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Dr. Jane S. Gabin

Dr. Jane S. Gabin

Dr. Jane S. Gabin  After 10 years in university admissions and another decade as a college counselor in the NY metro area, Dr. Gabin works as a researcher, writer, and independent educational consultant. She graduated from Queens College and has a PhD in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Ask the College Counselor a Question

Q:  I have gone to the same summer camp upstate since I was 9 years old.  Every year, I see some of the same people, and we've become like family.  Last summer, I was a junior counselor, and this year they want me to come back as a full counselor, working as a tennis coach (I am on my school's tennis team).  My dad says because I am going into my senior year, I should do an internship this summer.  He could arrange something with a friend's law firm, and says this would look more impressive to colleges than working at a summer camp.  But it's also my last summer in high school, and I want to spend it with my camp friends.  What should I do?

A:  A lot of high school students -- and their parents -- seem to get caught in the "what looks best?" dilemma.  "What looks best for college?"  This course or that course?  Debate or Model UN?  In your case, a job at your summer camp or at a law firm?

Let's apply other questions:  "What is best for ME?  Which choice will make me happier?  Which choice will allow me to shine?"

It's clear from what you have written what your choice should be.  You have a history and an emotional tie to the camp.  The camp management likes and respects you -- demonstrated in their offer of increased responsibility this year.  And the position involves something in which you already excel:  tennis.  When a college admissions committee looks at your application, they will see a pattern of commitment, both to your place of employment and to the sport you love.  Just be sure that this pattern of commitment is made clear in your application.

An internship in one's chosen professional area is a staple of many college programs, but now it seems as if families of high school students think it's a requirement. Not so.  First of all, many places require interns to be college students and over the age of 18.  A summer placement for a student under the age of 18 in a law firm or a medical office will probably not involve any professional duties.  Often interns are observers, or they make photocopies, or they answer the phones.  There are exceptions, of course;  the student who is crazy about art, and gets to share this with kids as a docent at a children's museum, for example, is going to have a terrific and meaningful experience.

But you speak of something that can be arranged by your father with a friend.  Do you have an interest in the law that might be increased by spending several weeks observing the day-to-day events in a law office?  Perhaps, if you were involved in student government, or volunteered with your local member of Congress, this kind of summer activity would seem part of a natural progression.  But it does not sound like that.  This isn't even something you are pursuing yourself, out of interest.  It's something being engineered by your father, to help you "look good" for college.

Colleges can spot that.  Admissions officers are not naive.  They can see when a relatively short-term activity, often unrelated to anything else in a student's application, has been added for the sake of appearance rather than as a result of true passion or commitment.  And that's the key:  passion.  If an applicant's true passion for an activity -- whether it's nurturing young children,  playing a sport,  spending hours behind a microscope, or writing poetry -- comes through, that's what is going to impress.

Do what you love.  Enjoy your summer!

Q:  Our son is a junior, and his college counselor has given him a list of about 10 schools he should consider.  Some are a short drive out of NYC, while several are outside the state.  I know making campus visits is important, and it's one way for our son to show his interest.  But between our work schedules and the cost, there is no way we can got to see all these schools.  How important, really, is it that we visit all ten colleges?

A:  Visiting some colleges should be part of each student's preparation, but it is definitely not essential to visit every school on your list.  And while "demonstrated interest" is one way to impress admission officers, visiting a campus is only one way of showing this.  And if a campus is very far away, they really don't expect you to make the trip -- they know this could mean a significant expense for a family.

For instance, your son would not be expected to visit colleges in California or Texas; but if there is a school in Manhattan on his list -- particularly a private college -- and he never visits, they would wonder if his interest is really serious.

There is another, quite important, reason to visit schools.  You can learn only so much by reading brochures, exploring websites, and talking to alumni.  You need to see the facilities for yourself, explore the campus and its neighborhood, have a meal in the dining hall, talk to random students you meet to get their opinions, even sit in on a class or two.  Would you order a large serving of a totally unknown new flavor of ice cream without first asking for a taste sample?  Visiting a college can allow your son to see if he can visualize himself on that campus -- and can help you feel confident about his going there.

How can your son demonstrate genuine interest in a college too far away to visit?  He can get on their mailing list, and later send an e-mail to the NYC rep with questions.  All colleges ought to have a regional representative to whom he can direct his questions.  If the college participates in a regional or local college fair he should attend and introduce himself to the rep.  Next fall, when college reps visit individual high schools, he must attend this meeting.  If the particular college does not visit his school or participate in college fairs around NYC, your son should be proactive and write again to the rep.  He can explain why it is too far to visit, but again express his strong interest in the school.  The rep may connect him with local alumni he could talk to, or respond in another way.  In either case, they will have a record of your son's correspondence and will be aware of his genuine interest.

