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Do I Need to Write the Optional SAT Essay?

Sunday, June 09, 2019


The optional SAT essay, requiring an additional 50 minutes of test takers' time, focus and energy, is swiftly becoming an artifact.  

Like the vestigial human appendix, at one point in time this component of the standardized testing landscape had its purpose. Today, more often than not, the essay score is simply disregarded, serving no true function in evaluating applicants, so says the testing policy at the vast majority of colleges and universities.  Still, every year we grapple with the wisdom of signing up for the optional essay.  

Testing Requirements Run the Gamut

How should students approach the decision of whether or not to sit for the optional essay?  General wisdom has long suggested that the smart and safe move would be to write the essay because without it colleges that do require this component will regard the main two-part SAT score, consisting of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing plus Math, to be incomplete.

So what are the policies that colleges hold around the essay?  Schools such as Bates, NYU, Quinnipiac, Connecticut College, UConn neither require nor recommend the optional essay and will not consider its score at the time of application review.  No longer does the College of Charleston or Occidental even recommend the essay, a relatively recent change.  As of last year, Duke stopped requiring it. None of the Ivies require the essay.  So who does?   

Look West

Primarily, the University of California system institutions (ex. UCLA; UC San Diego; etc.) and Stanford still ask for the essay.  A student applying to these schools will need to submit their essay score in order to complete their application. 

Future Tense

Another possible rationale behind writing the essay is as a back-up in the event a student later decides to transfer colleges, and the destination college is one that requires the SAT essay score for admission -- including transfer admission.  Without a complete score, the SAT two-part score may be regarded as insufficient.

International applicants whose language of instruction is not English may consider writing the essay to lend another perspective to their TOEFL or IELTS score.

In the present timeframe, if a student feels that they will likely have remaining mental focus to satisfactorily write the essay after completing the main SAT sections, then they might just pay the extra $15 fee and register for the essay.  And after once completing the essay and if satisfied with the two-part score, the student may not need to write the essay again in future testing scenarios.  In other words, when it comes to the essay more often than not it's "one and done."    

If a student wants to learn more about the essay section (highly-recommended prior to test day), click here to learn more about the approach to writing the essay and the skills assessed.

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC and can be reached via

What To Do If You've Been Deferred

Monday, March 05, 2018

What To Do If You've Been Deferred

The email or letter usually goes something like this:  "Thank you for submitting your application to X University.  We have taken the time to review your impressive credentials but, due to an especially large volume of applications in our early round, we have decided to take a second review your application later in the admissions cycle..."

Take heart -- your student's application is still in the running!  As the popularity of early applications continues to rise, it is becoming more common for students to find that the "early decision" they were hoping for may just take a little more time.  When students' applications have been moved along to the Regular Decision (RD) round, they may likely receive a decision by mid to late March and no later than April of the senior year.

In the Meantime

Students should be anything but passive as they wait to hear back.  Active waiting consists of being in touch (reasonably) with the college over the coming months. Colleges may appreciate knowing that they are a top or first choice for the student.  The schools value useful updates such as:
  • increased SAT/ACT/SAT Subject Test scores
  • complete semester grades and/or most recent quarter grades, especially if they've improved
  • an update on awards; accomplishments; or even a new job
  • maybe some impressions of a recent college visit or contact that reflects the student's sincere interest in the college or underscores their sense of fit
What schools don't want is to be besieged with loads of additional recommendation letters, especially if these don't add anything new.  If there is, however, something significant or indicative of character or accomplishment, then perhaps an extra letter may be supportive if the college invites it.


Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

Why Colleges Pay Attention to Applicant Interest

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A Lehigh study points to the significance of campus visits in the admissions process.

According to a study by Lehigh University faculty, when higher-achieving prospective applicants make actual campus visits, doing so is strongly correlated with their probability of attendance and, therefore, a higher likelihood of admission. The recently-published study, named Signaling Interest in College Admissions, points to the factors that drive enrollment management in today's competitive college admissions landscape.

It is common knowledge that selective colleges adhere to an enrollment mission of offering acceptance to students who have achieved higher grades and standardized test scores within a rigorous academic program.  The Lehigh study finds students who invest the time to visit campus signal a stronger interest in the school and therefore a greater likelihood of attendance in comparison to students who limit college contacts to within their local communities.  

Colleges may use this behavioral factor in combination with a student's higher-bracket test results to determine which students are most likely to attend if admitted.  In other words, a higher-achieving student in combination with a perceived interest in attending a college may be more attractive as a candidate.   As students apply to greater numbers of schools and colleges grow more and more cognizant of their yield percentages, accepting likely attendees steadily becomes more of a focus in the admissions office.

The Lehigh study refers to the common reality that students and parents often may face limits of time or financial resources for trekking out for distant campus visits, thereby implicating issues of cost and affordability in the college process.  Still, it will be worth noting how schools that value demonstrated student interest will continue to evaluate this element in students' applications.
Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

Parent of a Junior? That Is, Rising Senior!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

by Marla Platt, AchieveCoach College Consulting

Parents of high school juniors: Congratulations! In a few short weeks you will attain official status as a parent of a rising high school senior.

