Prep Talk Blog > May 2011

It’s been an incredible time to be in the Washington, D.C., area. Many of my students joined the spontaneous rallies at the White House, their pride and excitement mixing with the reality of the stress that comes with deadlines and finals at the end of a semester. I saw a number of tweets that said, in essence, “on my way to be part of this historic moment -- hope I still get a good grade on the chem exam, smh.” I had to get my students to tell me that “smh” means “smack my head” -- good to know.

I get asked about these types of time management choices all the time. My college students are usually asking if it is worth impacting a grade to spend time on a speaker, event, exhibition or one-time chance at a date with “the one.”

High school students and parents more often ask about how decisions will impact the college admissions process. Their questions may be about trading off extracurricular activities or work for more time to study, but they most often come up regarding course selection. This is nearly always posed simply as, “Is it better to get an A in a regular class, or get a lower grade in an AP/Honors/IB course?” Setting aside, for a moment, how nutty it is to make your decisions based on the admissions process, the answer is deceivingly complex.

If you’re one of those lucky people who has asked this question at a college admissions presentation or panel, you likely received the least helpful response: “What’s best is if you get the A in the AP/Honors/IB course.” This response has the merit of being true, but the unfortunate result of increasing the desire of everyone listening to choke the nearest admissions officer vigorously.

The real answer starts with something you already know: Generally, more competitive courses look better on a transcript and prepare you better for college. You are probably also aware that at the most competitive colleges, most of the applicants will have both the great grades and the hardest courses. That being said, every dean I’ve talked to agrees that there is no reason to get out of hand, and that taking a HUGE number of AP/IB/Honors/Dual Enrollment courses isn’t necessary. It is likely, however, that challenging yourself by taking SOME of these advanced classes is probably necessary to be seriously considered at the most competitive institutions.

So, you should strive to have at least SOME of these advanced courses, but you don’t have to have a HUGE number. Got that?

My advice is to pick a more competitive course at every opportunity unless: a) you think you will likely get a significantly lower grade than in the ‘regular’ course, and b) you think the workload of adding that course will be so onerous that your efforts will bring your other grades down. I encourage you to modify this principle based on your interests. If you really love a subject, then I really think it’s worth taking the most challenging course you can find. If, on the other hand, you outright loathe the subject matter, then perhaps there is little reason for you to take the course even if the risk of grade impact is small.

In other words, a grade shouldn’t keep you from exploring your interests to your fullest opportunity, but you also shouldn’t make yourself miserable based on what MIGHT happen in the college admissions process. I say “might” to remind you that the admissions process is opaque by design. You’ll never know for sure how any one college (let alone any one college admissions officer at that school) is going to evaluate or weigh these issues. Instead of this causing stress, why not let it free your mind to make the best decision for YOU, not for some college admissions dean you’ve never met? You’ll be way happier, and still get into plenty of great schools, smh.

Be seeing you.

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Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“I don't know what I want to major in yet, can that hurt my application? When do I need to pick a major by and how important is choosing the right major for my career?” – Alex R., Lakewood, NJ

  75% of Students Change Their Majors During First Semester!
Francine Block, President, American College Admissions Consultants    

A, B, C, or D? What do I want to be when I grow up? A good time to begin your exploration is the summer between 11th and 12th grades. Try and find a short, relatively inexpensive summer program where you can explore engineering options, the difference with business majors, or all of the opportunities hidden within that broad major of communications. Colleges say that 3/4 of students change their majors first semester and 1/2 will do so at least once more before they graduate. College is the time to explore and try subject areas you may never have experienced before. Most schools will not make you declare your major until spring of your second year; exceptions to this often are engineering, architecture and, for some schools, business.
  This Is Not Europe; You Don’t Have to Know What You Plan to Study
Danny Reynolds, Director of College Counseling, Palmer Trinity School

Fortunately, at most good liberal arts colleges you do not have at choose a major until second semester of your sophomore year. Take classes and explore your passions. It is fine if you are undecided, and you are not disadvantaged in the admissions process. Even after you declare a major, it is likely you will not work in that field. My Georgetown roommate was a Spanish major with an interest in biology. He was accepted and graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School without being a pre-med or science major.
  Most College Students Change Majors One, Two, or Three Times!
Marjorie Shaevitz, Author and Founder, admission POSSIBLE

Don’t worry; many, if not most, high school seniors don’t know in what they want to major. Truth is, except for a few fields such as architecture and engineering, colleges don’t usually ask students to declare a major until their junior years. Use your four years in college to explore what content, activities, and possible careers really grab you, taking advantage of counseling and career centers on campus to help. If you want to identify a major, base it on what high school courses and topics interest you the most, but try to stay away from oversubscribed, very popular majors.

