about half of the Ivy League schools plus several other universities that see the SAT 2 as an important indicator of success. The SAT 2s are individual course-based tests. Most schools that require the SAT 2s ask students to take either two or three of them. Specific programs, like an engineering program, may require a math SAT 2. Pay attention to each school’s requirements. In addition, the SAT 2s conflict with the SAT 1 testing, so students can take one or the other, but not both on the same day. A guidance counselor or consultant can help put together a testing plan, depending on courses and timing.

The Puzzle Pieces

By the end of junior year, a lot of necessary puzzle pieces start coming together. A student’s GPA, which will be used in the college admissions process, starts becoming clear. In addition, there are the first indicators of SAT and ACT scores to evaluate as well as any AP exams. Parents and students can start considering colleges based on entrance criterion. Most col- leges publish profiles of the incoming freshman class on their websites and in their publications. These statistics provide very useful information. It is also a good time for a reality check. For the first time, parents can evaluate their children’s college list based on something real, and they have the summer ahead to forge a path for the fall.


10. Pulling Strings

Parents often ask if they should use “pull” to help their children get ac- cepted at a specific school. This is a tricky subject, and there is no easy an- swer. Frankly, there are some influences that help bridge the gap to acceptance. Athletes, for example, are often given specialized treatment in the admissions process. This holds true for students with very strong tal- ents in areas that are valued by the particular school to which they are applying.

Major Donors

The question I am most often asked relates to development. Can major donors at a school influence an admissions decision for a friend’s child? The truth is that sometimes they can. But sometimes they can hurt the applicant. Be very careful. If the candidate is borderline (meaning the ad- missions decision could go either way), the support of an alumnus who has been really good to the school can be helpful. However, it is important for this person to know the child well.

There was once a very awkward moment for me as an admissions direc- tor when a President of the Board of Trustees called to talk about a stu- dent in the admissions process. However, it became readily apparent that while he knew the student’s parents well, he really did not know their child. That did not help! Make sure the people who speak on a child’s be- half are well informed—send them copies of resumes, test scores and ap- plications.

Also, be careful with how much information you share with others. I don’t think parents are walking around saying, “Susan only got into Yale because of me,” but it has happened more times than I would have imagined. Chil- dren need and want to be accepted because of their own personal strengths. They can justify when an athlete, musician or minority student with lower academic criterion are accepted. It is harder when it is Daddy’s money or Mommy’s connection that gets them in.

I recently worked with the daughter of a CEO of a major company. As the final decisions were being made, it became clear that a certain school would accept his daughter due to his influence and the potential for a six- figure gift. When it came down to the wire, he asked his daughter, “Is this the school you want to attend?” She was not sure. If she was accepted it would be hard to say no, but she thought another school was a better fit. The father ended up staying out of the admissions process and let the chips fall. In a later conversation as he and I were discussing options, he said, “Andi, I have seen people get jobs because of the school they at- tended. I have never seen them keep jobs because of the school they at- tended.” For him, the development of his daughter as a person was more important than anything else.

Remember, it can be difficult for students if they think they were only ac- cepted because of their family’s connections. I have seen the effect it has had. Students feel demoralized because they believe they did not get ac- cepted on their own merit and may not be as qualified as their peers. In the end, they resent their parents’ connections and feel set-up for failure. The emotional aspects can be worse if high school peers also believe these students should not have been accepted to the school. When a more qualified student is rejected from the same school, people talk and rumors fly.

Family Relations

It is equally important to realize that being a sibling does not guarantee ad- missions. Often the younger sibling is a stronger applicant, and parents consider their older child’s college a safety due to the enrollment of the sibling. Admissions applicant pools can swing dramatically and the competition can be much stiffer two or three years later. While some schools give special consideration to a sibling or a legacy, that is not always the case. Enter the admissions process with a clean slate and search for the college that is the right fit.


11. Financial Aid – To Apply or Not to Apply?

I have heard and read many statements encouraging families to apply for financial aid. The question often comes up in a framework of “What do you have to lose?” I have a really hard time with this concept. Colleges tend to have two different types of financial assistance: need-based aid and merit aid. Need-based aid is awarded depending on how much financial need families are able to demonstrate. Merit aid is based on qualities students possess, such as musical or artistic ability, or perhaps the school simply wants them to attend and entices them with a reduced tuition. Merit aid is becoming increasingly more popular.

