Must You Know Your Major?

College-bound high school juniors and seniors routinely field two questions from friends and family members: where do you hope to attend, and what major will you declare? Now that many seniors are close to receiving replies to their school applications, the remaining question needlessly causes anxiety for some, and in many cases for their parents.

As a former Director of Academic Advising and Dean of First Year Students, my strong opinion is that most 17 and 18-year olds simply haven’t had sufficient life experience to make a solid choice. Data show that 70% of U.S. college freshmen either don’t know their major upon starting out, or change their major once or even multiple times. Not knowing is therefore the norm.

With the exception of highly sequenced programs, such as engineering and computer science, most students have a great deal of flexibility in their curricular requirements. Those registered for general education courses such as English, math, social and natural sciences, etc, ARE making progress toward graduation equivalent to their peers with declared majors. Between general studies and the electives that most colleges allow for, students at many colleges can progress as far as the mid-point of their sophomore year before being compelled to declare.

Ultimately, some students will fall in love with a subject upon taking a course from an inspiring professor. Others will get a clue from an intriguing internship or volunteer experience. For those who may need help, there are some excellent free sources of assistance available in the form of academic advisors, psychologists and especially, career counselors. Campus career professionals are experienced administrators of assessments that can identify aptitudes and interests and connect these with programs of study.

So, future collegians, enjoy your senior year of high school, but don’t slack off in your performance – colleges do check year-end grades! One thing you need not obsess about for some time is your future major.

Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D. is a part-time college faculty member and educational consultant in the Denver area.  Her website is

Straight from High School to College?

Myth: It’s important to launch your college career immediately after graduation from high school.

Not true!  In fact, a growing body of research in adolescent brain development offers clues as to why so many students get off to a rough start their first year in college, and why colleges see their highest attrition numbers (students who drop or stop-out) during or just after the first year of enrollment.
Now we are coming to understand that from a developmental perspective, high school seniors and college freshmen are better understood as late adolescents rather than as young adults. Neuroscientists have discovered that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain continues to develop in critically important ways until the age of 23 in some individuals. This section of the brain handles judgment, planning, and connections with other parts of the brain involved in learning, sensation seeking and emotion.
While some students may be farther along in the brain development process, and some are successful due to habits they’ve acquired such discipline and deferment of pleasure, others get themselves into trouble with poor judgment and impulsive actions. No doubt this is why a number of colleges promote the notion of a Gap Year, where students work, travel or engage in volunteer work for a year prior to starting college.  This more graduated transition helps many be more “ready” to balance the rigors and pressures of colleges with the independence it affords.
How to judge readiness for college?? A frank conversation between students and parents regarding the student’s track record in the last year with responsibility, multi-tasking and autonomy should identify if there are deficits.  If the student seems to have struggled, or doesn’t feel 100% ready to be on her/his own, a deferred start may provide just the seasoning that makes all the difference.
Lisa Ransdell, Ph.D.
Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC
Denver, CO

Sequencing College Planning Part II

In order to be optimally prepared when it’s time to begin applying to prospective colleges (fall-winter of your senior year), it helps to know that you’ve been thorough in your planning. The following is a list of things to be stressed in each year of high school in order to have that assurance:

Junior Year:

  • Continue core classes and extracurriculars as previously suggested;
  • Prepare for and take the ACT and/or SAT; take the pressure off by knowing you can repeat these tests if necessary, and that only your highest scores will count;
  • Begin to explore colleges by viewing websites and making visits when you can; try and visit a college campus whenever you are traveling; attend college fairs at your school;
  • Summer before senior year: Begin work on the Common Application ( – if you apply to schools that use the CA you’re well prepared; if you apply to schools that don’t use the CA you will likely be more than prepared.

Senior Year:

  • Complete requirements for graduation, ensuring that HEAR requirements are met;
  • Repeat ACT/SAT if necessary, making sure you do some prep first if you are hoping for score improvements;
  • Continue developing your list of possible colleges, identifying some that are reach schools, some that are safeties, and some that are likelies;
  • Request references early on, ideally your counselor and one teacher who can speak to your potential;
  • Continue key extracurriculars;
  • Have fun but don’t slack off in your academic efforts. Colleges scrutinize performance during senior year and will ask questions if you crash and burn at this point;
  • Finish honing your list of school of interest and note deadlines – applications must be received on time. Remember to inform your references of deadlines as well.

