How to submit a question

If you are a parent with a child either in or going to college and have a question about any aspect of higher education, send it to me in confidence at I will select questions to be answered and then place the answers on this blog for public view but without the name of the person asking the question. I have access to many college and university faculty and administrators (deans, health care professionals, coaches, admissions and financial aid officers) and they will assist me in answering your questions. Neither I nor my company, Academic Collaborations Inc., receive compensation for this service.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

MORE ON THE APPLICATION: Don't write your kid's college essay!!

In last week’s post, I addressed common application strategies such as high school recommendations and the importance of extracurricular activities. In this post I will discuss the college essay, interviews, and being what we call a legacy. Again, this is for the parents of high school juniors whose children are now contemplating applying to college.

• The college essay: Essays are becoming an increasingly important part of the application process because they enable applicants to demonstrate their writing and thinking skills. Unfortunately, parents (or worse, a hired writer) sometimes write these essays for their children or the essay is gotten on line from an essay writing service. This is not a good idea. It’s not only dishonest, but it can easily be detected by people in the college admissions office. For example, if they receive an essay that is polished and perfect but then see an SAT essay score that is below par they will become suspicious. The SAT essay obviously cannot be influenced by a parent or by a ghost writer because the student writes in a monitored setting. The college essay, on the other hand, is written in an environment that is not monitored. Parents can proof read for spelling errors but the college admissions essay should always be the applicant's own. College admissions people will probably know if its ghost written and there are ways they can detect if the essay came from an on-line service. Identifying an essay that is not the student’s almost always means rejection. Your student should also choose a topic that will set their essay apart from the other essays. It is well known that students who write about rather common and pedestrian themes such as "What I did last summer" or "The computer games I like to play" are accepted at a lower rate than students who write on more personal or deeper topics. For example, a high school student I worked with wrote an essay on an event in her life that was life changing. When her mother suddenly died from brain cancer she had to help take care of her younger brothers and sisters. She wrote about what she learned from this experience. This moving and very personal essay helped her gain admission to Yale.

• Interviews: You can’t control this, but if your student plans to do an interview, they should try to do it with someone in the admissions office because these are the people who make the final decision on who gets admitted and who doesn't. Most colleges on the other hand either don’t require an interview or, when they are required, assign an alumnus or even a student to do them. You can’t always control this but when it happens your child just has to go with the flow. My own feeling is that interviews, especially with admissions office personal, can be very important because they put a face—a personality—on the data admissions officers must read (i.e. grades, board scores). Interviews, if they are done well, can also help offset an otherwise pedestrian academic or extra- curricular record. I have seen kids with otherwise average high school grades wow the admissions officer with an exceptional interview by, for example, explaining that they have had to overcome a learning disability or poverty. On the other hand, if your student doesn’t interview well and/ or if the interview is not required your student probably shouldn't do it. A student with great grades and board scores but who is otherwise an introvert can only hurt themselves with a bad interview. For more on what the interview might look like, see my article in Grown and Flown (

• Legacies: When I was a college president, I often got phone calls from alumni politicking to get their children or grandchildren (what we call “legacies”) admitted to their alma mater. Most good colleges want legacies, but only if they match the college’s profile and can be successful. If the applicant is a borderline case, it might help to be a legacy. But if the student is well below the profile, politicking by parent or grand parent who is an alum of the college probably won’t help.

In my next post I will write about special admissions  situations.

Friday, February 2, 2018

THE APPLICATION: The Importance of Extracurricular Activities, Recommendations, etc.

Submitting an application next Fall can be done in a number of ways: (a) via an application form sent to the applicant by the college,(b) by filling out the same application but using the Internet and, (c) by completing the Common Application form. The most convenient way to apply is via the third option, the Common Application form, because a single filing can be used for any college that is a member. While there are a large number of Common Application colleges (including most of the selective colleges in America—see there is an even greater number of colleges that do not accept the Common Application, and for these colleges your child will have to make an application either electronically or in the traditional way by mail. 

