A reference for high school students, parents and guidance advisors
revised March 2023

 [ Disclaimer and authorship statement ] | [ Email comments, questions, and suggestions

1. Why Go to College?
2. Why go to a Highly Selective School (Instead of Somewhere Else?) 
3. What is a Highly Selective School? 
4. Who Gets in to These Schools?
5. How Much Does it Cost?
6. What About Financial Aid?
7. Entrance Requirements
8. The SAT, SAT subject tests, ACT, and AP tests
9. The Admission Calendar
10. Deciding Where to Apply
11. Small School or Big School?
12. Going Out-of-State
13. The Weather Back East
14. Do I Really Want to Work That Hard?
15. What Should I Major In?
16. What About Engineering and Technical Schools?
17. Decisions, Decisions
18. The Application Forms
19. The Essay
20. Teacher Recommendations
21. The Interview
22. Application Deadlines
23. After You Are Accepted - Deciding Where to Go 
24. Summer Preparation 
25. What is College Really Like?
26.  More perspectives
27.  Contact information and disclaimer

1. WHY GO TO COLLEGE? | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]
The following brief list is intended to provide some of the major reasons for going to college. You undoubtedly have additional reasons of your own. Add them onto this list to help you focus on what you really want in a school.  I strongly recommend reading this article (from The Atlantic magazine Jan/Feb 2018 issue) about the over-rated benefits of college for people majoring in the liberal arts or soft social sciences.  His remarks do not apply to people majoring in STEM fields nor to those in the math-based social sciences. 
a. To prepare for a specialized career.
b. To help select a career.
c. To develop general problem-solving and intellectual skills.
d. To enjoy a transition between living at home and complete independence.
e. To broaden your horizons.
f. To increase your earning potential in the job market.
g. To increase the likelihood that you will find challenging and interesting work. 
h. To establish personal work habits and expectation.
i. To learn the legacy of the past.
j. To learn the technology of the future. 
k. To develop on your own away from your parents. 
l. To make friends and live with peers in a communal setting.
m. To mature and develop in your interpersonal relations. 
n. To further develop a field of interest. 
o. To have fun.


a. Contact with people who are exceptionally bright, motivated, interesting, and who come from diverse backgrounds.
b. Academic depth and breadth in your selected fields 
c. Academic and administrative flexibility.
d. Academic challenge and the highest possible standards. 
e. A professional reputation that opens career paths and employment opportunities.  Since employers get zillions of applicants for every job, having a degree from a highly selective school makes you stand out in the applicant pool.  It tells the employer that you are bright and hard-working.
f. To learn self-discipline and time management skills from having to apply yourself to your studies.
g. The self-respect that you will gain from your achievements.
h. To be challenged and grow to meet these challenges.
i. The chance to be among other students who regard learning as fun, rather than a chore.
j. Being taught by professors who actually enjoy teaching.
k. The cultural and artistic environment on campus.
l. Prestige.
m. To get to know another part of the country.
n. To avoid the problems with housing, class scheduling, and changing majors that are typical of large state schools.
o. Taking freshman classes from Nobel laureates and well-known authorities in their fields.

3. WHAT IS A HIGHLY SELECTIVE SCHOOL?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]
Many people refer to the "Ivy League Schools" without realizing that the Ivy League is strictly an athletic league and has nothing to do with educational quality. Many very respected schools like Stanford and MIT are not members of the Ivy League. What the highly selective schools have in common is that they are in great demand, so they accept less than 10% of the students who apply. 

Each school has its own strong and weak points, and they are as different as the cities in which they are located.  All are privately run, so the tuition is the same whether you are from out-of-state or local. Most seek geographic diversity to help achieve a balanced mix of students. Thus it is easier to get into Stanford if you don't live in California. Just because a school is highly selective does not mean that it is the right choice for you.  Look beyond the ratings, especially in fields of particular interest to you.

UCLA and University of California - Berkeley are sometimes referred to as "public Ivies" because they are very well-respected, highly-selective, and have low in-state tuition because they are public.  However, they have many of the problems common to large public universities such as impenetrable bureaucracies, long wait lists for many classes, and severe restrictions on declaring and changing majors.  For this reason, they are usually not grouped with the private highly-selective schools. 

4. WHO GETS INTO THESE SCHOOLS?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]
The vast majority of the students attending highly selective colleges were in the top ten percent of their graduating class, were active in extracurricular activities, demonstrate leadership potential, scored well on the SAT and SAT-II, and are extremely motivated. They typically took many honors or AP classes during high school. More importantly, they are passionate about learning and throw themselves heart and soul into one or two activities.

You don't have to be a genius, or student body president, or have ancestors that came over on the Mayflower to get in to the highly-selective colleges.  You DO need to be interesting and stand out from the crowd.  Nowadays, about half the students at most of the highly selective universities are minorities or international students.  

In November 2003, the MIT magazine Technology Review published an article titled "Who Gets In" that details the way the MIT Admissions Office handles applications.  Keep in mind that each college's admissions office has its own unique system for admissions, and it often changes significantly from year to year.  MIT, for example, publishes a page What We Look For

Twenty years ago, it was pretty easy to predict which students would be admitted, since the highly-selective colleges admitted about 1/3 of the applicants. All the bright, interesting kids were admitted back then.  However, nowadays, colleges no longer have room for all the bright, interesting kids since about five times as many kids apply for the same number of slots, so luck plays a huge factor.  If you play tuba and the school's marching band's only tuba player is graduating in June, you might get admitted!  Or they might be looking for a baritone for the men's a capella group.  Or perhaps they need someone from Wyoming so they can boast they have a student from each of the 50 states.  Or you juggle and the admissions officer who's reading your application also is a juggler, so he gives you the thumbs-up.  If you get in, you aren't "better" than the kids who don't get in - you're just luckier.

