Do You Need to Take the SAT for College?


My son has taken the ACT and we are pleased with his score. Does he need to take the SAT? I’m hearing a lot of parents say kids need both and that seems to be the advice from his school. What do you think?

Great question! No. Students do NOT need to take both exams; one is enough.

Let me clarify.

For the student who is not going to take a prep class or work with a quality tutor, the suggestion to take both the SAT and ACT is not bad advice. Some students prefer the format of one over the other. Usually students will have comparable scores on these exams; sometimes one test is clearly ahead of the other—not by a huge amount, but in the current admissions climate, any extra points are welcome.

Here’s why I’ve started recommending students focus on one test rather than trying to do both.

  1. Colleges are only going use a student’s best scores. So extra testing is unnecessary.
  2. High school students are busy and extra time can be more productively spent on meaningful activities or schoolwork.
  3. Taking multiple exams (often multiple times) can create a dilemma when applying to schools that request a student send ALL scores.
  4. Finally, I’m simply not a fan of over testing.

Let me explain.

All Colleges Accept ACT Scores

When I applied to college (in the ‘80s) there were some highly selective schools that did not accept ACT scores. Times have changed. Currently any college or university that requires test scores for admission will accept the ACT or SAT with no preference given to either one.

So a student with a strong ACT score can use that to apply to all the schools on his list—even the Ivy League schools.

Colleges Use Best Scores   

Colleges are looking for the scores that will best serve the student in the admissions process. Once a student has earned a score he or she is satisfied with, additional scores aren’t needed. In some cases, one test is enough. However, many students will re-take a particular exam or try to take both the SAT and ACT in order to earn scores they find acceptable.

In this case if your son is already pleased with his ACT scores, he doesn’t need anything else. His strong ACT score is sufficient.

Time Is Better Spent Elsewhere

Most students I work with are busy. They take challenging classes, participate in sports and clubs at school, volunteer to help others, and have family obligations. These aren’t kids with nothing to do. So preparing to take another major exam is going to take 5 to 100 hours of their time— time that would be better spent elsewhere.

This is why I encourage my students to give 100% to the test prep process in the six to ten weeks we work together. If they can earn top scores at that time, they get to move on and use the rest of the school year or summer to work on other more meaningful pursuits.

Taking tests just to take them is a waste of time. Colleges want to see a student’s best result. While it is nice to think the admissions office will be impressed with the effort of multiple attempts, effort is rarely a factor. What really impresses is achievement.

Some Schools Require All Test Scores

Some colleges and universities have standardized test policies that require students to send ALL results. Obviously this means if I took the ACT three times, I need to send all three scores. But what if I also took the SAT and don’t want colleges to see those scores because they aren’t as good as my ACT results?

In this situation, the student who is happy with his ACT score might not be happy with the results if he takes the SAT. Will he need to send those results too?

I think this brings up a dilemma in admissions. Students and parents should know the policies at each school and carefully read the language. Just know that taking another exam “just because” can present some predicaments in the future.

Over-Testing is a Bad Thing

I know! I’m the person who is always encouraging practice tests and more homework. But I also believe that over testing is not a good thing. Yes, students may take the ACT and/or the SAT multiple times to achieve a goal, but once the goal is met, move on.

A student who is satisfied with his ACT scores is D.O.N.E. in my book. So are students who have given 100% effort and have taken their exam of choice three times. At some point, it is healthy to see the testing phase as over and move onto more important things like high school achievements, college applications, or having time to think.


So this is where I remind parents and students that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You can take the SAT (or another ACT), but it isn’t a requirement. In fact, there are good reasons not to take another standardized test.

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New SAT Scores Are Inflated


Scores from the new format March SAT were released this week. A lot of students were excited to see scores that matched the profile numbers of their top choice colleges. What most test takers didn’t know is that the new SAT scores are inflated. Students will now have to earn about 100 additional points on the new test to compare with old SAT results.

How inflated are the new scores?

Using the conversion calculator from College Board, we can see how old and new results compare.

Old test (R+M)          New test

800                              890

1000                            1090

1100                            1190

1200                            1290

1300                            1380

1400                            1470

1500                            1540

So most test takers need an additional 90 points to equal the old SAT scores (Reading + Math.)

How can I convert my scores?