In my last post I suggested that high school grades and the difficulty of the courses taken will be the number one factor in gaining admission to a selective college. Other factors include:

• High School Recommendations: The Recommendations of high school teachers and guidance counselors supplement the applicant’s grades. This is an opportunity for teachers to point out, for example, that while the applicant got a B- in Physics, this was one of the toughest courses in the high school. Guidance counselors can also explain lower grades by pointing out (if this is indeed the case) that there has not been grade inflation at the high school. Your child should only ask teachers or advisers who they know well to write a recommendation. They might want to supplement these required recommendations with additional recommendations from people who are well known in the community or are well placed alumni of the college but they shouldn't ask someone who really doesn’t have an inkling who they are because this turns admissions people off! When I was a college president, I was sometimes asked by graduating seniors whom I had never met for a recommendation to graduate school. I suggested that I was perhaps not the best person to do this, but if pressed by the student (or, more often than not, by their parents), I would write a form letter. Form letters are also written by guidance counselors and high school teachers who do not personally know the applicant. These letters are usually discounted by admission’s personnel because they can't really tell them much about the candidate.

• Minority status: Some might question whether minority students should identify themselves in the college application.The fact is that colleges and universities in this country are all competing for qualified minority students not only because its the right thing to do, but also because they know that a diverse campus is a stronger campus. In my opinion, if your child is an American minority, there is nothing wrong with letting the college know this, especially if there isn't a place on the application to state their racial identity. 

• SAT scores: I have already addressed the issue of SAT and ACT scores. I place them here again only to suggest these tests are not as important as most people think. Other criteria are better predictors of college success. Generally, if the applicant has good school grades, a high SAT or ACT score can give a competitive edge. But, again, low grades and high SATs send a potentially negative message.

• Extracurricular activities: Good colleges want well-rounded students—students who not only excel academically but are also leaders in one or two co-curricular activities. Indeed, once admitted, freshmen will be expected to participate in out-of-classroom activities like intercollegiate or intramural athletics, the college newspaper, drama, etc.These and other activities are considered part of a college education. Colleges, even very selective ones, are sometimes willing to give way a little on grades if they can find students who excel in these extracurricular activities. After all, colleges need a quarterback for the football team, a violinist for the community orchestra, and a soprano for the choir. So, in addition to being a good student, applicants need to present themselves as active and involved students. Your child's application, however, should include only those activities in which they are actually involved. For example, if they wrote one article for the high school newspaper, they shouldn't suggest that they are the paper's editor. On the other hand if your child has achieved special recognition for some activity in which they are involved, they should mention this. For instance, admissions people know that being an Eagle Scout is a great predictor of college success, because it shows tenacity and drive. The same is true for the captain of a high school athletic team or lead violinist in the community orchestra.

I should mention in parenthesis, that contrary to what many parents believe, students involved in extracurricular activities including sports tend to do better academically than students who are not involved in out of classroom activities. 

In the next post I will write about the essay, the interview, and being a legacy (a student whose parents or grandparents attended the college.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

CRITERIA FOR ADMISSIONS: How important are SAT or ACT scores relative to grades? 

Once your student has decided on the kind of college or university to attend, the next order of business will be to apply (see my next post). Again, for this year's juniors this will happen next Fall.

Many people think that the most important criteria for college admissions is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT). In fact, SAT or ACT scores are ranked somewhat lower at most selective colleges, because the predictive value of the tests is questionable.The tests were designed to predict how well students will do in the first semester of their college freshman year, and the correlation between test results and how well students actually do is extremely low. The tests are also reputed to have a cultural bias against American minorities, which is why many colleges have made the tests optional. For a list of colleges that do not require these tests, see The fact is that while it is still true that high test scores together with excellent high school grades might be predictive of college success, most admissions counselors agree that high test scores and low school grades suggest a bright student who lacks motivation, a good reason for rejection. Nevertheless, parents will still spend thousands of dollars on test prep courses.