Don't forget - the STUDENT is applying to colleges, not the PARENTS.  The student  needs to take the lead in contacting the school, setting up interviews, etc. Parents are not helping (and can in fact hurt) by trying to do too much.  After all, once the student arrives on campus, they're on their own, without mommy and daddy to help them, so they need to practice dealing with this stuff before they leave home.  Parents - don't be a "helicopter parent," hovering over your kids and taking control for them.  Students - if you parents try to hover, remind them that they've already been to college, and now it's YOUR turn.  Check out this hilarious YouTube satire about helicopter parents. 

The MIT admissions office gets asked - what are you looking for in a student - so often that they have created a website to answer that question.  Other colleges may have similar pages. 

5. HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

The major difference between the cost of a private selective college and that for the state schools is the tuition. The other expenses will be about the same wherever you go.  Don't be put off by the (apparently) high cost. Depending on the course of study you pursue, you may come out ahead in the long run by going to the highly selective school. By going to the highest quality undergraduate school, you will receive the best possible education which will enable you to find a higher-paying job with greater potential for promotion, or obtain admission to sought-after graduate and professional schools. In tough economic times, a 'brand-name' diploma may even make the difference between a good job and no job at all. At most highly selective schools, you will be (usually) guaranteed on-campus housing, required courses (usually) are not over-subscribed, you will be treated like a human being, not a number, and you will have more classes taught by English-speaking professors instead of grad students with heavily-accented English.  Going to a brand-name school will also make it much easier to get meaningful summer jobs. 

It's very stressful being a freshman at a large state school and finding yourself on the wait list for 5 classes and signed up for 2 you don't even want, because there is no room in the classes you need for your major.  You may have to buy the books, attend lectures and do the homework for 7 classes for the first two weeks until you find out where space opens up.  My daughter had to do this at UC Berkeley for her freshman and sophomore years until she could officially become a psychology major, and it's very, VERY stressful.  At the highly-selective private schools, they do NOT do this to their students.  You almost always can sign up for whatever classes you want, or perhaps have to waitlist for one class.  So that extra tuition money does indeed result in a very tangible benefit.    

Before you decide to spend four years and a lot of money getting a college education, think about what type of job you want to have ten years from now, and how your college years will help you prepare for the job.  Too often, people major in something like Women's Studies and then realize the best job they can get with that degree is flipping burgers at McDonalds.  Degrees that aren't job-related are fine if your family is wealthy and you don't need to work.  But if you will need a job when you graduate to pay off your student loans and support yourself, then major in something that will enable you to get a good job.  Or major in something you like, but teach yourself a useful skill.  So you could major in Medieval Russian Literature but teach yourself iPhone programming, then work as a programmer, keeping your Russian for a hobby.  Or better yet, major in computer science and keep the Russian for a hobby.

6. FINANCIAL AID  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Financial aid for the highly-selected schools is based entirely on need, rather than academic or athletic distinction, with very few exceptions. If you apply for aid and the school determines that you have need, you will receive a financial aid package when you are admitted. It will provide a method for you and your family to meet the total anticipated cost of your education, on a year-by-year basis. The aid package typically will require a parent contribution, earnings from your summer and term-time jobs, scholarships, grants, and loans.  Almost all of the highly selective schools practice need-blind admissions, so applying for aid doesn't affect your chances of getting in.

These schools all have similar standards for awarding student aid. While the aid packages that you receive will differ, the parents' expected contribution will be almost the same. Unlike many other schools, the highly selective colleges make their admissions decisions separately from financial aid awards. Therefore, applying for aid, will not hurt your chances of admission.

You can fill out the FAFSA in the fall of your senior year since it is based on the prior-prior tax year.  Many schools require filling out a CSS profile which is a real hassle to fill out. 

Parent contribution - The school will calculate what they believe is a fair amount that the parents can pay. They take into account the parents' incomes, number of dependents, total assets, and other expenses (such as other children in college).

Student contribution - You will be expected to contribute a portion of your earnings from summer and term-time jobs, and a portion of cash and other assets.

Government loan -- The U. S. Government offers low interest rate loans to qualifying applicants. Information about these loans is available from your high school guidance counselor or from college financial aid offices. Apply for these loans early since most: banks allocate only a small pool of funds for them.

College loan --Some colleges offer their own loans to students or parents which are similar to government loans but carry a higher interest rate. Contact the financial aid offices to determine which colleges that you are applying to offer these loans.

Scholarship grant - Grants are non-taxable gifts. They are not loans and do not have to be repaid. Almost all grants are based strictly on 'need', but. a few merit and athletic scholarships are available from various sources, usually outside the university. If you are receiving grant money, the amount of merit scholarships will be deducted from your grant, so the total amount of aid you receive will remain the same.

If you are not satisfied with the financial aid package than you are offered, write to the school explaining your situation. The highly selective schools hold back funds for this purpose.  When assigning a value to your family house for financial aid purposes, don't just use the asking price of other houses in your neighborhood. Many houses sell for much less than the asking price when sold for cash.

