Posted in College Admissions, College Admissions International Students

Getting Started on the College Essay

The first sentence is always the hardest one!   Students know that they are supposed to come up with a catchy lead that will draw in the reader, but that can be a tough way to start the writing process. In fact, the most common thing students tell me is that they don’t know where to start.

Freewriting is a great way to get your college essay on paper and moving forward. Rather than starting with the lead sentence, or planning out the structure of your essay, consider a free writing format.   Think of some questions related to your topic, and answer them, without a beginning, middle or end. Just write freely on the topic, and then look back to see what parts you can use in your essay.

If you are writing about your passion for film making, your free writing questions could be: “How have you changed as a film maker from the time you made your first film?” or, “How have your films shaped or changed your view of an issue in the world?” or even, “How do you learn about filmmaking? Is there a person or a source that has guided your experience with films?”

This type of writing can help steer students toward reflecting and considering themes that are related to their essay topic. Telling the story is only part of a good essay, but reflecting and adding your personal views or growth are an important part too.

Another thing to remember about the college essay is that you don’t need to use it to impress the admissions office with your credentials. They will already have your transcript, testing and other information about you as a student. The essay is your opportunity to tell them what you are all about. The key is to come across in a likeable way, leaving the person reading the essay to think that she would love to continue the conversation.

Free writing is a great way to start the writing process, to get your thoughts, feelings, and story down on paper. You can then move on to refining your message and editing, and then finally, consider that first sentence with the strong lead!

Posted in Boarding School Admissions, Day School Admissions

SSAT Scores in the Independent School Admissions Process

  A parent came to me recently with concerns about her son Dylan’s score on the SSAT test. He was a strong student, had always done very well on standardized tests, and was hoping to join the freshman class at one of the selective private schools in the area. The mother was shocked when Dylan scored only a 60th percentile.

The score seemed to be barely above average, and not reflective of his past success in school. She wondered what the score meant in the admissions process and whether Dylan still had a chance at getting into a private school.

First, a few thoughts on testing and percentiles. Yes, Dylan’s score of 60th percentile meant that he scored better than 60 percent of the 8th grade boys who took the test over the last year. As his mom suspected, he was scoring a little higher than average. But she anchored her expectations on Dylan’s past standardized tests, where he consistently scored in the 90th percentile and higher. Why the decline?

There actually was no decline in Dylan’s abilities or progress, it was simply a different norm group. The standardized tests that Dylan took at his public school, were graded with a national norm group, meaning that it reflected scores of students from different backgrounds, not just the select group of private school applicants who take the SSAT.

It is not unusual to see a student who scores in the 90th percentile in a nationally normed test, score only 60th percentile on an SSAT. So what does that mean for private school admissions?

In Dylan’s case, his score does indeed reflect his academic success, shows that he is at or above grade level, and is likely to succeed in a competitive high school. Whether he will be accepted to the schools he applies to depends on more than just the standardized test score. Other important factors include the competitiveness of the applicant pool, his grades, teacher recommendations, interview, and his potential contributions to the school.

Some private schools release their average SSAT score, and while it can be as high as 90th percentile at schools such as Andover and Exeter, a typical competitive high school has an average SSAT score of around 75th percentile. Dylan’s score of 60th percentile is a little low for the schools he is considering, but not overly so. With some well-planned preparation, he can do better on his second try at the SSAT and increase his chances of standing out in the competitive applicant pool.

We suggest that students spend about two months preparing for the SSAT. They can take sample tests, review math concepts that they haven’t covered in a while or have struggled with, practice the reading comprehension sections, and familiarize themselves with the test format.

Posted in College Admissions

The New New Thing On College Campuses Today


Career centers were never the highlight of the campus visit tour. There was very little glamour or interest in this office that students dutifully checked into once or twice during their college years for information on their job hunt. But today, many colleges are showcasing their career services office and its offerings as a major part of not just the campus, but the college experience. They are using it as a competitive edge in attracting bright students to campus, and more parents and students alike are evaluating career services as they visit colleges.

