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Dr. Jane S. Gabin
Dr. Jane S. Gabin is an independent 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 and New Jersey chapters.
Q: I took the SAT in March and got a 2190 and then took the ACT in June and got a 35. I would be happy with the 35 if I didn’t think that I could score a 36, and I also feel strongly that I could improve on my SAT score. Is it worth it to retake either test? Would it look bad if I retook both? Does a high score on the SAT look better than a high score on the ACT?
A: I’d be happy with a 35, too! Congratulations --your scores are enviable indeed, and I am sure that many readers of this column wish they could do as well on their tests. But yes – I would try for a 36, just because you are so close to it. What do you have to lose?
Your query has several parts to it, and I need to provide several answers – not just for you but for everyone facing standardized tests for college admissions:
Q: Even though my daughter is just going into 9th grade, I feel like we're already behind in the college process. Some of my friends have started their kids on SAT prep now, in 8th grade. Will my daughter have an advantage in also starting early on this? What else can I do to help her be ready for college?
A: It is NOT a good idea to start prepping for standardized tests this early. Junior year – 11th grade – is the appropriate time. First of all, test scores are NOT the most important part of a student's college application. Emphasizing test scores sends the wrong message. Students who start on test prep too early will be absolutely sick of the test before 11th grade, and they may also sour on the whole topic of college if you start stressing it too early.
Q: So we all read the article in the New York Times last week about waiting lists and the extreme things some applicants do to get noticed and maybe picked. This seems to create an unnecessary amount of stress, since so few colleges take students who are waitlisted. And by May 1, we’re enrolled somewhere anyway. So what’s the point? Why don’t colleges either accept or reject people and get it over with?
A: Over the years, colleges have found the use of a waiting list to be quite helpful – well, helpful to them. On the other side of the question, just ask a student who has enrolled at her #2 college if she’d like a chance to go to her #1 school – most would be thrilled!
As colleges have become increasingly conscious of how their acceptance and enrollment rates are perceived, and how these affect the all-holy rankings, they have come to use the waiting list in a variety of ways. In general, applicants are wailtlisted for one of three reasons:
Q: Is there any point in going to a college fair? I went to the NACAC fair held last week at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. My friends and I waited on line for half an hour just to get in! Then there were hundreds of booths, and huge crowds, and colleges I’d never heard of. The colleges I had heard of had lots of people crowded around so you couldn’t really get to talk to the reps. I got a lot of brochures, but don’t feel I gained any in-depth knowledge about the schools.
A: There are many types of college fairs, and the one you went to is not designed to provide ”in-depth knowledge” but rather to give a huge array of colleges and universities exposure in a large urban market. That is why these large NACAC fairs are held in major cities across the country. For most students, this will be their first exposure to the many possibilities out there in the word of higher education. It’s a good place to start, to browse, and get a general idea. So the purpose of this was to 1) provide publicity for the colleges and 2) to get students to write, go to the website or visit for more information.
Q: I was rejected by my #1 college choice – which I admit was a “reach” school. But what I don’t get is this: I was accepted by five other colleges, including another “reach” school! So maybe the college that turned me down made a mistake. What do you think my chances are if I ask them to reconsider? Should I tell them which other colleges have accepted me?
A: It is very, very rare for a college admissions office to change a decision. Decisions are always made by more than one person, and written notes are kept that explain (internally) why the decision was made. Unless crucial information was genuinely overlooked or considered in error (e.g. the admissions committee was looking at the wrong transcript when it voted – and this type of mistake rarely happens, if ever), they made the decision they wanted to make. Admissions committees are quite experienced in what they do, and they strive to make the best decisions they can for their college or university.
Q: My son just received an impressive-looking envelope inviting him to participate in the National Student Leadership Conference in Washington, DC. They make it sound like going will be a great thing for him to put on college applications, but will it really count that much? Will it open doors for him? If this is truly a great opportunity, I don't want him to miss out – but it's really expensive! What do you suggest?
A: Would participating in this program be exciting for your son? Probably so. Will participating add a line to his resume that will make a real impact on his college applications? The company organizing the program would like you to think so, but the real answer is: no.
Q: We live in a rental apartment in NYC, and own a home in another state. We had to move to New York for work. We rent the house that's out of state and the income helps to pay for our rent here. We fear that colleges will see the house we own as an investment property or vacation home rather than as a primary residence, which is usually exempt from financial aid calculations. Should we sell the home or take other measures to improve our financial aid standing?
A: College admission does not mean simply being admitted – it also means significant financial commitment. Yours is a complicated question, and actually one that is outside my area of expertise, as I am concerned with the academic aspects of admission. Still, I can point you in the right direction, as well as address the general issue of where to go for college-related financial advice.