If you apply for aid, you will need to fill out the FAFSA form and provide the school with a copy of your parents' 1040 tax return for the tax year ending with December of your senior year. One often-overlooked source of financial assistance is a Co-op or Work-Study Program. Most technical schools participate in these joint programs with industry where you work and study alternate semesters, and the company pays your tuition and expenses. Needless to say, Co-op programs are hard to get into. Under certain programs, the companies pay for graduate school only.  ROTC also offers many full scholarships, and the military academies provide free quality education, if you are willing to commit to a certain number of years of service after graduation.

Keep in mind that you have to pay back student loans.  A friend's daughter recently graduated with a BA in English from a prestigious small liberal arts college and needs to start repaying her loans, even though she can't find a job.  Her payments are about $900 per month.  Do NOT borrow money unless you have an excellent probability of being able to pay it back.  In a good economy, with a marketable major, it's OK to borrow $80,000 for for years of college, but in a bad economy with a non-marketable major (such as a BA in Medieval Literature), you won't be able to pay back your loans.  If you major in something impractical, learn a different skill you can support yourself with.  My daughter realized that a BA in Psychology wouldn't get her a decent job, so she made sure to have marketable skills of website design and commercial graphic art.  

7. ENTRANCE REQUIREMENTS  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Most of the selective colleges require, as a minimum, four years of English (including ninth grade), math through pre-calculus, and at least two years of science. Several schools require other classes such as foreign language. MIT requires biology, chemistry and physics.  Most of the highly selective colleges require that you take the SAT (or ACT) and SAT subject standardized tests. Be sure to review current material from the schools so that you will know their requirements. Each college will require you to complete a written (or on-line) application form, including one or more essays. You must provide transcripts from high school and any colleges that you have attended, in addition to providing recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors.  Many schools also require (or recommend) an interview with a local graduate. You may want to take the TOEFL test if English is not your native language.

Unlike some state schools, none of the highly selective schools have minimum grade point average (GPA) or SAT score to be considered for admission. Instead, they consider your application as a whole. Weakness in one area often can be offset with strength in another area. The highly selective schools also consider your socio-economic and geographic background since they are striving for a diverse student body.  

8. THE SAT, SAT SUBJEC TESTS, ACT, AND AP TESTS  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Contact your high school guidance counselor (or for information, scheduling, and registration for standardized tests. Some colleges no longer require standardized testing, but many four-year colleges still require them.  The SAT consists of three parts - verbal, math, and writing - which test basic knowledge of these subjects. The SAT subject tests cover individual classes such as Chemistry or French. The AP tests evaluate your knowledge of college-level subjects you have taken while in high school.  Some universities (primarily in the South and Midwest) use the ACT exclusively instead of the SAT, but most allow you to choose between the two.

The SAT, SAT subject tests, and ACT are administered several times per year. Scores are reported to you, your high school, and directly to colleges that you have designated. You may take them as often as you like, but most people take the SAT or ACT twice and the SAT subject tests once or twice. Some people find that they can raise their scores significantly by studying hard for them or taking review classes. Review books are available in larger bookstores and the College Board website has sample questions. Vocabulary lists may also prove helpful, as will doing math without a calculator. Try to take the SAT subject tests near the end of the corresponding class so you will not forget the material. This way you can study for the final exam and the SAT subject tests at the same time.

Many colleges require that you take specific SAT subject tests, while others accept any three. Most require one of the Math tests. MIT, for example, requires only two SAT subject tests:  one of the Math tests and one of the Science tests. You may have to take four or five tests if you are applying to several schools with different requirements. You can take a maximum of three SAT subject tests on one date.

Almost all the highly selective schools will award you credit toward graduation if you score 5s on AP tests. Some will also give credit for 4s. Occasionally, a score of 3 will enable you to place into a more advanced class but you will not receive credit. Usually you get one semester credit for a year-long AP class. These credits usually won't enable you to graduate early, but will allow you to take a lighter course load for a few semesters.  You can take AP tests for classes where you know the material, even if you didn't take an AP class.  Ask your high school guidance counselor how to sign up.  If they can't help, take it at a nearby high school that is more cooperative.  You can take the AP test for anything, even if you don't take the corresponding AP class.  Many students self-study and take AP tests - if the college you attend awards AP credit for everything under the sun, you may be able to graduate a semester early and save a LOT of tuition money.

Most of the highly-selective schools have a foreign language requirement which can be satisfied with a minimum score on the foreign language SAT subject or AP test.  If you think you will do well on either of these tests, take it in case you need it for foreign language placement or exemption from foreign language graduation requirements.  Some schools like MIT have no foreign language requirement, but suggest that you take one if you are not already proficient.  Many college advisors will tell you that it doesn't matter if you take the SAT subject or ACT tests. college will allow you to place out of a foreign language requirement with an ACT score, but almost all will accept an SAT subjector AP test score on a foreign language test above their cutoff point.  It pays to spend some time studying to get this score, rather than have to spend several semesters taking foreign language in college. 

9. COLLEGE ADMISSIONS CALENDAR  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

This calendar is meant as a guideline only. Carefully review all material from each school to which you are applying and construct a calendar for each one. Some will have earlier deadlines than are shown here and you wouldn't want to miss one.

