College Update HeaderVol. 8                                                 October 2018                                                             No. 2                            


It has been a busy month in our office. We held our first college counseling class of the year with seniors in September, worked with them in October (PSAT day) on essays and applications, and we continue to meet with them individually. We have also hosted over 100 colleges on campus for visits. Over the past few weeks we met with the junior, sophomore and freshman classes to introduce our office and provide them with information about the college process. 

We enjoyed the opportunity to present to the parents of the juniors on October 2. As always, whether you are the parent of a senior or a freshman, please feel free to reach out to us at any point if you have questions for our office.

This month’s update is full of information. We hope you can take some time to read it, and if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

  • For Senior Parents: Reach Schools; Final College List; Paying for College: The Conversation; and, Gap Year
  • For Junior Parents: PSAT Information; Testing: ACT, SAT, and TOEFL; and, Summer Opportunities
  • For Sophomore Parents: PSAT Information; and, Get Involved
  • For Freshman Parents: Get Involved
  • For All Parents: ACT/SAT Test Preparation; and, Grades Versus Testing: Where's the Balance?

Best Wishes,

Sean Sheehan

Director of College Counseling

Information for Senior Parents: Reach Schools


As we have discussed in many different forums, when we work with the students to create a list of colleges where the student will apply, a major goal we have is for the list to have balance. It is essential to keep the list balanced with a selection of institutions where chances of admission range from unlikely to probable. Colleges in the “likely” (80% chance of acceptance) and the “possible” (where chances of admission are about fifty-fifty) category must be chosen with particular care. Our experience has been that colleges in the “reach” (3% - 20% chance of acceptance) and “far reach” (0% - 3% chance of acceptance) categories are very unpredictable with regard to whom they admit and why. We are wary of students who tend to add several reach and far reach schools to their list. Some students have commented, “My parents and I feel if we apply to enough reach schools, one of them will take me.” Some students have commented, “My parents and I feel if we apply to enough reach schools, one of them will take me.”  We have some thoughts we would like to share about this trend.

Many of the reach schools on the students’ lists are not based on statistical reality. The students’ grade point average and test scores are far below the averages of the accepted students from the previous admissions cycle. Applying to college is not like playing the lottery. Applying to a larger number of “reach” schools does not increase students’ chances to be accepted, but rather only possibly increases the number of denials students will receive. Students should have reach schools on their list that are realistic and within reach. If students want to put one “far reach” school on their list that has been a dream school for them that makes perfect sense. However, having a large number of “reach” and “far reach” schools on students’ lists could lead to disappointment when decisions are released.

We want to support our students’ dreams, and we encourage them to have two or three reach schools on their list. We also want our students to experience success in the college application process and to have more accepts than denials when decisions are released. Therefore, we take great care when assigning expected outcomes to the colleges on students’ lists. These expected outcomes are by no means absolute; they are our best guesses at this point, based upon our experience with each school over the past two or three years and your student’s standardized test scores, cumulative grade point average, and transcript. 

We have had students in the past who have had numerous reach schools on their list, and when we discussed with them our concern about the potential disappointment that could occur, if they received multiple denials, the students often replied, “I have no problem with being denied by a large number of colleges.” However, the reality is those students’ confidence and self-esteem have been hurt when they were repeatedly denied. We have also found that it is difficult for them to enjoy and take pride in their acceptances in the face of a multitude of denials. We care deeply about your children and we want to be sure they are well supported and well informed about their lists and the potential effects their choices could have. 

We will be sending home final applications lists in December (please see the next article - Final College List), but as always you can view your child’s list on Naviance. Also please feel free to contact your child’s counselor if you have any questions or concerns.

Information for Senior Parents: The Final College List


It’s time to start talking with your senior about the final college list, which should usually be in place by early December. We offer a couple of important pointers here: keep the list balanced, and keep it of a reasonable size.

By “balanced,” of course, we mean made up of a good mix of reaches, possible schools and likely choices. The goal, as we tell the seniors, is to apply to a group of schools that, ideally, will yield more acceptances than denials—understanding that nothing in this business is ever certain! Avoid the extremes. Applying to too many long shots and getting a sheaf of rejections in the spring is no way to end a Lawrence career (trust us on this!); on the other hand, applying to too many likely choices “just to be sure” is simply a waste of time, energy and money.

