The Journey to College Blog

drbenedictNo matter what a student’s GPA or SAT scores are, every high school junior begins this journey with a mix of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, insecurity and self-confidence.  The journey to college is often challenging but with some understanding of the process and realistic expectations, it can be quite rewarding.

Over the past twenty years I have helped students get into some of the top colleges and universities in the country including Bates, Brown and Princeton.  In this blog I share some of the insights I have gained to make the Journey to College as painless and successful as possible.  There are no “magic bullets” or “tricks” but there are some sound strategies that I have developed for students to help them get into the best college or university for them.  While the overall process for each student is similar, the specific strategy for success must be tailored to each student’s specific skills and goals.  To illustrate this in the blog I describe the actual experiences of real students who are in various stages of the college admissions process.  I have masked their identities but their experiences are representative of what most students face during the challenging and exciting Journey to College.

We follow five real students on their college journey. We look at their standardized test scores and suggest how they can improve. We share the strategy that we suggest for the courses they take in their senior year.  We talk about college trips and how each student sorts out the colleges that they want to apply to. We also include how they spend their summer and what they plan to write their college essays about.

As their journey progresses, we examine questions about financial aid.  Finally, we reveal each students college list and how each will position himself on his application.  I hope you enjoy following the journey of five exceptional high school juniors.  They have all started to prepare for the SAT exam with College Preparation Services and they took the exam for the first time in January. The first round of scores will arrive in their email in early February.

  • Walter attends public High School. He is a varsity football player.  Walter has a 3.5 GPA and is taking all honors and AP Courses.   His PSAT scores were: Reading 62 Math 60 and Writing 56.  His dream school is Stanford University.
  • Mia attends public high school and plays the flute in the school band.  She has a 3.9 GPA and is taking all honors and AP courses. Her PSAT scores were: 56 Reading 58 Math and Writing 52.
  • Zahra attends public school.  She is active in the EMTs in her community and is involved in many extracurricular activities in school. Zahra plays the flute in the high school band and is taking all honors and AP courses.  She has a 4.3 GPA.  Her PSAT scores were: 60 reading, 59 Math and 56 writing. Zahra is interested in following her passion and is thinking about a smaller school right now, because she wants to explore the liberal arts.
  • Paul attends a private school where he plays varsity Soccer and Rugby.  He has a 3.2 GPA and takes honors math.  His PSAT scores were: 56 Reading, Math 60 and Writing 55.  Paul wants to study film in college.  He has applied to a summer film program at Sara Lawrence College.
  • Benny attends public school. He is active in getting a Safe Rides program started at his school. When he was in eighth grade, he decided to teach himself computer programming and he did.  Benny is taking all honors and AP courses and has a 3.5 GPA.  His PSAT scores were: Reading 73 Math70 and Writing 67. Benny wants to continue to study computer science but he hasn’t decided where he would like to go to college.


You can scroll through the following 4 posts to read about their journey…

POST 1:  Today is the second SAT that our students have taken.

The first exam was in January.  When the scores came back most of the students were disappointed but they learned a lot about the rigors of taking the test.  Some decided they needed to have a better breakfast because the test is very long.  Another student told the story that someone in her classroom burst into tears in the middle of the test.  Also, not all testing situations are quiet. One student reported there were loud groups in the hall and the proctor didn’t have silence in the classroom. So they learned that where you take the test can really matter.  I encouraged them to memorize our 400 word vocabulary list.  They also took a real exam every Saturday with a proctor and then we reviewed the exam during the week at a one on one tutorial.

Walter has been studying his vocabulary and has been working on his math.  He has not missed a session, but his scores have not improved much. He begins varsity lacrosse practice soon; we talked about how is lacrosse might be part of his college application if he decides to apply to Division 3 schools. He plans to talk to his coach this week. Walter will take the subject tests in May/ June.  This depends on his score on the test today.