These days there is a bewildering array of choices for how to apply:  Regular, Early Action, Early Decision, and Single Choice Early Action.  Most public schools just offer one type - Regular.  A few have rolling admissions, and strong applicants may be admitted within two weeks of sending in their forms.  Most selective private schools offer two types - Regular, plus one of the other three types.  For Early Action or Early Decision, you complete your application by late October, then very strong applicants are notified of their acceptance in late December. Applicants that are not as strong are usually deferred until the Regular April admissions time for consideration with the rest of the applicant pool. If you are accepted under Early Decision, you are committed to attending the school. Early Action differs in that accepted applicants have no obligation to accept the offer of admission, but are free to wait and see which other schools accept them.  Single Choice Early Action does not commit you to attend, but you can only apply early to one school.  At most schools who offer Early Decision or Single Choice Early Action, your odds of acceptance are much higher (typically double the normal acceptance rate) than if you apply Regular.  Early Action applicants typically receive a smaller edge or no edge at all over Regular applicants.  

Spring sophomore year Take SAT-II and AP tests for classes you won't be taking further (such as chemistry) if it is a strong subject for you.
Visit a local college or university during its spring Open House to get an idea of what colleges do.  Try to visit a dorm, too.  What do you like about it?  What don't you like about it?
Spring junior year Take SAT or ACT (don't bother studying)
Take SAT-II for spring classes that you won't be pursuing further (history, science, foreign language)
Take AP tests
Compile a list of honors, awards and extracurriculars for use on application forms.  If you don't know what to list, download any highly-selective college application and see what they ask for.
Think about which teachers you will ask for recommendation letters.  Talk with them to make sure they will write you a letter if you need it.
Visit a local college or university during its spring Open House to get an idea of what colleges do.  Try to visit a dorm, too.  What do you like about it?  What don't you like about it?
Think about what you might want to do for a career and make a list of the half-dozen or so most likely majors that you might choose.  Make sure to apply to colleges that offer ALL of these majors and make it easy to switch among them.
If you are certain which college you want to attend, and they offer Early Decision, make plans to visit it.
Summer junior year Receive SAT or ACT scores
Make list of colleges to consider.
Receive SAT-II scores.
Download application forms and start planning and writing essays
September senior year Receive application forms (or download the rest)
Make schedule of deadlines.
Apply eEarly Actio or Early Decision if appropriate
October senior year Make final selection of colleges.
Give recommendation forms to teachers and counselors.
Plan and outline essays.
Take SATor ACT again (study this time)
November senior year Begin financial aid forms.
Write essays.
Receive SAT or ACT scores.
Schedule interview with local alumni if you have their contact information.
Take SAT-II if needed.
December senior year Rewrite and polish essays.
Complete application.
Take SAT again if desired.
January senior year Complete financial aid forms.
Take SAT or ACT again if desired.
Take SAT-II if necessary.
Do interviews if your candidate colleges offer them.
March senior year Chew fingernails.
April senior year Colleges mail acceptance letters.  
Visit colleges if you have time and your budget permits.
May senior year Decide which school is best for you.

If you have any questions about the admission procedure, check the school website, write or telephone the Admissions office or your local alumni representative. 

10. DECIDING WHERE TO APPLY  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

If you receive a high score on the PSAT, you will be deluged with brochures from various colleges. Some of these schools are excellent, but others are diploma mills that would take your money without giving you a quality education. There are many guides to the colleges available in larger bookstores and on the Internet. Use them to check out schools that sound interesting and browse for other colleges that meet your needs. Don't apply to a college just because it has a stellar reputation - instead see how it matches your needs.  For instance, you can't major in nuclear engineering at Harvard, nor major in Swedish at Caltech.

Think about school size, location, and flexibility.  The College Board has a College Search feature which asks you questions and then recommends schools that might suit you.  

Some students and their families visit colleges during the spring of their junior year or over the summer between junior and senior years.  While some college advisors recommend this practice, I strongly discourage it, unless you are applying Early Decision someplace.  Do NOT apply Early Decision to a school unless you have spent at least one whole day and night on campus, attending classes, eating in the dining hall, and spending the night in a dormitory.  Every year I see a few students who visit College X, fall in love with it, then are bitterly disappointed when they don't get in.  Also every year, I speak with students who apply to college Y Early Decision, go there, and then discover that they either don't like the students or want to major in something they don't offer.  I recommend that you visit only colleges to which you have been admitted, to prevent this type of disappointment, except for Early Decision applicants.  Generally, the most highly selective schools do NOT give an edge in admissions to students who visit the school or have an on-campus interview, since that would discriminate against poor students who can't afford to travel.  However, the schools that are less selective (like Washington University in St. Louis) often will skew their admissions in favor of students who have visited the campus and had an on-campus interview.

Make sure that the schools that you select teach the subjects in which you are interested. Read the catalog and verify that their curriculum meets your needs. Just because a school has an excellent reputation does not mean that it is right for you or your career plans. Few schools offer majors in ballet, Slavic studies, or nuclear engineering. At some colleges, you apply to a school (like the School of Engineering or the School of Arts) and would need to apply for a transfer (sometimes impossible to get) if you change your mind to a major in a different School.  Other colleges are totally flexible about majors.  If you aren't 100% sure of your intended field of study, think twice about choosing a very small college or a larger college that restricts your ability to change majors.  Also think twice about the large public schools that restrict classes.  My daughter applied to the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley.  She tried to take a class in the business school but was told that it was restricted to students who had applied to the School of Business, and the liberal arts kids were not allowed to take it. 

If you think a school might be suitable for you, here are some things I suggest to get more information about it.

