Universitas Blog

Where Do You Get Your (College Admission) Advice?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If you're very sick, who do you seek help from?  You go to a doctor, right?  You don't go to a medical student or a witch doctor.

Do you seek legal advice from a lawyer or from a law student or someone who hasn't passed the Bar Exam?  I'm going to take a wild guess and say you will look for someone legally qualified to give legal advice.

So why should you treat US college admission advice any different?

Over the past few weeks, I've been aghast, frustrated and downright alarmed at the casual attitude most candidates have about where they get their college advice from.  I'll give you some for examples.

I had a client tell me that they decided to seek advice from a cousin "who has experience applying abroad."  I was flabbergasted.  Experience applying abroad?  What does that even mean?  If I have experience with cancer, does that make me an oncologist?  Absolutely ludicrous.

Most applicants like to get their advice from their peers.  I can understand that, it must be more comfortable for them to talk to someone who is at their level instead of someone a generation (or two) older than they are.  Even here, they have to be careful. These peers, who are international students themselves at universities in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, hand out free college admission advice.  But are they qualified to give such advice?  No, they are not.  Don't get me wrong, current students and recent alumni are great resources FOR THE SCHOOL THEY ARE CURRENTLY ATTENDING.  The problem is that they don't know much else about colleges beyond their own and maybe the six to ten others they applied to.   Does that qualify them to help you find the right college for you?  Not really.  They also don't update their knowledge about colleges and the admission process and they don't do professional development the way professional counselors do.  

More than a few times, these students give absolutely wrong advice.  Here are some doozies I heard at a study abroad conference recently.

1.  You can take advantage of SAT super scoring (super scoring is the policy some colleges have of taking  the best Critical Reading score and the best Math score from multiple SAT administrations.  Think of it like a Greatest Hits album)  like this:  take the test the first time and concentrate only on (study for) the Critical Reading and punt the Math.  Take the test a second time and do the opposite, i.e. punt Critical Reading and concentrate on the Math.  This way you'll maximize your Critical Reading and Math SAT scores.

Wrong!  First of all, not all colleges superscore.  But most importantly, colleges hate it when you game  or artificially manipulate their application process.  This is classic gaming and manipulation.  A fellow counselor labeled this tactic "SAT suicide".  It's the surefire method of getting your application to land on the reject pile.

2. Transfer applications can be more competitive than freshman applications because few students transfer (true).  So when transferring from Philippine universities, simply apply as a freshman and don't tell the university abroad about the year or years in college spent here.  (yikes!)

How are you going to explain the fact that you graduated high school in 2015 and you are applying as a freshman in 2017?  What did you do those two years? I guess you could lie about that time and you can spin some yarn about working or traveling or some such thing.  But you'll be asked to talk about or verify that time.  And if they find that you've been dishonest in your application, not only will you be rejected but if you've been admitted, they'll rescind their admission offer.  They are such sticklers about this honesty thing.  Bottom line:  if you've attended college and gotten credit, you must apply as a transfer.

But bad advice comes not just from students.  Some so-called counselors here have a bad attitude.  These are the ones who claim to give advice to get you into the most competitive, sought after universities in the U.S. (read, the Ivy League, Stanford, and other brand name schools). Because their magic is so sought after, they have no qualms about charging an arm, a leg, and  your head and neck as well. Consultation fees of up to a million pesos is not unheard of with these people.  They will proceed to package the student to such an extent that the packaged applicant bears no resemblance to the actual student.  It's insulting to think that admissions officers won't see through all this.  If you take away only one thing from my blogs about what US college admissions officers want, it is this:  authenticity.  If a student is authentic it doesn't guarantee admission.  But if they sense a student is packaged or unauthentic then they will reject.  Sure, a few will slip through but most will not.

Along with these are those who offer SAT training for an enormous sum.  As I've stated in a previous post, SAT scores, while important, are only a support for your grades. Stellar SAT scores, by themselves, will not get you into a brand name school.  By all means, study and prepare for the SAT and try to get the best score you can.  But you certainly should not spend an inordinate amount of money on these hucksters who sell the snake oil of high SAT score equals automatic admission to Stanford.

So mind where you get your advice from.  When it comes to college applications, see a qualified college counselor.  

Q and A with the College Counselor

Friday, August 08, 2014



I ran into the article above and thought heck, I'll try to give my own answers to the questions in there!  I won't answer the last question because that is about in state and out of state students and international students are all out of state (no matter how hard we try!)

1.  We don't have time or money to visit schools I'm really interested in.  What can I do?

This is quite common for us here in the Philippines.  I talked about the importance of college visits in a previous post.  Usually people don't visit because they don't want to spend the money (a ridiculous excuse) or it's a time issue.  If you start the college research process only as a senior, it's a little late to be visiting colleges.  This is a very good reason why you should start researching US colleges in your junior year.

