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Dr. Jane S. Gabin
Dr. Jane S. Gabin is a college counselor in New York City. She has worked at several private schools in the metro area, including the Frisch School, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, and the United Nations International School. She was an admissions officer for 10 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an English teacher at Chapel Hill High School and at her alma mater, Queens College of the City University of New York. She is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and its New York chapter.
By now many families of high school seniors have probably seen the scary article in last Sunday's New York Times. You know, the one that details the panicked quest for college acceptances causing many students to feel they need to file 20 or 25 applicants just to have a chance.
I have a 3-word response:
Get a grip.
You don't have to file 20 to 30 applications. Usually 8 to 10 will do, and will offer you a choice of acceptances. But you need to be willing to listen to some advice:
Q: I'm a high school senior looking at what university I might want to attend. I would like to be able to look into courses for animation/digital arts, critical studies (for cinematic arts), game design, computer science, or computer engineering. I currently have no experience in any of those areas, nor do I know for sure if I want to devote myself to any of them. I want a university that will allow me to take courses to help me learn if I would enjoy a career in those areas, while also allowing me to complete entry level prerequisites, so I have the experience and knowledge to go for a major when I am ready. Unfortunately, I do not know what these courses are. I only know the names of the majors, and schools that offer all of those majors seem to be too expensive. How can I learn about prerequisites, and whether I would enjoy a job in that area?
A: You have excellent questions, and obviously you have been thinking seriously about the next step in your education. Many high school seniors are unsure of what they ought to choose as a major, and then they worry that a major might be a wrong choice when it comes time to look for a career.
Q: My neighbor's daughter is a first-year student at a large public university, and it seems that most of her instructors are graduate students. She has met few actual professors. Now we are starting to look at colleges for our son. I want him to be taught by experienced professors—but does that mean he must attend only a private college? Those schools are so much more expensive!
A: It all depends upon the school. Part of the answer is in the vocabulary you use: university and college. A university has an undergraduate program and also graduate programs. It is very common for experienced graduate students to teach introductory classes in many departments. More advanced courses should be taught by full-time, permanent members of the faculty. But schools should not use graduate students or other part-time faculty to teach a majority of classes. You will have to do some serious research to learn if this is the case.
It may shock you to learn that private undergraduate colleges do something similar, even though they do not have their own graduate schools. But there may be a nearby university whose graduate students they can employ, or other qualified individuals they can hire at salaries much, much lower than those of full-time professors. So paying the higher tuition and fees for a private college is no guarantee that your son will be taught by professors. Your tuition dollars will be used instead to subsidize the school's other projects.
School starts on Sept. 4 and for high school juniors and seniors, this means it's also time to start thinking about college. Here's my advice on what to focus on as you look ahead to college.
Juniors: The most important thing you can do for yourself this year is to concentrate on your studies. Take the most challenging courses you can, and strive to do well. If you are involved in some extra-curricular activities you enjoy, stick with them. If you have not become involved yet – join something! This does not have to be at your high school; it can also be in your community. You will look (and feel!) more balanced if you do something besides study. But don't obsess about college applications yet – most high schools do not begin college programs until the spring of junior year. One more thing: READ. I cannot stress more emphatically that students who read widely and constantly fare much better, in the college process and overall, than students who read little.
Summer is a perfect time for rising seniors to visit some colleges. You won't be alone – hosting summer visitors has been the norm at most U.S. colleges and universities for the past 20 years. The number of visitors will usually correlate with the size of the campus – the larger the school, the larger the information sessions and tour groups.
Most colleges will have a "visit us" feature on their website (usually in the Admissions section). If you have to reserve a place on a tour, you can do so online or by calling the Admissions office. If you show up without a reservation, will they let you visit? Of course! The whole point of the college visit – from their perspective -- is to inspire students to become applicants. You are a prospective customer so they will be happy to see you.