What is a “reasonable” size for a college list? Our guideline, with a few exceptions, is six to eight schools. Occasionally, to be sure, there are valid reasons to apply to more than eight institutions. A recruited athlete, for example, might spread the net a little wider than usual at colleges that would be unattainable without the athletic “piece;” or an artist with considerable talent but an undistinguished record in traditional academic classes might apply to a combination of professional and liberal-arts institutions as a safeguard.

In general, however, we strongly discourage large application lists, for several reasons. For one, no student can get to know 13 or 15 colleges well enough to be certain that they are all a good fit and not merely another name that someone has suggested; moreover, it’s impossible to feel or demonstrate genuine interest in that many schools—and sincere demonstrated interest is very important to admission committees these days. Every year we receive calls from admission officers wondering how interested a student is, usually if he or she is “on the cusp;” it helps no one if we have to reply that their institution is somewhere in a pack of fourteen. Further, every year one or two seniors come to us in April seeking help in choosing from among 12 acceptances. We will ask, “What are you looking for?” and they most often reply, “I don’t know.” These people have not done their homework in the junior and seniors years, paying attention only to “name,” prestige, or schools to which their friends are applying. Once in a while, too, the opposite happens: a senior applies to a huge list of reaches and far reaches, and ends up with only one acceptance. As we’ve mentioned, this is not a good way to end one’s high school career, nor to start college. “This was the only school I got into, so it must be lousy and I’m going to have a lousy experience there.” Fortunately, the latter situation is very rare, as we bend over backwards to guard against it. Don’t let your kids get into these situations!

A carefully-balanced list of reasonable size serves almost everyone best; the exceptions are rare and unique to those few individuals.

Information for Senior Parents: Paying For College - The Conversation


The cost of tuition can be a daunting topic during the college process, and we understand that this can be a source of great anxiety. While it may be a natural instinct to protect your child from this piece of the process, we strongly recommend that you have the discussion with your student. It is important that your child knows whether cost will play a part in which colleges he or she may choose.

Colleges and universities are not required to meet a student’s full financial aid need. With today’s economy, more institutions are “gapping” financial aid applicants, meaning that the financial aid package does not meet full demonstrated need. Institutions are asking students to take on loans which can add up to a large amount of debt upon college graduation. According to the College Board, the average graduate of a four-year public college accrues $22,000 in student loan debt and $28,000 for private four-year colleges and universities.

College tuition can be a difficult conversation no matter when it happens. We strongly urge that you have a candid discussion about the realities of college tuition with your child early in the application process to avoid any surprises in the coming spring or summer.

Information for Senior Parents: Gap Year


Almost every year, one or two seniors opt to take time after high school to do something else before starting college. Back in the day this was called taking a year off; today the preferred term is a “gap year—” a fortunate change, at least from a parent’s perspective, because of the perceived implications of a “year off.” The last thing Mom and Dad want is to have nineteen-year-old Junior lounging around the house in his boxers for a year, sleeping until noon and playing Wii or staring at his iPhone all day.

Luckily for parents, that’s the last thing colleges want as well. Most schools are happy to see accepted students spend a constructive year outside academe before matriculating, because they will start college more mature, better “grounded,” and, frequently, with a clearer idea of why they are continuing their formal education. The key word here, obviously, is “constructive:” while colleges will usually grant a request to defer entrance for a year, they expect students to grow during that time, not simply “stop out.”

There is no “preferred” or “correct” way to spend a gap year. Some students work full time to put aside money for tuition, while others travel or perform some sort of community service at home or abroad. The year doesn’t need to be spent doing just one thing: a recent graduate spent his time working at an orphanage in Malawi, hiking in the Himalayas with his grandfather, visiting relatives in New Zealand, and finally taking a mini-grand tour of Europe. He raised much of the money for this venture himself.

Most people’s gap years aren’t as elaborate as our young friend’s was, but he planned it by himself, with some help from his family. Many people, however, find it easier to engage one of the organizations that exist just for this purpose, such as the Center for Interim Programs, based in Northampton, Mass. These companies charge a substantial fee for their services, which are quite comprehensive, but it’s usually a one-time expense; the client normally has their services for life. Too, many “gap year fairs” are held across the U.S. throughout the school year; a schedule can be found at USA Gap Year Fairs.

