Expert Answers to Your College Application Questions

VidEO: Bari Norman, Columbia Universitys president of expert admission, offers tips.
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High school seniors around the country are beginning to gather material for their college applications. But to score an acceptance letter, the application and essay must stand out from the crowd. Not sure how to help your high schooler's college application shine?

Bari Norman, president of Expert Admissions, a New York-based company that offers personalized college admissions counseling, appeared on "Good Morning America" Thursday and answered viewers' questions about how college admissions works.

Read below for Normans's answers to some of the most common application questions.

You Asked, We Answered

Note: Some questions have been edited slightly for clarity and to ensure anonymity for the submitter.

College 101

Victoria asked: How many colleges is a safe bet to apply to?

Norman answered: How many colleges you should apply to depends on a number of different factors, but if I had to give a general recommendation, I would say six to 10. If you have discrepancies in your academic profile or some other issues or weaknesses, you may want to add a few more, just to be safe.

Donna asked: How important is the need to take AP classes in high school for college admission?

Norman answered: Colleges look quite favorably on AP courses, so if they are available at your high school and the courses are in your areas of strength, then it's a good idea to try to challenge yourself by taking them. Do consider the workload and how well you'll be able to handle the work before making a final decision.

Tackling the Essay

Jeff asked: Bari, how does my son who is not a great writer capture the essence of what he brings to a university or college to get accepted into their highly competitive engineering or business programs? He had a 30 ACT Composite (30 English/ 34 Math), SAT Math/780 Verbal/590. He is a high school competitive swimmer and year long club swimmer who swims six days a week (15-20 hours a week). He has had straight As through grade 11 in an international baccalaureate program. He is taking very challenging courses for his senior year and is extremely focused on doing well, but the essays are not of much interest to him. He doesn't like to talk about or beat his own drum. He believes that action speaks louder than words. Any thoughts or help?

Norman answered: It sounds as if your son probably has a lot of interesting things to share, and it also sounds as if he is struggling with the essay in much the same way that many students do. This assignment, if you will, is unlike any other writing assignment he's probably had to complete. It's difficult, but that should not deter him. I suggest that he work with someone who is familiar with college essay writing who can also help him figure out what story he wants to tell about himself and how to tell it. Be sure that the person you find is someone who has a real philosophy and approach to college essay writing. This essay must come from him, and he needs someone who can tease these things out of him and help him get his voice down on paper.

Kelly asked: My son has to write four essays. He wrote about breaking his hand during the football season for the essay that asks you to write about an experience that made an impact on your life, and he wants to write about being a part of the football team and basketball team for the essay that asks you to write about a community that you belong to that shows diversity. Is it bad to write about sports twice?

Norman answered: Assuming these essays are for the same school, if your son has something else to write about, I suggest that he write about that. He risks coming across as one-dimensional (if it doesn't have to do with sports, he's not interested).

Jennie asked: My son is struggling to come up with a topic for his essay. He is toying with two topics. He has a reading disability that he has worked hard to overcome, and has excelled in school and could write about that. He also changed school districts when he was going into sixth grade, and was very anxious about it. What is your opinion of those two topics? If he writes about the learning disability and explains why his grades were lower freshman year, should he expand on that in the supplemental essays? He is also considering ROTC in college. What is your opinion of writing about that? He played sports in high school and did community service. How will that fare on the application, leaving all the clubs blank?

Norman answered: Your son should write about the topic that he feels most strongly about -- that's always the best essay. I would, however, say that it is not necessary to disclose his learning disability; and if he has excelled in school, there may be no reason to. As for explaining the lower grades freshman year, that's more appropriate in the Additional Information section. Finally, regarding your question about his activities, it sounds like your son has no reason to leave the activities section blank -- he has plenty to report!

CLICK HERE for more of Bari Norman's tips on how to approach the personal essay.

Selling Your Strengths, Addressing Your Weaknesses

Kim asked: My daughter has a 3.9 GPA, but her SAT scores are middle of the road (500-550 each category). She will be taking the SAT again in October and will hopefully improve. However, if she does not, what is the best way to overcome the SAT scores on an application. They do not truly reflect the type of student/person she is.