They would do better to encourage their children to focus on high school grades and demanding courses, the two most important criteria for admissions to a selective college. Even if your child's high school freshman or sophomore year was not great academically, recovery is still possible. But by junior year they need to be taking the right (i.e. academic) courses and doing well in them. Unfortunately, high school students often wait until first semester senior year, when it is often too late, to worry about this matter. Even so, colleges are far more impressed by students who are improving academically than by those who start out strong but end up weak.

It is also important to understand that it is not just the courses a student takes, but the difficulty of those courses that impresses admissions officers. The easy way out is to take general math or “business” English” and get all As. But this will not impress a college admissions officer who would prefer to see applicants take Advanced Placement (AP) credits (i.e. high school courses that colleges will credit toward college graduation) or honors courses, even if it means getting a B. Admissions officers at selective colleges will be far more impressed with a B in Advanced Placement Physics or in honors Calculus than an A in a less rigorous course.

In my next post I will talk about the application.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


This post will give parents a sense of what their child should be thinking about as they begin the process of deciding where they will eventually apply.

After sorting out which colleges interest your child the most, they need to do a reality check to determine the likelihood of being accepted. Your child can do this by looking at Barron's College Guide (or a similar guide) and matching their high school grades and board scores with what the college advertises for the students it accepts. But sometimes other factors, unrelated to reality, drive college choice. For example, there are all sorts of pressures on high school students (including from parents and family), to apply to only one kind of college, often their mother’s or father’s alma mater, even though there is not a good match between the college's profile and the student's. I'm a good example of this. My father's alma mater was Yale and he really wanted me to go there. But I was a very average high school student with an academic and board profile well below Yale's. Just looking at Barron’s College Guide and the profile from which Yale drew most of its students, I realized that there was no way I could get admitted, even though my father still thought I had a chance. But I applied anyway with predictable results. I didn't get in. Unfortunately, students often get fixated on one level of institution and, regardless of whether there is a match between their high school profile and that of their desired college, apply only to elite, brand name colleges and universities.

Based on this research including a reality check on profiles, next Fall your child (working with his or her high school guidance counselor) will select about seven or eight colleges to which to apply. Two of these colleges should have admissions profiles below your child's (what we call “safety” colleges). Four should have profiles that match their profile. The final two might be colleges or universities that have profiles above your child's (what we call “stretches”) but that have a strong appeal because of the academic program offered or because attending the school is a family tradition. All selections should be places where your child can be happy.

Early Decision and other variants of the application process: Many colleges give applicants an Early Decision option. This means that the college will notify a student by December whether or not they have been accepted. In return, the accepted applicant promises to abandon other applications and attend that college in the Fall (but see non-binding early decision below). Applying Early Decision gives students a slight edge in the admissions process, and, of course, also gives them peace of mind in not having to wait until March or April to see if they have been accepted. Your child should apply early decision only under three conditions:

• The college is their first choice.
• Their academic profile matches that of the college
• Financial aid is not an issue (because its more difficult to bargain up the financial aid package,a subject I will discuss in a future post)

Two other variants of the admissions process include Rolling Admission and non-binding Early Action. 

Rolling Admissions means that your student will be accepted or rejected two or three weeks after the application is submitted. It is done by less selective colleges that are comfortable accepting students on a first-come first-served basis. It is also done by colleges having difficulty making their enrollment goals and feel that early acceptances will somehow result in early commitments. 

Early Action means that students will be notified at a date earlier than the usual March or April deadlines that most selective colleges use to send out acceptances and rejections. It is non-binding. It’s a sort of a half- way point between Early Decision and Regular Admission. If the option is available, it should probably be considered, even if your child will need financial aid.

In my next post I will share an interesting piece on early admission.


In last week’s post I suggested some questions that might be asked in a college interview. In this post I will outline what an interview might actually be like and how your child can ace it.

Let me do this by making up a typical high school senior and then (bearing in mind that interviews can vary) share how a typical interview might transpire. 

The student I have in mind has an 87 GPA and reasonably good board scores. She does dance and is involved with Habitat for Humanity. She thinks she wants to major in political science and become a lawyer. She has just taken a tour of the campus and now is sitting in a room (without her parents!!) with someone assigned by the admissions office to interview her. This person could be an admissions officer. But the person doing the interview could also be an alumnus or even a student. 