A natural fear on the part of some parents is that if their child takes a gap year, he or she will never go on to college. This fear, in our experience, is unfounded; graduates in mid-gap year often say that while they’re glad they have taken time away from school, they are eager to start college in the fall. So if your child mentions the possibility of a year off, take a deep breath and listen—after making it clear that if it happens, it will be anything but “off!”

Information for All Parents


College applicants are evaluated on a wide variety of factors: potential for positive contributions to the community, family connections, special talents and, of course, rigor of curriculum, grades, and, where they are required, standardized test scores.

At most of the 3600 colleges and universities in the U.S., a blemish or two on an otherwise perfect apple will not be grounds for denying a candidate admission. The wonderful writer who struggled to maintain a C+ in a challenging calculus course or the gifted science student whose Critical Reading SAT score is below the college’s average will still be an attractive candidate.

The picture is different, however, at the “most wanted” schools, those 50 or 60 institutions that appear to some extent on almost every Lawrence Academy senior’s list. They include not only the Ivies, the NESCACs and other “name” schools nationwide, but also a great many colleges and universities that the current generation of parents often consider relatively easy to get into because they were just that in their day. Locally, this group includes places like Northeastern, Boston University, Bentley, Babson and Tufts. All of these once-regional schools now attract applicants from across the continent and around the world, with the obvious result that most of them are very significantly more selective than they were a generation ago.

Whereas most colleges look for reasons to accept applicants, the “most wanteds” have so many applicants that they look for reasons to deny them. The easiest way to deny a student, of course, is to look at the numbers: grades and test scores. At these schools, the C+ in calculus or the low verbal SAT score is reason enough to refuse an applicant, unless he or she has a “hook,” i.e. recruitable athletic skill, a strong legacy connection, or what is euphemistically called “development interest—” piles of money.

We have seen students rejected not only for inferior (in the eyes of the college) grades, but also for an insufficiently rigorous high school course load. This is why we urge juniors and seniors to study as far as possible in every academic discipline, and always to enroll in every Honors class for which they are recommended.

What about the balance between grades and test scores? Obviously, the academic record is of prime importance. At most U.S. colleges, grades are more important than standardized test scores. As we move up the “most wanted” list, however, both grades and test scores must be strong; at the top of the ladder, as we have said, low test scores relative to the institution’s average are almost always reason to deny an applicant.

The higher up the “most wanted” ladder you climb, in fact, the more important test scores become. At the most selective institutions (those that require testing), straight-A students are regularly denied because their test numbers are not in the top range. If a university’s average SAT scores are in the mid-700s, but a straight-A student has only a pair of 650s, he or she will most probably be refused, absent a “hook.” And even the hook is no guarantee at these schools, some of which accept only between 6% and 15% of their applicants.

So where does this leave the bright, ambitious senior whose dream is to attend a Yale or an Amherst? Admission to schools like these, as we have seen, is a hard-nosed numbers game. Our advice to these students usually goes something like this: “If all your numbers are in the college’s ballpark, by all means go for it. Just remember that everyone else applying to that school has grades and scores like yours, so you’d better have something else outstanding to show them. We’ll certainly support you, but be sure to cover yourself.” We will point both student and parents to the Naviance, where they can see every college’s recent admission statistics, both national and for Lawrence students, and, as always, we will work with them to craft a well-balanced list.

If these last few paragraphs sound like gloom and doom to you, remember that we are talking about only a very, very few of the 3600 colleges and universities in the United States! The “most wanteds” are certainly appropriate choices for some students; but all should bear in mind that, as one veteran counselor put it, “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

Information for All Parents


(Note: This information was sent home in a mailing to all junior parents in September.)

SAT and ACT prep classes can be helpful to students, but we would ask you to bear in mind a couple of things. Students who will be earnest about preparing by using the results of their previous tests along with material available in books and online, can prepare effectively on their own. If you are considering investing in a test preparation course, we strongly urge that that the student fully invest in the work of the course for the chance for it to be helpful since it takes a significant amount of time. 

Lawrence Academy has contracted with Summit Educational Group, a nationally-based organization, to offer an an ACT prep course (prepares students for the Feb 10 ACT) beginning on Sunday, December 3. The SAT prep class at Lawrence Academy is already underway, but please see the linked flyer below for more detailed information about Summit's ACT prep class dates, times, and sign-up procedures. 


