Finding Colleges is Like Finding a Good Date

college students

When speaking to various groups about the college admissions process, I often make analogies to dating— a topic that most teenagers can identify with. Ideally, the perfect match for college is like finding the perfect boy or girlfriend: you are interested in them and they are equally interested in you.

One of the most common mistakes I see families make in the college admissions process is chasing after big-name schools that will not share the same interest. Follow me on this analogy for a minute.

Filling your college list with some of the most unattainable schools is the equivalent of trying to get a date for homecoming by only asking the most popular and well-recognized students on your campus. Even if you would be an ideal choice, there are only a handful of these “desirable dates” and each can only except one invitation to the dance, so the odds are working against you – particularly if all of the other students are trying the same date-getting approach. Finally, even if you were lucky enough to get one of the “ideal dates” to say yes, you may have a better homecoming experience had you gone with someone more your style.

The College Problem. 

Each year I see students fill their college lists with what some counselors used to refer to as “reach” or “long shot” schools. (Nothing against the schools or even having a couple of them on your college list.) The problem comes when these schools are the focus or are seen as the only desirable options.

We are NOT just talking about Ivy League here. The exact names of the schools may change depending on where you live and who you are, but one thing remains the same – the schools are going to be hard, if not impossible, to gain admission to.

Some people believe they are avoiding this problem by adding well-known schools that aren’t in the Ivy League or the top 10 on the US News annual ranking. Just because you’ve taken Stanford, MIT, and Duke off your list, doesn’t mean you’ve improved your odds of admission. It is still going to be extremely difficult to gain acceptance to Rice, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Cornell, Notre Dame, etc.

Sometimes these “highly selective” schools are in your own backyard. Here in Texas the University of Texas at Austin has become so difficult to get into that many students who fall outside the class rank for guaranteed admissions may be denied even if they are in the top 10-20% of their graduating classes.

A lot of students are intrigued by the prestige of these colleges and universities. They have heard and read so many good things, that they want to be a part of the schools. (All good things.) The downside comes when the schools become the primary focus of the college search process.

This is where I find many students chasing the hard-to-get-into school and focusing all of their time and effort on this “dream”. Suddenly everything is about trying to be good enough– improving standardized test scores, writing the perfect essays, making campus visits and trying to impress. I can’t count the number of times I have heard “we will do whatever we have to in order to get in” from families.

I don’t want to discourage dreaming or taking steps to achieve a goal. I know that many students get into the “impossible” schools each year. What I do want is to encourage realism, research, and balance.


Know what you are up against. A friend told me that her daughter is interested in Columbia. I pulled up the entering class profile from Columbia’s website and showed her that only 6.9% of applicants were admitted last year and more than 90% of them were in the top 10% of their graduating classes. My friend had no idea it was that hard to get into Columbia.

Yes, you should know the reality of admissions to each and every university on your list – the good, the bad, and the ugly of getting into each school. Understand that any university that admits fewer than 25% of its applicants will be very difficult to get into no matter who you are. These are the types of schools that turn down valedictorians every year. Also understand that simply by applying to more hard-to-get-into schools, you are not improving your average. (Applying to 20 schools each with an admit rate of 5% does not mean you will get in somewhere – statistics doesn’t work like that.)


Start by learning more about each of the schools already on your list. You can begin with statistics: admission rate, average test scores, student to teacher ratio, and percentage of admitted students in the top of their class. Then move onto learning the truly meaningful things about each school. What are classes like? What do students do for fun? Do professors teach most classes or are many undergraduate classes taught by TAs and adjuncts? Will you be able to take classes in your major freshman year? Is this the type of place where you can see yourself happy and successful?

The harder, but more meaningful, side of research is finding the schools you may not have heard of before. These may be seen as the equivalent of the ideal date who just isn’t known as “the popular one” at your high school. These “unknown” colleges and universities are everywhere. They are well regarded in academic circles and by employers. They have satisfied students and alumni who will brag about their experiences. They offer incredible teaching, research, internships, campus life, extracurriculars, and everything you would want in a college. Unfortunately for us, these incredible schools don’t have the same name recognition as Harvard and Duke.

I would encourage everyone to branch out beyond the schools you’ve heard of and learn a little bit more about 3 to 5 other schools. Getting beyond the household names may have the added bonus of helping you find greater scholarship opportunities.


Hopefully your realism and research will naturally lead you into a more balanced approach to your college search. You will have added schools that seem to be a great match socially and academically. You will have found some hidden gems to add to your list. And you will understand the sometimes brutal reality of admission to some of the highly selective schools. If you have done this, congratulations; you have achieved a successful balance and will likely see great success in the admissions process.