Norman answered: In my experience, the highly selective schools tend to have less flexibility with scores that are significantly lower than their mid-50 percent, even when the grades are strong. The good news is that there are many, many schools out there that will reward your daughter for her hard work. Consider looking into the many colleges and universities that do not require SAT scores for admission. You can find this list at www.fairtest.org. Also, make sure to speak with your daughter's guidance counselor to ensure that her college list includes an appropriate range of schools.

Darla asked: I have twin boys (now starting seniors), whom we moved from a private school after completing their sophomore year to a public high school. They have trouble with their GPA and position because for two years these stats were based on a four- point scale with very limited honor class availability, and last year it was a five-point scale with every course honors/AP. How do you suggest the apps be filled out when their combined GPA stats are not a true representation? Any advice would be appreciated!!

Norman answered: On the Common Application, students who have attended more than one high school must include an additional statement regarding their change of schools. This would be a perfect place to explain not only the reason for the switch, but also that that the two schools had different grading scales and course offerings.

Also, I suggest that you get a copy of the School Profile from the first school your sons attended and make sure that is submitted along with all the other credentials from your sons' current high school. The Profile will help the admissions officers reading your sons' applications to better understand the first school (a Profile for the current school should automatically be sent with the transcript).

Roe asked: My daughter is a senior, and we are going through this process for the third and final time, but in a different manner than her older brothers. They were 3.5/1250s and she is not. She is, however, student body president of an all-girls private school, captain of the golf team and member of basketball team. She works harder than ever to maintain an 83 average. Her downfall has always been math and and last year, chemistry. She finished her junior year with a 76 in both of those subjects, At her school, that is a "D" which hurt her GPA tremendously. Her essay is on "Being a woman in the world of golf." How can she explain her poor math grades in the "additional section"? Any ideas on how to describe her weakness in math so it doesn't look like she is just a lazy student? Also, her SAT skills were poor but she did a bit better taking the ACT. She will retake the ACT next week and hopefully be able to reach a 1000 score. Coaches are calling her for golf. Will schools overlook her poor math grades if they want her for a sport?

Norman answered: I would describe the math weakness (what about it gives her trouble? -- don't just say, "I just don't get it"). If it is a diagnosed disability, the Additional Information section would be a place to disclose that. She could also mention that her major and career plans focus on her areas of strength, which is one of the many reasons why she elected to stop math after junior year. Since she is stopping math a little prematurely, I recommend doubling up, if possible, in an area of strength.

As for the athletic recruiting process, you will find that some schools will have more flexibility for recruited athletes -- whether they will have enough flexibility in your daughter's situation will really depend on the school. Be honest with the coaches, and ask them for honest feedback, as well, so your daughter knows where to realistically set her expectations.

Kimberly asked: My questions pertains to the Common Application, where you must submit a teacher's name for a recommendation. My son attends high in Bucks County, Pa., and the teachers are not writing recommendations for students due to a "Work-to-Contract" situation. I have been reaching out to admissions offices with my concerns and trying to contact teachers out of school. I have been working this since last May and trust me, I am completely out of options. How can I bypass this field so the application is complete? I was thinking I can use my own e-mail address, but do not want to jeopardize my son's chances for any institution.

Norman answered: You are doing the right thing by discussing this issue with each of the colleges your son is applying to. As for bypassing the technical requirement on the application, I wouldn't put your e-mail address. You may want to write something like, "See Additional Information section" and then attach an explanation there.

Scholarships and Finances

Gretta asked: My son is a high school Junior with a 3.64 GPA, and I would like to know when we should begin to apply for scholarships? Can we begin applying during this school year? And where are the best places for us to find scholarship offers? My son is African-American, so I would like to also take advantage of any scholarships that are geared specifically toward minorities. At this point, he is leaning toward pharmacy or pre-law. Also, I am aware that many colleges and universities no longer require SAT scores. When filling out an application for a school that doesn't require SAT scores, how should we respond on the application if it asks if the SAT has been taken. If I respond yes, will they then want those test scores and will they weigh in upon the university's final decision? Thank you for your time.

