The Edge Our college admission blog

Dear First Generation Students, You Got This!

by Admitster July 21, 2016


Today we’re thrilled to welcome back Mr. Lawrence Alexander, who is not only the Director of College Admissions at The Ivy Key and the Director of College Counseling at The White Mountain School, but who is also a proud first generation college student. 

As a college counselor who is also a first generation college student, I am ever cognizant of the treasure I’ve been entrusted with. I counsel my students with an appreciation for the path they’re taking because it’s the same path I traveled. I was born and raised in New Jersey by working parents whose retirement plan was to ensure that my sister and I received the best education possible. I pen this blog post today for first generation college applicants, their guidance counselors and teachers, and for those parents who are mortgaging hope in the education of their children.

The college admissions process is hard, yes, and sometimes you might lose your way in the maze of deadlines, test prep, essay writing, extracurricular activities, financial aid terms, recommendation letters, and campus tours…but YOU GOT THIS!

Final Final Maze
1. Students – Start EARLY. Every student entering high school should be developing a post-secondary plan. For those students who see college as a part of that plan, you should be pitching a tent in the office of your guidance or college counselor and seeking out opportunities to distinguish yourself from your peers. The latter can come in the form of student leadership initiatives, employment, or participation in summer enrichment or pre-collegiate programs, to name but a few examples. As early as 9th grade, students should be working to excel both inside and outside of the classroom. Many colleges and universities employ a holistic philosophy when reviewing a student’s application. That is, they want to know how you performed in the classroom and on standardized tests BUT they also want to know what impact you’ve made in your school and community. Start that process right away!

2. Parents – Start EARLY. College tuition is expensive, I know, and it’s going to cost you more if you fail to devise an admissions strategy early. Working with your student’s school and/or organizations like Admitster can help you to improve your student’s prospects for both admission to financially supportive schools and for scholarship opportunities, helping to reduce your out-of-pocket cost. You should also work with your school counselor to assess your family income and your expected family contribution. Having a clearer understanding of your family’s financial situation, along with knowledge of prospective schools’ net prices, can help you to start building a robust college list with your son/daughter – and the earlier you’re able to make these assessments, the less stressful the process will be. Students will be upset if the family finances are a secret that hamstrings their college attendance once it’s too late to explore viable alternatives. In other words, be prepared to help your student tackle the financial considerations that are so crucial to the college admissions journey!

3. School-Based Staff & Counselors – Start EARLY. As you assess your school’s capacity to serve the college counseling needs of your students (particularly your first generation and/or lower-income students), seek out reliable college access partners like Admitster to work alongside your existing guidance program. I have partnered with many organizations to develop longitudinal and scaffolded grades 9 – 12 college advisory programs, empowering schools to develop the college-going culture to which they aspire. First-generation college applicants often need more direct support with the rudiments of their applications (e.g. essay writing, college list creation, and financial aid counseling). Resources in schools are often scarce and budgets often have allocations beyond the reach of the building leaders. All of that notwithstanding, where you do have the resources, why not devote them to ensuring the post-secondary success of your students?

Some recommended resources:
1. For families who are new to the FAFSA, click here.
2. This is a great list of colleges that meet 100% of student-demonstrated need.
3. Useful online resources to help students on the path to college are only a click away!

In closing, first-generation college goers are often defined by what they lack, but they HAVE SO MUCH. If students possess the right mindset, if parents invest time and energy early in the process, and if schools invest in the right resources at the right time, you’ll form a college-going army that can’t be stopped.

You GOT this!

Yours in Partnership,

Lawrence Q. Alexander II


p.s – My mother never let me keep my Bachelor’s degree; it’s still on the living room wall in her home. Whenever I ask for it she says, “You just got the degree, I did all the work!” I think I better let her keep it 🙂