I will present the question and then suggest how I would advise this student to respond.

Interviewer: “Why do you want to attend our college?”

Response: High school students will often say that they want to attend the college because (a) “it has a great football team,” or (b) “it has a pretty campus,” or (c) [as one male high school senior said to me in one of my mock interviews at Mamaroneck High School] “because the women on this campus are really hot!” But the primary reason your child goes to college shouldn’t be because of the football team or the beauty of the buildings, and certainly not because of the physical attractiveness of future classmates. The primary reason your child goes to college is to get an education. So the advice I would give my fictitious high school student (and now your real student) would be to lead with something academic, for instance, “I want to attend your college because of its academic reputation and especially the prominence of its Political Science Department. “ She can then go on to talk about all the other good things like the beauty of the campus or the variety of the college’s extracurricular programs. 

Interviewer: “If we accept you, what will you major in?” 

Response: In my experience most 17 year olds don’t have a clue what they will major in, or, if they do, it’s often what their parents want them to major in. Nor are they always clear about what they want to become in life. Admission’s people don’t expect 17 year old high school students to be definite about these things and, indeed, would prefer that the young people they interview be as open minded as possible about the future. After all, college is supposed to be a time of discovery and, in any case, the major at most colleges doesn’t have to be declared until the end of sophomore year. So again, returning to our fictitious high school senior, a good response to this question might be, “I’m thinking of becoming a lawyer and maybe majoring in Political Science. But I’m not sure. So what I look forward to is taking lots of general education courses and distribution requirements in my first two years of college so that I can discover for myself what I might major. Maybe it will be Political Science. Maybe it will be something else.” Admission’s people at most colleges love students who are flexible at the beginning of their college careers! Of course if you child is applying to an engineering or a nursing school or some other professional program they better have a pretty good idea that this is what they really want to do after graduation!

Interviewer: “If you could have a conversation with one person in the world, living or dead, who would it be?”

Response: Many students will say Abraham Lincoln or LeBron James or whatever name comes to mind. One student I interviewed even said his mother. The problem is that most students answer this question by naming famous people or someone in their family. But here is a great opportunity for your student to differentiate themselves from the pack by saying something the interviewer perhaps hasn’t heard before and will therefore better remember after the interview is over. Also, creatively answering this question is a way for your student to shine a light on his or her high school activities. So my fictitious student might say, “The person I would most like to have a discussion with is Merce Cunningham because he was a great dancer and choreographer.” Because it is highly unlikely that anyone who did an interview that day named a famous dance choreographer, the response has a better chance of being remembered by the interviewer. More importantly, our student has opened the door to now talk about her passion for dance.

Interviewer: “If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?”

Response: The responses of most students will range from poverty to climate change to whatever pops into their mind. And this is OK. But our fictional student is involved with Habitat for Humanity, so she might respond by saying, “One way I would change the world for the better would be by providing housing for the homeless.” She can then go on to talk about what she has done at Habitat. Responding in this way makes a statement: Not only does she care about an important national issue like homelessness, but she is actually doing something about it. 

Interviewer: “How many hours a night do you spend on home work?”

Response: The issue behind this question is whether or not our fictional student has a work ethic. So if the response is “I spend half an hour each night” the conclusion might be that she won’t survive college. College is a big step up from high school. There is more reading assigned and there is no one around to tell students when to study. Half an hour won’t hack it at most competitive colleges! Our fictional student has reasonably good grades and she has an excellent answer: “I study on average three to four hours a night and this is why I am doing well in high school. I have to work hard to get those grades.” What she is really saying is she has a work ethic which will stand her in well at the college to which she is applying.

Interviewer: “Do you have any questions for me?”

