College Counseling FAQs

What Students and Parents Are Asking

The college process can seem overwhelming, and students and parents alike have myriad questions. Here we answer some of the most common questions about college preparation, application, and selection.

 

What should I do in high school to prepare for college?

You should throw yourself into all aspects of your life as a student. Work hard in your classes to learn as much as you can and build study skills that will serve you in college. If you find a subject you really love, take another class in the same subject or consider learning more about it in your own time. Do activities - two or three are fine - that interest you, and think about taking on leadership positions in them. Get to know your favorite teachers! This is easy to do at Westtown, whether it’s by getting extra help before a test, joining a club or activity the teacher sponsors, working with them on an extra project, or simply hanging out on the weekends or in the dining room. Along with academic learning, your job is also to learn to take care of yourself: eating and sleeping well, exercising, enjoying free time, spending time with friends and family, and asking for help when you need it.

Should I take an easier class and get an A or a harder class and get a B?

This is a very popular question! The easy answer (easy to say) is that you should take the harder class and get an A. It’s a little more complicated, though - you can’t take every hard class, or what’s easy for you might be hard for someone else. The best plan is to work with your teachers, advisor, and, eventually, your college counselor to build a course plan that is interesting and challenging without being too hard or too easy.

What activities should I do in high school?

Do the activities that are most interesting to you. It doesn’t matter what you do - any activity is good. Just being a student and fulfilling the co-curricular requirement (sports or another activity) takes a lot of time already. If you have more time, consider adding a club, job, committee, or leadership role. Remember that colleges want to know how you spend your time. ou don’t have to spend all of your time at Westtown - jobs, family chores, babysitting, youth group, summer camp, and travel can all count. After you’ve done an activity for a year or so, think about how you can deepen your commitment or take on a leadership role. Or, if you do something outside of school, think of how you can bring it to Westtown - or how your Westtown club or committee can have an impact on the larger community.

What should I do in the summer?

Keep busy! Yes, take time to rest and relax, but summer is also a great time to get a job, work on a hobby or service project, take a class, go to camp, travel, or help your family. You don’t have to pay for fancy pre-college programs or leadership camps - regular old jobs can teach you even more and actually look better on your college applications. If you want to take summer classes, Westtown summer school or local colleges - even community colleges - are great options. It’s more important to choose a school where you will earn credit than a non-credit program at a prestigious university. You should make the most of your summer through a combination of work, service, sports, hobbies, or whatever you like best.

How do I get into a highly selective college?

Here’s the truth: For highly selective colleges (those that admit less than 10% of their applicants, like Princeton, Penn, Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, MIT, U. of Chicago, Pomona, Columbia, Northwestern, Duke) you need to be extraordinary, not just the best at your school but the best at a state or even national level, both within and beyond academics. You need to earn straight As for all of high school and take several advanced courses every year - more in junior and senior year. You need high test scores - 1500+ for the SAT and 33+ for the ACT. Then, you need a hook - something else that you bring to college, such as being a nationally ranked athlete, a widely recognized fundraiser for a worthy cause, or a contestant on teen Jeopardy.  You also need to be the kind of student and community member who will earn glowing recommendations from teachers.. Finally, you need to do and be all of these things sincerely, because you love them  - not just to earn points or get into a good college.

Of course, this is an incredibly demanding standard to meet, and you could do all of these things and still not be admitted to a college like Stanford, which denies 95% of its applicants. At Westtown, we focus on helping you find colleges that will be a good fit for you. If those include highly selective colleges because of what they can offer you, great. If not, there are over 2000 four-year colleges in the U.S., and you can have an amazing experience at any of them.

Do I have to pay a lot for a summer trip or program to help me get into college?

Summer trips and programs can be great experiences and a lot of fun, but no, they don’t give an advantage in the college application process. Colleges know that many families can’t afford expensive camps, trips, or service programs, and they don’t want to penalize those students. So, they don’t give a lot of attention to the programs that cost a lot of money, especially those that don’t award academic credit. What’s more important is that you keep busy. Working at a summer job can earn you money while helping you learn skills you’ll never get in high school - yes, even working at Wawa. If you babysit or help care for elderly relatives, colleges want to know about that - it shows that you enjoy  helping other people. You can find affordable online or community college classes where you can earn college credit for much less than at expensive pre-college programs at prestigious colleges.

If you do want to do a summer program and it’s hard for your family to afford it, come see a college counselor for more help. There are some low-cost or scholarship-based summer programs. Plan way ahead, though - application deadlines can be as early as January.

Should I take as many advanced courses as possible?