Partners In Student Success

by Katie Z, Ph.D July 14, 2016


Quotes abound about the role of high school guidance counselors in helping students on the path to college, but this one, by Samar Khurshid, taken from a Gotham Gazette article, is among my favorites – “The role of guidance counselors in schools is increasingly being recognized as an essential factor in student support and key driver to help prepare students both for graduating from high school and succeeding in higher education.” In other words, the role of the school guidance counselor is paramount to student success! Unfortunately, in many high schools around the country, guidance department resources are strained, other in-the-now issues and non-college-counseling duties take precedence over a focus on the future, and counselor-to-student ratios fall far behind the ideal. Regarding that last point, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250:1, the national student-to-counselor ratio in public schools is a grim 478 students for every 1 counselor! Further, that same article states, “NACAC estimates that under current ratios and current time on task allotments, students in public schools can expect less than an hour of post-secondary education counseling during the entire school year.” Less than an hour?! Are you reading this? Something is very wrong with the picture these numbers are painting. And Team Admitster is not, of course, the only stakeholder to take note of these distressing statistics. In a recent USA Today article, First Lady Michelle Obama discusses what she sees as the two worlds of college counseling:

There’s the world of high schools where the question isn’t whether students are going to college, but where. From the first day of freshman year, students are shepherded through the process, often by school counselors who ensure they enroll in the right classes; prepare for the SAT and ACT; meet their application deadlines; and choose a school that best meets their needs and get the financial aid they need to pay for it. Then there’s the world of the schools that most of our kids attend where school counselors are too often under-valued and overstretched, and they simply don’t have what they need to do their jobs.

RunningInPlaceAnd then there’s this, a report by Public Agenda entitled, “Can I Get A Little Advice Here? How An Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students’ College Aspirations.” The title sums up the study’s findings well, and the research also suggests that “students who are poorly counseled are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program – a step that is highly correlated with dropping out of college.” Please note that poor counsel does not necessarily mean being given bad advice, but simply that students bear the brunt of the strained and burdened counseling system, which many schools struggle to keep afloat given the rightfully high demands of students and families coupled with the limited supply of counselors and hours in the day. On top of all this, the college admissions process is not black and white, but rather a complex and muddled affair, fraught with an ever-changing landscape, milestones to be met, and preparations to undertake. Counselors and school administrators are doing all they can to help their students, but the overall situation is frustrating and oftentimes feels like an exhausting sprint, running ever faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

The aforementioned Public Agenda study ends with these words: “We hope the findings here will generate innovative thinking about ways other institutions and other entities could lend a hand.” Admitster’s Partnership For College Success program is just that, an innovative program through which our college admissions experts work with high school administrators and counselors to bring personalized and comprehensive college admissions counseling to EVERY student, and starting as early as Grade 9. Click here to learn more – after all, we are all stakeholders in the success of our students, and the promotion of college access through intelligent admissions advising is a very tangible step in that direction. It was Chris White, a high school counselor who sits on The Common Application’s Board of Directors, who said, “Not all students have sufficient access to school counselors, and we all need to work together to figure out how to bring information to the students who need it most.” We believe that ALL students benefit from college counseling, and our program works with schools in a partnership to promote student success.

Should Students Take the SAT or ACT?

by Admitster July 8, 2016


For all of the high school principals, administrators, and guidance counselors out there, you may be wondering whether you should recommend to your students that they take the new (as of last March) SAT or the ACT. Our friends at Testive, a fantastic online SAT/ACT prep company, have been considering this question as well. Find their insights below!

If you’re working with high school students who are on track to graduate in 2017 or beyond then you may well be facing the question of whether to advise them to take the new SAT or the ACT. Before offering your thoughts to students, here’s what you need to know.

What Each Test Measures

The ACT is comprised of Math, Science, English, and Reading sections, along with an optional essay. The new SAT includes evidence-based Reading & Writing, Math, and an optional essay.


The ACT Math section tests elementary and intermediate algebra, plane geometry and trigonometry, and better aligns with the Common Core. The new SAT added trigonometry, making it more similar to the ACT, but many believe that it’s slightly harder than the ACT.


The ACT includes a Science section with very dense articles and graphs that can get a little confusing. If your student is someone who needs extra time, this may be something to consider. However, don’t let it be a deal breaker for him/her. If science is a strength, getting the timing down is something that they can get better at with practice and by timing themselves on a few practice tests.

There is no Science section on the new SAT, but it does include scientific graphs throughout the test to try to simulate testing of Common Core data interpretation concepts. That is, even if science isn’t a student’s forte, know that they can’t completely escape it by opting to take the new SAT.