1)  Read through the college's course catalog listing the classes they teach.  Every college posts their catalog online these days.
2) Look at the core curriculum requirements and see what classes you'd have to take to graduate. Do they look interesting? Is this a good fit for you?  Look at the requirements for what you need to take in high school to apply.  Make sure you've taken the appropriate classes and tests (if any) to be eligible for admission.
3) Check out the requirements for a major in two or three fields you might be interested in. Does the college even offer the majors that you are considering?  Do these required classes sound interesting? Does the program seem too shallow or too intense? Is this a good fit for you?  Even if you are sure you know what you want to major in, examine other majors.  Almost every college student changes their mind, often several times, about their major and intended career.
4) Browse among other classes in their catalog. Look for special interests that you have - such as music, drama, art, etc. Does the college teach the kind of classes that you like? Or can you meet these needs through clubs or informal groups like orchestra?  Do you like the emphasis or slant that they put on their classes?  If you will be majoring in a social science, do the classes seem overly liberal, overly conservative, or about right?  Check out extra-curricular activities.  Not every college has a rugby team or a bagpipe marching band.
5) Do you apply to an individual major, or to a school, or to the college in general? This is a BIG DEAL if you may change your mind about what you want to major in. At some colleges you can switch from a major in anthropology to one in civil engineering just by filling out a form. At other colleges, you have to apply just as if you were a transfer student from another college - and they often say NO. This information is often not in the catalog, so you may need to call and speak with the Admissions Office to get the answer.
6) Is dorm space guaranteed for four years? If it is important to you, find out about substance-free dorms, dorm smoking policy, dorm pet policy, and living in the Greek system.

11. SMALL SCHOOL OR BIG SCHOOL?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Big schools have the advantage of a vastly larger course offering. You will be able to take specialized graduate-level courses in fields that aren't even taught by small colleges. Since there are more students on campus, there will be a wider variety of student activities. Which small school could support thirty intercollegiate sports? If you are undecided about what you want to study, you may be better off at a large university which offers degrees in many different fields than at a small college where your choices will be limited. Many small schools are "boutiques" that specialize in certain subjects. For instance, Caltech specializes in the theoretical sciences, while Vassar focuses on liberal arts. 

Compare the size of the college to that of the high school you currently attend.  Could you be happy at a college that was much smaller than, or much larger than, your high school?  Mentally extrapolate the social life and extra-curricular activities at your high school to a college of the size that you are contemplating attending.  Most medium-sized private schools have alumni associations and the contacts can be useful finding a new job, or when moving to a new part of the country.  

If you went to a very small, private high school with a lot of personal attention from the staff, would you be able to adjust to a huge school where you won't be coddled?  Are you prepared to deal with an unforgiving bureaucracy?  The large state schools are usually sink-or-swim and provide little in the way of advising or coddling.  The large private schools, however, represent a middle road.

Don't think that all large schools are impersonal. The highly selective schools provide a tremendous amount of individual attention to each student. Some people think that they would rather be a 'star' at a small school than be 'lost' at a big one, but true stars will shine anywhere. 

12. GOING OUT-OF-STATE  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

The transition to college will undoubtedly be easier if you stay close to home. However, if you live at home, you will miss out on the social life of the dorm/frat environment. Since you would not be on campus, many activities would not be as accessible to you. If you go away to school, you will have the opportunity to explore a new part of the country and make new friends. You will also learn to be self-sufficient. Your financial aid package will take into account the extra transportation costs. Most students are much too busy at school with classes, activities, and friends to become lonely, but if you do, you're only a phone call (or instant message, or email) away.  

13. THE WEATHER BACK EAST  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

It's not as bad as you think. Typical winter temperatures in Boston are in the twenties and thirties, which is comparable to typical California ski resorts. While you will need a warm coat, hat and gloves, you probably will not need the long underwear or muffler that your grandma will send. Your college experience will depend on your students, the faculty and administration, the city in which you live, but certainly not on the weather. Having cold weather can also be an advantage -- you can't build snowmen at Berkeley! Dartmouth has its own ski slope.

14. DO I REALLY WANT TO WORK THAT HARD?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]


At an easy school, you will probably be able to coast through with good grades without working very hard. You may have more time for extra-curriculars and athletics, but you won't develop the self-discipline and stick-to-it-iveness that are characteristic of the highly selective schools. Your prospects for a job or graduate school will be more limited if you go to an easy school since prospective employers know schools' reputations, too.  The top-rated schools have excellent placement records for meaningful summer internships, so you'd be learning as well as earning over the summer.  

15. WHAT SHOULD I MAJOR IN?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Don't fall for the popular misconception that a liberal arts education will provide you a well-rounded education.  Many years ago, employers would hire people with no skills, and would train them on the job.  Nowadays, employers expect even their entry-level employees to have relevant skills and experience  If you plan to work in Human Resources, major in business with a minor in statistics.  If you plan to be a vet, major in biology.  Budding economists should major in economics with a minor in math.  If you want to work at City Hall, major in urban planning.  To succeed as a manager at a high-tech company, major in a technical field and take classes in management or finance. 

Majoring in film studies may be fun and easy, but it's almost impossible to get a job in the film industry since so many recent graduates are competing for very few positions.  