We recently visited some colleges large and small in New England and were impressed with the direction some of the schools are taking with respect to their career centers. Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college (with a strong emphasis on the word “liberal”) located in Middletown, Connecticut, has recently moved their career center from the outer fringes of its campus to a new, centrally located, state of the art facility. The Gordon Center has a number of programs and boot camps to help students prepare for far reaching careers. For instance, the center brings in outside consultants to prepare students interested in finance by conducting training sessions in financial modelling and interview prep. Similarly, they host a program offered by Achievement First to help prepare students for careers in education and education reform. They have other pathway programs as well, all with the idea in mind of helping students prepare for success in different industries.

Meanwhile, Wesleyan’s Little 3 rival Amherst College has plans to expand its career center offerings as well, thanks in part to a seven-figure donation. Just this month, the school announced the gift and that it was renaming its career center the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning.

In Providence, Rhode Island, the career center at Providence College has just moved to a sleek newly constructed building in the heart of campus. Its prime location is designed to signify the importance the college is placing on career preparation and development. It’s attached to the building housing the men’s basketball program and the Concannon Fitness Center, with its bright, two story windows giving it the airy look of a Silicon Valley headquarters. Two or three years ago, the PC career center started what is now one of its signature events, a Career Expo held each fall where students can meet with more than 100 potential employers and graduate schools across the country. Last year they added a major/minor fair as well as an internship showcase. It is widely attended by students, and as you exit the fair, you can have a professional headshot done, which is handy for a student’s LinkedIn account.

We also recently visited Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. The Career Center there has just moved into a newly constructed building just in time for students to start their fall courses. They share the glassy structure with the Admissions Office and a Writing Center. Their proximity to admissions is designed to showcase the Career Center to parents and students as soon as they walk into admissions.

This heightened emphasis on career preparation and development is seemingly occurring across the country. Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles, California opened the doors of its new Hameetman Career Center in April. The college is currently embarking on phase two of its multi-year plan to establish Oxy as a national leader in providing career and professional development support. Louisiana State University has a brand new, state-of-the-art facility as well that is conveniently and centrally location in the Student Union.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the country, career management at The University of Chicago starts as soon as freshman students arrive on campus. Indeed getting students engaged in the career process earlier was consistently a common theme on our visits, but UChicago goes to the extreme in this manner. Students there are assigned a Career Advancement Adviser straight away during First Year Orientation.

Many of these schools have also been placing more emphasis on helping students get internships, which are critically important when the full-time job hunting process begins. It’s encouraging to see these colleges allocating more resources into better preparing its students for success in the workforce. Too many schools have spent too much money on rock walls, lazy river rides, student aquatic centers, and the like. These added resources and emphasis should help better prepare students for the interview process while also helping them to be more productive once in the workforce. And with the prolonged below average growth in the overall economy, students exiting college need a competitive edge to get the full-time jobs that are available.


Kristin White and Michael White are Co-Directors of Darien Academic Advisors, an independent educational consulting company specializing in assisting students and families on the college, boarding school, and day school admissions process. To learn more, visit Darien Academic Advisors

Posted in College Admissions

“Do I Really Have to Apply Early Decision?” And Other Concerns:


Our high school seniors are finishing up their college essays and trying to complete the Common Application before the academic pressures of senior year take root. But there is one nagging decision left to make, one which many students find the most stressful of the whole process—whether to apply Early Decision.

When I first suggest to clients that they consider applying Early Decision to a favorite college, they often say no, I’d prefer to apply to multiple colleges, get lots of acceptances and then make my decision. Why should I pick one now?

One of my students, Colin, was happy that he found a handful of colleges that were good fits both academically and socially.   “I’m applying to Lehigh, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Colgate and William & Mary,” he said proudly, “I know I need a few safeties but I have some good ideas there too.”

Colin understood that Vanderbilt was a big reach, and William & Mary would be tough as well, particularly since Colin was from out of state. His profile was a very good match for Lehigh, Colgate, and Wake Forest, but his chances would increase if he applied Early Decision, thus making a commitment to one of those colleges.

Colin didn’t feel confident in making a commitment yet, and he didn’t like the idea of giving up on Vanderbilt, even though it was a reach school. “Can’t I just apply to them all, and then I’ll probably get into at least one of them, right?” In past years, Colin may have been correct. But today, many colleges are filling half of their freshman class in the Early Decision rounds, leaving fewer spots for the larger regular decision pool. For example, Lehigh accepts 58% of their Early Decision applicants, filling 46% of the freshman class. Lehigh only accepts 28% of the Regular Decision applicants. At Vanderbilt, they accept 22% of their Early Decision applicants, filling 51% of the class, and only 10% of those who apply Regular Decision are admitted. With similar numbers at Wake Forest and Colgate, Colin realized that it would be to his advantage to choose one for Early Decision.

