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Applying to College: Advice for Students and Families

Posted by Catherine Kaser on November 24, 2015 at 3:00 PM
Catherine Kaser
Casey Zimmer, Director of College Counseling at Sanford School, shares thoughts designed to create a favorable outcome for college-bound high school students and their families.

Q: Word on the street is that it's harder to get into college now than it used to be. Truth or myth?

A: The most selective schools are receiving more applications than ever, so their acceptance rates continue to decline; however, every college is seeking students. If we look past name-branding, there are plenty of great schools out there! The key to finding schools that will be a great fit is for each student to have the self-awareness to determine what factors and practical considerations, including affordability, matter most. Communicate these things to the school guidance or college counselor, who has the current knowledge and experience to help steer students toward some great options and resources. No matter where students attend college, what matters most for their future success is what they do once they're there.

Q: What other changing trends have you observed in the college application process?

A: There have been a number of other trends over the last few years. Students are applying earlier and earlier, and to more colleges, than in the past. Increasing numbers of schools are going test-optional, which means they no longer require an applicant to submit standardized test scores (i.e., SAT or ACT) as a part of the admission process, though students may still choose to do so. The most selective schools in the country are more difficult to get into, even while data suggest that, overall, college is more accessible to more students than ever before. Meanwhile, students are accruing more student debt than ever. I could go on! The college admission landscape seems to be ever-shifting, which is why it is so important for students to start early, plan accordingly, and work closely with their school’s college counselors, who work hard to stay current on these changes and support students and families throughout the application process.

Q: Big changes to the SAT are set to unveil in March 2016. What is in store for next year's test-takers?

A: The SAT has redesigned itself to be—purportedly—more relevant and less susceptible to differences in students’ test preparation. As an example, the SAT is doing away with the majority of the vocabulary sections, which often featured words students would likely only encounter on the SAT. In addition, the redesigned test will focus more time on reading comprehension of historical documents and making inferences from graphs and charts. There are a number of other important changes, too: the removal of the guessing penalty, a revamped essay section, and a change in how the test breaks out scores. There are those who suggest that the "redesigned SAT" looks remarkably like the ACT, in fact.

Q: What guidance do you give to students about evaluating a school's affordability and paying for college?

A: That's a great question and one which continues to vex both college counselors and families engaging in the process. The first thing we recommend is that families look beyond a college or university’s sticker price. Yes, many schools appear to be more expensive than others, but most schools have a variety of different strategies for making college as affordable as possible. Some offer great need-based aid packages; others offer merit scholarships. Frequently, applicants don't realize they will qualify for different forms of assistance. A lot depends on the college or university one is working with, of course, but we encourage students to explore and ask questions about all kinds of financial assistance that may be available to them in order to really assess different schools’ affordability. In the end, we often hear families comment that dealing with college affordability can often be like buying a car—rarely as transparent as one hopes it to be, with more haggling than one might think.

Q: What is your best advice for navigating the college admission process for students and parents?

A: Communicate—with one another and with your school guidance or college counselor. Use available resources and ask questions to make the process practical and manageable. Make a plan,and stick to a timeline. Apply only to the schools you are truly interested in attending. Parents, rather than being the capstone of your child's high school career, college admission is the first step in your child's more-independent future. Grant your student the opportunity to take ownership of both the process and the results.

Q: If a student is interested in taking a year off before attending college, should he or she apply now and defer or wait to even apply?

A: I recommend that a student planning a “gap year” go through the admission process now, to take full advantage of available guidance and to maximize options for the following year in case plans change.

Topics: College Guidance