Response: Many students will say “No, I don’t have any questions.” But this is not a good reply because it might suggest that she isn’t very interested. Students coming to an interview should always have two or three good questions in mind. For example, if the interviewer graduated from this college she might respond, “You could have gone to college anywhere. Why did you select this college?” Psychologists tell us that if you did a terrible interview but then briefly turned the interview around by asking some good questions thereby getting the person doing the interview to talk about their institution or about themselves, they will leave the room thinking that this was the best interview they did all day. Why? Because people like talking about themselves. 

My post next week will be on application strategies.

Monday, December 25, 2017

As your child begins to research college options you and they should start visiting the campuses that interest them the most. Second semester of junior year is a good time to do this. Colleges often have special open houses for prospective students and their families. But most admission's offices are also open during the week and on Saturday. To be on the safe side, call the admissions office beforehand and make arrangements for a visit. 

The following essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times- Dispatch when I was President of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. I hope it will give you an idea of the ups and downs of the college visit!

By Roger Martin

"But, Dad, I really want to major in marine biology. And, also, there's got to be a world class aquarium near the campus. You just don't understand do you?" 

So began a heated argument between my teenage daughter and myself over what she might major in as we set off on a two day quest to find the perfect college. I had tried, obviously unsuccessfully, to make the point that she shouldn't base her college decision on the availability of a major she might never choose. And the aquarium requirement? Well that reduced the selection of colleges considerably. These were tense times.

We pulled into the admissions parking area of our first college, a prestigious liberal arts institution in an urban setting. We had made an appointment for a tour but the admissions office, a rather luxurious rambling affair somewhat resembling a yacht club, was completely empty. Not even a receptionist was there to greet us.

Centered on a desk near the entry way was a red telephone. "Introduce your arrival by using this phone" a card next to it read. I wondered whether the college was having financial difficulties. My wife picked up the receiver. "We are the Martin's and we've arrived for our 10:30 appointment." "Terribly sorry," came back a subterranean voice, “Rachel, our student guide, is ill today. You'll have to reschedule for another time.'" "But we drove all the way up from Pennsylvania. There won't be another time," my wife responded rather impatiently. 

An assistant admissions counselor then entered the reception area. We were upset. Anxious to see our first college after having driven almost 250 miles we were being told by an unseen person to go home. But here was a real live admission's counselor who would certainly understand our dilemma. 

"Student tour guides are not available. You'll just have to make another appointment," she said, parroting what the telephone had just told us. "What are you doing right now," my wife asked, somewhat in anger. "About to go to lunch," the counselor said as she nonchalantly shuffled through some papers on her desk. "Well, couldn't you give us a ten minute tour on your way to lunch?" "I don't do tours," she curtly replied. We concluded our first college visit.

The next college on our list, even more prestigious than the first, was just down the road. This time the student guide, a very articulate senior fine arts major, took us in tow along with three other families. The college and its facilities was impressive. Half way into the tour we approached some student resident halls.

"We live very informally here," our guide told us. She was walking backwards and talking at the same time, a skill that has always impressed me. "All upper class students live in special interest housing. If you have an interest, you find other students who share that interest and then you live together." 

My daughter's eyes lit up. She was into community service. 

"What is your special interest residence hall," she naively asked. 

"Oh, we live in a ‘clothing optional' dorm, and its coeducational too," our guide said with all seriousness. One of the fathers was straining to peak into one of the windows as we walked by.

For our final day we decided to visit a large urban university and then end up at another small college. The large university was selected because of its proximity to a national aquarium. Getting to the admissions office was a real challenge. I got the last visitor's parking space; but an unlucky family arriving just behind us had to use a vacant space reserved for the admissions office staff and almost immediately go a $50 ticket from campus security. 

"We can't do anything about those tickets," a consoling admissions receptionist told the irate father, "Campus Safety reports to a different vice president."

Our tour guide on this occasion was a sophomore bio engineering major from New Jersey. Compared to the senior fine arts major who lived in a nudist colony, this young man lacked savoir faire. But he more than made up for this in the kind of swagger and bravado one often sees in sophomores who have just survived the initiation rites of freshman year. This university was the kind of institution where students worked hard during the week and then partied big time on the weekends. 

