Thursday, February 12, 2015

The changing testing landscape for the Class of 2017

If you attended our Demystifying Standardized Testing evening last month, one thing I think you probably learned is that the current 10th grade is going to be faced with more testing options than any previous class has ever had. The reason for this is that the current SAT is retiring after the January 2016 administration, leaving current 10th grade students with the option to either:

A) Take the current SAT earlier than normal
B) Wait to see their performance on the redesigned PSAT and be the guinea pig for the redesigned SAT being offered for the first time in March of 2016
C) Choose the ACT right off the bat, since it is a known entity, circumventing any of this SAT mishegas

So, what should you do? Unfortunately none of us can see the future, so while I can help give you some general advice, I don't have a way to predict what is the definite right choice. The nature of any of these paths is it leaves the other roads untaken. But here is what I would recommend:

With testing, things are usually distributed in a normal curve -- with some people on each end (the extremes) and most the people in the middle.

I predict one extreme will be option A. These are current sophomores who can see from their 10th grade PSAT score that they are naturally gifted on the existing SAT. (I would probably say this is the type of student who scored a minimum of a 200 or a 205 on the PSAT this year). That kind of percentile suggests that you will have a good chance of doing well on the real thing and why pass up the chance to be in the 90th or 95th percentile of a college admissions test. If this is you, consider registering for two SATs - probably something like October and December of your Junior year.

It is hard to know if options B or C will be the other "extreme" for our school, but my money is on B. I suspect that a smaller cohort of students will give the new SAT a completely fair shake and be willing to opt for the path we know the least about.

That leaves option C as the one I'm predicting will probably be the most common path for ElRo students. Why do I think people will jump ship and just stick with the ACT? Considering that many students do equally well on the current SAT and ACT, I think all this transition on the SAT side will be enough to convince ElRo students to just opt for the ACT with a traditional testing pattern of taking the April ACT along with a second ACT in either June or September.

Again, I do think there will be some students who see a high percentile score on their redesigned PSAT this fall and who know that will be the path that will lead them to success -aka option B. (Success being defined as maximizing their standardized test score). If this is you, more power to you.

It is technically possible for students to take all 3 exams (the current SAT, the redesigned SAT, and the ACT) but I would STRONGLY discourage that. The reason I discourage it is that I never encourage Testing Robot Syndrome. If you have enough time in your life to prepare for three totally different tests, you are missing out on being a real person. (Plus, from a less philosophical place, you are totally ruining your chances of having a meaningful resume. You can't put 'SAT tutoring' on your Common App list of activities). You are also increased the chance that you will experience testing fatigue - another sure fire way to sabotage your ultimate goal of maximizing your test scores.

As far as we know, all three testing paths will be viable options for college admission. The choice is up to the individual student. Keep in mind that while all these changes might feel unfair, they are a universal challenge for every other person you are competing with in the pool. Instead of dwelling on 'fairness' instead think of it as a unique opportunity to really be able to craft a path that is best for you with more options than in other years. 

As always - don't forget that if this entire entry is making your head spin, you can always just go for option D: out of testing completely and apply to testing optional schools. You can see the full list of testing optional schools at


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thanks Bennington!

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending The Public Theater Presents The 24 Hour Plays®:A Bennington Alumni Tribute to Nicky Martin as a guest of Bennington and it was such a fun night. To give a little background, Bennington is a small college in Vermont that I visited last spring. You can read more about that here.

The concept of last night is that the participants had 24 hours to write, produce, stage, and perform 10-minute plays. I haven't attended this kind of theater since I was in college, so that alone was a treat. More than that though, it gave me a peek into just what makes Bennington tick. There was a palpable energy that was still so present in the alumni (some of whom graduated over 30 years ago). The identity that Bennington had then is, clearly, still alive and well.

The plays that were put on also had a nice dose of college inside jokes and ribs (Williams is a clear nemesis: noted), which made attending as a college counselor even more fun. Bennington knows it is unique. It knows that it isn't for everyone. It knows that it is for dreamers, and thinkers, and free-spirits. But I get the sense that if a person went there who was none of those things, they would still be welcomed with open arms because it isn't a place where judgement is part of the itinerary.

I saved the program not only because Peter Dinklage and Tim Daly were part of the cast (they are both alums), but because the talent I saw from the rest of the performers leads me to believe a few of them could be household names in the future. 

