January College Guy Rant for Juniors: SATs, Visiting Colleges and the importance of staying chill

Hey there Class of '19 -

Greetings from Gary the College Guy, and here’s my January newsletter. I’ve been busy with class of ’18 students but now that most of their applications have been “put to bed” you can expect to get several more of these over the spring and summer.


Let’s get down to the important stuff: HOW ‘BOUT THEM PATRIOTS????!!!!! You may hate football and see it for what it truly is: a brutal body-destroying brain-addling sport with unenforceable (and largely unintelligible) rules and waaaaaaay too much testosterone running amok (I’m a more refined and cultured baseball fan, truth be told) but there’s something about seeing a team meet every storybook expectation year after year as they defy both the onslaught of time and all logic by winning that I find really exciting. So next stop is the Super Bowl and GO PATS!!!!!!

Ahem, to continue: 


These emails are designed to pull your coat, tickle your fancy and put you hip to a number of things related to the college search, selection, application and financial aid process. They’re less interesting than your Instagram account and they’re certainly longer than your tweets, and I suspect that some of you (parents included) want to be reminded of this stuff about as much as you want to schedule a root canal surgery!

On the other hand, the best way to relax and not have a cow over this stuff is to UNDERSTAND it, particularly the timeline you should follow. Forwarned is forearmed, and being prepared is a good thing! So read on!



ALL Maine juniors will take the SAT at their high schools on Tuesday, April 10th (there’s a make up date a week or so later which some schools may invoke). The good State ‘O Maine Education Department has decreed that this test will serve as partial satisfaction of the State Accountability and Accreditation Requirements and blah blah woof woof all sorts of mumbo jumbo but what this means to you is that it’s free (just this first time) and it’s easy as your guidance counselor is going to sign you up for it.


All non-Maine juniors should plan to take the test for the first time on May 5th (and you can wish me a happy birthday while you’re taking it, thank you very much!) - the registration deadline for the test is April 6th (and yes, you have to pay for it - dont’cha wish you lived in Maine??!!).


You register for the SAT test (as well as SAT Subject Tests, more on them below and in another Rant) at www.collegeboard.org. You should have your own account at this site by now - if you don’t, make one now. (If you’ve got an account but you’ve forgotten your user name and password, go through the CB web site to retrieve it. You’ll need this.)

I know some of you are planning to take the March 10th test, and a few of you smarty pants have already taken the SAT on December 2 and hey, whatever floats your boat, go for it. There’s no down side to taking it early - it’s just that there’s no real up side to rushing it.

I counsel students to take the test for the first time in May of junior year (April for Maine-iacs), and then to take it a second time (no if,ands or buts!) in the fall (usually October) of senior year. If necessary, you can even take it a third time in December. (That’s too late for Early Decision, but in plenty of time for all your regular decision applications.)

Those of you who are strong students going after big game (selective “reach” schools) will want/need to take the SAT Subject Tests as well. Plan to take two or three of them next June 2nd, and then you’ll most likely take/retake two or three more in November of senior year. Maine students only: If you’ve taken AP courses, or are particularly strong in a language or a particular subject, you might consider taking the SAT Subject Test in those subjects in May - when they’ll be freshest in your mind as you’ll have prepared for the AP exam at that time. Capische?

And there’s also the ACT - not better or worse, but different from the SAT, and accepted by every college - you can take it in April or June of junior year, and again in October or December of senior year. You’ll prep for this the same way you’ll prep for the SAT, so taking it near the time you’ll take the SAT makes sense. Ask your guidance counselor or me whether you should consider adding this test to your list.


Now relax if this is all sounding strange to you - many of you don’t need to take the Subject Tests or the ACT at all. I’m just trying to touch all the bases here. If you’re in doubt give me a call or email (my contact information is in my signature at the end of this screed) and I’ll set you straight. That’s why I’m here!

I know many of you are anxious about testing, and some may have already looked in to tutoring or taking an SAT course to help. Heck, your high school inadvertently may be promoting just that by having test prep businesses come talk to you about the tests. Listen up: you can get all the prep you need for free from Khan Academy in conjunction with your collegeboard account. Link your account to Khan Academy (instructions are right on the collegeboard web page) and follow my timetable for preparing for the test: 


Count back eight weeks from your intended test date: that’s Feb. 12 for Maine students taking it on April 11; and March 12 for those taking it on May 5. That’s when you should start your prep.


Spend 45 minutes three times each week over those eight weeks sitting down and doing Khan Academy’s system. They’ll customize a plan based on your PSAT scores (that’s why you link them to your CB account). Pretty nifty huh? And easy peasy. You just need to be organized and diligent to pull this off. 


Don’t get me wrong - nothing wrong with tutoring up or taking a class if you’ve got the money for it, but in my humble opinion doing your own test prep will prepare you just as well. Test prep businesses will disagree, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. 


Still nervous about this testing stuff? Check out www.fairtest.org for a list of over 700 colleges which are test optional. If you have questions give me a call or email, and I’ll do my best to set you straight.


I’ll write more about the relative importance of standardized testing, and the Subject Tests and ACT next month. For now, relax.



February vacation will be a chance for many of you to do college visits, so I want to give you (and your parents) some advice on how to go about arranging college visits, and then actually doing the deed. Those of you who won’t be visiting schools till April (which, be assured, is just dandy and fine), should tuck this bad boy away and refer to it when the time comes.


So let's start with the basics. Why visit colleges?

