Meet The SAT’s Environmental Context Dashboard

There is a new SAT score that colleges will see on your student’s college applications this fall and beyond. The Environmental Context Dashboard (aka, The Adversity Score) has quietly been used by a few colleges (including Duke, Yale, and Florida State) but many more colleges (100-150) will be seeing this score in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle.  

As the debate continues over the predictive value and fairness of the test, the SAT’s intent is to offer colleges information about a student’s socioeconomic and educational environment; thereby helping colleges understand how much of an achievement a student’s SAT score is in light of their background. Students, parents, and high school counselors, however, will not be able to see the score attached to students’ files.

How is it calculated? The ECD index has three components (see photo below). The first attempts to put SAT scores in context using the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile of SAT scores from the student’s high school (3-year average). The second includes information on the high school, including senior class size; percentage of students who meet federal eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price lunch; rurality/urbanicity; and average first-year SAT score of colleges students from that high school attend, the percentage of seniors taking an AP Exam, average number of AP Exams taken, average AP score from that high school, and the number of unique AP Exams administered at that high school (3-year average).

Finally, the score considers contextual data on the neighborhood and high school environment, measuring both the neighborhood and high school environment that the student comes from. This information includes Median Income & Poverty, Single Parent Households percentage, Education Levels, Housing Statistics, and FBI Crime Statistics, and is calculated using data drawn from a combination of publicly available sources (e.g., NCES and U.S. Census Bureau), and aggregated College Board data. The neighborhood and high school measures are rated on a nationally normed scale between 1 and 100. The two scores are averaged to get the ECD index score, with 1 indicating low “adversity” and 100 meaning the most.

The Environmental Context Dashboard

Every student in the same neighborhood gets the same score, and every student in the same school gets the same score. However, the Dashboard and resulting index are currently only visible to colleges.

Even though race is not a factor in the formula, colleges using it report that students with higher index scores are “more likely to be students of color” (John Barnhill, Florida State University’s assistant vice president for academic affairs). Proponents of the new index hope it will help colleges find “diamonds in the rough”, recognizing students relative achievement and potential for future success, instead of expecting all students to reach the same bar.

The index is not without its critics, including, with many questioning the need for a tool that runs the risk of being taken at face value without individual context. “Promotion of ‘adversity scores’ is the latest attempt by the College Board to defend the SAT against increasingly well-documented critiques of the negative consequences of relying on admissions test results,” according to Robert Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). Others add, “If the score on your standardized test requires a separate algorithm to determine if the score is actually a valid measure of ability, then perhaps it’s time to fix the test itself rather than contextualize its scores.”

College admissions staff already work hard to understand a student within the context and environment they come from and their evaluations often use more nuanced information than a standardized score can offer. However, colleges that are currently using the score appreciate its ability to bring certain students to their attention that might otherwise have been missed.

David Coleman from the College Board responded to criticism about the new score and to the inherent flaws in the calculations. “The score is a measure of your achievement but it doesn’t measure what you’ve overcome and the situation you have achieved that in. How resourceful are you and have you done more with less?” But even David Coleman agrees that the Environmental Context score is not a measure of individual adversity, as students in affluent zip codes may have overcome plenty of academic and personal obstacles; likewise, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds may have received scholarships to attend a school with a “low adversity” score.

The ACT, while admiring (the SAT’s) good intentions, announced the organization does not think it is a good idea. Michael Roorda (the ACT’s CEO) commented, “Scores that affect students’ futures require transparency, validity, and fairness. The algorithm and research behind this adversity score have not been published. It is basically a black box….and is another example of not being transparent.” He goes on to state what we are all thinking, “If parents, teachers, and counselors know test scores will be re-equated for adversity, some will attempt to manipulate and game the system. That is easy: You can use an address of someone you know who is living in a poor neighborhood or report lower family income.”

Most people agree that students who have faced adversity should be acknowledged for their achievements in context. Those taking the SAT will have to trust (hope) that the data is used not as an unfailing numerical piece of information, but as a possible sign that admissions staff should look deeper into a student’s background when viewing their accomplishments. It remains to be seen if the SAT’s new college offering is the right tool to help, and if it can do so without creating more unscrupulous opportunities.