Although I have been a Director of Financial Aid for over 20 years at four different prep schools, I have never been involved with the federal aid pro- grams available on the higher education level. Most times I find myself re- ferring families to the college financial aid officers because they are more in tune with the climate and certainly with their school. Financial aid poli- cies also vary from school to school. In working with one student this year that had been accepted at seven different colleges, I was amazed by the differences in the financial aid practices, procedures and awards. Her situ- ation was tricky as she was trying to achieve independent status from her parents. Based on the federal guidelines there was no way to qualify her as an independent. However, in working directly with each school, there were procedures available to help her qualify. The main lesson I learned was that each school had their own way of approaching the problem and solving it.

Whether requesting the FASFA, the CSS or any other form, the procedure and timing is different from school to school. As a college counselor, I need to know if a family needs financial aid, but I prefer not to be involved beyond that. It is the one part of the process that really lets parents as- sume the responsibility of contacting each school, either by phone, cata- logue or website, and file the necessary paper work per school.

Financial Aid

Applying for financial aid affects the admissions process at many schools. Colleges say this is not true, but I have seen many situations in which weaker students who do not require financial aid are accepted, while the same school rejects stronger students who need financial aid. Without question, applying for financial aid in this competitive climate may cost ad- mission to a school. There are exceptions to this rule, for example, if a stu- dent has a special talent or is a person of color.

Financial aid is even more complicated when applying for early decision. While many schools indicate they will meet 100% of demonstrated need with early decision acceptances, families may not qualify for as much as they need and may severely limit their choices. I have heard families argue that the child would not have been admitted in the regular admissions round and that may be true. They believe their child has worked hard and deserves to attend the best school possible. I would have to ask, however, does the child’s hard work deserve a $100,000 debt? Is that the reward? It may be worth it, but that child may have been even happier at another school and graduated with little to no debt. To me, that is a better choice.

School Loans

While I believe there are times when loans are essential to enable a stu- dent to attend college, I hate to see undergraduates assume tremendous debt if they do not have to. Graduating from college owing $100,000 in loans creates a very tough position for a young adult. It is like owing the mortgage on a house without having the house. At times it is necessary, but I don’t think falling in love with a specific college is worth the money if there are other choices. This can be a difficult message for students who do not understand how much they will owe. Being involved in the financial aid process and aware of the need for aid better equips them to make re- sponsible decisions. Instead of feeling resentful they are a part of the process.

Geographically Desirable

As a counselor, I take different approaches to position a college list with fi- nancial aid in mind. Specifically, I look for schools where a student will be desired and therefore more likely granted financial aid or merit scholar- ships. For example, a bright, hardworking male student from New York may not be as desirable in New England as he might be in Ohio or Iowa. He may get into the schools in New England, but they may not be willing to “pay” as much to have him attend. On the other hand, a different school that finds him geographically desirable may offer an award to entice him to attend. These awards can be substantial, easily amounting to over $50,000 in four years.

Supply and Demand

Think about the business rule of “supply and demand.” There is a big sup- ply of average to above average white students and the general demand is for exceptional athletes and students of color. Families should think about where their children will be “geographically desirable.” For example, New England schools have a large pool of above average white students to choose from so the competition is tougher. Parents should put their chil- dren in a situation where a college will want them and increase the likeli- hood that the school will want them enough to pay.

I realize this seems controversial to many parents and perhaps to many admissions representatives, but this has been my experience during the last three years in particular and it simply makes sense. Parents often complain that this is unfair, but it is not a matter of fairness. It is the con- cept of supply and demand and not reverse discrimination as many par- ents think.

State Schools

When working with families that need financial aid, I ask them to consider state schools. While some argue that private schools have more money to distribute in aid, they also cost a lot more than in-state schools. Compari- son shop and keep as many options open for as long as possible. Also, think strategically. If financial aid is needed, a financial safety school should be on the list. There are great resources on the Internet to help families calculate how much aid they are eligible for, but it does not guar- antee they will get that amount. Most colleges and universities cannot fund everyone who needs aid and qualifies for admissions. I have seen awards vary as much as $20,000 a year between several schools.


12. When All is Said and Done

The hardest part for me in the whole counseling process is when everything is finished. The materials have been sent, and it is time to wait for the college decisions. It is the only time in the cycle where there is nothing more to do. But if the work has been done, parents should relax with the knowledge that they have done everything possible to help their child find the right school.

As a parent, it is hard to let go. We monitored four years of high school so- cial activities and academics, listened through all the ups and downs of friendships and relationships, drove everywhere and then handed over the car keys. And here we are again: We helped shape the college list, re- searched and visited schools, paid application fees, sent testing informa- tion and the control must be handed over once more. Parents have to believe they have done what they could to point their children in the right direction throughout this process. Barring financial considerations it is up to the children to make the final decision and figure out where they will be happy and successful for the next four years.

