It’s a question undecided applicants are always asking: what should I put down as my intended major on my college applications? The answer of course will depend on the exact colleges one is applying to and the potential majors one will consider; however, this year, 2017, as students get ready to apply during the 2017-2018 admissions cycle for Fall 2018 freshmen spots at America’s most selective colleges, there is one major that certainly deserves your attention more so than others. Drumroll please….
For college-bound high school students, the months between junior and senior years are crucial for jump starting the application process.
It’s also a great time for discovering new interests, adding to your resume, and otherwise positioning yourself for beginning the ultimate transition from high school senior to college freshman.
The first day of the last year of high school will be here before you know it. But in the meantime, here are some ways you can make the most of the summer before senior year:
Work. Options range from scooping ice cream at the shore to organizing a book drive, conducting research, interning on Capitol Hill or hammering nails for Habitat for Humanity. By the time you’ve completed junior year of high school, you should be old enough and responsible enough to work—full or part time, paid or unpaid. Work builds character, introduces career options, teaches skills, and expands your network in important ways. Don’t miss the opportunity to add to your resume while learning something about yourself and others.
Visit Colleges. Campus tours don’t stop just because undergrads are off doing other things. Now is the time to check out the last few colleges on your list and refine your ideas of how location, size or architecture affects your thinking about a particular campus. And by the way, the summer is a great time for having more relaxed conversations with admissions staff, coaches, or professors in departments you may be targeting.
Nail Down the List. Take a deep breath and begin eliminating schools that don’t really appeal or offer what you want. Zero-in on places representing the best fit—academically, socially, and financially—and begin committing to a realistic list of schools to which you intend to apply.
Demonstrate Interest. Beyond visiting campuses, engage in a systematic demonstrated interest campaign. Be proactive by getting on mailing lists, requesting information, initiating correspondence, getting to know regional representatives and attending local events. In addition to showing your favorite schools a little love, you might just learn something important about campus culture or new initiatives colleges want to introduce to prospective applicants.
Get Organized. There are a zillion moving parts to the college admissions process. Get a handle on them by creating a spreadsheet of colleges on your list and noting deadlines, requirements (recommendations, test score submission, interviews), important admissions policies (non-binding early action vs. binding early decision), and application quirks (supplements, scholarships, honors programs/colleges). Also, make note of which colleges use the Common Application, the Universal College Application (UCA), the Coalition Application or other school-based forms.
Prepare your Resume. If you don’t have one already, put together a resume or a detailed written list of accomplishments and activities. Turn it into a PDF for sharing with others or uploading with applications. Explore online resume templates, such as ZeeMee or Linked In. If you know colleges on your list partner with ZeeMee, consider creating a private account before the end of the summer
Do the Clerical Part. There’s no reason not to complete the simple stuff early in the summer by opening applications and entering basic information. All three major platforms are capable of rolling information from one year to the next and encourage the completion of questions that are unlikely to change. So do it. The Coalition and the UCA are set up so that colleges can launch as early as July 1. The Common Application will be ready to go on August 1. Other applications and supplements will appear on websites as the summer progresses. If you start shared elements of your applications, you will be one step ahead.
Draft Essays. Now is the time to begin brainstorming and drafting essays. Explore a variety of topics and don’t be afraid to change direction or discard work that’s going nowhere. This is the advantage of writing and reflecting during summer months before the pressures of senior year cut into Zen time. While essay prompts for personal statements have been posted for months, college-specific supplements and essays will roll out over the course of the summer. Keep checking websites and make note of prompts as they appear. And then start writing!
Prep for Standardized Tests. You’ve probably taken the ACT and/or the SAT at least once. If you didn’t knock the ball out of the park the first time (and most don’t), plan to prep for a retake. SAT now offers an August test, in addition to October. ACT has a test in September and in 2018 will have one in July. For the most part, scores from these tests will be returned in time for you to make the earliest of early deadlines. Get a tutor, sign-up for classes or simply sit at the kitchen table and take timed practice tests.
