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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 been taking AP courses since my sophomore year at a competitive high school.  All of them have been hard. I am averaging around a B/B- with occasional C’s and some A’s.  My SAT score is 1950 (out of 2400) and I am now a junior.  I have many awards in science and math competitions and over 250 hours of community service.  I also fence competitively, and am involved in 4 or 5 extra-curricular activities and clubs.  Will I get into a good college?

A:  Short answer:  Yes.

Longer answer: I sense that you are aware that you do have pretty impressive credentials!  Although you do not have primarily all A’s (and all A’s is not a magic formula for academic success), you have been challenging yourself with a rigorous curriculum.  Your high school must indeed be competitive, because most schools do not let students take AP courses until their junior year.  You are averaging a solid 650 on each part of the SAT -- and scores tend to go up when students take the SAT again at the end of the junior or the beginning of senior year. Balancing several extra-curricular activities, plus your fencing, you still manage to give an average of over 80 hours each academic year to service.  Honestly, I don't know how you find the time to do all this!

(You don't say anything about whether you are enjoying any of this.  I hope you are!  You are only a teenager once!)

Now we are left to define what you mean by a "good" college.  Do you mean just the Ivy League schools?  Entrance spots for these, of course, are the hardest to achieve, as many Ivies admit less than 10% of their applicants.  And Ivies tend to prefer mostly A’s and test scores in the 700’s, although there are exceptions.  But the Ivies represent, literally, just a fraction of the colleges and universities out there.

What do you mean by a "good" college?  Is it one where a highly-trained faculty is devoted to the academic and personal success of each student?  Where classes are relatively small, allowing for personal dialogue between teachers and students?  Is it one with up-to-date laboratories and well-stocked libraries?  An inviting-looking campus?  A rich program of cultural, athletic, intellectual, and social events?  A career center that helps you with internships, career counseling, and job placement services?  A campus climate that is genuinely welcoming to students of all backgrounds and orientations?  Nice dorms that you'd really want to live in?  Physically  safe surroundings?

You get the picture.  Please do not shop by "brand name"!  There are many vibrant, beautiful, intellectually stimulating schools from which to choose.  Give yourself time to do the research.  If you want to continue fencing in college, I suggest you start by looking at colleges that have fencing programs, and then see what the rest of the school is like. Go on some campus visits next spring.  Explore.  This is supposed to be fun!  There are scores of good -- and great! -- colleges waiting for you to discover them.

Q:   My son's high school offers very few Advanced Placement courses but does let qualifying students take actual college courses at nearby colleges.  Are the in-school APs weighted the same as taking college classes at a a college (even if it is not a very rigorous college)?  Or are the college classes in fact more desirable even if the local college is not highly selective?  And how many of such classes will a college want to see that the applicant has taken?  Is one per semester a healthy stretch?  Please advise!

A:  As I have often written, colleges want to see that applicants have challenged themselves intellectually  but this can be demonstrated in a number of ways.  The most common way is to take Advanced Placement courses offered at one's high school.  Advanced Placement courses are considered desirable because 1) they are advanced, and 2) they are nationally adjudicated with a standardized exam designed by a national board to measure a student's mastery of the subject.

But AP courses are not the only way to demonstrate academic challenge.  Not every high school offers AP' courses or offers a wide variety of them, as in the case of your son's school.  AP courses are expensive and some school districts  cannot afford to offer them.  Some high schools have stopped giving AP courses because faculty felt they were obligated to "teach to the test' rather than to develop a course syllabus they might prefer. Does this mean that students at high schools that have no APs have zero chances of being admitted to the most selective colleges?  Of course not.  Excellent students are still going to be admitted.

Often high school's such as your son's make arrangement with local colleges for students to supplement their studies with college courses.  These must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.  The classes may or may not be taught by regular college faculty.  They may not be offered consistently.  And the college may be  a long subway ride away -- and at the end of a long and tiring school day, I am not sure that traveling to another campus for an additional class is a great idea.  It all depends upon the individual situation.

Colleges don't look for applicants to have taken a specific number of AP or college classes. They do want to see that students have challenged themselves as much as possible in the the five academic areas:  English, foreign language, math, science, and social science.

So, for instance, if a high school does not offer AP Calculus, a student may wish to take calculus at a local college. But if the high school offers calculus, even if not AP, take it at the high school.  Always exhaust your high school curriculum first before looking elsewhere. Remember that colleges evaluate students' curriculum on the basis of the educational environment from which they are coming. A student is not going to be penalized for not taking what is not offered.

Q: My daughter is currently attending a private school and is beginning her junior year.  She was told that if she transfers out to a public school she will be able to take more AP and honors classes.  But, she was advised by her guidance counselor that colleges and universities will value more the fact that she is graduating from a private school, because its' curriculum is harder.  We want to know if this is true.  Or is the university's only concern the student's GPA and SAT score?

