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Home / College Counselor

September College Search Guide

University of Mississippi. – Courtesy photo

The Road to College

By May S. Ruiz

It’s after Labor Day and that usually means the end of summer. Classes have begun in mid or late August so your children are settling into the new school year by now.

Before I launch into the college guide, let me touch on a topic that often times causes family discord. Counselors tell their students to follow their passion when it comes to deciding what to pursue in college. That makes a lot of sense because people generally learn better when they’re studying something they are interested in. However, we also hear about researches that find STEM degrees are the most valuable, with the liberal arts the least valuable, to employers. Parents, anxious about their children’s earning potential, career future, and over-all financial stability then discourage their children from taking liberal arts in college and push their children into the STEM fields.

On the other hand, employers also emphasize that they’re looking for applicants with excellent communication skills even when the job isn’t STEM-related. The contradictory information is enough to make anyone’s head spin. The one thing researchers and career advisors agree on is that earning a college degree will pay off in the long run. So whether your children are looking to get an engineering degree or are more interested in the humanities, the important thing is for you to support your children’s choice and help them to be ready for college.

My daughter’s high school administrators preached to their students that the college application process doesn’t start until the spring of their junior year and, therefore, they shouldn’t be working on it until then. As our family’s experience belatedly proved, however, the process really begins on the first day of 9th grade. Hence, I advocate that your children start preparing as soon as they get into high school. Doing so makes a world of difference in their college search outcome.

In last month’s college search guide, I said that the College Board is expanding the use of the adversity score to the SAT in an effort to make college admissions more equitable. It had many detractors, however, and the College Board recently announced that it’s dropping the adversity score and will now use what it calls ‘Landscape.’

While it pretty much includes the same factors that were in the ‘Adversity Score,’ the College Board claims ‘Landscape’ is more transparent and provides admissions officers more consistent background information.

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal on August 27, education writer Douglas Belkin, reported that the adversity score (also called environmental context dashboard) was a combination of 15 socioeconomic metrics from a student’s high school and neighborhood.

‘Landscape’ will add six ‘challenge’ factors that provide the ‘summary neighborhood challenge’ and the ‘summary high school challenge indicator.’ The factors are college attendance, household structure, median family income, housing stability, education levels, and crime.

Belkin noted that this is the second time that the College Board has rolled back efforts to reflect students’ socioeconomic backgrounds – it dropped a similar effort 20 years ago due to unfavorable reaction from colleges. And this will most probably not be the last word on the matter. The current admissions process is intrinsically flawed and band-aid solutions can’t make it right.

I still think that adding ‘screening methods’ misses the point. Every student is different and can’t be lumped under a general category. But admissions officers can’t reasonably learn about each one when they have approximately 30 minutes to scan each application. With ever more American students applying and interest among foreign students to study here increasing, the competition will not diminish any time soon.

– Courtesy photo


Instill in your children good time management and organizational skills early on. High school is so much busier than what they’ve been through yet. These skills will help them have a happy, productive, and successful four-year experience.

If your children didn’t develop good study habits in lower and middle school, they need to buckle up and be serious about academics. Encourage them to immerse themselves in the culture of their high school and get involved in various extra-curricular activities that support their interests, and which they can carry on into the next three years.

Your children should find the time to meet with their school’s counselor to map out a four-year curriculum that meets all the requirements for graduating and going into college. Most colleges or universities require: four years of English; four years of mathematics; four years of science with advanced work in at least one of the three disciplines – biology, chemistry, physics; four years of a world language; three years of history, including American and European.

They should take the most challenging courses they could handle. If their high school offers Advanced Placement (AP) subjects in ninth grade and your children decide to take the course, they have to be ready to take the exams after they complete it. Colleges usually only recognize 4s and 5s to show competency. Highly selective institutions also expect As on AP courses on students’ transcripts.


By this time, your children should be fully transitioned into high school. They should be picking up where they left off – taking AP courses, working on extra-curricular activities they had identified in their freshman year, playing sports for their school, etc.

