The Importance of Rigor

This post on the importance of rigor in choosing high school classes is one of the few on this blog directed to all high school students, from freshmen to seniors – and their parents. 

Many students choose their class schedules on autopilot. They pencil in the next courses in their Math, English, and Foreign Language sequences, add in a Science and a History course, and, perhaps, choose an elective which looks interesting (or at least tolerable). 

The entire exercise may not take very much time, but it can have huge repercussions for college admissions. College admissions officers will take a very close look at your schedule. Many will be looking for what courses you took before they even consider the grades you received in them. 

The term “rigor” describes the difficulty of your course schedule; it is a critical part of your college admissions strategy. 

Colleges Use Rigor to Place Your GPA in Context

In the old days, a 4.0 GPA in high school was a rarity. It is now commonplace, with 40-50% of college applicants sporting a (weighted) A average. How are colleges to determine which students are most likely to excel in college?  Although standardized test scores can provide confirmation of potential, they are falling out of favor as many colleges adopt “test optional” policies. 

The best predictor of success in college is performance in difficult high school courses. “Difficult” is shorthand for AP courses, some courses designated by the school as “Honors,” and dual enrollment courses at a community college. (An international baccalaureate – “IB” – diploma also counts.) 

The most common coin of the realm in measuring rigor is the number of AP courses on a transcript. However, not all AP courses are considered equal. 

We start with the “apex predator” of AP courses:  Calculus (either AB or BC, but with a marked preference for the latter for STEM students.)  I can hear you scream now:  “[b]ut I am going to major in English!  I will never need Calculus.”  Alas, it matters not – for reasons that are hard for this onetime history major to fathom, an increasing number of colleges appear to be using Calculus as a proxy for ability to succeed in any college program. A recent book includes an astonishing statistic: 

Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are one way top colleges measure the quality of a high school. AP Calculus, in particular, has become the strongest signal of preparedness for an elite college. Eight in 10 college students who completed AP Calculus did so because they thought it would look good on their college application. In 2019, 67 percent of freshmen at Harvard reported they took AP Calculus in high school, and another 30 percent took some kind of calculus class. That’s all first-year students at Harvard, no matter their major.

Selingo, Jeffrey J., Who Gets in and Why:  A Year Inside College Admissions, Scribner, 2020 (Kindle Edition), at 168 (emphasis in bold).

Of course, most students are not planning to attend Harvard. And, as we will discuss below, the selectivity of a college will usually determine the degree of rigor necessary for admission. Similarly, flinging yourself into Calculus and emerging with a “D” will have the opposite effect you desire – in order to obtain credit for a rigorous course, you need to do well in it. 

Nevertheless, if you are reasonably sure that you can swing a “B” in either Calculus AB or BC, no matter your future plans, you should take it. The alternative, AP Statistics, is considered an also-ran. It is widely labeled as much less rigorous, despite the fact that far more professionals – at least outside engineering and mathematics – will use Statistics than Calculus. Even so, AP Statistics is better than no AP math course.

The remainder of the hierarchy is less settled, but here is mine, in order of descending rigor:  for English, AP English Literature and Composition, followed by AP English Language and Composition. For Social Sciences, U.S. History and European History, with AP U.S. Government, AP Comparative Government, and Macroeconomics/Microeconomics considered worthy. For Science, any of the trinity of AP courses – Biology, Chemistry, and Physics C (either of the two exams), will do the job. 

There are niche APs that matter, such as Foreign Languages (particularly if your name does not indicate that you are a heritage speaker) and Fine Arts.

The next tier of courses are Honors courses, followed by regular courses. 

Your Transcript Tells a Story

When evaluating your transcript, colleges look for:

  • An increase in difficulty from freshman to senior year. 
  • A commitment to learning in many areas. Colleges want you to keep taking those Big 5 (English, History, Math, Science, Foreign Language) for all four years.
  • An absence of “weak spots.”  Did you terminate a sequence (i.e., stop taking a subject)?

There are certain groups of courses, call them “sequences,” which colleges expect students to complete. Many of these are obvious – if your school offers English 1, 2, 3, and 4, colleges will be put off if you do not take all four. Similarly, if there is a math sequence (e.g., Algebra, Geometry, Precalculus, Calculus), then colleges will notice if you stop early. A quick rule of thumb is that you should continue taking all sequences for your freshman, sophomore, and junior years; seniors who are not aiming for top colleges may have some leeway to “step down” from a sequence.

The More Selective the College, the More Important Your Story

As you look at more selective colleges, their expectations increase.

Colleges tend to be up front about what they are looking for. Visit their websites, click on admissions, and you will find an announcement similar to this statement from the University of Colorado, Boulder: 

Academic Rigor

The primary factor in admission decisions is your academic achievement. CU Boulder focuses on your classroom performance in core academic courses, the rigor of your course selection and your GPA.

You will notice a glancing mention of rigor. Indeed, on the same page you will see that CU Boulder ranks GPA above rigor in its admissions decisions. Id.

More selective colleges tend to emphasize rigor and GPA equally. Consider this excerpt from Emory University’s website:

Academic Preparation

The classes you take and the grades you receive in them matter. We typically look for students who’ve taken more challenging classes (which can vary from high school to high school, and we take that into account, too) and have done well in them.

Other colleges are more explicit – and demanding – in their expectations of rigor. Here is Barnard’s exhortation:

To be well-prepared for Barnard, it is important to think about the academic community you are hoping to join. Barnard’s general education requirements cover a wide range of subjects: literature, the social sciences, language and the arts, lab sciences, and quantitative areas. For this reason, you should acquire a strong foundation in high school, taking courses from the core academic subjects: math, science, English, history, and foreign language. Do your best to take the most rigorous classes available to you in which you can do your best work. If an area is a relative weakness, continue taking that subject while pursuing advanced coursework in areas of relative strength. Remember, we hope to see how you might contribute to our intellectual community, and your choices tell us what kind of a student you will be. (emphasis added in bold).

The bolded sentence represents another expectation shared by many colleges – that students will continue taking courses in their weak subjects. 

Finally, there is the massive edifice of higher education known as the University of California, right on the edge of the top-25 group of colleges. It publishes a daunting list of factors it considers in making admission decisions:

How applications are reviewed

As we consider each individual application – and rest assured, we do consider each one – we look beyond grades. We spend time evaluating your academic achievements in light of the opportunities available to you and your demonstrated capacity to contribute to the intellectual life at UC. Some factors we may consider are:

1. Academic grade point average in all completed A-G courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses. [Ed. These are core subjects, including Fine Arts.]

2. Number of, content of and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum A-G requirements.

3. Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses.

4. Identification by UC as ranking in the top 9 percent of the student’s high school class [Ed. This is used only for in-state admission, and is not related to the rigor of the student’s course schedule.]

5. Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

6. Quality of your academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in your high school.

7. Outstanding performance in one or more specific subject areas.

8. Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.

9. Recent, marked improvement in academic performance as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.

10. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.

11. Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of your high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.

12. Academic accomplishments in light of your life experiences and special circumstances, including but not limited to: disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations or circumstances, refugee status or veteran status.

13. Location of your secondary school and residence. (Emphasis in bold.)

Paragraph 5 is a criterion which other colleges rarely state, at least explicitly:  the rigor of the student’s senior year schedule.

In sum, rigor means different things to colleges, depending upon their selectivity. You have more leeway to make compromises on rigor if your colleges are less, well, rigorous in their admissions decisions.

Let’s start with the freshman year. 


Start with a realistic self-assessment of your academic strengths and weaknesses, largely based on your performance in middle school. However, given that many colleges give less weight to your freshman grades in high school, consider attempting a tough course in a subject at the outset to determine whether you can handle harder courses in that same subject during your next three years. 

Math is where you have the most flexibility; it is also the subject where choosing where you start your sequence will probably dictate whether you are in a position to take Calculus in your senior year. Study your school’s Math sequence. Some schools have a five-course math sequence (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus/Trig, and Calculus AB); you will only be able to take Calculus AB, much less Calculus BC, by taking part of the sequence in summer school or online. 

Work backwards from your expected terminus – usually Calculus (AB or BC), Statistics, or Precalculus. If you are not going to take Calculus, note that ending your senior year with AP Statistics is more impressive than taking the non-AP version; if you can hold your own with a “B,” colleges will never see your AP test score before making their admissions decision. 

Choosing rigor often comes down to choosing between a regular and an Honors course. Again, you may wish to take a calculated risk. Math and Science are the riskiest subjects in which to attempt a harder course – but also the area of greatest reward. 

Evaluate your entire schedule when making these decisions. You may be able to handle one or two Honors courses, but not five. 

If you start off the semester struggling in a course, consider transferring to a lower track in the next semester if your efforts do not yield at least a “B.” 

The College Board does not recommend that 9th graders take AP exams, but a few do, typically corresponding with a course they are taking ahead of schedule (e.g., AP Biology), or a Social Science (AP Psychology, AP World History, or AP Human Geography). There is no penalty for taking one, as you can decide not to report that exam result. However, if you are the kind of student who is traumatized by a bad exam result, then you might want to wait until 10th grade.


This is the first year that the College Board recommends that students attempt AP courses and exams. The usual candidates are the courses listed above. Some students may self-study and take AP Computer Science. Try to take at least one AP course, if only to become familiar with the format, and identify whether you are suited for this sort of exam. 

Caution:  never risk your GPA to take an extra AP course. Colleges want to see high grades more than another couple of AP exams. 