Norman answered: On both the Common Application and the Universal Application, the test score fields are not required -- so you can submit the application to schools without filling in those fields. You can then make an alternate version of the Common Application or Universal Application and include the scores in that version, and send that version to the schools that require scores for admission.

As for scholarships, the colleges themselves are excellent sources of merit-based aid. College Board (www.collegeboard.com) has a robust scholarship search tool, as does www.meritaid.com. Deadlines will vary from competition to competition, with a small number falling in the spring of junior year (the ones I can think of that run in the spring of junior year are certain competitions sponsored by colleges and often require a nomination from someone at your school) and the majority falling in the fall or winter of senior year. Also look into scholarship competitions sponsored by local organizations and businesses. One important warning: beware of scholarship scams! Do not pay any money in return for scholarship funds or for access to scholarship competitions.

Lissa asked: Our daughter is in ninth grade and is at the top of her class. She is getting her hopes up about small (expensive!) liberal arts colleges already and we have no money saved for college. What is the reality for a top student with parents who are financially strapped? Should we burst her bubble and tell her that this may not happen ... that Brown and Williams are out of her reach? Or is anything possible if you have a strong enough application? Thank you.

Norman answered: Don't count private colleges out just yet. Many of them have generous merit-based aid programs (this has nothing to do with how much you make or what assets you have). In addition, many of the highly selective colleges are in the enviable position of being able to offer generous need-based financial aid (sometimes equaling full tuition and sometimes eliminating loans) for those who qualify. Your daughter's strong academic performance can put her in a good position for scholarships and merit-based awards, so don't discourage her hard work -- but do have an honest conversation with her at some point about finances.

CLICK HERE for more information on financial aid and scholarships.

Answers on Learning Disabilities, Illnesses and More

Susan asked: My daughter was diagnosed with a form of dyslexia and has been part of the Learning Center at her private school. She holds her own in a school with many high-achievers! Her GPA and ACT scores though reflect her struggles. She has a 2.94 GPA and a 24 in her ACTs. She is a leader in community service at her school and has been part of peer tutoring for the middle school -- she gets math! My question, that no one can definitively answer, is should she tell colleges about her learning differences or should she wait to get acceptances then seek help once she is in the college? It seems deceptive not to say something but then again will it impact her chances? Thank you.

Norman answered: First, disclosing a disability during the admissions process is in no way a guarantee that the student will receive services once on-campus. So even if she discloses, she needs to connect with the Office of Disability Services prior to enrollment to ensure that she qualifies for and receives services. As for whether to disclose, it's difficult for me to answer, given the very limited information I have about your daughter.

My guess is that your daughter's college search includes a close look at the disabilities services at each school, and that you are looking for a place that will not only accommodate, but also be accepting of your daughter. In theory, if your daughter has a diagnosed disability and she receives all the accommodations she needs, then that would compensate for the deficits, and her performance is then representative of her actual ability. If, however, her disabilities have significantly impacted her grades and her course selection (even after accommodations are taken into account), then I would disclose. My feeling is that if the fact that she has a learning disability turns off the school, chances are it's not the right place for your daughter in the first place.

Carole asked: My son, who's a high-school senior, is dyslexic. He attends a great K-12 private school in Atlanta and has excelled in many areas, including student government president, newspaper senior editior, senior peer leader (highest honor in school where 14 selected seniors mentor the freshman), lead actor in many plays, plays bongos in the chapel band, plays keyboard in a "out of school band," Bible study leader, mock trial, etc. His school often asks him to be the one to speak at Open Houses as he is an amazing public speaker. He believes being dyslexic is actually a gift, as he sees things through a very creative eye. He is not one to ever tell people he is dyslexic, though, and is a very humble person who tries hard not to have attention drawn to him. He does receive an extra time accommodation on all tests which he desperately needs it. He wants to major in film production and plans to apply to many schools, but his top choices are NYU and USC -- two very competitive schools. His grades, though, aren't perfect. He has a 3.3 out of 4.0, but has taken many honor classes and three AP classes, so he is taking a rigorous schedule. He made a 31 on the ACT, which is good. Would talking about dyslexia be a good topic or one to avoid? Should it be part of his personal essay or not? Any suggestions are helpful. Thank you so much.