Use the SAT Score Converter from College Board. You can go from old format to new format scores and vice versa.

Be ready for some confusing information. For example, the new 1290 that is similar to earning 600 per section on the old SAT is estimated as a 650 on Evidenced Based Reading & Writing and a 620 on Math. Yes, that’s right. Those scores add up to 1270, but the total equivalent is 1290. (That’s new SAT math for you—haha!)

What does this mean for college admission?

Colleges have been waiting for these new SAT scores with almost as much anticipation as students. They need to have a plan for next fall. They need to know how numbers compare.

Colleges are aware that the new SAT scores are inflated. They will interpret them conservatively. Essentially colleges will be using three types of scores for admission decisions this fall:

  • Old SAT
  • New SAT
  • ACT

While there are tables and conversion charts that allow us (and colleges) to compare these three types of scores, they are essentially all different. New SAT results are as different from old SAT scores as they are from your ACT results.

Bottom line: colleges will not view new SAT results in the same way they view old scores. Conversions will be made. Expect profile numbers to increase.

How does this impact my test preparation plans?

First, take time to compare scores. Use the conversion calculator for the new / old SAT scores. Use the concordance table to compare old SAT (or equivalent) and ACT.

Second, don’t be fooled by higher numbers. The College Board has rolled out higher scores so their consumers feel better about the results.

This is just like a high-end clothing label putting smaller sizes on clothing to make consumers feel better. The shopper who normally wears a 12 in dresses may be so excited to fit into the designer 8 or 10 that she is willing to pay a little extra for the high end label. She is the exact same body size whether the tag says 8, 10, or 12.

Inflated scores have the same psychological impact as smaller dress sizes. The consumers feel better about the product. They aren’t smarter. The tag on their label was changed to make them feel better about the SAT results. (Yes, College Board is a huge corporation and they are worried about bottom line sales. This test format redesign is largely a response to the fact that the ACT has outsold the SAT for the past three years.) Don’t be fooled by savvy sales techniques.

Finally, focus on the test that is right for you. Maybe your new SAT results are really higher than your old SAT or ACT scores. Great! But you may find the ACT is a better alternative.

From a test prep perspective, I’m still encouraging students to take the ACT instead of the new SAT this year. Here are my reasons:

  • More material. Currently there are 4 full-length new SATs with which to practice. There are easily 12 ACTs students can access.
  • No score delays. Students waited from March 5 until May 10 to get SAT results. Students are getting ACT scores in 2-3 weeks—enough time to sign up and retake another exam if necessary.
  • More straightforward questions. In all sections, the ACT questions are shorter, more to the point, and written without a lot of unnecessary information. I find students do better with this structure.
  • Less reading fatigue. Just look at the exams side by side. The ACT is less dense and switches from English to Math to Reading to Science so students face less fatigue from reading long passages for prolonged time periods.
  • Less confusion. Students who focused on the ACT this year don’t have to worry about score inflation or content changes. They don’t need to wonder what else will change. There is already too much uncertainty in the admission process; standardized tests should not add to it.


Understand that comparing new SAT scores to old ones is like comparing apples and oranges. You must use the score converter before you compare your new results to the numbers listed on college websites and brochures.

I don’t want to take the wind out of anyone’s sails, but know that new scores are inflated. Colleges know this and will make policy changes accordingly.

I love the update I received from one of our local University of Texas reps:

“Early reports indicate colleges might have to make some adjustments as the NEW does not equal the OLD SAT.  Last fall many of my private high schools recommended to their juniors and seniors to take the ACT and in retrospect that was great guidance.

So until colleges are able to update their web sites, brochures and scholarship awards you might want your NEW SAT test takers to download the SAT Converter AP and or take the ACT.”




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How to Get Reluctant Teens to Participate in the College Search


My 17-year-old son is a boy of few words. He likes to keep to himself. He is very independent and conscientious. I would suspect that he already has thoughts and opinions about the college process but he is not willing to discuss them with me. He is a strong student and a hard worker but he is not interested in gathering any information about college through discussion, websites or guides (although I know he has had a productive conversation with his school college counselor). What should I do?

Many parents find themselves in similar situations. Some teens are quiet by nature, while others may be reluctant to share because they find the college admission process stressful or feel uncomfortable expressing indecision. There are a number of things parents can do to open up discussions with their children.

