PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 173 | Rapid Fire Q&A (Part I)

Phil Black answers listener questions in a rapid-fire Q&A.

Show Notes:

In this episode, I answer a bunch of listener questions that have been accumulating for a few weeks.

Here's a sample of what I cover:

  • How many AP classes should I take?
  • Should I take AP Calc AB or BC?
  • Is it better to get a job or an internship?
  • How many hours of volunteer work do I need to be competitive at the Ivies?
  • Should I take the paper-based or digital SAT?
  • What's the difference in cost between a private, liberal arts college and an in-state college?
  • Do you like Harvard or Yale better?
  • What is the maximum amount of debt you would take on for a college education?
  • What are the most undervalued experiences that teenagers are not paying enough attention to?

Show Transcript:

[00:00:24] Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. Today, I'd like to start out with a rapid Q&A session. I have accumulated a bunch of questions over the last few weeks and my guess is that if one student or parent has the question, then there are probably several students and parents out there with the same questions. So we're going to do that. I'm going to answer them as quickly as possible. Get as many as I can. Let's jump right in. Question number one, how many AP classes should I take? Was no hard and fast rule here. You know, to figure out how many classes you should take, I would consider a few things. Number one, what type of colleges am I targeting? If I'm targeting super selective schools? Then I would probably air on the side of more apps versus fewer apps. I'd also consider how confident I was in how well I do in the classes. If I'm not confident because I'm not that strong academically or I have too many other things going on or I don't like the topic, then I would scale back. If you take these classes, you want to do well in them. Consideration number three. Will academics, quote unquote, be my main selling point to colleges? If yes, academics is all I really have, then I should probably push myself on those classes if no.

[00:01:49] And I have other things that are more impressive than just academics, then maybe I don't need to max out every single AP class. Question number two should I take AP, Calc A B or AP Calc B B.S.? All right. Well, similar to the answer I just gave, it depends on where your bread is buttered. If you're a math whiz and calculus comes easy to you and you want to be a physics major, then maybe you want to push the envelope and take calc B.S. If you think you might struggle mightily because you're more of a humanities person or you're a hybrid, then maybe you want to back off and stick with calc AB. The moral of the story here is pick your spots. You can't do everything, so do the things that will give you the most bang for your buck. And this takes some self-awareness and idea of how you plan to position yourself in your application. And if you haven't figured that part out yet, it may be worth it to sketch out your strengths and your weaknesses to figure out which direction you're heading. Question number three Is it better to get a paying job or take an internship? Well, it depends on what type of job and what type of internship and what your profile looks like. Getting a random job at American Girl in the mall is a fine thing to do. But if you aspire to be a doctor someday, for example, and the internship is at a hospital, then I'd strongly consider the internship because it's more aligned with at least your tentative long term vision. Yes, colleges like to see applicants who work, who make their own money. They show responsibility. But if it's completely unrelated to what you want to do long term, you're only going to get so much credit for it.

[00:03:43] Question number four How many hours of volunteer work do I need to be competitive at the Ivies? Well, first off, I have to dispute the premise of the question, which is that there are some threshold number or minimum number of hours of volunteer work required. Or wink, wink, nod, nod. Highly recommended by the Ivies. Or any college, for that matter. That's just not the case. I know there are some myths out there floating around that Ivy League schools or other highly selective schools somehow are really impressed by 250 hours worth of volunteer work. I don't want to question the value of any of these activities, but just understand that colleges will not be looking for some specific number of volunteer hours. They don't really care how many hours you volunteered. Any more or less so than they care about how much time you spent playing basketball or practicing the piano or writing your first novel. Now, having said that, if you want to go into social work or the Peace Corps or community activism, then yes, maybe community service hours would be more relevant for you. But don't think that racking up hours and hours at the local food bank will somehow confer extra super duper credit to you. And I'm not suggesting that you stop volunteering, but just don't do it because you think that you need to reach some magical, mystical number of hours that are going to impress an admissions officer. Now, as an aside, for those of you interested in service academies and ROTC programs, the amount of time volunteering and in community service activities will be more significant for you because it's germane to your future career. After all, military service is all about serving others. So community service and volunteer work would make more sense in those cases.

[00:05:43] Question number five Should I take the paper or the digital SAT? Well, as of this recording, the only group that this question really pertains to our current sophomores, They're the ones who are on the bubble. So if you're a super organized sophomore and you're academically motivated and you want to take a shot at some very selective schools, Ivy and the like, then I would highly encourage you to consider taking one of the final paper based SATs early in your junior year. That would be August, September, October. Because by the spring of your junior year, next year, it will be all digital all the time. And the reason I'd like you to take a paper based S.A.T. before it goes away completely is because it will be the last legitimate SAT score that you can get before the format change. Once everything goes digital next year, the scores from the new SATs won't have the track record. Or, in my opinion, the same level of credibility as the paper based tests. The new digital asset is shorter. You can use calculators on every math question. The long reading passages have been eliminated. In other words, it's been watered down. So to prove that you're super legit. Take one of the last paper based S.A.T.s and leave no doubt in the college's mind that you mean business. Question number six How well do I have to do on my S.A.T. to get merit aid at an Ivy League school? Again, we have a premise problem here in the question. There is no SAT score that will get you merit aid at an Ivy League school because Ivy League schools do not offer merit aid. The only financial aid that Ivies sometimes offer is need based aid, which is based on how much money you make as the student and how much your parents make annually, mostly as current income.

