FAQs for the College Search and Application Process
The College SearchIs it important to visit colleges before applying? (See also the question below.)
Absolutely. For most juniors, a college is just an abstract idea, an image in their minds that over time has become associated with a name. Even if a student has been going to Gator or Seminole football games from the time they were small, they probably have only a very limited perspective of campus life. When students (and parents) formally visit a campus, however, they experience a concrete reality that goes far beyond pretty pictures on the website, Saturday afternoon games, or what friends may have said about it. Each campus has its own personality, its own ethos, and if a student is to find the college that best fits him or her, a campus visit is crucial.
Will visiting or not visiting have an impact on whether my son or daughter is admitted?
At some schools, yes. As colleges face increasingly unpredictable applicant pools (see “What is ‘yield’?” below), many of them are seeking ways to gauge the extent of a student’s “demonstrated interest” in attending. Hence they have begun tracking the number of “contacts” a student has with their particular institution—through campus visits, meetings with admissions representatives here at Bolles, attending local admission functions, participating in online “chats,” etc. While most large state universities have too many applicants to track contacts, many private colleges and universities keep careful records of the number of contacts a student has with their institution. As decision time draws near, students who have not visited campus can be at a distinct disadvantage.
Where do I find information about visiting?
The admissions or prospective student pages of college websites provide a wealth of information about visiting. There you will find times of campus tours and information sessions, directions to the admissions office, and even names of nearby lodging.
How much credence should I give to college rankings?
Very little. Consider this: Several years ago the editors of U.S. News decided to alter their formula to something that they believed offered a better reflection of educational quality. When a number of Ivy League colleges did not appear at the top of the list, they reverted to their old formula. The moral of this story is not that the Ivies and other highly selective colleges are “better” or “worse”; it’s that we must understand that the rankings are carefully designed to sell magazines, not evaluate educational experiences. The bottom line is this: your child’s college choice should be based upon the best fit for him or her, and very often the best fit and the most highly ranked college are not the same.
The Application and Admission ProcessHow many colleges should my son or daughter apply to?
The number of applications will vary by individual, but Bolles students apply to an average of between 5 and 6 colleges. We recommend that each student apply to anywhere from 2 or 3 to no more than 6 or 8 carefully chosen colleges. Especially as “demonstrated interest” (see above) plays an increasing role in the admission process, it is better for students to apply to fewer colleges and “show those colleges the love.”
What’s the difference between Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED)?
Early Action programs are non-binding and enable the student to learn of an admission decision relatively early in the senior year (usually December) without committing to a particular college or university until May. Early Action applications are typically due in November. A handful of schools have Restrictive or Single-Choice Early Action (REA) programs. Under such a plan, the student agrees to submit only one Early Action application to that school and no other, yet without committing to attend the college if accepted. Other applications can be submitted for Regular Decision.
Early Decision is a program in which a student makes a binding commitment to attend the college or university if accepted. Early Decision applications are generally due in November of the senior year, and the student will receive one of three decisions (admit, defer, deny) in December. Since the deadlines are so early, it is vital that a student applying under Early Decision have done a great deal of research and be absolutely convinced that the college is an ideal match. While an applicant gains a statistical advantage by applying under an Early Decision plan, he or she risks committing to a college in October when, six months later, a very different choice might be made. Early Decision II programs are also available at many colleges, in which the application is not due until January and a decision is rendered in February.
What is “Rolling Admission”?
Most large state universities, and many private colleges and universities, notify their applicants of the admission decision on a “rolling” basis. This means that, a few weeks after the application has been submitted, a student will receive a decision. However, the student does not have to commit to attending the college until May 1.
What is “Early Admission”?
Not to be confused with either Early Action or Early Decision, Early Admission is for a student who believes that he or she is fully prepared for the rigors of college academic and social life by the end of his or her junior year, and so would seek to skip the senior year of high school and enter college after the 11th grade. Very few students are ready for this step; indeed, most colleges and universities discourage it. Any junior considering applying for Early Admission should begin discussing it with his or her Advisor immediately.
What’s a “hook,” and why is it important?
In admissions parlance, a hook is a student attribute that meets a college’s institutional need at a particular time. The hook could be anything from athletics to development (a family’s ability to add a new wing to a building) to an under-represented ethnic group to the arts (playing an oboe, for instance, when the college orchestra needs an oboist). When admissions officers at the most highly selective colleges and universities say “We could replace our entire admitted group with students from the Wait List and no one could tell the difference,” what they mean is that there are so many outstanding candidates that they must make hair-splitting (and seemingly arbitrary) distinctions among them. When that is the case, a “hooked” student has a significant advantage.