Sprinkle casual questions into daily conversation.

Sometimes sitting down for “the college talk” stifles students. Parents may have more luck by adding occasional questions into everyday conversation. “What did you think of that brochure that came in the mail from XYZ College?” “You are doing so well in history, do you think that is a subject you would want to continue to study in college?” Reticent teens may need additional prompting with questions like, “Why is that?” or “What makes you feel that way?”

There are many opportunities for casual conversation, but there are a few topics of discussion parents should avoid. Avoid asking questions about other students; too often, teens view these as critical comparisons. No one wants to compare his or her college options with those of the current valedictorian or star athlete. Also, avoid questions that suggest judgment, like, “You don’t want to go hear the presentation from State U, do you?” Teens are more likely to speak up if they know their opinions will be heard and valued.

Enlist the help of your school guidance counselor.

In this situation, you are fortunate your son has a productive working relationship with his school guidance counselor. Sometimes teens find it easier to talk to someone other than their parents. Don’t take this as an insult; look at it as an opportunity.

Schedule an appointment to meet with the counselor without your son. Explain your situation and ask for his or her insight. Some teens worry about disappointing their parents or don’t want to admit they are nervous about this next step. The counselor may be able to offer insight into your son’s thoughts and opinions and provide some suggestions of schools you may want to visit as a family.

Plan some college visits.

Researching colleges can seem like added homework; actually, visiting a campus can help even a reluctant student engage in the college search process. Families don’t need to wait until a student’s junior year to visit schools.

Colleges are eager to meet interested students, and most have information about campus visits on the admissions office website. The typical visit lasts about two hours and includes an information session led by someone from the admissions office, as well as a student-led tour of the campus. Take notes during or after your visit to list what you liked and didn’t like about the school. Ask your son for his feedback, and be ready to listen.

Establish regular times for family conversation.

Sometimes teens clam up when they feel pressure to make major decisions. Trying to sit down for a big family meeting may make it more difficult for your son to express himself. Rather than having one or two major discussions a month, establish regular times for family conversation. If your family never gets a chance to eat dinner together during the week because of conflicting schedules, don’t worry. Your family time might come in the car on the way to and from practice, over lunch on Sunday, or while watching sports on TV. Make time when everyone has unplugged from computers and phones and is able to chat about the events of the day or week. During these informal talks, you may learn a lot more about your son’s plans for his future, dreams for college, and ideas on the schools that are right for him. 

Guide the research process.

Researching colleges sounds a lot like doing another research paper for some teens. While some students eagerly dive into guidebooks, websites, and college fairs, others—like your son—show little interest. You may need to guide the research process. Learning about different schools or academic offerings doesn’t have to be a chore. If your son learns better by experiencing things, you may want to find some video tours of campuses and plan more in-person visits. Some students are overwhelmed with the volume of reading in guidebooks and online, but they will happily page through course catalogs or brochures they receive in the mail. As a parent, you may need to find the resources that are most relevant and best fit your son’s preferred method for information-gathering.


Most high school students are willing to discuss their college options, as long as they feel certain their wishes, ideas, and goals are being taken seriously. It’s a good thing that your son is open to the idea of college and has discussed the college admissions process with his school counselor. However, because parents do play a significant role in a student’s transition to college, it’s important that you help guide your son’s college explorations so that he considers all of the relevant factors and ends up making a solid college choice.


Posted in College Admission, College Selection, College Visits | Leave a comment

Do You Need Extra Time on the ACT / SAT?

stand out from the crowd

In the past year almost half of my private tutoring clients have come to me needing extra time on the ACT. Unfortunately, only a few of them knew their learning differences could qualify them for accommodations on the exam.

All of these hard-working students managed to compensate for their various learning issues and successfully keep their grades up in high school. Unfortunately, none of the guidance counselors or caseworkers at their schools had suggested applying for extra time on the ACT or SAT.

How things work

Just as students can receive accommodations and modifications at school, they can also receive them on standardized tests: ACT, SAT, PSAT, AP exams, etc.

Accommodations vary depending on each student’s needs. Some students require large print exams. Others need extended time and frequent breaks. Some students need the exam to be read aloud.