A:  Colleges do not care if an applicant is graduating from a public school or a private school.

Colleges want to admit students from a variety of backgrounds, with an assortment of strengths and qualities they can bring to enhance the campus.   They admit the candidates they feel are the strongest from their individual high schools.  And nationwide, colleges admit MORE students from public schools than from private schools because there ARE more applicants from public schools.

Students are looked at in the context of the school from which they are going to graduate. Sometimes the curriculum at a private school is harder than at the local public high school.  Sometimes the public schools are more rigorous.  Your daughter will be evaluated on the basis of which classes she has chosen and how well she has done in them.  She will NOT be judged on classes she COULD have taken IF she had attended a different high school.  It's not a simple matter of just a GPA and test scores.  The quality of her curriculum counts, as do her activities, essays, and recommendations.

What is the advantage of attending a private school?  In general, classes are smaller than in most public schools and students can get more individualized attention.  Teachers and counselors have a smaller caseload than in public schools, so they have more time to give each student.  From that standpoint,  the experience of private high school might be better.  But in terms of college admissions, students from each type of high school will be evaluated in terms of their indiviudal merits.

Q:  My son's high school only offers 5 AP courses to seniors.  Will that affect his chances of getting into a good college?  He has to get a scholarship because of our financial situation.

A:  A student's chances of college acceptance have nothing to do with the actual number of AP courses offered by his or her high school!  Advanced Placement courses are expensive to administer, and not every high school is able to offer them.  Does that mean that students who attend high schools with no AP courses won't get into college?  Of course not!

What does matter is how much of the of the most challenging curriculum offered by the high school a student chooses to take.  The most selective colleges will check to see which courses in each subject are the most rigorous, and which of these an applicant has taken.  If a high school offers some AP courses, and a student applying from that high school has taken none of them, the college will wonder why.  On the other hand, if a school has no AP courses, the college will check to see which courses are the most challenging, and which ones the student chose to take.  Every high school has a document called "the profile", which describes the school, its course offerings, enrollment, demographics, etc. and from this the admissions staff can learn what choices the student had.

The awarding of scholarships is based upon many factors -- grades, intellectual promise, financial need, special talents, and so forth -- but generally, scholarships do not depend upon the number of AP courses a student takes.

Q:  I am an older adult considering returning to school to complete my college education. I had approximately 59 credits from Queens College at the time I withdrew in 1994.  How should I go about re-enrolling?  Will my credits apply even though it's been more than a decade?  Should I meet with a guidance counselor? If so, what should I ask?  What do I need to focus on to decide which curriculum would be best for me at this stage of life?

A:  First, congratulations on your determination to finish your college degree!  It doesn't matter when you decide to do this -- it matters that you do it!  I have known many people who have gone back to complete their undergraduate degrees -- in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and yes, 70s.  And often people who have been out in the work world for many years are more focused on their goals than students of "traditional" college age.  So you are in a good place.

Chances are that most of the credits you earned in the 1990s will be valid today, unless degree requirements for certain programs have changed.  I suggest that you start with Queens College to discuss re-admission.  You can speak with someone in the admissions office at 718-997-5600.  Or you might wish to contact the CUNY "help desk" at 212-997-CUNY (2869) or write to them at aonline@mail.cuny.edu

If you go back to Queens College, you will be a re-admitted student; if you apply elsewhere, you will need to do so as a transfer student.  That takes care of the procedural issues.

Your next question is more complex --  what to study?  If you have taken, and will get credit for, a broad base of requirements, you may be almost ready to declare a major and sign up for a subject concentration.  But which one should that be?

I am sure that in this economy, you want to make a practical choice.  You want to get a degree in an area that is promising.  On the other hand, you are going to be putting significant time and effort into completing your degree -- and you want to enjoy this time!  Follow your heart!  If your degree will lead to another career path, what do you wish that to be?  What is your vision of your future?  Yes, there are academic counselors who can assist you in making course choices.  And, once you are admitted, there are professionals on campus who can assist you as you plan a career.

First steps first:  1) get admitted and 2) speak to advisors on campus about how you can shape your studies to help your visions become reality.  Then , go for it and  do it.  Good luck!

Q:  I am a parent at my wit's end.  My son has averaged a C his entire three years in high school and now I am concerned he will not get into college.  Although his grades are average he has excellent SAT/ACT and Regents scores.  But will colleges still consider him?

A:  Many colleges will see the potential that underlies your son's average academic performance.  While the most selective colleges will want to see a combination of strong grades and solid test scores and a foundation of extracurricular activities, other colleges are less demanding.

The more applications a college receives, of course, the more particular they can be about the applicants they choose, so your son may not fare well in the competition for an admissions place in the most selective schools.   He might succeed in the application process at a smaller, less-competitive college (warning: if private, it might be very expensive) or a community college.