What’s “yield,” and why is it important?
After “size of entering class,” yield is the most important term in an Admission Director’s vocabulary. Yield is the rate at which students who have been offered admission at a particular college actually decide to enroll there. For example, if there are 1,000 offers of admission, and 400 students decide to enroll, then the yield for that year is 40%. While Harvard maintains the highest yield (around 80%), most highly selective colleges anticipate a yield in the 35-45% range. However, since more students are filing more applications, it becomes increasingly difficult for Admission Directors to accurately predict their yields. For this reason admission offices often look for signs of “demonstrated interest” (see “Will visiting or not visiting have an impact on whether my son or daughter is admitted?”).
Standardized TestingWhen should my son/daughter take standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT?
We urge students to take the SAT and ACT no earlier than January of the junior year. The tests are designed with spring-semester juniors in mind, and thus taking them prematurely can give a family a misplaced (usually lower) sense of what a student might potentially score. In rare instances, students may wish to take an SAT Subject Test after the sophomore year (see “What are the SAT Subject Tests and should my child take them?”), but they should do so only after consultation with a college counselor. Parents should also keep in mind that students will have taken the PSAT during both the sophomore and junior years, and those results will provide a barometer of where the student’s standardized testing scores might eventually be.
I’ve been hearing a lot about the “new” or “redesigned” SAT that began to be offered beginning in March of 2016. What’s “new” about it?
Over the years there have been many changes to the SAT, but the “redesign” is certainly the most significant revision yet. The Critical Reading section has been replaced by an Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section, the Math section now focuses more on data analysis and algebra, and the Writing section is optional. The first two sections continue to be scored on a scale of 200-800 points, but the Writing will be scored on a scale of 2-8. (Thus the new exam reverts to the old 1600-point scale.) Significantly, there is no longer a penalty for wrong answers, as there was in the past. The new test focuses much more on the types of analytical and critical-thinking skills that students use in the classroom on a regular basis—and for that very reason, we at Bolles are confident that our students will continue to perform quite well on the redesigned test (as they have thus far). For instance, students are now required to analyze significant historical documents (e.g., Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) and evaluate how certain words or ideas are developed in context. These are precisely the types of exercises that our students are accustomed to doing in the classroom. Similarly, the new Math section will require more analysis of graphs and charts, and it will include multi-part questions in which the data is analyzed from a series of perspectives.
For more current and in-depth information than we can provide here, please visit the College Board’s site specifically devoted to the redesign: www.deliveringopportunity.org.
How can we anticipate that the redesigned SAT will be used by colleges?
At present (June of 2016), we are hearing mixed and sometimes conflicting reports about how different colleges will use the redesigned SAT. Some colleges will require the optional Writing section; many others won’t. Many will use scores from the old SAT as well as the redesigned SAT; others aren’t sure (see the question below as well). As always, however, the SAT will continue to play an important role in admission at colleges that require it; very often, it is among the top two or three items in importance. (Some colleges do not require standardized testing for admission; see “Are there colleges that do not require standardized testing?”)
What is the ACT, and should my child take it?
Along with the SAT, the ACT is a standardized test used in the admission process, usually interchangeably with the SAT, and we highly recommend that students take both tests. The ACT has four categories and a variety of subscores. There is an optional Writing Test that lasts an additional 30 minutes. The four categories are Reading (including both social studies and science), English (with emphasis on writing style in addition to traditional grammar), Mathematics, and Science Reasoning (combining all the physical sciences). The test is scored on a scale of 1-36.
Since the ACT and SAT are structured differently, some students will perform better on the ACT than the SAT (and vice versa). In fact, in recent years we have seen some Bolles students score the equivalent of 200 points (4-5 points on the ACT) higher on the ACT than on the SAT. Thus it makes a great deal of sense to take both tests; many students have qualified for Bright Futures, for instance, on the ACT but not on the SAT.
What are the SAT Subject Tests and should my child take them?
SAT Subject Tests are one-hour examinations that measure a student’s knowledge of specific subject areas (e.g., Chemistry, French, U. S. History, etc.). Only about 20 colleges nationally require one or more Subject Tests for admission, so unless your child is seriously considering applying to the Ivies, or a handful of other very highly selective colleges, they almost certainly will not need to take SAT Subject Tests. If your son or daughter does need to take Subject Tests, please consult both the College Counseling Office and the subject-area teacher to determine the most appropriate time to take the test(s).