I worked with a fantastic student that was accepted to both Columbia and Wesleyan. For many, attending an Ivy League school is deemed the pinna- cle of success. I watched this particular student make a very difficult deci- sion. Pushing against the tide of advice from nearly everyone in her life, she decided to go to Wesleyan. I have so much admiration for her and her parents. Wesleyan may not have the same prestige that Columbia does, but it was a better fit for her. She did her research, she knew herself, and she knew what she wanted in her next education.

The university that is right for one student may not be right for the next. Parents should know and trust their children and guide them through the admissions process. In the end, however, they must find the strength to step back and let their children make the decision. As I said before, this was very hard for me as a parent, but I let my son decide and I believe he made the right decision in the end.

I love helping students find the right school or the next best step in their education, and I am lucky to have a job that I enjoy and find rewarding. That is why I wrote this workbook. Whether considering the local commu- nity college or the top school in the world, I hope this workbook is useful on the collegiate quest. Good luck!


Essay Sample

The following essay was written by Raphael Shapiro as part of his successful early action application to Yale. It is one of my favorite essays mainly because of its creativity and uniqueness. This essay gives a very specific feel for who Raphael is and what he values. It is reproduced here with Raphael’s permission.

My baseball glove sits abandoned for much of the year. Its winter resi- dence is a windowsill in back of my computer. Every year as the off-sea- son months wear on, the cold winter sun bleaches the glove, but only on one side, the side that faces the window. I suppose I could find another place for the mitt, or at least flip it over, like a burger, and have the other half fade to match. My skin will often brown in the evening August sun, something akin to broiling on a low flame, while playing a game of catch with my father. However, as Labor Day becomes but a speck on the calen- dar’s horizon, my ruddy complexion pales. The way I see it, it’s only right that the glove and I should pale together...

...I found the pen on the ground while in middle school. A sleek, tapered metal cylinder, the pen was sturdily built, with a satisfying kuh-lick when pressed once, and another kuh-lack when pressed again. But what I liked most about the pen was the faint etching of a feathered arrow on the clip. I’ve used the pen for just about everything, a few failed Hebrew classes, anthropology lectures, a film noir intensive. I’ve scribbled out short stories and naughty haikus, and of course a doodle or two. I like the weight of the pen, and maybe I feel that somehow that little arrow gives my writing a sense of direction...

...I’ve had to buy a new pair of tap shoes almost annually since I was five years old. Still, no matter how new my taps are, when I take them out of whatever bag I’ve put them in, I greet them like old friends. I slip them on and off without untying the laces, such is my haste, and once they’re on I settle into a world of internal rhythms and syncopations. Skittle-a-tap-tap- tap-ti-slap-a-tittley-slap. I know it’s a cliché, but all of my cares really do melt away when I dance; my feet skitter across the floor faster than I can think. As a control freak by nature, I find it incredibly soothing to be able to let my legs do the thinking, and let my tap shoes take me to... backyard, where Dad and I will march out our ten paces, before turn- ing to each other to throw the baseball back and forth. We strike up a rhythm. Swish...pop! Swish...pop! The hard sphere stings the brown leather of my glove. Swish... “Ah, shoot, Raphael!” My throw has gone off. I forgot to point my foot at my target, as he’d taught me so many years before. I take off my glove as he walks to retrieve the ball. I stretch out the fingers on my left hand, tighten the leather laces and slip it back on. But another throw doesn’t come. My dad has gone to flip the burgers...

...and I scribble furiously in my red spiral notebook as the silhouettes of Bogart and Hepburn loom over me on the projector. Marlowe and Vivian’s romance different than in novel... I write, and stop to look back at the film. Kuh-lack. Kuh-lick. I doodle lazily on the opposite page. A disproportioned figure emerges from the ballpoint, with a silly grin and an odd position, as he stands...

...on my toes, and I settle down on my heels with a clunk. A tall black man with dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail circles around the box I’m standing on, expertly accentuating the off beats with his taps. It’s a dimly lit restaurant, and a jazz band plays behind me, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” I lose myself in the rhythm, hitting the hollow base sound with a stomp while responding to the dreadlocked man’s calls. I finish the set and trip off the box to the patter of applause, my knees weak from exer- tion and nerves. The man comes over to me as I’m wiping the sweat from my face with my sleeve. “Hey kid, you’ve got it.” I crinkle up my toes against the smooth insides of my tap shoes, and I smile.

Swish...pop! Swish...pop!
Kuh-lick. Kuh-lack. Skittle-a-tap-tap-tap-ti-slap-a-tittley-slap.