Q:  My son has a choice of high schools to attend.  Doesn't the reputation of a high school -- whether it's well known or not -- have an effect on college admissions?

A:  True, some high schools have a stronger reputation than others, and there is indeed a certain amount of "name recognition" in admissions offices.  But does this mean that students from Famous High School are all going to be admitted to top colleges, while applicants from Neighborhood High have no chance?  Of course not!  Nationwide, there are dozens of well-known secondary schools, but thousands of schools much less famous.  Students from both categories are admitted to outstanding colleges and universities.

First of all, the name itself is not everything.  At any school there is a range of accomplishment.  Students taking challenging courses and achieving high grades are going to get attention, no matter what school name is on the transcript.  What teachers and counselors write about the student is significant as well.  Individual records, scores, activities, essays, and recommendations all count.

Every application to college is accompanied by a document from the high school called the "profile." This tells about the size of the school, the credentials of the faculty, the student:teacher ratio, the types of courses offered, the grading scale, test scores achieved, the extra-curricular activities, and where students are admitted to college.  This provides a portrait of the school and places the applicant in context.  Admissions officers read these and assess the applicants from those schools in the context of the educational environment from which they come.

You, also, have to look at the whole picture of the schools your son might attend.  How far will he have to travel?  When you visited, were the students and teachers friendly? Did you sit in on any classes to see what they are like?  Famous High School might be right for some, while Neighborhood High is perfect for others. It's not only about college admissions -- what is day-to-day life like in each school?  Your son will be there for four years.  Where does he think he will be happier? I'd go with that one.

Q: I applied to five colleges, but now I'm thinking I ought to have applied to more.  I was rejected by my reach school -- but it was a real reach, so I was not shocked.  I got into my safety, which is a branch of SUNY.  But the other three schools all wait-listed me!  I thought for sure that I would be admitted to at least one of them.  Now what do I do?

A: Unfortunately, in the world of college admissions, very little is "for sure."  Even colleges often feel this way -- they send students acceptance letters, but not all of those students will actually enroll by the May 1 deadline.  Admissions offices try to anticipate how many students will sign up, but although they know their data from past years, each year could be a bit different.  And so many colleges end up filling their next freshman class from the waiting lists.

Colleges send acceptance letters based upon these yield results from previous years. There are more students they'd like to admit, but cannot at this point.  So they place them on a waiting list.  If a smaller number of accepted students enrolls, they can then go to this list and accept more applicants.

Make the most of this chance.  First, follow the directions in the letters the three colleges sent you, and respond to the wait-list offer.  Many students never do, and if the college looks to see who might accept a later offer of admission, they are not like to admit someone who shows no interest.  Follow up your response with a personal letter to the admissions committee (you can address it to the "Admissions Committee," unless you have met the specific representative who handles your high school).

Explain that you are still enthusiastic about their college.  Bring them up to date on your activities and accomplishments since the time of your initial application.  Ask your college counselor to support you with a letter, phone call, or e-mail.  These things can help.  Colleges do not maintain specifically ordered wait-lists, (no #1, #2, and so forth).  But if you assert yourself and explain why you might be good for them, you may increase your chances.  Rather than saying "it's always been my dream to attend your school" tell them something like "I would bring you my strong skills as a debater and a percussion player."  Do not delay.  Write now -- because while some schools may not know until after May 1 if they will indeed have places, others start admitting from the waitilist before May 1. Enlist your college counselor as an ally and give it a try!

It may be that you will have to enroll at your safety -- if you are not admitted elsewhere by May 1, you MUST enroll there.  Don't dismiss this school -- you may actually find that you love it once you are there.  If so, problem solved.  If not, you can apply later to transfer to one of your previous choices.  What matters is not where you begin your college education, but the school from which you graduate.

Q:  Have you thanked your allies today?

A:  Usually the College Counselor answers a question here, but today she is asking one.  At this point, many seniors have already received some college acceptance letters, and, I hope, more acceptances will be on their way to you soon.  You have worked hard for your successes -- but please remember that you didn't get there totally on your own!  You had help along the way -- from parents, college counselors, teachers, coaches, and people from outside school who wrote letters of reference for you.

And even if you were not admitted to all of your schools, your supporters still did all they could to assist you.

From what I hear, only a relatively few seniors actually thank their teachers and others who wrote on their behalf.  Students will often stop by a counselor's or teacher's office and say, "I got into ______.  Thanks for your help!"  But sometimes, in their excitement, they forget to do even that.  Or they may send a quick e-mail; that's better than nothing, but requires little time or thought.

Seniors, please forgive the pun, but show some class!  A heartfelt, handwritten note of thanks will be cherished by a teacher or counselor.  And it will be kept far longer than any e-mail will stay in an inbox.  People don't go into teaching or counseling for money or glory -- they do this work because they want to make a difference in the lives of young people.

