Why Consider a Gap Year?

The concept of a Gap Year is getting a lot of buzz these days, and many colleges are highly favorable toward students who make this choice. They know from first-hand experience that many post Gap freshmen are among the most well adjusted, thoughtful, and academically successful students that they have enrolled. A Gap Year (or semester) is a period of time off between high school graduation and the start of college during which the student engages in activities that promote personal growth and empowerment. A Gap experience may involve travel, volunteer service, employment, an internship, or some combination thereof.

A Gap Year can be an excellent choice for most any student, but is especially recommended for those who could use a break from the burnout of intense high school academics (prior to taking on the rigors of college study), those who may be somewhat unfocused in their goals and aspirations, and others who aren’t quite developmentally ready (aka mature enough) to make the most of living and studying independently. Since I have known a number of students like this in my education consulting practice, I appreciated the following quote by Danielle Wood, from the Today Show online:

Sending a kid who’s not ready off to college is like sending a kid who’s not hungry to an all-you-can-eat-buffet.

So how does a family explore Gap Year opportunities? A basic web search is a good start, although there are also now some good books available on this topic. Two important pieces of advice from those in the know: One, a Gap experience should never be a last minute fall-back option, for example upon receiving a rejection letter from your top college pick; to ensure a good experience it should be thoroughly researched and planned well in advance. Second, a Gap Year Program made available through an agency or organization, if that is the choice, should involve thorough investigation of its safety and soundness, especially if it includes travelling or living far away from home.

Some well-known programs are quite expensive, especially those that involve an overseas placement or a lot of travel, so shop around for the most reasonable cost. Also consider making a deal with your parents for a program of shorter duration in exchange for you working for three or six months to carry some of the cost; both the job and the program constitute your gap experience in this scenario. There are a few programs that are low cost or free that involve intensive service, such as the Americorps programs, some of which actually pay a small stipend or grant to help cover college costs.

A final great thing about Gap Year experiences is once again, the extent to which colleges are increasingly favorable about them (including Ivies and other highly selective schools), sometimes actually promoting them to students or granting deferments (giving permission for a delayed start date) to accepted students who decide they wish to do this before matriculating. Some students have even found that completing a Gap Year has improved their chances with a school that previously rejected or wait listed them.

Recently Visited: The University of Wyoming

Last Thursday I drove one of my clients up to Laramie for a tour of the University of Wyoming, and we were both impressed. The campus is lovely in the late spring with its historic red sandstone buildings and attractive grounds. Rated as the fifth best college buy in the U.S., U-WY is an incredible deal for Wyoming residents, who pay a $4125 tuition bill, and also a deal for out-of-state students, whose tab is $12,855. Room and board is $8732.  This brings the total cost of attendance for an out-of-state student into a range comparable to Colorado public institutions on an in-state basis – pretty remarkable.

The university is rated by U.S. News as selective, and admission statistics are as follows: 95% of applicants are admitted; the average high school gpa is 3.4; the average SAT-critical reading score is 538 and math 541; the average ACT cumulative score is 24. Freshman retention is 73%, and the 6-year graduation rate is 53%; both of these numbers are regarded as average.

With 12,911 students the college is a nice size for a public university: large enough to avoid seeming claustrophobic and in-bred, but small enough to feel like a true academic community. Particular strengths include highly regarded education and engineering programs, a wide range of outdoor activities, amazing local scenery, and multiple building renovations that are either in-progress or planned for the near future.

Both Alex and I thought this would be a pleasant place to spend four years, and the kind of institution that students would be proud to identify with after graduating. Laramie is 2.5-hours from Denver, so a good distance for Colorado students who want to be away from home but still within reasonable driving distance.  Check it out!

College Acceptances of Recent Clients

Most application outcomes have now come in and I’m enormously pleased to report where recent clients were accepted and/or are attending. Here is the list of college acceptances of clients of Pinnacle Education Consulting:

Alabama U

Arizona U

Arizona State U

Auburn U

Baylor U

British Columbia U

Chicago U

Colorado U

Colorado State U

Denver U

Gonzaga U

High Point U

Kansas U

Louisiana State U

Marist College

Michigan U

Montana U

Montana State U

Nebraska U

North Carolina U

Northwestern U

Ohio State U

Oregon U

Oregon State U

Penn State U

Philadelphia U

Purdue U

Santa Clara U

Swarthmore College

Texas A&M U

University of Southern California

Villanova U

Virginia U

Washington University St. Louis

I am so proud and so pleased for these wonderful young people with whom I have had the privilege of working, and I wish each of them the very best! (Note: of course, some clients applied to and were accepted by multiple schools.)



So You’re on the Wait List …. Now What?

A growing trend that parallels the steady growth in the number of college applications nationwide is the growth in the use of wait lists by schools, and the number of students who receive this “soft” rejection from places where they aspire to attend. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, last year only 28% of students on a wait list received a late-breaking bid from a college of interest, with a far, far lower percent of offers coming from the most highly selective schools.