(Unfortunately, I have no tips on finding the perfect date for homecoming!)

Posted in College Admission, College Selection | Leave a comment

Practice SAT / ACT or Sales Tool? Why some practice tests give bad results.

Maze of test prep options

Today I’m exposing a dirty secret in the test prep industry. Those free or low cost practice tests you see advertised are not good practice; they are sales tools.

Last week I told you taking the SAT or ACT for practice isn’t always smart. There are bad tests and potential consequences from using the real exams for practice. (full article here) Good practice comes from taking full-length official tests from College Board (SAT) or ACT. These tests are free and can be found online or in your high school guidance counselor’s office.

So back to these bad tests…

The Facts

Every year I speak to concerned parents who think they are doing a good thing by signing their son or daughter up to take the practice test offered at school or by the big-box test prep chain. It sounds like a good deal. Students get to experience test-taking conditions, see the exam, and find out their scores. You may even get a detailed score report with suggestions for improvement and a free strategy session from the test prep company.

What you don’t know is that SAT or ACT wasn’t a real exam; it didn’t come from College Board or ACT. Likely you got a Kaplan, Princeton Review, or other corporate test.

This company-designed pre-test is skewed. It looks like a real test, like a fake Louis Vuitton handbag looks real to a casual observer, but these tests are worth less than that street corner knockoff.

The secret in the test prep industry is that pre-tests are often designed to give low scores—not dramatically lower, but just enough to scare parents into signing up for the prep class. On the other end of the process, the post-test is designed to show improvement even for the indolent kid who barely touched the homework. “See it worked,” parents will exclaim when comparing the pre and post-test results.

Instead of a useful practice test, you got a sophisticated sales pitch.

The Harm

So what’s the harm? Why is it bad to take these “practice tests” if you go in knowing the results are unreliable?

  1. It is a waste of time. High school students are busy. They don’t have a lot of time to waste. Spend the time on an official practice test instead.
  2. Students get wrong ideas about what they need to study. These company-generated tests aren’t the real deal. The wording of questions may be off. Some problems may present concepts or vocabulary that hasn’t been tested on the actual exam in recent years. Students leave the practice test thinking they need to improve on certain things that may not help on the real exam.
  3. Low scores are demoralizing. Saying you won’t put a lot of emphasis on the scores doesn’t make it so. I know too many high school students who obsess about the numbers. “Why did my scores go down from the PSAT?” “I’m never going to get into that college.” “I’m so stupid!” These are all things I’ve heard students say. Why risk more stress and anxiety on a test that is rigged to yield low scores?

So why is my school or public library promoting these tests?

The Complicit Partners

Most educators don’t know enough about the SAT or ACT (or the test prep industry) to effectively advocate for students. (It might be fun to ask when your school counselor last took a timed SAT or ACT!) They may not know there is a difference between official and knockoff tests. I’ve known a lot of teachers and counselors who thought these opportunities were good for students. They didn’t know it would be better to get the booklets from College Board or ACT and offer their own mock exam.

And the test prep industry isn’t all-bad either. If you think about it, a free or low cost practice test is a great sales tool. These companies have invested so much time and money into creating books filled with “close, but not exact” questions; they view it as another tool.

In America we have somehow managed to compartmentalize education outside of the rest of our free market economy. This belief perpetuates a lot of problems; a major one is the naïve belief that everything done at the school is in our children’s best interests. Too often we fail to ask critical questions— the type of questions we would ask if we were purchasing a home, a car, or new refrigerator.

Become an Educated Consumer

Now you know how important it is to use official tests when studying for the ACT and SAT, here are some questions to help you critically examine potential opportunities:

Who is sponsoring this practice test?

Years ago when I worked as a high school teacher, a school club could get Princeton Review to come in and administer a practice SAT. The club got to charge $5 or $10 per person (a great fund raiser) and Princeton Review got free use of the building to present to their target audience.

Find out who is behind the practice test. Does a group at school sponsor it? Is a test prep company giving the exam? Or is this one of the rare cases where your school is using the official practice booklets directly from ACT or College Board?

Will they be using official test materials?

If a test prep company is sponsoring the test, your answer is no. There are rare cases where schools will offer mock exams for students and the guidance-counseling department uses the official practice materials. If you can’t get a straight answer to this question, assume you are NOT getting official materials from the test writers.