Stories Behind the College Sweatshirt


College Decision Day is here! It is certainly exciting to see social media posts with happy students excitedly sporting their college swag and reading about how proud parents are of their children and their accomplishments. Students should be excited, and parents should be proud of them. There is nothing better for a parent than to see their child succeed, be recognized, and triumph over struggles or challenges. But the tradition of having students sport their chosen college sweatshirt on May 1st doesn’t give students (or parents) the opportunity to share their whole, unique stories, nor does it advertise all they are accomplishing by choosing the name on their sweatshirt.

Today, some students will be donning sweatshirts with the names of highly selective and prestigious schools. These students will receive wide-eyed and amazed responses such as, “Wow! How did you get in there?” These focused and driven students have worked extremely hard are doing amazingly impressive things, while balancing multiple tasks and pressures with grace and tenacity.

There are also students that will be sporting sweatshirts with names of colleges that people might not recognize, and they might not receive the same gushing admiration as the prestigious shirt-wearers. Yet their stories and accomplishments are just as important. These students might have stories about hurdles they had to overcome and chose a college that honors and supports their learning styles, or where they earned a great scholarship and will graduate with zero debt that will set them up for opportunities down the road; or where they get two years to explore majors before having to decide their future path.

Other students will be wearing state school sweatshirts and will likely have a lot of company in hearing, “Oh, good for you,” or “Your mom must be happy you are staying close by.” These students will have multiple different reasons for choosing to “stay in-state” but all of them will share the fact that this was “the best choice for them because….” There will also be students not sporting a college sweatshirt. Maybe they are late bloomers taking a Gap Year, or maybe their talents are more applied in nature than in the classroom.

Students’ future success is based more on their individual characteristics than it is about where they go to college. But choosing to go to a college where a student feels they belong and where they will feel supported is critical to their mental health. Additionally, it is equally important that students and families understand the risks associated with student loan debt, and choose a financially-fit college for their family situation. That might be at an Ivy League school, or it might be a liberal arts college, or it might be starting at a community college. With colleges reporting the rates of mental health issues among students on the rise, it is extremely important for students to honor all of their needs when choosing a college, and for the rest of us to applaud them for doing so.

Regardless of what name is or is not on a student’s chest on May 1st, there are important reasons and stories behind each decision. When I work with students on putting together their list of best-fit colleges, we not only examine what college qualities they are searching for, but we also examine what they value. Sweatshirts don’t always tell the world that a student has gotten into the very best school that supports his/her values. They don’t say, “I will get to pursue chemical engineering here, and get to study abroad, and play my favorite sport.” They don’t print, “Will graduate with zero debt”, “Will be accepted for my….” or “Will have great academic support for my learning disability here.”

As we celebrate “Decision Day”, I encourage everyone to remember that regardless of college rankings, most students are wise enough to choose a college not based on an arbitrary list, but rather based on their stories and their values. Congratulations to all seniors! I look forward to seeing a thousand different names on sweatshirts today.


OSU: Will graduate from state honors college and two, 6-month paid co-op internships in Computer Science.


Tips For High School Seniors

senior-unsplashCongratulations to high school seniors on your college acceptances and (hopefully) deciding on your college of choice.  With College Decision Day coming up on May 1st, here are few reminders before you proudly sport your college sweatshirt and officially get Senioritis!

  1. Notify other colleges

Most colleges make it easy to let them know you will not be attending in the fall. By turning down the admission offer, it could open up a spot for someone on the waitlist. It is also professional and nice for you to let colleges and admission officers know you will not be attending. Plus, the colleges should take you off their mailing lists and you’ll stop receiving communications from them that you do not need.

  1. Thank everyone

There are probably many people who helped you sometime during the college admission process. Some of the helpers may include your school counselor, teachers, letter of recommendation writers, coaches, parents, and family members. It was a long process and a lot of people helped. Thank them for their help and let them know where you will be attending in the fall. Let your helpers celebrate your success and future plans.

  1. Submit housing paperwork and deposit

Many colleges have deadlines to get the housing application in to guarantee your housing spot in the fall. Pay attention to the deadlines and submit all required housing documents prior to the deadline. You should also make sure you are honest when filling out the housing questionnaire. It is important for you to answer the questions about who you are and not who you think you are or who you want to be. For example, if you are a little messy, don’t say you are neat. The questions on the housing application will help the housing office match you with a roommate who has similar habits. When students have polar opposites habits, such as sleep patterns, it could cause some conflicts.