Mia has not learned her vocabulary.  Her January scores indicate that she might want to consider SAT optional schools, because her grades are very good and her test scores need improvement. She is excited that her high school band is planning a trip to Cuba.  This should be a very exciting experience for her this spring.

Zahra has worked very hard on her SATs.  She knows all the vocabulary words and has been able to raise her math score significantly.  She could have a very good score on this test.  She is planning to take the subject test in May.

Paul has been traveling with his school in South America.  It was a great experience, but he feel behind in his school work and his SAT prep.  He will need to keep working on his test scores. He did not get his application for the summer program to Sarah Lawrence in on time, but he has an opportunity to apply to the University of Rochester for a summer program in film. I hope to review his essay this week.

Benny did well on his exam in January. He scored in the mid 700s in Reading, and he has been working hard on his essay and his math.  He hopes to get an 800 in at least one section this time. When he read the blog he told me I made a mistake.  His Academic average is 4.3 not 3.5.  That’s my mistake because the 4.3 corresponds to his AP and Honors courses, “Weighted”.

Benny is planning to apply to take an engineering class this summer at either: Carleton, University of Rochester or Dartmouth.

POST 2:  Equally important as the standardized testing are the courses that these students will be taking in their senior year.

Most schools offer AP courses, and it is important for all students planning to go to college to take at least one of these courses in their senior year.  If, however, a student plans to go to a competitive school, he should plan to take as many AP courses as he can throughout his high school career.

Yes, some high schools offer more AP courses than others and colleges are well aware of that fact.  Admissions officers want to see that a student is taking the most rigorous courses that his school offers. When I discussed the courses that these seniors should take next year, they were surprised and a little scared that they would not do as well in the AP courses as they would in an honors level course. I told them that they are better off with a B in an AP than an A in an honors course.  Why?  Because colleges like to see that the student took the risk and challenged himself.

Walter:  Even though Walter is a varsity football player, he decided to take AP Physics, AP English AP Calculus, AP Comparative Politics and AP French.

Mia: She decided to take AP Physics, Pre calculus, Honors Modern Literature, Spanish 4 and Intro to Economics.  I was disappointed that she was not challenging herself and she said she would change her courses.

Zahra: Took my advice.  She is taking: AP Literature, AP Calculus, AP Psychology, and AP Physics.  She plays the flute in the school band so she will be taking Honors Wind Symphony.

She will complete her art requirement for graduation with two courses: one in Photography and the other in Design.

Paul:  Unfortunately, Paul did not qualify for AP courses in either science or math.  He will be taking:  AP English, AP Spanish, AP Constitutional Government, Social Ethics, a requirement, Honors, Pre calculus, Honors Chemistry.

Benny: Benny didn’t have many extra school activities, so he is trying out for the tennis team this spring.  He will be taking AP Physics, AP European History, AP Calculus, AP English and Honors Bio-engineering.

Tomorrow these students will get their SAT scores back.  I will list them a soon as I find out.  After we have these scores, I will suggest a list of colleges that they should consider.

POST 3:   The second round of SAT Score came back in late March.  Some of the students did better but others were disappointed.

Based on these results, each student was able to make a new strategy for his journey to college.

Walter:  He studied his vocabulary and brought his score up 50 points.  His math and writing scores are over 600, but his verbal score is still in the high 500’s.  He has decided to take the SAT again in May and the subject tests in June.

Mia:  She is still struggling with her vocabulary words.  She did not raise her scores much in March and plans to take the SAT again in May.  I am going to suggest the ACT in June.

Zahra:  She is disappointed in her scores.  During the test, she lost focus while taking the experimental section.  Apparently, it was a reading passage about the functions of the “pancreas” and it threw her off base. She is going to take the SAT subject tests in May and the ACT and SAT again in June.

Paul:   He improved his scores.  His math is now 680.  He needs to get a few more questions right to get in the 600’s for the verbal and his writing is in the 600’s.  Paul has applied for a summer program in film at the University of Rochester.  He had to write a 500 word essay for his application.  He can use the same essay for the common application so he is in good shape.