Norman answered: You have convinced me that your son's dyslexia is indeed a gift. This sounds like an instance where it is OK to disclose and where discussing the issue would underscore positive attributes more than anything else. Just make sure that the dyslexia is merely a springboard for the essay, and not the focus of it (focus on the creativity and things like that). I worked with a student a couple of years ago who had severe dyslexia and an academic profile similar to your son's. His most personal and meaningful story related to successfully working through his dyslexia, so he wrote his essay about it. He did wonderfully in the admissions process and received many offers of admission. I say go for it, if it is his inclination to write about that in his main essay (for the programs you're referring to, he'll have ample space in other essays to talk about his cinematic interests and influences).

Mahala asked: My son, who is very bright, has suffered from severe depression in the last two years. Consequently, his grades have plummeted, as have his SAT and ACT scores. He wants to study biomedical engineering and had his sights set on MIT or Carnegie Mellon. We now know that that is not a possibility due to his poor performance sophomore and junior years. What is the best way to handle this circumstance in his life without scaring off other good schools? I heard you speak of tackling it head on on his applications, but should this be a part of his personal essay? We want to handle this to his best advantage and are very worried about doing the most effective thing.

Norman answered: Mental health issues are very sensitive, and without more information about your son's struggles, it's difficult for me to advise you on this. I recommend that you either seek advice from his school counselor or from an educational consultant who could advise you on this issue privately. You can find a list of educational consultants in your area through the Independent Educational Consultants Association at www.iecaonline.com.

Elise from North Carolina asked: I watched you on "GMA" and was excited to get your advice. I have been out of high school for five years now, and after high school, attended a community college for one year. Health problems have prevented me from furthering my education past that. However, my hard work and dedication have paid off, and I have recovered from my disability. I very much want to go back to school for nursing next fall. I want with all my heart to go to UNC's nursing school. How can I make myself desirable after being out of school for so long? In the past year, I have taken an at-home course in medical transcription, because it was what my health allowed. I graduated that certificate program with a 92 average. I was an honor student in high school, and all my grades in college were As. I am frustrated, because I don't feel I should be penalized for being ill, after all, it was out of my control. How can I make this work for me? Please give me some pointers. Thank you so much.

Norman answered: I am glad to hear you are healthy, Elise! I recommend that you use this year to do two things: 1) take an academic course or two related to your area of interest to show recent academic performance and 2) do some kind of volunteer or community work relating to health care. Though these things will be in progress when you first apply, you can report them on your applications and provide an update or two as the year progresses. As a side note (and you may have done this already), be sure that you have all the prerequisites under your belt for the nursing programs you're interested in. Many schools require that certain courses be completed as a prerequisite to being admitted.

Judy asked: My 23-year-old son is in the USAF in Iraq as an airborne cryptological linguist. He gets out in January and wants to finish his bachelor's degree and get his master's degree in computer science. Since we live in California, his first choice is Berkeley. The problem is, UC does not recognize the credits he has worked hard to get during his military stay. Most out of state schools do recognize them, just not California. He's very motivated to get his degree from a top school, like Berkeley. Is there anything he can do to see about getting UC to accept his credits and getting accepted at Berkeley? He's spent the last four years defending his country in a war zone, while spending his small down time to further his education. It would be a shame his home state wouldn't accept his credits, while other states would. Can you give us any advice?

Norman answered: First, thank you to your son for his service, and thank you for your son! If you've checked with Berkeley and they have made it clear that they will not accept these credits -- which I agree is unfortunate -- then I don't know that there is a way around that policy. If you haven't already, contact the registrar's office directly. I also recommend visiting the website of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges at www.soc.aascu.org for a listing of approximately 1,900 institutions of higher education that are committed to recognizing military coursework.

Click here to visit Bari Norman's website, Expert Admissions.com.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" website.

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