You do not say what your son's wishes are!  Do his lackluster grades reflect a lack of passion about learning?  The fact that he has not yet discovered what truly inspires him?  Or is he generally unhappy about something?  I am sure you have thought about all of these things and have tried to address them.  Once school starts, perhaps a group meeting with your son and his school counselor or a favorite teacher could shed some light on the situation.

If your son is entering his senior year of high school without much academic motivation, it might be that college – at this point -- is not the answer.  He might benefit from a gap year during which he could work, volunteer, do community service, and take a couple of classes of his choice.  This might give him the necessary time to discover what he truly wants to do.  Pressuring him into going to college, when he might not be ready for it, could be counter-productive (and costly!)

Q:  I was wondering how colleges view AP classes.  My son will be a high school senior this fall.  In sophomore year he took one AP, junior year he took four APs, and he is registered for four more senior year.  His classwork and course load have been extremely difficult and time-consuming; however, he has chosen to challenge himself and take all these classes.  Will the grade my son received in these classes be weighted when sent to the colleges, and if not, will the college add on points on their own? Will they appreciate the fact that my son chose challenging classes instead of those where he could have earned a high grade more easily?

A:  AP stands for Advanced Placement -- these classes have been given for decades, and are college-level courses taught at high schools all over the country.  In May each year, standardized AP exams are administered, and scores on these indicate the level of mastery a student has achieved when compared with other test-takers around the United States.  The scores range from 1 to 5.  Most colleges grant course credit for scores of 4 or 5; some grant credit for scores of 3, while others grant no credit at all, even for 5s -- this is totally up to each college.

If your son is aiming to apply to selective colleges, he has made the right choices in his curriculum.  When college admissions’ staff see his transcript -- and they will see all courses he has taken in grades 9 through 12  -- they will undoubtedly be impressed with nine AP courses.  That is an unusually high number.  Of course, they will also look to see that he has been successful in these courses.  While selective colleges want to admit students who have chosen to challenge themselves intellectually -- those willing to take a chance on getting a B in a tough class rather than an A in an easier one -- they also want to see success.  Taking lots of AP classes, in itself, is not a guarantee of admission.

When an application is reviewed, admissions staff look at each high school's profile, which explains the curriculum given at an individual school.   If a high school such as your son's offers a wide variety of AP classes, they are going to expect to see a certain number of them on an applicant's transcript.  Admissions officers look first for the most challenging courses offered -- these may be International Baccalaureate classes, AP classes, honors classes, or have another designation.

Not all high schools offer AP courses, so students will not be penalized if they do not take courses that are not available to them.  They will be judged by what they did choose to take out of what was available.  Grades -- by themselves -- do not mean much out of context, and each case is individual.  Therefore, in some cases, an 88 GPA will appear stronger than a 92 GPA.  The difference lies in the strength of the courses.

Some high schools "weight" honors and AP classes because they are more challenging, thereby adding points to a base grade. Depending upon the high school, a 91 in Chemistry might become a 95 if it's AP Chemistry.  All the extra weighting can get out of hand, and the result is a school with dozens of students getting GPAs of over 100. The June 26 article in The New York Times about schools with multiple valedictorians underscores this.

It is never the GPA alone that is important:  what matters is what goes into the GPA.  And do colleges re-compute high school GPAs when they are reviewing applications?  Do you think they even have time for this?  No -- they are going to assess the type of curriculum applicants chose out of what was available, and how well they did in those courses and others.

My concern about your son is whether he has built enough free time into his schedule, or at least time to devote to non-academic activities that he values.  Simply racking up a huge number of AP classes on his transcript is not going to create admissions magic for him if he does not appear multidimensional.  Worse, if he burns himself out he may not enjoy what he is learning!  I hope he is wise enough to balance his academics with other things.

Q:  My son is going into his senior year.  This summer he is supposed to return as a counselor to the camp upstate where he has gone for several years.  However, my brother, who is a lawyer, can arrange for him to have an internship at his law firm in Manhattan.  Wouldn't that look better on his resume?  Aren't colleges looking for internships?  I would think that working at a prestigious law firm would help my son's college applications more than working at a summer camp. 

A:  Colleges aren't "looking" for internships any more than they are looking for sports, community service, or participation in performing arts.  They are indeed looking for academic promise.  And they are looking for commitment.  But there is no magic checklist of "must have" extra-curricular involvement.

Admissions officers are very adept at spotting themes and patterns in applications.  As an example, they would notice a student who excels consistently in English classes, has had a poem published in the school literary journal, and has been involved in the school newspaper.  If that student had a summer job at a local newspaper or radio station, they would see a pattern involving communications and would note the consistency of the student's interests.  (But there would be no requirement that this student had to have this kind of summer work.)  Likewise, if your son had taken a history course that awakened his sense of social fairness, and this had inspired him to join or support an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union or Amnesty International, we could see a pattern developing that indicates your son's interest in law and justice.  In that case, a summer working in an office where he could learn some of the nuts and bolts of a law practice would be a terrific thing.