To donate to Bennington to endow the Nicky Martin scholarship, click here.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

FAFSA Info Night Summary

Thanks again to Anthony Becker for once again generously taking the time to present to our students and families about the FAFSA and financial aid application process. The Financial Aid application process can be tedious and confusing, but approaching it with a clear understanding of how the forms work is the best way to maximize your chance of getting aid. Remember, all the FAFSA does is calculate what the government thinks your family can afford to pay toward college each year. This calculation is done assuming that you are going to change your lifestyle in order to accommodate a $5,000-$60,000 purchase (depending on the cost of the college you are looking at). If you want to pay for college and not change a single thing about your lifestyle, be prepared for that to be very very difficult. Look back at your spending for the year. You might be able to identify some of that 'extra money' the government has determined that you have.

I couldn't possibly cover all of the issues that were brought up in a single blog post, but I do want to try and put some key themes below:

1) The FAFSA is required by all colleges if you are applying for financial aid. This is the government's form that determines the estimated family contribution. Colleges then use this EFC to decide how much and what type of financial aid they are able to give you. Only US Citizens and Permanent Residents can submit the FAFSA because it is a federal form. Sometimes international students are asked to fill it out and mail in a hard copy so the college can calculate an EFC, but international students will not be eligible for federal financial aid dollars. The FAFSA is mainly used to determine eligibility for federal and state aid (aka Pell grants, SEOG, Work Study, TAP, etc).

2) Some colleges ALSO require a CSS Profile. This online profile assesses assets in a different way, but is also intended to give colleges a full picture of the financial situation of the family. The CSS also includes a non-custodial parent portion if the parents are divorced. Most colleges that use the CSS are private colleges and it is mainly used to determine eligibility for discounts from the college (aka scholarships and school based grants).

3) Never use fafsa. com - ONLY use  - you should never pay to submit a FAFSA - the first F in FAFSA is free. Do not get your identity stolen.

4) A lot of concern was expressed around 529s. Having a 529 is a great idea for families with high income and lots of assets. For these families that are not eligible for need based aid, a 529 is a fabulous idea to make dollars go the farthest when it comes to education. Unfortunately, for the majority of families though, having a 529 just means that you have an asset with huge red letters on it that says 'money for college.' The college is going to expect you to draw down that account first before they go into their own pocket to give additional financial aid. If you think about it, it makes sense because it is hard to tell a college that you can't pay the tuition when you have an account sitting there that can only be used for said tuition. In a perfect world, a crystal ball 18 years ago would have let people know how quickly tuition was going to increase, but it is what it is. If your child is young, you may still be able to unwind the 529 with the help of a professional to move that asset somewhere to protect it. If this isn't an option, don't be too upset though because many colleges still gap in their financial aid packages regardless of if a family has a high EFC or low EFC. In other words, don't spend too much time lamenting the fact that you tried to save for college. The grass on the other side is most definitely not greener.

5) You must submit your FAFSA in January of the student's senior year. If your child is not a senior, you cannot fill anything out now. You should fill out the FAFSA with estimates of things like income and taxes, then complete your taxes as quickly as you can (read: NOT in April, way before April), then log back in to the FAFSA and update your numbers with your final tax information. Do not wait to start the FAFSA until your taxes are done. Being last in line for financial aid is not a good place to be.

6) Just like all the different types of people out there in the world, there are also lots of different types of colleges, each with their own financial aid methodology. Some schools give no merit aid whatsoever but meet 100% of demonstrated need. Other schools gap some families tens of thousands of dollars, but award very generous merit scholarships to students with the top grades and test scores in their applicant pool. Others still don't give tons of aid, but have a lower total cost which makes them most affordable even though they have low discount rates. How can you sort through it all? Start by filling out the net price calculators on the college's individual financial aid websites. This will give you a preview of the type of aid you might be able to expect.

7) As I mentioned earlier, part of paying for college will probably mean changing your lifestyle. Every dollar that you can avoid taking in a loan is a dollar that your future self will thank you for. I know many people feel like they are already living paycheck to paycheck, but what sacrifices are you making to improve your financial situation during the years that there is a tuition bill? For example, at ElRo we are having a lunch crisis where so few students are eating in the school cafeteria that the city told us that we might no longer be able to staff the kitchen. Almost every ElRo student leaves school mid-day to buy lunch outside. At one of the cafes nearby (that I admittedly also go to) it is easy to ring up a bill of over $10 a day. Multiply that by 5. Now by 40. That is about $2,000 on lunch per year. Full price school lunch is $1.75. That comes out to about $350 per year. Yes, it is a sacrifice to not get the cafe lunch. But the colleges are expecting that you are making sacrifices in order to invest in education. (Other common sacrifices might include things like: taking public transit instead of cabs, eating dinner out less often, canceling cable, eliminating Starbucks, etc).