Q: I am a junior and starting to think about where to apply to college next year. I am a pretty good student, so I think I will have a lot of possibilities. But I am really worried about money. I've read so many articles about student debt. My parents can't afford to pay $60,000 a year for college, and I don't want to be stuck with loan payments for 30 years! But everyone says graduating from a top college will help me get into a better grad school or get me a better job.
A: Your first step is to stop believing what "everyone" says! "They" don't know the details regarding every situation. Do you think that job placement and spots in graduate schools are given ONLY to Ivy League alumni and others who attended super-selective private colleges? Of course not. While it is true that some students might feel lost at first attending a very large institution, the chief reason for the aversion to state schools is snobbery.
Ask the College Counselor!
Q: I can't decide where I should enroll in college. I was accepted by four schools, have decided against two of them, but now I can't decide between the other two. They are both great schools. I have visited them, but don't have enough time to go back for a second visit. Can I send enrollment deposits to both places and then make my final decision later?
A: No – May 1 is the universal enrollment deadline in the US. It is against the professional ethics set out by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) for students to enroll at more than one college or university. High schools are bound by these rules, too, so they are not allowed to send more than one final transcript for a student. Without this final transcript in hand, a college will not officially enroll a student. So even if you attempt to double-deposit, you will not be able to double-enroll.
Q: My son is a senior in high school, so we have just finished with applications and testing and expensive test prep. Now I have to start worrying about my daughter, who will be entering ninth grade next year. When the New York Times magazine devotes its cover article to the "new" SAT test, it's got to be something major! I am in a panic!
A: Everyone needs to take a deep breath about the "new and improved" SAT. The College Board is a business. It is a huge business. Yes, it is a .org and calls itself a "not-for-profit" entity. But that lack of profit comes after taking their multi-million-dollar revenues (from the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams) and subtracting their expenses. And among their expenses are tremendous salaries for those at the top of the organization. While the current head of the College Board has an annual compensation package of $750,000, his predecessor had a compensation package of $1.3 million. Many executives at the College Board have salaries over $300,000. You want to know why test fees have increased so much over the years?
All right, to be fair, the head of the ACT company gets $1.1 million. As I said, testing is big business.
Q: I AM SO LOST!! I am a high school sophomore and I am really starting to think about the whole college thing. Generally I'm shy and uncomfortable, but this year I joined Key Club (volunteering) and French Club (which consists of 3 people including myself). I want to find something in school that I can devote a lot of time to, because apparently that's what colleges are looking for, but none of the other clubs interest me. When it comes to French Club, I am even less involved because there are so few people in it. I would try asking friends to come, but they are all in Spanish. One of my friends and I spent the first three meetings or so talking with the advisor about ideas, but none of them ever worked out. I am not much of a leader either, so I don't think I could start my own club. Also I'm not very athletic, so I've just about run out of options. I don't know what to do!!
A: Take it easy! Please do not feel you have run out of options. First of all, the major thing that "colleges are looking for" is a solid transcript. Courses and grades always come first. Yes, extra-curricular activity does play a role in the admissions decision, but there is no hidden agenda. Colleges are not "looking" to see if you are athletic or creative. But they DO want to see if you are looking past yourself.
Q: My two sons applied to the same college Early Action, and they have both been accepted. Since they were EA applicants, they are not obligated to enroll at that college, and they have also applied to other schools. They don't know yet where they want to go, and will probably take a while to decide, before the May 1st deadline.
But I am concerned about the amount of merit aid they have been awarded. For some reason, one of my sons received an award of $40,000 merit aid, while the other one, who had a slightly higher GPA and slightly higher SATs, received $0. Unfortunately, it's this second son who is more interested in the school. At what point do I approach the school, and ask them if they will review their merit aid? Do I wait until he's sure he wants to go there? If it's in April, will that be too late?
A: I don't have enough information to know why one of your sons was made a generous offer, while the other has been offered nothing. It sounds like you have no idea, either. Does one son have stronger courses than the other? Or a special talent – such as in athletics or music -- that has been rewarded? You deserve to know the answer.