Why Wait Lists?

Admissions professionals, high school counselors and educational consultants know that wait lists were established by colleges for their convenience, not out of concern for students, and for the simple reason that colleges don’t wish to have any empty beds reserved for freshmen come next fall as classes are about to start. Unfortunately, some students get false hope from a wait list outcome, and fail to move on and get excited by opportunities at a great school that really wants them.

So what should you do if you were unlucky enough to be waitlisted by the college (or colleges) of your dreams? First, acknowledge that being waitlisted is tantamount to being rejected. Look seriously at your acceptances; generate more enthusiasm by considering these schools more thoroughly (make a second visit, initiate contact with professors and enrolled students, spend a night on campus), and begin to imagine that you might get a great education and actually have fun at one of these places.

What can be done about being waitlisted?

In the meantime, especially if you really had serious reason to fall in love with the college that spurned you beyond “It’s Ivy League, and the campus is so beautiful!” you can make an effort to appeal to the admission representative at the school for your area. Affirm your continued strong interest and reasons why the school is a great match for you, and update your application with any recent developments that reflect well on you. Be polite and courteous and make sure that you don’t act in a way that might result in you being perceived as a whiner or a pest (share what you are saying in letters and emails with someone with knowledge of college admissions, like your counselor or consultant). Should it come time to move on, do so gracefully, and remember that your attitude helps to create your reality no matter where you are headed.

Choosing A College: Some Suggestions

If you applied to more than one school, and if you did your homework and chose places that fit you and where you have a reasonable chance of being admitted, you may soon be in a position to select from multiple offers of admission. Should you be this lucky, how do you go about choosing a college, a momentous decision? Here are some variables that I recommend students consider in order to make a sound choice.

Academic Fit

First, which of the schools that accepted you comes closest to offering the academic experience you hope to have?  Consider which schools offer majors that interest you, or THE major that interests you if you’ve made a choice. Consider also the strength of those programs, something you can root out by consulting databases, or doing simple online searches (e.g. top U.S. college business programs). What is the average class size at the school, do faculty invite students to participate in research efforts, and what is the predominant teaching style of the faculty? Does the school conduct research on student experiences (for example do they participate in the National Survey on Student Engagement), and if so, do they publish outcomes for prospective students to read?

Know that you don’t necessarily need to attend the most prestigious, selective or expensive college in order to have a great experience and a great future. Ask about what recent graduates are doing, including their employment and acceptance rates in graduate and professional programs. See if there are local alums of the college near where you live that you might get in touch with to hear about their experience.

Social Fit

Second, did the cultural and social atmosphere of the school fit you?  Do you feel you could be happy on the campus given its location, its range of activities, and the sort of students who attend there? What about the size of the school, and its distance from where you live?  All of this and more can be weighed as an additional aspect of fit.

Monetary Fit

Third, which of the schools offers the best monetary value in terms of the balance between total cost of attendance and offers of aid? In an era when college costs have spiraled beyond any other significant life investment, this is likely to loom large unless your family is quite wealthy. Remember that the cost of college may well haunt you long after graduation in the form of loan payments.  Who is giving you the best deal? Inquire also about the status of financial aid over time. Does the college consistently support continuing students?

One Last Visit

Finally, if you haven’t visited, or if your earlier visit was somewhat brief, make another if possible. This time spend a full day or more and schedule appointments with a professor or two, sit in on a class, hang out in the campus center, and see if it is possible to spend the night with a current student. Plan as broad an experience as possible to help you make your decision.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Finally, consider making a pro and con list about each school in consideration, featuring the above variables as well as others that are important to you.  Talk with your parents, teachers and counselors. Then go with your best judgment. You are less likely to make a bad decision with this degree of consideration, but if you do, you can recover and move on after a semester or a year as a transfer student.

Idyllic Mirror Lake at Ohio State U

Extracurricular Activities and College Admissions


What is the value of extracurricular activities in the college admissions process? Reviewers view these positively, and they WILL boost your chances — provided they generally fit these guidelines:

