College Knowledge Q&A Grab Bag

Being the obsessive packrat that I am, I save everything. Just ask my wife about that. That goes for my work as an admissions consultant, too.

Over the many years that I've been doing this, I've received countless questions from high school students and their parents about how to manage the college process, as well as how to mange college, itself. Thus, because I'm a consistent packrat, I have saved all those questions, for one simple reason: 98% of them are the same questions that were asked 10, 15, even 20 years ago. They are the evergreen inquiries that puzzle the brains of young people and Moms and Dads almost everywhere.

The college process can be stressful and exhausting. Beyond that, it can also be inexact, which is very frustrating. I prefer precision -- exact answers to carefully considered questions. I also like to see a well-defined process. That's where the admissions process hits its speed bumps many times. The old "It depends ..." answers can be irritating.


When I answer questions, I try to be as complete as I can be. Unfortunately, there are some kinds of questions that just can't be precisely answered. For example, one often-posed question -- "How much financial aid will I receive? -- may qualify as one of the Top 10 "It depends" questions.

However, rooting through my piles of oft-asked questions the other day, I thought I would do a grab bag grouping for you today. There may be something of value for you here. If not, be patient. I'll be reaching into that bulging bag again soon. Here are today's selections, inspired by the actions of friends:


Question: A friend of mine says he's considering applying to 15 colleges.  I think that's way too many. What's the right number?

Answer: Your friend may not be very certain about his chances of getting into certain schools.  He may be trying to make sure he gets in somewhere.  There's some logic to the "many applications" theory.


My personal preference, though, is to have four solid candidates by the end of the junior year. This provides for flexibility and financial aid comparisons.

College selection is an important decision, not only for the student but also for the family. That's why you need to spend some serious time considering your options. For students at the highest levels of academic success (top five percent in class rank and National Merit contenders, for example), six-to-eight (maybe 10 max) candidate schools may be more appropriate.  For general purposes, though, four good candidates will serve you well, as a minimum, by the start of senior year.

You must have a strategy to properly make your selections.  The three categories of candidate schools are: reach, reasonable ("ballpark" or "match"), and safety.  So-called reach schools are those that might not admit you.  Your qualifications for admission may be less than adequate or the competition may be too keen. Reach schools are ideal, if you can get in.  If you have six candidates, for example, then two should be a reach. Four candidates should include one reach.


Reasonable schools are those to which you're sure you can gain admission. These can even be very competitive schools, if you're a top-flight candidate. A candidate is reasonable if you fit within the general admission criteria the school publishes. Caution, though. Meeting all admission criteria on paper is no guarantee of admission. There are intangibles, such as your profile and other less-obvious factors. Where you live can even work for or against you. So, be very certain of your chances before you rate a candidate as reasonable. With six candidates, make two or three reasonable. With four, two will do.

Safeties are just that -- an almost certain sure thing. A candidate becomes a safety when profiles of that school show little chance of rejection. Example: It has an acceptance rate of over 75 percent. Give some thought to safeties. You probably won't have to go there, but if you do, make sure you can get courses you want. One safety may be enough if you have put careful thought into your other candidates. Two safeties would be prudent. Once you have your list, do more research, visit all the campuses, and apply.


Question: Some of my friends think they should take the SAT four or five times. What do you think?

Answer: With the SAT, sometimes more ends up being less. For most high schoolers, three times is about the maximum between the sophomore year and mid-senior year.


You may take it before the sophomore year if you wish. Academically talented students take the SAT in middle school as part of Johns Hopkins University's Search for Talented Youth program. Some eighth and ninth graders just want to see what it's like, so they experiment.

My personal opinion is that every sophomore should take the SAT in May or June. When those scores come in, take special note of the areas of weakness. The diagnostic report that comes with the score report can be helpful in targeting efforts for improvement.


Juniors should keep in mind that they will be taking the PSAT in October. The PSAT is not only a preliminary version of the SAT but also a qualifying exam for National Merit Scholarship competition consideration. Don't consider the PSAT as one of your SATs; it's not an SAT. I recommend that juniors take an SAT in January and/or May. June should be reserved for Subject Tests. Remember, you can't take an SAT and Subject Tests on the same day.

Seniors should use the October test date if they need another opportunity to improve their scores. For most colleges, October (and sometimes November) is the last date you can take an SAT and have the scores reported before the January 1 application deadline. Of course, if you're applying to a school that has rolling admissions or a much later application date, you can go out farther.

If you're thinking about investing in a coaching course, I think the best SAT to get coaching for is the one in May of your junior year. Give that one your best shot so you don't have SAT pressure right away in your senior year.


Question: A friend of mine got a summer reading list from the college he'll start in the fall. What books should I be reading while I'm still in high school?

Answer: Not many high school students ask that question. College involves a lot reading. I'll answer your question on two levels: Books to read for first-year English classes and books to read for helpful, general knowledge. Let's start with English class.


You have no doubt read some classics for your high school English courses. You won't know the exact titles for college until you see the course reading lists. Continue to read, in your spare time, titles that are in the standard literature. I'm thinking of the works of such authors as D.H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Nabokov, Bellow, James, Twain, Dickinson, Norris, Dreiser, Crane, Frost, Wharton, and Cather, to name a few.

Poetry is important too. Put poets such as Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Hart Crane, and Marianne Moore on your list. Reading both novels and poetry at this level has other positive side effects, beside giving you a jump on first-year English. You'll also build your vocabulary. Remember, you build vocabulary over many years, not by cramming a week or two before the SAT.

Reading good books leads to better writing too. You may get writing help from any number of sources. Good writing is clear and easy to understand. If you want to read easily accessible samples of good writing, look up some essay writers like the late Andy Rooney and Erma Bombeck. George Will and the late Mike Royko are also excellent. These authors offer their observations on the elements of everyday life. Their statements can be humorous, controversial, or touching.

Try to emulate their style, if you can. It will serve you well when it comes time to write your college application essays or that first composition for college English.


That's today's grab bag. Stay tuned while I sort through more mail (if I can find it here in this messy office!).


Be sure to check out all my other articles on the College Confidential Web site.