Luckily for Colin, his parents are easily able to fund his college education and he is not applying for financial aid. He is able to make a commitment to a college early in the process without weighing financial aid offers. But still, he feels that colleges are pushing him to make a final decision before he is ready.

And truthfully, they are! Early Decision offers many benefits to the colleges and few to students and families as a result. But the unfortunate reality is today’s students and parents have no choice but to adapt their application strategies to this reality.

Kristin White is the Co-Director of Darien Academic Advisors, an independent educational consulting company specializing in assisting students and families on the college, boarding school, and day school admissions process. To learn more, visit Darien Academic Advisors

Posted in College Admissions, International

How to Create a College List That Will Save Your Family Money

Summer’s here and it’s time for rising seniors to begin application essays, plan campus visits, and refine their college list. Schools that will make the cut will have the right academic fit, location, reputation and campus culture. Unfortunately, many students – and their parents – wait until it is too late to consider one of the most important variables, “financial fit.”

Creating A College List With Financial Aid In Mind

Families sometimes make the big mistake of talking about finances at the end of the process in the spring when the financial aid award letters arrive. Or, parents may insist on one reasonably priced state college, while hoping for financial aid to be awarded from the expensive colleges on the list.

Yet it is crucial to have financial fit in mind from the very beginning of the process as students work on a college list of schools to which they will ultimately apply.

4 Steps To Creating A College List With Financial Fit In Mind

  1. Research In State Colleges

It goes without saying that good students should apply to the flagship university in their state. Whether it is University of Florida, UCONN, or University of Kansas, you will get a quality education with reasonable in-state fees. But also consider additional universities in your home state that have good programs and may offer you lower tuition or increased chances of merit aid. For example, in these three states, take a look at the tuition and merit aid offered at these other schools: Eastern Connecticut State, University of South Florida, and Kansas State University.

Families looking for the ultimate in cost savings can consider community colleges, which offer very low tuition with the opportunity to transfer to a four-year college. Low income students who qualify for a Pell Grant will find that their costs at community college are covered in full.

  1. Research Out of State Colleges

There are tuition bargains to be had at state universities throughout the US. Many offer tuition breaks to students from neighboring states. If you live in New England, you’ll pay only $27, 586 for tuition, room and board at the University of Maine, a fee only slightly higher than what Maine residents pay. Residents of the Dakotas and Wisconsin benefit from “reciprocity” tuition rates at University of Minnesota, and groups such as the Western Student Exchange and the Academic Common Market offer tuition reductions for out-of-state students, although they are sometimes limited by the major a student choses.

In addition to these regional deals, there are popular state universities with reasonable fees for out-of-state students. You can get tuition, room and board for about $40,000 at University of Alabama, $37,000 at Virginia Tech or University of Arkansas, and $35,000 at the University of Minnesota. The cherry on top of these low tuition rates is that they offer generous merit scholarships to out-of-state students to sweeten the deal.

  1. Look at Lower Cost Private Colleges

Many private colleges have topped $65,000 a year in tuition, room and board. To be fair, they do offer extensive need-based financial aid. But many families are disappointed with their financial aid award, or may not qualify for aid at all, but still find the tuition and fees to be overwhelming. Families who included lower cost private colleges on their list were happy to have these options in April. Examples (tuition, room and board) include Lake Forest College at $53,000, Lynchburg College at $46,000, and the striking bargain of Flagler College in St Augustine, Florida which is $27,620, all in.

  1. Look for Schools With Merit Scholarships

You have probably heard of students who received large merit scholarship awards, in amounts as high as $20,000 annually, and wondered how they got it. Maybe she wasn’t at the top of her class, yet still she got this big scholarship. How?

The answer is that she applied to a colleges where she was a good candidate for a merit scholarship. She was sure that her college list included schools where she was in the top 20% of the applicant pool, or that she met the college’s stated SAT and GPA scholarship requirement. Many colleges are transparent about their threshold for merit awards, publishing award amounts on their websites or in their promotional materials. But other colleges don’t have firm cut offs and make merit scholarship offers based on factors beyond the grades and testing, and consider the quality of the applicant pool, picking the students they especially want to enroll.

