Welcome to The Admission Game (TAG) College Planning Blog, an ongoing discussion of the factors that impact the college planning process. This space will keep you abreast of critical planning strategies, introduce you to key resources and comment on timely issues that relate to your college planning effort. I look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.
As we head into the summer months a new batch of college applicants is gearing up for their “admission marathon.” Despite great expectations, happy outcomes will be largely dependent on the student’s ability to stay focused academically while avoiding some of the common mistakes that doom otherwise very promising candidates. The reality is students need to make good choices, build relationships with colleges and manage expectations.
Make Good Choices The mistake: Many students assume they don’t have to worry about the admission process until they formally become applicants. The reality: Students become college applicants the day they become high school freshmen. Everything counts. In fact, every day presents opportunities for decision-making that will have a bearing on how you live the next day—and beyond.
Key areas of choice involve academic preparedness, extracurricular engagement and the application process itself. While it is not healthy—or practical—to obsess on any of these, students need to understand their accountability for good decision-making. Choosing well at every turn strengthens the student’s credential and reduces the potential for discriminating admission committees to say “no.”
Build Relationships with Colleges The mistake:Students don’t take advantage of opportunities to get on the “radar screens” of college admission officers before they submit their applications. The reality: Admission officers are looking for evidence of engaged interest. In fact, they are keeping track of a student’s interest from his/her first contact through the end of the admission process.
The solution is to demonstrate interest. As you get to know colleges, make sure you get credit for the things you do. Get credit for attending information sessions and visiting campuses by filling out information cards/forms. More importantly, take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate your understanding of the “fit” that exists between yourself and the institution.
A key person in this equation is the admission officer responsible for recruiting in your area. Turn to this person with important questions that are bound to emerge as you learn about the institution and begin to prepare your application. Ask thoughtful questions. Be respectful and judicious as you extend yourself. While you don’t want to come to be regarded as a pest, the last thing you want is for admission officers to question the depth or sincerity of your interest.
Manage Expectations The mistake:Students assume that the more “reach” schools to which they apply, the better are the chances of getting into at least one. The reality: It rarely works that way—especially if financial aid is needed. Not only is applying, somewhat arbitrarily, to a long list of schools likely to be an exercise in futility, it distracts students from giving quality attention to the applications they submit to colleges that represent the best fits for them.
It is important to avoid confusing admissibility with competitiveness at a given college. The odds are that you will be admissible—you can do the work in the classroom—at most of the colleges that materialize on your long list. Will you be competitive, however? Do you possess credentials that make you among the most highly valued candidates?
The key is to manage expectations. Target places that make sense for you—colleges where your credentials put you in the top half—if not the top quartile—of the admitted student profile from past entering classes. This will be an indicator that you are squarely on the “competitive playing field” at that school and you are more likely to be valued for what you have to offer academically.
In the final analysis, there can be no outcome guarantees in college planning—and it is not healthy nor constructive to regard the process as a matter of acquiring a prize or a particular “destination.” You can, however, be careful to avoid some of the common missteps that plague potential applicants each year and, in the process, remain diligent in searching out places that represent good fits for you. I will dedicate this space to a further discussion of “fit” in the coming weeks.
As the school year winds down, thousands of families are gearing up to start the college search and selection process in earnest. For many, the process includes plans to visit college campuses. The questions that often arise, however, are “When is the best time to visit?” and “What should we expect to accomplish?”
The answers are fairly straightforward. Visit when you can and soak up as much information as possible! Ideally, you would visit colleges when classes are in session and the campuses are full of life. That may not always be possible, though, so go when you can. The best opportunities may be around business trips, holiday travels or vacations.
And if such opportunities should occur early in the college planning process, go “window shopping.” See as many different kinds of places as you can—big schools, small schools, research universities, liberal arts colleges, urban campuses and places way out in the country. (When you are “window shopping,” you are less interested in buying and more interested in checking out the inventory.)
Visit as many colleges as you can while there is no pressure to “buy.” In doing so, you give yourself a broad perspective on what is “out there.” When it is time to buy, then, you know what you like and you know where to find it. As you visit the campuses, allow your senses to guide you. Ultimately, it will be a “sixth sense”—the proverbial “gut feeling” that will lead you to the places that suit you best.