While there is no minimum number of APs, expect to see diminishing returns after 6-8 exams for the most selective schools (unless you are consistently scoring 5s on them); less selective schools will be sufficiently impressed by you taking (and passing) 2-4 of them. An exception may be the largest public universities. Note that the University of California appears to be counting:

Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses. (Paragraph 3).

Even so, you have your junior and senior years available to take some of these APs. 

Finally, remember that academics is not the only thing colleges will look at. Reserve time for extra-curricular activities. 


Assuming your course sequences are working out, stick with them. If you still have extra time,  look into dual enrollment courses (where you take courses at a community college), or even self-studying online. Or you can work on your extra-curricular activities. If you have a talent for the fine arts, definitely participate in an extracurricular activity which improves that skill. 

This is the year to take AP classes. Try for 2-4 of them this year; a dual enrollment course counts as an AP exam (and in some cases is actually a bit better, as it is direct evidence of how well you will perform in a college class).  

However, AP courses may be the least of your problems. You may feel it necessary to keep your GPA up by no longer pursuing a tough sequence you have been following until now. If you detest Science, you may be tempted to avoid the third course in your Biology/Chemistry/Physics sequence in favor of a science course which looks impressive in the course catalog. (Colleges are wise to this – none of those are considered as highly as the Bio/Chem/Physics sequence.)  Students struggling with math may decide that it is time to avoid Precalculus, and plan on taking Statistics in senior year instead.

Colleges will always notice if you break a sequence, and it will always count against you. However, the penalty will vary depending upon the selectivity of your target schools. Again, it is always worth taking the penalty if the alternative is earning less than a “B.”

As we will discuss shortly, the penalty will be lower if you wait until senior year to step down from a sequence.  


This is the most difficult time to choose a schedule. You are devoting hours to your college search — reviewing guidebooks, visiting campuses, and composing essays. You may have just finished an exhausting junior year, and are less motivated to sign up for more of the same. 

Seniors are often confronted with the most difficult courses in the sequences they have been taking. Calculus is a huge step up from Pre-Calculus. The fourth year of a foreign language requires greater speaking skills, as classes are often conducted in that language.   

Fears that continuing on these uphill climbs will have implications for your GPA are reasonable. Of course, your peers have not transformed into geniuses over summer break – if you held your own last year, you can probably do it again.

In any event, colleges expect you to take difficult courses in your senior year. Remember the criterion from the University of California discussion of rigor quoted above: 

5.  Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.

This includes AP courses. One piece of good news is that your score on the AP exam will not be considered – colleges announce admission decisions before you sit for those exams.

Colleges are likely to consider your seventh semester grades. Yes, you can apply Early Decision or Early Action, and hope that an early decision date mean that the admissions decision will be made before your seventh semester grades are available. However, this may not work – colleges are increasingly deferring those students into the regular decision pool for further consideration. Colleges will then demand your seventh-semester grades.

More important purposes of this discussion, colleges will see your senior year schedule – most college applications require you to disclose it. 

This is usually the year where you must decide what tier of colleges you are aiming for. The top-50 ranked colleges will expect you to keep taking the most rigorous courses available. But the others will be more forgiving. Here are some ideas of what liberties you can take with those less selective colleges without sustaining a fatal blow to your admissions chances. 

Remember Barnard’s injunction? 

If an area is a relative weakness, continue taking that subject while pursuing advanced coursework in areas of relative strength.

Note that Barnard only asks that you continue taking each subject, not that you keep taking the hardest sequence available. And, for this discussion, you are not applying to Barnard or any other top-50 colleges, are you? 

If you are going to step off a sequence during your senior year, sacrifice those harder courses in roughly this order:

Fine Arts.  One year is enough. However, if you are applying to the University of California from out-of-state, make sure that you study the rules on what high school courses satisfy their (“f”) requirement. The most obvious oddity is that two semesters of fine arts only count if they are both in the same subject. See; see also (a more detailed and useful guide, but do check with the UC to verify).

Indeed, unless you have a plain vanilla transcript, such as Painting 1 and Painting 2, consider calling the UC school of your choice and asking before you finalize your schedule. Even the best private school counselors can get this wrong (I’ve seen it), so go to the source. 

Foreign Language.  Three years is usually enough. However, if you are a strong foreign language student, then you should consider doubling down by taking an AP level course in the language and the culture within which it is spoken (e.g., AP Spanish Language and Culture). You can then pitch yourself to colleges as a potential foreign language major. (You can step down elsewhere in your schedule.) 

At least the University of California will give you credit for your foreign language skills:

10. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student’s promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus. (Emphasis in bold.)

Another bonus:  if you do well on the AP exam, you will likely fulfill the 2-4 semester foreign language requirement imposed by many liberal arts colleges.

Math.  If it is obvious from your transcript that you are not a STEM student and that you do poorly in math, consider conceding gracefully by taking an easy math course. Note:  do the work and get an “A” or “B” in the course. 

Science.  Yes, you can take one of those fine-sounding science courses (astronomy, earth sciences, environmental science) instead of AP Bio, AP Chem, or AP Physics. This assumes, of course, that you are not applying as a STEM student.

Social Studies.  There is not really a “sequence” here, but you should take a fourth year in this subject. Note that Economics is far from a “step down” course, and may appeal to those who are more interested in STEM. 

English.  You must take four years of English. If you are “stepping down,” best to take a writing course – colleges are always looking for writers.

You will suffer a significant penalty if you take a lot of electives in your senior year. If you must do so, make the case that those electives will prepare you for your intended college major and future career. 

Courses in communicative media such as Film Production and Photography can prepare you for majors in Communication and careers in the movie business and advertising/public relations. Creative Writing is a lot more useful to would-be journalists and marketing executives than analyzing British literature. Your essays should celebrate your choices, which will be evident to colleges in any event. 

Be rigorous – but not too rigorous

Remember that you are looking for the “best fit” college. Self-assessment of your academic strengths and weaknesses is your path to arriving at a college where you will thrive. Take the hardest courses you can handle, but make smart compromises when necessary to save your GPA. 

How to Begin to Succeed in Business

Decades ago, students planning business careers would major in economics, with the goal of eventually obtaining a Master’s of Business Administration (“MBA”) degree. Although some students still choose this path, an increasing number are opting instead to major in business as undergraduates and embark on their careers immediately after graduating. This post will discuss how to choose colleges offering undergraduate degrees in business.

You Gotta Know the Territory!

There are more than one thousand graduate college business programs in the United States. Responding to demand, many of those business schools have created undergraduate programs. These programs are also thick on the ground:  U.S. News and World Report ranks 511 undergraduate programs.

One interesting nugget from the U.S. News list:  the best-ranked undergraduate business schools tend to be relatively large, with enrollments of over 4,000 students. However, even “liberal arts colleges” are conscious of an ever-increasing demand for marketable degrees, and are creating their own business departments and/or majors.

Undergraduate business programs mostly offer the same core curriculum – courses in accounting, management, marketing, information systems, and finance – mirroring the graduate MBA curriculum. Some also branch out to include sub-specialties such as entrepreneurship, actuarial science (the calculation of risk, an essential function for every insurance company), and supply chain management (e.g., managing the process by which an iPad starts with a design in Cupertino and ends up manufactured in – and shipped from – China). Many business schools are also investing heavily in courses teaching students how to use “Big Data” to analyze business information (“business analytics”) – some schools combine this with information systems to denote specialists in using computers to run the enterprise.

The common feature is that these schools are designed to equip students for a job in corporate America upon graduation. Where does this leave two-year MBA programs, you ask?  Although they are more rigorous and highly valued, many of the most prestigious MBA programs require a hiatus between college and graduate school – candidates are expected to have several years of work experience. And MBAs are becoming somewhat less popular as graduate business schools offer one-year master’s degrees in some of the core disciplines.

Except for the most prestigious programs, MBAs may well become the province of regional colleges where nearby middle managers enroll part-time to earn credentials to open paths to upper management. And even these may eventually be supplanted by on-line programs. “Executive MBAs,” often offered online, are marketed heavily to mid-career professionals.

We are already seeing colleges shuttering their traditional MBA programs altogether. See “Why Business Schools Are Shutting Down Their MBA Programs,” Forbes, May 26, 2019, (the writer is also editor in chief of “Poets and Quants,” discussed below).

Thus, this article focuses on undergraduate programs.

Where Do You Want to Live and Work After Graduation?

Geography can be destiny, at least for your first job. All things being equal (which they never are), you are more likely to find a job in the area near your college. Attend an East Coast college, and most of your opportunities will be on the East Coast. Matriculate in the Midwest, and you may have some difficulty landing a job in California. The more prestigious the school, the less difficulty you will have.

For example, here are the regions in which most graduates of three well-known Midwest undergraduate business schools found their first jobs after graduation in 2019 (the names of their business schools are in parentheses):

Ohio State (Fisher):  71% of destinations for Fisher graduates are in the Midwest, with almost 50% in Ohio.  

Penn State (Smeal):  50% in New York and Pennsylvania.

University of Minnesota (Carlson):  80% in Minnesota.

University of Wisconsin (still looking for that big donor, or brashly going with the “no name” look used by, say, its Chemistry Department?):  72% in the Midwest, 12% in the East.

The same phenomenon exists elsewhere:

Georgetown University (McDonough):  60% in Northeast; 20% in Mid-Atlantic.

University of Denver (Daniels):  67% in Colorado; 10% in the West.

University of Texas (McCombs):  of respondents reporting initial salary, 75% were reporting from Texas.

Arizona State University (Carey) (no data for undergrads, so these are for just graduated MBAs):  78% in Arizona and the West.

University of Washington (Foster) (no data for undergrads – MBA statistics):  69% in the state of Washington.

University of Georgia (Terry) (again, MBAs):  49% in the South.