  1. Watch your email and mailbox

The college may contact you to request information over the summer. The requests might have deadlines and are sometimes non-negotiable. Therefore, make sure you open every piece of mail and every email from the college to ensure you respond to any request they may have. Missing a deadline or not submitting a requested document could jeopardize your enrollment in the fall.

  1. Update Financial Aid

If any information was incorrect when you filled out the FAFSA, log back in and make changes. In addition, if the college is requesting any financial aid documents, such as tax forms, send in the documents right away. If you’re like many students, the financial aid award letter played a large role in your final college decision. Therefore, make sure the financial aid office has every they need by the date they need it because if they don’t receive everything, your financial aid may be affected. In addition, if your finances have changed, make sure to contact the financial aid office to discuss special circumstances. Continue reading

It’s College Fair Season

travelThe weather is heating up and so are colleges’ travel calendars. As colleges wrap up their Class of 2023 students (2019 high school graduates), they are heading back out on the road to market their colleges to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. A college fair is a great educational opportunity for students and parents as well as an opportunity for students to demonstrate interest in a college (as your attendance and communication with individual colleges are tracked). The fair can be overwhelming if you don’t have a plan, so keep reading to learn about tips to make the most of your college fair visit, as well as a list of upcoming college fairs and events.

It is a good idea to decide on some schools in advance that you want to check out and to head to those tables first. Do some basic internet research ahead of time, so that you are not asking questions that have readily available answers on the school website. If a parent is unavailable, go with a friend. Have the friend take notes for you while you are talking about your interests and asking questions. You do the same for her/him. Once you have spoken with a few colleges, it’s easy to get confused about which college had which program. These notes will help you when it comes to filling out college applications, so keep them in a place where you can find them and be sure to record the date you spoke with the rep and get his/her name.

Walk up to the college’s table/booth. Shake hands firmly with the admissions representative. Offer your name, graduation year and your school, and make sure you have them scan your barcode.

Potential questions to get you started:

  • What can you tell me about your _______________ department/program?
  • What are some distinctive, special or unique programs to your college?
  • What type of students do well at your school? What kind of student finds it a poor fit?
  • What programs do you offer to help first-year students adjust to college?
  • What programs do you have that serve (insert your needs/background here)?
  • What kind of tutoring or academic help is available?
  • Do you have any special housing options?
  • What do students do for fun on campus? (Ask about specific clubs or activities in which you are interested).
  • Do you offer buses or transportation to a city or other off-campus programs?
  • Do you offer Greek (fraternities & sororities) life? What percentage of students participates?
  • Does your school meet full demonstrated need? If not, what percent of need do you typically meet? What percentage of students receive merit aid? Is there an early scholarship deadline? What is the average debt of graduating students?
  • What companies recruit on campus for __________ majors? Where do students get hired?

handshake.jpgShare your interests, as it will allow the representative to highlight programs in which you may have interest.

Grab his/her business card and send a thank you email when you get home. Let the rep know what you appreciated learning about the school. Make sure to check your grammar and spelling. Continue reading

UK University Tour


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Each year, I work with students curious about attending colleges outside of the US, and they are most often interested in Canadian or UK universities. So, I jumped at the invitation this past February to join a group of 30 US and international college counselors on a 6-day Northern England University Tour that included nine UK universities: Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Durham University, University of Leeds, Sheffield Hallam University, University of Sheffield, University of Manchester, Liverpool John Moores University, and the University of Chester. My trip concluded with a day in London to network with 21 London university representatives (including Imperial College London, University of Exeter, University of Liverpool, and the University of Nottingham) as well as attend a UCAS application workshop (the application used by most UK universities).

It was an incredible trip, as not only did I get to see the beautiful English countryside, Medieval castles, and diverse universities, but I also learned a lot about what kind of student would and would not be a good fit for earning their undergraduate degree abroad. Below is a quick summary of the most important things I learned about the differences between the UK system and the US system.

Things I learned:

1-Students in the UK finish their degree in three years instead of four. UK degrees do not include general education requirements or university core curriculums. Instead, students jump right into their course (major), so the degree length is shortened. Master’s programs are one year in length instead of two. For students wanting more than just a study abroad semester but are not quite ready to be abroad for three years immediately after high school graduation, a one-year master’s program abroad is a great option to consider.