Research and Apply for Scholarships. The scholarship hunt should begin now—not after all your college applications have been submitted. A surprising number of scholarships have applications due early in the school year and use essay prompts similar to those you’re working on for colleges. Use FastWeb or Cappex to get an overview of what’s out there. And while you’re at it, explore FAFSA4caster with your parents for a little reality testing and apply early for that all-important Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. FAFSA goes live on October 1, but there’s nothing to be gained by waiting until then to sign-up for the FSA ID.
Secure Recommendations. If you haven’t done so already, try to get in touch with at least two core academic teachers from junior year to ask for college recommendations. You may or may not need both, but it’s always a good idea to have two teachers willing to support you. Don’t delay—teachers may limit the number of recommendations they’re willing to write or they may want to get started before school begins. And be sure to provide recommenders with whatever background information they request—at a minimum, a resume and cover note reinforcing your appreciation and why you asked them to play this important role in your application process.
Schedule Interviews. Many colleges offer on-campus interviews during the summer. You want to be able to check these requirements off your list sooner rather than later. Colleges make it easy to combine interviews with campus tours, but you have to schedule early to get days and times that work for you.
Position Yourself for Fall Classes. Be aware that senior year courses and grades can be very important in admissions decisions. Colleges want to see upward trends in grades, and they care very much that you continue to challenge yourself academically. Obtain texts for any challenging or AP/IB classes and “study forward” during the summer. If necessary, give your tutor a call and go over the first few chapters of material you know will keep you up late at night come September.
Read, Relax, Enjoy Yourself and Connect with Friends. A year from now, you’ll be packing your bags!
Among several enhancements announced by the Common Application for 2017-18, one that seems to respond directly to the need for reduced paperwork and reliance on extraneous document transmission systems is the new Courses & Grades feature. While still a pilot program with participation limited to 12 institutions, the new section follows an industry trend, adopted last year by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, toward greater use of self-reported transcript information and has the potential for eliminating dependence on third parties to send such documents either electronically or via the U.S. Postal Service.
For now or at least for purposes of the pilot, the Common App is still requiring that students arrange to have official transcripts sent in addition to completing the Courses & Grades section. Presumably, this is to allow for research on student accuracy, as this is an experiment for the Common App. But it’s not really that new to admissions. A number of institutions, including those in the University of California and Rutgers University systems as well as the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have been using the “honor system” with great success for years.
“A major advantage of collecting self-reported information through the application process is the match to the applicant’s file,” writes Nancy J. Walsh, UIUC’s director of undergraduate admissions operations, in an article for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). “[W]hile the applicants are being asked to do a little more work on the frontend by completing the self-reported academic record, they don’t have to worry about the prospect of a transcript being lost somewhere between the high school and the admissions office, which may make them miss an important deadline. There is certainly less demand on the mailrooms in admissions offices, but on the high school side as well during application season.”
And the data provided by students is usually very accurate. In the case of applicant information, a college can always require that an official transcript be submitted for verification once a student commits to attending. In fact, UIUC reports that only four students had their admission offers rescinded for transcript problems out of almost 7,600 freshmen who enrolled for fall 2015. Other schools requiring self-reported transcripts report similar results.
The Common App’s new Courses & Grades section will be found under the Common App tab of the application, along with Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities and Writing. A few qualifying questions will be asked and the student will be provided with an instructional “wizard” designed to walk them through how the section, which is formatted as a grid, should be completed.
In order for a student to use Courses & Grades, s/he must have access to their high school transcript. The transcript must use grades, and the high school must use semesters, trimesters, quarters or block scheduling. Students who fall outside these parameter—those students whose high schools use narratives instead of grades or those with transcripts in a foreign language for example—will not be required to complete Courses & Grades.
The 12 colleges requiring Courses & Grades from students who apply using the Common Application include:
Birmingham-Southern College, AL
Chapman University, CA
College of Idaho, ID
George Washington University, DC
New York School of Career & Applied Studies of Touro College & University System, NY
Ohio State University, OH
Purdue University, IN
Ripon College, WI
St. John’s University, NY
Underwood International College, Yonsei University, South Korea
University of Southern California, CA
West Virginia University, WV
Again, according to Common App instructions, “Counselors who have a student using Courses & Grades must still send an official transcript for that student (part of the School Report).” Questions about this requirement should be directed to the Applicant Solutions Center.
