About college counseling & Educational planning

Academic Angle college counseling testimonials from students and parents

College admissions has changed dramatically.  When the parents of today’s high school students applied to college, the process was fairly cut-and-dry with 3-4x higher rates of admission. While traditional metrics like good grades and test scores are still important, they are no longer enough to guarantee success in selective college admissions. We help our students self-market themselves to the best of their ability and successfully navigate the modern, uber-competitive landscape of holistic admissions.

We provide one-to-one individualized attention. Most school-based guidance counselors would like to spend more time with students, but their caseloads and other responsibilities like scheduling, testing, and social-emotional counseling are too large and time consuming. On average, high school students receive a total of 38 minutes of personal college admissions guidance from their high school counselors. In contrast, we work directly with our students for 30-40 hours!

We are knowledgeable professionals. While a tremendous amount of quantitative information is available on the Internet, we are able to provide qualitative analysis and make informed suggestions. We also reassure our students and parents that there are great college choices for everyone, and help reduce anxiety for everyone. We also empower our students to take ownership of the application process and leave nothing on the table. As a result, Academic Angle students successfully navigate the college process with confidence and clarity. 

We offer a good return on your investment. Tapping into our knowledge, expertise, and extensive experience guiding families in making decisions about college can mean the difference between a really good match and a less than successful college experience. Because we focus on building a balanced, best-fit college list, our students are happy with their choices and many earn sizable scholarship offers. As a result, they’re also less likely to transfer and more likely to graduate on time.

The best time is whenever you’re ready!  Most students come to us during sophomore of junior year, but we’re happy to meet with you at any time, beginning as early as freshman year.  If you’d like to set up an initial consultation, complete the application and schedule a meeting with us.  We look forward to evaluating your needs, wants, and expectations and drawing up a plan to help you achieve your goals!

Karl Lenss, our Director of College Counseling, is one of only ten AICEP-Board Certified Educational Planners in the state of Illinois. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and is a member of both the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).  He’s also a licensed teacher and school administrator, and holds a specialized College Counseling Certificate from UC San Diego.

Our associate counselors are all required to be members of IECA, which requires a master’s degree, at least three years’ admissions counseling experience, and experience working with scores of students before they can work as counselors with our students.

Beware of any IEC’s that are part-time moonlighters without memberships with organizations like AICEP, IECA, NACAC or HECA.  Members of these organizations are held to high ethical and professional development standards!

We know so much because we visit colleges as often as we can. IECA member consultants are required to have extensive campus visits—they have visited, on average, over 150 campuses each.   When we’re not working with our students, we spend a lot of time on the road.  In 2019-20 (prior to COVID), Karl visited almost 60 colleges in that one-year timespan alone!

During our visits we not only take part in info sessions and campus tours, but also make it a point to meet one-to-one with admissions directors to personally understand the culture and selection criteria of the college.  These meetings provide the details necessary to understand the academic and social-emotional factors that impact student success.  We also learn a lot about how schools parallel, overlap, and differentiate themselves from other colleges. We then share this information with our client families!

Yes we do!

We have a stellar track record of teaching our students how to master SAT/ACT exam content and execution strategies to the best of their ability. More information can be found on our test prep page by clicking here.

Absolutely!  We teach all of our students about the different types of aid available and how to position themselves to qualify for the highest award amounts possible.  If scholarships require separate applications or supplemental essays, we are happy to help in those areas as well. 

Our students and counselors primarily use a web-based program called Custom College Plan™ (CCP) to communicate with each other via email and text message. Custom College Plan™ is the best college process management system available to students, and all subscription costs are included for students enrolled in our programs.  Students and parents can also link their smartphone device to the student calendar to keep track of appointments, deadlines, and other reminders.   

Of course, we also welcome communication from parents and students via phone or personal email!  

Seeking the services of an independent educational consultant can be the wisest investment a family can make!  Depending on the program, most families invest between $2500 and $5000, amounting to less than 3% of a four-year college tuition bill.

Our phased approach already breaks the process into manageable chunks, but depending on your situation, we can offer additional flexibility with payments.  Contact us directly at to request a modification to your plan.