Some accommodations are for temporary needs. I worked with a young man who broke his hand the week before the PSAT and his accommodation was the ability to mark answers in the exam booklet without having to bubble the answer sheet (something he couldn’t manage with a cast on his writing hand.)

What we want

Testing accommodations “level the playing field” for students with documented needs. They are not intended to give a particular group of students an unfair advantage; they’re meant to provide each student with what he or she needs to compete fairly with his or her peers.

No one would contest a visually impaired student receiving a large print or braille booklet, for example. Many students struggle with less obvious “disabilities.”

Students with dyslexia or processing speed issues will find it impossible to complete an equivalent amount of work in the same time as their “regular” peers. These students may be given additional time to test because the educational and psychological evaluations show a need.

What we don’t want

Many people hear “extended time on the SAT or ACT” and think they’d like to take advantage of this opportunity. Most students find timed exams challenging and wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra time on admissions tests!

What ACT and College Board don’t want is students and parents looking to exploit a perceived loophole in the standardized testing field. In other words, they want to provide appropriate accommodations to students with diagnosed and identified needs, but not provide “bonus” time for families shopping around for an advantage in the admissions process.

How do I know if I qualify?

Of course final word is left to the student support services departments at College Board and ACT. In general, students who receive modifications and accommodations at their high school may qualify for similar accommodations on their standardized testing. Because applications for modified testing need to come from a student’s high school, a visit with your guidance counselor or exceptional education caseworker is a good place to start.

How does the application process work?

Both ACT and College Board require their own applications with supporting documentation. (Remember ACT and College Board are rival companies like Coke and Pepsi, so approval by one does not mean approval by the other.) You may want to apply for both.

You will need to have current documentation of a diagnosed issue. Because all of the forms require the signature of a school official as well as some information about a student’s IEP or school accommodations, the best place to initiate this process is in your high school guidance counseling or exceptional education office.

If you have additional questions or can’t find the specific answers on the College Board or ACT website, call the student support service offices directly. I have found everyone in those departments to be well-informed and helpful.

Important issues

  1. Keep in mind that the purpose of testing accommodations is to provide a fair adjustment based on documented needs and part of that means protecting the fairness of students who will not receive extra time for special testing conditions. It is not unusual for applications to be denied. If you feel your application has been unfairly denied, ask for further information or a review.
  1. One of the most common reasons for an application to be denied is that the applicant no longer receives that accommodation at school. Think about it; if a student doesn’t need extra time in school, why should they get extra time on a standardized test!
  1. Once approved, accommodations follow a student through his or her entire high school testing time. This means a student who is approved by College Board for extended time on a 10th grade AP exam will have that extended time apply for the PSAT, SAT, and subsequent AP exams in 11th and 12th grade.
  1. The approval process can take between six and ten weeks– longer if you are asked to provide additional documentation or have to appeal the decision. For this reason, it may be wise to apply the year before your child anticipates taking the standardized exams.
  1. If your child has gotten by with informal arrangements at school, you may want to think ahead and get some documentation in place prior to 11th grade. Many students in small private schools advocate for themselves and come in before or after school to finish tests they are unable to complete in class. While I applaud students who take initiative to ask for extended time and those teachers who are willing to provide it in the absence of a policy requiring it, when it comes to college placement testing, more formal documentation may be needed.
  1. Look beyond names and labels. Over the years I’ve encountered many parents who did not want their child to carry a label: ADD, special education, autistic, etc. In many cases these parents have specifically avoided modifications in school to avoid the label. I encourage parents to learn more about the process and focus on the question “what does my child need?” rather than worrying about the label. (I’ll have an article this summer on how student with learning differences are viewed in college admission.)
  1. Applications must include up to date testing. If your child was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade and your testing is eight years old, the ACT and SAT may ask for you to provide more current documentation of an educational need. Plan ahead for the time and potential expense to get this done.
  1. Remember not all needs are obvious. One of the students I started working with in December clearly needed extra time. In the past year she finished chemotherapy. This family never thought to consider the lasting impacts of chemotherapy on their daughter’s brain and how it might impact taking a test like the ACT; they were just so grateful her leukemia was in remission and she was back to school full-time. When the student completed educational testing, doctors found her processing speed and working memory had been impaired. Now the daughter has extended time on the ACT and a better understanding of why she has to read things two or three times to remember anything.