Courses & Grades will launch with the rest of the Common Application on August 1, after a brief break starting on July 24.
Yale University is experimenting with the role digital media can play in college admissions. Using technology advanced last year by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, Yale’s admissions readers in some cases became admissions viewers and experienced what will likely become a third dimension in college admissions—the creative use of media to present the case for admission to a highly selective institution.
Staying on the cutting edge of technology is challenging in any field, but changes in college admissions since the introduction of the electronic application are almost beyond description. Stacks of manila folders tucked into walls of file cabinets have been replaced by application “platforms” configured to align with enrollment management software, which oversees a process that is increasingly data-dependent and data-driven.
And the work has become less cyclical and more continuous as applicants have the luxury of starting applications earlier by entering information that “rolls over” from one year to the next. Marketing begins with the administration of the first PSAT, with even the earliest scores sold to colleges anxious to get their names before potential applicants. There’s hardly a moment to reflect on successes and failures before it’s time to gear up for the next group of recruits turned applicants.
But as almost anyone involved in college admissions would agree, something isn’t quite right with this picture—the entire college admissions process is due for a major overhaul. And a handful of deans and enrollment management experts are ready to try.
“Technology has transformed how we process applications and how we read applications, but not how we create content for these applications,” commented Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission.
Like many others charged with overseeing admissions, Quinlan felt the time had come for Yale to experiment with application content that responded to the pervasiveness and availability of digital media. While the Common Application set the standard, others saw a market ripe for innovation.
“I really felt we needed to make a change. We were looking at more and more essays that felt like they had been written by 47-year olds and not 17-year olds,” said Quinlan. “We thought we needed more material—different material—in the review process.”
Enter the Coalition application. Born out of concern that reliance on a single electronic application was a risky proposition and developed with a view toward attracting a wider, underserved audience, the Coalition application as built by CollegeNet looked for ways to integrate creativity and give colleges the kind of basic flexibility they wanted in an application platform.
“After the fall of 2013, we needed to bring more options into the application space,” Quinlan explained. “We thought giving students a choice of applications would be better for colleges and better for applicants.”
One of over 90 colleges that originally joined the Coalition and 47 that actually launched applications for 2016-17, Yale viewed this as an opportunity to design a substantially different set of application specifications from those contained in the Common Application.
Students applying to Yale could choose to write two additional 200-word essays (beyond the personal statement and other short-answer questions) for the Common Application or they could choose to write one 250-word essay and provide an upload related to that essay on the Coalition application.
While many Coalition members chose to simply replicate requirements laid out on the Common Application, Quinlan decided to offer alternate but not totally different requirements on Yale’s Coalition application. He kept the prompts the same for both applications, but used the Coalition application’s functionality to support links to digital media.
“It was critical to our review process that we not give preference to one application type over another. Our results from the first year bear this out; the rate of admission for students who submitted the Common Application and for students who submitted the Coalition Application were nearly identical.”
Nevertheless, the results were exciting. While only about one percent or 300 of Yale’s applicants used the Coalition application, the advantage of providing students with a choice of how to present themselves was clear. In some cases, the online media helped “separate” a student or verified some element of the application that didn’t come through strongly enough in a recommendation or through a student’s writing.
“We found certain situations, for example, where a video component made a difference—showed examples of kinds of characteristics we’re looking for.”
To illustrate his point, Quinlan talks about an application Yale received from Justin Aubin, an Eagle Scout who lives and attends high school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Justin’s recommendations were excellent, and he was an outstanding student. But Yale has lots of those applicants.
What made Justin stand apart was a video his older brother filmed to document the construction of Justin’s Eagle project. In this distinctly amateurish record of decisions made as the work progressed, the Yale admissions office could easily see how Justin managed and supervised younger scouts and how he exhibited compassionate leadership, which inspired respect from the group as a whole.
The additional essay Justin provided put the video in context. But most importantly, he presented information that highlighted and underscored character traits Yale values and wants to bring to campus in the classes they admit. Other information on the application suggested this was possibly the case, but the video nailed it.