Yes!  We’ve done seminars, webinars, and  presentations in partnership with businesses, schools and community organizations around the US, as well as overseas in Europe and Asia.

If you’d like to schedule a presentation for your business, school or organization, reach out to us via email at

about Exploring Colleges


Before you begin exploring, develop a list of criteria that your ideal college would offer.  Consider academic factors like the major you want to study, teaching style, professor accessibility, and how much stress, pressure and challenge you would like to have.  Don’t forget about other academic programs like research, internships, study-abroad, and guidance or mentorship programs!   Also consider social-emotional factors like the type of people you would like to surround yourself with and your ideal balance between work and play.  

Once you know what you’re looking for, cast a wide search net using online resources like Cappex, College Navigator and Big Future.  Once you’re ready to narrow the cone of your research, dive deep into college websites, search books like the Fiske Guide to Colleges, and other online blogs & resources like  You can also try other resources like College Confidential, College Data, and College Raptor.

Once your list is growing, be sure to participate in online virtual tours and information sessions, and make plans to physically visit the colleges that interest you most!

Don’t forget to always keep your key criteria at the forefront of the search process.  Every school on your list should satisfy (almost) all of your needs and wants.  Balance is important too – make sure to reach high but also make sure to consider several “safer” options that also satisfy your goals. If you need help creating your college list, make sure to talk to a Certified Educational Planner!  

An in-person college visit is the best way to answer the question of whether or not a school and campus environment is truly a best-fit for you. Before making travel plans,  consider a virtual visit (info session & tour) online to vet the environment without having to step foot on campus.  If you like what you see and hear, make plans to visit in-person!  

Prepare for your visit: Almost all campus visits need to be scheduled in advance online. If you can’t find the information you need on the college’s website, call the admissions office for more information.  Brush up on your knowledge about the college by using the college website, search books, and conversations with your college counselor so that you can focus on the things that matter most to you during your visit.  You might also have the opportunity to talk directly to an admissions counselor, so be sure to prepare a list of smart, school-specific (non-googleable) questions about the school that you want answered.  

During the visit: On the day of your visit, make sure to follow any directions the college has sent to you, like when/where to arrive and where to park.  Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring along a water bottle.  Over time, college visits tend to blend into one another, so take lots of notes and pictures so that you can reflect on them later!  Also remember that not every guide is the best college salesperson!  Don’t let a lackluster visit experience completely ruin your impression of a college.  

After your visit: Make a list of pros and cons about the college and follow up with and thank anyone important that you met.  You never know how far a genuine thank you might take you!

The US Department of Education has a really good online database that can be found by clicking here! 

Liberal arts colleges are institutions that primarily focus on undergraduate education and earning a bachelor’s degree. As such, LAC’s focus on broad knowledge in areas like humanities, sciences and social sciences.  LAC’s also emphasize the development of strong intellectual and practical skills no matter what you choose to study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world situations.  Because most LAC’s are small (under 3000 students), students are able to develop close working relationships with their peers and professors. Contrary to popular belief, LAC’s can be just as good at preparing you for preprofessional tracks like medicine, law, and business as large research institutions!

If you think a liberal arts college might be a good fit for you, consider exploring the Colleges That Change Lives,  a consortium of 40 small LAC’s that are well-known for their outstanding teaching and dedication to undergraduate education.

Catholic colleges blend a traditional college education with faith and service.  A comprehensive list of all Catholic (including Catholic Jesuit) college options can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Hillel offers a search engine with data on a variety of aspects of Jewish life at different colleges and universities around the country.

about Testing and Test Prep


It depends.  

Prior to COVID, most colleges and universities required either the ACT or SAT for admission.  Because students did not have equitable access to testing, most colleges have adopted test-optional or test-flexible policies.  Some, like the University of California system, stopped accepting them entirely.  The number of test-optional, test-flexible, and test-blind colleges is growing fast!  FairTest maintains a list of four-year colleges and universities that do not require the SAT or the ACT for admission.  Compass also frequently updates their list of test-optional colleges.  These policies are constantly being reevaluated, so it is best to check the admissions office website for up-to-date information. 

