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Necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors

Two weeks ago I was speaking with my daughter, a high school junior, and we were talking about college visits. She’s narrowing down her choices somewhat, but there are still a number of potential schools we have not visited.

I said, “We can see them over the summer.” Then I looked at the family calendar.

Between speech & debate tournaments, a mission trip, family vacation, a week at a psychology immersion camp, and a family reunion, we only had three weeks available. That’s three weeks to cover 6 schools across the state of Texas and 4 other colleges in Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

And that’s when I felt like the client instead of the professional.

I’ve seen so many families with good intentions (and plans) fall behind because they didn’t realize how little time they actually had for college visits, attempts at the SAT or ACT, or applications. Today’s article will outline some of the optional and necessary college planning for current sophomores and juniors. If you have a freshman, take notes because you will need to start planning soon.



College Planning

We’ve all seen plenty of college planning timelines. I’ve written articles on the subject. But it only becomes real when it is written on the family calendar.

It is easy to think, “We can do that over the summer.” Or, “She / he will have time for that next year; college is so far off.” But once we are in our routines for the school year or summer, it is easy for time to slip away.

Here are the college planning activities I would encourage you to pencil in for your family:


For Current Juniors:

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who has already finished with testing. Congratulations! But many students are still preparing and working towards a score goal. Here are the remaining test dates:


  • April 14, 2018
  • June 9, 2018
  • July 14, 2018
  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)


  • May 5, 2018
  • June 2, 2018
  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018 (but this is pushing it!)

Plan which test(s) you can take. Remember to watch for conflicts with AP Exam weeks (May 7-18), prom, final exams, vacation, and fall activities.

The sooner you finish testing, the sooner you can devote your full attention to the next step: applications.

For Current Sophomores:

You have the luxury of planning ahead right now. Next year when will you have the most time and interest to prepare? Try to avoid competition season for sports and activities. Consider the time demands of future Advanced Placement (AP) classes. (AP exams are always the first two weeks of May.)

Students who complete Algebra II as sophomores will have enough content knowledge to take the ACT or SAT in the fall. Students who are currently taking geometry and will take Algebra II in the fall may want to consider

  • Taking the ACT which does not include higher level Algebra II concepts and / or
  • Waiting until the spring to take these exams

Other than math, most students will not learn anything in school that will help on the ACT or SAT. So you don’t need to wait for spring in order to test. Many of my clients are done with testing. Some finished back in September and October when they earned top scores on these exams as juniors. The key is finding the time that is right for you.

Here are the test dates for next school year, so you can start planning. Keep in mind many students will take their choice of exam 2-3 times.


  • September 8, 2018
  • October 27, 2018
  • December 8, 2018
  • February 9, 2019
  • April 13, 2019
  • June 8, 2019
  • July 13, 2019


  • August 25, 2018
  • October 6, 2018
  • November 3, 2018
  • December 1, 2018
  • March 9, 2019
  • May 4, 2019
  • June 1, 2019


College Visits

It is not a requirement to visit every school on your list before you apply. But it is a good idea to visit a minimum of 3-5 colleges so you have a better idea of what different schools offer and how your interests may be met differently at specific schools.

There are so many variables when it comes to finding schools that are a good fit. I always say a college visit is like test driving a new car or trying on a new pair of shoes. You can read websites, compare rankings, talk to neighbors, and get the advice of experts. But when it comes to making a final decision, the only opinion or ranking that matters is yours.

I understand time and money are limiting factors in making college visits, but I also know the more informed you are, the better you can decide. Part of the evaluation process is where to apply, but the other part is where to attend. Notes made on trips during your junior year might save you a last-minute rushed visit in the spring of your senior year as you try to make your final selection.

Here has been our college visit approach:

  1. Summer before junior year—visit a variety of schools (big, small, urban, college town, etc.), take good notes, make a list of likes, don’t likes, and must haves.
  2. Junior year—continue adding possible colleges and removing some for not meeting criteria. (For example, my daughter likes liberal arts colleges, but has decided schools with fewer than 1500 students are just too small.)
  3. Junior year—visit more campuses. Take advantage of school holidays and breaks. Look for colleges you might be near as you take family trips.
  4. Summer before senior year—narrow your college list. I’m nervous when students have fewer than 5 schools on their lists and I know most students don’t have the time, energy (or money) to apply to more than 15. (They Dorsey list currently has 10 schools. That might increase or decrease by a couple between now and August.)
  5. Summer before senior year—make sure you have done official tours with a minimum of three of the colleges on your list. Visiting friends and relatives doesn’t count. You need the tour and information session from the admissions office to count it as a college visit.