Justin Aubin was eventually admitted and will be attending Yale in the fall as a member of the class of 2021. And Quinlan credits Justin’s creative use of digital media—submitting the video—as making the difference
In all fairness, Yale isn’t the first institution to allow videos and other digital media to be submitted as part of an application for admission. Goucher College in Maryland and George Mason University in Virginia and others have video options available through institutional applications.
And it’s not all that unusual for colleges to offer several different application formats with differing requirements. In fact, smaller colleges make clear that their institutional applications are often more popular than the standardized Common Application.
In addition, last year’s applicants could use ZeeMee, an online resume promoted in questions on the Common Application, or SlideRoom—a Common App partner—to provide more visual support for their talents and interests.
But the difference for colleges using the Coalition application was that they could design their own questions and media integration. They didn’t have to rely on a third-party website that might encourage more “freeform” or off-message responses.
Yale’s new application was no more difficult for staff to review than the two-essay Common App version and could be scripted to allow for comparable responses across applicants using either platform. Linking the digital media to an essay prompt was key to the success of the experiment.
“Staff enjoyed doing something else. It was a way to experiment with new ways of interpreting new kinds of application content.”
Quinlan has a great deal of respect for the Common Application and has no interest in changing that relationship, which has worked very well for Yale. But he does want to offer students a choice of application platforms.
“We want the two applications to be different so students can be thoughtful about which they use and what they decide to present to us.”
While he expects to “tweak” the essay prompts offered in the Yale supplement, Quinlan will continue to provide the digital media option in the Coalition application. “We will maintain the two applications for next year with the same set-up.”
And students will be free to choose the application platform that best presents their credentials and makes their case for admission to Yale University.
For the record, the Coalition application will make available new functionality on June 15. And for the coming year, the roster of institutional members will grow to 135. After July 1, colleges can open individual applications according to their own timelines.
When the NCAA updated its Eligibility Center website in November, the goal was to make it “a lot easier for students to navigate,” says Gretchen Morin, Coordinator of Eligibility Center Communications.
Updates include Help sections and FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) on each page; and a module to let students track their progress through eligibility certification. These new features are especially significant since eligibility rules have also been recently modified: as of 2016, students must complete a specific progression of core courses during their high school years, and meet minimum GPA and test scores, per a sliding scale.
“We also wanted to streamline the registration process,” says Morin, so profile questions were eliminated or revised “to get just the information we need.” Students can now quickly complete registration and start using the website.
Wanting to encourage student-athletes to use the website earlier in their high school careers led to another update: the Profile Page, an alternate (and free) registration option to the existing Certification Account (which requires a fee).
The Profile Page is a preliminary account designed to help high school freshmen and sophomore student-athletes “get into our system and get into the communication flow,” says NCAA Director Nick Sproull. “We can make sure they know and understand the rules earlier in the process.”
“Later,” says Sproull, “if a student-athlete is being recruited by a Division I or Division II college or university, they can easily transition that account from a free Profile Page to a paid Certification Account to be certified for eligibility.”
To open either type of account, students need to have a reliable email and complete a personal profile that includes their age, contact information, and high school data. They can also begin to record their sports history; this will facilitate any subsequent transition later from the Profile Page to the Certification Account.
(Note: students who participate in Division III college sports do not need to be certified.)
In addition to opening a Profile Page, student-athletes can chat with their own high school and club coaches to get feedback and insight on the recruiting process. For academic eligibility guidance, students should also speak with their school counselors.
Since there is no cost involved to setting up a Profile Page, “we really encourage freshmen and sophomores to go ahead and sign up for that Profile Page account right away,” says Sproull. “The first day of ninth grade is not too early.”
The National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) has confirmed that the national cutoff score for the ‘Commended Student’ designation will be 211 for the class of 2018—or 2 points higher than the cutoff for the class of 2017. While the higher cut score isn’t particularly predictive of state-by-state ‘Semifinalist’ cutoffs (except possibly at the lowest levels), it does reinforce speculation that continued upward pressure on PSAT/NMSQT® scores may result in higher score requirements for students hoping to earn National Merit Scholarships in some states.