You should take the appropriate number for you, which might be zero, one, or more. Talk with your teachers, advisor, and college counselor for more help with course planning. In general, though, if you end ninth or tenth grade with As and Bs, especially if you earn mostly As, it might be a good time to consider taking an advanced course the following year.

Should I take AP or SAT Subject Tests?

It depends. Colleges do not emphasize AP scores in admission; they’re most interested in whether you take challenging classes and do well in them. Please note that we offer a much broader, deeper, and more complex curriculum than the AP, which is why we don’t offer AP classes and why our classes won’t necessarily prepare you well for AP tests. It is far more important to do well in challenging Westtown classes than to score well on AP tests. College admissions representatives know that what you do every day, which is reflected in your transcript, matters more than what you did one day after cramming for a test. If you’re looking for a way to show you are ready for a rigorous college curriculum, Westtown’s advanced courses are our most appropriate options. Talk with your teachers, advisor, and college counselor about what choices make the most sense for you.  

Only five colleges still require SAT Subject Tests (CalTech, MIT, McGill, Cornell, Harvey Mudd). Another dozen or so recommend them, and some will look at them. So, if you’re not considering the 20 or so most selective colleges and universities, you can probably just skip SAT Subject Tests. If you think you might be interested in applying to a highly selective school, read on.

When you finish Precalculus, especially if you do so in ninth or tenth grade, you can take the Math 2 SAT Subject Test. (You can take Math 1 after you finish Algebra 2 and Geometry, but most people just wait and take Math 2.) You could take the US History SAT test after taking the US History course, but you should talk with your teacher and do extra preparation (same with AP US History). You could take the literature test (AP or SAT) around the end of junior year, especially if you take advanced English classes or earn As in English. You can take various AP or SAT tests in the sciences after taking three semesters of the subject - for instance, Chem 1, Chem 2, and an upper level chemistry elective. Talk with your science teacher for more help. Finally, you can take the AP or SAT in your foreign language, probably after finishing level 4, but talk more with your teacher about which test to take.

Note that the Westtown curriculum does not pertain to other history AP or SAT tests since the AP focuses on rote memorization and formulaic writing, while Westtown history classes focus on critical thinking, analysis of primary and secondary texts, research projects, and presentations, all of which are crucial skills for college and difficult to measure on a standardized test.

How do I begin to research colleges?

College research depends somewhat on when you begin. If you’re in ninth or tenth grade, you can begin very casually by driving through a college campus, attending a concert, stopping in for lunch or coffee, or visiting a college when you go see friends or relatives. If you’re a parent hoping to start your teenager thinking about college, these are good ways to start. We college counselors advise that you should visit a variety of schools - big, small, near, far, urban, rural. Close to Westtown you can see Drexel or Penn (urban, private universities), Temple (urban public), Villanova (mid-size, suburban, Catholic), Penn State Brandywine (public, suburban, likely your most affordable option if you live in state), University of Delaware (large public university in college town), and Ursinus (small, private, small town, home to several Westtown alumni). There are dozens more options ; in fact there are 75 four-year colleges within 60 miles of Westtown.

If you just want to look around online, college websites are good, but remember that they’re curated to show you only what a college wants you to see - especially on the admissions pages. To really get into what makes a college unique, look for student publications, student organizations’ social media accounts, YouTube channels, and other sources.

If you’re beginning to get an idea of what you want but you haven’t started our Junior Seminar class yet (our college counseling class in junior year), Big Future at College Board is a great search engine where you can search by major, school size, location, and other factors. The Princeton Review is also a great site with many unique college lists: Best Classroom Experience, Students Study the Most/Least, Happiest Students, Best College Food, and more.

Once you start Junior Seminar we’ll give you many more resources! Meanwhile, if you have questions, remember that your Westtown college counselors are happy to meet with you.

When and how should I visit colleges?

When you’re interested! Or, if you’re dragging your feet, it’s a good idea to start visiting colleges over spring break of your junior year. By then, we will have started Junior Seminar and you’ll have an idea of colleges you want to see. You can start by attending events on a college campus if you live close to one - movies, plays, lectures, concerts, games are all good choices - and pairing it with lunch, dinner, or coffee. Eavesdrop on students, read the bulletin boards, pick up any student publications you see , look at what events and activities are advertised. Talk to students and ask them what they like about their school. Talk to dining services and maintenance workers and ask if the students are respectful. Think about what’s important to you and see if there’s a club, committee, or activity pertaining to it on campus.

