Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

Gifted teens typically receive little help with college planning from their schools. Efforts to improve gifted education tend to focus on what happens in class. And just as their learning needs are frequently ignored in the classroom (they'll do just fine; they’ll learn on their own!), it is often assumed that with their smarts, they will easily get admitted to the college of their choice.


With all of the competition, uncertainty and financial risk involved, gifted children need as much advice and support as any other child. And sometimes the stakes are even higher, given the potential for merit scholarships, and the importance of finding a college community of like-minded peers. But without sound advice, many miss out on opportunities that could give them an advantage.

The following are essential tips to keep in mind when planning for college:

1. Start early

Many gifted students and their parents don’t delve into the maze of college planning until junior year, a point when valuable time has already passed. Most high schools are busy helping students with class schedules and immediate goals, so strategic college planning gets delayed. What results is a vacuum of information, where parents are blindsided by their lack of knowledge, and students remain unaware of tools that could open doors for them later. It is critical to start early (even in ninth grade), learn about options, and develop a long-term strategy, 

2. Plan ahead for the PSAT's

The PSAT's, taken during junior year of high school, presumably as a prep for the SAT's, are frequently treated as an afterthought amid the extensive mandated testing students routinely endure. Parents are rarely informed of their significance, since they don't impact quotas, federal aid, or state regulations. Yet these exams are critical for gifted children.  When students secure a high enough score, they become National Merit Semi-finalists, and can qualify to become National Merit Finalists as long as they maintain good grades and meet a few additional criteria. With NMF status, not only are students eligible for additional financial scholarships, many colleges offer completely free tuition including room and board to entice them to attend. 

Achieving NMF status opens up an array of opportunities, particularly for financially strapped families. Without realizing their value, though, students often view them as one in a series of meaningless standardized tests, and exert little effort. And few study or prepare in advance. Many gifted children, who eventually achieve high SAT scores, would have scored just as high on the PSAT's if they had studied or taken them seriously.  Schools commit an enormous disservice to their high ability students by failing to inform them of this opportunity, one that could have a profound financial impact on their future. 

3. Don't forget the SAT Subject tests

These tests evaluate mastery in specific areas of knowledge. At least two subject tests are required by many elite colleges, but many students are unaware of this requirement until junior year. Unfortunately, waiting until junior year leaves few choices, since most students have no other option than to take subject tests based on junior year classes. This might not showcase their abilities, however, if their strengths lie with subjects taken in 9th or 10th grade. Ideally, they should take the subject tests immediately after completing those courses, before the material is forgotten.

Students need to see what SAT subject tests are available at the start of high school and decide which tests would best reflect their strengths. There are not a lot of choices available, and some of the tests may not even correspond with what is learned in school. For example, students who take AP Physics Mechanics may discover that they are not prepared to take the SAT Physics subject test because Mechanics is only one of three distinct areas of physics covered on the test. Most overworked guidance counselors rarely inform ninth grade students and their families about subject tests. Yet planning for the most appropriate test to take and when to take it is critical. 

4. You can take the SATs and the ACTs

These two tests each may offer a better fit for different students depending on their test-taking style. Most students benefit from trying both the SATs and ACTs and seeing which one results in a more favorable score. Also, scores can be strategically selected for submission to different schools. For example, some colleges allow students to submit the ACT with its writing supplement instead of the SAT subject tests. So if a student receives high scores on the SAT, but not on the SAT subject tests, he or she might choose to submit a slightly weaker ACT (with writing score) rather than the stronger SAT scores combined with weak SAT subject test scores. 

5. Practice guides really do help

Many gifted teens, accustomed to easily acing tests in school, assume the SAT's or ACT's require little preparation. However, they place themselves at a disadvantage if they don't prepare. Learning how to take these tests (e.g., how to pace yourself and approach reading passages), understanding how the scoring works (e.g., when to guess or leave a question blank), and practicing completing the exam under time constraints can make a dramatic difference.

6. SAT coaching and classes help some students.

While using study guides and preparation for the SAT's or ACT's is essential, some students also benefit from individualized SAT coaching or classes. At the very least, this provides structure, support, and targeted information. If there is a choice, gifted teens might benefit more from individualized coaching, since classes tend to be geared toward average ability students, where gifted children, once again, might be bored.