“A simple response to a 2-point increase in the Commended Student cutoff would be to assume a 2-point increase in state Semifinalist cutoffs. It turns out that things are far from simple,” writes Art Sawyer in the Compass Education Group blog. “Based on our research, we are predicting that the most common state cutoff changes will be +0, +1, and +2. We expect that a small number of cutoffs may drop a point or go up by 3 points.”
And between changes in test scoring eliminating the guessing penalty and changes in the scale (from 20-80 to 160-760), the use of data from years prior to 2016 make estimates for state-by-state cutoffs a little complicated.
In addition, the scoring changes together with a new computation for the PSAT/NMSQT “Selection Index” (math, writing/language and reading on a scale of 8 to 38 multiplied by two) also put into play the possibility that two students from the same state with identical Total PSAT/NMSQT scores from the October test could have very different outcomes—one commended (or semifinalist) and one not.
According to the NMSC website, of 1.6 million NMS entrants, roughly 50,000 with the highest Selection Index (SI) scores qualify for recognition in the scholarship program. Note that only students taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the 11th grade qualify.
About 34,000 or more than two-thirds of the high scoring juniors receive Letters of Commendation. These students are named on the basis of a “nationally applied” SI score which varies from year-to-year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named semifinalists in most states. For the class of 2017, the cutoff score was 209. In 2016, the last year to use the “old” PSAT, the cutoff score was 202. In 2015, it was 201 and in 2014, it was 203.
The increase in this year’s cutoff for commended status is in line with generally inflated PSAT scores, which may have been encouraging to students initially hoping to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Unfortunately, life isn’t always so straightforward and the NMS competition is anything but straightforward. State-by-state semifinalist cutoffs are predictable within a range. But only after the NMSC applies a little politics to its formula and the announcement is made in September will there be any certainty as to who qualifies as a semifinalist. To earn the title of “finalist,” these students will have to jump through an additional series of largely bureaucratic administrative hoops.
To facilitate the conversation about the class of 2018, however, Compass Education Group has come up with a chart predicting “estimated ranges” (with 1330 comments) for the state-by-state semifinalist cutoff. The ranges “reflect the variability of year-to-year changes within a state” and are based on research conducted by the test wizards at Compass Prep. While interesting, the ranges and “most likely” scores are by no means guaranteed.
At this point, it’s not worth spending a whole lot of time worrying about PSAT/NMSQT® results. They are predictive of very little beyond possible achievement on the SAT. Colleges will never see these scores, and how the NMSC determines state-by-state semifinalist cutoffs is entirely out of anyone’s control.
The Board of Trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation recently announced the awarding of 240 scholarships for the 2017-2018 academic year to undergraduate sophomores and juniors from the United States. An additional 307 nominees were named as Honorable Mentions.
These scholarships represent the “gold standard” for undergraduate achievement in fields of science, mathematics and engineering. Not only are they the source of significant bragging rights for the various institutions represented among the winners, but they are quite frequently an important stepping stone toward significant financial support for postgraduate education. PhD programs in STEM areas and important fellowship providers such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Hertz Foundation, consider Goldwater awards among the most prestigious of national undergraduate awards for young scientists.
The one- and two-year scholarships are set up to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500. They were originally designed to “alleviate a critical current and future shortage of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.” In today’s terms, a more realistic statement of purpose would be to provide “a continuing source” of highly qualified individuals to those fields of study and research. While the money isn’t huge, the prestige is enormous and undergrads in STEM fields compete hard for nominations based on their research, internships, and work in relevant industries.
This year’s Goldwater Scholars were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,286 students who were nominated by the institutional representatives from among 2000 colleges and universities nationwide. Among these, 133 of the Scholars were men and 103 were women, and virtually all intend to obtain a PhD as their degree objective. Twenty-two Scholars were math majors, 153 were science and related majors, 51 were majoring in engineering and 14 were computer science majors. And for the record, many have dual majors in a variety of mathematics, science, engineering and computer disciplines.