Are there colleges that do not require standardized testing for admission?
Yes; in fact, the number keeps growing. Colleges to which Bolles students frequently apply that are test-optional include American, Furman, George Washington, Rollins and Wake Forest. Visit the website www.fairtest.org for an up-to-date list of all the colleges that are test-optional.
Should my son or daughter take a test prep class?
That depends on a host of factors. We can say two things for certain about preparing for a test: (1) it behooves anyone to be familiar with the format and content of a test before taking it; and (2) there is no independently documented evidence that test prep courses deliver the dramatic results that many in the industry claim. Students (and families) can make a significant investment in test prep, yet in some cases their scores go up, in some their scores don’t budge, and in some their scores actually go down. We have found the same of students who have not taken test prep courses. With all that taken into account, here are a few guidelines to consider:
- If your child decides to enroll in a course, choose the format (size of class, frequency of meeting, etc.) that works best for him or her.
- Don’t let the test prep take up so much time that it lowers your child’s classroom performance. GPA (along with quality of curriculum) is still the top factor in virtually all admission decisions, and anything that lowers GPA is ultimately counterproductive.
- If your child is prone to test anxiety, be very careful about enrolling him or her in test prep. A growing number of educators are coming to believe that test prep can actually raise test anxiety, and thus have a negative effect on a child’s scores. Over the years we have worked with a number of students whose scores went down during test prep, and then actually went up once they got out; we speculatively attribute this phenomenon to increased anxiety created by the test prep.
- Try to time the test prep so that it occurs shortly before an actual examination date. However, don’t allow the test prep to force your child into taking the SAT earlier than January of the junior year.The test is designed for spring-semester juniors, and we have witnessed a number of students who have taken the test prematurely and then gotten spooked by their scores. In effect, these students allowed a low test score to become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and they never earned a score much higher than their initial results.
- If test prep is detracting from your child’s GPA or ability to participate in meaningful extracurricular activities (or maybe even cutting out the little free time they might have), it is becoming counterproductive.
What about the redesigned SAT and test prep?
Because the new test more closely mirrors the skills taught in Bolles and other high school classrooms, it is designed to reduce the (perceived?) need for test prep. That said, the College Board has reached an agreement with Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) to offer free online test prep.
Financial AidWe’ve seen how much college costs today, and we think we might have financial need. Is there any way we can find out if we qualify? (See also the question below.)
Yes. There are a number of financial aid calculators on the internet that provide a ballpark Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). These web-based calculators include the following: www.fafsa4caster.ed.gov/
It is important to understand that there are two methods (“methodologies”) of calculating aid: (1) federal methodology, which is based on the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA); and (2) institutional methodology, which is based on both the FAFSA and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Generally speaking, public institutions and most private institutions will require only the FAFSA, but many well-endowed private colleges that supply millions of dollars of their own institutional funds to need-based aid will require the CSS Profile as well. The first website above is for the FAFSA, the second for the CSS Profile.
Keep in mind that, even if a student does not qualify for federal need-based aid, any student is eligible for a low-interest federal Stafford Loan. However, a FAFSA must be submitted to participate in the Stafford Loan program.
I’ve heard about “Prior-Prior Year” (PPY) and the FAFSA. What does that mean for our family?
Effective this year (2016), the federal government has changed procedures for applying for need-based financial aid at colleges. Referred to as “Prior-Prior Year” (or PPY), the calendar for applying for financial aid and submitting forms has changed rather significantly. Traditionally, need-based aid calculations have been based on the prior year’s tax returns and other financial information—in other words, in the past a student entering college in the fall of 2017 would have used tax and financial data from 2016. Consequently, families could not begin to fill out and finalize the paperwork for need-based financial aid until the current calendar year closed.
However, because that process left many families unable to predict need-based financial aid packages until late in the student’s senior year, the new guidelines instruct college financial aid offices to use the “prior-prior year’s” tax and financial data, with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opening on October 1. Thus, families of seniors applying for need-based financial aid for the fall semester of 2017 will use 2015 tax and financial data (not 2016 data), and they can begin filling out the FAFSA now, a full three months earlier than in previous years.
