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: 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.
Q: I am working on my college applications and I need two teacher recommendations. I don’t know what major I want to be, so how do I pick which subject teachers to ask? My best grades are in math, but I’m not really friendly with any of my math teachers. I really get along well with my junior year history teacher, but I only got an 88 in that class. What should I do?
A: The first thing you want to do is not wait too long to ask your teachers for letters! It is never a good idea to ask at the last minute. You must realize that your teachers are going to be very busy near application deadlines – most applications are due January 1, although early deadlines will come on Nov. 1 and Nov. 15. They may be able to write only a certain number, so ask soon.
Unless students are applying to engineering school, which require a letter from a math teacher, they can ask teachers from ANY academic subject. It is best to ask teachers from two different subjects, so the admissions readers will gain two different perspectives about you. And it’s best to ask teachers with whom you have a solid relationship. Therefore, it is preferable for you to have a letter from the history who likes you, than from a math teacher who barely knows you, even if you earned a 97 in that class.
Q: I am trying to decide if I should apply to college Early Decision. I visited a few colleges over the summer, and saw three that I really like. I have a GPA of about 91, pretty decent SATs, and Regents scores in the 90s. My counselor says I have a good shot at several SUNY colleges, maybe even honor programs, and some other schools. My question is, will applying Early Decision to the private colleges give me a better chance of admission? A lot of my friends are saying that applying early shows interest, so you have a better shot at getting in.
A: Filing an Early Decision application is a huge commitment. You should do so ONLY if 1) you are absolutely, completely, 100% in love with a particular school, and 2) financial aid is not a priority.
Early Decision acceptances are binding, and under the terms of the decision you will not be allowed to wait and see if you are admitted elsewhere. Neither will you have the opportunity to weigh different financial aid offers. If you are accepted to a school under Early Decision, you are committed to enrolling there.
Q. I am the mom of an 11th grader. I grew up and went to school outside of the United States, so it is very challenging for me to understand the whole U.S. higher education system. Would you please explain to me what the SAT and ACT are? What is the difference between those two? Which one does my daughter need to take in order to apply to a 4-year college?
A: Most colleges and universities in the United States require either the SAT or ACT (with writing) for admission as a first-year student. These are nationally administered examinations, each one about three hours long, which provide a general assessment of a student’s skills in mathematics, reading and vocabulary, and writing. The tests are structured differently and scored differently.
The SAT comes from the Educational Testing Service, headquartered in New Jersey, while the ACT comes from a company in Iowa. Originally, most students on the East Coast took the SAT, while in the Midwest and West the ACT was the preferred exam. It was merely a matter of geographic preference. But now that all information is online, students in all areas are trying both tests.
There are numerous differences between the tests. The ACT includes a section of questions related to science, but it is really about interpreting data. The ACT is also more straightforward in its knowledge-based approach. I suggest that you and your daughter look at the websites of each exam and try the sample questions. Some students simply feel more comfortable with one format than the other. Your daughter could also take both tests, and then compare her results. Colleges truly do not care which test an applicant takes! You can find complete information, plus practice questions, at the SAT and ACT websites.
Q: I am a senior in high school and I feel like I am way behind when it comes to applying to college. What should I do?
A: If you are just beginning your senior year, you have already been told how busy you are going to be. Do not get stressed! As far as the college planning part of your schedule goes, you have plenty of time -- you just need to prioritize your tasks and get going.
Here is my suggested “to-do” list for the next few weeks:
Q: Are college admissions people really going to judge me on the type of e-mail address I have?
A: Yes! Often little things in a college application can create an impression, and it might not be the kind of impression you ought to give. Your e-mail address is one of these. An address you set up for yourself when you were 10 or 12 might be perceived as childish, such as: carebear26@gmail.
Likewise, e-mail addresses that reflect a devotion to any one band or TV show will also create an impression that could color a reader's impression of you. Avoid such monikers as "9inchnails@yahoo" or "jerseyshoregirl@hotmail." Clearly you shouldn't have any address that refers to sex, violence, politics or religion.
And no, you will not win points if your address reflects a devotion to a college's team, e.g. "DukeBlueDevilsRule@yahoo" -- this falls into the category of "trying too hard."
In my last column I suggested that rising seniors try to visit some colleges over the summer. If you do visit, 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.
And from your perspective, the point of the visit is for you to visualize yourself on this campus. Do you think you’d enjoy being here for four years? Does it seem like a friendly, hospitable place?