  1. Activities demonstrate that you are well rounded and capable of sustained commitment; they are NOT more important than grades or test scores. A long list of clubs and activities does not make up for poor academic performance.
  2. It is better to demonstrate depth with activities over breadth. One or two types of involvement lasting multiple years counts for more than a large laundry list of tried-and-dropped interests.
  3. Activities demonstrating leadership potential speak well of you. If you began with basketball as a freshman reserve player, and ended your senior season as the varsity team captain, this shows your commitment over time as well as the respect of your coaches and fellow players. Remember that an important aspect of leadership is taking responsibility, so you don’t need to have held an important-sounding title to act as a leader. Organizing a successful awareness or charity event on your own counts as leadership too.
  4. Consider mixing it up just a little. For example, if you are heavily into the arts and an orchestra and band member, check out student government for something different, involving a distinctive skill set. Similarly, if you are primarily athletic, look at service activities as a way of expanding your comfort zone.
  5. Don’t forget that summertime can be a way of increasing involvement in experiential activities such as volunteer work. I have a promising current client (high school junior) that I’ve known since she was 12, when she and her Mom volunteered along with me at a local animal shelter. Emma pursued that involvement for over two years and then moved on to increasingly responsible volunteer positions at the Denver Zoo. With her interest in biology this long-standing volunteer commitment with animals will serve her well next year when she applies to colleges.
  6. Finally, remember that work counts as an excellent extracurricular involvement also. Holding a part-time job or unpaid internship over a period of time is a time-honored, and perhaps increasingly rare distinction.

With any extracurricular involvement, be certain that you can describe what you did and what you learned from the activity.  This is a true test of the value of such experiences, and the key to getting as much value for them as possible in your college applications.

The Snow Dragon at the top was created by one of my neighbors after a recent Denver snowstorm. I thought it was brilliant! By clicking on it you can see the amazing detail better.

Is College For Everyone?

My answer: NO, with some qualifications and caveats…

Without realizing it, I had an opinion on the topic of college for everyone years before it became a renewed public debate. My view is grounded in my experience as a 28-year college faculty member, presently teaching at a “modified open admissions” college; as an avid reader of writing on education reform; and from conversations with a good friend who is a highly regarded and successful fifth grade teacher at one of Denver’s most diverse public schools.

Economic Benefits of a College Degree

Arguments in favor of college for all typically cite data demonstrating the economic benefits of a college degree when compared with lower levels of educational attainment.  According to U.S. Census data, median incomes for varying levels of education were as follows in 2007 (the most recent year available): high school grads: $32,862; associate’s degree/some college: $40,769; bachelor’s degree: $56,118; advanced degree: $75,140.

These are powerful and clear numbers; however, they mask some hidden realities.  First, education costs money – in fact, ever increasing amounts of money thanks to astronomical inflation in the cost of higher education, leaving many grads in a position to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Another reality is that some degrees pay more than others. Science and technology-major grads earn considerably more than their liberal arts-major grads, especially among those who don’t continue on beyond a bachelor’s degree.  Finally, males earn more than females at all levels, largely thanks to the career choices made by women in order to accommodate motherhood and family responsibilities.

It is also the case that many students start college only to drop- or “stop-out” somewhere along the way, due to a lack of preparation/motivation/maturity, or other issues. Every semester I encounter in my introductory-level classes students who are destined to drop out, for whatever reason. My teacher friend sees alienated and struggling students at the fifth grade level, and we swap stories about the parallels in our respective populations. We are in agreement that SOME training and preparation is necessary beyond high school, although not necessarily college education per se.

More so than Bill Gates’ well-intentioned goal of 80% high school graduation with college-readiness by 2025, I agree with the skeptical views of educational commentators like Paul Richlovsky, Paul Krugman, Thomas J. Hanson, and Michael Mazenko. In a May 2011 blog Richlovsky said, “You need not despair in the future if you don’t have a college degree. Pay more attention to enhancing your work skills and making the most of supplemental, job-related educational opportunities.”

A Better Goal than College for Everyone

We will always need sanitation workers, plumbers, and a few factory workers, just as we desperately need highly trained engineers and technology experts. Rather than college for everyone, perhaps a better goal for Gates would be for 80% of all high-tech jobs in the U.S. to be filled by qualified American college graduates — graduates who come out of re-tooled U.S. public schools and colleges with strong support for STEM education at all levels (for those with the interest and aptitude), from elementary school through college. Let’s also make sure there is equally sound education and training for students with non-collegiate goals and interests.

The following are other folks’ blog posts and columns that sometimes address this topic:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07krugman.html?_r=1  Paul Krugman, New York Times, Op-Ed

http://www.openeducation.net    Thomas J. Hanson    (see March 27, 2011)

http://www.youshouldgotoschool.com   Paul Richlovsky         (see May 2, 2011)

http://a-teachers-view.blogspot.com  Michael Mazenko    (see Nov. 9, 2008)

What Number of College Applications is Best?

Predictably, there is no one best answer to the question of what is the best number of college applications, although the trend has been increasing in recent years largely thanks to the Common Application. Given its uniformity and techno-ease, the Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges.

Among my recent clients I have had students apply to as few as two, and to as many as 15. According to NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, one in four students presently applies to seven or more institutions: http://bit.ly/rTzPpy

Why I recommend multiple applications

In my view there are several advantages to going with multiple applications: first, provided the schools represent a range of levels of selectivity relative to the applicant, it increases the odds of getting acceptances; secondly, it also allows for a solid comparison of offers of aid, permitting a school-to-school comparison of total costs versus all discounting.