Expand Your Horizons

Creating a college list that includes good fits that are also financial bargains or have merit award possibilities is more art than science. I can’t tell you a specific place to look, or a database with unique information on merit scholarships. Educational consultants and high school guidance counselors often have insight and experience working with students seeking merit awards and can make recommendations that are good fits for you.

I worked with a student who was accepted to Boston College and Villanova with no merit money, but received a $22,000 annual award to Loyola University in Baltimore. I recommended Loyola to him since it offered a lot of what he liked about Boston College and I knew he would qualify for a large award. If he had not included Loyola on his college list in the beginning, he never would have had this option. I encourage all my students to add merit scholarship possibilities to their college lists. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, since they are excited about the reach schools, but don’t like to spend too much time on this other group of colleges.

It can also be hard to convince students that they will qualify for merit scholarships. You don’t have to be a top student to win a merit award. I have worked with “B” students who received merit awards from Marquette, University of Tampa, Roanoke College, and many other great colleges. Even students whose GPA’s are below 3.0 can qualify for merit aid at some colleges.

Spend the time now developing a well-thought out and researched college list, and you may see it pay off in spades next spring!


Kristin M. White is the Founder of Darien Academic Advisors in Darien, CT and the author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College (Jossey Bass, 2009) and It’s the Student, Not the College: The Secrets of Succeeding at Any School Without Going Broke or Crazy (The Experiment, 2015.) She can be reached at

Posted in College Admissions, International

Australia and U.S. College Admissions: Our Top Lessons Learned

usa australia flags

It’s been three years since we first started making trips to Sydney, working with students in Australia as college educational consultants and counseling them on the U.S. college selection and admissions process. We thought we’d share three of our top lessons learned/questions we’ve been asked the most:


We frequently get asked whether or not HSC and/or ATAR scores are used in the US college admissions process? As a result, we’ve come to appreciate how much added pressure this can place on Aussie students, and the preparation time required.

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast answer to this question. First, there is the question of timing. Many Aussie students apply Early Action or Early Decision to US colleges, so their application is complete by November 1 and the admission decision is made five to six weeks later, which is before the HSC is completed and graded.   In that case, the HSC score does not play any role in the admissions decision. However, at some colleges, they require that students fulfil all the obligations of their high school or home country. So even though they didn’t use the HSC score in evaluating you, they may ask for evidence that you completed the HSC at the same time they ask for you to send your final transcript or graduation certificate. A student who skipped their final HSC exams could therefore be in danger of revoking his US college admissions offer.

For students applying for the January 1st admissions deadline, their applications will be read between January and April, and their HSC or ATAR scores will be available at that time. In this situation, the US colleges may consider the score.   However, most US college admissions officers we spoke to are unfamiliar with the HSC, the ATAR and its scoring system. So while they say they may look at the test results, we are not sure they are used in a meaningful way in the admissions decision process. There are, of course, exceptions, particularly at super-selective colleges.

Overall, the colleges that we have talked to on the matter (and other, similar topics), will generally say international students need to complete the requirements of their sovereign educational system, and will be evaluated for admission based on that context. So if you’re planning on coming to the U.S. for your college years, particularly if you intend on applying to selective and super-selective colleges, in most cases, you generally should take your final HSC exams. Having said that, students who skipped the final HSC exam have been able to enroll in US colleges, particularly those that are less selective.

Of course each student’s individual situation is unique, and careful consideration needs to be applied!


We’ve found many Australian students we initially talk to do not have an effective SAT/ACT test prep strategy or plan.  They also have little understanding of the testing requirements. It’s important to consider that some US colleges don’t require any testing at all. So if you wanted to skip the SAT/ACT entirely, it is still possible to study in the US. However, if you want to have more choices, you will have to have a solid SAT/ACT score.   On the other hand, some US colleges require SAT subject tests in addition to very high SAT/ACT scores. American students often study for 6 months or more and consider the SAT/ACT to be a crucial part of their application package.