You can create a good practice environment on your own. The simplest way is to get a practice test and administer it at your kitchen table. Mom or dad can serve as timekeeper (use the microwave timer or use an app like Proctor). If you want to get fancy, students can go to a local library. It might be helpful to find a quiet corner or use a private study room. Groups can coordinate their own practice; use a classroom at your community center or church.

But what about the score report? When you get an official practice test booklet, it comes with a bubble sheet, answers, and scoring instructions. Grading it yourself is actually better than receiving a printout. In fact, it is so much better that I have all the students in my SAT and ACT classes score their own tests.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • If I did the scoring and printed a report, students focused on the number and not how or why they scored as they did.
  • Too many students don’t understand the grading scale for the SAT and ACT, but when they check their own work, they see what it takes (numerically) to improve.
  • When you check your own paper, wrong answers hurt. Students are more likely to change their approach as a result.
  • Students make connections between their results and the test taking strategies I teach. I can’t tell you how many “ah-ha” moments come when students are calculating their scores.

So be an informed consumer. Insist on official materials. And don’t be afraid to set up your own practice tests.

Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success | Leave a comment

When Taking the ACT or SAT “Just For Practice” Can Hurt You

students take SAT ACT for college admission

I’m a big fan of practice when it comes to standardized tests, but not all practice is beneficial. In fact, there are times when a “practice” test can hurt you.

Good Practice

I’ll start with the positive. Taking an official practice test under test-like conditions is the best way to gauge a student’s current abilities. I often recommend families use these practice tests to:

  • Identify strengths and weaknesses. My clients take a few practice tests to measure their own progress and adjust strategy prior to taking the real test.
  • Decide if a student would be better off taking the ACT or SAT. You can take both in the comfort of your own home and compare results.
  • Guide the college / scholarship search process. Test scores aren’t everything, but it helps to know if you have a high scoring, average, or struggling test taker.

Notice, these “good” tests are diagnostic in nature and used to guide further action. They are not used as a means to achieve mastery. In other words, making your child take an SAT every week for her entire sophomore year is NOT what I would consider good practice.

Only Official Practice Material

The key to the good type of practice I outlined above is the use of official materials. This means tests written by College Board (SAT) and ACT. Anyone who does serious work in test prep will tell you that these exams rely on precise language and the difference between a right or wrong answer can be a matter of a single word. So there is no such thing as close enough.

You can obtain full-length official tests from your high school’s guidance counseling office. Each year the SAT and ACT publish booklets which schools order and make available to students. If your school doesn’t have them, ask. (And request the administration order these materials for students in the future.)

If you can’t get copies at school, you can print official tests from the ACT and College Board websites. I do not recommend students take the test by viewing the exam on a screen. Currently the SAT and ACT are paper and pencil tests and students should practice in the manner of the actual exam. I will warn you that the exams are lengthy, so prepare to print about 60 pages per test.

Do not settle for used tests or imitations. It may be tempting to use the older brother’s “Official SAT Study Guide.” I mean, he only wrote a little on many of the pages. But trying to ignore someone else’s writing and not be swayed by circled answers is an unnecessary distraction and may skew results.

The same warning holds for imitation tests (think of them as the fake Gucci handbags of the testing world.) These “lookalike tests” may fool the casual observer, but they aren’t the same as the real deal. “Lookalike exams” are published by the big-box educational companies—Princeton Review, Kaplan, McGraw Hill, Barron’s, etc. Recycle these books. They aren’t worth the time you’d spend on the questions—not even for practice. (A lot like trying to practice for the important basketball tournament by using one of those bouncy red gym balls—you can run a lot of the same plays, but it just isn’t the same and can throw off your game.)

What else should you watch out for?

Taking the Real SAT or ACT for Practice

I hear it all the time. “We’re just signing him up to take the December test for practice.” While these parents have good intentions and are trying to use real materials and testing conditions, there are DANGERS in this approach.

  1. “Practice” results are official and may be used for admission. Some colleges and universities require students to send ALL test scores, not just the best ones. This means that “practice” test is now sitting in front of the admissions or scholarship committee when you just wanted it to serve as a trial run.
  2. SAT and ACT have been known to question results for students who improve significantly from one exam to the next. So the low “practice” test can raise a red flag when the student studies, retakes the test, and improves.

I’ve had students in these situations. The second scenario has been more common with the College Board (SAT) in the past 18 months. I had a senior last fall who took the SAT in November. It wasn’t intended to be a practice, but there was a death in the family the day before and Dad thought it best to send “James” to take the SAT as planned on Saturday morning while funeral arrangements were made. As you can imagine, James didn’t do well because his mind was elsewhere. James and I were already working on test taking strategies and he took the December SAT as planned —a little late in the year for a senior, but he could still meet the January application deadlines for his schools.