So, pack up your “sixth sense” and get ready to enjoy the adventure found in “window shopping” college campuses. The following are tips that will help you get the most out of your campus visits—wherever you go!
1. Take advantage of everything the school has to offer. If an interview is offered, take it! Take a tour. Visit an academic department or program area in which you have an interest. Ask thoughtful questions that reflect your interest.
2. Plan ahead. If possible, schedule your visit at least two weeks in advance. At some colleges, you may need to call two months in advance for an interview appointment. This will be especially true over the summer and around holidays.
3. Prepare well. Read the information you have about the school. Recognize the potential synergy between your interests, perspectives and learning and the offerings of the school. While on campus, you will want to test your initial impressions. Know why you are there. See how you fit.
4. Arrive early. Avoid feeling rushed. Give yourself time to stretch and walk around before you make an official introduction. Find a snack bar or some place where you can comfortably take in campus life. How do folks relate to each other? How do they relate to you?
5. Get more than one opinion. Much of that which is offered formally by a college is staged for your benefit. It should look and sound good. It’s part of the sales pitch.
If you can, go “backstage” to learn more. Visit the “neighborhoods” of the campus that you are likely to frequent should you choose to enroll there. Introduce yourself to students and ask questions like: “What do you like most about your experience?” “How would you describe the academic environment?” “How is this college helping you to achieve your goals?” “If you could change one thing about your experience, what would it be?” Listen to their stories. How do you see yourself fitting into the picture they “paint” of life on that campus?
6. Record your visit. Make notes as soon as you are able. The more colleges you see, the more they will become a blur in your mind. Take pictures. Buy postcards. Give yourself a visual index of what you have seen to avoid confusion later.
7. Build relationships. Your campus visit gives you a chance to establish relationships with individuals such as interviewers and information session presenters who might be decision-makers when your application is considered. Collect business cards. Be sure to stay in touch with them in appropriate ways as you continue exploring your interest.
8. Connect with the recruiter. Institutions typically assign their admission personnel to different areas of the country for recruiting purposes. Find out who from the institution recruits in your area and check to see if that person is available. If so, introduce yourself. If not, ask for that person’s business card. Regardless, consider him/her as your “go to” person as you have important questions later in the college selection process.
9. Absorb it. Resist the impulse to come to immediate judgment, one way or the other, on a campus visit experience. Sleep on it. Process what you have learned. Weigh your impressions against those you have of other schools. Your first reaction is bound to be emotional. In the end, you need to remain as objective as possible.
10. Focus on fit. How does the college you are visiting meet your academic needs? Will you be challenged appropriately? Is the style of instruction a good match for the manner in which you are most comfortable learning? Does the college offer a sense of community that makes you feel “at home?” And where do you see evidence that you will be valued for what you have to offer. (For more discussion of a good college “fit,” check out The College Planning Workbookat the TAG Bookstore.)
For most high school seniors, the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date marks the conclusion of a long search and selection journey. After years of preparation and months of speculation, admission outcomes are finally known and college destinations have been determined. The enrollment “check is in the mail”—literally. Let the celebration begin!
If you are a soon-to-be high school graduate, though, you need to be careful as you celebrate. The following are points to consider as you move through this exciting transition in your life.
1. Stay focused academically. While an overwhelming sense of relief is washing over you—and all you want to do is kick back, relax, and enjoy the moment—don’t lose sight of what got you to this point. A quick re-read of the not-so-fine print on your acceptance letter tells the story. In offering you a place in its entering class, the admission committee expects you to complete your senior year at no less than the same level of performance than was evident when it decided to accept you.
Many colleges, particularly those that are highly selective, will monitor your academic performance right up to the end. In order to complete your enrollment, you will need to submit a final transcript confirming your graduation from high school. If your transcript reveals measurable declines in your program or performance, you may suddenly find your enrollment status in jeopardy as colleges are known to revoke their offers of admission—and cancel the actual enrollments—for students whose final transcripts fail to measure up to expectations. When I was Dean of Admission, I found I had to send 6-8 such letters each summer. It was, for obvious reasons, one of the least pleasant things I would have to do as Dean.