Don’t wait for your school guidance counselor to initial this process for you. As I have found with my clients this year, you need to be informed and advocate for your child if you suspect testing accommodations are appropriate.

For more information, you can see the testing accommodations pages for

ACT Services For Examinees with Disabilities

College Board Services for Students with Disabilities


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After You’re Accepted– How to Choose the Right College


We are in the throes of making the final decision about which college to attend, and I’m wondering if you have any suggestions or could point me to some good resources. My daughter is a talented singer and focused on several liberal arts colleges with strong music programs or music conservatories, but doesn’t want to major in music. She is now grappling with the question of whether it’s better to be a “big fish in a little pond” at a school with a music department and opportunities, but not known for music, versus one of the schools known for music. (Her top choices are Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox) If you have any advice or could point me to some good resources to help her as she decides, I would really appreciate it.

First, congratulations! You and your daughter are in the enviable position of having to choose from a number of great options. Making that final decision is more of an art than a science, but I’ll share what I tell my clients.

No Bad Choices       

It may help to start out by recognizing that there are no bad or wrong choices. I understand many families feel as if they have to make “the right choice” and that belief only makes the process more stressful.

Your family did a lot of hard work in the past year as you limited the college list to a group of schools all included because they are good choices. Yes, different schools will provide different college experiences, but it is a lot like trying to decide whether to go to Hawaii or London for your next vacation. They are different, but both would be excellent experiences.

Honestly, Lawrence, St. Olaf, Denison, and Knox are all great schools. I can’t say one is better than the rest because it really depends on what you and your daughter are looking for. So there really is no bad school in this bunch.

Chart Key Data

I’ll admit I’m a right-brained spreadsheet nerd; I’ll do this step in Excel. Whether you create an electronic spreadsheet or a colorful chart on construction paper with stickers, you need to put key information in one place so you can accurately compare and contrast options.

I like to start with the numbers. Some of these facts may be more significant to your decision than others. Here’s my starter list:

  • School name, location
  • Type of location (college town, small town, big city) & any key location benefits (access to internships, arts scene, etc.)
  • Miles from home
  • How you plan to get to/from college on breaks & estimated cost of a round-trip
  • Approximate time (door to door) from home to campus or vice versa
  • Total students on campus & total undergraduates on campus
  • Intended major & minor (if applicable)
  • Plan for freshman year housing
  • Your best guess for housing after first year (on campus, off campus—be specific)

Then I encourage everyone to chart the financial aspect. Unless the cost of college is chump change, list it out. Make the cost of college part of your decision just as you would consider cost when purchasing a car, house, or vacation. You can use your financial statement from the college or the net price calculator from each school’s website.

  • Tuition
  • Room & board
  • Fees
  • Travel to school (minimum of twice a year)
  • Other expected expenses
  • TOTAL of all the above
  • Scholarships (first year, one time awards)
  • Scholarships & grants (these will be awarded all four years)
  • Work study
  • Loans (you can separate into student and parent)
  • Estimated payment per year

Pros & Cons of Each

Next we get into the details of each school. You may want to pull out notes made on your campus visit(s) because your on-site reactions to the campus and people are valuable.

Start by listing all the benefits of a particular school. (Just focus on benefits at this stage. DO NOT give in to the temptation to pencil in corresponding weaknesses at other schools as you go along.)

  1. Include academic benefits: particular majors or classes, unique courses, specific professors or programs, capstone options, J-term possibilities, and any reactions you had visiting with students or professors on campus.

In this case, what will your daughter major in if she doesn’t want music? Would she want to double major or minor in music if that’s a realistic possibility? What parts of the academic music program does she want to experience? Are there other classes, programs, courses of study, or general academic approaches she likes at this school?

  1. Include extracurricular or co-curricular benefits: teams or companies (include level of participation and your expected roll as a freshman), possible clubs or organizations of interest, required internships and other internship possibilities. The key here is to picture yourself on campus and describe in as much detail as possible your role in activities outside the classroom. You may have to dig to find answers.

Does your daughter hope to use her musical talent in an extracurricular activity? How likely is she to be able to get a part / position as a freshman? As a non-music major? Will a majority of music opportunities outside the classroom be reserved for music majors? Will it be harder for her to participate as a non-major? What about other activities or clubs not related to music?