It’s exceedingly difficult to “walk into” the test center with little preparation and expect to do well, or as well as you think you should. Therefore, it is extremely important to have an effective plan in place early in the process (particularly so if you are an athlete, as the process is an accelerated one), and do enough preparation to score well. How much preparation and how to go about it is based on an individual’s needs, but you can start the process FREE using the online education center at Khan Academy (for SAT prep only). They have partnered with the College Board (the organization that administers the SAT) to offer a complimentary test prep plan, including practice tests, which you can access by visiting

College Choices:

There are over 3,000 colleges in the US, and they really vary in terms of culture and student life. For all of our American clients, they want the full “going away to college experience” which means moving into the dorms, joining activities and student groups, possibly a sports team or a fraternity or sorority. They enjoy being in a college environment where the other students have come from across the country and the world to experience this unique rite of passage in their new lives as a freshman at college.

However, the US also has what we call “commuter schools”.   These are colleges where a significant number of students do not live on campus and participate fully in traditional college life. Some live at home with their parents and work part time, and others are in their mid 20’s and have a child of their own, and a job.   These colleges do offer dorm living and everything else that a more traditional college does, but a smaller percentage of the student body participates in this lifestyle, leading to a campus culture that is very different.

Commuter colleges tend to draw students from the local area and have fewer students from other parts of the US and the world. Weekends tend to be quiet and campuses can feel deserted.   Americans looking for a vibrant college experience purposely avoid commuter schools.   But we have noticed that Australians are sometimes drawn to these colleges, particularly through sports recruitment agencies, or by outreach from the colleges themselves. We feel that the Aussie students often don’t realize that their college of interest is a commuter college, or they don’t understand the differences between the two types of colleges in the US.

These three trends all illustrate why we feel that it is important to work with a US college consultant. We can help you navigate the questions surrounding the HSC and the SAT/ACT and help you find the requirements or recommendations for the colleges that interest you. Likewise, we help Aussie families learn about the US colleges, how they are different, and what the right fit is—both academically and socially, that will help your stay in the US to be a successful one.

What’s New at Darien Academic Advisors:

We finished up a successful application year working with students on college and boarding school admissions. We worked with students from 10 U.S. states and 11 countries overseas (Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, England, Spain, Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Cayman Islands). Our graduating seniors were admitted to many excellent colleges.

We are also excited to have a new Sydney-based employee join our team at the end of last year. Denise Slocombe is based in the greater Sydney area and provides local support “on the ground” for our Australian clients and prospects.

About Darien Academic Advisors

DAA is an independent educational counseling company based in the USA with a local Australian representative. We advise students and families on the U.S. college selection, application, athletic recruitment, and admissions process. Founded in 2005, we offer a personalized approach and work with students across America and around the world. For more information, visit Darien Academic Advisors

Posted in College Admissions

The New ‘Coalition’ and What It Means For the Upcoming College Application Season

Q mark

The big news in admissions circles is that there is a new “Coalition” application.  Details on this new venture are murky, which has led many students to ask us what the Coalition application is, and most importantly, how it will affect them.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success has 93 college members, including schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Amherst, and a mission to make college more affordable and accessible to students of all income levels.  The hope is that this application will reach underserved students and will encourage mentors and teachers to engage with them on the process earlier and in a more meaningful way.  The application will go “live” in July, and it’s still uncertain how many of the 93 college members will opt in and offer the Coalition application for the class of 2017.  Many of those colleges are hoping to wait until year two to offer it to their applicants, and most of the colleges will continue to offer their own application or the Common Application.

What does this mean for the class of 2017?  Probably nothing, since you will most likely use the Common Application or a college’s own application.

What does this mean for the classes of 2018 and beyond?  Change might be coming down the road, and it will be interesting to see what develops.  We know that the Coalition colleges place a high value on community service and community engagement, so we can expect to see that emphasized on the application and in the profiles of successful applicants.  The Coalition application may be less traditional and allow for submission or discussion of student portfolios, art work, or community service activities.   With several months until the Coalition application goes live, we don’t know what the format or requirements will be like, and it will be interesting to see if it changes the admissions landscape.

Kristin M. White and Michael D. White are Co-Directors of Darien Academic Advisors, an independent educational counselling company specializing in college, boarding school, and day school admissions. For more information, you can visit Darien Academic Advisors.

Posted in Boarding School Admissions, Day School Admissions

3 Things Your Child Can Do This Summer to Prepare For the Private Secondary School Admissions Process

day school admissions counseling

Getting your child into a private secondary school in Fairfield County is harder than ever. With the school year ending and the competitive fall application season just around the corner, many parents are wondering what their child can do over the summer to better prepare for the process. There are, of course, many things that can be done, but here are 3 of our favorites:

1). Read: Kids should read widely and voraciously in the summer. This includes not only books, but other forms of media. Depending on their age and interest, they can read your local paper, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, or blogs in their area of interests. If need be, you can start in areas where they have a high level of interest, and then build in depth from there.