If you have been helped in your college quest by individuals who have made a difference in your life, now is the time to tell them!

Q:  I applied to six colleges, regular decision.  One of the reasons I didn't apply Early Decision anywhere is because getting financial aid is important.  I really wanted to see if I got more than one acceptance and then could compare the costs before I decide which college to choose.  I like all the schools I applied to, but some are harder to get into than others.  Last week I got acceptance letters from two schools, which made me feel great.  But one of the colleges sent another letter telling me I could get "priority" on campus housing if I enroll now.  I like this school, but I want to wait to sign up until I hear back from all the colleges.  What should I do?

A:  Congratulations on your two acceptances so far!  It sounds like you have made thoughtful choices.  You have every right to wait until you receive all six decisions, though, before you make your choice.  May 1 is the acknowledged enrollment deadline for colleges and universities in the US, and this is upheld by NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors).  There is a code of ethics in every profession, and in ours it is that no student should be pressured to  enroll before May 1 (the exception, of course, is for binding Early Decision agreements).

Sometimes colleges make enticing and even subtle offers -- enroll now and get your first choice of dorm space -- because they are a little nervous.  Unless they already have a good percentage of the incoming freshman class locked in under Early Decision, colleges do not know until after May 1 if they will have full enrollment.  So they may try to push enrollment a bit.  But they are not supposed to.

This is what you should do:  send this college a friendly message telling them you are very excited they have accepted you, but you need a little more time to make your decision. Tell your college counselor about their offer, and he or she can call them and ask them, diplomatically, to give you some space.  They will understand -- and they will back off.

Q:  My first-choice college sent me a letter saying my application is "deferred" and will be looked at again in March.  Does this mean I still have a chance of getting in, or are they just going to reject me anyway?

A:  Being "deferred" means that when the college admissions officers looked at their first round of applicants, they felt, for some reason, they could not accept you right away -- but they didn't want to reject you, either.  Basically, it means they are giving you more time to make your case.  You will have a second chance at a review.

Of course -- and I am sure your deferral letter stated this -- there is no guarantee you will be accepted.  Your application will be reviewed along with those of other deferred students as well as will all the applications that were submitted in January.  That's a lot of competition.  So to give yourself the best chance possible, you'll have to put in some extra work.

The first and most important thing is to keep your grades strong.  When you originally applied, you did not have first-semester grades.  Now you do.  Your transcript should indicate that you are still working hard academically.  In addition, I suggest that you write to the admissions committee, updating them on anything new since the time you first filed an application:  volunteer work, a completed project, any awards or honors, sports information, and so forth.  Your letter can also re-emphasize your continued interest in the college.

Whatever you do, don't be passive and simply hope that your application will succeed this time. Be active and do something about it.  There is no guarantee that you will meet with success, as not every deferred application later becomes an acceptance.  But some do!  Give it your best effort and tell your college counselor about your determination, and enlist him or her as an ally.

Any "deferred" students out there who were ultimately successful in gaining admissions? We'd like to hear from you. What's your advice?

Q:  My son has to switch high schools in the middle of the school year.  His GPA is now about a 3.0, his SAT is 1610, and he has an ACT of 24.  How will changing schools affect him in terms of his applying to college?  Which school counselor should we ask for the counselor letter?  And what are the chances of his getting into a liberal arts college to study psychology or sociology?

A:   Transferring from one high school to another is a fairly common event.  A parent  is given a job transfer, a family moves to a different neighborhood or borough, or there is a family decision to move from a private or religious school to a public school, or vice versa.  I remember reading an application from a student who had attended a different school each year during high school because of her father's military assignments, and was looking forward to college as a place where she could actually remain for four years!   So it's not that uncommon and should not affect your son adversely.  It would be a good idea for him to pursue activities -- such as involvement in sports, music, or drama -- that he enjoyed at his former school.  That would give him continuity.

You do not say what year your son is in, and that is important.  If he spent only one year at the old school, most of his grades will come from his new school.  However, if he is now a junior or a senior, he will have to work hard to establish and distinguish himself at the new school.  He will need to help his counselor and teachers get to know him so they can assist with his plans for college.  It would be great if he can achieve some grades at his new school that are higher than B;  his 3.0 GPA is roughly a B average, but an upward grade trend could impress admissions officers.

It is customary for the college counselor at the school the student is presently attending to write the college letter.  However, if your son had a counselor or teacher at his old school who knew him well, he could ask for an additional letter of recommendation from one of them.  His old school will send a transcript of the course and grades he had there, and that will be added to his transcript from his current school.