As you move into junior year, make your visits official by going to admissions and taking the tour. You usually need to sign up on the college’s website. You should also go to the information sessions they offer, but remember two things:

1. Often you will learn the most from students - a student talking about research or study abroad has lived it, while an admissions rep is often just selling it.

2. At the same time, don’t judge a school by one student. If you don’t like your tour guide, remember that there are hundreds or (usually) thousands of other students there - and try to talk with some of them.

Try not to visit more than two colleges in a day. If possible (it isn’t always), spreading out your visits might be easier on your family than seeing 10 colleges in four days. Take notes immediately after leaving if not during your visit.

What should I do about testing?

Everyone at Westtown takes the pre-ACT in tenth grade and the PSAT in eleventh grade. These practice tests will give us some idea of how you do on standardized tests. From there, you will work with your college counselor in junior year to make a plan for your testing. Almost all Westtown students take the SAT or ACT (either test is fine) at least once. Most take one or both tests twice. Occasionally a student will test a third time, but usually your score doesn’t vary much after your third time taking a test. A few colleges require SAT Subject Tests; see question Should I take AP or SAT Subject Tests? about AP/SAT Subject Tests.

When should I do test prep?

The earliest we recommend test prep is the summer after tenth grade. By that point, you will have had the required coursework you need, and you’ll be close enough to taking the SAT or ACT for any preparation to be helpful. You have many choices for test preparation:

  • working on your own with a book or website (free or low-cost, easy to schedule, but you need to be disciplined)

  • taking a class (tends to be expensive, though there is financial aid available for Kaplan courses offered at Westtown; they take several hours a week and require lots of homework and practice tests, but you have a schedule set for you)

  • working with a private tutor (typically expensive; results vary based on your effort and the tutor’s knowledge; schedule is tailored to your needs)

  • not doing any test preparation at all.

Do I have to do test prep?

No, you don’t. It’s become part of the college admissions process for many students, but it remains optional. Look at the scores you earn on practice standardized tests; you will likely score similarly on the actual tests. Some students choose not to do additional test preparation because they prefer to apply to test-optional schools. Many students do some kind of preparation on their own but don’t want to spend the time, energy, or money on a class or tutor, and that’s fine too - there are lots of great, free, online resources for test preparation.

What does it mean if a school is test optional?

It means that they don’t require SAT or ACT scores for admission. Always double check the school’s website; sometimes they have other requirements like an extra essay or the submission of a graded school assignment. Also, some colleges are test optional except for particular programs, like nursing or engineering. Fairtest.org has a long list of more than 1000 test-optional colleges, including Ursinus, Dickinson, Temple, St. Joseph’s, Franklin and Marshall, Gettysburg, Skidmore, American, George Washington, Bates, Bard, Bowdoin, University of Chicago, Mount Holyoke, Wake Forest, and many more.

Should I apply test optional?

It depends. What kind of college are you seeking? Typically, large public universities are not test optional (although Temple is) and small private colleges more often are (except the most selective, like Haverford and Swarthmore). A college that is test optional is, by definition, considering who you are beyond your test scores. If that sounds good to you, look closely at these schools.

When does college counseling start at Westtown?

Students and parents are welcome to consult us at any time. Note that the months of September and October are especially busy for our seniors, and we give them priority at that time. We have programming for all grades in high school and make announcements and presentations to freshmen and sophomores as well as juniors and seniors. We really kick into gear in the junior year with our Junior Seminar class, which starts in January. In December or January we will begin to meet with juniors in groups and let them express a preference for a college counselor, if they have one.  

What is Junior Seminar?

Junior Seminar is the first college counseling class at Westtown, taken in the spring semester of junior year. In this class, students explore the many college options available and assess what they are seeking. Through self-reflection exercises, research questions, readings, trips to college fairs, Common Application work, essay brainstorming, and our college interview workshop with admissions officers, students begin to develop their college list for additional research, visits, and - eventually - application, while developing the skills they’ll need along the way.

What parent or family programs are offered for college counseling at Westtown?

We offer programs during Parents’ Day for families and for families of juniors. For parents/guardians of seniors, we have a program when students return to campus in the fall. We also offer open houses during move-in day for athletes. Parents or other family members are always welcome to email us, call us, or set up a meeting with one of us.

When should I apply to college?

Most Westtown students, including recruited athletes, apply to college in the fall of their senior year. A few will do one or two applications over the summer, but most of the time students work on their applications during the fall, with the support of our Senior Seminar college counseling class.

What is Senior Seminar?

