Annual December Stress Antidote

The college admissions world kicks into high gear in December as schools start to send their Early Decision (ED) letters. This application plan is binding: if they admit you, you are committed to attend. Some of the most selective colleges in the country will be releasing their decisions in the next two weeks. Students typically apply to their first choice school, so these decisions usually have two results on the receiving end, unabated joy or extreme disappointment. The highs are high and the lows are low.

If you are a senior, these weeks are intense, even if you did not apply early anywhere. Years ago, I watched this stress build and I looked for some piece of wisdom to share with my seniors. I could not find what I wanted to say, so I wrote my own piece below and it still holds true. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, fasten your seatbelt and read this as often as necessary.

As early application results come in, I have noticed a heightened state among college-bound seniors as they wait for results from the schools where they applied. I searched my archives of articles to find something that might help students take stock and maintain perspective, but none of the articles said what I wanted to say, so here are my two cents. Keep your eye on your own ball. Do not pay attention to the admissions chatter. Think about what you are looking for in a college and what you want your life to look like after the 45 months that you will spend at college. Consider your strengths and weaknesses as a student as well as how you learn best. Continue to explore areas of study and career paths that interest you. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish in college like studying abroad or completing an internship. Explore the websites of ALL the colleges where you are applying and see if anything jumps out at you. College admission is just the beginning. The kids that “win” at the college game (if there even is such a thing) are the students that arrive on campus with a sense of purpose, use their four years well and graduate on time. In precisely five months you will be submitting a deposit to the lucky school that gets to have you for the next four years. Use this time to ponder what you want in a college so that when your choices are on the table, you have a deeper sense of what you want in a school.

Three Things To Be Grateful For In College Admissions Due To The Pandemic

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your loved ones in 2020! They say every cloud has a silver lining and I suppose every pandemic does too. I want to point out a few things that the Coronavirus has brought to college admissions that we can be grateful for. As we head into the final stages of the 2021 application cycle, as well as the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it would be appropriate to look at three changes that are an advantage for applicants:

1. There has always been a lengthy list of schools that offered a test-optional application plan. The group Fairtest.com maintains an excellence set of resources to find schools that do not require standardized testing for admission. You can access their website here, But that list has expanded geometrically. Colleges that require test scores for the 2021 cycle ( and I think that this will be a continued benefit for the 2022 kids) are in a minority and if testing is not your strong suit, this is an advantage for you.

2. Colleges are operating in a world where the complex data that they use to build and shape a class are not going to work as effectively as they have in the past. It is going to be harder for schools to predict who will come, so whatever a college’s admit rate has been in the past, my guess is that they are going to have to admit more students to fill their class in 2021. These increased rates of admission are an advantage for seniors.

3. Everything that you used to see when you visited a college has been moved online and then some. You can stream live tours, information sessions, videos on specific majors or what the housing is like. You can engage with current students and admissions representative in chats. Admissions offices have done an incredible job creating online opportunities to engage with them and there are excellent resources available. There is no substitute for seeing a campus in action, but this is a great place to start.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended so many aspects of our lives but the list above are things to be grateful for if you have a 2021 college applicant. Health and happiness to you and your family as 2020 comes to an end.

Senior Emergency Plan

If you are a senior or the parent of a senior and you are behind on your college planning, this post is for you. The pandemic has created stress and hardship but one of the silver linings is that for seniors in high school, there has never been a better time to apply to college. And, the majority of schools will take applications without ACT/SAT scores! Below is a plan to complete a Common Application in ten hours or less.

Step #1-Open an account on the Common App and start filling it out the basic information. You will need to have access to your courses and detailed information about your family. Time required-1 hour.

Step #2-Use this guide from the College Essay Guy, Ethan Sawyer, to fill out the activities section and the honors/awards section of the Common App. This is a place to show off what you have done over your secondary school career. This is not a place to be humble. Time required-1 hour.