So what does this mean for you? It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the rest of the year. However, you do need to keep going to class! Resist the temptation to drop courses. Take final exams. Think of such actions as “insurance.” Don’t fall prey to the intellectual comas that seem to find students at the end of the senior year. The last thing you want to see is a letter from the Dean of Admission sometime later this summer informing you that you no longer have a place in the entering class at the school your have chosen.
2. Commit to one college! In the face of multiple options, it may be tempting to submit enrollment deposits to more than one college in order to give yourself more time to make the final choice. Don’t do it! Hard as it might have been to make “the call” by the May 1 Candidates’ Reply date, you need to stick to that schedule and the resulting decision.
Just as admission officers review final transcripts, they are also prone to comparing enrollment rosters with colleagues at peer institutions. If your name appears on the roster at more than one school, be prepared for the consequences. It is not uncommon for a dean of admission to arbitrarily withdraw a student’s enrollment at her/his school out of respect for the student’s commitment to another school—not the kind of surprise you want to encounter after you have graduated from high school! Imagine if the Deans at both schools took the same action!
Do the smart and ethical thing. Make one commitment and honor it.
The possible exception to this well-documented rule involves the sequence of events following admission from a college’s Wait List. Should you be committed to one college when another offers you a place from its Wait List, you may accept the latter offer. In doing so, however, it is understood that you must forfeit your initial deposit at the first college.
3. Complete the financial aid process. If you haven’t done so already, complete the FAFSA application. Even if you are not receiving need-based financial aid, most schools will require you to complete the FAFSA in order to secure merit scholarships, un-subsidized student loans or campus work-study opportunities.
Moreover, the fact that you might have received—and accepted—a need-based financial aid award doesn’t mean the process is over. The award was made on the condition that you and your parents will submit tax returns for 2012 in order to verify the data that was reported on your initial financial aid applications.
Finally, be sure to report any scholarships you receive from community organizations to the college you will attend. These awards will be credited to the cost of attendance.
4. Be safe! Tragically, the best of times can turn quickly into the worst of times for young people as they revel in their achievements. Have a good time but take care of yourself!
The next six weeks are indeed a time for celebrating both happy endings and new beginnings. Having made your college selection, it would seem all that is left before you’re “outta here” is the pomp and circumstance of graduation. As you pause to reflect and enjoy the moment, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture that continues to unfold before you. In the words of an anonymous author,
Be careful of your thoughts, because your thoughts will become your words.
Be careful of your words, because your words will become your deeds.
Be careful of your deeds, because your deeds will become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, because your habits will become your character.
Be careful of your character, because your character will be your destiny.
Congratulations and best wishes as you embrace your destiny!
Next week is a point of reckoning for many high school seniors. After months, if not years, of searching and sorting through college options, the choice of a college all boils down to the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date and—what for many students is the $50,000 question—“Where do I send my enrollment deposit?”
Students and parents alike are obsessed with finding the answer as is evidenced by these queries.
From a student, “Is it better to go a school that has given me a $20,000 scholarship, a summer internship opportunity and the promise of a letter of recommendation from the college president at graduation—or should I go to a ‘better’ school that hasn’t given me any of these things?”
And from a parent (unrelated), “Four schools have given our child varying amounts of scholarship assistance. How do we determine which of them represents the best ‘value’?”
In each case, the answer lies within the student. To infer otherwise is to devalue, albeit unintentionally, the young person’s goals, learning style and character. At this point in the decision-making, there are no absolutes that can be applied with certainty.
Each question—and others like them being asked in countless households around the country—seems to imply a natural order among colleges that doesn’t really exist. While it’s true that colleges differ with regard to how they engage young people educationally, the differences are most appropriately defined within the context of what the student brings to the table.
The student who couldn’t decide between an attractive package from one school and the basic offer from another “better” school was allowing the “look of the label” (read “brand name”) to influence his assessment. In essence, he was asking, “Which will look better—rather than which will work better for me?” The truth of the matter is the biggest differences between the two schools are cultural and geographic! Given his career goals and hands-on learning preference, the answer should have been clear to him.