While our juniors are currently focused on final projects, papers and exams, (and the joy of handing in the last of the bunch!) they also have an eye on the next important stage in their education: preparing to engage fully in the college process.  

In preparation for moving smoothly through stages of getting ready to apply to college, by now your student should:

  1. have at least one result from the SAT or ACT
  2. be familiar with his or her transcript 
  3. be aware of courses still required for high school graduation 
  4. have already toured at least one college campus
  5. have several schools in mind to actually apply to 
  6. possess an understanding of what target; reach; good bet admission possibility means for them
  7. engage in an honest discussion with parents about college affordability
Summer break sits brightly on the horizon with fall of senior year following directly behind. Look forward to some carefree summer days and the special delight that comes with a well-deserved rest from the hectic pace of the school year.  Then be ready for fall when the calendar turns again!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

Should My Student Take SAT Subject Tests?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Come spring, standardized testing begins to take on even bigger proportions than usual.  Junior year is wrapping up, and some students are considering re-testing for the SAT or ACT for a second — or even third time.  AP exams are popping up everywhere on the student calendar, and there there are those SAT Subject Tests (until recently known as SAT IIs) to consider.   Of the all these college-related exams, which take precedence?  Since there is no “one-size-fits-all” standard in college admissions, it all depends…

What Are SAT Subject Tests?

Parents may recall that “back in the day,” strong students typically sat for academically-focused Achievement Tests designed to assess a student’s command of academic knowledge.  The College Board, owner and publisher of the SAT, years back retired the Achievement Tests and re-introduced these knowledge-based exams that are known today as SAT Subject Tests.

Similar to the SAT, the SAT Subject Tests are one-hour, multiple choice exams that are designed to test student knowledge and analytical skill in a variety of academic areas, including math, science, literature, history and foreign language.

The overall trend in recent years has seen many colleges shifting away from requiring the SAT Subject Tests.  Instead, colleges are focusing their application reviews on admissions factors that they consider to be more strongly indicative of student potential for college success, primarily high school course rigorgrades earned in these classes; and SAT and/or ACT scores.  As result, only about 35 colleges require or recommend SAT Subject Tests, while a number of others consider the results. Keep in mind, however, that even if a college’s overall policy is to not require Subject Tests, certain programs within the college, especially in STEM fields, may.

Why Should My Student Consider Taking SAT Subject Tests?

If few schools require these tests, why still plan to take them? For the student who wants to showcase a particular academic strength, preparing for and taking a Subject Test may provide an opportunity to highlight his application relative to others in the pool of applicants.  This approach is even more applicable if the student is unenrolled in AP level courses but still wishes to demonstrate depth of knowledge.

Homeschooled students often elect to take Subject Tests in order to demonstrate the strength of their chosen curriculum as well as provide additional data points to Admissions. One very academically-focused homeschooler I worked with years back had his eye on several highly selective colleges.  As he worked through his challenging, home-based course work, Subject Tests were never far in the background.

For students planning college work in a technical field, such as engineering or biomedical science for example, even if the college does not specifically require submission of Subject Tests, a strong Math II or science score may potentially help set the applicant apart from others coming in with similarly strong high school math and science curriculum and grades.

When Should My Student Take a Subject Test?

Once a student has completed the highest level subject area coursework she is likely to pursue in high school, then it is time to consider sitting for Subject Tests while the material is still feels fresh.  In contrast, if the student will be later learning essential material through a higher sequence course, then it is best to wait until the student has more fully acquired the material before approaching the exam.  Since high school class content is unlikely to fully encompass all that is covered in the Subject Test, students should take the time to review gaps in their knowledge and fill in accordingly.

TIP! The College Board offers FREE review material posted online.

For the sake of sanity, remember to keep the focus and make a great testing plan.  In other words, students cannot take SAT Subject Tests on the same day as the SAT (truly, that would require an inhumane number of hours in a testing center!)  There are only so many hours in high schooler’s day: Should time constraints come down to one testing choice or the other, it would probably be more important to focus on posting a solid SAT or ACT score rather than hyper-focusing on Subject Tests.


Note that the Subject Tests are scaled and “curved” by individual subject, meaning that score percentiles for Spanish vs. Math II vs. even the SAT itself are very different.  In the case of a disappointing score, a student may have the option to hold back scores through the College Board’s Score Choice option and not release them to colleges. Students, however, need to verify individual college's policies around use of Score Choice.

To Test or Not to Test

Deciding whether or not to prepare for Subject Tests should be based on several factors.   Students should consider their interest in the topic; command of the material as evidenced through class grades as well as a sample SAT Subject Test; and the time and motivation to study the material that may fall into the gap between what the high school class provides and what the test requires.

At many colleges, the ACT may (but not always) stand in as a single substitute for the SAT plus two Subject Tests - but it is essential to consult each college’s specific testing requirements.

Even if a student prefers to take the ACT instead of the SAT, he may still desire to showcase his subject knowledge by scoring high on a Subject Test.