But given that you didn't (can't) visit, what else can you do?  Outside of the usual avenues of research (Internet, college guide books, etc.), try emailing the admissions office people regarding questions you may have.  See if they have students you can email and ask questions.  On a lot of college websites, they have a "virtual tour" button but that just shows off the pretty campus buildings and quads, etc.  Also, don't forget YouTube!  A lot of colleges post videos of themselves and their programs online.  You can look at the dorms, maybe even listen to a lecture.  

2.  What makes a school large or small and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

For me, a large school is anywhere there are more than 10,000 undergraduates.  A small school is maybe less than 2,000 or 3,000 undergraduates and between that is medium sized.  Obviously, this is a subjective assessment and you may have different parameters.

I'm often asked if a large school is better than a small one or vice versa.  For me, it's a matter of taste.  Some people find the atmosphere of a small school stifling or claustrophobic while others find the anonymity of a large school isolating.  I have a bias and that I think small schools provide the best undergraduate education.  It's in small schools that you will find the intimate student-faculty relation that gives rise to great mentoring.  I think faculty mentoring of students is one of the biggest benefits of a college education.  I'm not saying that faculty mentoring can't happen at a big school...it can but not as readily perhaps as a small school.  It's true that a large school might have more course or class offerings or fancier facilities than a small one.  But I ask you:  how many courses or classes can you possibly take anyway?  Sure, grad level classes are available at your university but will you have the time or the prerequisites to take those classes?  Same with fancier facilities....sure, you have them but do you have use of them?  Or are they generally the preserve of graduate students?

I once talked to a couple of students who were keen on doing scientific research in their prospective college careers in the States.  They figured their best bet would be to go a large research university.  I told them that would be a mistake.  If it was the opportunity to do research is what they wanted, they should go to the small liberal arts college.  At the large research university, most of the research opportunities go to the graduate students.  At the small college, there are no graduate students so guess who gets to use the fancy microscope?

3.  If I haven't found the right extra curriculars, can I still appear to be a dedicated student?

Ideally, colleges like to see students who have dedicated their efforts to two or three activities the student is truly passionate about.  They like to see that the student has gone out of his or her way to develop his skills in this area or made a distinctive contribution to the community as the case may be.  But not all students are like this.  Many students haven't really found an activity they really really like...and there's really nothing wrong with that.

Applicants are always asked by colleges to be authentic and if that's what you are, then so be it.  

To show you are a dedicated student, study hard, learn and get the best grades you can.

4.  What are the most significant, avoidable mistakes student make in the admission process?

Oh boy....not starting early is probably my top choice here.  When should we start?  For me, students should start thinking about studying abroad (specifically the US) about TWO YEARS before the date of prospective enrollment, i.e. August or September of JUNIOR year (not senior year!)  This gives one the time to think carefully about their decision whether or not to go abroad in the first place and to begin looking at colleges and starting the research process.  This also allows them the chance to finish all testing by end of junior year or beginning of senior year.  Try to take the SAT by January of junior year.  And get at least a tentative list of colleges together to visit in the summer.

Another mistake is overdoing the SAT preparation and underestimating the importance of the essay.  I've talked about this in previous posts but it's worth mentioning (again) that a perfect SAT score, by itself, will never get you into any college.  It is a support for your grades.  Your college application essay, on the other hand, depending on where you apply can be absolutely crucial to a successful application.  In general, the more competitive the admission, the bigger part your essay will play.  Also, make sure to get qualified help for your essay.  What's qualified help?  Help from someone who knows what US college application essays are about.  Most people here don't....even teachers here don't really know.  Get professional help on your essay and again, start early.  Christmas vacation senior year is not the time to start work on your essay.

Finally, seek qualified professional help in your college search.  While this is not a requirement, qualified college experts (like myself!) can make finding your college fit easier and quicker....especially important if you are starting out a bit late (senior year).  Don't rely on whoever or whatever.  I had a client who decided to rely on the advice of cousins "who had experience applying abroad".  I ask you:  if I had "experience" with cancer, does that make me an oncologist?

5.  How important are college rankings in choosing a college?

Most counselors say that one should consider rankings as only one factor in choosing a college. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you should try to ignore them altogether.  I think rankings can be good in that it might introduce you to colleges you may never have heard of before but that's it.  Remember that there is no such thing as a best college or university....only a best college or university FOR YOU.  Rankings will never determine this for you.  You need to go out and do the spade work and strive to find your ideal college fit.

Visiting Colleges

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One of the most important steps you can take when deciding what college to go to is do a campus visit.  It's a lot like taking a car for a test drive before you buy it.  You take a car for a test drive to see how you feel while behind the wheel.  Does the car feel right? The college visit is a lot like that, you go on campus, you take the tour, you look around, you talk to the students...all to get a feel for the school.  Does it feel right to you?  Sit on a bench and look around at the students milling around.  Do you see yourself among them?