"This place is so competitive," he said, trying to impress us, "that during exam week, students set fire alarms off in the dorms so that their friends can't study or sleep. We'll do anything to get the competitive edge." Descriptions of weekend parties were unexpurgated to the obvious delight of several perspective students but causing not a little concern to some of their parents.

Then we entered an enormous library. This was the spot where our guide was to talk about the faculty.

"We are mostly taught by teaching assistants," he told us. "The real professors are old and don't understand our generation. But the TAs are really cool." 

A rather brave mother standing next to me near the back of the group piped up somewhat petulantly "Why should I pay $40,000 a year to have my son taught by someone only a few years older than he is?" There was an uncomfortable silence and the question was never answered.

I really like our final visit the most. It was a small college affiliated with the Quakers, an unpretentious place with an impeccable academic reputation. We were the only family on the tour and the guide, a serious junior, did his job extremely well. My hopes were running high. We entered a classroom where a young biology professor, having just completed a class, was available to tell my daughter about the curriculum.

Unfortunately the college did not offer marine biology, and when he tried to convince my daughter that his discipline, cell biology, was just as interesting, you could clearly see disappointment in her face. When she later found out that Philadelphia did not have a world class aquarium, the setback was complete. All the way home, we argued about whether she wasn't being too narrow in her focus. The trip ended as it had begun.

What did my wife and I learn from this perplexing experience? Two things. First, as a college president myself, I have always taken pride in the service-oriented approach of my institution’s admission office. I discovered, however that some colleges work really hard at making the college search a painful experience, maybe because they have more applicants each year than they know what to do with. I would suggest to my colleagues, however, that even the most elite of our number cannot afford to take perspective students and their families for granted. 

The second lesson I learned is that student guides play a very important role in the admissions process in large part because they are actually listened to by the perspective student. It is important that these young people be able to speak candidly and enthusiastically about their college and it would be a mistake for the admission’s office to censure their message. On the other hand, some coaching might be helpful not only to insure that the information being imparted by the tour guide is accurate and truly represents the college or university, but also to gently suggest that it is not always necessary to focus on personal life-styles or opinions which have nothing to do with the matter at hand. 

But these are the criticisms of a discerning and perhaps overly critical adult because I have also discovered that no matter what the admissions office or the tour guides say or do, perspective students make their final choices in a way that defies reason or logic. I fell in love with the last college largely because, in my opinion at least, the tour guide and the professor did the most professional job presenting their institution. My daughter, on the other hand, loved the college whose admissions counselor refused to give a tour. Why? Because as my wife and I were leaving the admissions office in a snit over the way we had been treated by the professional staff, my daughter noticed that all the students we passed on our way to the parking lot smiled at her. And there wasn't an aquarium within 100 miles!

Go figure.

In my next post I will share another perspective on the college your written by Lisa Heffernan, an editor of Grown And Flown  ( a blog on going off to college that I sometimes write for.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Once your child has decided whether to attend a small college or a large university, they need to begin researching options. Here are some ways to do this: 

1. The Internet: The easiest (and cheapest) way to search for colleges is to surf the Internet. College Home Pages provide self-guided tours, information about faculty, classes and admission’s criteria—in short almost everything you need to know about a particular institution. (For easy WEB access to all colleges and universities in America go to htt://

2. Campus Visits: After selecting some colleges of interest using the Internet or a college guidebook, plan some long weekends during junior year and first semester of senior year to visit campuses. A good way to do this is to attend the “Admissions Open Houses” most colleges sponsor in the Fall. This is usually a weekend when fairly large numbers of prospective students and their families arrive on campus to hear presentations by administration and faculty, attend classes and tour the campus. If possible, prospective students should spend a night in a residence hall. Most colleges are more than happy to match high school juniors or seniors with a student host. If the open house is inconvenient, you should visit campus mid- week and ask to sit in on some classes and meet one or two faculty. If you cannot spend this much time on one campus, at least attend the admissions office information session and the tour that follows. These usually take place every day when school is in session and during the summer. Here are some things I encourage you to consider when touring campus: 

• How does the campus look? Prospects and their parents should consider, as they walk around campus, whether or not the grounds are well kept and the buildings well maintained. If you see used beer cans and other trash littering the campus, this will speak volumes about what kind of campus this really is. Colleges that don't take care of their campuses sometimes don't take very good care of their students. 