The new rules should expedite the process for families to apply for need-based aid, and as they fill out the FAFSA they can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to populate portions of the FAFSA with information from the family’s 2015 tax returns. While many colleges have not moved their deadlines to apply for financial aid earlier, they are welcoming earlier submission of the FAFSA, and they are pledging to get their financial aid packages to families earlier in the process. Likewise, for colleges that use the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA, the Profile is now available as well. While in years past a family might not have received a need-based aid package until March or April, now they will be able to get them much earlier. And as always, if a family’s financial circumstances have changed—either in 2015 or in 2016—or if you have any other questions, we urge you to contact the college Financial Aid Offices directly and work with them on the specific circumstances of your family’s case.
What are the Net Price Calculators that I see on college websites?
Another recent change in the financial-aid process is the Net Price Calculator (NPC). The federal government requires all colleges receiving federal financial-aid funds to post NPCs on their websites. More student- and institution-specific than the calculators listed above, NPCs can factor in merit-based awards or other scholarships that a college will use in producing a financial-aid package. For students and parents, these can be a great tool for comparing college costs among multiple institutions even before applying.
For example, a family can go to College A’s NPC (they are typically located on the Financial Aid pages of a college website), enter the requested data, and receive an estimate of what first-year costs would be, with scholarships, grants, and loans all taken into account. Then they could go to College B, enter data into its NPC, and compare what the cost of first-year attendance might be there. If College B offers a substantially better package than A, then the student might choose not even to apply to A because the costs exceed the family budget. (Speaking privately, however, a number of colleges have urged us to tell parents to contact the college’s financial aid office directly if an NPC figure appears inconsistent.)
It is worth noting, moreover, that all NPCs are not created equal. Some colleges have invested in highly nuanced NPCs that effectively tailor a package to a specific student’s circumstances, while other colleges are opting for more mass-marketed products that are not as sensitive to individual situations. Further still, the aid analysis is only as good as the data that are entered—the most accurate net price predictions are the result of thoroughly entered personal financial data. As always, if your family has unusual circumstances that financial-aid calculators do not seem to be addressing, we encourage you to contact the Financial Aid Offices of the specific colleges you are considering.
Will my son or daughter qualify for a Bright Futures Scholarship?
For Florida residents, Bright Futures offers two levels of scholarship with different sets of criteria. Both scholarship awards can be used at any Florida public or private college or university. At present (June of 2016), the Medallion Scholars Award requires a 3.00 GPA as Bright Futures calculates it, a best combined score of 1170 SAT (based on the combined Critical Reading and Math sections only) or best composite score of 26 ACT (excluding the writing section), and 75 hours of community service. A second scholarship, the Academic Scholars Award, requires a 3.50 GPA as Bright Futures calculates it, either a 1290 SAT or 29 ACT, and 100 hours of community service. Award requirements for future high school graduates are subject to change with each legislative session. Additional information regarding award amounts can be found on the Bright Futures website.
Can a Bright Futures Scholarship be used at a private college or university?
Yes, but only if the private college or university is in Florida. Parents should also be aware of the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG), which is available for any Florida resident attending an in-state private college or university. For the 2016-2017 academic year, the FRAG award was $3,000.
Will my son or daughter be able to receive a Bright Futures award if they also have a Florida Prepaid college savings plan?
Yes, a student will receive all of the money awarded to them by either (or both) programs; one program’s disbursement will not cancel out the other. Bright Futures and Florida Prepaid are both centralized programs, which means that the funds from each are disbursed separately. Colleges (specifically colleges within the state of Florida) have access to the data from both programs and receive reports that list qualified students and their individual disbursement amounts. Typically, Bright Futures sends their awards to the colleges earlier than Florida Prepaid, so a Bright Futures Award is often applied to a student’s bill first. If a student’s tuition bill is less than the amount of their Bright Futures award (if, for instance the student received an academic scholarship from the university that covered a significant portion of their tuition), then the remaining balance of the bill is disbursed to the student in the form of a check. When Florida Prepaid is applied to a student’s bill the same thing happens. If the student’s tuition has already been covered completely or partially (perhaps at this point by Bright Futures), then the balance is disbursed directly to the student in the form of a check. Some colleges may offer the student the option of applying that “left-over” money to the rest of their total bill, but the colleges must disburse any remaining funds from either Bright Futures or Florida Pre-paid to the student.
If you have other questions about Florida Pre-paid that are specific to your type of plan and what it will cover, contact the Pre-paid program directly. The award amounts vary widely based on the type of plan selected and when it was purchased. The Florida Prepaid website can be found at www.myfloridaprepaid.com.