For some reason, Filipinos are not a test driving people.  It's not unusual for us to buy a car simply on the reputation of the brand or the say so of a trusted friend or relative.  I remember when I was in the market for a car here in Manila, I walked into a dealership, asked about a particular model and asked if I could test drive the vehicle.  I got a lot of funny looks from the salesman and eventually I was able to convince him to give me a test drive.  I had to come in the following day with an appointment for the test drive, which was all of about ten or fifteen minutes and the salesman and his manager were with me watching me like a hawk.  Contrast that with my experience in the US.  I once walked into a Mercedes dealership in the States, expressed interest in a Mercedes C Class and the salesman put me in a car, photocopied my license, gave me the keys and told me to have fun.  I drove around for 20 minutes or so and returned the car without so much as batting an eye.

In many ways, Filipinos are that way about colleges.  We don't bother visiting them, even the local universities like UP or Ateneo.   We go by reputation or what a friend or parent says.  We do that for US colleges too....we know precious little about the colleges we are interested in but can't be bothered to make the trip to see them.  We go by name and reputation (Ivy League, Stanford) or what an uncle or aunt who lives there says about a local or regional school.

So why don't we visit colleges?  Some people cite time...no time to visit US colleges especially if the applicant is already a senior. I can understand this a bit.  All the more reason to start the application process early.  If the student had started the application process in the junior year, then there's the summer between junior and senior year to make college visits.  Others cite costs...it costs at least a couple thousand dollars to make the trip.  This reason makes absolutely no sense to me.  If you're ostensibly willing to plunk down anywhere around $250,000 for four years of college (Php 10 million) why wouldn't you spend a few thousand to see if a school is right for you?  You'd be surprised, a school which you may have fallen in love with on paper (or electronically on the Internet) might not hold up as well when you actually see it.  You might actually hate your #1 choice school in the sobering light of day.

]college visit

If you do decide to visit, what should you do?  First of all, make sure to let the college know you are coming.  On the college website, there is usually a link that says "Visiting Us" or something similar which will take you to instructions on how to arrange a college visit.  Normally all that is required is to fill out the online schedule form and that's it!  You show up and there's normally an information session before the actual tour which normally lasts about half an hour to an hour.  You roam around campus with a student tour guide and you can ask questions about life on campus, classes, professors, etc.  Finally you return to the admissions office where you can ask final questions and sometimes, if you've arranged this beforehand, you can be interviewed (hint: if this option is available, TAKE IT!!!)  I would advise people to go beyond the college tour.  When my son and I did our college visits in 2012, we would invariably take the college tour, then get a bite at the college cafeteria or a local place (sample the food) then go visit the math department (he was a prospective math major).  Invariably this told us more about the university than just the canned tour.  Stanford was an impressive school until we visited the math department and got a taste of the students there (no , thank you! Stanford got the thumbs down)  Same with Columbia, the students were a big turn off.  Harvey Mudd was exciting and Santa Clara was very friendly and accommodating to him (thumbs up!  He applied to both places)  Finally, take the time to talk to actual students and faculty.  If they like it here, they'll tell  you...if they don't, they'd love the opportunity to complain.

If you really want to get into it, you can even arrange for overnight visits when you get to stay in the dorms and sit in on classes.  If you can do this, I would strongly recommend it.  No better way to see the every day comings and goings of a particular school than to live among the natives.  

So don't just go by the literature or the website of a particular college to see if it's right for you.  Take the time to go visit the colleges in your college list.  You'd be surprised at what you will find when you go and take the car out for a test drive.

college tours 


Loren Pope (1910-2008)

Monday, July 14, 2014

loren pope


Who?  For most college applicants (US or international), they've never heard of Loren Pope.  But they should.

Yesterday, July 13, would have been his 104th birthday.

If I had to think about one person who propelled me into doing certified, professional, and ethical US college admissions counseling in the Philippines, it would be this man.  I read his book Colleges That Change Lives in 2012 when my son and I were looking at colleges for him to consider.  His write up on Reed College made my eyes go wide...here was a college that fit my son exactly!  Or so I thought.  I was able to convince him to apply and he was admitted but he ultimately chose to go elsewhere.

Pope spent most of his life writing, researching, and consulting about colleges.  He was at one time the education editor of The New York Times.  In 1965, he founded the College Placement Bureau in Washington, DC, one of the very first independent college admission consultancies. He ran his consultancy for over 40 years and wrote and consulted well into his 90s. Personally, I am very proud to be professionally descended from Loren Pope.