Senior Seminar is a year-long course during the senior year with two parts. The first semester focuses on the college application process, including completing the Common Application and other applications, writing essays, sending test scores, interviewing, meeting with college representatives who visit Westtown, applying for financial aid, finding scholarships, and more. The second semester is taught by our Health and Life Skills department and focuses on transitioning to college, including social and community responsibility, health and wellness, independent living, and stress management.

Do college admissions representatives know about Westtown?

They certainly do! Over 120 college representatives visit every fall and meet with interested juniors and seniors. (It’s okay to miss class occasionally for these meetings if you have your teacher’s permission ahead of time.) The college counselors also visit colleges every year to both learn about their programs and to help them get to know Westtown. Whenever a student applies to a college, we also send along our school profile, which gives a snapshot of our academic programs and unique offerings. We also attend conferences and workshops that give us more opportunities to help college admissions people learn about Westtown. Finally, you can thank the Westonians who went before you! Colleges keep track of how many applications they get from a high school, the outcome, and how well admitted students do at the college. Once a college admissions officer gets to know Westtown, they are eager to attract more of our students.

What if I don’t have a lot of money to apply to college?

If you are concerned about paying for application fees, test score reports, and other costs associated with paying for college, please talk with your college counselor. There is support available from Westtown, the testing services, and the colleges for students who clearly demonstrate significant financial need.

What if I’m concerned about paying for college?

Almost everyone is concerned about paying for college, so you’re not alone. Colleges will expect parents to contribute 22 - 48% of their adjusted gross income after some allowances (a higher percentage for higher incomes). You can visit the FAFSA4caster to get an estimate of your family’s expected financial contribution (EFC). However, this number can often be more than a family can actually afford, and even if you qualify for a lot of financial aid, that often just means that the college will offer you more loans. If you’re hoping for merit aid (free money for being a great student), remember that you will need to be in the top 10-20% of the applicant pool to be a strong contender. f you want to be a strong candidate for merit aid, you should consider somewhat less selective colleges. The Ivies and many highly and some moderately selective colleges focus on need-based aid and don’t offer merit aid. The more concerned a student or their parents are about paying for college, the more important it is to work hard in high school so you will be more attractive to colleges, both for admission and financial aid. Talk with your family early in high school and use the FAFSA4caster to get an idea of what colleges will expect you to pay. The most affordable options are likely to be public in-state colleges and universities and those where you are a good contender for merit aid. Even when colleges meet 100% of demonstrated financial need, you will almost always have loans as part of your package, which merit aid can help mitigate. This is a complex topic, so talk with your college counselor if cost is important to you in your college search.

How do I show a college I’m interested?

First, see if the college cares about your interest, also known as “tracking demonstrated interest.” You can find this out by asking at a college’s admissions information session, but there are other ways to check. Collegedata.com is a searchable database of colleges. Search for your college, click on “Admission” and then scroll down to “Selection of Students.” For Swarthmore College, for instance, “Level of Applicant’s Interest” is considered. Another good rule of thumb is to consider the college’s size and to see if they offer interviews. Generally, smaller colleges and those that offer interviews care more about a student’s interest. Highly selective colleges, such as those in the Ivy League, don’t care about demonstrated interest - they just assume everyone is interested.

So, if your college cares: every interaction with the college can earn you points for demonstrated interest. If it comes down to a decision between two students, the one who has been more interested is thought to be more likely to attend, and thus is more likely to be admitted. Visiting a college, interviewing, attending an information session, meeting a college representative who visits Westtown, talking with a college representative at a college fair, and sending a thank you note or follow up question are all good ways to demonstrate your interest. We will talk more about this in Junior and Senior Seminar, and your college counselor will remind you if needed!

Should I interview at my colleges?

Generally, if a college offers interviews and you can get to campus, you should. Many colleges will also offer phone, Skype, or alumni interviews to those at a distance. If you can’t get to campus or the thought of interviewing prompts significant anxiety, talk with your college counselor about your plans. Westtown students are excellent interviewees, and we have a workshop in May for juniors to practice interview skills with admissions representatives from colleges like Villanova, Dickinson, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Franklin & Marshall. We will also practice interview skills in Junior Seminar, and your college counselor is always happy to give you a mock interview for extra practice.

What do I do when I get into college?

Celebrate! Tell your family and loved ones, and be sure to tell your college counselor. Then, take some time to consider your options, look at the cost of the college, and make your plans: Do you want to visit again? Is there someone on campus (student, professor, admissions person) who could help you make your decision? Do you want to dive deeper into their academic offerings? Is this college affordable for your family?

What if I get bad news from a college?