When looking into financial aid always read the directions clearly and always stick to advertised deadlines. It is a system that can be navigated, but it does take time an effort. We didn't talk about outside scholarships last night, but that is another thing that far too many students ignore. It is hard to tell a college that you are broke and then have a student who has applied to zero outside scholarships. It is true that scholarships usually can't pay for all of college, but it is often possible to piece together a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. 


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving from the College Office!

My apologies for the lack of posting lately - I've written 80+ letters of recommendation (getting close to being done!) so getting new posts up has been tough. A few reminders about College Office related news:

- If you are a 10th or 11th grade ElRo student who is interested in trying a practice ACT test with Kaplan on December 6, register now. 

- If you are an 11th grade ElRo student interested in taking the Kaplan SAT prep class, register at

- If you are a senior, all CUNY and SUNY applications should be filed at this time, even for regular/rolling decision. I recommend this same deadline for out of state public colleges.

- There will be a FAFSA line by line information session with Anthony Becker, CFP, on Tuesday December 9th at 6:00 pm. I recommend this for ALL families who think they might need financial assistance to pay for college, even if the student is not a senior. Knowing about how assets will/won't be counted is important so that if adjustments need to be made now for the future you have time to accomplish this.  

Congratulations to all the members of the Class of 2015 who have already heard from colleges about their acceptances!    

Take time this Thanksgiving to take a break from thinking about getting into college and instead thinking about the things you should be really thankful for like family, health, and peace.


Friday, October 17, 2014

What To Expect From the College Process - Wrap Up

Thank you to everyone who was able to attend the "What To Expect From the College Process" Q&A last night. I loved having the chance to answer questions and clarify how the college journey works. Many questions seemed to surround the issue of testing. If you want to read more about this topic, there are multiple blog posts about it, so feel free to peruse that at your leisure.

If you want more information about the new SAT (for current 10th graders and younger), click here

If you want more information about the ElRo College Office, click here

If you want more information about researching colleges, click here

If you want more information about Colleges That Change Lives, click here

If you want more information about Financial Aid, click here


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Indianapolis NACAC Day 3

       Because I didn't attend the College Board session about the redesigned SAT earlier in the conference, for today's first morning session I decided to go to "Strategic Sophomore/Junior Recruitment--Understanding the Impact of the Redesigned PSAT and SAT." Though designed for colleges, I find that attending post-secondary sessions can sometimes actually be more informative than sessions designed for high school counselors. As with the previously announced information about the new exam, some key changes on the new test include: a new focus on relevant words in context, command of evidence in reading, an essay that requires analyzing a source, math focused on 3 key areas, problems grounded in real world contexts, and some analysis of science and social sciences. There PSAT will also now be scored on the same scale as the SAT. The first redesigned exam will be offered in March of 2016 and the College Board warns there will most likely be delays in score delivery and concordance publication as the exam is carefully normed. In advance of the changes, colleges are encouraged to take an inventory of all places where SAT scores are used (beyond admission - places like course placement, financial aid, etc) and emphasize to all staff across these departments what the official stance of the college is going to be. Because decisions about what scores will be accepted are going to happen on a college by college basis, it will be essential for students and families to keep organized notes about each school's policies and procedures. This issue is of particular importance for current 10th grade students, who will be straddling the shift, having taken the current PSAT, the new PSAT (next fall) and the new SAT (Spring 2016). As a high school counselor, I am curious how student behavior will be impacted. Will 10th grade students opt to take the ACT because it has less of an 'unknown' factor. Will they instead take both versions, in the hopes of doing better on one exam compared to the other? As the panel pointed out, we can hypothesize that most colleges will continue to take whatever data makes the student look most favorable, but I'm sure plenty of people who are vulnerable to the pressure cooker machine will be fearful of picking the wrong test (old vs new). 