 In his book, Loren Pope asserts that college admissions today is motivated by status and prestige and not necessarily by education.  He said that if you focus on the education and not the status, then the apple that is the college admission race falls right on your lap.  Focus on yourself...not the school.  Look for a school that fits you AS YOU ARE and not for a school that you will have to pretzel yourself into some kind of packaged product that you don't even recognize.  If you look away from simple prestige, you will see a universe of first rate colleges that WANT you as you are, imperfect grades and all.  You don't have to fatten up your resume and suck up to your teachers to get the perfect grades to impress some Ivy League college that won't do as much for you than any of the small colleges profiled in his book.  These colleges typically admit more than half of their applicants.  Compare that to uber selective Stanford which admits only 5% of its applicants.  Simple message:  they want you.  Does Stanford?

He was not a fan of the Ivy League.  He said they were all about status and not much else.  He urged his clients (as I do today) to look at the small liberal arts college and tried to steer them away from impersonal, elitist schools...Hampshire College, not Harvard College, Cornell College in Iowa, not Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  I would humbly add Beloit College, not Berkeley or Brown;  St. John's College in Annapolis, not Stanford.

Colleges That Change Lives

His book, Colleges That Change Lives, is #1 on my recommended books to read for prospective applicants and their parents.  If I could, I would buy hundreds of copies of this book and just give them away to all my clients and to all who attend my free high school talks.  If you just read the first 20 pages or so, it will be enough. You will be troubled, then swayed by the power of his words.  He begins the 2006 edition of his book thus:  You don't have to be one of the jittery millions of wannabes anxiously fattening resumes to impress some high-status school that won't do nearly as much for you as one of the catalytic colleges that really wants you.  He continues later: ...you don't have to be an A student to have a better-than-Ivy-college experience that will make you a smarter, better, and more confident and effective person.  These mostly unselective schools--that really want you--have long been proving that they're unparalleled in changing lives. The forty or so schools profiled in his book have paid no fees to be included.  Over the years, Pope has included...and removed....schools that in his sole judgment and expertise, are model institutions that do change student lives.

These are very strong words, so much so that a group of college professionals in the States have started a non-profit organization to continue the mission of Loren Pope.  On their website www.ctcl.org, they explain their purpose.

CTCL is dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process. Namely, we work to educate families that the criteria used by most college bound students and their counselors, such as name and prestige, do not acknowledge the importance of understanding an individual student’s needs and how they “fit” with the mission and identity of an individual college community.

I don't know of another book which has spawned an entire organization dedicated to its premise.  CTCL tours the US and the world along with representatives of many of their many colleges spreading their gospel of a student centered college search and the importance of a broad based liberal arts education.  They came to the Philippines in early 2013 and I'm hoping that they will visit again soon.  We all need to hear what they have to say.



The IB: Why Should I Take It and What Happens if I Don't

Friday, July 11, 2014
ten reasons to take ib 

In the last post, I wrote about the IB and described what it was what it entailed. The questions that now come up are: why should I take it and what happens if I don't?

For many students, they will take the IB simply because they are interested (at least preliminarily) in college abroad. And students who don't take it have the perception that doing so is just a waste of time because they have no intentions of going abroad. I think both schools of thought are dead wrong. 

The IB is rigorous and challenging. I think I demonstrated that in my previous post. Ideally, I think one should undertake the IB simply because it is rigorous and challenging regardless of your college plans. IB trains you to modify your way of approaching learning and school from that of a child to that of an adult, and to that of a passionate learner. I think those are more than enough reasons to undertake the IB and will serve you well regardless of where you go to college.

Does the IB help you in your applications to colleges abroad? Undoubtedly, yes! Colleges (especially the more competitive ones) in the US appreciate and look for rigor in your high school curriculum. They like to see students challenge themselves and take the most rigorous classes possible. The IB is definitely that. US colleges universally agree that IB serves as an excellent preparation for the high standards of university level work.

That said, the IB is NOT a requirement for admission even to the most competitive US colleges and universities. It would be nice to have it and it's a boost but it won't disqualify you if you don't have it. If you have the opportunity to take it and you didn't, it does raise a red flag in the mind of many admissions officers. They'll wonder if you tried to take the easier way out in order to pad your grades and avoid getting weaker grades for taking harder classes. Oh..they hate that...don't ever play that game of taking easier classes to get easy A's. The IB is a requirement though if you intend to apply to Canada or the UK. The Brits and Canadians don't really trust the Philippine high school diploma. If you have (or will have) the IB though, then they will look at your qualifications as exceeding that of the Philippine high school graduate, exceeding that of even the regular Canadian or British high school graduate.

For most though, the question is: I go to a high school that does not offer IB. Am I at a competitive disadvantage to kids who did go to a high school with IB and have (or will have) the IB Diploma? Should I have transferred to ISM for high school? The answer is no....you are not at a disadvantage simply because you did not have IB. Why? Because applications are read in context. What does that mean? Reading in context means you are assessed according to your circumstances. If you didn't go to a high school that offered IB, how is that your fault? If you went ahead and did the best you could at your non-IB high school and are developing into a mature, well balanced adult, that will be taken as a positive by admission committees. In other words, it's not your fault and no, you didn't need to have transferred to ISM. You're fine where you are. Bloom where you are planted. 