Similarly, in asking her question, the parent was comparing brands in an attempt to lend objectivity to the choice of a college without factoring her child into the equation. Rather than asking whether College A was “worth” the difference in out-of-pocket expense to the family, she might have pursued a line of questioning that focused on her child’s comfort level with the various academic cultures and learning environments. In other words, assuming an ability to meet college costs at any of the schools, the questions might have been, “In what type of environment does my child function comfortably and, that said, where is he most likely to be meaningfully engaged such that he can achieve his educational goals?”
In assessing college options, then, it is reasonable to assume that a student is not likely to be confronted with any that are truly lacking. And, in fairness, the folks raising the questions referenced above were trying to make fine distinctions between good and valid options. They simply needed to recognize that some will fit better than others and, in order to find that fit, they needed to refocus on the students’ core priorities.
As you make your final choice of a college try to ignore the label or brand of an institution. It won’t be easy (and it probably sounds like heresy!) but, as you are probably coming to realize, the labels can be a huge distraction to your decision-making. And, believe it or not, the name of the place you choose now will carry less weight than you imagine after you have graduated from that institution. It is what you do while enrolled that gives greatest definition to your future prospects, both personally and professionally, in life. That’s why finding the best fit is so important!
Focus, then, on your objectives as well as what you have learned about the style and content of a given college’s offerings. As you do, keep the following questions in mind:
Which school gives me the best opportunity to achieve my educational goals by virtue of its curriculum, faculty and facilities?
In which learning environment will I be able to “do my thing” most comfortably?
Which college will challenge me to develop my skills to their fullest?
Where will I find a community of “scholars” that brings out the best in me as a person?
Which college has demonstrated that it is most likely to invest in my success?
Think for yourself and you can’t go wrong! Happy decision-making!
Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@TheAdmissionGame.com
Is it fact or fiction that financial aid offers to students who are accepted from the Wait List tend to be lower than the aid packages given to comparable students who were previously accepted?
Colleges are reluctant to award any financial aid to students on the Wait List until they can fully account for the awards made to students admitted earlier. This accounting usually takes place during the first few days of May, after the Candidates’ Reply Date (May 1). If there is money left, it might be assigned to students who are admitted from the Wait List. While it is not possible to comment with certainty on the comparability of aid awards for students admitted from the WL, it is safe to say that those students are likely to receive the “left-overs.”
My son has been admitted by three colleges with equally good financial aid offers. However, his heart is with a university where he is on the waiting list (notification date is June 1st). Can we pay the deposits at the three colleges for now, and then if he gets into his first choice, accept that offer and decline the other three? Is this plan possible?
If your son wishes to remain active on the Wait List at his first choice school, it would be wise for him to submit a deposit elsewhere in order to make sure he has a place to study next year in the event that his first choice doesn’t come through for him. If he is eventually admitted from the WL, he would need to forfeit his enrollment at the first school. This is an acceptable plan and would be respected by all of the colleges.
It would not be appropriate for your son to pay deposits at more than one of the schools that has already admitted him. The schools under consideration agree to comply with the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date—an understanding that admitted students commit to one school by that date. It would be unethical for him to commit to more than one—and unwise as it could result in him having to forfeit all of the enrollments. Colleges and universities take the enrollment commitment seriously and expect admitted students to do the same.
What’s the difference in core curriculum at liberal arts colleges versus non-liberal arts schools? Do liberal arts colleges require more reading/writing/languages? My son seems to like the small, close-knit environment at many small liberal arts schools but would like to major in accounting or computer science. He’s not a reading/writing/languages kid. Would he be at a disadvantage at these schools?
It is difficult to comment about core curricula across all liberal arts colleges because they do vary considerably. One commonality, though, is that such colleges presume the importance of a broad educational experience. Even students who might have definitive academic or career interests are encouraged to sample the curriculum for two years before declaring a major. Many liberal arts colleges provide a structured core curriculum designed to help guide students through the discovery process. Regardless, these environments tend to be well suited to students who prefer experiential learning marked by small classes and close interactions with other students and faculty.