Sequencing College Planning Part I

In order to be optimally prepared when it’s time to begin applying to prospective colleges (fall-winter of your senior year), it helps to know that you’ve been thorough in your planning. The following is a list of things to be stressed in each year of high school in order to have that assurance:

Summer before freshman year: If there are any deficiency areas – for example struggles with math, fears of foreign language study or lagging some in reading level – this is the perfect time to address such issues. Enrollment in summer school or in a tutoring program for weak subjects is a great idea for a strong start in high school. Costs can be controlled if you have a neighbor or friend who is a strong upper level high school student who might welcome work as a tutor.

Freshman Year:

  • Enroll in core classes that meet the Colorado HEAR requirements for graduation and college eligibility (;
  • Explore several extracurricular activities for fun and to develop and expand yourself;
  • Visit a college campus with your family or through a program at your school – begin thinking about college as an aspect of your future, and the type of school you might wish to attend.
  • Again, hit any deficiency areas during summer months before 10th grade when you have the time to really dig deep and improve academic skills.

Sophomore Year:

  • Continue core classes following HEAR guidelines;
  • Identify one or two extracurriculars (clubs, sports, volunteer programs) that you will maintain throughout your remaining high school enrollment. Colleges are more impressed by depth of involvement over a wide breadth of dabbling in random activities;
  • Prepare for and take the PSAT as a trial run for future testing, and to qualify for National Merit scholarships.

Financial Aid and Recession

College bound high school seniors, their parents, and college officials are typically anxious at this time of year regarding admission decisions, aid packages, and what colleges call “yield,” which is the size of the incoming freshman class after offers are made, accepted and declined.  Due to the deepening recession, this season those anxieties are significantly magnified.

Here is a quick overview of what national education sources are saying about the status of financial aid for college in 2009, along with some tips for making the best of the situation. Happily, there is actually some good news despite the gloomy economic picture at present!

 Good News:

The best news is that federally funded student loans are secure and have been affirmed by recent congressional legislation; in fact, funding has been expanded somewhat. This applies to Stafford loans, Perkins loans and PLUS loans.

 Many families will qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit included in the recently passed stimulus package, a potential credit of $2500.

 Colleges are aware of and concerned about the ability of families to afford the cost of higher education in the current climate.  As a result, most are trying to contain costs (60% of U.S. colleges have hiring freezes at present), striving to limit the extent of tuition increases, and in some cases, attempting to increase institutional aid packages.

 Not Such Good News:

Private college loans are now much harder to come by and carry less desirable terms than in the past.  These have been affected in much the same way as other forms of credit, unlike federal student loans, which are guaranteed by the government.  

 The continued stability of federal grants, such as Pell grants, may be tenuous, as more families are now eligible given the drop in net worth for most Americans.  While increased eligibility is positive, it is also possible that the unanticipated increase in demand will negatively affect the availability and the size of future grants.

 Virtually all colleges provide aid on their own, based on unmet need as well as merit.  Given the particular strains faced by public institutions that rely on state funding, and different strains faced by private colleges (in the form of decreased donations and diminished endowments), institutional award packages may not match what students have been offered in the past.

 Tips for maximizing aid in the present environment: apply early, shop around for the best offers and packages, appeal award decisions whenever circumstances change, and definitely ask about the financial health of the institution when visiting campus.  Also beware of financial aid scams in the present environment.  Check out “too good to be true” private offers with the financial aid office at your college.  Also check into the background of private entities that promise to secure questionable levels of aid.

College Entrance Exam Preparation Strategies

One of my services to clients is help in preparing for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s been some time since I was on the college testing scene as a test taker, but at the moment I am right in there with high school juniors, studying for the SAT myself at the age of 50 with a looming October 4, 2008 test date. I decided that prepping for and taking the test myself would be an interesting, alternative sort of professional development at this point in my career.

What does an educational consultant and former higher ed administrator recommend as the best means of preparing for college entrance exams? As with nearly every consequential thing one plans for, “one size doesn’t fit all,” and “it depends.” For myself, given that I have nothing riding on my exam scores, I am going low level. My preparation consists solely of spending time working my way through the Barron’s guidebook, “How to Prepare for the SAT,” and also receipt and completion of the SAT question of the day from the College Board (and its Educational Testing Service), the folks who created and maintain the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Generally, there are four broad types of preparation. One is to do what I’m doing, and prepare on your own with the help of a guidebook. There are several out there roughly in the $30 price range and each will help prepare you in relatively similar ways. I chose Barron’s because it is highly regarded by other tutors who are my colleagues and friends. I like it for its breadth of coverage of key test areas (critical reading, writing and mathematics), the fact that it includes a diagnostic test to help identify strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that it includes no fewer than six practice tests. It also comes packaged with a CD-Rom that I haven’t checked out yet.