But in itself is this internship part of a pattern?  Something that has come out of the student's own initiative? Or will it be seen - because admissions officers can spot this as well - as a "resume builder" activity engineered by a parent or friend of the family?  It is kind of your brother to want to help his nephew.  But without knowing exactly what your son would be doing at the law firm, or even whether he wants to be there, I cannot say if the internship will ultimately make a difference.

What does your son want to do with his summer?  You mention that he has gone to this camp for some time.  I am assuming that if he is going into his senior year, then last year he was a junior counselor or CIT (counselor-in-training).  Your son has established a relationship with this camp over the years, and the camp's administrators like and trust him enough to give him a position of responsibility with young children.  That is a pattern that will be noticed, showing the kind of commitment that ought to impress!

 Q: My son is going into his senior year of high school and we are starting to look at different colleges. Thinking about where he can get in, academically, is just one part of the story. My son is gay. How do we figure out where he will be welcome -- where will he be safe? I don't see this issue dealt with in the brochures they hand out at college fairs.  How do we deal with this? 

A: Nothing is more important to parents than the safety of our children. If your son wants to study chemistry, for example, he can do that at nearly any college. But where will he find a campus environment that where he can learn as well as be happy and safe? There will be no discrimination against him in the application process; colleges may ask for ethnic information on their application form (this is often optional), but they are not going to ask about sexual orientation. So how do you know where to apply?

Your son's sexual identity is an integral part of who he is, and therefore you both need to do research to find appropriate colleges, where he can be himself and be safe from harassment. You and he have to find out which colleges are gay-friendly before he applies. There are many ways to determine this:

1. Does a college have a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation?

2. Is there a gay student association on campus?  Or a gay-straight alliance?  Or an LGBT organization?

3. If so, how often do they meet? Are these active organizations?  See if you can contact some of the leaders of these groups and ask them frankly about the climate on campus for gay students.

4. Is there a gay studies program or classes on gay history/literature? See if you can contact the professors who teach these classes and ask them about campus life

5. Does the campus newspaper or other publications discuss gay issues?  If so, what is the tone of these articles?

6. When you walk around the campus, what sorts of messages do you see on bumper stickers, posters, and T-shirts? These can be revealing about the political climate of the school

A gay-friendly college is, of course, more than a place where your son will be physically safe. It ought to be a place where he can flourish as the complete human being he is -- and this will take research and investigation and personal visits.  I suggest you check www.campusclimateindex.org --  a website which offers an assessment and "report card" on LGBT concerns at over 200 campuses nationwide.  You will find a lot of helpful information there!

Q:  My son's high school college counselor was very negative about his chances of acceptance into college. He is a junior, and has an average in the low to mid 80's. He doesn't test well so his SATs aren't that strong either, but he is a good writer and very articulate. The counselor told him to apply to CUNY community colleges and then to transfer to a 4-year college. That was it.  I would like him to go away to college to get the full campus experience, but this counselor was very discouraging. 

A:  While you feel disappointed that your son's counselor seemed to crush his expectations, there's another way to look at the situation.  Perhaps the counselor was trying to suggest cost-efficient alternatives to high-priced private colleges?  Nationwide, more and more students are looking to community colleges for beginning their college education.  In New York City, CUNY provides superb value for your education dollar, and each year thousands of its community college graduates transfer successfully to CUNY, SUNY, and many other state and private 4-year colleges and universities. (In fact, this year, CUNY schools are so popular that they are no longer accepting freshman applications for next fall!)

But I certainly understand your point about wanting your son to have the complete college experience, and that includes being in a new environment and living in a dorm.  Are there colleges that will look seriously at a student with a GPA in the B to B+ range with SATs that are not the strongest?  Yes -- and that is why so many schools require not just an essay, but information about school and community activities, and recommendations.  They are interested in the whole picture.  No college makes its total decision based upon SATs alone!

A growing number of  colleges are "test optional" -- they do not require SATs or ACTs, but give students the choice of submitting other information instead.  You can find a list of these schools at fairtest.org. The downside is that many of them tend to be expensive.  The only other colleges that do not require standardized test scores are community colleges.

You and your son have to be realistic.  Colleges will ask themselves two questions while they read an application: 1) can this student handle our academic program successfully? and 2) what will this student contribute to our campus community?

What are your son's strengths?  What are the qualities he will share with his campus community?  What special skills or demonstrated interests does he have?  Those will be important facts to consider as he selects colleges that might be a good fit. And he should definitely play up these attributes in  his college essays and applications.