Since its first award in 1989, the Goldwater Foundation has distributed 7,921scholarships totaling approximately 63 million dollars. And these award-winners go on to do great things. Recent Scholars have been awarded 89 Rhodes Scholarships, 127 Marshall Awards, and 145 Churchill Scholarships, 96 Hertz Fellowships, in addition to winning other distinguished national awards.
For many prospective Goldwater Scholars, the competition is most intense at the institutional level. Colleges establish their own nomination criteria and procedures to determine the extent to which individual students have the commitment and potential to make significant contributions to their fields. Students who plan to study medicine are only eligible if they plan a research career rather than a career as a practicing physician. Four-year institutions may nominate up to four current sophomores or juniors.
This year, the University of Maryland-College Park, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Richmond were the big winners among competing colleges and universities in the Washington metropolitan area, each with three Goldwaters. Two George Mason University students were awarded scholarships, while Georgetown University, the College of William and Mary, James Madison University, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, each had one Goldwater Scholar.
From any perspective, an institution’s track record for Goldwater Scholars is a reasonable barometer by which prospective students might measure dedication to undergraduate research in STEM-related fields. For more information and complete lists of scholars going back to 2006, visit the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education website.
Attention rising high school seniors! In the sixth of a series of beachfront advice posts to celebrate summer, learn the beautifully simple way to gain inspiration for the college application essays you should be completing this summer.
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“I’ll visit the campus if I’m admitted. Visiting takes too much time; besides, I’ll probably just go to the top school that admits me.”
For students who have the means to travel, but who plan to give more weight to rankings than personal fit in their final college choice, skipping exploratory college visits might represent a reasoned admissions strategy.
“After all,” they surmise, “wouldn’t it be a waste of time to explore a college in person before you even know if you will receive an offer of admission?”
No, for so many reasons that have nothing to do with rankings. But regardless of how you plan to select among any of your admission offers, a preliminary college visit can affect whether or not that offer is even made.
To put yourself in the best position possible as a candidate for admission, visit the campus before you submit your application. Here are three times you’ll be glad you did:
1. When the school tracks demonstrated interest
Many schools track demonstrated interest in the hopes of increasing their yield (the percentage of students offered admission who enroll). Since schools only want to admit students who will accept their offer, they use big data to gauge your enrollment intentions; a visit to campus will help you signal your intentions to enroll (if admitted) more convincingly.
Beyond the admissions presentation and campus tour, your visit provides additional opportunities to demonstrate interest, such as introducing yourself to your regional admissions representative (that’s the person who will manage your application) or setting up an on-campus interview. The more communication you initiate, the greater your level of interest and your likelihood of accepting an offer of admission (according to the enrollment management software that will be tracking it); therefore, the greater your chances of receiving one.
2. When the essay prompt is: “Why Us?”
Supplemental essays provide a college with more information about you. The most common supplemental essay prompt is some version of “Why Us?”
- How did you first learn about Vassar and what aspects of our college do you find appealing?
- What are the unique qualities of Northwestern that make you want to attend?
- What excites you about attending Notre Dame?
- Please discuss why you consider Duke to be a good match for you
If you have visited campus you will be able to enhance any “Why Us?” essays with references to your own live experiences. Your genuine, specific observations or anecdotes will help you make more concrete connections between what you are looking for and what the college offers, resulting in a better supplemental essay. Better essays increase your odds of admission.
3. When you are placed on the waitlist
Students who receive a waitlist spot each spring in lieu of an offer usually have to move on — the chances of that changing to an offer of admission are usually slim.
But if this happens to you at a school you still very much want to attend, you can ask for further consideration. You’ll strengthen your position if you can point to continued academic success, recent achievements, and the school’s place as your top choice. While you are making your case — and making it clear that you will attend if admitted — think about how much more believable you will be if you can mention your campus visit…
Colleges certainly understand when expenses and long distance prevent students from coming to campus before they apply. But if you can manage to get there on a weekend or school holiday, consider how you may increase your admission possibilities by scheduling a visit before you apply.
High school students are seemingly always on the go and juggling many academic and extracurricular endeavors. In the fifth of a series of beachfront advice posts to celebrate summer, we remind you that while it’s important to make productive use out of your summer, it’s also important to take a break for your own good.