Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Ten college planning tips: What families of gifted children need to know

Now, more than ever, it is essential to help your gifted child plan for college.

Most high schools lack the time or resources to help gifted students adequately plan for college. Just as their learning needs are frequently ignored within the classroom, it is often assumed that given their smarts, gifted students will easily gain admission to the college of their choice. On the contrary, it can be an arduous, confusing, and complicated journey.

With all of the competition, uncertainty, and financial risk involved, gifted children require as much (if not more) college planning support as any other child. And sometimes the stakes are even higher, given the potential for merit scholarships, the need-based financial aid available at elite colleges, and the critical importance of fit. Gifted teens benefit from a college where they can thrive academically and find a community of like-minded peers. After years of masking their giftedness to avoid social consequences, or languishing in classrooms where their abilities remain under-challenged, many gifted teens find relief once they enter college. 

But without sound advice, many gifted students are disadvantaged when selecting and applying to a college best suited to their academic and social/emotional needs. Most high school guidance counselors are overworked and provide information relevant to the majority of students. They may lack the time or resources to adequately guide their gifted students. The daunting task of college planning, then, falls upon parents of gifted teens. 

As a psychologist and parenting coach, I have met with frustrated, bewildered, and sometimes heartbroken families who felt betrayed by misleading recommendations - or even from a lack of guidance altogether. High achieving students may have assumed they would gain admission to the school of their choice, and are devastated when they receive those rejection notices. Many wish they had not relied on the schools to guide them, and regret that they had started planning so late in the game.

The recent college admissions scandals shed light on the fraught, competitive nature of college admissions. The publicity and criminal charges brought against those who attempted to rig the system were justified. However, although these families "got caught," the scandals highlighted a reality where wealthy, well-connected students often have an advantage, even when access is obtained through legal means. Most gifted teens lack the connections, and more importantly, necessary guidance in the college planning process. It is essential for students and families to plan ahead!

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

1. Start early

Many gifted students and their parents wait until junior year in high school to start college planning. By then, valuable time has already passed. Most high schools are busy helping students with class schedules and immediate goals, so strategic college planning gets delayed. This results in an information vacuum, where parents are blindsided by their lack of knowledge, and students remain unaware of the ideal classes, activities and exams that would boost their chance for admission. 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 are often viewed merely as preparation for the SAT's. Amid the avalanche of mandated testing, most schools treat the PSAT's as an afterthought, with little consideration of their unique benefit to gifted students. Parents are rarely informed of the significance of the PSAT's; yet a high test score can lead to a wealth of opportunities. A high enough score grants National Merit Semi-finalist status, and leads to eventual qualification as a National Merit Finalist as long as good grades and a few additional criteria are maintained. 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 long series of meaningless standardized tests, and exert little effort. Most never 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 alert them to this test's importance - one that could significantly boost chances of college admissions, and have a profound financial impact for families. 

3. Don't forget the SAT Subject tests

These tests evaluate mastery in specific areas of knowledge. While at least two subject tests were required by many selective colleges in the past, many now label these exams as optional or recommended, but will consider them if submitted. In other words, a high score on these exams still may boost chances of admission, even if colleges do not require them. Many students are unaware of the value of these tests until junior year, which eliminates options for taking the tests when they are best prepared to share what they have learned. If they wait until the end of junior year, they may not be able to showcase their abilities, for example, if their strengths correspond with classes taken in 9th or 10th grade. Ideally, students should take the subject tests immediately after completing those courses, before the material is forgotten.

Students should learn what SAT subject tests are available by the start of 9th grade, and consider which tests would best reflect their strengths. There are not many choices available, though, and some tests may not even correspond with what students learn in school. For example, students who take AP Physics Mechanics may discover that they are not well prepared for the SAT Physics Subject Test because Mechanics is only one of three distinct areas of physics covered on the test. Given the potential value of submitting a good SAT Subject Test score, determining which tests are most appropriate, and when to take them is critical. Please note that due to the Pandemic, it is unclear whether Subject Tests will be available at the end of the upcoming school year.

4. You can take the SATs and the ACTs

These slightly different tests each may provide 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 leads to 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. However, in line with an SAT-optional trend among some colleges, many colleges are not requiring SATS for 2021 admissions due to Pandemic restrictions that limit SAT testing access. 

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 refuse to 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 dramatically impact their scores.

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. Be vigilant about some "coaches" who take advantage of vulnerable families by promising unrealistic results at a high cost.

5. 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 offer more intensive focus, but foster an environment where gifted students can intereact with like-minded peers, equally engaged in learning. Colleges prefer when 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. 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. Some students may accrue enough AP credits to skip an entire semester of college, saving thousands in college costs.

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 experience classes where other students are equally engaged in learning. While some gifted students may feel more challenged by this opportunity; others may find that the classes are less demanding than they expected, motivating them even more to seek admission to a college that will truly challenge them. Online college-level courses also may be available, and many high schools are open to paying for this option, particularly when a student has completed the most advanced level of instruction in what the school offers. 

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. Internship opportunities may be suggested by the school, but many times, students or parents must search on their own. Unfortunately, some families assume they must send their child on volunteer opportunities overseas for colleges to take notice. While this opportunity might provide a great experience, do not expect that colleges will be overly impressed by this expensive venture. Most admissions officers are aware that students without such 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 do not benefit from spreading themselves too thin, and most colleges can distinguish meaningful activities from window dressing. More importantly, teens need an outlet for what they love, regardless of what looks good on a resume.

9. Know your finances, and don't bet on scholarships 

All too often, students may gain admission to their dream school, only to find that their parents cannot afford the costs. Most students are unaware of the long-term burden of exorbitant loans, and need you to set limits on such options. 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, and those in need of aid may be at a disadvantage. If you are not in a position to receive need-based financial aid, assess your financial situation early in the planning process, and have an honest conversation with your child about what you can afford. 

10. Set realistic expectations

With elite college acceptance rates at record lows (Stanford's 2020 rate was 4.8%, for example), it is clear that many students apply to some selective schools despite little chance of admission. Sometimes this stems from high hopes and false assumptions; often it results from a lack of information about the highly competitive nature of admissions. Even valedictorians with almost perfect 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, 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 - and it is a risk whenever they grant admission to any student. 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 and geographic locations, and with varying interests, and your child's demographics may not fit the school's vision. They also boost their reputation through cultivating lower acceptance rates, often through soliciting applications even when students lack qualifications for admission. For more guidance on shepherding your child through this process, see: What most parents of gifted children wish they had known about college planning.


Keep these tips in mind, get educated, read books, search the internet, and get support from other parents who have weathered this experience. 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. 

This blog post is an update of a previous post about college planning.


  1. What worked well for us was getting to know some of the professors at our state university. They guided us to the honors program, which was a good fit. We did not spend a lot of energy looking for expensive schools, but instead a good fit. As most universities are what you make them, what opportunities you take on, and what challenges you accept. These relationships were paramount and helped our student find mentors and even lead to a paid job with the university before graduation.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Darleen. I agree that State Universities provide great opportunities. I went to one myself! Good to hear that it worked out for your child.