While most students perform similarly on both exams, your learning style might be best suited for one exam or the other.  If you plan on taking the SAT or ACT, we recommend that you complete a diagnostic test to determine your test-taking preference for one exam or another.  Academic Angle offers the SAT/ACT Diagnostic and Comparison Test, and we’d be happy to get you set up if you’d like to take it!  We’ll even toss in a free consultation/evaluation.  Contact us for details!

If you’re not a good test taker, or you believe that your test score doesn’t accurately reflect your knowledge or ability, you may want to consider applying to colleges with test-optional policies. 

Confused?  Contact an Academic Angle Certified Educational Planner today!

While both exams are fairly similar, some major differences do exist.  Overall, the SAT tests a more finite amount of knowledge and offers more time per question, making it the easier exam to prep for. 

Number of sections: The ACT has 4 major sections: English, Math, Reading and Science.  The SAT has 2 major sections: English (Reading, Writing, and Language) and Math (both calculator & no calculator)

Time per question: SAT students get 50% more time per question than on the ACT.

Multiple choice options: 4 on SAT, 5 on ACT.  Much more difficult to guess on the ACT!

Math differences: Math is 50% of SAT score, but only 25% of ACT score.  20% of the SAT is a non-calculator math and/or grid-in questions where you need an exact answer. Up to 45% of the math section of the ACT is geometry, far more than the SAT. The ACT also requires students to demonstrate proficiency in trigonometry more so than the SAT.

English & Reading differences: Questions in the SAT reading section follow the text chronologically, while the ACT questions are in random order. ACT questions are all separate ideas, SAT questions tend to piggyback on one another. An example of this: the SAT asks evidence support questions like “which sentence in the text provides the most evidence to support the previous question”

Science differences: The SAT does not ask any science questions whatsoever.  

The best way to prepare for a high-stakes exam such as the SAT or ACT is one-to-one with a tutor trained in formatively assessing your progress.  Group classes are fine too, but consider that the teacher likely won’t have much time to focus on your personal test-taking weaknesses!  If you’re really disciplined, self-prep using a book with practice exams from Kaplan, Princeton Review, Petersons, or other reputable sources works very well too.

Any prep is better than no prep!  

Both the SAT and ACT also offer their own prep materials.  Khan Academy is the official prep partner of the SAT, offering a free video library covering over 3,000 educational topics including every math problem in the College Board’s “Official SAT Study Guide.”  The ACT also offers an official online prep program which can be accessed here. 

SAT test dates and registration deadlines can be found by clicking here.

ACT test dates and registration deadlines can be found by clicking here.  

Both exams release official test dates for the upcoming school year in the summer.  (SAT in June, ACT in July)

No!  The SAT discontinued Subject Exams formerly known as SAT II’s) a few years ago.  They are officially relegated to the annals of college admission history!

about Applying to College


First and foremost, students in 9th and 10th grade should be enjoying high school!  Take classes that interest you.  Join sports teams, become active in school clubs, and participate in activities outside of school, too!  Test drive as many interests as possible, so that you can narrow down your interests in 11th and 12th grade.  If you’re the type of person who is already into one subject or activity above all, immerse yourself in it to the highest degree possible!  Become an expert! 

Applying Early Decision (ED) means submitting a complete application by November of Senior Year. (usually by November 1) ED is a binding contract, and students may only submit an ED application to one school.  If a student is accepted ED, they promise to enroll and withdraw all other pending applications.  ED is ideal for students who want to attend one school above all, and are not interested in choosing between competing admissions offers and/or financial aid packages.  

Unlike ED, Early Action (EA) is not legally binding so students may defer their enrollment decision until they receive competing admission offers.  EA is a strong way to express interest in a college, therefore admission rates tend to be the higher than in the Regular Decision round. EA is ideal for students who are motivated to complete applications early and receive early offers, often prior to the new year.  Beware: some colleges like Princeton, Harvard, and Notre Dame have “restrictive” EA policies that disallow applying EA to multiple private schools.

A strong letter of recommendation might be enough to tip the college admissions scale in your favor!