As I found, it was easy to imaging we would have time to make all these college visits—until I started to pencil them in on my calendar. Most admissions offices let you schedule campus visit online, so you can do this at anytime.

Note: Many campuses are in a transition period right now, so don’t worry if you can’t schedule summer visits just yet. The national date to inform students of college admission in April 1. Seniors have until May 1 to inform the colleges of their decisions. Many schools are still focusing on this year’s seniors and will get summer visit schedules online soon.


Ideally students should be involved in meaningful activities throughout the year. But sometimes projects, community service, and hobbies get delayed during the school year. Summer is the ideal time to catch up.

This summer my daughter needs to finish her Girl Scout Gold Award and she has a goal of earning more service hours. She will also attend a week-long psychology institute at Wake Forest University. And we can’t forget all those hours working on speech & debate!

What are your summer plans? What else can you accomplish?

When students tell me they are just going to hang out for the summer, I remind them they will still have time for fun AND activities. And if you need a little convincing, take a look at some college applications and see how well you can fill in the “activities” section.


I will cover the topic of applications in greater depth in another article. What you need to plan for is some time, maybe a couple weeks, to draft a resume and start working on college essays. Summer is a great time to get started, but keep in mind, most colleges don’t open their online applications until August 1.


For those of us with juniors, that senior year will be here before we know it. It seems like high school just started and now the reality of college applications is here.

Take a little time to actually put testing, college visits, activities, and application work on your calendar, so you don’t accidently fall behind.

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Does it hurt to take the SAT / ACT multiple times?

Does it hurt to take the SAT / ACT multiple times?

Will colleges question why I took the test for a 4th time?

Will it help if colleges see I’m improving my scores by taking the ACT / SAT more?

Most students will take the ACT / SAT two or three times. Colleges know this and are not surprised when they receive multiple score reports reflecting a student’s attempts at these standardized tests.

In admission, colleges and universities are looking for reasons to admit a student– in other words, looking for the best results possible. Find out how colleges use scores when a student has taken tests more than once.

How Many Colleges Should We Apply To?

This is a frustrating time of year for many high school seniors and their families. Some college applications are sent, but in many cases the process isn’t finished.

Should you send a couple more applications in case the ones already submitted are met with rejection? Have you covered all possibilities with the schools currently on your list? Did you really do enough research? How many is too many? What’s not enough?

If you are the parent of a senior (or have sent another student off to college before) you know how these questions can contribute to the stress of application season. If your child isn’t a senior yet, you can learn how to manage the college list and side-step some of this doubt.


There is no exact number of colleges each student should apply to. For every suggestion I will give, I’ve worked with a student who was an exception to that rule.

Every student and every family is different. Use these guidelines to inform your process, but feel free to adapt them to your individual situation.

Schools I Insist You Have On Your List

I want every client to have at least one of each of these schools on his or her list. Sometimes a single college can satisfy more than one category; think of that as a bonus.

Assured Admission

This is the college where you are certain (or almost certain) your student will get in. For a school to fit in this category, you need admission data showing the degree of certainty based on your specific academic credentials.

I live in Texas. Our state has a current policy by which graduates in the top 10% of their class are guaranteed admission to state universities (except UT Austin which automatically accepts the top 6%.) A student in the top of his or her class could consider one of these universities under the assured admission category.

What if my student doesn’t have top grades?

Students in the bottom of their classes have to work a little harder to find assured admissions options, but there are plenty of four-year options available. A few years ago I worked with a young man who was in the bottom quarter of his graduating class. He was a hard working student, but struggled with learning differences and had made a few mistakes along the way. He found assured admission (and a college he loved) at West Texas A&M University. For fall 2018 admission, a student in the bottom quarter of his or her class needs a GPA of 2.0 and an ACT of 23 (SAT 1130) for automatic admission. You can see their admissions policies here.

In some cases your local community college may serve as an assured admission option.

There are assured options for every applicant.

In-State (Affordable) Tuition

The next school to have on your list is the affordable option. I understand that the term “affordable” is relative. When finding a college to satisfy this criteria, you are looking for schools with the most manageable costs.