The summer is also the time to tackle not only the school reading list and Newberry Award winners, but books in new genres and new topics. A weekly visit to your favorite librarian will ensure some good recommendations. Kids who aren’t drawn to reading can benefit from a summer reading competition, which parents can design, and even compete in themselves.

Why is reading so important for the admissions process? Students are asked to talk about their reading material during the interview process, and this can become an opportunity to shine, especially for kids who struggle to talk about themselves and their own accomplishments.   Reading also helps students to do well in the ISEE and SSAT, and it gets them ready for the higher volume of reading they are likely to find in private school.

2). Test prep:   At the very least, your child should take a diagnostic test during the summer so that you know where he stands. This will help you in evaluating the independent school options and finding a good fit. If you aren’t sure how to interpret the diagnostic score, or are wondering how it compares with the norm at the private schools, consider setting up a time to talk with us.

Your student can do some review for ISEE or SSAT under your guidance, with test prep books, or with a tutor. Students may enjoy practicing the writing responses, especially if parents get involved and read, encourage, and comment on their writing.

3). Explore an interest: It’s important that your applicant have at least one activity or interest that is offered by the schools she is applying to. These schools are more likely to admit students who can actively contribute to the school community. If your son is a karate star or your daughter loves gymnastics, unfortunately that is not helpful to independent schools that don’t offer those activities. The summer can be a great time to expand your child’s expertise and interest in something she can potentially contribute to the schools she is applying to.

And of course, above all, enjoy the summer!

Kristin White is the Co-Director of Darien Academic Advisors, an independent educational consulting firm offering advisory services on college, boarding school, and day school admissions. For more information, visit Darien Academic Advisors.

Posted in College Admissions

Gap Year: 3 Things You Need To Think About First

Darien Academic Advisors Gap YearMalia Obama is taking a gap year, and the news has made high school juniors and seniors everywhere consider this exciting option for themselves. Who wouldn’t want to put off the academic grind to travel the world, explore interests, or make a difference in a community? But a gap year isn’t always the right answer, and careful consideration needs to be made in determining if it is the best path.

Educators support the gap year, reporting that gappers bring more to their campuses and often get more out of their college experience than those who matriculated directly from high school. A few colleges report that these students have higher grades and more leadership positions on campus. In fact, several institutions, including Harvard, Malia Obama’s college choice, actually invite every admitted student to take a year off, and even mention it in their acceptance letters.

3 Things to Consider Before Deciding on a Gap Year

1. Expensive Programs

The first splash of cold water on the whole idea is usually the expense. The organized trips abroad are more than $20,000 a year, not including airfare and personal expenses. If you want to volunteer overseas, you are likely to pay $1,000 a week. Programs in scientific field research or outdoor expeditions can top even those prices.

Students who want to do a gap year on a budget have to get creative and be realistic. There are free programs, and although they might not be as exotic as the expensive trips, they are no less meaningful and life-changing. AmeriCorps offers programs such as City Year and National Civilian Community Corps which are not only cost-free, but they actually give participants a stipend and a $5,775 education award. The Student Conservation Corps and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms are two additional free programs.

2. Need for Planning

The second thing to know about the gap year is the importance of a well thought out and planned year. Some students, put off by the expense of planned programs, declare that they will just do their own thing. They might volunteer locally, take a class, or perhaps travel around and visit friends. This type of plan can move dangerously out of the gap year zone and become only an extended vacation.

During the gap year, the learning process continues, but in a different format and venue which is supposed to inspire and excite a student. When educators talk about the benefits of the gap year, they are talking about a year where students have continued to stretch themselves, learn, mature, and grow as people. It is certainly possible to have a meaningful  year without any sort of structured program, but the challenge is on the student herself to create a detailed plan that includes goals in each area of exploration. Many colleges require students who request a gap year deferral to submit an agenda for the year, and will only grant the deferral if the plan is acceptable.