  1. Include campus-living and social benefits: living-learning communities, off-campus fun, social organizations, campus recreation options, special dorms or campus housing perks. Here is where you list all benefits that are not academic or extracurricular. Some of these benefits might relate to the people and “feel” you got when on campus; that’s ok. You want a college where other students share your ideas of fun and will encourage and help you reach your goals.

What else did your daughter like about each school? Will living arrangements offer special opportunities? How does she picture herself spending her free time? Don’t overlook little things like good weather because small things experienced on a daily basis can be big. (Ask anyone who had to give up his or her regular coffee if little things matter!)

  1. Include feelings, prestige, and gut reactions. This is where its fine to say you just like the vibe on campus or that everyone else will be impressed with your choice. You can also say you feel safe being close to home (or that you are so glad to be far away!). Maybe you feel this school will do more to help you set up internships or engage in hands-on research. It might be that it is simply easier to talk to an actual person if you have a question.

Don’t discount your gut reaction.

How will your daughter feel at this particular school? How much will the school’s reputation for music matter if it is not her major? Does she feel confident at the idea of pursuing options at this school?

  1. Include practical considerations: cost, distance from home, ability to use AP, IB, or dual credit hours.

Once you have all the benefits listed, go back and list the weaknesses for each college. It has been my experience that the list of shortcomings is smaller if you do this as a separate step. Thinking of one school at a time, what do you wish this school had? What are the potential flaws? Are any of these problems enough to take a school off your list?

Narrow Your List

With all the information written down, you can begin eliminating schools from the list. Remember, these aren’t bad choices. Often these schools just don’t have as many benefits as some of the others on the list.

I like to approach this step by asking the student to eliminate his or her “lowest” option then asking everyone how it feels. If mom and dad can live with it, we take the choice off the list and continue. I like to give the student a lot of decision-making ability at this point, but I also allow for a parent “save” so mom and dad can keep their best option in the mix.

Ask Big Questions  

When you are down to the top two or three choices, it may be time to pause and ask some big questions. If you haven’t visited all of the remaining schools, I’d strongly encourage you to do so. Then spend some time as a family discussing these issues and any other questions you think need to be addressed.

  1. Is there a significant financial difference among these schools? If yes, spend some time with related questions. Is College X really worth $80,000 in loans? Or College Z costs $13,000 per year less; could we use that to get some experiences you think College Z lacks (for example take a year abroad with the money saved might make up for some other shortcomings.)
  1. Where will you feel most happy and encouraged to do your best work? Don’t overlook the intimidation that students often feel in highly competitive programs and don’t underestimate the value of feeling as if you belong academically and socially.
  1. Where do you want to be in five years? How will each school help you reach your goals? If you are planning to attend medical, law, or graduate school, will the cost of your undergraduate degree limit your ability to pay for future studies? If you haven’t asked, check on the post-graduation employment rate or graduate program admission rates.
  1. Which school will best serve the real you?

I usually explain this by admitting my own secret dream of being a modern day Martha Stewart where I grown my own organic vegetables, make beautiful floral arrangements, and have an eye for home décor. The reality is that I hate getting my hands dirty and working in the yard in the heat of the summer is my idea of torture. Add to that my complete lack of style and the real me has no business pursuing those Martha Stewart dreams.

Sometimes we approach college with the same disconnect from reality. Think about how you, with your personality, interests, and style of learning, will do at this particular institution.

Yes, College Y has a lot of opportunities, but are you the type of student who will seek them out and make them happen? Or would you be better off at College X where a lot of these opportunities are either built into class requirements (internships, research) or are so much of the school’s culture that everyone else will be doing them too. Sure, it sounds great to take the train into the city to see shows on the weekend, but if you are a stay-around-the-house type of person, then this benefit may not apply to you.

Make The Choice

After all your analysis and discussion, make a choice.

Then sit on that information for two or three days. (Which means your decision has to be made before the notification deadline.)

How do you feel? Hopefully, you can start to relax and settle into the good news. If after a couple days no one feels intense regret, congratulations, you have made your choice.

P. S. 

Keep in mind, there are only good choices, but if your initial choice doesn’t work out as planned, you always have options. Students can and do transfer schools. I left The George Washington University after my sophomore year and transferred to Rice University. If you find your initial college isn’t a good fit, you can change.

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