Boston University (Questrom) (again, just MBAs):  75% in the Northeast; the next region, at 12%, is the West, which suggests a more national reach).

Once you get settled, moving between regions is less difficult, except for finding a job “on the Street” (Wall Street).

Beware the Barriers to Entry

It may surprise you to learn that some undergraduate business schools impose barriers which students must overcome while at the college to:  1) get into the business school; and/or 2) stay in.

These barriers are mostly a consequence of the increasing popularity of business programs. As with engineering, a growing number of students are seeing business as a professional degree with excellent employment prospects. Some, lacking the ability or interest in STEM, see it as the best pathway left for employment without attending graduate school.

A majority of students in many colleges major in business. These programs are inundated with demand. As we see in other areas of college admission, restricting access – and selectivity – can produce financial gains for colleges.

The interesting development here is how programs go about limiting access. One common approach is to raise the bar for freshmen admissions, but directly admit those freshmen to the business school. Those programs are referred to as – surprise – “direct admit.”  Other programs take half measures – they admit their strongest applicants to the business school program and require the rest to compete their way into the major. For these schools, understanding the percentage of students admitted as “direct admit” is important.

Then there are schools which admit nobody into the major until their sophomore or junior years. I call these the “hardcore schools.”

Penn State gives warning of its “hard core” approach in several places on its website, including this notice at

In recent years, The Smeal College of Business has experienced enrollment demand that has exceeded the college’s physical capacity to serve all desired applicants without compromising the quality of a Smeal College education. As a part of the plan to manage the high demand, it was determined that there would be no early entry into a Smeal major due to our administrative enrollment controls. In addition, capacity for each course for all Smeal College academic majors has been calculated to ensure each student will have the opportunity to graduate on-time. To honor the commitments made to our students, pre-major students may not enroll in upper division courses designated for Smeal College majors. Exceptions will not be granted for pre-major students to be exempted from this policy.

In other words, an offer to matriculate at Penn State does not include entry into the business school. Rather, students must take the introductory courses in the business program and achieve at least a certain GPA to be accepted into advanced courses required to earn the undergraduate business degree. In addition, students must earn a minimum overall GPA during this two year “pre-major” period.

Some of the courses in this pre-major program present unexpected challenges. In addition to taking calculus, pre-majors must comply with a foreign language requirement.

If you are wondering whether you need a lawyer to proceed further, the answer is “it couldn’t hurt.”  In its defense, Penn State has plenty of advisers to help you through the process. Further, the university has traditionally imposed barriers for all its majors.

However, the problem for those considering Smeal is that the devil is in the details. For instance, how high is the GPA requirement to get into the business school program?  For some business schools, it can be as low as 2.0 in core courses such as Accounting. This is less capacity control than redirecting students who are not succeeding in business (with or without really trying). Those undergraduate business schools which are “direct admit” but require a minimum GPA are doing much the same thing.

At Penn State, the overall GPAs required to gain full-blown admission to Smeal vary by the internal major selected – a 3.1 GPA allows entry into Management, while the door only opens to the Finance major for students sporting a 3.5 GPA. Without a good knowledge of grade inflation at each college, it is impossible to tell what those numbers really mean.

Discovering those details can be a time-consuming, and even impossible, task for someone not attending the school. If anyone can tell me the percentage of students who fail to make it into majors at Smeal because of these capacity controls, I would be much obliged. I am not alone – a parent complained online that at Admissions Day in 2018, the Smeal representative did not have that information. Fortunately, other schools with such barriers are more forthcoming. See e.g.,

Choose Wisely

Unlike law and medicine – both “terminal degrees,” (i.e., the last degree before entry into the job market for a profession) – the prestige of undergraduate business programs may not be critical to your career. Obviously, if you have the chance to go to Stanford, Harvard, or similar top-10 undergraduate business programs, you probably should. However, most students do not ascend to those lofty heights.

If you are one of the vast majority who are aiming lower, do not fret. As noted above, the role of education in business is changing rapidly. Instead of a single degree, more businesspeople are going to repeatedly obtain new credentials. Some will pursue MBAs, either shortly after graduation or much later in their careers (the latter are marketed as “Executive MBAs”). Others will seek one-year master’s degrees in specialties as their career path moves in different directions. If at some point you perceive that your credential is not serving you well, you will be able to pursue another – possibly at your employer’s expense.

What should you look for in choosing among different programs?

The college itself

Start by ignoring those programs and concentrate on the colleges offering them. Your undergraduate college experience will matter far more to your growth and enjoyment than the ranking of the business school. You will thrive – and earn better grades – at a college where you “fit.”  This includes small colleges with excellent programs. Find your colleges first, and then examine their business programs.

Where do you want to live and work?

Next, as discussed above, decide where you want to live and work after graduation, and concentrate on programs whose graduates find jobs in those places. If the undergraduate business degree is going to be the last one you seek for many years (i.e., your “terminal degree”), this analysis is important. If you know already that you will seek an MBA shortly after graduation, then you can skip this discussion.

Look for statistics on the college’s website of where graduates find employment. Search for “[college name] undergraduate business employment statistics upon graduation.”  You may have to use some variations on this search to find what you are looking for. Some schools do not post geographic data – for smaller schools this may be a warning that your employment prospects for your first job may diminish dramatically outside the college’s home area. For larger and prestigious schools, it may simply reflect a reality that its graduates can find jobs everywhere.

Look at the alumni networks for each college, and better, for their undergraduate business schools. Again, a search like “[college name] undergraduate business alumni” should yield useful information. The University of Wisconsin devotes several pages to its network. See Even small schools can have robust alumni programs with members offering to mentor students. See Consider the number of alumni, their engagement with the school, and the location of any of their events. This is most important at smaller schools, where name recognition may be lacking outside their local area.

Closely related are the internship opportunities at each school. Two search techniques may be helpful. First, use these search terms in your browser:  [your college name], “undergraduate business school internship.”  Second, on the web page for the college’s undergraduate business school, search (click the magnifying glass icon) for “internship” or “intern.”  Again, using the University of Wisconsin as an example, the second method yields several informative pages. See Some schools require you to log-in to access internship listings by companies. Happily, Penn State is not one of them. See

You are looking for internship job listings and opportunities to earn college credit by participating in an internship. The number of internships available may correlate with your job prospects upon graduation.

Mind the gap between admission and entry into the business program

Examine barriers to entry for each undergraduate business program. Some students thrive on competition; others do not. There is no right answer here, but remember that at some schools, about 50% of students “admitted” to these schools will never move beyond “pre-major status.”  If you are comfortable with the risk that if you fall short you will have to choose another major, then proceed.


Check the “rankings” of your candidate programs, particularly after you have completed the admissions process and received offers. Unfortunately, every ranking touted by the media has its flaws, as discussed in a previous post. See This Blog is Ranked #1.

I suggest two sources. First, consult the U.S. News and World Report rankings. See (you may have to purchase a Compass subscription). Ignore differences in rankings which do not exceed ten places.

Second, peruse “Poets and Quants.” This website is a widely read Internet resource covering both undergraduate and graduate business schools. You will spend most of your time on its sister site: “Poets and Quants for Undergrads.”  See

Poets and Quants is subjective; be especially careful when reading the profiles of programs – ne’er a discouraging word is likely to be heard. Still, it provides valuable context to this corner of the educational world.

The best financial option

Finally, to quote Jerry Maguire: “Show Me the Money!”  See

You are planning a career in business, correct?  Consider tuition your first major investment. The curriculum offered by these programs is mostly the same. Yes, some professors will make a difference, and every school touts its experiential learning opportunities. But the differences are mostly minor. One possible exception is that smaller programs have more of an incentive to stand out and greater ability to provide individual attention.

If you start out your business career too far in debt, you will lack flexibility to move from one job – and city – to another, which is standard issue for many business career tracks. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but with the unpredictability in college financial aid (both merit and need-based), you may just find yourself a deal.

Coronavirus and College Admissions

Pandemics are disruptive to society; the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus are likely to be profound for students and colleges alike. Some parents are newly unemployed. Many families will suffer profound and irreversible financial losses, making paying for college difficult or impossible.

College students who were living in dorms and attending lectures are now stuck at home. High school seniors who planned to make final campus visits to decide which school to attend will have to settle for “virtual,” on-line tours. High school juniors are watching summer opportunities vanish.

Yet the calendar is inexorable. Although colleges are making minor adjustments (discussed below), they intend to open next Fall – if only virtually – because they will founder if they do not. Some colleges may close in the years to come because of declining enrollment. Indeed, I have not posted to this blog in some time because I have been laboring on a long-form article exploring how to find bargains in small colleges. I am revising that article to account for the changing financial environment for those colleges.

For now, it seems most useful to share some of the information being discussed by colleges and my college counseling colleagues. We begin with those students who are in the eye of the storm.

Current college students

By now you are probably living at home and taking classes online. Focus on your financial condition first. If you can no longer afford tuition, reach out to your college’s financial aid office immediately. Staff will be available to receive your query even if the campus aid office is shuttered. You can also fill out a FAFSA for this year until June 30, 2020. If you are reading this after June 30, check online to see whether that deadline has been extended.

Colleges are in a huge bind with respect to financial aid. They know that many students are at risk of not returning next semester because of new financial pressures. The old saying that “a bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush” applies; some colleges will settle for less tuition to retain your business. The only way to find out is to ask. When you do, submit current information about your parents’ financial situation, and your own. Note that some colleges may give relief only until they are able to welcome students back on campus.