Another reason to take IB: if you do go abroad, if you get at least a 5 in your HL classes, you can use them to get around certain classes in college. In some institutions, they will grant you credit for SL classes you do well in too. I have a friend whose daughter goes to Boston University and her IB classes got her a year's worth of credit. She will be graduating after only three years. What a savings! The IB is now being recognized as well in more and more Philippine universities. UP, for instance, automatically admits IB Diploma graduates. It also grants university credit. Ateneo, in its shameful ignorance, recognizes IB only as a valid high school program but will not offer automatic admission or any course credit. La Salle is little better.

The IB: What is it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

If you're applying to US colleges from the Philippines, you may have already heard of something called the IB or the International Baccalaureate. In your college research, you will have probably discovered that US colleges love this and something else called AP (that's pretty rare here in the Philippines and we won't talk about it here) Very few high schools in the Philippines offer the IB as part of their curriculum choices (there are only fifteen at last count) but many candidates are curious and want to know what it is (addressed in this post) and how it will affect their applications going forward (addressed in the next post). 

The International Baccalaureate Organization (www.ibo.org) was founded in 1968 in Geneva as a way for students studying outside their home countries to obtain the necessary qualifications to go to college in their home country. Over the years it has expanded to four different programs: the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, and the new Career Related Certificate. For the purposes of this post, we will limit our discussion to the Diploma Programme (by the way, this is their spelling, not mine) which covers the high school and is what universities are interested in.

The Diploma Programme (DP) is a two year commitment begun in the junior year of high school (11th grade or High 3), continues onto the senior year (12th grade or High 4) and culminates in final exams after the second year. These exams are administered worldwide by the IBO office in Geneva in May and November. Students here normally take the May administration and yes, if you are doing this you need to return to school in May after you graduate in March to take the exams. You cannot do the DP for only one year...it's two years or nothing and you MUST take the final exams (external assessments they call them) that will cover TWO years of material.

 If your high school offers the IB, it will normally have you leave the regular curriculum stream of your high school and go into the IB stream. The IB curriculum requires that you take six IB classes in each of six distinct areas: language acquisition (a language outside your native language), language and literature (normally English for us), individuals and society (social science, business, psychology), mathematics, science (normally physics, chemistry, and biology for us), and arts (drama, film, dance, music). Students have the option of forgoing arts and picking up a second course in any of the five other areas (usually students pick a second science). Three of the six courses must be taken at "higher level" (HL) and the other three at "standard level" (SL), the choice of which courses to take HL or SL is left up to the student and will normally correspond to the student's interests (or lack thereof) in the various subjects. Each of the courses is marked 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). In addition to the classwork, a DP candidate is required to take a class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), submit an extended essay (I call it a term paper), and perform Community, Action, and Service (CAS) hours. To get your diploma, you must get at least 24 points (you get the number of points equal to your grade in each of your 6 IB classes and anywhere from 0 to 3 points for CAS, TOK, and your extended essay). The perfect score is 45 points (get all 7s in your six classes and all three points for your CAS, TOK and extended essay).

For example, I have two students who took the IB and here are their course lists and results

 Student A:

 Math HL: 7  Physics HL: 7 Geography HL: 6 
Chinese SL: 5 English SL: 5 Chemistry SL: 6 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 3/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 39 

Note that this student did not take the Arts class and instead substituted it with a second science

Student B:

 Business Management HL: 6 English HL: 6 Visual Arts HL: 4 
Math SL: 5 Physics SL: 5 Chinese SL: 4 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 2/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 32 

 Note that this student did the Arts class and did it at Higher Level. In both cases, the student was awarded the Diploma. Note that in addition to the minimum 24 points, there are other requirements.

IB spongebob

If after reading all that, you decide that the IB must be very hard, then you've come to a fairly accurate conclusion. I say "fairly accurate" because I would say that the IB is rigorous rather than just plain "very difficult". The IB classes require much much more than rote memorization, taking multiple guess exams, and writing the occasional trite essay. It demands depth of understanding and thinking that most high school students (even the very best ones) are not accustomed to. This is where most of the perceived difficulty of IB lies. That said, the IB was not designed solely for the smart, it really was aimed at average students. Given that, the true challenge of IB is time management. It is really easy to become swamped in the myriad requirements, assessments, and preparation required to succeed in the IB. 

The question you must be asking yourself now is: is it all worth it? How will this affect my chances at the most competitive US colleges if my high school does not offer IB? All this and more in our next episode....

Underestimating the College Application Essay

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

In my last blog post, I wrote about how people tended to overemphasize the importance of the SAT in the US college admission process. In this post, I will write about how people tend to underestimate the essay.

