Throughout this summer, I've been volunteering my time at the Newton Free Library, holding weekly drop-in hours where students and their families have been able to come and ask me any questions that they may have about the college admission application process. Because of the success of this program, I'm happy to continue answering your questions about the ins and outs of college admission. Do you have a question about applying to college? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and you might just see your question show up in Ask a College Counselor! :)
For September, I've received some excellent questions, addressing issues from gap years to standardized testing. Here are my responses!
Question: "More and more schools are making the SAT optional. When does it make sense to submit them, and when does it not?"
Answer: I LOVE that more and more colleges and universities are going test optional! This makes the entire application process so much more student-friendly, since this move recognizes that not all student are able to test well (due to learning differences, anxiety issues, etc.). It also acknowledges that standardized testing has limited value in a truly holistic admission evaluation process. Ideally, I would love to see standardized testing being entirely eliminated some day, but, until then, I celebrate every new school that goes test-optional!
That said, if you're applying to a test-optional school and you have very high test scores (by this, I mean that your test scores are higher than the average test scores of the student body at that college or university - it's all relative), by all means - report those scores! It will likely only have a positive effect on your overall application competitiveness. However, if you're applying to a test optional school and your scores are below their average student body test score range, then let the rest of your application speak for itself. By not reporting scores in this case, your application readers will consider more important factors, such as your course rigor, grades, essays, and your extracurricular activities. After all, you want to present your best, authentic self in writing to these readers. For a list of current test-optional schools in the U.S., click here.
Question: "Does applying for financial aid make it less likely that a student will be admitted to competitive schools?"
Answer: As much as I would love to say that applying for financial aid does not affect admission decisions, the sad reality today is that it does. As the decades-long trend of cutting federal and state funds for higher education continues, most colleges and universities are pressured to find sources of money to keep the doors open. Increasing the amount of "full pay" students (i.e., students who pay full tuition for their entire undergraduate education) is one way to help alleviate budget shortfalls. This is even true for the wealthiest and most elite of schools, since they are always looking to increase their endowments and purchase new real estate (Harvard University, Boston College, New York University, and Columbia University are just a few schools that immediately come to mind that have and continue to purchase real estate in their areas). Unfortunately, this is just one of the many flawed ways that higher education perpetuates privilege and limits access for all who desire a post-secondary education.
The good news is that the vast majority of students who attend college receive some type of financial aid, in the form of institutional scholarships, external grants, federal loans, and work-study awards. In fact, during the 2016-2017 year, approximately 89% of undergraduate attending a private non-profit college were awarded some form of financial aid (this was the case for 83% of students attending public universities). Unless you have an oil well in your backyard, I always advise students and their families to apply for financial aid. Moreover, a handful of schools in the U.S. have committed to meeting 100% of a student's financial need (as determined by the FAFSA and CSS/Profile forms) and have pledged not to consider a student's ability to pay for college during the admission evaluation process. For more information on "need-blind" colleges and universities, click here.
Question: "If a student is planning to take a gap year, should that student apply to schools during the senior year or the gap year?"
Answer: Gap years are growing in popularity, and it's for a good reason: students who take a gap year between high school and college tend to take college courses more seriously and be more motivated, mature students when they arrive on campus. If you are thinking of taking a gap year, you should apply to colleges and universities during your senior year of high school. I recommend this because a) students change their minds all of the time, and what may seem like your dream plan in September of your senior year might not look so great to you by the end of your senior year, b) you're in school with a cohort of other seniors applying to college, so everyone is moving through this process together (this means that you will be a top priority for your school counselor who is focusing on seniors, and you will be able to commiserate with your peers - don't underestimate the value of peer support during stressful times!), and c) the last thing you'll want to do during a gap year is spend it applying to colleges. Once you have received all of your admission offers in the spring, you may then approach the school of your choice and discuss the possibility of deferring admission for one year (i.e., taking a gap year). If you are allowed to defer, this means that you will pay the school a deposit and the Admission Office will hold a spot for you in the following incoming class. This way, you can enjoy your gap year knowing that you will be attending your college of choice after your gap year has concluded. There is an important caveat, though - while most institutions will be happy to defer you for a year, your financial aid award might not be deferred with you. When discussing the possibility of deferring with your chosen college or university, be sure to ask about what will happen to your financial aid award and if you are able to defer it along with your admission. As long as you haven't deposited yet, you still have a certain amount of leverage with a school, and, if they really want you to attend and they are able to shift around their budgets, you may be able to negotiate a financial aid award package that will be waiting for you when you arrive on campus. Just remember that there are NO guarantees in college admission and financial aid, so always always always get everything in writing!!! For more information on gap years, check out Gap Year Association and Center for Interim Programs.
If you would like to submit a question to Ask a College Counselor, please e-mail me at email@example.com!
Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.