A Final Word

I advise my students to have a go with Subject Test(s) if they have:

* a strong command of material in an academic area and 

* the time and energy necessary to shore up any missing subject knowledge such that prepping will not siphon away time from other important student commitments. 

Throughout the college process, when you have something worthwhile to share then don't hold back.  While it’s great to shoot for high Subject Test scores, these won’t trump doing one's best by posting strong SAT or ACT results and achieving good grades in solid courses.

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

High School Junior Applying to College? Start the Ball Rolling Here

Thursday, March 02, 2017

All things come to those who wait, but when they come they’re out of date.” ~ Anonymous

Midyear grades have only just appeared. Super Bowl has only just faded to the rear view; Cupid has barely made his mid-winter mark; and March Madness is still weeks away.

High school juniors: No matter how you frame your winter calendar, now is the time to set your wheels in motion around several key components of the college application process.

Even if it feels like there is a lot of road left to travel during junior year, it’s not at all too early for students to work up a personal plan and:

Get out in front of and be realistic about college affordability.

Devote time and energy to educate themselves about colleges.

Acknowledge their learning and social needs and search out appropriate educational environments.

Take the time to reflect on a potential college major (with the understanding that one's choice may change).

Put thought into an appropriate standardized testing plan.

Think about reaching out to influencers who will further support their applications, including teacher, counselor or employer recommenders.

Bottom line: There are plenty of pieces to organize along the way as students aim to assemble solid college applications that connect their strengths, goals, needs and resources.

If students are looking for a starting line, now is the time to pull out the calendar and jump on these action steps:

  1. Register for standardized testing.
    Chances are that the student will be required to take either the SAT or the ACT as a condition of application to at least one of their intended colleges. Some students align with and focus exclusively on one of these exams, while others try out both to see which one best fits their testing style. At the very least, the SAT and ACT websites offer sampling of the style and variety of questions students may encounter on either test.

    Prepping in some way for the SAT or ACT is a smart decision that will depend on student motivation, time and other resources. Test prep assistance ranges broadly from free, web-based supports such as Khan Academy or Number2 to fee-based private services that offer individualized tutoring.

    Most students will aim to begin testing during the winter of junior year, if not sooner.

  2. Order the official test scores you want your colleges to receive.
    Although students have the option of including their standardized test scores on their applications, many colleges still require official score reports to be sent from the appropriate testing agency. Scores are not automatically sent to colleges unless the student requests their submission — and pays the required fee.

    Note, however, that students have the option to request free score reports for up to four colleges at the time of test registration. (Visit SAT or ACT websites for details.) A potential downside is that students who choose to submit scores in advance forego the option to review their results prior to submission.

    If students intend to submit official score reports to colleges, they need to order these well before application deadlines since forwarding of scores from the testing companies is not instantaneous.

  3. Schedule campus visits.
    It takes more than a little planning to organize family calendars in order to make campus visits a priority. With busy weekends full of homework, projects, athletic and family obligations, campus visits may easily slide onto the back burner. Before you can say "summer’s here,” senior year has already arrived with its own set of priorities that may tighten up student schedules even more. Besides, it’s best to visit schools during the normal ebb and flow of the academic year rather than during summer break when there are typically few students in attendance.

    Prospective applicants need to view campus life in action, in part, to determine a good college fit.

  4. Ask teachers for college recommendations... 
    ...and thank them! Writing a thoughtful college rec requires precious time and focus to reflect on and express who you are as a student as well as a member of your school community. Asking early, before the end of junior year rather than up against a last-minute deadline, demonstrates maturity as well as a proper appreciation of the writer’s time and effort. It is courteous to make recommendation requests in person, whenever possible. One may follow up or thank a recommender in person, via email or — as an even more personal gesture — through a handwritten note.

  5. Start making summer plans.
    Work, play, travel, research, write, think, volunteer, create, study, learn, experiment. The list can go on and on, but it's your summer so plan on making it a good one.

  6. Consider fin aid options and...
    Apply for financial aid well before deadlines.

    Exploring the net price calculators published by individual colleges can give families a head start in estimating need-based aid at those institutions. NPCs vary by college, but exploring these can provide insight on financing estimates for incoming freshmen.

    Financial aid timelines — and deadlines — have been recently pushed to earlier in the admissions cycle. Families can now submit completed tax returns according to what is known as the Prior-Prior Year schedule, pointing to the family financial scenario two years prior to the student’s year of college matriculation. Still, there is more to consider in this earlier timeframe: Students applying for financial aid via the FAFSA and possibly the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE will note that these applications are now available for completion beginning October of the senior year.

    The primary intention behind establishing earlier timelines is to allow colleges to better expedite financial aid application reviews and award decisions, thereby allowing students and parents more time to evaluate and respond to aid offers. In reality, aid funds are finite therefore remember to monitor deadlines so you can be the early bird — and much more likely to catch the worm.

    Juniors and soon-to-be rising seniors: Embrace the fundamental steps of the college process. Becoming organized now avoids a longer to-do list later on!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via

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