The reality, though, is that students in these environments will be exposed to rather intensive reading/writing expectations. Moreover, it is common for liberal arts colleges to include a semester or two of foreign language study in the core curriculum.
By contrast, many universities expect students to declare a major—or at least identify a general program of study (i.e. college of arts and sciences, college of engineering, college of nursing, etc.) at the point of entry. Once in such a program, the student’s access to courses outside of the respective college or program can be limited. While the expectations for language study and extensive written work might be fewer at such schools, your son will still be expected to read a fair amount.
The downside for a student like your son is that, with the exception of honors programs embedded within universities, these learning environments are likely to be less intimate.
My strong suggestion is for your son to visit both types of institutions and to be thoughtful and deliberate in talking with students and professors associated with the programs of study that interest him.
We have two questions. The first is about the status of a college name in the workforce. Our son wants to major in either accounting or finance and we are currently looking at two local colleges, one private and one public. Both are commutable from home and there is a price differential of about $15,000. Our question is “Will he have an better chance of getting a job after college if he graduated from the private college instead of the state university?”
The second question is about community colleges. Friends have told us that going to a community college first and taking all the per-requisite courses then transferring to a four-year college is a cheaper way to go. Is this true and what are the chances that all the credits will transfer successfully?
Thanks for your questions! I have long held that it matters less where a student goes to college and more what he does with the four years he has on that campus. If he just goes through the motions, it won’t matter where he goes to school—the outcomes will be disappointing. On the other hand, if he is committed to engaged, experiential learning, then he should research the following thoroughly.
Where will his learning style (lectures, seminars, independent study, etc.) be best accommodated?
What will be his access to professors? Who teaches the undergraduates? How are the classes taught? What is the average class size for the courses in his intended major?
Hands-on learning opportunities (internships, independent study projects)–how many are conducted each year and which students get to participate?
Career mentoring and job placement opportunities—how many, where and with whom?
Regarding community colleges, the “two-plus-two” strategy can work. It can also backfire. Keep in mind that most educators believe in the continuity of a learning experience in one learning environment. Joining a four-year institution after two years at a community college means that the student is trying to blend into an environment that is already well established, academically and socially. It can work, but the transferring student needs to be especially focused.
In considering this option, make sure you explore the potential for articulation agreements between the two institutions to ensure that your son will be able to move directly into the four-year program of study he desires and that he will do so without losing academic credits in the process.
Does it matter to college admissions directors if a student has a part-time job?
I have heard more than one admission officer indicate that s/he is impressed by students who are learning financial responsibility, especially if those students are also applying for financial assistance. If your student is able to manage any kind of part-time work activity on top of the demands of school, more power to him!
The word on the street is that college “Wait Lists” are huge this year. But what does that mean? Are colleges rejecting more students, albeit more gently, by way of the Wait List—or are we seeing the emergence of new enrollment strategies?
Experience would suggest that it is much more the latter than the former. In recent years, admission officers have found that they can improve institutional yield and selectivity rates by reducing the number of talented, but relatively low-yielding students admitted through the Regular Decision process and taking more high-yielding (and talented) students from the Wait List.
Think about it. The anticipated return on offers of admission in the Regular Decision process is relatively low given the fact that those students are likely to have compelling offers from other schools as well. It’s not uncommon for a selective institution to admit four or five Regular Decision candidates in order to enroll one.
However, admission officers can be much more targeted as they select students from the Wait List. Rather than sending hundreds of offers in anticipation that the right number will respond in the affirmative, they contact Wait Listed students one at a time until they have received the right number of commitments to meet their enrollment goals. Operating in this manner, admission officers can manage the yield on Wait List offers at a much more desirable rate of about 75%.
Frankly, such tactics are becoming commonplace. Somewhat curiously, though, institutional Wait List strategies are held “close to the vest” at most places behind bold proclamations that the enrollment picture is as strong as ever. It is almost as though institutions are fearful that admitting students from the Wait List will be seen as a tacit admission of failure in the admission process.