For many families this means keeping one or two state universities on the list. The in-state costs are far lower than those at private colleges. However, in-state expenses can be $20K-$25K per year once you include fees, housing, and a meal plan. Take time to research the least expensive in-state universities. You can make an even more affordable option by living at home while taking courses at a nearby university or community college. Know your financial situation and find an option that is manageable.

A word of caution.

Don’t skip this category because you feel financially comfortable and think you don’t need to limit your student’s choices. I have seen too many good situations go wrong between fall of a student’s senior year and graduation: death of the primary breadwinner, unexpected financial disasters (think Enron or major market crashes), a serious medical diagnosis that both takes a parent out of work and begins draining the family’s resources by tens of thousands of dollars a month, and situations that could only be described as bizarre.

A professional colleague of mine worked with a young lady who applied only to private schools and didn’t even think about cost because her father was quite wealthy. The parents were divorced, but mom received a five-figure alimony payment each month, so it seemed reasonable to assume the cost of college wasn’t going to be an issue. Just before this young lady was to graduate, her father was charged with financial wrongdoing and all the family’s assets were frozen. Suddenly there was an immediate need for an affordable option.

Plan for a worst-case scenario and keep an affordable college on your college list.

Good Fit Schools

This category is a little broader than the previous two. These schools are a good fit academically, socially, financially, geographically, etc. Admission isn’t assured, but is possible. The costs isn’t necessarily affordable, but the family has agreed to wait and see what type of scholarships or financial aid will be awarded.

Good fit schools are “maybes” in all areas— providing everything goes right. In most cases, these are the schools my clients eventually choose to attend. But we have provided for a worst case scenario by including the affordable and assured admission options.

Typically students will have 3-6 schools that meet the good fit criteria.

Unlikely, But Wouldn’t It Be Great Options

I’ve sometimes referred to these schools as long shots– the colleges where the possibility of admission (or affordability) is unlikely, but a slim possibility exists. I think every student should stretch his or her options and dream a little. Find one or two schools that would be great alternatives IF you beat the odds.

Like everything else in college admissions, this category means different schools for different students. The student in the top 2% of her class may view The University of Texas at Austin as an assured admission option while the top 30% graduate classifies that same school as a long-shot for admissions purposes. Do your research and be realistic as you determine which schools fit the “unlikely” category.

Some bad news for top students.

Any college or university that admits fewer than 20% of its applicants MUST be classified as an unlikely option. I don’t care if your student is the valedictorian with a perfect SAT score; these hard to get in schools turn down perfect score valedictorians every year. (Think about it; there are not enough spots in the entire Ivy League’s entering freshman classes to accommodate all of the valedictorians from a given year.) So students interested in these highly selective schools must have a few good fit and assured admission options BEFORE adding all of the hard-to-get-in schools to their lists.

One last thought for those considering the highly selective schools— adding more “unlikely” schools to your list does NOT improve your chances of getting in.

Let’s say I really want to get into one of these prestigious institutions and I decided to apply to a number of top schools:

  • Stanford, Harvard, and Yale (admission rates 5-6%)
  • Columbia, MIT, and Princeton (7% of applicants admitted)
  • Brown, Penn, Duke, Pomona, Amherst, Cornell, Rice, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley (8% – 16%)

Too many families fall into faulty math in these situations. They think that by adding up all the acceptance rates (138% in my case) they have guaranteed admission to least one of these schools. But math doesn’t work that way! Instead of a better than 100% chance of admission based on my list above, I have a 16% chance– at best.

If you want to apply to a handful of “unlikely” schools, go for it. I work with many top students who succeed in this process each year. But after the first couple applications are sent to schools on the hard-to-get-in list, I insist my clients take a break and apply to their assured admission and affordable options.

It is good to dream about schools that might stretch your abilities; just don’t ignore reality.

Quick Summary

Every student should apply to a mix of school with a list that includes:

  • 1-2 assured admission options
  • 1-2 affordable tuition schools
  • 3-6 good fit colleges
  • 1 or more unlikely, but great options

This means most of my clients are applying to 5 to 10 schools. My clients who are looking at a number of highly selective schools tend to submit 10 to 12 applications.


I have worked with enough students over the years to have seen exceptions. A notable one was the client who applied to only one school. This young man was interested in business, ranked in the top 2% of his high school class, and earned top SAT scores (720 Reading and 800 Math). We spent multiple sessions discussing colleges with unique and exceptional business programs. He kept coming back to UT Austin. His older brother and sister attended UT and his father had a successful CPA firm in the Austin area. He couldn’t picture himself going to college anywhere else.