Liberal arts colleges are fond of saying that they teach "critical thinking skills."  This is correct.  But you can learn the same critical thinking skills and also get useful training for a real career at the same time by majoring in Industrial Engineering or Statistics instead.  Some students choose to major in film studies, women's studies, or communications since they think they require less work.  Employers aren't stupid - they know which majors attract unmotivated students who want to coast through college.  If they are going to coast through college, they will coast along once they have a real job, so this makes them much less employable.

Make sure you will have a marketable skill when you graduate, unless you have the money to go directly to grad school, and are willing to put having a family, house, car and possessions on hold until you have a real job with a real income.  If you major in something like unmarketable like philosophy, develop a skill that will allow you to repay your student loans and be self-sufficient.  Getting a brand-name diploma does not guarantee a job nor financial success.  See this New York Times article from 2017 or this article from November 2021 published in the San Jose Mercury News. 


Don't fall for the popular misconception that liberal arts colleges provide the broadest background. For instance, Amherst doesn't teach civil engineering, but students major in literature and history at MIT, and it is top-ranked in the world for linguistics, economics and political science. In addition to its math/science program, MIT teaches more liberal arts courses than any small liberal arts college. Most technical schools also have cross-registration programs with nearby liberal arts colleges. If you like science and the liberal arts, compare your job prospects with a history major to those you would have with a major in urban planning and a minor (or double-major) in history.  (See this cynical tongue-in-cheek page about liberal arts majors.)  If you are thinking about engineering, keep in mind that many college's "engineering" programs are really applied math programs and are NOT accredited.  Some colleges have an accredited generic engineering program, but do not offer accredited programs in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, etc.  If you go to an unaccredited program or one that is only accredited in generic engineering, you will find it almost impossible to get a decent job in engineering without spending two (or more) years in grad school making up the deficiencies of your undergrad program.  To check which engineering majors are accredited at the colleges you are considering, visit Year after year, people ask me about the same colleges, so I have put together a matrix listing the colleges people ask me about most often (Since I live in California, the list is heavy on west-coast schools), showing which ones are accredited for which engineering disciplines.  Use this list with a hefty grain of salt - just like test scores don't tell you everything about a person, accreditation doesn't tell you everything about a college.  But it will tell you if the school takes the job of teaching engineering seriously or not. 

I strongly recommend reading this article (from The Atlantic magazine Jan/Feb 2018 issue) about the over-rated benefits of college for people majoring in the liberal arts or soft social sciences.  His remarks do not apply to people majoring in STEM fields nor to those in the math-based social sciences. 

The Wall Street Journal made this short video clip about one of the MIT dorms. 

If you are thinking of studying engineering, check out this excellent YouTube channel that discusses many practical engineering problems. 


17. DECISIONS, DECISIONS  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

If you are not sure which type of school you would like, apply to a few with a broad spectrum of characteristics so that you will have a choice. 

In addition to schools that you want to attend, make sure that you apply to at least one 'safe' school. The safe school will insure that you will have some place to go other than the local community college just in case you don't get into once of your top choices. Keep a firm limit on the number of schools to which you apply. Filling out forms, especially writing the essays, takes time. By spreading yourself too thinly, you may be unable to do an adequate job on any of them. Budget your time, and then pare down your list accordingly.  Using the Common Application can save some time, but most Common Application colleges still require their own essays on their Supplement pages.  I recommend applying to one safe school with rolling admissions (last time I checked, University of Oregon still had rolling admissions) so you will know you are in someplace in October - this really takes the pressure off you senior year. 

When you are calculating the cost of college, remember to factor in the cost of a car if you go to a school at which a car is a necessity.  At most Eastern colleges, a car is a liability, not an asset since it street parking is not allowed when it is snowing.  At UC San Diego, however, a car is a necessity since the campus is so isolated.

Some students prefer colleges on the quarter system, since they can take more, shorter classes.  But most find the semester system less stressful since there is more time to drop classes you don't like, catch up if you fall behind due to illness, and there are fewer midterm and final exams.  Not to mention fewer term papers!

Most colleges have a guide for new students which includes useful items like maps, reviews of restaurants, locations of shopping, cafeteria hours, ATM locations, tips on navigating the bureaucracy, etc.  These guides are available to the public online for most colleges.  Here are links for the guides for MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford, for example. 

Some colleges offer Early Action, Single-Choice Early Action, or Early Decision programs.  Most don't.  Early Decision is for students who are 100% certain which college they want to attend.  You are allowed to apply to only one college Early Decision and, if you are accepted, you pledge to withdraw all other college applications and attend that college.  Applying Early Decision greatly increases your odds of getting in to most colleges that offer that program.  Early Action is different since there is no commitment to withdraw other applications or attend.  Colleges with Early Action programs allow you to apply to many other colleges early or regular deadline.  But Single-Choice Early Action colleges make you pledge that you are applying early to only their college and no others. 

18. THE APPLICATION FORMS  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

People don't apply to college. Little brown folders do. Your task as the applicant is to make sure that your folder reflects your abilities, personality, background, interests, and past performance. Download the application forms for colleges during the spring of your junior year, so you can see what kinds of information you will need.  Gather the information and compile tables of activities and honors.  Ask the schools if they will keep the same essay topics for the fall - and write the essays over the summer if they won't change.  

Try to mail in your application early. Every admissions officer must read hundreds of applications every year. At the beginning of the season, they read only a handful a day, but as January approaches, they must read dozens a day. Naturally, they cannot be as enthusiastic with so many forms to read. By sending yours in early, you can catch them before they get burned out or jaded.