[00:07:43] Question number seven How does one classmate get into a highly selective college over another classmate despite having a lower SAT GPA and fewer leadership positions? Well, because those are not the only criteria that determine who gets admitted and who doesn't. Unless you read the other person's full application, you have no idea what else that student brought to the table. Maybe you have some idea, but maybe they took more challenging classes that you didn't know about. Maybe they wrote much better essays. Maybe they had killer letters of recommendation. Maybe they ran a website from their bedroom with hundreds of thousands of followers. Maybe they selected a major that the college really needed. Maybe they checked off a diversity equity and inclusion box that you weren't aware of. My point is superficial. Knowledge about a student's GPA, S.A.T. and general leadership positions hardly tells the whole story. And beyond that, maybe the reason was that they just ran out of spots at the school and that not everyone who's qualified will get into the school because there just aren't enough seats, there aren't enough beds, no matter the differential in grades or extracurriculars or otherwise. Question number eight What's the difference in cost between a private liberal arts college and in in-state college? Well, obviously, there are a lot of factors here to consider, but I would say as a rule of thumb. In state colleges will cost about half of what private liberal arts colleges will cost. For example, let's use Yale. Yale is a private liberal arts college in Connecticut, and it will cost about $90,000 a year. Now, compare that to the University of Connecticut, UConn, which is a state university. That's going to cost about $40,000 a year for a resident of Connecticut.

[00:09:41] So it's not exactly half. But just to give you a ballpark about how much the difference would be, I'd say it's about half. Question number nine, what do you think students are not paying enough attention to in the college admissions pipeline? What do you think students are not paying enough attention to in the college admissions pipeline? Probably their long term vision of where they'd like their life to go. I know this is a tough nut to crack because it's not easy for teens to think that far ahead. And there are not unfortunately, not that many occasions where teenagers are challenged to think about their future to any great extent. This is one thing that I bring up many, many, many times inside Prep Academy weekly videos. The vision that many teenagers have, in my experience, extends to only about freshman year in college. And that's it. Nothing beyond that. Most don't think deeply about what they want to study in college, why they want to study that topic, what their future prospects might be after college. They have a very short term and muddied picture about their future, which is why I think it's hard for them to make decisions about what school clubs to join, what they should do over the summer, what classes to take, what to majoring in, what colleges to even target. So I think putting some time into this type of reflection is probably more important than whether you got a 1450 or a 1480 on the S.A.T.. Even though I know that that's something that a lot of students will obsess about, or whether they have a 4.12 versus a 4.37 GPA. In the big scheme of things, these details won't matter nearly as much as the time that you spend thinking about what you care about, what you value, what type of life you want to lead, and how you want to walk through life.

[00:11:34] Question number ten. Did you like Yale or Harvard better? Well, I like them both a lot, but. I was only at Harvard for two years for business school, so it was a much different experience. I was older at business school, so I would have to give the nod to Yale, mostly because I spent so much more time there. And it's really tough to beat your undergraduate experience. Question number 11. So far, you've helped three of your four sons get through the college admissions process. What is your advice for your fourth son now that you have all of this personal experience? Well, my advice is for him to try to find his lane and once he does, to go all in. If you're dillydallying around and not putting any thought into what you're interested in, what types of colleges you're interested in, what kind of college experience you're interested in, what you might want to do after college, then it will be really tough to become a compelling candidate. So we have those conversations a lot. And luckily for him, he's got a few good role models to look up to and his older brothers. And, you know, presumably he'll make his way. Question number 12, if you could only pick one word to describe the key to tackling the college admissions process, what word would it be? I'd say the word is early. Question number 13. What is the maximum you would pay for a college education? Given that some colleges now cost close to $400,000 to attend. Ooh, that's a tough one. Obviously, there are a lot of conditions that I have to think through. Here are some of the questions that would come to mind. Question number one, how much could I pay for and how much would I have to take out in loans? In other words, did my grandparents leave me $200,000 in a college fund and I'd be left with $200,000 in school loans? Another question I would ask.

[00:13:39] What colleges are we talking about here? Are we talking about Harvard, where a six week summer internship would pay me 40 or 50 grand? Or are we talking about Bates College? They're both going to cost about the same, but the potential earnings are going to be vastly different between the two. What else would I think about? Well, what type of career am I aspiring to? Am I intent on becoming a master of the universe private equity investor, or am I more inclined to work in a city or a federal government position? Now, those would be the main drivers. I would want to know how much debt would I be taking on, what type of school I would be attending for that cost and for that debt and what kind of career would I be pursuing? So let me give let me give some extreme examples. On the high end, I might consider taking on 250,000 of student loans. If I was going to Wharton and if I was dead set on pursuing a high paying career in finance, private equity or investment banking on the low end, however, I might consider taking on maybe $25,000 of student loans total. If I was going to a less prestigious college and if my plan was to get a job in the government or as a teacher or some mid-level corporate manager somewhere, what I would not do under any circumstances is take on 50 75,000 $100,000 plus in student loans with absolutely no plan with respect to college or career. That is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that's the game plan for many students, and it's creating a lot of problems and it's really a shame. And question number 14, What is the one quality that you see in your private prep? Well, students, that translates into a successful college admissions experience.

[00:15:40] I would say self-awareness. And with that, I think we're going to wrap up. I have a bunch more. I think I'll stop here. Maybe we'll go with a part two next week because we still have a couple of really good questions out there. So tune in next week for a part two. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies, online mentoring program or high schoolers, and their parents receive weekly videos from me where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in PrepWell Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Remember, registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or a sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child, for their specific grade, with their specific goals in mind, go to and enroll today. And if you know a parent with a middle school or high schooler that might find this helpful, please share the episode with that and give us a rating too if you get a chance. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a much wider audience. If you have questions, comments, or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email. Demi on Instagram. Check out our blog, our Facebook page, Connect with me on LinkedIn.

[00:17:15] I would love to hear from you. Until next week, goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing. This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your ninth or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact, where I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game to get these valuable lessons into your child's hands. Please head over to and enroll your child today.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

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