Information for Junior Parents


The ACT (American College Test) is an achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school. The ACT has 5 components: English, Mathematics, Reading, Science, and an optional Writing Test.

The SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) is a combination of what a student has learned in school with some aptitude testing mixed in. The SAT has three components: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and an optional Writing Test.

We urge students to take both the SAT and the ACT because some will prove to be better at taking the SAT and others will do better on the ACT. Please bear in mind that every student is different and may require a more individualized testing plan. We are happy to speak with any families about the optimal testing plan for your student. Almost all colleges will accept either test. Another good reason to take the ACT is that some colleges that require both the SAT and the SAT subject tests will accept the ACT with Writing in place of that combination. If a student is a good tester on the ACT, but not as good with the subject tests, he or she may submit only an ACT. We ask students to recognize that the first time they take the test, they might not always produce the best score. They should pay attention to the types of questions and test timing to get a sense of the better test for them. That first testing provides practice that often allows students to do better the second time. 

The SAT is given at LA on most national test dates. Lawrence is a test center for ACT only in February and September, but the test is given on other dates at many local schools. The ACT at Lawrence Academy fills up quickly. Please register NOW to get a testing seat at LA for the February 9, 2019 test date. Unlike the PSAT, for which the school registers all students, it is the student’s responsibility to register for the SAT and the ACT.

We recommend juniors take the December 1, 2018 SAT and students can register here for the SAT REGISTRATION. We strongly urge juniors to take the February 9, 2019 ACT and students can register here for the ACT REGISTRATION

Superscore: Superscoring refers to the practice when colleges consider only the highest SAT score in each section when multiple scores are reported by students. Almost all colleges superscore. Students do not typically need to report the scores from every date of the SAT, so if they do better on subsequent testing, those are the scores they can report. Some colleges will superscore the results of the ACT, but not all. Typically these scores are reported by individual dates of testing. If your child prefers the ACT to the SAT, a good question once college visits and information sessions start up, might be to ask about the superscoring practice with regard to the ACT.

Test Preparation: SAT and ACT prep classes can be helpful to students, but we would ask you to bear in mind a couple of things. Students who will be earnest about preparing by using the results of their previous tests along with material available in books and online, can prepare effectively on their own. If you are considering investing in a test preparation course, we strongly urge that that the student fully invest in the work of the course for the chance for it to be helpful since it takes a significant amount of time.  Summit Educational Group offers test prep options on the Lawrence Academy campus. While their SAT prep class is already underway, students may still sign up for their ACT prep class beginning in December: Summit ACT Test Prep Flyer. If you would like additional suggestions for local test preparation please reach out to Kim Healy for a list.

Students for whom English is a second language will also need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). It is given at LA on various Saturdays during the spring and fall; students should contact Jennifer O’Connor, the Director of the International Program, to register. They can also take the TOEFL for a second time in their home countries during the summer. Students should plan on taking it several times until their scores reach a level that will be appropriate for colleges to which they will be applying. Information about the TOEFL is available at

Information for Junior Parents


If you just read our 'Grades versus Testing' article, you will be somewhat relieved to read the following article! In recent times, the application review process has become much more than the quantitative analysis of an applicant’s academic achievement and standardized test scores. Colleges and universities look each year to bring in a group of students who will have an impact on their communities both inside and outside of the classroom. Their hope is that each entering class contains enough students to fill different niches around campus. Although academic accomplishments are usually most important, many schools are looking to understand students as people, what interests and skills they might bring to the community, and how they might distinguish themselves from other academically excellent applicants.

Many of these summer opportunities come in the form of specialized programs hosted on college or university campuses. Some programs are run by outside organizations like the National Youth Leadership Forum, while others are hosted by the actual college or university as a part of their own curriculum. While you would never count on a “program” to gain acceptance to a college or university, the latter (programs run through the college or university) can help a student prove him- or herself to that institution.

So why in October are we bringing up summer opportunities? Many of these programs have applications and the deadlines can range from winter to early spring. If you have a student who may be interested in participating in a summer program at a college or university, now would be a good time to begin researching these opportunities. We post a good deal of information about summer programs in the college counseling office for interested students.