Step #3-Start drafting your personal statement. The “college essay” is not a traditional essay and should not be intimidating. It is a short personal statement where you get to share something about yourself. I do an exercise with my students where I give them an essay that another student has written and I time them while they read it. On average, it takes them about two minutes to get through it. I guarantee you that it takes a seasoned admissions professional ninety seconds or less to read one. So, the question is this: if you had ninety seconds with an admissions director in an elevator, what would you want them to know about you? Here is a breakdown of how to approach the essay:

Day 1- One hour

~Figure out what you to share about yourself. 15 minutes

~Draft a journal-style piece to tell your story. Do not consider the word count here, just keep writing until you have told your story. When you are done, put the piece aside for the rest of the day. 45 minutes

Day 2-Thirty minutes

~Review your writing and take a look at the word count. The limit is 650 so if you are over that (and most students are), find passages that are redundant or not germane to your story. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 3-Thirty minutes

~If you are still over the word count, read through and see what parts are critical to your story and what you can eliminate. Force yourself to get at our under the word count. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 4-Fifteen minutes

~Review your work and smooth out any parts that are awkward. Make sure your language is not redundant. Double check that you are not over the word count. When you finish, put the essay aside for the rest of the day.

Day 5-Fifteen minutes

~Read through one more time and make any revisions. When you are ready, share it with someone else for a final proofing and editing.

Step #4-Enlist two teachers (ideally from different subject areas) to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. This should be done in person and you should follow up with an email that thanks them, shares where you are applying, what you hope to study and lets them know what deadlines you are facing. Time required-30 minutes

Step #5- Meet with your school counselor to determine where you are going to apply. They will have important context about how colleges evaluate students from your school. Time required-1 hour

Step #6-Submit transcript requests to your high school.-Time required-15 minutes

Step #7-Sit down and submit your applications. (And if you have SAT/ACT scores that you wish to send, complete this task at the same time)-Time required-1 hour

Once you have submitted your applications, you will receive links to your application portal for each college. It is critical to monitor these to ensure that your documents arrive and your file is complete. Good luck!

5 Things That Juniors Can Do Right Now In A Pandemic

The pandemic has thrown a wrench in many aspects of the college admission world. From visiting campuses to sending in applications, we are all dealing with a new paradigm. In New Jersey, next week is the November break that in a normal year, many families use to visit colleges. I remember doing this several years ago and crisscrossing New England to arrive on campuses littered with other New Jersey license plates. Many schools are not offering tours or in-person visits now. So what can a junior do right now?

  1. Get on some campuses. I do not care where you go, or if it is a school that interests you. You just need to go. These schools are going to have students on campus for the next few weeks, so the window to see a college in action is closing and who knows what things will look like for the spring semester. Even if they are not offering formal visits or tours, go see who is there and get a sense of the vibe. And I recommend that you even take off a day from school to do this!
  2. Come up with a testing plan. Take a look at the schedule for the SAT and the ACT. Decide when a good prep window is for you and get organized to prepare and test, either in late 2020 or spring of 2021.
  3. Explore schools that interest you through virtual information sessions and online tours. If they ask for your email, give it to them so you can demonstrate interest.
  4. Focus on your academics. Curriculum and academic performance are the number one thing that colleges are looking for when they review your file.
  5. As you progress through your junior year, build good relationships with your teachers. You are going to need two letters of recommendation from people that have had you in class.

There are surreal times and as we all put one foot in front of the other, I hope this helps you gain a sense of some of the things that are in your control. And happy teacher’s convention weekend!

Thoughts From Mr. Fiske (Or Calm in the Heart of Application Season)

Earlier this month I had the great fortune to attend a professional webinar with Mr. Edward Fiske, the man behind Fiske Guide to Colleges. It was so interesting to hear his perspective on colleges in 2020. His career began in the 1960s as a journalist and he still works on the annual publication of the guide that bears his name. I enjoyed learning everything from how they decide which colleges to include in the guide to what makes them different from other college books and how things have changed over the years. I put a few quotes from the webinar with Mr. Fiske below with some comments from me. If you are a senior or the parent of a senior, things are ramping up as the October 15th deadlines just passed and the November deadlines are approaching. I hope his sage words offer calm and perspective. Here are a few takeaways:

Too much information is useless information.-I have heard that getting information about college admissions is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. I am a firm believer that students need to start early and take time to sort out what they want from their college experiences and which schools offer the best fit. However, at some point, there are diminishing marginal returns on the information.

The colleges’ ability to manipulate the applicant pool is astonishing.”-The truth of the matter is that colleges hold many of the cards in the admissions world. They can leverage institutional funds to recruit students and they can put application plans in place to increase their yield. (I am looking at you Colgate, with ED1, ED2 AND ED3) It is important to be aware of this so that you can chart your own course and take the steps that are best for your student.

The US diversity of higher education options is phenomenal.”-This statement speaks for itself. There are thousands of choices and more than half of them except more than half of the applicant pool.