I would only recommend guidebook preparation for students with solid across-the-board academic strengths, for those who scored quite well on the PSAT, and as an initial strategy when there is plenty of time left to re-test should more in-depth preparation prove to be necessary. Guidebooks also work best for those with the self-discipline and motivation necessary to devote multiple hours per week to study and review for several weeks leading up to the exam date.

Self-motivation would similarly be necessary for those who are attracted to the idea of using one of the on-line test prep programs, such as Kaplan online, Princeton Review online, and one of the newest, Encyclopedia Britannica online. These programs are more expensive, ranging in price from approximately $399 to $535. I am especially intrigued by the Encyclopedia Britannica online program given their publicized average score improvement of 300 points, and the fact that their program has multiple personalized features that are part of their basic $499 fee.

Next are the classroom based review services, including Kaplan, Princeton Review, and others. These programs offer comprehensive coverage and may work best for those who are more motivated by having a time and place all mapped out for their review sessions. They can be pricey, however, often costing upwards of $1000. I recently affirmed the choice of the Sylvan Learning program to a client in another state who had a positive experience with their services earlier in her high school career as it seemed comforting to her to return to them. If I were a parent, I would make inquiries about the background and experience of session presenters before committing to any of these programs.

Finally, there are private tutors, some of whom exclusively do tutoring, and others who combine tutoring with other educational consulting services, such as help with the college search and admission process. As a professional, I fall in the latter category. As with the classroom-based programs, parents would be wise to inquire equally about the background of private tutors. I am up-front with clients that I am a good test-taking strategist, and strong in the critical reading and writing categories, but far less so in mathematics. I would refer a student needing deep assistance in the math area to another tutor, and feel it would be dishonest of me to do otherwise.

There are two great advantages to private tutors, once you find the right one (and I note that the major test prep companies now also offer their own private tutors). First, the personalized attention simply can’t be beat. Second, the cost can be completely controlled by pre-determining the number of hours of review, as most tutors work on an hourly basis. Many private tutors also utilize a guidebook as they work with students, so there may be a positive triangulation effect from going this route.

One final observation: provided the student launches the process early enough, test-taking can be relatively non-stressful, as the test can be repeated multiple times with no need for anxiety about outcomes, as schools have long pledged to only consider one’s highest scores. Also SAT scores can be cancelled if done within published deadlines, and increasing numbers of schools have recently diminished the weight of standardized tests in their admission decision process. Happy studying, my fellow test-takers!

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former high ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part II

For any given student, the “right” college match is largely a matter of a good fit between interests/aspirations, intellectual aptitude and learning style, and the total campus environment, both academic and social.

There are unquestionably multiple “right fits” for each student, some never to be considered given the large number of U.S. colleges (there are nearly 4000 colleges nationwide, over half of which are baccalaureate degree-granting institutions), and the likelihood that most students will primarily be familiar with schools in their region as well as some of the well known standouts, such as the infamous Ivy League subset of colleges. When one conceptualizes the college search as a matching process that has identifiable outcomes of interest to students and families, it becomes clear that many schools can equally yield a stimulating and enriching environment, solid preparation for the future, memorable experiences, and a lifelong set of friends.

Here’s an eye-opening little truism: students may be surprised to learn that many lesser ranked schools have placement rates for grad school and medical school equal to or even better than their more expensive, higher profile institutional counterparts. The same thing is true of job placement as well.

So how is a student to narrow the field and decide which schools to apply to? It makes sense to establish personalized priority factors, and to create a list of schools of interest based on these. Key characteristics for matching might include: proximity from home, size of the student body, academic rigor and reputation, faculty-student ratio, strength in a particular academic program of interest, social options available on campus, athletics, opportunities for involvement in special programs like study abroad and internships, and others. Since every college publishes information on their strong points as well as basic, comparable characteristics, it shouldn’t be hard to begin to narrow your list.

An additional important factor for students once they arrive at the campus visit stage is the FEELING of fit – Do you feel comfortable on the campus, do you feel that this would be a pleasant place to spend four years of your life? Did you like the students you met, the professors you conversed with? If you spent the night in a dorm on campus (a good idea, by the way), do you believe you would enjoy the residence life experience at the school?

Of course not every college will accept you, in many cases due to no deficiency on your part. If you don’t fit a school’s admissions profile, if they’ve already accepted lots of students who demographically and academically resemble you, or if it’s a highly selective college and you are merely one of many strong, equally interesting applicants, you may not get a bid. This is more likely at the moment, when the applicant pool is larger than it’s been in a long while at U.S. colleges. But no worries – there are schools that will fit you beautifully where you WILL be accepted, where you may even be courted with an attractive financial aid package.

Helping students find their right fit school and helping them put their best foot forward to increase the likelihood of admission is something I love doing, as it’s an incredibly satisfying form of matchmaking (better than eHarmony and Match.Com!). There aren’t many more fulfilling pursuits, in my book, than helping young people launch one of the most important and enjoyable experiences of their lives.

Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a Denver-based college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,

Identifying Your “Right Fit” College, Part I

Recently one of my student clients shared with me that his ideal college is Humboldt State University, located in Eureka, CA.  Curious as to how a Denver native came to fix on a school in northern California, I asked him how he developed such a far-flung goal.  He didn’t have a firm response, beyond the vague notion that they have a strong biology program, one of his interests.

 Having visited Eureka a couple of times, I shared with him that it reminds me of Boulder in a way – a smaller, even more granola version of Boulder, and with a weirdly fractured population dominated by students, faculty and staff associated with the college, and loggers, who are attached to the awe-inspiring nearby redwood forest.  All of this was news to Will, and at the moment I’m not sure if these impressions increased or diminished his interest in the school.

 This conversation reminded me of myself, more than 30 years ago, as I considered my college options.  For a time I was obsessed with Syracuse University, for reasons that escape me now.  I imagine I read something that made it seem cool. I then became focused on Antioch College, much closer to home for me as a native of southern Ohio.  I was intrigued by its progressive reputation, and I knew a bit about their co-op programs, which had students off campus doing seemingly fascinating things for long stretches of their enrollment.  This lasted until my mother proclaimed “You will attend a communist college over my dead body!” – so … so much for Antioch.  Ohio State offered me a small scholarship, and thus ended my brief period of college hunting.

 Students today have more college choices and more help in identifying their “right fit” college, I’m happy to say.  These include guidebooks readily available in libraries, bookstores and school guidance offices; school guidance counselors themselves, who know a lot, but who often are overburdened with large numbers of assigned students, especially at public high schools; electronic search programs such as Naviance, which invite a student to input key information in exchange for a list of probable matches derived from published data; and independent consultants, such as myself.  An advantage of independent consultants is the personalized attention received by student clients, paired with in-depth, first-hand knowledge of many colleges and universities.

 A good independent consultant considers her or himself a student of colleges, and has direct information about scores of schools across the U.S., as well as contacts at many of those schools, and of course access to information regarding features of those schools and their admissions’ policies.  My clients will benefit from my 20 years in higher education administration and direct knowledge of colleges as disparate as Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Bates College in Maine, Denison University in Ohio, Millsaps College in Mississippi, and Occidental College, in Los Angeles.  I continue to visit and study colleges with an eye to what about them may be of interest to my clients.

 Will hasn’t taken his SAT exams yet, so our investigation of schools is at a beginning stage, but soon he will have a more definite notion of whether he is truly interested in Humboldt State as a result of our explorations together.

 More on “right fit” colleges in Part II, forthcoming.

 Lisa Ransdell is a college faculty member, former higher ed administrator, and head of a college-search consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC,


College Search Process Heats Up

U.S. colleges will be bursting at the seams this fall (2008) as members of the largest high school graduating class in U.S. history arrive on campus. The large size of the incoming class of 2012 is blamed on a “baby boomlet,” as kids of the later baby boom cohort come of age.

Local institutions view the shift as a mixed blessing. Tom Willoughby, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment at the University of Denver, shares that DU saw a 32% increase in its applicant pool this spring, with 8333 prospective students applying for a total of 1140 available spaces. At the same time, the recent economic downturn is causing families to scrutinize scholarships and other aid offers extra closely in search of the best educational value – so yields are thought to be somewhat unpredictable.

While the increasing trend toward selectivity nationwide is better news for colleges than for students, it is by no means cause for undue angst for those in the college admissions process. What can college-bound students and their families do to increase the odds of desirable outcomes from their college search in an extra-competitive market? Careful preparation is key, along with a flexible attitude. This fall and next, when the record for the largest class will be broken yet again, fewer students will be in a position to set their sights exclusively on one idealized, highly competitive school and see their dreams become reality. This is a good time for families to consider alternative pathways, such as a year or two at a community college or second choice school, possibly followed by a transfer application to the institution of choice. It’s also not a bad time for ambivalent students to defer enrollment and gain work and life experience for a year or two before heading off to the ivory tower. A gap year, where students pursue travel and alternative study, or intensive volunteer and intern-type experiences can also be a great choice.

Finally, this is a good time to look carefully at the factors that constitute a true quality education and consider some of the lower profile/hidden gemstone schools, like Metropolitan State College of Denver and others, where students receive instruction from committed, engaged faculty and enjoy a degree of success in the world comparable to that of graduates of their more prestigious and selective competitors.

Lisa Ransdell is a faculty member and former college administrator who heads her own education consulting firm, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC.  She can be reached at