Some people think that they have to pad their resumes and have long lists of extracurricular activities in order to get in to a highly selective school.  Not true.  The colleges want to make sure that you are doing something - anything - in your spare time, and that you actually have spare time.  Some people are working at capacity in high school just to get A's, while others coast along and still have plenty of spare time.  The colleges gauge how hard you are working by seeing how much time you spend on extra-curriculars.  Don't do something just to impress the colleges - do something you really enjoy.  Just being a member of 20 different clubs on campus won't impress anyone. However, if you spend 20 hours a week at one particular activity, and you have become the mainstay of that organization, that's impressive.  Colleges particularly like to see students with jobs - any job.  A few of the highly-selective colleges are biased toward certain activities  and seek out the editor of the school newspaper, the student body president, or the quarterback of the football team, but most of them are just as happy to have a student who works at an auto body shop because she loves cars.  The selective colleges all ask you to fill out a list of your activities including number of hours per week and any leadership positions held.  What will your list include?  

If you are mailing in paper forms, keep a photocopy of everything.  If you apply online, save a copy of your essays on your hard drive, and also a backup copy on a flash drive, DropBox or Google Drive.

19. THE ESSAY  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

There are five cardinal rules for college application essays:

a. Stick to the assigned subject and length. If a length is not specified, use your judgment.  If you can pick a topic, pick one that excites you, since your excitement will rub off on the reader.
b. Use proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
c. Don't try to impress the reader. Write in a manner to which you feel accustomed.
d. Don't he afraid to use humor or be creative, but don't be silly. 
e.  Have family, friends, and teachers critique the drafts.

Most colleges prefer to deal with only the requested information, so please do NOT send art portfolios, videotapes, CDs of your music, or other material unless it is requested or they have an official submission method. The primary purpose of the essays is to determine if you can write acceptable English. They will look for grammar, spelling, and proper word usage. The secondary purpose is to find out something about you as a person - such as what you find interesting or humorous, a life-shaping experience, or how you overcame an adverse background.  Most colleges will read an extra essay if you mail it in - but ask before sending one in.  The Boston Globe published an article about essays that might be helpful.

20. TEACHER RECOMMENDATIONS  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Some teachers are too overworked to have time for recommendation letters, or don't know you very well, so they would write things like "Johnny is a good boy. He will do fine." Give your forms to teachers who know you well and will spend time writing the reports. They don't have to be teachers that gave you A's. The colleges are looking for insights into your personality, not just your school record.  You can assist the teachers by giving them all of the forms for all the colleges together so they only have to compose one recommendation for you.  Do this as early as possible.  Most colleges want letters from teachers you have had during your senior or junior years.

Feel free to suggest to the teacher what you want him or her to write about you. The colleges prefer to have anecdotes or concrete examples of things that you have done, or get insights into your personality. Narratives describing a project that you worked on with the teacher are excellent.

The highly selective schools do not have space to admit all of the applicants who are qualified, so they often make the decision based on 'personality'. The teacher recommendations and your essays serve to give an insight into yourself. Use them wisely.

Some schools require that one recommendation be submitted from someone who is not a teacher, such as a Scout leader, religious advisor, or job supervisor. If you are applying to one of these schools, be sure to cultivate such a reference.  Many schools require recommendations from teachers in specific classes - such as English, social studies or math, while others just want a letter from any teacher.

21. THE INTERVIEW  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Interviews are often conducted by local alumni who volunteer for the job. They are not paid. Read about the school before the interview, be courteous, arrive on time, and be organized. These interviews will provide you with more information about the school, answer your questions, and allow the interviewer to get to know you as a person. He or she will write a report on the interview, which will be added to your file at the Admissions Office.  A few colleges do on-campus interviews, notably those with Early Decision programs, but most do not interview at all.  If a college offers an on-campus interview and you will be visiting the college, schedule an on-campus interview ahead of time, since it will be a big help to your odds of admission, because it shows you cared enough about the college to visit it, and planned ahead to schedule the interview.  After an interview by an alumni volunteer, it is polite to send a thank-you email and mention things you found especially helpful that they told you.  This is not necessary for an on-campus interview.

The deadlines for interviews vary greatly.  Most colleges do interviews in January or February.  

Be prepared to talk about your extra-curricular activities, job, and motivations for going to college. You might want to prepare a list of questions since this is your golden opportunity to find out more about the school.  For more detailed information about interviews, click here.

22. APPLICATION DEADLINES  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Try to anticipate deadlines. If you miss one through no fault of your own, it may be worthwhile to call to see if the school will still consider your application.


The best source of information about a college is spending a day or two on campus.  You wouldn't buy a car without driving it, so you certainly shouldn't spend four years and thousands of dollars going to a school you haven't visited.  Go during the normal school year, so you can go to classes, eat in the dining halls, and socialize in the dorm lounges. Eating dinner together is a major part of the social life at most schools, so try to be on campus at dinnertime. If you cannot visit the school in person, contact local alumni or students who are attending the school.  Do this AFTER you have been accepted.

Most of the schools will assign you a host for the day and put: you up for the night if you so request in advance. It makes sense to wait until you are admitted before spending the money (and time) visiting a school. You will be very heavily influenced by the people with whom you will spend four years of your life, so pick a school where you feel comfortable and get along with the other students.