7. Take advanced classes.

Many gifted children thrive in high school, when they finally have access to more challenging classes. AP, IB, and honors classes not only provide an opportunity for intensive focus, but also permit interactions with like-minded peers who are equally engaged in learning. Colleges like to see that students challenge themselves by taking the most rigorous classes available. They are not particularly impressed by all A's from less demanding classes, when AP or honors courses are available. An overload of rigorous classes is not necessary; just a demonstration that students are willing to work hard. AP tests tend to be quite demanding, and are also good practice for those taking the SAT subject tests. And most colleges offer either full course credit or at least an option to place out of introductory courses, if students receive a score of 4 or 5 on their AP tests.

6. Dual enrollment.

Many schools provide an opportunity for students to attend classes at a local college. This not only boosts their resume, but more importantly, provides an opportunity to see what a college class is like. Many will feel more challenged by this; others may find that the classes are surprisingly less demanding than they expected, motivating them even more to pursue admission to a college that will truly challenge them. Online courses also may be available. 

7. Internships.

Gifted students can benefit from internships, mentoring, or opportunities where they shadow other professionals. This offers a great learning experience, teaches them about a real world work environment, and demonstrates to colleges that the student is interested in learning outside of the classroom. Internships may be found through the school, but sometimes students or parents may need to search on their own. Some families assume they must send their children on volunteer opportunities overseas for colleges to take notice. While this may be a great experience, don't expect that colleges will be overly impressed by this expensive venture. Most admissions officers are aware that students with fewer financial resources can just as easily volunteer at a local food bank or animal shelter.

8. Find your passion

Though it sounds cliche, gifted teens flourish when they find their passion, and engage their energy in what interests them most. College admissions officers are unimpressed when students pad their resume with a sudden burst of volunteer or school activities during their junior year. Students don't benefit from spreading themselves too thin. Colleges recognize when there is a meaningful pursuit of an activity, and when it is window dressing. More importantly, teens need an outlet for what they love, regardless of what looks good on a resume.

9. Don't bet on scholarships 

Unless a student is a National Merit Finalist, receiving a significant merit scholarship (one that makes a dent in the cost of tuition) is rare. Sometimes a scholarship may arrive from a college that is undesirable in terms of location, size or fit. Other options include honors programs at state universities, and the very generous need-based financial aid available at some elite colleges. Note the difference between need-blind and need-aware colleges, as need-aware schools take into consideration whether the student is seeking financial aid in their admissions decisions.

10. Set realistic expectations

With elite college acceptance rates at record lows (Harvard's rate was 6%, for example), it is clear that many students apply to some schools with little chance of admission. Sometimes this is due to high hopes and false assumptions; often it results from a lack of information about the highly competitive nature of admissions. Even valedictorians with 2300+ SAT's are routinely rejected from the most elite schools. Most colleges list a 25-75% range for GPA and SAT scores for accepted students. Unless your child has what is referred to as a "hook" (e.g., recruited athlete, underserved minority, geographically desirable, legacy status), assume that your child's stats need to correspond with the 75% and above range. Check Naviance, if your high school has it, as this will give you some idea of acceptance percentages. Colleges are in the business of risk-management. It is a risk to accept your child. They want to accept students who will matriculate, graduate, and go on to do great things. Colleges that describe "holistic" admissions strive to "build a diverse class of students" from a range of backgrounds, locations, and interests, and your child may not fit their vision.


Keep these tips in mind, get educated, read books, search the internet, and get support from other parents who have been down this road. Seek help from your child's school, but remember that guidance counselors may be overworked, have a limited perspective, and will never know your child like you do. Gather as much information as possible as you navigate this interesting, challenging journey. Best wishes.

You also might be interested in other Gifted Challenges blog posts related to college planning:


  1. Excellent list of suggestions, Gail. I wish this could be sent to all high school counselors.

    1. Thanks, Paula. Unfortunately, I think most counselors are so overworked, that high ability and gifted students get overlooked. Yet, a quick letter home to parents at the start of freshman year highlighting important points would be so easy. So many families regret not having known this important information. It's really a shame. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Excellent information, and timely for me because I still have one left to send through college! Gail, thank you for such useful information AND well explained.

    1. Thanks, Celi. I agree that it is really complicated, and families of gifted students are often left to their own devices to sort it out. Good luck with your son in his college search.