Help Your Kid Get Into College — Sans Scandal

The Plum chats with an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) to discuss college admissions requirements in 2019 and how the college application process has changed.

By Didi Gluck
mortar board on books


What is an IEC?

IEC’s (independent educational consultants) are professionals who set students up for successful college searches and application processes (and help keep you sane). People are turning them to them in increasing numbers — which is not surprising considering that, according to a 2018 story in Education Week, there are a whopping 482 students on average for every school counselor.

“When my kids went through the college application process, I acted as their administrative assistant. I made a spreadsheet of the schools they were looking at, the application due dates and the essay prompts,” says Janet Cutcliffe, an IEC at The College Planning Center in Corte Madera, CA.

The experience made her realize just how much there was to know when applying to college. This led her to volunteer with an organization that helped lower income kids gain access to colleges and universities. Eventually, Cutcliffe went back to school herself, earning her certificate in College Advising and Career Planning from UC Berkeley. She is a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) and the Western Association for College Admission Counseling (WACAC). She’s definitely the cocktail party guest any of us with high school-age kids would corner and grill for hours. 

The University Admissions Process in 2019

The Plum: So the process has changed a lot since we were applying to college, right?

Janet Cutcliffe: Well, the nitty gritty has changed a bit, but not the basic idea of what prepares a kid for the process. I tell all the students I coach to make sure they’ve enrolled in the most rigorous courses they can, try their best, and engage in something they really care about outside the classroom. 

The Plum: That means your child needs to start planning for college during their freshman year of high school then, right?

JC: Well yes, in the sense that everything your child does in high school matters, but I usually advise students to start doing more of the specific thinking about college during the summer between sophomore and junior year.

The Plum: So where do you start?

JC: A lot of people think they should begin by looking at a bunch of schools. But we think that self-assessment is the most important piece of the puzzle early on. If you don’t have access to an IEC who can administer an in-depth career-related self-assessment, your child can go online to sites like Naviance, which many high schools provide subscriptions for, and O*Net to determine what they may be interested in studying. 

Assessing University Admissions Requirements

The Plum: Is there anything else our kids should be doing early on that might surprise us?

JC: Yes, they should make sure their high school graduation requirements are aligned with the eligibility requirements for the public universities in their area. As crazy as it sounds — here in California anyway — a student could graduate high school without being eligible for a California State University. Your school counselor should be able to give you this information.

The Plum: What about college visits?

JC: I do recommend students visit colleges before applying to them (ideally while school is in session. For example, the spring of junior year). That said, many families can’t afford all those visits — but more and more schools are offering online virtual tours (check out There are also lots of ways to acquaint oneself with a campus besides visiting. For example, if you’re interested in a large public research university far away, you could get a sense of what this type of campus feels like by visiting a similar large public research university nearby.

The Plum: Are on-campus interviews part of the process anymore?

JC: The majority of campuses do not interview students. Some highly selective schools do and some schools offer off-campus interviews with a local alumnus. 

Preparing for the SAT test or ACT test

The Plum: What about college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT?

JC: In my opinion, most students shouldn’t sit for a standardized test earlier than the middle of junior year. By and large, students take Algebra 2 their junior year, and they’ll need those skills for the tests.

The Plum: How far in advance should they prepare for those tests?

JC: Studying for the ACT or SAT is a yearlong process that includes both prep classes and practice tests. Whether you’re doing a formal test prep course, receiving one-on-one tutoring or using a book, commit to it and make it a habit.

The Plum: And how many times should they take the test? 

JC: Students should take the tests at least twice, but no more than three times. There are some colleges (generally highly selective ones) that want to see the score for each time you take the test. If they see you’ve taken it six times, that will not work in your favor. 

How to Choose a College

The Plum: Now comes the fun part, deciding where to go. Any advice on how to make the choice?

JC: In a perfect world, working with a good counselor, parent or IEC, you’ll put together a final list of 8-10 schools (it should be a balanced list of reaches, competitives and probables) by the summer prior to senior year. Keep in mind that out of roughly 3000 four-year schools and colleges, only about 70 of them accept 25% or less of their applicants. The majority accept somewhere around 60% of their applicants. There is a college or university out there for everyone.

The Plum: How much should price factor in?

JC: In addition to the culture, size and location of a school, financial fit is a huge consideration. By law, every college and university has to have a Net Price Calculator on its website. As students begin to research schools, they can use these to get a ballpark estimate of what the school will cost to attend. There’s also something called the FAFSA4caster which will tell you your estimated family contribution to pay for college. If you subtract your estimated family contribution from your cost of attendance, you can get a picture of what you’ll have to shell out for college. However, neither of these tools are a perfect substitute for the official FAFSA application (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which needs to be completed annually on behalf of any student applying for federal aid dollars. But the bottom line is that it’s really important for families to have a conversation about college costs early in the process. 

The Plum: Should students just basically cancel their extracurricular lives first semester of senior year?

JC: I am not a proponent of students giving up the things that they love to do. It is a balancing act, for sure, but think of applying for college in the fall of senior year like taking an additional class.

The Plum: Is there anything they can do to mitigate the stress of that first part of senior year?

JC: I like to work with my students over the summer between junior and senior year. We do things like fill out the Common Application or the Coalition Application (applications required by most colleges and universities) and prepare essays and any supplementary pieces of writing required.

Leveraging Early Action and Early Decision

The Plum: Does applying early decision help remove the stress of not knowing?

JC: Early decision is a binding admission decision, which your student can not back out of. ED is for those students who are absolutely sure of a school as their clear first choice. Yes, it’s a one-and-done deal, but I’m a bigger fan of applying early action, which is a non-binding agreement. It just means that a student applies early in the admissions cycle and gets an answer early in the admissions cycle. You can apply to more than one school early action, but only one early decision. 

The Plum: And after that, you and your child can exhale?

JC: If you’re balanced in your approach, there’s no need to get crazy in the first place. 

The Plum: That’s easier said than done, though.

JC: Just encourage your child to do what they love, do their best in school keep their eyes and ears open about things they might be interested in studying down the road, and it will all be okay.

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