Take time to feel sad, and seek support from your loved ones. Then, please let your college counselor know, and we can help you change your plans or make new ones, if needed. Fear not - you will go to college and have a great life, even if you have some setbacks along the way.

How can I support a friend who gets news from a college?

Notice that we didn’t specify what kind of news, because you should be supportive of both good and bad news. If a friend gets good news, congratulate them! Tell them the college is lucky to have them. Don’t say, “You can do better” or ask, “Where’s that? I never heard of it.” Trust that they have done their college homework and say, “That’s so exciting! Tell me more about it.”

For bad news, don’t denigrate the college - this is a place your friend really likes! Instead, focus on how great your friend is. “They would have been lucky to have you,” is good to say, because it’s true.

If you feel worried about your friend and think they need more support, talk with a prefect, dorm parent, advisor, dean, or another adult. Don’t wait if you or a friend need help.

How do I make my college decision?

There are many ways to make this decision, but most students find it helpful to visit the colleges again, talk with their loved ones, meet with their college counselor, and take some time to contemplate. Some students will need to choose the most affordable option, and if cost is a deciding factor, be sure to tell your college counselor. We can help you to compare financial aid offers and to ask colleges if there’s any flexibility in their aid award. All seniors will decide and make their deposit by May 1 of the senior year - this is the national reply date for college admissions. At Westtown, it’s a day to celebrate!

What do I do when I’ve been admitted and I know where I want to go?

When you’re ready, make your deposit to the college and tell any other colleges you won’t be attending. You can only attend one college, so take your time and make your enrollment deposit to just one. Finally, remember to say thank you to your family and teachers, especially those who wrote a recommendation for you, proofread your essays, or helped you in another way. For extra preparation for college life, the second semester of Senior Seminar, taught by our Health and Life Skills faculty, will guide you through health and wellness in college.

What if I want to take a gap year?

First, you should still apply to college during your senior year, using all the resources Westtown college counseling has to offer. Typically a few students each year defer their college entrance to travel, do service, work for a political campaign, or have some other experience. Colleges are generally happy to allow you to defer enrollment for a year, once you’ve been admitted and shown a commitment to the college by making a deposit. Usually, they want you to have a project in mind, or a reason to take a gap year such as recovery from illness or the need to care for family. What colleges usually don’t want you to do is take a lot of courses somewhere else - typically they want you to focus on their college for your academics and use your gap year for something completely different. We have a collection of gap year resources to help you decide what to do during your year and you can also talk with your college counselor.

What if I don’t like my college?

First, give it at least a semester and perhaps a full year before deciding to transfer. It’s normal to not like your college sometimes - you might even have thought that occasionally about Westtown! If you become certain it’s not just a temporary feeling, do some research and think about where you might find a better fit. We are happy to help you by talking through options and sending your transcript; we don’t end our relationship with you once you graduate. Typically, for transfer applications, colleges will want to see a strong GPA in college and recommendations from professors, not high school teachers, so it’s important to give your best at your current college and cultivate relationships with the faculty. You should also focus narrowly this time around - transfer students usually apply to a few colleges, or just one, rather than five or ten. Sometimes students go through the transfer process and decide to stay where they are, and sometimes they find a better place.

What next?

Next, you get to go to college! Only 7 percent of adults worldwide and 32 percent of American adults have a college degree, so you are lucky indeed. Enjoy yourself, make new friends, explore your options, make some spectacular mistakes, try again, and let us know how you’re doing.  We love to hear from our graduates!
College Counseling Important Dates:
    • TueDec03 College Kickoff for Juniors 2:00 PM to 3:00 PMEast End Collecting Room
    • TueDec03 College Kick-Off for Juniors 2:00 PM to 3:00 PMECR
    • SatDec07 SAT Science Center /Main Hall Classrooms (Girls End) and MH 004
    • SunJan12 Revolution Prep Free Practice Test - SAT 1:30 PM to 5:00 PMScience Lecture Hall
    • SunApr05 Revolution Prep Free Practice Test - SAT 1:30 PM to 5:00 PMScience Lecture Hall
    • SatApr11 ACT
    • SatMay02 SAT Science Center /Main Hall Classrooms (Girls End) and MH 004
    • TueMay19 Juniors attend Independent School College Fair 5:00 PM to 9:00 PMShipley
    • ThuMay21 College Fair at Villanova for 9th-11th Graders (optional) 5:00 PM to 9:00 PMVillanova
    • TueMay26 Junior College Interview Workshop 2:00 PM to 3:00 PMScience Center classrooms
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