Believe it or not, it's a valid question. While most will tell you that college visits are of extreme importance, I’m not one of them. The mood you’re in, the weather, the personality of the tour guide and whether or not you’d rather be home doing Calculus will all impact what you think about any given school you traipse around over a two/three hour time span than will the actual characteristics of the school!

But you should visit, and here's why:

You need to familiarize yourself with what a college/university is all about. 

Simple as that.

See, if you need to buy shoes or a coat next week, you pretty much have the process down cause you’ve done it before.

Well you need to “buy” a college - actually if you take my advice you need to select four to eight of ‘em by next November 1st - and you’ve got, um, 2,400 to choose from last time I checked.

So I think it’s a good idea to get yourself on to some real college campuses, so all of the mumbo jumbo talk about choosing colleges to apply to will start making sense.

I think that what’s important at this stage of the game is NOT to try and see all the schools you think you’re most interested in applying to, but rather to visit a sampling of different types of campuses so you can check out first hand what this college thing is all about. Heck, most juniors I’ve spoken to don’t have a clue about where they want to apply yet, and that's fine.

Some of you may be planning to visit campuses over the summer. That’s not an optimum time to visit schools because at that time of year you’re seeing a ghost town - the physical plant only. Unless it’s a major University with a full blown summer session, those kids you see walking around will likely be high school (and younger) dudes attending summer sports and academic programs. So February and April break are good times for visits.

If you’re traveling with family or friends this winter and spring, consider that just about wherever you go, however you get there, there will be cool schools nearby or on the way.

So again let me emphasize that your visits for now are just PRELIMINARY and EXPLORATORY, so keep it mellow and just cruise a few schools. Try to experience a variety of campuses: check out a small and a
large school; an urban and a rural school; a state University and a private college. When you’ve seen different types you’ll be in a better position to make judgments about all schools from the propaganda you'll receive from them, as well as information from books and off the internet.

First, CALL AHEAD (or go on line) to admissions to register for a tour and an Information Session. Instructions for scheduling are on all colleges’ web pages, and most have nifty automatic registration options linked to a calendar of when tours and information sessions are offered.  Go to the admissions web page and find the link which says “VISIT US!!!!!”

Second, request an interview from admissions if one is offered. Now I know what you’re thinking - “I’M NOT READY!!!!”. Please don’t be uptight when you hear the word ‘interview’. Any sit down you have this early in the process will just be an informational interview, a chance for you to ask questions and to get practice in an interview setting. Only a handful of colleges (the super-selective ones) require EVALUATIVE interviews - and those will take place next fall and winter AFTER you’ve applied. Nevertheless, I think it’s great to take some interviews now for the experience of learning how to feel comfortable answering AND ASKING questions. Think of 'em as dry runs - and don't sweat 'em!

BTW, not every school will give you an interview - they take up staff time - but if you’re assertive many will schedule you. It’s not a bad job for mom or dad to make the calls to try and set these up.

Third, leave time (an hour!) for doing something I call going “FREE FALL” after the tour and info session. This means to SPLIT UP - student from parent, and also student from friend if you’re visiting with a buddy - and go wandering around campus with a knapsack so you look like, dare I say it, a college student. Make it a game as you try and blend in: see if someone mistakes you for a college student and asks you for directions (one point) or where the happening party is tonight (five points!) or for a date (you win!!!) Find a comfy place to get some face time and hang out. Plan to meet back at the car or the admissions office in an hour or so.

The idea here is to get yourself AWAY from the comfort and familiarity of parents and friends, and to actually put yourself in the head set of thinking “could I see myself here as a student?!" I often hear from students that going ‘freefall’ was the best part of their visit - sometimes very groovy things happen! So leave time for this!!

So to review: every visit should include at a MINIMUM the above three components: TOUR, INFORMATION SESSION, and FREE FALL. Add in an interview if you can get one.

Other things you can try to arrange beforehand include:

sitting in on a class or two;
spending an overnight in a dorm;
meeting a coach or theater or band director (as befits your interests);
meeting up with a student you know who goes to the school.

Students and parents can call admissions to request help in setting any and  all of these things up. Remember: all schools are businesses, and their objective is to get you to apply and choose them. Thus the friendly folks in the admissions office are there to convince you why you should go there, so use them to help you create what I call a “substantive" visit!

I recommend visiting no more than two schools/day. Don¹t try to cram in too many - you¹ll feel rushed and you'll forget stuff. Plan on taking a minimum of 2 - 3 hours per campus. Use your phone or a camera to take some shots on each campus to help you remember which place had the new library, which the awesome climbing wall.  After the tour and info session/interview, go have lunch or a snack in the main cafeteria. Hang around in a populated area during a class break so you can see some action. And don’t forget to pick up an issue of the campus newspaper and read it - lot’s of good non-propaganda material in there to feast upon.

As always, feel free to check with me before your visits if you want suggestions or ideas for schools to go see, or questions you can ask during interviews, or help setting up meetings with professors, coaches, other faculty. 

Okay, gas up the tank, pick out some good CDs (I’m currently back in a Phish phase - good driving AND college music!) and don’t wear the jeans with the grass stains on 'em!

Go have fun!

From Gary, the College Guy!

P.S. If you find this email useful I’d appreciate it if you would forward it to others who might want to read it - or send me email addresses of classmates and cronies and I’ll add them to my list. And if you want to know what people actually pay me for in my role as a college and career advisor, have your parents give me a holler and I’ll tell all.

P.P.S. If you’d rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.

Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711 

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.