Practice exams for standardized tests are given in your children’s sophomore year so make sure they are registered for the PSAT. Taking these tests will help them identify their weaknesses and study for them. Several companies and organizations offer test preparation courses; your children should register to one if they need help getting ready for these exams (ACT: www.act.org; PSAT: www.collegeboard.com; Educational Testing Service: www.ets.org; Kaplan: www.kaplan.com; National Association for College Admission Counseling: www.nacacnet.org; The Princeton Review: www.princetonreview.com).

It may seem too early to do this, but your children can start looking at colleges that offer courses in their fields of interest. Or they can begin considering all possible options, if they haven’t determined what they are thinking of taking in college.

– Courtesy photo


This is a very hectic, even stressful, time in your children’s high school life. It is also the last complete year that college admissions officers will see your students’ grades and accomplishments. It is a decidedly important year for them; they need to put the effort to show admission officers that they are capable of doing the work and are qualified for admission to the school to which they will be applying. If your children are thinking of applying to universities through early action/decision, their junior year grades and work will become all the more significant.

Aside from the rigors of school, sports, extra-curricular activities, there are standardized tests to take. Your children should be taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) early next month. I would like to remind parents not to put extra pressure on their children as they get ready for the standardize exams – they are stressed enough as it is and a higher than average SAT score does not guarantee admission to their dream university.

You and your children should be going to College Fairs being held at their high school. They should be gathering information about colleges and universities – courses and diplomas offered; standardized test requirements for admission; deadlines for early action/decision, if being offered, and for regular admission.


It is going to be a marathon for your children! From the moment they get in the doors of the school, they are going to be putting much of their focus on college applications. If your children are applying for early action/decision, they should have taken all the standardized exams required by the university during their summer after junior year.

Make it a point to attend your children’s “Back to School Night” because the counselors will most probably be giving parents information about the college applications that will be starting in earnest.

The organizational skills that I have been talking about since your children entered 9th grade will be put to the test during their senior year. Encourage your children to create a calendar with standardized testing dates, counselor meeting schedules, application deadlines.

Your children should have a binder with separate sections for each college or university and a log of what needs to be accomplished for each, like: required standardized tests (SAT or ACT, SAT II grades; AP test scores, etc.); writing supplement; how many letters of recommendation they require; application fee; how to send the application.

Ideally, you and your children have visited the colleges they are thinking of applying to. One of the first things they have to do is finalize the list of colleges and universities to which they will send applications – eight was the norm when my daughter was applying. However, students now are sending in 12 or more applications. This new normal, though, has only added to the competitiveness of the process. I would suggest limiting it to 12 because applying to more schools doesn’t make a university with a 4% admission rate a more reachable goal.

They should be ready to write their personal statement; they should also have provided stamped envelopes to the teachers giving them recommendations.

One factor that makes the college admissions process really stressful for parents is the feeling of not knowing what’s happening. School counselors generally only have time to meet exclusively with students so parents feel shut out. However, there are books you can read to help demystify this process. A book I would recommend is called “Getting In! the Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age” by Steve Cohen, Anne Dwane, Paulo de Oliveira, and Michael Muska.

The professional guidance and insight the authors of this book provide will give you the ability to help your children navigate this complicated process. Use the book constructively; do not make it another source of stress for yourself and your children.

Over the course of writing a College Search Guide, I have also met a few outstanding independent counselors and I highly recommend them should you feel more comfortable getting regular, face-to-face time with a counselor.

Greg Kaplan is a local independent counselor and can be reached at greg@earningadmission.com and his website is www.earningadmission.com. There is a Boston-based counseling group called College Vine, which offers near-peer mentoring; one of their counselors is an Arcadia High School alumna, who is currently a senior student at Cornell.

If you are applying for financial aid, be aware that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid FAFSA (www.fafsa.ed.gov) submission date starts on October 1st to align with the college application schedule.

Research all scholarships available. Some online sites include: College Xpress (www.collegexpress.com); Fastweb (www.fastweb.com); Scholarships.com (www.scholarships.com); and Student Aid on the Web (www.student.ed.gov).

It goes without saying that as busy as your children are when they go through the college application process, they should also get the best grades they are capable of. The colleges to which they are applying will require their first quarter grades if they’re looking to gain admission through early action or early decision.

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