Finally, if you are already paying student loans, payments are being suspended and interest waived. See (again, if you are reading this well after it was posted, check for current conditions). For a more comprehensive look at the financial aid implications of coronavirus, see

If you must transfer to a local college or even drop out altogether, finish the semester at your current school and ask for a leave of absence going forward. Do not forget to obtain a transcript.

If your college evicted you from your housing because of the virus, do not expect a tuition refund; colleges are still providing instruction and awarding credits and degrees. However, keep an eye out for partial refunds of housing and meal plan fees. Some colleges are giving these voluntarily – others are the targets of class-action lawsuits. See (generally); (class action lawsuit). For what it’s worth, my bet is that the universities lose those lawsuits, both in monetary terms and in damage to their reputations.

For those of you attending small, private colleges, consider paying your tuition at the very last moment. A few small colleges were on the brink of closing this semester. You can expect that number to increase in the Fall when some of them fail to meet enrollment targets. If a college declares bankruptcy, your odds of recovering tuition paid for the next semester will be low. Your best source of information on your college’s financial condition is your campus and local newspapers.

Are you able to live at home next semester, or even all next year?  The current consensus is that many colleges will open only “virtually” through Fall 2020. Families need to assume that colleges may remain shuttered until a treatment or vaccine is found; in the worst-case scenario, both Fall and Spring of 2020 may be conducted online only.

Students should properly equip themselves to participate in on-line education. Parents should provide passwords (even if they create a separate one for the student). Students having trouble connecting to classes should reach out to their professors. Purchase a webcam now (there is a rush on them, and you may need to pay between $50 and $100 for yours), and learn to use it; some professors are demanding a video feed so they can watch students while proctoring exams.

Note that many colleges are announcing variations on “pass/fail” grading. Check your college for details — when obtaining grades is an option, consider doing so if you believe that you are doing well in the course. Although it is early days, some professional schools have indicated that they will not penalize students for “pass” instead of a letter grade for periods when COVID-19 is active. See “With Coronavirus Disrupting College, Should Every Student Pass?”, New York Times, April 3, 2020, (free viewing).

Finally, consider whether you wish to transfer to another school to save tuition. You are paying a lot of money to live with other bright students, to take advantage of top-tier research opportunities, to participate in the arts or athletics, and, perhaps, to study abroad. Alas, you will not receive any of those benefits going forward for the indefinite future.

A decision to switch colleges is complex – consider the following variables:

  • the length of time left before you graduate;
  • your family’s finances;
  • your ability to win admission to an affordable college (remember, your financial aid does not transfer with you, and it is harder to win financial aid as a transfer student);
  • your career ambitions and the prestige of your current college;
  • the odds of your current college re-admitting you if you change your mind and/or the virus makes an early exit;
  • the available and quality of the online education in your area; and
  • your family’s expectations.

High school seniors

You are living in interesting times, with worries and opportunities. If you are pleased with your offers of admission, and can afford to attend, then accepting an offer is perfectly fine. Of course, you must be ready for many of the issues discussed above with respect to living at home and attending classes online.

If you are financially unable to attend, follow the strategy outlined above for current students.

We start with the elephant in your room:  will colleges rescind your offers if you are unable to complete prerequisites this semester?  If your school was completely closed, then you do not need to worry. However, if your school is offering classes, even online, you need to do what you can to keep your grades up.

Your high school may move to pass/fail grading. This is probably good news – I have not seen any college announce that it will rescind offers for students who “pass.”  The University of California just announced that it will accept “passing” high school grades for this semester. See

Fortunately, colleges have a huge incentive to be “flexible” in this area because students whose offers they rescind may not be replaced by willing candidates. The size of colleges’ waitlists will bear on this issue, so you can check your intended college’s statistics. In addition, the negative press which might accompany reports of rescissions of offers could be devastating.

This is neither a prediction nor a promise, but unless you execute a complete swan dive you should be okay. We can expect private schools to be more flexible on this front than state institutions.

Two issues are still up in the air. First, the deadline for accepting admissions offers is May 1. However, over 200 schools – perhaps mindful of the chaos accompanying the pandemic and eager not to lose students who are still weighing competing offers – are extending their deadlines until June 1. There are two lists of college deadlines available now, but you should also check with your intended college:;

Second, the virus has disrupted AP exams. You can find updates from the College Board, including dates of examinations, here: In-person testing has been replaced by on-line exams. Those colleges which have announced policies on whether to accept AP tests have indicated that credit will be granted under the same standards. However, those colleges may provide students with supplementary study materials to “catch up” to the next course in their curriculum (this is mostly a STEM issue). Check with your intended college for details.  

You may have noted that I previously stated that you live in interesting times, with worries and opportunities. Where are the opportunities, you ask?

Well, here’s one, but it is a longshot. If you can afford the colleges which have accepted you, might you do better by reopening discussions regarding financial aid with several of them?  After all, it is likely that your first semester will not offer the benefits discussed previously. Can you call colleges that accepted you and ask for more financial aid?

Perhaps. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some colleges are willing to compete in this fashion. Part of their willingness stems from a legal settlement where colleges agreed not to abide by previous agreements that had prohibited them from soliciting students after the May 1 deadline. See e.g.,

The Wall Street Journal reports one such attempt to reopen bargaining for financial aid:

Troy Nevins, a senior at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colo., doesn’t plan on making a final decision until he hears back from Stanford University. But he already started nudging other schools on financial-aid offers. “Smaller schools especially are willing to bargain,” he said.

After Mr. Nevins 19 years old, crossed John Brown University off his list, he said he heard from an admissions representative willing to negotiate. “She was very quick to say, ‘This number isn’t final’ and ‘we can…’ and ‘would there be…,’ ” he said.

A spokeswoman for John Brown, in Siloam Springs, Ark., said the school initiates appeals if families indicate price is a factor in turning down an offer.

“Coronavirus Creates College Uncertainty, Admissions Gets Easier,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2020. (behind paywall).

Of course, it is a big step down in admissions difficulty from Stanford to just about any other school, so it appears that this student has superior credentials (or a whole lot of self-confidence).

Selective colleges with huge waitlists will not engage in such bargaining, but others might. Again, the most fertile ground will be the smaller, private colleges that have a great incentive to preserve their enrollments and the flexibility to make individual decisions without committing to a larger group.

If this idea appeals to you, either by choice or necessity, check your spam filters and inbox for e-mails from colleges that accepted you. There may be a surprise offer or request for a conversation about aid. If not, you can always initiate one. Be respectful when you do so. If you are successful, please do not give quotes to the media – the Internet has a very long memory.

High school juniors

You also have worries and opportunities, but the picture looks brighter for you than for college-bound seniors.

Here are a few issues to focus on. Standardized testing is currently on hold. The College Board (SAT) and ACT have canceled test sessions in April and May. Both tests are slated for June, but that can – and almost certainly will – change. Indeed, there is an excellent chance that no tests will be administered until August or September. This means that testing sessions will be in high demand. You should sign up now for the June tests – both organizations will either reschedule canceled tests or refund your testing fees.

What happens if tests are delayed until late in the Fall?  Nobody really knows. Colleges will probably have to wait for test results, delaying their own deadlines for Early Decision admissions.

If they choose not to do so, they will end up joining the trend toward “test-optional” admissions policies. For more details on these policies, see Since I last visited that topic in July 2018, close to another 100 colleges have switched to test-optional.

This includes some big names, such as Tufts, that are switching on a “temporary” basis to evaluate whether standardized tests are a useful measure of educational quality. And here is some breaking news:  the University of California and California State University systems are suspending standardized test requirements for the 2021 admissions season. See;

Another important development is that college campuses are closed, meaning that all student visits are virtual. This has two implications for college admissions. First, of course, you may have to wait for some time to evaluate which colleges are the best fit for you. Second, and more urgent, in-person visits were an important way to “demonstrate interest” to colleges. For now, focus on demonstrating that interest by signing up for colleges’ e-mail lists and taking their virtual tours. Given that college fairs have been canceled, this may be your only way to get on a college’s radar. The good news is that college visits are expensive, and it is less expensive to visit just the colleges that accept you.

Finally, your summer plans have almost certainly been canceled. For many students, that includes research, an internship, a summer academic session, a job, or volunteering. Some of those opportunities are irreplaceable, but one may not be – volunteering. In the absence of other measures of dedication and ability, colleges may rely even more heavily on resume items that demonstrate a commitment to community.

The challenge is to find a way to contribute without violating shelter in place orders. Most opportunities involve delivery of food and other necessary supplies to the elderly or assisting (without getting too close) medical workers. Also consider creative work — writing, robotics, and the like, where you can display or at least describe a tangible body of work.

The best news of all for high school juniors is that college admissions are about to become a bit less competitive. A significant number of international students are likely to shy away from the U.S., the country currently suffering from the largest number of COVID-19 infections. Further, and it hurts to say it, fewer students will be able to afford college, making for less competition for those who can. Finally, as I will discuss in my upcoming article, colleges desperate to increase enrollment are likely to relax their admissions standards and/or increase their financial aid for “desirable” students.

Good luck, and watch this space for updates.

If you are a parent or student living in Tucson, please note that I am one of a handful of independent consultants who live and work here.  Please see The Tucson Advantage for why that fact matters.  Note that I will only be working remotely until our Health Department gives the “all clear” on social distancing.  Fortunately, I have experience working remotely, and will make it . . . work.    

Colleges Announce Plans to Audit ECs

“EC” refers to extra-curricular activities.  Students concerned that they fall short of their peers in their achievements outside the classroom may be tempted to slightly exaggerate their deeds in sport, academic competitions, or community service.  The temptation to do so may depend on the assumption that colleges deluged with applicants typically do not verify ECs.