My client who excitedly told me about his good performance in the last SAT also forgot to turn in the latest (third) draft of his application essay which I asked for three weeks ago.  To his credit, he said he will turn in his latest essay draft this week.  It's a real pain, this essay thing.  Having to run after drafts from clients is clearly my least favorite thing to do as an independent college counselor.  But I take encouragement in the fact that this young man is already on the third draft of his essay...and it's only July.  Our aim is to have everything done by October so he can apply Early Action to some universities on his list.  So far so good.


For most prospective US college applicants though, the essay hasn't taken shape yet.  They're too busy....studying for the SATs!  Well, actually, with the new academic year just having kicked off here in Manila, they're probably busy with school.  It's an understandable situation...who has time to write the application essay when it isn't really due until late December (for Regular Decision candidates)?  It's easy to put something like that off...sort of like going to see the dentist.  It's something that must be done but is so incredibly unpleasant.  But it is something that must be done and if it needs to be done, it is best that it be done quickly.

How important is the application essay really?  Well, that really depends.  As a general rule, the larger the university the less emphasis is given to the essay.  In these cases, the large applicant pool makes it difficult to give each and every essay the thorough going over it deserves.  Large state universities tend to emphasize grades, high school academic rigor, and test scores more.  But if you start applying to more selective colleges, the essay becomes more and more important.  Consider Stanford:  they receive almost 40,000 applications and admit only about 2200 students.  For the most part, a large majority of of these 40,000 applications are from students with truly impressive academic credentials and extracurricular involvement.   But that's clearly not enough; Stanford turned away 60% of all applicants who had scored a perfect 2400 on the SATs.  So what's left?  You guessed it....the essay.  The essay becomes the one opportunity most candidates have to stand out among their peers.  A great essay will make a candidate stick out like a hot pink jacket in a roomful of blue, black and gray suits.  You want admissions officers to remember you (in a good way) when they're looking through those 40,000 applications.  Even in less competitive but smaller schools like Santa Clara, the essay helps the admissions committee see what kind of person you are and whether or not you would be a good fit for them.  Although the essay by itself will not determine admission or denial (unless the essay is in incredibly bad taste), the essay carries considerable weight in the final outcome.  Most international students compete for slots in these kinds of universities so writing a solid application essay is very important.

So how does one write an essay that will knock the socks off the admissions committee?  Well, a truly good application essay is personal, well written and is in the student's voice.  A good personal essay requires deep thought and reflection and this comes only with....TIME.  You need time to write a good application essay, a lot of it.  Consider this prompt from the Common Application.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

A lot of candidates will sit and write about the beach or the mountains or their favorite room in their house.  But look again at the prompt.  It doesn't say talk about the place, it says what do you do or experience there and WHY IS IT MEANINGFUL TO YOU?  For this prompt, you need to determine the place you will talk about then connect it to yourself.  You have to write about this in a way that will grab your reader's attention.  You have to convey yourself in the 650 word limit of the application essay.  Not the sort of thing you can do in the last few days of December with the application deadline looming.  So when should you start?  I don't think that the summer before your senior year is too early to begin the reflection process and start writing a first draft.  If you start the entire application process when you start school in June, it's not too late certainly but you'll be more pressed for time.  In the case of the client I cited above, we started working on his essay in March and through the summer.  Again, he is now writing the third draft of his essay.

The take home message in all this is that you must start early.  You must put in the time and reflection needed to write a really good application essay.  You need the time to write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.  This is probably the most important essay that you will have written thus far in your life so you need to make it a good one.  Find a good college counselor to help you through the writing process.

Maybe you should put the SAT review book down and spend that time thinking, reflecting, and writing.

Your SAT Results and You

Sunday, June 29, 2014



With the recent release of the results of last June 7th's SAT administration, I got this text from a client.

"Sir," he excitedly began, "I got a 2040 in my SAT!"

Wonderful, I thought to myself.  He had been hoping to break 2000 on his SATs and he did.  He had worked hard and deserved to get the reward of a good score.  His total score rose almost 150 points from the last time he took the test.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his achievement, as happy as he and I were about it, is probably not going to change his college prospects all that significantly.  Don't get me wrong, a better score is better than a good one any day of the week but I sincerely doubt that his admission prospects to his favorite colleges changed all that much.  

What most students (and parents) don't understand is that an SAT score--by itself--will not get a student into a college or university.  A higher SAT score--by itself--will not get a student into a more competitive college than he or she would have otherwise been admitted to.  I think this misconception is rooted in the admission practices of colleges here in the Philippines.  At Philippine colleges, college entrance test results (UPCAT, ACET, etc.) weigh heavily in the admission decision.  Therefore, it's sometimes difficult for people here to understand how the SAT can be viewed as anything but absolutely crucial.