With a B average, an SAT of 1610 (out of 2400), and a score of 24 on the ACT (equivalent to about an 1110 on the SAT), your son ought to have many college choices, as I am sure his counselor will tell you.  His chances of college admissions will not be affected by what major he might wish to pursue -- most liberal arts colleges will not ask students to declare a major field until the end of the second year of study.  Whether he wishes to concentrate on psychology or sociology will not be nearly as important in the admissions process as his curriculum, grades, test scores, recommendations, essay, and the depth of his commitment to extra-curricular activities.  Transferring to a new school is not an easy task for a teenager, but a positive attitude and steady goals can help your son navigate the transition.

Q:  I'm a high school sophomore from the Bronx.  It has always been my dream to attend Columbia University.  However, I doubt I will ever have a chance for admission.  My cumulative average from freshman year was a 90, and now I have about an 85.  I'm on the football team, student council, NYC Cares volunteer club, and I'm vice-president of a community service club.  I am also taking an AP course.  Despite this, some older friends in college say I should kiss Columbia good-bye because my grades are not good enough even to be considered. This is the basic answer I get from everyone.  Do you still think I have a chance?

A:  I am sorry that there are people who are discouraging you from aiming high.  Perhaps they are trying to protect you from the disappointment you will feel if you apply to Columbia and are not accepted.  But if you don't try, you'll never know.  It sounds like you are working very hard in several areas -- academics, sports, and service -- so you need to find people who believe in you and will give you encouragement.

The reality is that Columbia University is very selective and it is difficult to be admitted.  But each year the admissions office looks for an interesting, varied, and exciting freshman class; that means they seek students with all sorts of different attributes, such as special skills in music, or drama, or athletics, or science.  If you are a skilled athlete, that might get you a close look; share your ambitions with your coach, and enlist him as an ally.  Your leadership will also get noticed.  At the same time, academics come first, so keep your grades up and see if you can get back to that 90 GPA.  Good for you for taking challenging courses -- keep that up as well.  I cannot predict whether you will be admitted -- but I see no reason why you cannot keep Columbia on your list of possible colleges.

That's my point:  you need a list.  Try to analyze what, specifically, it is about Columbia that you admire.  Write down those qualities.  You will find many of these qualities at other colleges as well.  Do not obsess about one school only; instead, try for a set of colleges that will offer you a wonderful educational and social experience.  You have plenty of time to research and explore your options.  And while Columbia is a Division I sports school, bear in mind that there are terrific colleges out there with Division II and III athletics teams that can also offer you an excellent all-around experience.  So aim high, keep up your academics and fine extracurricular activities, and find mentors among your teachers and coaches.  Stay positive and on the track to success!

Q:  My daughter is in the middle of applying to colleges, and she worked very hard on her essay.  Her English teacher looked at it and thought it was good, too.  But we are hearing about more and more students using "essay tutors" and "writing consultants" who charge a lot of money to help students with this important part of the application.  I can't afford the kind of fees these people charge.  I worry that my daughter will be at a disadvantage when her essay is compared with others that have gotten a professional makeover!

A:  And which essay will sound more natural?  The essay written by a teenager in her authentic voice, or the one that has been "handled" by outsiders?  There is a saying in admissions offices:  "If it sounds as though it was written by a 45-year-old, it probably was written by a 45-year old."  Your daughter is going about things the correct way -- and she has gotten professional help!  Her English teacher is a professional, trained to help students develop their best written expression.  Bringing a draft of an essay to a parent or a teacher is fine -- it's great to get another perspective and have the chance to add or explain:  "What do you mean when you say Uncle Bob is ethical?  Can you give an example of his ethical behavior?" or "Don't just say you realized you were good at helping kids; talk about a specific camper you bonded with, and how you did that."

Going to an outside "coach" or "tutor" -- who may or may not even write a good part of the essay -- is often unhelpful "help."  You think admissions personnel can't tell when an essay is just too polished?  Or that it is out of sync with other evidence in the application?  Admissions readers are very experienced, and they can tell when something does not add up.  An essay that raises a red flag will cause them to examine carefully whether the student might have had too much "help" with the essay.  In some cases they will call the high school to discuss the essay with the college counselor or English teacher.  Of course, they do not always have the time to do this, but it is done.  When I worked in admissions we would show each other suspect essays and discuss them.

The best essays, the most successful, were those that sounded like they were written by a real teenager, and gave a glimpse into the life of a real kid.  This doesn't mean they were written in slang and peppered with "like!"  They still have to be well written.  But students, these essays should sound as if they are yours.  It's fine to ask for a parent's opinion, or that of a teacher or counselor or ethical Uncle Bob.  Just don't show your essay to too many people because if you get ten different opinions you'll get frantic.  Remember:  it's your story.

You cannot stop people from hiring tutors or helpers, thinking that this will give their child an edge.  But remember that admissions officers can usually tell when an application is too packaged.  And in doing her work on her own, your daughter will be more empowered and better able to handle things she she goes off to college.