3. Emotionally Ready Student

Finally, it is important for families to think about whether their student is emotionally ready to take a gap year. College counseling offices are busier than ever, and we know that many young adults need mental health support on campus. I’ve worked with families who were concerned that their child was not yet ready for college because of challenges with depression or anxiety. A gap year seemed like a better alternative, and sometimes that decision was spot on, and the emotional growth and maturity gained in the gap year was just what the student needed. But careful consideration needs to be made, since the demands of an international gap year experience, or of a year without the structure of a typical work or school day does not help all students to progress.

Malia Obama’s gap year decision is going to shine a bright light on this educational opportunity, and we are likely to see more young people chose this path over the coming years. This experiential learning process can help students mature, chose a major, explore careers, grow as a person, and prepare for the rigors of college life. For those students now considering it, my advice is:

  1. Always have a detailed plan, including clearly defined goals and objectives.
  2. Understand the reason why you are taking a gap year, since this is as important as the decision of what to do.
  3. Find opportunities within your budget.
  4. Be ready for the challenge of your life!
  5. If you do take a gap year, keep a video or written journal to document your thoughts and experiences.


Kristin M. White is an educational consultant with Darien Academic Advisors in Darien, CT and the author of The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College (Jossey Bass, 2009) and It’s the Student, Not the College: The Secrets of Succeeding at Any School Without Going Broke or Crazy (The Experiment, 2015.)

Posted in Athletic Recruiting, International

The Ivy League’s ‘Likely Letters’

yale hoops

We’ve seen a few Australian and other overseas athletes who thought they were being recruited athletically at an Ivy League school, yet in effect we knew weren’t really being actively recruited. Some of these athletes dutifully applied in the Early Decision process, only to receive a “ding” letter. It is then that they truly understand they weren’t really being recruited, that they were only “option value” for the coaching staff. They finally understood being looked at and followed is one thing, but being actively recruited is a completely different animal.

That’s not to say coaches at these schools were being misleading. Far be it. Schools always look at and follow certain athletes to see how they progress, both athletically and academically. And “things happen” – maybe a kid doesn’t score as well on his SATs as his grades indicated, or perhaps he unfortunately gets hurt. Or maybe a higher priority at the same position has given the coaching staff a verbal commitment. For one reason or another, these student-athletes didn’t get put on a coaches recruiting “list.”

When we’ve come across these athletes, if our discussion moves to a “Likely Letter,” and their response is “what’s that?” we know these athletes generally are not priorities of the coaching staff. Those that are will have had discussions of the Likely Letter process, or have been told they are on “the list.”

So what is a Likely Letter? It is a formal letter from the admissions office saying you will be admitted as long as you continue along your academic path and don’t screw things up. Specifically, according to the Ivy Manuel, admissions “offices at each Ivy school may offer some athletic and other candidates a ‘likely’ letter, which has the effect of a formal letter of admission, provided the candidate continues to have a satisfactory secondary school experience.”

Coaches initiate the process, but the end decision is up to the admissions office. In effect, these letters are as good as an acceptance letter. Ivy League schools generally issue Likely Letters to their recruited athletes a month or so before the Early Admissions process commences in early November of senior year (Year 12). And some small concessions can be made in the admissions process for those recruited athletes, but that is enough of a discussion for another post.

These colleges generally cap the number of recruited athletes who matriculate at each of the schools. According to the Harvard Crimson, it is limited to 1.4 times the number of athletes needed to fill the travel squads for the 33 Ivy Championship sports. So, more than enough to fill the travel squads. This data point sheds some additional light on the Ivy recruiting process.

Originally, Likely Letters were issued so that athletes who were considering athletic scholarships (which aren’t given at Ivy League schools) would feel secure in their admissions process before having to make a formal commitment in the National Letter of Intent process to a non-Ivy League school. Additionally, if you are being recruited by several Ivy League schools, it gives the athlete assurance they will be admitted to a school before making any verbal commitments.

So if you are being actively recruited by an Ivy League school, expect a Likely Letter. If you do not expect one, understand what that means in your own process.

And if you are being told you are on “the list,” ask for one. This will make your process a more committed one, and you can feel secure knowing you are a priority of the coaching staff.

Michael White is the Co-Director of Darien Academic Advisors, a full-service, independent educational consulting company founded in 2005. DAA advises families on the college and boarding school admissions process, and student-athletes on the dual process of athletic recruitment and academic admissions. He can be reached at mwhite@darienacademicadvisors. For more information, visit