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the Dean of Admissions at University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan University, and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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The Former Majority Association for Equality is hoping to give out five $5,000 scholarships to college students or applicants who “meet or exceed our expectations.” What are these expectations?

According to the application, to qualify for the scholarship, you must be:

        * Male
        * At least 25% Caucasian
        * A college student with a 3.0 GPA or a high school senior
        * Able to complete the application.

Unsurprisingly, this college scholarship raises some eyebrows.

According to a recent article on, the founder, 28-year-old Colby Bohannan, created this scholarship after feeling excluded when he had trouble finding scholarship money when he was trying to pay for college. “To pay for school, Bohannan enlisted in the Army, served two tours in Iraq, and was honorably discharged. Now a junior at Texas State, he is majoring in communications,” the article says.

Critics of the scholarship say it goes against diversity and reinforces old stereotypes.

In our college scholarship search, you can search for scholarships by ethnicity. White/Caucasian Scholarships is an option, but the scholarships listed there can apply to students who are white/Caucasian but do not stipulate your ethnicity.

So what do you think: Is this a good opportunity for those who can win the scholarship, or will the scholarship’s existence do more harm than good?

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Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“I just got my financial aid package and don’t know what to make of it. What are some terms I should know, things I should look for, or tips and tricks to maximize my aid?” – Mary S., Boston, MA

  Ask the Tough Question, Can I Honestly Afford This College?
Megan Dorsey, SAT Prep and College Advisor, College Prep LLC
Stop looking for tips and tricks! Ask yourself a difficult question: Can I honestly afford this college? Make sure you really understand the details of the financial aid package you've been offered. Most financial aid offices are happy to explain their offers. Think carefully: Will you have money for food, books, and travel? If you can barely cover the cost now, what will happen when tuition goes up and your one-time scholarships are gone? What will your monthly student loan payment be upon graduation? Don't financially overcommit yourself now -- make sure you can actually afford your dream college.
  Decoding Financial Aid Is an Important Step in Establishing Your Cost
George Mills, VP for Enrollment, University of Puget Sound
There are three types of financial aid: money that you don’t have to repay, money that you do have to repay, and money that you earn. The money you will not have to repay is typically called a scholarship or grant. The money you will have to repay comes in the form of loans. (Note that there are many types of loans, some with interest that begins accruing immediately, and others with interest that does not begin accruing until you leave college. Some loans are available through the college you will attend and others you will have to obtain privately.) Finally, money that you earn typically comes to you through the college with a job offered on campus. In the case of work, be sure you understand the pay rate applicable to the work, because this divided into the amount of the work funding you receive will determine the number of hours you will work a week. Typically 10-15 hours of work a week are within reason for a resident college student. 
  Be Aware that Not All COAs are Created Equal
Nancy Griesemer, Founder, College Explorations LLC 

Don’t be alarmed if the financial aid letter you received is about as understandable as a Chinese roadmap. Here’s a tip: Start with cost. Most awards provide what’s called total Cost of Attendance (COA). Make sure the figure contains ALL costs, including books, travel, and basic living expenses --like an occasional night on the town. If you’re looking at schools involving serious travel, do a little independent research on how much it would cost to come home for holidays, your birthday or mandatory breaks, and substitute that for whatever estimate the college provides. And be sure textbook costs are realistic. Once you’ve added it all up and arrived at a true COA for each of your options, you’ll be better equipped to compare awards.

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the Dean of Admissions at University of Illinois, VP of The College Board, and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
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No. If it's not part of my official application package, it shouldn't be considered.
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Don Munce