I recommend waiting until you have been admitted before visiting a school.  Sometimes students fall in love with a school during a visit, and are bitterly disappointed when they aren't admitted.  I also recommend visiting during a normal week, not during midterms, school break, or a special Admitted Students' weekend.  You want to see the school as it normally is, not when it is spiffed up to impress you.  Avoid visiting over the summer when most schools shut down and all you will see are a bunch of empty buildings.

24. SUMMER PREPARATION  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

Find out what you will need to take with you. Some schools provide sheets, blankets and pillows, but most don't.. Ask your interviewer, check the website or blogs to find out what to bring. Common items include: bed linens (twin extra-long size), towels, coat hangers, raincoat, laptop, and desk lamp. Make plane reservations early to take advantage of discount fares. Make sure to check with the college before buying a computer to make sure the operating system is compatible with the school networks and will run all the college software for your major.  Some colleges have a list of "recommended computers", and many provide free software for download.   Most also have discounts on software such as Microsoft Office and PhotoShop.  Most students use Zoom or Skype on their laptop or smartphone to keep in touch with family and friends using video calls, and to keep from getting homesick. 

If your bank doesn't operate in their state, see if you can open a local bank account by mail so you'll have a working ATM card (with no fees).Open an account with PayPal and Amazon, and learn to use Zelle and/or Venmo to transfer money.  Get a credit card, but make sure to pay it off every month.   If you're under 18, either get a debit card that can be used as a Visa card, or have your parents get you a pre-paid Visa card so you can order items (like textbooks) over the Internet from places that will not accept PayPal.  Contact a current student to find out what else you'll need.  If you need a non-smoking dorm for medical reasons, or a single-sex dorm for religious reasons, have your doctor or clergyperson mail a letter to the school Housing Office as soon as you accept their offer of admission, so the letter arrives long before they assign you to a dorm.  If you know other local students who are going, decide if you want to request one as your roommate, or take the luck of the draw when you get there.  

A few colleges (notably MIT) allow you to test out of entry-level classes if you already know the material, or if you want to self-study the material.  You can get a huge jump ahead on your freshman year classes by testing out of some of them.  Check the policy for getting credit for high scores on AP tests, transfer credit for college-level classes you have taken, and the test-out policy since it varies widely from school to school.

25. WHAT IS COLLEGE REALLY LIKE?  | [ Top ] | [ Contact ]

College is a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. You will try things that you have never done before and you will achieve that which you never thought possible. You will make many new friends, stay up until 3 AM studying, and take midnight walks in the snow. You will participate in the myriad of activities on a busy campus including free seminars, movies, parties, clubs, hiking expeditions, tennis tournaments, hockey in the halls, bridge games, pick-up basketball, jazz concerts, newspapers and all-night study sessions during final exam week. 

You will learn to divide your time among work, study and play. You will learn the lyricism of Dante, the beauty of botany, the wonders of human genetics, new dimensions of photographic technique, and the workings of the unconscious mind. You will learn to live with a diverse group of people in a dormitory environment, respecting arid tolerating their eccentricities and learning from them.  

You will learn how to think and will acquire a solid foundation of knowledge that will serve you for the rest of your life, in whatever field you choose to apply it.  College isn't just learning and hard work.  Take time to enjoy your last few years without too many adult responsibilities - and don't forget to HAVE FUN!!


More perspectives:

Berkeley professor of economics and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has this advice and commentary for those graduating from college in the year 2020, but it's equally applicable and excellent advice for those graduating from high school this year.  22 minutes long and worth every minute.

A dad put together a list of 100 things he wanted his kids to know before they left for college.  Most of his suggestions are great - except I'd skip #1 as not practical or needed. 

Two articles from and about the former MIT Director of Admissions.  These comments apply to most highly-selective schools, not just MIT.  Click on both these blogs to view newspaper articles and comments about them.  Marilee Jones in the News and Dean Marilee Jones in the News.  While her comments are excellent, if you google her, you will notice that she resigned as dean after it was discovered that she lied on her resume when she applied for her job.  How ironic!  

Very funny column written by Dave Barry, former humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

Short article from the New York Times that puts applying to highly-selective colleges into perspective

To learn more about what college is really like, I recommend the book Naked Roommate: and 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College by Harlan Cohen.  Full of tips about finances, choosing classes, relationships, shopping, etc. from someone who has "been there and done that."  Fun and readable, a great gift.

Another book filled with fun one-line snippets is Once Upon a Campus by Trent Anderson. It provides vignettes by current college students and recent grads.  The book is short, fun, fascinating, inexpensive, and makes a great gift.

The book Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond published in 2006, by Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT.  

When you're on your own, you will need to learn certain life skills.  The Huffington Post has a list which you may want to look over.  Most are definitely needed.  But I'd substitute the necessary skills of backing up your computer and getting a library card for two of his unnecessary items - ironing a shirt and making a bed with hospital corners. 

What skills are needed in college?  How does parental income factor into college success?  Check out this Vox article

An excellent book for students heading out on their own - a must-read for every student who is a junior or senior in high school, or a college student. Discusses the responsibilities that you will be taking on, and strategies to cope with them.   Your Turn:  How to Be an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims 


[ Email comments, questions, and suggestions ] | [ Top ]

Prepared by Sue Kayton, MIT '78.

The information in this handout is based on the author's personal experiences and beliefs, and is not endorsed by MIT or by any other college.  This handout began 40 years ago with an MIT admissions office handout, and has evolved since then in response to questions and comments from hundreds of students, parents, and school guidance advisors.  Please email me your comments to help make this handout more useful.