2-Students need to know what they want to study when applying to UK universities, as students apply to specific colleges and often specific courses of study. Additionally, it is unlikely that a student can change colleges once they have applied. Students might be able to change courses (majors) within a college early on, but it is not guaranteed. Some colleges offer “dual honors” where students can study multiple subjects, but this is usually only offered in the College of Arts and Social Sciences. Since at least one-third of US undergraduates change their major at least once (according to Inside Higher Education), this is important to consider before applying to UK universities.

3-Since students apply to a specific college or course, each course can have different admission requirements. Some courses (majors) have higher academic requirements than others. Additionally, students are mostly surrounded by students within their specific college in both their housing and their classes; this is in contrast to US universities, where students take more than half of their classes (general education courses plus electives) with students from different colleges and disciplines.

4-When students write their admission essay on the UCAS (UK) application, they should not write an insightful, “slice of life” story demonstrating their character like they are asked to do on US applications. UK universities and colleges want students to advocate for why they are a good fit for the academic course they are selecting.

5-The grading system is very different. In the UK, university grades are given on a percentage scale. Anything below 40% is a fail; 40-50% is a Third; 50-60% is a 2.2; 60-70% is a 2.1, and anything over 70% is a First. A student might be told that a good grade is 60% or above and that an excellent grade is 70% or above. Additionally, students are not regularly quizzed or graded on multiple assignments and tests. Students in the UK might receive a course grade for only one or two comprehensive exams.

6-Accommodations are different. In the US, it is part of the first-year experience to share a room with a randomly-assigned roommate and survive at least a year of dining hall food. In the UK, most “accommodations” are single rooms with a small kitchen. It is rare for students to have meal plans, as they do in the US. There are food venues on campuses, but most students live in self-catered housing where they are responsible for their own meals.

7-The legal drinking age in the UK is 18, and university students are known for their Pub Runs. Students should be prepared to take it slow. Read more here for social tips.

8-The cost of an education in the UK can often be less expensive, especially given the shortened length of time to graduation. In the UK, the government sets the limits for tuition fees, and each individual school sets its own fee up to that limit. According to a law passed in 2012, universities in England may charge up to £9000 (approximately $14,300) per year for UK residents. Fees for international students can be higher, and accommodation costs vary widely, so you need to do your homework. In the United States, the government has very little control over higher education costs, and instead let supply and demand dictate what universities charge and what they discount for merit, financial need, or talent.

9-Athletics are part of the social life here, but athletes are not treated with as much reverence as they are at US colleges. Top athletes in the UK are removed from the traditional education experience earlier, so student-athletes that attend UK universities all prioritize their academics over athletics. Most athletes join teams in a more casual way (coming to tryouts the week prior to classes), and athletic scholarships are very small in comparison to the US athletic scholarship system. UK university athletes are part of the general population instead of having separate dining halls and housing, and athletic facilities do not have the bells and whistles or high-tech amenities that US colleges use to attract recruits.

10-Students studying the UK need to be very independent. Students at UK universities do not rely on administrative staff for support and direction as much as students have been trained to do in the US. For the right student, a UK education could be a wonderful experience and education.

For summaries of each of the universities I visited, visit my website’s College Visits page later this month or contact me for a consultation.


The College Admissions Scandal – 3/13/19

Dear College Bound & Ready Friends and Families,

I am sure you have been hearing about the College Admission scandal that the FBI has been investigating and that broke open yesterday. I have been getting inquiries from families and friends on how I feel about the news, and so I want to share with you my thoughts.

First of all, sadly, I am not surprised. There are people that game every industry, every selection process and every system. Being in the college admissions business, there are a lot of things that I do not like about the industry, but I take solace in working hard to help students understand themselves better, articulate what they need or want to succeed, and in putting their best selves in front of good-fit colleges.

I don’t like that colleges are using Early Decision more and more as a tool to increase their rankings and selectivity. I don’t love that standardized tests are such a prominent piece of the admissions process, and I don’t like that students are often asked to decide what they “want to do when they grow up” when they are just beginning to grow and mature.  My job exists because of some of these strategies and complicated systems that colleges use in admissions, but I don’t love the systems and the strategies. I love helping students.

