How to get personalized advisor letters, even at large schools


Special to the Herald

Q: I always thought I’d take the SAT, but now I’ve heard a lot about the ACT. Do colleges look at both tests the same?

The short answer to your question is yes, but let me say a little bit more about this. Recent statistics show that more U.S. students take the ACT than the SAT – so the ACT is indeed well known. If a college does require standardized tests, it will accept either the SAT or the ACT. (There may be additional requirements depending on the school, so be sure to check requirements carefully.) Both the SAT and the ACT are considered in the same way, so there is no benefit or drawback to taking either test. That said, certain tests may work better (or worse) for certain students.

My advice is to take a diagnostic exam of each test before you begin your test prep, be it with a tutor, as part of a class, or on your own. After all, how are you to know which test is better for you if you don’t give both a try? Once you’ve determined which test will likely yield the better result for you, begin your preparation in earnest. Some students will prepare for and take both tests, and that’s OK, too. But if you have a clear preference, then pick one and stick with it.

Q: I go to a huge public school and my advisor doesn’t really know me. How will she write a recommendation letter for me for college?

My first piece of advice is to make an effort to meet with your counselor at least once, even if it’s just briefly. At some schools, counselors may be assigned hundreds of students; but even if you get a short amount of time with your counselor, it’s better than no time, and plan ahead to maximize what you (and your counselor) can get out of the meeting. Also, your counselor will likely appreciate that you’ve made an effort to reach out, and that you’re organized.

Even when counselors work with many students, they often have forms for you to fill out so they can learn about you in ways that would be helpful for writing a letter on your behalf. You can also submit information you think would be helpful — though don’t go overboard and give too much to realistically review. In addition, colleges know that some counselors must work with very large numbers, and it’s impossible for them to work closely with everyone. So if counselors are unable to provide detailed letters, colleges will not penalize a student.

Q: Do colleges see my quarter grades or just my final year grades?

What colleges see depends on what your school includes on its transcript. At some schools, all of the quarter grades, midterm exam grades and final-exam grades from each year are included, in addition to the final-year grades. At other schools, only year-end grades are included. If you’re unsure about your school’s policy, ask your counselor. Also, it’s a good idea to request a copy of your transcript at the start of senior year so you can look it over to make sure that it’s accurate.

Know that just because your school may include quarter grades doesn’t necessarily mean that colleges will use more than final year grades as part of their review.

Bari Norman is a certified educational planner and a former college admissions officer. If you have a question for this column, please email info@expertadmissions.com.

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