Indeed, the first reports after the “Varsity Blues” scandal indicated that colleges were still not going to scrutinize applications looking for fraud or misstatements (other than the University of California, which regularly audits applications, see

Per a Wall Street Journal article on the subject:

But with a mandate to review applications quickly—some elite schools spend just a few minutes on an application due to the high volume of material—they say they may not notice if four people all say they were MVP of a regional team, or overstate their placement in a debate tournament. Schools also tend not to confirm the race or ethnicity someone claims on paper.  Our process is as good as the information that we do receive,” says Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “There’s been a lot of trust.”

“Even After the Admissions Scandal, Colleges Won’t Check Most Applications,” Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2019, (paywall).

This may be about to change, as colleges are beginning to verify ECs.

Hat-tip to one of my IECA colleagues for sharing a Bloomberg News article about colleges redoubling their efforts to prevent fraud in high school admissions.  See “U.S. Colleges Step Up Admissions Spot Checks After Scandal,” (counts toward “free” articles non-subscribers are allowed to view).

Bloomberg reports that some colleges are planning to double-check the applications of student-athletes to make sure that the students’ sporting credentials are legitimate.

Further, some schools are planning to go beyond athletics to ECs generally.  For example, here is an excerpt from a letter from Yale posted on its website:

Yale’s Admissions Committee evaluates each applicant to Yale College using a thoughtful whole-person review process. When selecting applicants, the committee values a wide range of strengths, talents, and qualities that enrich the undergraduate educational environment and contribute to its remarkable diversity. Beyond athletics, we will be implementing measures to reduce the risk of fraud in all applications, such as verifying certain extracurricular accomplishments and awards and auditing a sample of applications at the end of each admissions cycle. (emphasis added in bold).

Yale is not alone.  From the Bloomberg article:

Admissions officers say that while they want to spot evidence of such wrongdoing in the future, they also want to quash more mundane embellishments.

“There always has been the pressure to push it a little bit further,” said Whitney Soule, dean of admissions at Bowdoin, a liberal arts school in Maine. “We want to relieve that pressure.”

Bowdoin’s application website now states that the school may verify information provided on applications or supplemental materials, and that inaccurate or fabricated information may lead to offers being withdrawn.

Accuracy in describing ECs has always been important.  Now the stakes are higher – some colleges are likely to perform spot-checks and may even rescind offers for what used to be called resume “puffing.” 

Bowdoin’s Soule, who has worked in admissions since 1991, said the changes this year are meant to reinforce that students should be honest, even with seemingly small details.

If an applicant is a co-captain of a team, the student shouldn’t feel pressure to say he or she is the single leader, for example.

“Don’t be afraid to show us that you are sharing the responsibility,” Soule said.

The takeaway here is simple and sobering:  be careful not to exaggerate.  While the likelihood of an audit appears remote for students not claiming athletic achievements, the results of even a bit of fudging could be catastrophic.

If you are a parent or student living in Tucson, please note that I am one of a handful of independent consultants who live and work here.  Please see The Tucson Advantage for why that matters. 

No BASIS for Exclusion

The exclusion of BASIS from the latest list of “Best High Schools” published by U.S. News and World Report is a local story with national implications.

Tucson readers will immediately understand part of the title. BASIS is a charter school founded in Tucson in 1998. It gradually expanded within Arizona to Oro Valley, Phoenix (multiple locations, most notably its Scottsdale school), and Flagstaff. It has also opened schools in California (Silicon Valley), Louisiana, and Washington. 

Some BASIS schools start in elementary grades; many begin with grades 4 or 5 and end at grade 12. BASIS is free and open to all.  If necessary, a lottery is used to select enrollees. 

[Full disclosure:  I have worked with students attending BASIS schools, but it has been a small part of my practice.  I do not receive referrals from any school, including BASIS.  In addition, this article is not about the efficacy or social utility of charter schools.]

Charter schools are common in Arizona.  However, BASIS stands out because it claims to operate some of the finest schools in the country.  From a BASIS web site:

Our schools are among the nation’s best schools by any measure: national rankings, OECD Test for Schools (based on PISA) exams, Advanced Placement® results, National Merit Scholarship Program® honors, earned college merit aid, and college admissions, among many other highly respected standards and honors. We hire bright, passionate people to teach the acclaimed BASIS Curriculum at all 27 BASIS Charter Schools, and provide nearly 17,000 students with an excellent education.

Another interesting feature is that BASIS students finish their studies – and all state required curricula – in 11th grade.  Their senior year consists of “capstone courses” which venture into college curricula and often involve internships.

Of course, many high schools claim to accelerate learning and place their elite graduates in fine universities.  And many high schools in Tucson do exactly that, including – but very much not limited to – BASIS. 

But part of what made BASIS unique was its recognition by U.S. News and World Report.  You may associate USNWR with college rankings, but it also ranks high schools. 

There are other high school rankings in addition to USNWR’s list (see e.g.,;, but they are not directed toward college admissions officers. 

Here was USNWR’s list of the top ten high schools for 2018.

  1. BASIS Scottsdale, Ariz.
  2. BASIS Chandler, Ariz.
  3. BASIS Oro Valley, Ariz.
  4. BASIS Tucson North, Ariz.
  5. BASIS Flagstaff, Ariz.
  6. Meridian School, Round Rock, Tex.
  7. International Academy of Macomb, Clinton Township, Mich.
  8. BASIS Peoria, Ariz.
  9. Baccalaureate School for Global Education, New York
  10. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County, Va.

Yes, BASIS schools, including two in Tucson, occupied the first five spots out of approximately 5,948 schools ranked that year by USNWR!  See  BASIS schools also dominated the 2017 and 2016 rankings. 

But no more, and therein lies a tale, provided courtesy of the Washington PostSee

Here are the top ten schools listed by USNWR for 2019:

  1. Academic Magnet High School (SC)
  2. Maine School of Science and Mathematics
  3. BASIS Scottsdale (AZ)
  4. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (VA)
  5. Central Magnet School (TN)
  6. Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology (GA)
  7. Haas Hall Academy (AR)
  8. International Academy of Macomb (MI)
  9. Payton College Preparatory High School (IL)
  10. Signature School (IN)

BASIS no longer dominates the list.  Without coming across as too much of a Tucson “homer,” I was surprised.  But the article in the Washington Post, and a review of USNWR’s website, proved revelatory.   

With malice toward none, I have concluded that USNWR’s Best High School List is no longer a useful indicator for college admissions. 

The “old” list – “you have ONE job”

Before 2019, USNWR used a single criterion for ranking high schools:  its College Readiness Index, which in turn was based solely on “performance on and participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.”

USNWR’s use of this one criterion explains BASIS’s prominence on its list.  BASIS requires its students to take AP exams – students’ test results factor into their grades for those AP courses.  The average BASIS student takes 11.9 exams, with an average score of 3.8.  BASIS notes that “many BASIS Curriculum School graduates choose to take as many as 20 AP Exams.”

How did USNWR obtain the AP participation and performance data to report those scores?  From the College Board, of course, after obtaining permission from every state other than South Dakota – did you really think that your scores were private?  See

For years, BASIS schools had a lock on the rankings simply by virtue of its policy and the hard-working and talented students who stuck to a grueling regimen to graduate.   It takes a certain type of bright student to achieve under these circumstances, and high schools that can turn out those students are certainly some of the best of breed.  (Again, whether the BASIS model is the best method for educating students is outside the scope of this article.)

The USNWR criterion was intelligible and – in its way – useful to colleges looking for the hardest-working, highest achieving, students in the country. 

However, BASIS schools are quite small.  At the high school level, they do not provide the same opportunities as much larger high schools for extracurricular activities, such as science and math competitions, varsity sports, or other activities which require teams of students supported by advisers.  Students who are interested in the performing arts will find better opportunities elsewhere because BASIS schools do not have the critical mass of students necessary to support orchestras, theater productions, and the like.  BASIS misses out on plenty of outstanding students as a result.  They also lose a substantial number of their students to attrition.

Rating BASIS high schools the best in the country provided an incomplete picture of what makes a high school outstanding, and its graduates competitive for college admissions.  Nonetheless, colleges could understand what the rankings meant, and give them whatever weight they chose. 

The new list – you had ONE job, and you did what?!

This year, USNWR expanded its project to rate over 17,000 public schools.  It also replaced the single criterion test with a weighting of six criteria: 

The 2019 Best High Schools rankings take a holistic approach to evaluating schools, looking at six factors: college readiness, reading and math proficiency, reading and math performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth and graduation rates. Specifically, college readiness measures participation and performance on AP and IB exams.

Here are the six criteria, and the contribution of each to the final score used for ranking:

  1. The school’s absolute performance in math and reading (i.e., performance index or PI) on state assessments (20%).
  2. The school’s relative math and reading performance, defined as the difference between the school’s PI and its expected PI given its population of historically underserved students (20%).
  3. The school’s equity gap, or the degree to which the performance of a school’s historically underserved groups differs from the performance, on average, of non-underserved students in the state (a difference sometimes referred to as an “external performance gap”) (10%).
  4. The school’s graduation rate (10%);
  5. The school’s college readiness index based on Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate participation and performance (30%);
  6. The school’s college curriculum breadth index, based on the breadth of AP and/or IB participation (10%).

And here is the explanation by UNSWR’s consultant about why it created a new – and more complex – methodology:

Factoring state assessments and graduation in rank order provides a more balanced result than relying only on the rank order of college-level exam data. Using multiple indicators to contribute to a single score ensures that rank order is less affected by the idiosyncrasies of measuring heterogeneous student cohorts on the single metric of college-readiness exams. In the revamped methodology, a school’s ranking incorporates data from multiple measures of academic quality, producing a more thorough and non-idiosyncratic assessment of its relative performance. (the entire methodology explained).