Pick the right people: Throughout high school, try to develop quality relationships with teachers, administrators, mentors, coaches, and other people who value your contribution to them just as much as you value their influence on you. The most valuable recommendation letters always come from people that know you best!  

Provide them with information: The way you ask can directly influence the structure and content of your letter. Talk to your recommenders about why you’ve chosen them.  Remind them about things you’ve learned and accomplished as a result of the relationship you’ve developed with them.  Be sure to emphasize personal connections! Also provide each recommender with your resume and an outline of what you want them to write about. By providing them with the important content, you will end up with a letter that adds new dimension and perspective to your application!

Make it an easy process: Most recommendation letters these days are submitted online via Naviance or college websites. If the recommendation letter must be mailed, provide your recommender with instructions and a pre-addressed, stamped envelope. After you receive confirmation that the letter has been submitted, be sure to write a handwritten letter of thanks to show them that you appreciate the time they took out of their busy schedule to help you!

Your essay is your voice on the college application, and your best chance at standing out amongst the rest of the crowded field of applicants.  

The best advice I can give to you is to SHOW, don’t TELL. Be the main character of your essay. Tell a story about who you are and the way in which you interact with the world. Demonstrate your values and show your ability to learn from your mistakes and your drive to improve on your weaknesses. In regards to subject matter, stay away from common clichés, controversial or sensitive topics that could distract readers from learning about you. Feel free to ask for input from teachers, parents, and peers, but above all, make sure that the essay remains yours!

If you need help getting your essay off the ground, contact Academic Angle to set up a brainstorming session today!

Interviews are great ways to market yourself to a prospective college, university, or specific program. Some interviews are formal, for instance a sit-down meeting with an admissions officer during a school visit. Others can be completely informal, such as meeting over lunch or coffee with a recent grad or regional school representative. The admissions process is all about marketing yourself to prospective schools, so if you are offered the opportunity to participate in an interview, take advantage of it!

Every interview starts with the dreaded question: tell me about yourself?  Prepare a 60-90 second “elevator pitch” about yourself, your goals for college and beyond, and also about why you are interested in the college.  What you say in response to this question will likely set the tone for the rest of your conversation.  We’ve got some really good resources for students, so contact Academic Angle if you’d like a copy of our common interview questions worksheet!

Yes and no – it really depends on the college!  Some colleges will add anything you send them to your file, while others explicitly instruct applicants not to send anything more than the application and required materials.  

Additional information may include:

  • Student Resume
  • Creative Portfolio (Art, Music, Dance, Drama, Architecture, etc)
  • Additional letters of recommendation
  • Documents / abstracts related to research you have done

It is best to review the admissions website for more information. If you can’t find the college policy on supplemental information online, call the admissions office in question.  

Nowadays, there are very little differences between applications to different colleges.  Most applications require the same basic personal and academic information, counselor and teacher reccomendations, a personal statement essay, and perhaps a few more supplementary essays.  

The most common way to apply to college is via the Common App.  Common App is now used by 1000+ colleges.  Similar to Common App, the Coalition Application allows students to apply to 100+ colleges.  Most Coalition colleges are also on Common App.

Some states, like California, offer their own application system through which you can apply to all of the colleges in the state system.  Other colleges, like MIT and Georgetown, only offer one (their own) application.

No matter what application you submit, no college prefers one type of application or another.  Use whatever works best for you!


about Financial Aid and Scholarships


College is expensive!  Thankfully there are a few things high school students can do to increase the likelihood of receiving a scholarship for college.  Strategies include:

  • Consider attending a college where you are a top 5-10% applicant
  • Earning the highest grades possible (mostly A’s!) 
  • Scoring well on the SAT and/or ACT
  • Taking the most rigorous classes possible, like AP or IB courses, and performing well on exams.
  • Being an active participant and leader in community and service organizations
  • Participating in athletics, music, or art at a high level

Need aid comes in many forms, usually a combination of grants, scholarships, federally-backed loans and/or work-study opportunities that function to reduce the burden of paying full out-of-pocket tuition. Some need-aid, like loans, need to be paid back.  Other forms, like grants or need-scholarships, do not.  Federal aid is primarily calculated using the Free Application for Student Aid, aka the FAFSA.  Some colleges (particularly those with deeper pockets) offer institutional need aid and require students to complete the CSS/Profile.  We recommend you use the Federal Student Aid Estimator to get an idea of what federal aid you might qualify for.  Most colleges also offer tuition calculators like this one on their financial aid websites, which may or may not take into account institutional funding opportunities.

