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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.