This explanation is interesting, but irrelevant.  To start, schools are not ranked separately on each criterion on the one list that is displayed, although that data is included for each high school if you “click through” its name on the ranking list.  Separate lists ranking high schools by graduation rate, or by the performance of underserved children, would be relevant in determining the relative performance of an underserved or “at risk” student.  But the ranking of the school in the list itself is based on the “composite” score alone.

There are also additional issues associated with four of the six criteria. One is obviously flawed, and three others are not useful to colleges.

The flawed measure is the fourth criterion, which relies on the “graduation rate” of each school. Given that students move with their parents, trying to decipher excellence by merely stating the percentage of 9th graders who ultimately graduated from a particular school is a fool’s errand.  Yet, that is the methodology used: (page 11).  Speaking as a local, I am pretty sure that University High in Tucson does not have a graduation rate that ranks merely #1,232nd in the United States. 

Moving from the flawed to the merely unhelpful, the first criterion relies on the results of state assessment tests. Yet, assessment tests vary in content and difficulty from state to state. Further, most of the top students applying to college are studying material that is far more difficult, and in some cases just different, from that tested on state assessment tests. (A similar problem arises with the SAT/ACT, as the math tested on those exams does not include calculus.)

Finally, the second and third criteria add adjustments to the achievement scores of the students to reflect how well the school should have performed based on USNWR’s assessment of: 1) the percentage of underserved students in the student body; and 2) the performance of those underserved students as compared to that of underserved students elsewhere in the state. 

This means that a high school which does a better job of educating its underserved students than its peers will receive a higher rating.  Yet most college applicants are not among the underserved at most schools. Here is a clue that the new ratings are not about helping colleges assess the strength of college applicants at different high schools.  Rather, they are about recognizing how well schools are fulfilling certain educational goals. 

Because a substantial percentage of the USNWR ratings for these schools do not directly measure the academic abilities of students, those ratings cannot be used to compare college applicants from different schools.  This is potentially confusing to parents, students, and even college admissions officers because the USNWR college rankings are designed, and advertised, as a measure of the academic quality of the colleges ranked.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with an organization choosing to rate “the best high schools” to identify outstanding efforts by a school’s administration and faculty. School districts and policymakers will no doubt use the USNWR list as a measure of how well high schools are serving their communities, along with areas for improvement. 

What this list should not be used for? College admissions.

College consultants may wish to explain this conclusion to their clients.  One hopes that colleges already understand it.

Oh, and what about those BASIS schools left off the Top Ten list?  You can still find them in a quiet corner of the USNWR web empire, under “Best Charter Schools.”  See  In any event, I doubt that many colleges will be looking there.

If you are a parent or student living in Tucson, please note that I am one of a handful of independent consultants who live and work here.  Please see The Tucson Advantage for why that matters. 

You May Be the True Victim of the College Scandal

Why do I mention that I am an Associate Member of IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association?

IECA is the gold standard of college consultants organizations. Members are expected to adhere to the highest ethical standards; those who do not are not allowed as members.

This brings us to the college admissions scandal currently in the news, a tale of avarice and cunning that will shake up some corners of the college admissions world. I think that there a few points worth noting.

First, the consultant at the center of the scheme was not a member of IECA. This is not surprising – IECA does not look kindly on consultants charging outrageous fees for college admissions. Frankly, the amount of work involved for a reputable consultant (in my view, 100-200 hours), does not justify tens of thousands of dollars in fees. (And the much smaller fee I charge is not enough to bribe a school mascot, never mind a college coach.  For information about my fees, see Why Hire Me?.

IECA also demands that college consultants not “guarantee” admissions, simply because there is no honest way to do that. In addition, college consulting is about finding the right school for each client. It is hard to accomplish this goal when your clients are fixated on doing whatever it takes to get into a “prestige school.”

Second, there has been no evidence presented that college admissions staff were bribed. I suspect that this is because admissions officers generally make decisions in groups – bribery would be cumbersome, more expensive, and risky (it would take only one admissions officer to talk to end the scheme). White-collar criminals generally find the “soft spot” in the victim organization; in this case, altering the records on which the admissions officers rely was simpler and cheaper. (Ask me how I know –  see About Me.)  Whatever the reason, I find the absence of admissions officers as defendants reassuring.

Third, and most important, the victims in this scandal are not really the universities, however they spin it. Yes, their employees accepted bribes, and some undeserving students were admitted. Some colleges – most notably USC – may suffer undeserved reputational damage.

But the number of students involved are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of students enrolled in those colleges legitimately. More important, there remain other, legal, ways for those with money to oil the gears of the admissions process. Legacy admits (students whose parents attended the college) have a huge advantage in Ivy League admissions. And then there are contributions – for the reported $6.5 million one parent invested in bribery, that parent probably could have achieved the same result by simply donating to the university.

College counselors will be largely unaffected.  Perhaps those who are charging outrageous fees might garner suspicion as to exactly what services they are offering to justify same, but consultants belonging to reputable associations (e.g., IECA, HECA, NACAC) may even benefit from all of the discussion about what reputable counselors do.

The victims are students. To be precise, they are high school students with learning disabilities. If your student falls into this category, then you and that student are potential victims. This is because one of the tentacles of this scandal may be particularly far-reaching:  the college consultant claimed that he was able to bribe therapists to provide false documentation of a disability to be used to obtain accommodations on the ACT or SAT.

From the New York Times, March 13, 2019:

The conspiracy relied on the parents getting medical documentation that would entitle their children to extra time on the test, an accommodation normally made for students with disabilities. Students who need extra time generally take the test alone, supervised only by a proctor — providing the opportunity for the bribed proctor to rig the outcome. Mr. Singer advised parents on how to get the medical documentation needed to qualify.

According to court filings, in a conversation with one of the parents, Gordon Caplan, Mr. Singer explained that for $4,000 or $5,000, a psychologist he worked with would write a report saying Mr. Caplan’s daughter had disabilities and required special accommodations. He assured Mr. Caplan that many parents did this for their children.

“What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test,” Mr. Singer said in the conversation. “So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.”

This is a potential disaster for many of you. It can be tough for students with learning disabilities to obtain accommodations. Now we can expect the ACT and the College Board (the SAT) to make the process even more difficult. If psychologists (possibly a neuropsychologist, but the story does not say) can be bought, then how will the testing companies identify students who really do need these accommodations?

The initial reaction from the College Board was encouraging and helpful:

The College Board considers all reasonable requests for accommodations — such as large print, Braille, or extended time — needed by students with documented disabilities.

The board asks for documentation in some cases, Mr. Goldberg said, but in the “vast majority” of cases, the modifications are granted through the schools that students attend, where they are evaluated and given an individualized education program.

It appears that the best defense is to have a history of accommodations. Parents should be prepared to show current and past IEPs and 504 Plans. A long history of documentation is likely to allay suspicions. However, for those students whose diagnosis is too recent to have obtained an IEP or 504 Plan, or whose need for minor accommodations does not justify the hassle and expense of obtaining same, this scandal may prove troublesome.

This is another reason for parents of students with learning disabilities to consider paying for an assessment by a neuropsychologist and, if appropriate, obtaining an IEP or 504 Plan.

What Juniors Should Be Doing This Spring

For some intensely motivated families, the college hunt started a long time ago.  For some high school juniors, the student has not – and does not – want to think about college yet.  But there are steps juniors should be taking right now to prepare for college admissions applications season later this year.


Summer plans

A few very selective universities (e.g. Stanford, Princeton) ask students how they spent the summer after their junior year.  (Stanford asks about the last two summers.)  Many more ask about extra-curricular activities or work experiences – summer is prime-time for both.  For the record, the summer after my junior year, I slept 12 hours a night and “hung out” with friends doing nothing important whatsoever.  Alas, this is no longer a viable college strategy for juniors.

The “rules” about what constitutes a worthy summer experience are in flux.  The accepted wisdom has been that travel, internships, and summer courses on college campuses are the best ways for juniors to show that they have used their time to learn more about the world and themselves.

However, stung by charges of elitism, colleges admissions officers are proclaiming that local volunteer work or even “merely” having a job will suffice.  And as I have written about previously in Mission Accomplished?  Maybe Not Anymore, overseas service trips are losing their luster because they are perceived as available only to the wealthy.

Each student’s circumstances will determine their best “summer strategy.”  Exploring a potential medical career by “shadowing” in a hospital, or a science career by working in a lab as a research assistant, or any career by working in a related internship, is a common activity.  Students leaning more toward humanities and the social sciences often participate in writing workshops, fine arts experiences, and travel.  Students may also study college-level material in a formal academic program.

Of course, plenty of students needing to support their families or save for tuition have only one choice:  work all summer.  As noted above, colleges are slowly accepting this reality, and many fine essays come out of the most mundane of work experiences.  Families unwilling or unable to pay for summer experiences will favor this option, along with encouraging their student to read for enrichment; Wake Forest currently asks for the student’s five favorite books.

The only rule that matters for now is that families should start working on summer plans while it is still cold out.



Most colleges will accept one to two teacher recommendations; some colleges will also accept a recommendation from a non-teacher.

Stay tuned for a post about how to secure the best recommendations.  For now, note that most recommendations come from teachers who are currently teaching your student.  Teachers in your student’s senior year will have too little time in which to learn about the student before applications are due; sophomore teachers may not remember much about the student when it comes time to write recommendations two years later.  Much the same is true about non-teachers, such as employers, coaches, and the like.