But first -- and this is for everyone planning to apply for financial aid – file your FAFSA now, if you have not already done so. The acronym stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It costs nothing to file this form. If you get anything in the mail or see anything on the Internet that charges you for financial aid information, toss or delete! This information is free. An important thing for all parents to remember is this: if a website ends in .gov or .org or .edu the information is free; if a website ends in .com there is cost involved. For FAFSA information, go to the government website: www.fafsa.ed.gov. Another good source: Insideschools and the Center for NYC Affairs published a FAFSA guide. Here's the link.
Over the winter holidays, I heard a sad college-admissions story that unfortunately is not unique.
A father and mother had one daughter. Her mother had gone to a large state university; the father had graduated from an Ivy League college. As she was growing up, the daughter heard frequently from her father about how wonderful his experiences were at this famous school, and that if she worked hard, she could go there, too. He took her to visit the campus when she was in 6th grade, and again a few years later for a football weekend. When she entered high school, he stepped up the pressure: she had to apply to his college. It was really the only place he would consider acceptable. The mother tried to put in a word for her school, but the father insisted that the higher "ranking" of his college would open more doors for their daughter than any public institution.
The girl's college counselor wisely advised her about a range of schools that offered the subjects and campus experience the student sought, and came up with a list of 12. The girl's grades and scores were solid, but not Ivy League caliber; however, her father insisted that she apply early to his alma mater and that people he knew might be able to influence the decision. He also insisted she apply to three other Ivies.
Q: I have applied to my favorite college under the Early Decision plan. Now I am waiting for the answer. I am pretty confident that I will get in – but now I am scared that I might not, or they might “defer” me. I planned that if I got rejected, I’d work on other applications over the winter break but now I am nervous about spoiling my whole vacation. What do you suggest?
A: I am guessing that you have already spoke to your college counselor at school about this, and been advised to get the their applications lined up “just in case.” But many students don’t want to do that, because they know it’s a lot of work and don’t want to end up wasting their time.
But it really is good advice to get the other applications ready. If you don’t get accepted to your #1 college choice in December, you are not going to be in the mood to work on other applications. Sitting down at that time to prepare the supplements for other schools will seem like a huge chore and you are not going to be a in a good mood. This, of course, can affect the tone of what you write.
Yes, you might be “deferred” by your Early Decision college. They will explain that this means your application will be reviewed again in March. At that point, you may or may not be admitted; it’s still an unknown.
I suggest that you start working on the supplements for your additional colleges NOW. Best scenario: you do get accepted by your #1 choice, and you will have spent some time working on essays that prove unneeded. Other scenario: you do not get accepted by #1, but you are poised and ready to hit “SUBMIT” on the additional applications to which you have given your best effort.
Get to work, and best of luck!
Q: We are trying to decide between two high schools for my son, who is a bright and articulate young man with very strong science and math skills. Both high schools stress science. One has been around for 50 years, a "specialized" high school with a very good reputation. The other is one of the newly-organized programs in an old neighborhood high school. Which school will college admissions offices look at better? What are the benefits and negatives of each program?
A: For the benefits of each of these high schools, you ought to go to the information on the individual school page on Insideschools. There is no "right" answer for all students. Which school will involve more commuting? How large are the classes? What is the overall atmosphere of each school?
In terms of college, the answer is this: when college admissions readers look at your son's application, they will look at what he was offered, and what he classes he took.
If, for example, a school offers 15 AP courses, and he took only two, they will not be terribly impressed. They will see a picture of academic fear, even if his grades are strong. They will not compare your son's record, say, at the specialized school with applicants who chose to attend the neighborhood school. They will only look at him in the context of his own school.
To better inform colleges, every high school in the U.S. prepares a document called the profile. A "profile" can range from a slick, full-color brochure to a simple photocopied sheet. But the information contained is always standard: the size of the school, the number of students, the number of teachers, the courses offered, the grading scale used, the percentage of graduates who go on to higher education, and the colleges and universities where the students have been accepted and enrolled. More elaborate profiles will also contain information on average SAT scores, Regents scores, AP statistics, clubs and other extra-curricular activities and any special distinctions the school has earned.
Here are some other questions to consider: What are the average Regents exam scores at these schools? Where have the recent graduates of each school gone on to college? Which school offers more of the extra-curricular activities that will give your son the opportunity to shine? If he is a math-science kid, does the school have a competitive math team?
Beyond looking at college acceptances, remember that your son will be in high school for as long as he will be in college. These are important years, and he should enjoy them. Visit each school and think of where he has the better chance of having an exciting and stimulating and happy four years! It might help him to be able to speak with currently-enrolled students in each school. He has a little more time now that the due date for high school applications has been pushed back a week to Dec. 10.