Benny:   He scored 700’s in Math and Verbal, but he is three questions short of a 700 in writing.  He has decided to take the SAT again in June along with the subject tests.

POST 4:   The colleges our seniors applied to and final recap:

Walter:  He did not get his verbal SAT score over 590.  His Math and Writing were in the 600. His football coach did not think that his athletics would be part of the equation for his college application.  Walter applied early to Wesleyan University and was turned down.  He was very surprised and as a result, he started to rethink his college essays.  Walter worked hard to improve every aspect of his applications.  He has applied to Colgate University (SAT optional), Trinity College, Pitzer College, Bates College, Franklin and Marshall College and the University of Rochester.

Mia:   Mia knew she wanted to go to Connecticut College.  She was unable to bring her SAT scores up to match her strong academic record, so she applied SAT optional and was accepted for early admission.  BRAVO.

Zahra:   Zahra managed to improve her SAT scores in the spring.  She applied to the University of Pennsylvania for early admission and was rejected.  After her rejection, the local newspaper did a feature article about her work in the local public schools.  Zahra knew that the state of Connecticut required all school systems to have defibrillators, unless they could not afford them. She also knew that her district had defibrillators, but many of the faculty members did not know how to use them.  Because she is active in the EMTs in her town, Zahra offered to teach the faculty in her school and in surrounding districts, how to use the defibrillators.  Her counselor included a copy of the newspaper’s feature article in her letter of recommendation and we are encouraged that Zahra will be accepted at: University of Vermont, Lehigh University, and Pitzer College.  She is also thinking of applying to St. Andrews and Aberdeen University in Scotland.

Paul:  Paul received a full scholarship to the summer film program at the University of Rochester.  His summer experience made him realize how much he loves film. In the fall, he was encouraged by Wesleyan University to attend their “diversity weekend.”  When he was there, Paul explored the campus.  He met several students and was very excited about the ones he met as well as the academic aspect of the school.  He also discovered that Wesleyan’s film department is excellent.

Paul decided to apply for early admission.  But when he was accepted, his financial aid award was much less than he anticipated.  Paul knew that he had signed a commitment letter that said he would attend if he was accepted, but he simply could not afford to go.  Paul called the financial aid office and was told that they would review his application again.  They also told him that he should have gone to their website and filled out the financial aid form which would have told him how much money he would qualify for before he applied.  Paul recognized his mistake, but he really wanted to go to Wesleyan.  He decided that he would accept Wesleyan’s offer and send in his check to hold his place.

He clarified his position an email to the admission officer in charge: first, he would love to attend Wesleyan; second, he would actively apply for additional scholarships to cover the “family contribution” that he simply could not afford; and third, he would submit applications to additional colleges.  This plan would allow him to go to Wesleyan if he could afford it and gave him the freedom to explore other offers if he did not find enough money to attend.  Wesleyan did not accept his proposal.  They told him that he must withdraw his acceptance or withdraw all his applications to additional schools.

I was not surprised that the university wanted him to comply with the contract he signed, but I was amazed that they would not give him the opportunity to try to cover the “family contribution” with scholarship money.  They were asking him to go to a university that he could not afford.  So after actively seeking out his application, they made it impossible for him to attend.  Paul had no choice but to apply to other colleges.

Benny: Benny attended Carleton College over the summer to study robotics and computer science.  When he came home, he was excited that he met kids who were as interested in these topics as he was.  He wanted to do more for the community and decided that he would help Safe Rides by developing a computer program that would organize Safe Rides database more efficiently which would make the system easier to use.  Apparently, even though Safe Rides is a national organization, it does not have a software system that manages their data very well.  Benny’s contribution will help his college applications, because it will illustrate that he has a passion for computer science, and he will use that passion to improve a worthwhile community organization. Benny’s academic record is impeccable, but this project will show how he will use his passion to make his world better.  Benny has applied to: Carleton College, Lehigh University, Rice University, Amherst College, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University.