• What is the surrounding community like? Are there town/gown tensions or does the town and college work together for the betterment of both? Is the community safe? 

• Do students on campus smile? Or are they walking around the place looking at their feet? If the latter, something is probably wrong?

• Do the president and faculty participate in some way in the admissions process? Faculty are the main reason you come to college. And in good colleges, they should be involved at some point in the admissions process, especially at open houses where they can address questions related to teaching and the curriculum. Speaking personally, admissions is also one of the most important responsibilities of a small college president. The president – or if the president is off campus, the dean of the college—should be present at admissions open houses to greet prospective students and their families. 

• What is the curriculum like? Is there a stated purpose and a goal? Or is it just a collection of courses without any integration or meaning? Does it generate excitement in learning?

• Do a campus interview. I will have an article on the interview in a future post. 

As a follow up to visits, arrange with the admissions office to remain in contact with at least one faculty member and a student, either by phone or via the internet. If the college resists this request, it could be a sign that the college has reasons for not wanting prospective students to see the complete picture.

3.Gathering information: As part of the visit, gather information. The most important is: 

• Current student profile: Colleges will usually advertise average high school GPAs of entering students. Although it is not as important, they might also tell you the median SAT scores of the freshman class. You should compare this data with your child's own profile to get a rough idea of how successful their application will be.

• Information on college diversity: If your child is a minority applicant, knowing how many African- American or Hispanic students there are at the college might be of interest. In any case, academically excellent colleges have diverse student bodies. 

• Information on the college’s endowment: Better endowed colleges will usually have more generous scholarship packages, more varied extra-curricular activities, a more complete library, etc.

• Student faculty ratio: Academically superior colleges usually have student faculty ratios of not more than one faculty member for every fourteen students. Make sure to know, however, how many of these faculty are involved in research rather than teaching. 

• Average class size: Introductory courses in many good universities and colleges might have 100 or more students. But once in the major, classes should average no more than 15 to 20 students.

• Graduation rate: The better colleges graduate the vast majority of their students within four years. If the average graduate rate is five or six years, parents could end up spending more than they thought for tuition, room and board (see my previous post on cost).

• Retention: Most selective colleges retain 80% or more of their students between freshman and sophomore year. Retention rates below this number suggest either that relatively large numbers of students have been unhappy enough to transfer, or that the college admits many students who can’t meet its high standards. Either way, a low retention rate might suggest problems.

• Graduate or Job Placement: A major reason your child goes go to college is to either be gainfully employed after graduation or on their way to a career via graduate or professional school. Ask the college what percentage of their graduates are employed five months after graduation; also the college’s success rate in placing graduates in post-baccalaureate institutions including a list of who these institutions are.

• Crime statistics: Colleges are required to provide the public with crime statistics. However, these need to be used with some caution because colleges that have sophisticated campus security operations with accurately reported data (on theft, alcohol abuse, etc.,) ironically often look worse than colleges that have small (or no) security forces and therefore less ability to maintain accurate data.

A word about college guides: A less useful, though easier, way to evaluate colleges is to buy one of the many college guides available to prospective students and their parents. The best known of these are Barron’s and Peterson’s Guide. The College Entrance Examination Board also publishes a helpful guide called The College Handbook. Others such as the Princeton Review and US News and World Report are less useful. The Princeton Guide to the Best 300 Colleges bases much of its information on student gossip, some of it out of date. US News and World Report features an annual issue that ranks colleges and universities nationwide. Its methodology for this ranking is very controversial and of questionable utility. On the other hand it does have some very useful raw data such as student/faculty ratios, retention rates and so forth that will be of interest. 

In my next post I will share a funny piece I wrote about a college tour I took with my youngest daughter.