The SAT is important but it only acts to support your academic achievement over your years in high school (i.e. you grades).  US colleges weight your grades much more heavily than your test scores.  If you think about it, it makes sense.  Your grades are a (in my opinion, incomplete) reflection of the work you did in four years of high school.  The SAT is a reflection of the work you did in four hours on a Saturday morning.  Which do you think is a better reflection of what you can really do academically?

Put another way, if you have a B average in high school but did fantastically well on your SAT--let's say you scored a perfect 2400--don't start packing your bags for Harvard or Stanford quite yet.  Impressive as your SAT scores are, you will still be judged primarily on your B average.   Admission officers may even raise a red flag over this rather large disparity between your grades and your score.  If you are so brilliant as to get a perfect score on the SAT, why don't your grades reflect that?  Were you lazy or disinterested in class?  Or was the school incredibly grade stingy?  One or the other, the answer will usually come out in the profile your school will provide or in the recommendations your teachers will write.  Closer to home, I know someone who did very well in his SATs (2250) but was still turned down by a couple of top flight US universities.  I think it was primarily because of a less than absolutely stellar GPA (3.61).  


Students sometimes take the SAT over and over in an attempt to get maybe another hundred points or so and maybe they can get into the next tier of competitive universities.  For the reasons I just gave, I think these folks are just wasting their time and money.  However, if you took and the test and feel you've underperformed relative to your abilities then by all means, take the test again.  What I mean is let's say you have a very high GPA but you had a bad hair day on SAT Saturday and you did not do well at all.  In this case, I'd say go ahead and take the test again.  But be aware there's a point where the gains you might make in taking yet another time will begin to diminish and sometimes even regress.  I would normally not recommend you take the SAT more than twice maybe three times.  More than three times and it's a waste of time and money.

I think people get fixated on the SAT because it's in a way very sexy.  It's a number. You can get yourself to believe that a high enough number will unlock doors for you.   People also think it's the only thing they can do to compensate for any holes they perceive in their grades.  High scores will deodorize less than great grades.  Not so!

Don't overprepare for the SAT.  By all means, know what the test is about and be familiar with the questions.  Have a feel for how you will pace yourself over the course of this long exam (almost four hours).  Hire a tutor, take a class, or simply buy a review book.  I know of students who prepare hours and hours every Saturday of the summer before their senior year.  Wow, what an absolute waste of time.  I wish the student had spent his time more productively like watching movies with his friends, going outside and playing basketball, or reading a good book.  

Or maybe even start writing the first drafts of their college application essay.  Now there's something....

Why Go to Harvard When You Can Opt for an Asian Ivy League

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I saw this article posted on Facebook page and I had to say something.  I think the title misses the point of why we should think about going to college abroad.

The article looks at some prestigious Asian universities:  National University of Singapore, University of Hong Kong, Peking University, University of Tokyo, Seoul National University and Tsinghua University and asks why go far away when we have these guys here?  Not sure you can call these guys the Ivy League of Asia because they don't play sports against one another (remember that the Ivy League is an athletic, not an academic league).  I do agree with the premise of the article:  we have some top notch universities in this part of the world and we certainly don't have to fly across the planet to get (and pay for) a great education.  


The title though seems to imply that the Ivy League is the raison d'etre for going to college in America.  If you've read articles in my blog, you already know what I think of the Ivy League...and it doesn't bear repeating here.  The purpose of going to college (not just abroad but locally as well) is to have a potentially life-changing and transformative personal, academic and yes, spiritual, experience.  It's important when searching for a university to attend that we go beyond the name and reputation and ask "what can this college or university do FOR ME?"  How will this college help me grow as a person, as a student, and prepare me for life (not just a job) after graduation?  I've said over and over that you need to find a FIT.  Find the university that is right for you and your style of learning, name and reputation be damned.

 It's not a matter of simply saying "Oh we have top rank universities in Asia, you don't need to go to the States."  The academic and social experience of going to a college in Asia is totally different from the experience in the US and Canada and certainly different from what you would get here in the Philippines.  

One experience is not inherently better than the other, they're just different.

 If in the course of searching for your fit, you find that your place is in these Asian university heavyweights then by all means, you should go.  If your fit is here in the Philippines, then that's wonderful.  And if your fit is in the Ivy League, you should go there as well.

If the Forbes article above opens your eyes to possibilities in Asia that you may not have considered, that's great.  Just keep your eyes open and look for that fit.

Why Does College in the US Cost So Much?