However, this is the current landscape, and I take ownership in helping families understand the process and their choices. It is similar to using an accountant to help you understand the current tax laws and what you can ethically deduct and what you cannot. I, like the vast majority of independent educational consultants (IECs), abide by the Ethical Standards of Conduct set forth by the associations I belong to. As a member of the Higher Educational Consultants Association, we have to pass an Ethics “situation” quiz as part of our yearly membership renewal.

Additionally, I am very mindful of the thin line between helping guide a student and taking over any part of the process, including not over-editing essays and not allowing exaggeration on resumes or lying on applications. I review every essay and every application and ask questions when I see something on paper that I have not seen with my own eyes. I focus on knowing the landscape but playing by the rules not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because I think it sends a very harmful message to students that they are not good enough to do it on their own or not wonderful enough as they truly are, which is the message when someone else does otherwise. I feel sorry for the kids involved in this scandal, as the message their parents are sending is that they need mom and dad’s help to succeed. I also feel sorry for all the kids and parents that play by the rules, and now might feel like they were cheated out of something they might have earned.

Some of you may be worried about how it might look to a college if they found out your student was using a college consultant given the current scandal. I can assure you that most colleges are very welcoming to any resource a student has to help them find their best fit colleges. One of biggest parts of our jobs as IECs (Independent Educational Consultants) is to travel to 30+ colleges per year and meet with many more college admissions representatives when they travel through town to learn about new programs and offerings. We (IECs) then share with students colleges and opportunities that they may have never found on their own. Colleges love this about college consultants! In fact, just this morning, I met with a college admission representative who contacted me to meet for coffee.

The relationships I build with college admissions representatives are built on honesty and mutual respect, as we both want the same thing: for a student to find and thrive in a good-fit college.  There are some very selective colleges that are not very IEC friendly, and I know who they are and I approach those relationships and communications differently to protect the student from this negative bias. I am sure the recent scandal will not help these relationships (between elite colleges and IECs), but again, IECs exist because of how complicated and stressful the college admissions process has become.

I am sometimes asked by prospective families what schools I am most proud of getting my students into. First of all, I explain that admissions are solely at the discretion of the colleges. Secondly, I share this perspective, “Every student comes to me with different circumstances, priorities, values, and needs. I do not judge my success on a list of schools, but rather on whether or not the student has felt empowered and more confident by working with me, as well as whether or not they are successful in college.” To date, I have only had one student in five years transfer out of their original institution, and many parents tell me that working with me was a confidence builder for their child. This is what I am most proud of: helping students thrive.

In the days and weeks to come, I am sure more details and horror stories about how some greedy families and individuals tried to find “side doors” into elite colleges. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with concerns or questions about what you hear. In the meantime, I will continue working hard to help your students feel excited about their future.

With gratitude,

Kristen Miller

College Bound & Ready, LLC


Early Decision & College Admissions

danielle-macinnes-222441-unsplash-beginGrab a cup of tea or coffee, and please don’t blame the messenger! This blog contains important but not necessarily great information that families should understand early on in the college planning process that might help to explain why selective colleges are rapidly becoming more selective and why it is difficult to get merit scholarships at selective colleges.

If you or your student will be applying to highly selective schools (schools that admit less than 25% of their applicants) you should be aware of the increased utilization of Early Decision by selective colleges. If your student is not considering any highly selective schools, you can enjoy your coffee without reading the rest of this blog.

Early Decision is a binding agreement that students make with one college, where if they are admitted they will attend that school and withdraw all other applications without waiting to find out if they were admitted elsewhere or what aid (need or merit) is offered.

This is not a “strategy” to use if you want your student to compete for scholarships as well as admission. However, it is important to understand this “strategy”, as it is becoming more of strategy for both students/families without financial need to increase admission chances, as well as for colleges to secure a guaranteed portion of their incoming class.

Colleges that use Early Decision do not have to guess whether or not these students will accept their admission offers, because students being admitted through ED are required to attend that school, except in very specific situations. This means that colleges will have a higher admission yield (percent of students that accept a college’s offer), which improves college rankings. Colleges also know that a large portion of Early Decision applicants will be full-pay applicants (will not have financial need), as these students give up the opportunity to compare scholarship/aid offers if they are admitted to their ED school. In addition, most highly selective schools do not offer (or offer very little) merit scholarships, as all students are meritorious (high grades, test scores, and extracurricular achievements).

Most students and families do not want to give up the opportunity to compete for scholarships and/or compare need-based aid offers unless one of four things: Continue reading