There are dozens of schools that would be a good match.”-And this statement is why my mantra is “Love Your List”. When a student is only excited about their reach schools, it is a recipe for disappointment and heartache. I wrote a piece about this, here. Do not fall in love with one school.

Find a place where the personality of the school will serve your needs.”-I wrote a piece that I publish every year in February for my seniors that has a beautiful quote that speaks to this, called, “A Valentine for my Seniors”. It speaks to this very point.

The American system of higher education is a real treasure.-And at the end of the day, this is the point that I want to drive home. There is no other country in the world with the array of options that we have. I work with students of all academic ranges and there are schools for everyone. So if you are in the heart of the application season and feeling some stress, I hope that Mr. Fiske’s comments offer a calm perspective.

The College Admissions Book You Need to Read

Tomorrow is the publication date for Jeff Selingo’s new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions. I was able to get my hands on a copy a few days early, thanks to River Road Books in Fair Haven. I am halfway through it and I attended a private Zoom meeting with Jeff last night. If you are the parent of a college-bound high school student, this is a must read.

Jeff Selingo is a journalist who has reported for over two decades on higher education. He was the editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the bestselling author of two books about college, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow and College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students. He was well-positioned to write about college admissions.

Jeff embedded in the admissions department of three different colleges to research for this book. He takes an in-depth look at how decisions are made at University of Washington, Davidson College and Emory University. This is an interesting slice of schools: a large state flagship in the Pacific Northwest, a small liberal arts college in rural North Carolina and a medium-sized school in Atlanta. If your family is negotiating this passage, Jeff’s book will help uncover some of the mystery of who gets in and why. I highly recommend it!

I am posting quotes on my instagram story as I read the book. You can follow me at louiselarsen14.

Labor Day Thoughts

Greetings from the Jersey Shore as we wrap up another summer and students head back to school or at least log in to their classes. This application cycle I guided an awesome group of kids that worked hard all summer. The fruit of their labor is that every last one of them has their Common App completed and their supplemental essays finished or with a plan to finish them in a timely manner. Now they can start their senior year and focus on their last and arguably their most important academic leg of high school.

Here are a few thoughts on the 2021 admission cycle, in no particular order:

  1. Test-Optional is great! But, test-optional is not test-blind. Students that are able to test and do well with help their application profile. I am encouraging all of my students to try and test if they are able to secure a seat at a test site that manages to administer a test.
  2. Schools are dealing with uncertainty (we all are, I know). And this means that they are likely to lean heavily on the Early Decision round to stabilize their numbers and secure a certain amount of students in December. I wrote more about this in my last post, 5 Things to Know About Early Decision in a Pandemic.
  3. Some campuses are starting to open for tours but many are still only offering virtual tours. For now, the best bet for a rising senior is to continue to explore schools online and keep our fingers crossed that next spring seniors will be able to visit campuses for Accepted Student Days.
  4. Some old adages still hold true. Carolyn Pippen wrote a piece called “Lessons From a Departing Admissions Counselor” when she left Vanderbilt University several years ago. One of the points that she makes is, “The calmest and most organized students fare the best in this process”. If you have a senior that needs to apply to college, the time is now.
  5. There is chatter around the 2021 cohort-will it be easier to get in because of the pandemic? Or will it be harder to get in because of the pandemic? The answer is it probably depends and no one really knows yet. I think that the typical acceptance rates at each school might tick up a bit so that colleges will ensure that they can fill their class.
  6. Full-pay students will be in high demand and could have an advantage, especially in the ED round.
  7. And of course, the wait list might be a whole new frontier.
  8. If you are a senior, or the parent of a senior, fasten your seatbelt, this application cycle is going to be a wild ride!

I hope you had a great holiday weekend. Here’s a picture of how I started my day.

5 Things to Know About Early Decision in a Pandemic

The 2020 Pandemic continues to impact college admission models. As seniors weigh their application options, it is worthwhile to consider how the Early Decision (ED) might help them gain acceptance to the college of their choice.

If you are new to the college admission process, ED is a plan where you apply early to a college, typically by November 1st and you receive an answer from the school in early December. This is a binding application and if admitted, you are obligated to attend. You can only apply to one college under this plan, so students use it as an opportunity to show the love at their first choice school and hopefully increase the chance of receiving an acceptance letter.

One takeaway from the pandemic is that schools will be leaning on their ED plans to try and eliminate some of the uncertainty that they are facing in the COVID-19 era and stabilize their numbers for the class of 2024.