Usually SAT scores are available for students to view within 3 weeks. James kept checking for scores. He needed them sent to his colleges and he was curious to see how much he was able to improve. January came and deadlines passed and James still had no scores. When he called College Board, he kept getting vague answers of “soon.”

In February James found that his exam was referred to the office of testing integrity (think “office of cheating and questionable behaviors”). College Board found similarities between his answers and another student in his testing room and because James’s scores on the November SAT were considerably lower, his test was flagged for irregularities. He was given three options:

  • Appeal. He did, but nothing happened. Dad wrote a letter explaining the November circumstances and I wrote a letter saying James studied with me and I would expect scores within a particular range. (I can’t find anyone who has successfully appealed this type of case.)
  • Withdraw his December exam and they would refund his money.
  • Retake the SAT in March. If his March results confirmed his December score, they would release it. James was already past most application deadlines at this point and didn’t want to go through all the preparation again to take the March exam.

I wasn’t in the test room with James in December, but he didn’t seem like the type of kid who was desperate enough to cheat. He had been doing the work and had seen improvement. The problem is that whether guilty or not, students’ scores can be questioned by College Board at any time. Your “practice” test results will be used as evidence against you and there is very little recourse once your scores are questioned.

James is not alone. I have heard from many tutors and counselors nationwide about similar situations. College Board got dragged through the national media a few years ago with cheating scandals and now they seem ready to err on the other extreme in identifying potential irregularities. No one that my colleagues or I know has successfully been able to appeal. Once College Board flags your exam for irregularities, you will find yourself fighting a losing battle.

Action Items

Practice is good, but keep your practice to tests you take at home. Paying the money and signing up to take the real test may sound like a good idea, but there are some significant harm that can result from this approach.

Next week… Why you don’t want to take the free or low cost “practice test” offered at school or by the test prep company.

For a previous article with some additional thoughts on the harms of taking a real test to practice, read here.



Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success | Leave a comment

The Good & Bad of Early Application Options

college-prep-podcast-1400Although the benefits of Early Decision applications to college are huge, it can be a costly mistake for families who don’t consider all the angles.

Here is episode 12 of The College Prep Podcast, my free weekly show which covers a variety of college prep topics. (click here to listen)

In this 36 minute episode my co-host Gretchen and I go in depth to discuss options and problems with early decision.

First, we explain the three different ways that students can apply early for college:

▪   Early Decision (ED) –  ED allows a student to apply early for his or her top-choice school and receive early notification of acceptance. Typically, ED applications are due November 1, and students are notified of the college’s decision by December 15. ED is designed to allow students to apply to a single school; students admitted under an ED plan agree to withdraw all other regular-decision applications and commit to attending the ED school. This is a binding early option and is not appropriate for students who want to compare financial aid packages or other offers of admission before selecting their college.

▪   Restrictive Early Action (REA) –  Many families are hesitant to apply ED because it is a binding decision; REA is a non-binding alternative. Under REA, students apply to one school and receive early notification, but the offer of admission is not binding. Students get the benefit of an early response from their top-choice school, but they have the freedom to compare this offer of admission with other offers made later in the year. Families have until May 1 to make a final decision, which allows time to compare financial aid and scholarship offers from other colleges.

▪   Early Action (EA) – Early action, unlike ED or REA, has no restrictions or required commitments. Students simply submit applications early and receive early notification with no further restrictions. A more flexible option, EA is not binding, and often students apply to more than one college under this option.

Next in the episode, we discuss the benefits and dangers of applying early. Benefits include peace of mind and higher chances of getting accepted at high tier schools; a significant danger includes having to choose a school before knowing exactly how much you’ll be spending on that school. I provides some tips for thinking through how to decide which kind of early decision application is right for you.

Finally, we take on the following questions:

  • What should you do if you accept an Early Decision offer, and then your family’s financial circumstances change suddenly and you can no longer afford that school? (Short answer: Call the school!)
  • Is there a benefit to applying to more than one school and then playing the schools off each other to haggle for a better financial aid package? (Short answer: No!)

Link to the podcast episode here.

Posted in College Admission, College Applications, College Prep Podcast | Leave a comment

2015 PSAT Questions Answered

Answer sheet w pencil

Tomorrow is the PSAT for most students around the country. In my area that means 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students will be testing and seniors are given a late start day (the perfect time to work on applications!)