Obviously, there is a cost involved in applying to several colleges, both in terms of time and money.  The majority of schools charge an application fee averaging about $50. Students from limited income backgrounds can request a waiver of the fee if it would preclude their ability to apply. I feel there is a level where an extremely high number of applications can approach absurdity, but hopefully the time it takes to negotiate and monitor applications and parental willingness to pay will act to keep things in check.

Making the Most of Your College Essays

Now is that anxious time of year when college-bound high school seniors are making final decisions about where to apply, struggling with those dreaded application essays, and balancing all of that with making the most of senior year. It’s an exciting time often involving a fair amount of stress, but there are at least a few legitimate short cuts that can help you successfully manage it all.

For students applying to schools that utilize the Common Application, the same essay can typically be used at all the schools. For those applying at non-CA, moderately selective schools, or some combination of those schools with Common App institutions, you can very likely either use the same essay or essays, or find a way to integrate portions of your other essay into one with a slightly different focus.

Here is a quick run-down of the current set of six Common App questions that students have to choose from, in abbreviated form. Many colleges, whether CA members or not, use similar questions:

  • Relate a significant experience, achievement, risk or dilemma you have faced and describe its impact on you;
  • Share an issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and indicate why it affects you;
  • Describe a person who has had a significant influence in your life and the nature of their influence;
  • Identify a fictional character, historical figure, or creative work that has influenced you, and describe that influence;
  • Write on a topic of your choice.

In my view this is a nice set of topics, permitting a wide range of approaches. Some CA schools pose an additional supplemental question or essay topic.

Exceptions are Ivy League and highly selective schools, which often feature unique and complex essay topics as a way of challenging their applicants. Not long ago I assisted a client applying to all top tier schools by editing and making suggestions on his essays, and it was fascinating experience, which he was very much up for. At the other end of the spectrum is the occasional school with a clunker of an essay topic. To my surprise one such school  is the University of Colorado, which has as one of the longer of two required essays a request that the applicant make a response to the university strategic plan statement.  I have supported more than one student through the agony of this stultifying assignment, and I can only imagine that they get a lot of boring tripe in response; I can’t imagine why they continue to require this topic!

Whatever the number and topic of the essays you are required to write, take the assignment seriously, and plan on multiple drafts.  Also be certain to run a copy by someone in your life who will give you competent editorial suggestions, whether an English teacher, advisor, or member of your family. Here are two good sources of suggestions and examples for your essay writing:







Retention and Graduation Rates: What Do They Reveal?

Increasingly savvy parents and the occasional savvy student may have caught on to the wisdom of digging beneath the sea of happy faces, success stories and attractive photos featured in admissions brochures and college websites in search of valid measures that can meaningfully be used to compare one school to the next. Two sets of interesting statistics are freshman retention rates and four-or six-year graduation rates, which every school is mandated to report. Along with other outcome measures, these numbers are included in the methodology used by U.S. News and World Report to determine their evaluation of a school.

First of all, why do these numbers loom so large in a school’s ranking, and why are they reported as they are? It is easy to understand the importance of graduation rates. With less than half of all college-bound students in the U.S. ever graduating, this outcome should tell us something about the degree of support provided by a given college to its students to help them make progress and complete a course of study. However, given the wide gulf between types of colleges and the degree of selectivity they employ, it also tells us something about the challenges and risks faced by less-advantaged students at some schools. Therefore these numbers should be considered in light of the selectivity of the school in question. Personally, I have been disappointed with the shift away from reporting four-year rates to six-year rates, and can only assume that this represents acquiescence to a new, more dismal national norm.

What does it mean that the greatest focus in retention (re-enrolling from one year to the next) stresses freshman retention? This is because at most colleges the greatest loss of students occurs within the first year of enrollment. Many of the students who are lost in their first year of study never re-enroll, or repeat the pattern of enrolling and dropping out at more than one college. Therefore, freshman retention is critical, both for institutions, and for students themselves.

So, how do we meaningfully compare a college like the University of Denver, with an 87% freshman student retention, with Colorado State University, with its 83% rate, or the University of Colorado with its 84% freshman retention? And does it suggest that Metropolitan State College of Denver, often called Colorado’s College of Opportunity, is a colossal failure with its 67% retention rate and 21% graduation rate? (BTW, just for the sake of comparison, at most Ivy League colleges like Harvard, freshman retention sits right around 99%.) The numbers matter, but they must be interpreted in the context of the school’s mission and selectivity.  Metro State enrolls large numbers of first generation, low income, minority and adult students, and this exerts an effect.  It is also true that some Metro students are pursuing certificates or plan on transferring elsewhere, so this unfairly skews both sets of numbers. In my view the best use of retention and grad numbers is to help families ask hard questions of a school about how they are supporting their students.

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.