Here are a few things to think about*:

  1. The admit rate for ED is typically higher than the Regular Decision (RD) rate. For example, the RD rate at Colgate University for the class of 2023 was 20.1% but the ED acceptance rate was 46.4%.
  2. Many selective schools fill half of their class in the ED round, making the RD round more selective than it might seem.  The winner in this category last year was Bates College. They took 70.3% of their freshman class in the ED round. Their ED admit rate was 42.4% and their RD rate was 8.7%
  3. Some schools use ED to boost their statistics and lower their admit rate. The biggest discrepancy here is at Colby College. They fill 64.6% of their freshman class from the ED round, with an admit rate of 43.4% but in the RD round only lets in 7.6% of applicants. If you are applying RD it is quite selective.
  4. Many schools include their recruited athletes in the ED round, but that is not indicated in the statistics.
  5. If you are waiting to see where you might be eligible for a merit scholarship, a binding ED application plan might not be the best choice. There will not be an opportunity to compare offers from other schools. When you are accepted, you are required to withdraw all of your other applications.

*All data gratefully sourced from Jennie Kent & Jeff Levy at bigjeducationalconsulting.com

 

August 1st!

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-31 at 12.27.26 PM

August 1st is a significant day in the college admission cycle. The Common Application opens and seniors can view the supplemental essays that they will need to write. At this time of year, I go from counseling to stalking. I have reached out to all my seniors and given them a heads up that we will get underway with the supplements this weekend. If they start now, they will have a solid month to complete all of the writing before senior year begins. If you are a senior, now is the perfect time to get started on your applications. Good luck!

Testing in a Pandemic

“Optional” is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle. This is not a moment for euphemisms or gimmicks; there should be no parsing of intent with this amended testing policy. It is a clear response to an unprecedented moment that requires admission officers to reimagine some of the elements we have historically required as we reassure anxious students about their upcoming applications. Worries about oversubscribed test sites, anxiety regarding limited registration access and the incongruity of test prep during a quarantine can be set aside.”

~Lee Coffin

Vice Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Dartmouth College

I love my work and I get great satisfaction in guiding families through the college admission journey. But I have always thought it was a shame that the entire system is so complicated: Common App/Coalition App, ED/EA, FAFSA/CSS-Profile, ACT/SAT/Test-Optional, Merit Scholarships/Need-Based Aid and the list goes on. It is no wonder that people need help. 

There is no layer of the college admissions world that is more fraught with tension than testing and what scores mean. There is substantial data that confirms that standardized tests reflect the socioeconomic background of a student, not their intelligence or aptitude. Many in this field would love to see the testing machine eliminated from consideration and some schools have gone as far as to label themselves test-blind-they will not even look at your test scores. But the reality is that good scores can enhance a profile and I have always encouraged my students (and my biological children) to put their best foot forward with testing. Strong scores will not necessarily get you in but weak scores can keep you out; they are a little bit like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. And they can definitely open doors to merit scholarships. As a result I always encourage my students not to be stressed, but to give the test their best possible effort and let the chips land where they land. I also show them the lengthy list of incredible test-optional schools just in case their numbers aren’t what they had hoped, just to assuage any anxiety they may have. 

This year has been no different and I have encouraged my seniors to test this fall, to either establish their first set of scores or improve on what they have already done. I have also pushed my rising juniors to test if they can get a seat in case next spring follows the course that testing took the first half of this year, with multiple cancellations due to COVID-19. 

But I am watching the news carefully and reconsidering my advice. Taking a standardized test indoors, in a mask, over a four hour period, with breaks for snacks is the definition of a congregate setting where the virus can spread. The testing environment plays a role in how students score (imagine testing in a classroom when the marching band is practicing right outside!) and the current environment is more stressful than normal.

I wanted to share a piece from the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, Jon Boeckenstedt. You have likely never heard of him, but in my field, he is a lion; well-regarded, deeply admired and his word carries great weight. His piece, Please Don’t Test is here. In it, he says that his school does not care if you test. He also cites Lee Coffin, from Dartmouth, who I quote at the beginning of this piece. Lee Coffin has an excellent podcast to demystify college admissions here

A few weeks ago securing a seat at a test site seemed like a good opportunity. But we are in a dynamic world and things change by the day. Now a standardized test might feel like a level of risk that isn’t prudent. Each family must carefully weigh their decision.