I want to address frequently asked questions about the PSAT so you can feel prepared and know what to expect.

Is the PSAT the new or old format of the SAT?

This year the PSAT will be the new format of the SAT—the format that won’t begin until March 2016. It is a good opportunity to see if you like the new test. Or, more realistically, it may convince some juniors to hurry up and take the SAT before March and push 9th and 10th graders to give more serious thought to the ACT. (If you missed it, my complaints about the new format SAT can be found here: Why You Shouldn’t Take the New Format SAT.)

I heard the PSAT is for scholarships; is this true?

Yes. Junior year ONLY students can earn National Merit Scholarship recognition based on their PSAT results. This is why you will see the PSAT referred to as the NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.)

Do colleges see PSAT scores?

Colleges will not see PSAT scores in the admissions process. However, colleges often purchase mailing lists based on students’ scores. “Big U” might tell College Board they are looking for all students who score above “X”. This is how your mailbox fills with marketing material after the PSAT. While colleges may get names and addresses, they will not see individual students’ scores.

Is the PSAT just a practice SAT?

For most students it is. The PSAT can be a good tool to help students identify strengths and weaknesses prior to taking the SAT. There are problems, however:

  • When students hear “just for practice” many don’t take the test seriously.
  • PSAT results are delivered in late December or January, so students have forgotten the experience.
  • Not all students take the time to review their results and learn from their mistakes.

If we already know my son is going to take the ACT instead of the SAT for college admission, does he need to take the PSAT?

No one needs to take the PSAT. Exceptionally high-scoring students will want to take the PSAT because of the National Merit Scholarship opportunities. If you already know your son tests higher on the ACT than the SAT, the PSAT is unnecessary. (I worked with some juniors over the summer who took the September ACT and are DONE with standardized testing because they reached their score goals. They don’t need the PSAT.)

From the perspective of a former high school counselor, your son may need to go ahead and take the PSAT at school on Wednesday because that’s what the entire campus will be doing. If the whole school is testing, your son should plan to test with his peers. It is just practice. In other words, it may be more trouble to try to explain your situation to your high school than it is worth. Your son can use it as an exercise in test taking and content review.

Our school has all students 8th – 11th grade take the PSAT. Is there any harm in taking the test multiple times?

Barring extreme situations of test anxiety, no there is no harm in taking the PSAT multiple times. In fact, it is a good idea for students to take the PSAT at least twice. 10th grade results are a great way to determine if you have a student with National Merit potential who should study for the PSAT as a junior.

Really, PSAT for 8th grade???!!! This seems inappropriate!

As a parent, I share the frustration with over-testing our kids. Personally, I think 10th and 11th grade is sufficient to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and adequately prepare for National Merit possibilities.

To go along with the redesign of the SAT, College Board has redesigned the “PSAT Suite of Assessments.” Really it is a repackaging and rebranding of a test that didn’t sell as well—the ReadiStep. Now the ReadiStep is called the PSAT 8/9. It is the PSAT with training wheels (think slightly shorter, slightly easier, but essentially the same test.)

Inappropriate? Technically the PSAT 8/9 is designed for 8th and 9th grade students, so it isn’t entirely inappropriate. I have seen a number of private schools use the ReadiStep and ACT Explore as benchmarks for their students. In a private school setting where students are not inundated with standardized testing, these exams can be a good point of reference to compare testing achievement with peers nationwide. As a parent of a 9th grader who loses at least a dozen days of instruction to standardized testing in a given school year, I’m fed up. My 9th grader doesn’t need one more standardized test! (But she’ll be taking the PSAT tomorrow.)


The key to all successful testing is adequate preparation. Younger students may need to hear that the PSAT is just for practice and they don’t need to stress-out if they find questions they can’t answer. (Yes, there is a lot of algebra and not all students have the academic preparation necessary to answer.) Sophomores may need to know the PSAT this year is important because it allows your family to make solid plans for junior year testing. (SAT versus ACT and National Merit prospects can be decided by these results.) Finally, juniors need to know this is the one that counts for National Merit Scholarships and is the best indicator of how they may do on the spring 2016 SAT.


For more information on the PSAT:

PSAT Review & National Merit Scholarship Information

Is Your PSAT Score “Good”?

How To Use PSAT Scores

PSAT: Strategic Stepping-Stone to the SAT and College Scholarships

PSAT: Junior Year

PSAT: 9th & 10th Grade

When Is The PSAT Just For Practice?

Posted in PSAT Success | Leave a comment