UT was his only application. He was assured admission and the in-state tuition made it affordable. The business school at UT was his best fit, dream program. His “unlikely” option was the UT Business Honors Program where he was initially wait-listed, but was ultimately accepted.

You may find your unique situation involves some exceptions to my above recommendations too, as long as your ideal option overlaps with your affordable and assured admission plans.

Limit The List Now

It is hard to decide. I know; I have a current junior with a list of 25 colleges that seems to grow each time we get the mail.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to 10-12 applications?

In theory, no. But from practical experience, more than 12 applications becomes exhausting. First, most of the highly selective colleges require additional supplementary responses. After six of these extra essays with short answers, students fatigue. At some point parents get tired of paying $50 – $80 for each application.

Even if a student could easily apply to 20+ colleges, the process doesn’t get easier. By May 1 a decision has to be made. If this student can’t cut the list of colleges down to his or her top 12, choosing from the multiple schools where he or she has been admitted becomes a painful task. Limit your list now and the decision process will be easier in the spring.


I started by saying there is no exact number of schools to which a student should apply. Every student and every family is different. I advise my clients to use these guidelines and settle on 5-12 schools that best fit their goals. Feel free to adapt these guidelines to your individual situation.



Is NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars) a Scam or a Real Award?

We received a letter from the high school that our daughter is eligible for a membership in NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars). Is this worth the money? Should we do it?



No, it is not really that prestigious or exclusive—everyone you know got the same invitation letter. No, it isn’t really a honor—invitations were sent out to most students regardless of actual achievements. And no, you shouldn’t pay money for it because everyone in the field of higher education know this is really a scam.

Why do these “honor programs” exist?

So why is the National Society of High School Scholars or the Who’s Who of American High School Students letter an annual source of frustration for me and others who help teens and their families with college admission? These companies (and others like them) do an excellent job of marketing to the hopes and fears of parents.

“Acceptance” letters often come on fancy letterhead with gold seals and extra inserts proclaiming the prestige and opportunity of their offer. Who doesn’t want their child to be recognized? And too often parents and students want to jump at any opportunity to stand out when it comes to college admission.

Unfortunately these “awards” are no more than a purchased database of high school names and addresses looking to sell their accolades.

Can I list this as an award / honor on my college applications?

You shouldn’t. Colleges are not impressed with “awards” you have bought yourself.

Colleges want to see what you have DONE. If you have earned recognition for doing something, it is worth noting on your applications. But Who’s Who or NSHSS don’t ask you to DO anything other than pay for the privilege.

But what about the benefits they mention?

If you are looking for scholarships, conferences, discounts from business partners, or any of the other benefits, you can get them elsewhere. Search for scholarships online that don’t require a $75 membership fee to apply. (In fact, one sure sign of a scholarship scam is asking for money in order to apply.) There are dozens of youth conferences to help motivate, inspire, and challenge students in a variety of fields. And your local health club or Costco will have business partners willing to offer you discounts.

How to spot scams targeting teens and their families.

Next time you get an email or letter in the mail announcing an “opportunity,” here are a few ways to spot the scam:

  • If it is an honor or award, has my child done something specific to earn this honor? (writing a winning essay, competing in a national event, completing the requirements for an organizational award, etc.)
  • Have other neighbors or friends received the same communication? It can’t be exclusive or prestigious if a majority of students receive it.
  • Is payment required? You should NEVER have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship. Membership in some national organizations may involve a registration fee, but most have a local chapter representative who you can ask (i.e. the debate coach who represents your chapter of the National Speech & Debate Association or the NHS sponsor who represents your chapter of the National Honor Society.)
  • Is this a recognized organization? It can be hard to keep up, so when in doubt, check the National Association of Secondary Principals’ list of activities and contests that offer actual academic value. These programs have to demonstrate some benefit to participating students.
  • Are you considering it solely to “look good to colleges”? There is no silver bullet for admission—no single activity, club, or award that will help you get in. Students should pursue interests and talents. This may be the most genuine way to avoid scams.


So you can throw the NSHSS letter in the trash. You aren’t missing a thing.

Colleges are not impressed. In fact, listing one of these “buy your own award” items on a college application or resume may backfire. Instead of looking accomplished, you look like the fool who got scammed into thinking this marketing ploy was a real achievement.