English, Reading & Writing

The ACT English and Reading sections are both based on essays. There are four essays in the Reading section and five in the English section. The Reading section pulls from text from real life, including academic papers from social studies, natural sciences, or humanities, as well as prose or quotes from literary fiction. It’s less civics-oriented and more academic-oriented.

On the new SAT, the Reading & Writing sections ask students to analyze historical documents, great global conversations, and speeches by presidents. This differs from the old SAT, where students had to interpret random literary passages.

For a detailed comparison on these two tests, check out the infographic below:



Advantages & Disadvantages Of Each Test

The Science section is only on the ACT, so if that is a strength that your student is trying to showcase, then that might be something to consider.

Both tests have an optional essay so that shouldn’t have a huge impact on your student’s decision.

Should Your Student Just Take Both Tests And See What Happens?

Before signing up for both tests, we recommend that students purchase the latest editions of The Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT.  They should then take a timed, proctored practice exam from each book, and preferably under the supervision of a teacher or parent.

After taking both tests, your student should ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Which exam felt more intuitive?
  2. Which exam felt more straightforward?
  3. Which exam allowed him/her to most efficiently show what they are capable of to the colleges to which they intend to apply?

What matters most is to have a baseline test score, which students will come away with after taking these two practice tests. They should then reflect on why they’re getting something wrong rather than just glazing over it.

For those of you with students who insist on taking both exams, they should be advised to study for each test separately and also be sure to space them out. Trying to study for both at the same time will only lead to frustration and confusion!

No matter how your students decide to proceed, the keys to conquering either test are focus, effort, and practice, practice, practice!

All Hands On Deck: College Access Partnership Programs

by Admitster July 5, 2016


From our colleague, Lawrence Alexander, comes a post on the benefits of college access partnership programs. Lawrence has a wealth of experience in the field of college counseling, is currently the Director of College Admissions at The Ivy Key, and is working as the Director of College Counseling at The White Mountain School, in New Hampshire. We’re pleased to have him as a guest blogger on The Edge and welcome his insights into college access partnership programs!

Columbus DayMartin Luther King, Jr. was once quoted as saying, “We came over in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” When it comes to college access, one of the most pressing issues of this generation, we need more partnerships that accomplish the effective work of this task. We’re in the same boat. The “partners in the ship” come from families, schools, school districts, community-based organizations, and companies, to name but a few examples. We are all stakeholders in our students’ accomplishments. Too often, however, we operate in our own silos of success and, as a result, frequently achieve far less individually than we could achieve collectively. To this point, I’d like to share two examples of successful school partnerships that I’ve been involved with at The Ivy Key, a test preparation and college admissions company in New York City. My hope is that you may be encouraged to carry the practices of partnership back to your respective spheres of service, for instance, through a collaboration with a school partnership program, such as Admitster’s Partnership For College Success.

Successful School Partnership Programs:

  1. The Ivy Key and the National Academy Foundation (NAF) – In 2014, The Ivy Key founder and Harvard graduate, Jae Gardener, and I approached the New York City-based leadership of the National Academy Foundation to offer our services to them. Many of the schools in the NAF network have counselor-to-student ratios of at least 300:1, so we were confident that we could make a difference. As The Ivy Key was primarily founded as a test prep company, getting schools to opt into the SAT and ACT prep was relatively straightforward. The greater challenge was having schools opt into our eleven-week college admissions course for their rising seniors – but they did, and the results were impressive! Improving the acuity of students’ knowledge of the college application process increased their odds of success, i.e. admission to their top-choice, best-fit schools. At the end of the initial collaboration, we, in the form of pre- and post-assessments, solicited feedback from participating seniors. Over 90% of the students who participated, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, reported that they felt more confident in the college application process and also that they felt more hopeful about the prospects of affording college.
  1. The Ivy Key and Student Sponsor Partners, Inc (SSP) – In their 30 years of operation, Student Sponsor Partners has served over 7,000 low-income students, providing a high-quality education to those enrolled in their schools. What they came to realize, however, is that they needed supplemental support to their guidance program. In the Fall of 2015, The Ivy Key built upon the SAT and ACT preparation that it had established with a few of the schools in the SSP network, and a true partnership was born. We implemented a six-week college admissions program with their seniors and, once again, over 90% of participants reported an increase in confidence and content knowledge with regards to the rudiments of the college admissions process. This translated into higher admissions rates at those students’ top-choice schools as, armed with guidance and information about the college admissions process, students were more likely to be successful.