Information for Junior and Sophomore Parents


Junior Parents:

All juniors took the PSAT on October 10, 2018. The school registered them for this test. The PSAT is intended as a way for students to practice for the SAT. For juniors, it also serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). This means that some juniors will be identified as high scorers on the PSAT and may eventually go on to become semi-finalists or finalists in the NMSQT competition. Some colleges may offer merit scholarships for the highest scorers.

The juniors will receive their PSAT scores in meetings with the college counselors in December. At that time, the college counselors will explain to them how to interpret their score reports and how they can use their score reports to prepare themselves for future testing.

The results of the PSAT are not reported to colleges. Only the students, their parents, and their college counselors receive these test scores and they are meant to be used as planning tools. The students receive feedback about their scores and about their answers and they can use the PSAT score report along with their test booklets as tools for preparing for future testing on the SAT. Going through your answers and seeing where you did well or had difficulty is a very effective way to work on improving your standardized testing performance.

Sophomore Parents:

All sophomores took the PSAT on October 10, 2018. The school registered them for this test. The PSAT is intended as a way for students to practice for the SAT. The students receive feedback about their scores and about their answers and they can use the PSAT score report along with their test booklets as tools for preparing for future testing on the SAT. Going through your answers and seeing where you did well or had difficulty can very effectively help you work on improving your standardized testing skills and performance.

The results of the PSAT for sophomores are never reported to anyone other than the students, their parents, and eventually their college counselors. The sophomores will receive their PSAT scores in meetings with the college counselors in December. At that time, the college counselors will explain to them how to interpret their score reports and how they can use their score reports to prepare themselves for future testing.

Information for Sophomore and Freshmen Parents


What about extracurricular activities? What should your child be involved in outside the classroom? Recently, we college counselors met with the 9th and 10th graders at class meetings. One of the points we emphasized in these talks is the importance of participating in community life. We urge them to become more involved in the LA community. We suggest that your students find at least one other activity beyond their primary afternoon pursuits and try to become meaningfully involved in that activity. Those activities can range from any of the myriad clubs that exist at LA, to being a tour guide for admissions, to contributing to the yearbook or the newspaper, to engagement with community service or clubs in their home communities or a job – whatever the student would prefer. We ask them to think about themselves and what they are good at and/or what they like to do and figure out if there is some other club or activity which they would enjoy being part of and to which they could contribute. Colleges value students who will not only do well in their classrooms but who will be active in campus life beyond the classroom. We sometimes hear from college admissions representatives that our LA students do a really good job of committing themselves to their primary extracurricular activities and to the afternoon activities that are required of them at LA. However, they also tell us that our students can sometimes look a little one-dimensional in this regard and that they would be well advised to try to become more involved in extracurricular life. We cautioned the ninth and tenth graders that it was not a good idea to overcommit, however – compiling a laundry list of activities in which a student merely dabbles, or for which a student occasionally attends a meeting, is not a goal. Activities in which the student is sincerely and more deeply involved, perhaps even exercising some leadership or showing solid follow-through, are the ones that will enrich their daily lives while also helping college admission officers see them as productive and engaged community members.

College Counseling Handbook

Please remember, if you want more detailed information about the college application process, the College Counseling Handbook, our comprehensive college handbook, is always available on our web page on the Lawrence Academy website. The book describes in detail our approach to applying to college. The information in the handbook is organized to take you through all of the steps of the college application process. You can select specific chapters or download a PDF of the entire book. Please click on the following link to access it: College Counseling Handbook

Dates To Remember


  • Oct 5 regular registration deadline for Nov 3 SAT
  • Oct 6 SAT @ LA
  • Oct 10 PSAT Day-10th & 11th grades; College Workshop 12th grade
  • Oct 11 Senior Parent Dinner
  • Oct 27 ACT
  • Oct 19 late registration for Nov 3 SAT
  • Nov 2 regular registration deadline for Dec 1 SAT
  • Nov 2 regular registration deadline for Dec 8 ACT
  • Nov 3 SAT
  • Nov 7 NACAC Performing & Visual Arts Fair
  • Nov 16 late registration for Dec 8 ACT
  • Nov 16 late registration for Dec 1 SAT
  • Dec 1 SAT
  • Dec 8 ACT
  • Jan 4 regular registration deadline for Feb 9 ACT
  • Jan 18 late registration for Feb 9 ACT
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