        My second session was possibly the best session I've attended this conference, mainly because the presentation was well organized and it made me ponder some philosophical questions about the industry, application process, and enrollment data. I like thinking big and this session was the type that makes your brain overflow. The session was called "Matching the Under Matched Student: Big Data and Small Colleges Offer Strategies for Success." The panel included representation from Franklin & Marshall, Carleton, and Third Coast Analytics. Anyone interested in seeing the powerpoint can download it from the Third Coast website. The session looked into how small colleges can use data to identify and recruit high achieving low income students (the ones that Hoxby and Avery identified in their study -- students who have the profile of what highly selective schools are looking for but who are not applying to highly selective colleges). Research shows that the most significant factor that prevent students in this group from going to college is family issues. Certainly this is something that colleges can't control, but if the recruitment process focuses on recruiting the family and not just the student the yield usually improves. I'm not going to regurgitate the entire session here - but the discussion got me thinking: if these small selective colleges do, in fact, find a way to yield a higher number of these low income high achieving students that were previously not applying to selective colleges, what will the trickle down effect be on the colleges they used to go to? Are we, as an industry, placing our own values (that highly selective colleges are better colleges) on these students and families when for some students the less selective school they were going to go to (where they were the most high achieving student in the pool) would have maybe been a better fit? Will we be creating a system that guarantees that the 'top' schools get better and the lower tier schools don't have a fighting chance of improving their academic profile. This isn't to say that I don't think low income students should not be actively recruited. Or that I don't encourage ElRo's own low income students to add highly selective schools to their lists. But, I fear that the study dismisses the possibility that for some students (of all ability and SES levels) a less selective school might be the right fit for them. 

        The final session of the conference this year was tough for me to pick. I was being very indesivie and honestly ended up just going in to the session that an admission counselor friend was also going into. The topic was similar, about the same low income high achieving students and their enrollment patterns. Though the topic was similar to the earlier session, the presentation and information was, in fact, different. The key takeaway was that even though we aim to have higher education act as a bridge to help level the playing field for low income students, trends indicate that barriers remain and there is still much work to be done. 

        As always, I thank the PTA for their generous support in sponsoring my trip to NACAC. As someone that works in an 'office of one' it is deeply meaningful for me to get to spend a few days per year in a large group of colleagues, peers, and friends. I think Indianapolis was a wonderful host city and I am already looking forward to next year in San Diego. 


Friday, September 19, 2014

Indianapolis NACAC Day 2

Day two got off to an early start with a public colleges of Virginia breakfast this morning. You might remember my experience visiting VCU two summers ago, and that helped push me over the edge to arrive early today to hear about the other public options in Virginia. As with most states, I think the attention gets placed on one or two (usually land grant) universities and it can be easy to forget just how diverse the public options are across the country. The breakfast was a good reminder that there are options beyond just the things you've heard of. Thanks to the public colleges of Virginia for hosting!

My first session this morning was the Common Application session - one that in year's past has been packed and fully of passionate debate. This year's session was surprisingly empty, perhaps a sign that the issues and apologies from last year are in the past. Admittedly, I would have preferred the presentation focus a bit more on showing us the inside of the application, particularly new updates, but there was an opportunity to share ideas with the CEO and other key CA players.

Second, I attended the "Closer Look at Early Action Admissions: Inside the College Admissions Office," an inside look at the Early programs at Boston College, University of Michigan, MIT, and Notre Dame. One theme seemed to be that highly selective schools are erring more and more on the side of caution, being cautious about filling too much of the class through Early Action. At two of the three schools that provided data, the yield was significantly higher (about 10 points) for EA applicants. But it was also stressed that while statistically odds of admission in early can be higher, the profile of admitted EA students is consistent with that of students admitted in the regular round. The issue of deferring EA students was defended as a necessary evil, as EA applicants are 'tightly bunched' making it near impossible to predict who will be admissible in the general pool. For all schools that provided data, there were students deferred and then later admitted, confirming that defer really does not automatically mean deny.

My last session of the day was actually a departure for me, instead of attending an educational session I attended a featured speaker presentation by Madeline Levine. Levine is an author and psychologist who specializes in issues facing students of affluent families. She wrote a book called "The Price of Privilege" and spoke about the increased chance of students from wealthy communities facing mental health issues. She is particularly interested in looking at the pressures that parents place on their children and a recent trend of pressures student place on themselves. The golden ticket is seen to be an Ivy League education, but 17% of Ivy League students are going back to their rooms and self injuring. How can we teach kids to have successful failures? How can we use the opportunities life provides to have kids cope with developmentally appropriate responses to stress? Only 7% of parents think that their children use drugs or alcohol to cope with stress - when asked 73% of kids reported using drugs and alcohol to cope with stress (with the largest stressor being academics). Instead of wanting kids who are perfect at everything, parents should embrace the natural strengths in their kids. A recent study suggests that to reach top executive corporate levels, individuals only need be experts in 3 out of 16 competencies. No one is perfect and no one needs to be. Levine says that affluent communities want to live in a world where average doesn’t exist. But that isn’t real life and, with thought, people will see that they are actually average at most things. And that is ok. Her final slide summarized it well in saying “While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life.” Levine was a lovely speaker and I plan to read her book after hearing her speak. 

I look forward to the final day tomorrow (and my final volunteer shift at the conference social).