Saturday, May 31, 2014




When the discussion turns to doing college work in the US, the issue of cost always comes up.  For many of my clients, cost is not an issue.  They are willing to pony up the funds necessary to pay full cost.  Be that as it may, the cost of a US college education is staggeringly high.  The cost to attend a Philippine college or university is quite low by comparison.  The cost of attending La Salle, for instance, is about Php210,000 or about $4,900 a year (based on an exchange rate of Php43 to $1).  UP is a measly Php45,000 or just over $1000 annually.   Harvard's total cost is $56,449 annually, NYU (the most expensive school in America) at $62,540, and state university heavweight UC Berkeley is going to make you over $52,000 poorer every year.  If you do the math, you will realize that you can send more than ten kids to La Salle for every year you are at Berkeley (more if you go to NYU).  You'll also see that the cost of a US college education is about Php 2.5 million a year or Php 10 million for the whole four year ride!  Certainly enough to make one's head spin.  Something that should be noted is that I compared cost of attendance figures, i.e. I only quoted tuition fees for Philippine schools since our students don't normally live on campus.  The case is not the same for US schools where our students typically live and eat in the residence halls so I've added the significant cost of room and board.

And the cost of education has spiraled too.  Back in 1983, when I started college, I remembered Santa Clara charged me an annual tuition fee of $5,607.  Room and board put my costs at just under $10,000.  Fast forward thirty years later to 2013, had my son attended Santa Clara, it would have cost our family over $43,000 annually to have Tyler roam the hallowed halls of the Mission Campus WITHOUT the cost of room and board.  Eeesh!  So why does it cost so much?

Before I even attempt to answer that question, let me just say that this is a question that more knowledgeable people than I have struggled with.  Countless articles have been written and books published (Why Does College Cost So Much by Archibald and Feldman) on this very topic.  People have speculated on the impact on American society when something as basic as a college education is prohibitively expensive and how spiraling student debt is going to affect the US in the coming years.   I won't even try to address those issues.  But let me try to give some thoughts.

1.  Building and maintaining physical assets.  Anyone who has ever visited an American university campus always marvels at the quality of the physical facilities.  Residence halls come complete with high speed Internet access, workout facilities, suites with kitchenettes, and large screen high definition television sets in the common areas.  They can sometimes rival high end hotels.  Roam around campus and you'll see vast expanses of beautifully manicured lawns meticulously (and expensively) maintained.  If you  Image


visit some large state universities, you'll see football stadiums and basketball arenas worthy of hosting professional teams.  All these cost money...a lot of it!  And much of the space is unused for significant portions of the year.  These palatial dorms are idle in the summer months and the football stadium is at full capacity only for some weekends in the fall.  And the food!  Cafeteria food has come a long way since I was in college and while yes, it is still cafeteria food, we didn't have sushi, vegetarian,  and vegan options as well as grilled selections made to order.  All this is done to attract students to come and enroll.  Students bring in much needed tuition money and fill the beds in the residence halls.

2.  Costs of Competing for Students.  Costs have spiraled because university administrators have allowed it to spiral.  They take the extra revenue and set it aside to attract superior students with grants and merit scholarships.  These grants and merit scholarships are just dressed up tuition discounts so a student the college is wooing may end up paying only $10,000 when the sticker price is $60,000.  The student is made to think that he/she is getting a prestigious $50,000 scholarship when in actuality, the college is just giving him/her a discount from the price they had jacked up to begin with!  What happens though to the poor schmoe who isn't quite attractive enough to get as large a discount?  Well, he or she is just given some kind of financial aid package which is packed with loans and such.  These loans are what causes a student to be, on the average, about $30,000 is debt by the time he/she graduates The good news for us international students is that we don't qualify for these loans so we are never in the hole for $30,000 at graduation.  We just don't get to go to college in the US period.

3.  Colleges have no incentive to compete on costs.  A college education is considered so basic now that people in the US will obtain it for their children regardless of the cost.  More and more, a simple college degree is not enough.  The thinking now is that the degree has to come from a name brand, ranked institution.  The colleges don't compete on cost, they compete on prestige.  When it comes to US higher education, prestige is becoming more and more the coin of the realm (and real education less and less).  I remember a case where a student wanted to attend the more prestigious and more expensive New York University (NYU) instead of the cheaper (and supposedly less prestigious) state university of New Jersey, Rutgers.  NYU would have put the poor child in serious debt at graduation while Rutgers would have allowed him to carry a more modest burden.  This race to be seen as more prestigious and to climb the rankings is what causes colleges to spend money on reason numbers 1 and 2 above which escalates this upward spiral.

Make no mistake.  College in the US is expensive.  Even back in 1983 when costs may be seen as more modest, it was still expensive.  Ultimately, the choice comes to one of value....do you value the difference of an American education so much as to pay a substantial premium?

Or you could send your kid to Canada where the cost of education is about 50% lower than in the United States.


Related article:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/the-high-price-of-a-free-college-education-in-sweden/276428/.  A college education is free in Sweden but not as free as some would think.



June 5, 2014 Update: Trailer for upcoming documentary called Ivory Tower https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLdU7uts4ws

August 30, 2014 Update: Last year, only nine colleges in the US cost more than $60,000 annually.  This year, that number rose to FIFTY.  From just nine to FIFTY.  Wow!


John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

+63 (917) 833-3825

John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines


+63 (917) 833-3825

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