Juniors who have impressed teachers should redouble efforts in those classes.  They should  keep notes of their achievements (best papers, projects, and tests) for later use when asking for a recommendation.  Note:  doing so may be essential because a few colleges are now requiring students to submit a graded paper with their application – this may well become a trend.

Juniors should also increase their participation in class, review their teacher’s comments on papers and projects with them after class, and generally gain their teacher’s regard.  Some may call this “sucking up.”  Why yes, that is exactly right.  Welcome to the world of college admissions – and life.

Finally, all colleges require a letter from students’ “guidance counselor.”  This can be the most important recommendation of all.  We will take up the reasoning supporting this assertion in a subsequent post; suffice to say at this juncture that juniors should get to know their guidance counselors.  In large schools, the guidance counselors serving as college advisers have huge caseloads – even identifying them and introducing yourself can be a challenge. Nonetheless, juniors should begin planning to make an appointment with their guidance counselors to discuss college plans.

If you are a parent or student living in Tucson, please note that I am one of a handful of independent consultants who live and work here.  Please see The Tucson Advantage for why that matters. 


The Invasion of the Reps!

Tis the season when college admissions representatives (“reps”) descend on high schools. Prepare to take advantage of this opportunity.

Not all colleges send reps to high schools to recruit students. Some elite and/or small universities combine forces to present sessions off-campus in the evening. Here is an example: Other colleges offer information sessions in various cities – if you are not in a large city, you probably will not see them.

However, a significant number of colleges send reps directly to high schools. These colleges generally assign reps to assess applications from different regions and states; part of their job is to visit schools in their assigned area. This means that reps who visit your school are likely to be part of the team evaluating your application.

The typical rep (not rap) session is devoted to an informal presentation on the merits of the college, followed by questions. Students are usually allowed to skip class to attend. The entire session usually lasts 30-60 minutes.

Most reps confine their visits to the “strongest high schools” in your area. If your school does not typically host college reps, then you should consider examining the website of the strongest schools in your area and choosing one or two information sessions with colleges to which you intend to apply. If you can swing the logistics (traveling from one school to the other, losing class time, etc.) seek permission from the host school (and your own) to attend the information session at the other school. Of course, you will identify yourself to the rep and explain the situation. Your initiative will seize the rep’s attention, which may bolster your admissions chances.

You have several objectives when attending a college information session:

  1. Learn information about the school that will help you decide whether to apply.
  2. Learn information about admissions that is not available elsewhere.
  3. Register your interest in the college and, if possible, impress the rep.


Here are some tips to accomplish these objectives.

  1. Determine which colleges are sending reps to your area.

Apart from checking with your high school about which colleges are sending reps to the school, most college websites – under “Admissions” – will announce when and where reps will be visiting your area. This may take some digging, but it’s there. If all else fails, call the college’s Admissions office.


  1. Choose your sessions carefully.

Attending sessions often requires skipping classes or extra-curricular activities. Unless you are seriously interested in the college, skip the session. As one rep notes:

I always felt one of the great ironies of the high school visit was that I was there exhorting students to take the toughest classes, do as well as possible…and then skip them when I came to school. That never made sense to me.


  1. Research the college.

This is another reason to choose your sessions carefully:  you should do some homework on the college before the session.

Determine whether the college cares about “demonstrated interest.”  College sessions generally include a “guestbook” where students sign in to register attendance. Reps also hand out their cards, giving the student the opportunity to send “follow-up questions”.  Most colleges keep track of students who attended the session as an indicator that the student “demonstrated interest” in the school. But a few do not.

Fortunately, there is data out there from which you can determine which colleges care about demonstrated interest. Begin by checking the college’s website. A few colleges, such as Carnegie Mellon, make it abundantly clear that they do not track this information. See

Next, check, which compiles data submitted by colleges to the U.S. Department of Education. Find your college, and then click on the “Admissions” tab. About halfway down the page, you will find “Selection of Students.”

Here is the data for one elite university.


Factor Very Important Important Considered Not Considered
Rigor of Secondary School Record X
Academic GPA X
Standardized Tests X
Class Rank X
Recommendations X
Essay X
Interview X
Level of Applicant’s Interest X
Extracurricular Activities X
Volunteer Work X
Character/Personal Qualities X
First Generation to Attend College X
State Residency X
Geographic Residence X
Relation with Alumnus X
Religious Affiliation/ Commitment X
Ethnicity X
Work Experience X


As you can see above, the ratings are: “Very Important”; “Important”; “Considered”; and “Not Considered.”  One of the attributes is “Level of Applicant’s Interest.”  Most colleges – including the one above – state that such interest is “Considered.”  A few label it as “Important.”  That is often a code word for “you’d better go visit that college if you want to win admission.”  (Yes, Rice University, I’m looking at you.)

Colleges that state that the Level of Interest is “Not Considered” should be taken at their word. These are often elite colleges that do not want anxious students flooding onto campus simply because they believe they must. Feel free to attend their high school presentation sessions, but do not assume that you are bolstering your admissions chances by doing so.

Note:  the “Interview” attribute refers to interviews offered by the college after receiving your application. Most of the colleges which request interviews will offer to have an alumnus interview you close to your location; there is usually no need to visit the school for that purpose. For purposes of deciding whether to attend a rep session, you can ignore this attribute.

We’re just getting started with research here. Know the basics:  the college’s location, size (and perhaps gender/racial composition) of its student body, and courses of study available. A quick review of the college’s web site should yield this information.

Then dig a bit deeper:  determine the GPA and SAT/ACT scores necessary to be competitive, the schools, departments, and majors for which the school is best known, and some of the colleges for which it typically competes for students. There are several resources where you can find this information, but for a “quick look”, I consult Type in the school name, and choose the “overview”, “admissions”, and “student life” tabs.

Then run the college’s name through a search engine and browse the links which appear, from Wikipedia to various ranking sites (e.g., Niche, Princeton Review). Hard-core readers with plenty of time might look up the school in “College Confidential”, as well.

Finally, you should examine the Common Application (or the Coalition Application or, in a few cases, the college’s own application) and determine what supplemental essays and short-answer questions are contained in the application for the college visiting your high school. Be patient – there is a very good reason for doing so.

Now you are ready to evaluate the rep’s presentation and ask an intelligent question.

Here is a step-by-step guide to getting the most out of the session itself.

  1. Arrive 5 minutes early. That is enough time to snag a front row seat – you want to be seen – and not so early that you are stuck talking to the rep with nothing to say. Talk to the rep after the session, not before.
  2. Sign the guestbook.
  3. Turn off your cell phone and put it away.
  4. Listen carefully to the presentation; take notes.

The mere act of taking notes marks you as a serious applicant. And you may use the information later.

What should you be listening for?

What does the college consider its strengths?  Colleges compete for your attendance. Let them sell the benefits their school offers. Take notes, because at some point in your application to that school you will want to express interest in those benefits. In other words, you will want to tell them – at least briefly – what they want to hear. This is where you connect the information and sales pitch with your answer to their “Why Our College” question.

What information is the rep revealing about admissions policies and/or priorities?  Although most colleges simply repeat the information on their websites, sometimes they will deliver a nugget of information you can use. Be alert for suggestions that you apply early, or that the college is looking for certain extracurricular activities. (Although you cannot invent an activity, this information helps you decide which activities to emphasize.)  One year a rep from a top college responsible for my student’s region emphasized that he likes to read humorous essays. My client obliged – she was admitted. (Of course, her academic record might have had something to do with it.)

5. Do not ask more than one question during the session.

Asking more than one question may give the impression that you are trying to dominate the session. Of course, if you have a follow-up question, do not be afraid to ask it.

Avoid questions where the answers are apparent on the website. For example, asking about admissions requirements that are set forth on the website makes you look lazy. This is one reason to the research I suggested above.

Ask more general questions that may pertain to your interests, such as:

Question: “I am interested in exploring both sciences and the liberal arts. How difficult is that to do at ________?”  “Is it common for students to double-major?”

Question: “How popular is undergraduate research [presuming your interest is in STEM] at ______?”  “What are the requirements for students who are interested in performing research?”

Question: “Is there much interaction between the students on campuses and the surrounding community?”  “What are the internship (or co-op – where you work full-time) opportunities in the area?”  [This question can be tweaked depending on whether you want to know about social, business, or academic opportunities – if you are budding social worker, you may care more about the demographics of the area than other students.]

I list two questions for each topic because another attendee might ask the first one.

After the session ends:

  1. If you haven’t done so already, sign the guestbook.
  2. Engage the rep.  Start by asking for a business card.

There will probably be a line of students waiting to talk to the rep. If you have plenty to say, then you might want to linger in the back of the line in hopes of being the last student who talks to the rep. You want to be memorable, in a good way.

When you get home after school, if you are still interested in the college, write a quick paragraph (based on your notes) and put it into a file for that college (electronic or visual) for use when drafting your application. Remember to save (or scan) that business card.

And write a thank-you note and e-mail it to the rep.  Something simple will do:  “Thank you for your information session today at [“X high school”].  I found it very informative and useful.”  Noting the high school is important, because reps often visit more than one high school each day.


A Test That Is Too Easy Results in Hard Feelings

A not so funny thing happened on the June 2018 SAT test – many students were surprised by their low marks. In fact, the entire testing community appears to have been taken aback, and not in a good way.