For my colleagues working in high schools and school districts, I can confirm from personal experience that forming school partnerships with outside organizations, such as Admitster, can bring tangible gains to your students, families, and schools. College counseling has been shown to have a significant impact on college access, and yet many schools struggle to find enough time and resources to devote to rising juniors and seniors who are on the path to college. This is where a partnership program can bring great benefits.

Also to consider are School Report Cards and Post Secondary Placement outcomes. Specifically, schools across the country, and public schools in particular, are graded based on their post-secondary placement data, as well as their 4-year versus 2-year college placements. High-quality school partnership programs, beyond being hugely instrumental to student success, can also help schools to improve their placement rates.

In summary, Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said that we’re in the same ship. The task now is to make sure that we’re all rowing together, and in the right direction. If you represent a school or district that does not yet have an existing college access partnership, please consider one. Your students and families need more partners in their ship, and collaboration with a program like Partnership for College Success is a great step towards meeting this goal.

Yours in Partnership,

Lawrence Q. Alexander II

Admitster’s School Partnership Program

by Katie Z, Ph.D June 23, 2016


College Coaching For Every Student

If you’re an administrator or guidance counselor at a high school in the United States, there’s a decent chance that your students have little or no access to a college counselor. The National Association for College Admission Counseling, using Spring 2012 data (from the nationally representative High School Longitudinal Study of 2009), reported that:

  • “Less than two-fifths of counselors indicated that their school had a counselor whose primary responsibility was college applications or had a counselor whose primary responsibility was college selection”, and
  • “About half of counselors (54%) reported that their counseling department spent less than 20 percent of their time on college readiness, selection, and applications.”

diplomas smallStudent-to-counselor ratios vary greatly by school and by state, but the national average is an unfortunate 471 students to 1 counselor – click here for more details. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reported that, across the country, one in five high schools completely lacks a school counselor! And that’s not all. A 2015 Survey by Achieve, Inc. reported that “of the 767 college instructors from four-year and two-year colleges, universities, and technical institutions”, 78% believed that high school graduates are not well prepared for higher education. This New York Times article sums the situation up well: “… public high schools across the country struggle with staggering ratios of students to guidance counselors.” Grim.

There is a great deal to consider when pondering college admissions strategies for each of the individual students at your high school – not only in terms of thinking about where to apply and whether each senior has a finalized college list that is robust and well-balanced (in terms of reach, target, and safety schools), but also whether students would be advised to apply early action or early decision, via the regular admissions process, and/or to schools with rolling admissions policies.

Along these lines, the 2016-2017 Common Application Essay Prompts have been released, but what is the best college essay writing strategy for each student? Should students take the SAT or the ACT, and how can they best prepare? To further consider are the backgrounds and personal stories of your students (and how to make that uniqueness shine in their respective college applications), the financial aspects of applying to and attending college, individual circumstances (e.g. being cognizant of the resources that are available to first generation students as they engage in the admissions process), course enrollment advice, thoughts regarding who would be best suited to write letters of recommendation, issues pertaining to social media, gap years, college tours, fly-in programs, summer plans – the list goes on and on, and taking into account all of the above for each of your students is certainly a tremendous undertaking. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin!

On top of everything, there has been a complete whirlwind of changes in the college admissions world over the last few months. More schools are becoming test-optional; changes have been made to the FAFSA;  the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Making Caring Common project released its influential Turning The Tide report; and the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success has emerged on the scene (e.g. these 58 colleges and universities will accept the Coalition application for the upcoming admissions cycle)!

What are you (the school principal or guidance counselor) to do? After all, college counseling has been shown to have a significant impact on college access and should be an important aspect of a student’s high school experience. Still, with time, personnel, and other resources often strained, how can a high school’s administration bring such a program, emphasizing individualized attention and college guidance, to fruition?

Admitster’s Partnership For College Success Program can help. College coaching for every student in your school? Flexible, customized guidance and support? Comprehensive services for schools, students, and families? YES! Click here to learn more about Admitster’s school partnership program, helping every student to succeed on their journey to college.

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