Merit aid (aka a scholarship) is essentially tuition-discounting to entice you to enroll upon receiving an offer of admission.  Merit aid is a gift and never needs to be paid back. Some merit scholarships come with stipulations like maintaining a certain GPA or full-time enrollment.  Some colleges give tons of merit aid, while others don’t offer a dime.  Jeff Selingo does a great job breaking down the data about why some colleges offer merit aid while others do not. Very informative and worth the read!

If you have additional questions on need vs merit aid, don’t hesitate to reach out!  Our strategies can definitely help you reduce the cost of college.

Even though applying for them may be time consuming, outside scholarships can also help defray the cost of your college education.  A few resources we like include:

Most of these resources collect your data and help match you to relevant scholarship opportunities.  

Don’t forget to leverage local opportunities as well!  High school counselors usually keep a list of community groups like the Rotary Club, American Legion, YMCA, etc. that might offer scholarships to students in your area.  Many large corporations such as Google, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Walgreens and Pepsi offer scholarships as well. (although they are SUPER competitive!)

Using the FAFSA to apply for federal aid is free and easy.  The FAFSA opens on October 1st of a students’ senior year. Navigate to to get the process started!  The earlier you complete it, the earlier you will have access to your actual Student Aid Index (SAI, formerly EFC) number. This number can be used to more accurately estimate college costs.

Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for federal grants or loans, many public and private colleges also use the form to award institutional grants and scholarships. An additional change this year called the National Emergency Clause stipulates that during a “qualifying national emergency,” financial aid administrators can revise an applicant’s financial status to reflect changes to parent unemployment. In other words, financial aid administrators now have the power to adjust the reported income from students, parents, and spouses during times of need. All applicants need to do is show receipt of unemployment benefits.

For this reason, Academic Angle recommends that most students file the FAFSA, regardless of financial need. No FAFSA filed means no federal aid, even if family financial circumstances change. Some colleges also require filing the FAFSA for merit scholarships. Keep in mind that filing the FAFSA is 100% your personal (or family) decision.

Before you file, you will need the following:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are a qualifying non-citizen)
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • A Federal Student Aid PIN and ID to sign electronically. 

Many colleges, universities, graduate and professional schools, and scholarship programs use information provided on the CSS Profile to award student aid funds.   A listing of participating institutions can be found here.  

If a college participates in CSS Profile, it must be submitted in addition to the FAFSA.  Both are required!

It depends on the college or university. Unfortunately, the far majority of institutions do not offer need or merit aid to international students.

Moreover, if aid is offered, the amount of aid available ebbs and flows each year, depending on the financial health of the university and institutional enrollment priorities.  International aid numbers are incredibly hard to predict!

A solid resource with historical aid numbers can be found here.  If you need help understanding the data, feel free to contact us for a consultation!

about Gap Years


Absolutely not!

Gap years have been a popular option in the rest of the world for years.  As long as you fill your gap year with work, service, trade-school, or other meaningful activity that helps you discover your interests and aptitudes, you will be in great shape.  

The best way to plan a gap year is under the guidance of an educational professional such as a counselor or Certified Educational Planner.  If you’d like to have a conversation about options available to you, make sure to contact us!

Also consider exploring the following resources:

Blogs & More

  • AICEP – American Institute of Certified Educational Planners
  • IECA – Independent Educational Consultants Association
  • NACAC – National Association for College Admissions Counseling
  • Inside Higher Ed – College articles and current events
  • High School Counselor Week – Weekly stories, facts, trends, and other information related to college from high school counselors
  • College Bound News – College news and information
  • College Parents of America – Membership organization of current and future college parents


*Data and language on this page has been sourced from organizations such as AICEP, NACAC and IECA.