Here is an article that explains all of this in detail: Other test-prep companies have also discussed this issue. See

The takeaway for students and parents is that the June 2018 SAT test was too easy. As a result, the College Board psychometricians (a vocabulary word that will probably never appear on the SAT – it refers to experts on testing) used a very steep curve to avoid giving the same scores to everyone. This curve punished mistakes harshly. As the Compass article linked above points out:

Compare this to how the June SAT 2018 Math fits in among its fellow new SATs. A 650 could be achieved with 50 correct answers. That’s the lowest scaled score the new SAT has ever produced for 50 correct answers. The highest score it has produced for 50 correct answers on an actual, released exam is 740 points — a 90-point swing! So in its first two years, the new SAT has approximately doubled the extremes seen on the old SAT over 10 years and 4 times as many exams.

What will happen to those scores?  The College Board remains committed to the results of the test, going so far as to insist that the results were not “curved,” but “equated.”  Technically this may be correct, but the impact for many is that their scores on that test do not reflect their ability to score well on the “typical” SAT.

However, the furor surrounding this exam changes the usual calculation concerning when students should re-take a standardized test. Normally, students with two or more SAT (or ACT) results should not retake the exam except under two circumstances: 1) students are very confident that they will be able to improve their scores because they have now received extra time for a learning disability, were ill previously, or have put in more time in studying for the test (perhaps with help from a test-prep company); or 2) students absolutely need a higher score to stand a chance of being admitted to their “reach” schools.

The risk of taking the exam repeatedly is that some colleges require students to send all test results. For those colleges, there are several risks. First, the student may get unlucky and receive lower scores on the retake. Second, some of those colleges (e.g., Ivy League) frown on students taking the SAT or ACT multiple times. Finally, colleges tend to discount later scores as being due to the “practice effect”, i.e., students who are more familiar with the test typically post higher scores.

Some of these risks may be reduced for students who scored below their expectations on the June 2018 exam. Although colleges will probably not discard the June 2018 scores, the furor over the test means that they will consider those scores with an asterisk – they are more likely to accept later scores favorably.

If you are dissatisfied with your score on the June 2018 SAT, you should seriously consider retaking the test.

SAT Score? No, But Check Out How I Did on the Gaokao!

A couple of news items grabbed my attention in June.  First, the universe of test-optional schools expanded with the addition of a top-ten institution, the University of Chicago.


Just say no to standardized tests?

Test-optional schools are what the label implies:  students are not required to submit SAT/ACT scores when applying.  The “test-optional” practice has become increasingly popular, with 100 colleges adopting the practice during the last five years.  Why is this becoming popular?  From my vantage point I see good – and perhaps not so good – reasons.

Some students just do not test well.  Students with learning disabilities who need extra time sometimes do not receive accommodations, or do not benefit from them.  Standardized tests stand accused of cultural bias – asking questions which presuppose knowledge that students not raised in “mainstream” America lack.  The “test-prep” industry, which often only the wealthy can afford – can boost some students’ scores at the expense of their less financially endowed competitors.  In other words, in some cases the tests simply do not measure students’ academic potential.

However, some colleges adopting this practice are being more strategic rather than altruistic.  Colleges are businesses, and once you get beyond the top 100 colleges, demand for places starts to ebb.  Many of those “test-optional” institutions are small private colleges.

“Going test-optional” enlarges the pool of interested students.  See  In a few cases, those extra students can be essential for financial survival of the institution.

Schools that go this route can obtain another benefit – selective reporting.  Students with low standardized test scores who stand to be admitted for other reasons (e.g., legacy admissions, athletic scholarships) are most likely to not submit those scores.  When the school reports its admission statistics, its average standardized test scores for admitted students will rise commensurately.  This makes the college appear more selective, which can affect its rating in reference lists such as U.S. News and World Report.  These colleges get the best of all possible worlds:  more applicants, higher reported test scores, and a few rungs up the “prestige” ladder for schools (which in turn prompts more students to apply).

A few “test-optional” colleges have “refined” this concept by requiring submission of standardized test scores to obtain financial aid.  This appears to be an obvious “pay to play” plan, where students with poor test scores are not required to report them if all they seek is admission.  If those students are admitted, they subsidize their better testing peers by paying full tuition.

Many – but not all – top colleges have resisted adopting a “test-optional” policy because of the stigma attached.  The SAT and ACT are marks of quality (however imperfect); announcing that they are no longer required for admission suggests a lack of rigor.  This is increasingly the case because widespread grade inflation is making GPAs less reliable for distinguishing among students.

This is what makes the decision by the University of Chicago so surprising.  It is an elite institution with perhaps the most “cerebral” reputation of them all.  This was where the Manhattan Project helped win WWII, and the Chicago School of Economics changed economic policy around the world.  This is the university famous for its admissions essay questions – a few years back applicants were invited to explain “what is odd about odd numbers”?  The university is known as the place “where fun goes to die,” because everyone is so busy studying.  These students run an intellectual gauntlet second to none.

Perhaps most important, the University does not need more prestige – it already ranks #3 on the all-important U.S. News and World Report list of top colleges.  Thus, when the University of Chicago goes “test-optional”, the world of higher education pays attention.

So why did the University do it?  It cites some of the “good” reasons stated above; it is coupling the move with an increase in financial aid for families earning under $125,000.  If there were also strategic motives behind the plan, they were not announced.  (No surprise there.)

Two questions remain.  First, will this change the demographic of admitted students at the University?  Will more minority and students with learning disabilities apply, and will they be accepted?  Second, will other schools follow the University’s lead?

We will have to wait a few years to find the answers to both questions.  In the meantime, the “test-optional” movement just gained a significant boost.

Students considering test-optional schools should carefully evaluate the testing policies of individual colleges – they can differ in important respects.  College counselors can add value here.


The rise of the gaokao

Meanwhile, there was another standardized test in the news this week – the gaokao.  This one dwarfs the SAT and ACT in almost every respect.  About 3 million U.S. students take the SAT or ACT, while approximately 9 million Chinese students sit for the gaokao.  Like some European countries, the gaokao is the most important, if not the only, data used by Chinese colleges for admission.

The gaokao is a nine-hour exam given over two days.  Compulsory subjects include Chinese, mathematics, and, usually, English (students can substitute other languages); students also sit for an additional subject depending upon whether they are pursuing STEM or other careers.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the gaokao to Chinese students.  The results determine which colleges students can attend and the majors they may pursue there once admitted.

Many students compress their high school careers so that they can graduate early and spend the next year cramming for the exam.

The hype around the exam makes stories about test anxiety in the United States seem tame.  Per the South China Morning Post:

Hengshui Middle School in Hebei province, where more than 100 students earned admission to the prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities, students have been given IV drips as they study, believing that it will help them with concentration and focus. Girls are given contraceptive pills to delay their periods until after the exam.

Similar stories abound.  See (referred to as “the Atlantic article”).

The Atlantic article suggests that the growing number of Chinese students seeking to attend college overseas are driven by worry about – and disdain for – the gaokao.  It notes that Chinese students taking the SAT and ACT are under similar pressure, and links that pressure with the recent wave of cheating scandals on all three exams in Asia.  (The penalties are a bit stiffer for cheating on the gaokao – cheaters are banned from retaking the test for years, and those caught facilitating cheating face prison sentences of up to seven years.  See

The gaokao and the SAT/ACT share one justification – identifying talent.  The archetypical example in China is the student in the rural provinces who would otherwise have been consigned to a life of farming but did well enough on the gaokao to change her life.  It is ironic that the SAT/ACT are threatened in the U.S. while the gaokao remains dominant in China.

One reason for the dominance of the gaokao is that for many Chinese students, the test is the only guaranteed authentic mark of achievement and talent.

From the Atlantic article:

Guessing the percentage of fraudulent transcripts in applications from China is a popular parlor game among educators over here. Unscientific estimates abound: One prominent agent who works with students at some of the best high schools in China recently estimated to me that at least half of the transcripts in China are doctored to look like the students have done well in a robust high school curriculum, when the reality is one of almost constant memorization and practice tests. Unfortunately, no one in the college prep industry in China would be surprised if the actual percentage was significantly higher.

The Chinese system poses a challenge for U.S. colleges who tout their “holistic college admissions” processes.  How can they distinguish among foreign students who spend all of their time studying for one exam, and whose transcripts, even if produced, may be fraudulent?

The obvious answer is to consider the results of the exam.  After all, colleges rely on the TOEFL exam to assess competency in English.

And so it begins.  Newspapers this week trumpeted the decision by the University of New Hampshire to consider the gaokao.  But UNH is only the first public university to do so – the University of San Francisco (“USF”) started accepting the gaokao in 2015.  Dozens of universities in Australia, Canada, and Europe accept it.

This article from Inside Hire Ed reporting on USF’s program is skeptical that many U.S. universities will follow, mostly because the timing of the gaokao conflicts with the admissions cycle:

We shall see.  When 9 million test-takers sit for an exam, the number of “underperformers” is in the seven-digit range.  It is therefore no surprise that U.S. universities are after some of those test-takers, preferably those who will pay full tuition in the United States.

Per the USF administrator in charge of Chinese admissions:

He anticipates that USF will set gaokao cutoff scores equivalent to the marks needed to get into a first-tier Chinese university in each province, plus or minus a few points. Students who are admitted based on their gaokao scores will pay their own way, though Nel said they could be eligible for merit scholarships of up to $20,000 per year.

Brave words, but I doubt that the high standard will be maintained.  After all, the goal of almost every student who takes the gaokao is to snag a spot in a first-tier Chinese university.  Very few will trade that for a spot at most U.S. colleges.  Expect lower, less publicized, standards as this practice grows.

And it will grow.  With 337,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in U.S. colleges, and financial pressures on those colleges increasing as public funding continues to lag, do not be surprised when this practice spreads throughout our American system of higher education.

Ken Rosenblatt — Tucson College Counselor