Consider, for example, the recent experience of a “most highly selective” institution. As the admission decisions were being released in April, its admission officers began making early and very pubic assurances that it had seen a record number of applicants, the Early Decision process had generated more enrollments than ever and the ever-important measures of quality were at their highest as well. In light of these successes, there would be no need to admit more than a few “political” cases from the Wait List.
Six weeks later, that same institution quietly admitted more than 200 students from its Wait List! Apparently, it was feeling more “political” pressure than it had anticipated! The truth of the matter is that by engaging in such heavy Wait List activity, that institution—and many others like it—was able to address internal needs while substantially burnishing its admission profile. The use of the Wait List had become a clear, albeit discrete, strategy to boost its selectivity and improve its yield on offers of admission.
That being the case—and despite institutional rhetoric to the contrary—you can expect to see considerable movement of students from Wait Lists in the coming weeks. Far from a polite denial, then, the offer of Wait List status now looms with much greater promise—if you elect to remain active on that Wait List.
In reality, the Wait List is to the admission process as “overtime” is to athletic event. In each case, your chances of success correlate directly with your determined engagement. If you give up hope and stop competing, you have no chance of finding success.
If you are determined to continue competing in this “overtime” period involving the Wait List, gaining admission to the school of your choice will likely hinge on your ability to:
1. Make sure the school knows it is your first choice. Write a letter confirming your interest. Visit—again!
2. Send new grades. Provide new insight into your performance as well as evidence of recent accomplishments that might not have appeared on your initial application.
3. Be sure to provide evidence of your potential “hooks.” Colleges re-define their needs as they go to the Wait List. For example, they may have acquired plenty of soccer goalies, but now have need of a striker or two.
4. Stay on the radar screen of the staff member who recruits in your area. This person is really important right about now as s/he might be given the opportunity to identify students to be admitted from the Wait List. Make sure that person knows you are available and ready to accept an offer of admission. Continue to show your interest without becoming a pest.
5. Be clear about what your family can afford to pay. Your need of assistance could well be a determining factor.
6. Be ready for the call. Many Wait List offers will come after the May 1 deadline for submitting enrollment deposits. If such a call comes, you need to be prepared to decide quickly (often in 24 hours) whether you want to forfeit an earlier enrollment at another school in order to take advantage of the acceptance from the Wait List.
Finally, don’t allow yourself to become so preoccupied with the Wait List situation that you lose track of your more immediate options. If the Wait List offer doesn’t come, you need to be prepared to happily embrace one of your other options.
It’s crunch time for families in the college selection process. The admission decisions are in and, with less than a month remaining before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date, students are now turning their attention to the final choice of a college. It’s an exciting—and nerve-wracking—time to be sure, especially for families trying to reconcile cost and affordability against limited means and/or cash-flow concerns.
If you are in that number, there is a strong likelihood you applied for financial aid and are now trying to interpret the financial aid award letters you received from various colleges. Months ago, as you engaged in the grueling task of completing the financial aid applications, it was the promise of the “just reward” that kept you going. Now that the award letters are in hand, you are left wondering, “What does it all mean?”
Last year, a young man shared with me the financial aid award letters he had received from ten different colleges. Never mind that he had allowed his list of colleges to grow too long—he had been admitted to ten and had received various forms of financial aid from each of them. With an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution” (per the FAFSA) of $5,000, the award letters were predictably generous. They were also troublingly inconsistent.
For example, two of the schools, at total costs of $39,825 and $51,740, respectively, appeared to cover the entire cost of attendance with financial aid. The first included modest “self help” (loan and work study) totaling $2,565, in addition to more than $37,000 in grants and scholarships, in its financial aid offer. The second, however, issued a financial aid award letter that featured $26,900 in grants/scholarships. The balance, $24,840, was covered by loans and work study! On the surface, it seemed both schools were being quite generous in covering all of his costs. Upon closer examination, however, the difference in “out-of-pocket” expense for this family at the two schools would be greater than $20,000—all with the same EFC!
The wide variance in financial aid awards in response to the same financial circumstance is the result of a practice called “preferential packaging.” It is integral to the strategic deployment of financial aid as institutions attempt to leverage the enrollment of the students they value most. Students who are more highly regarded typically receive financial aid that includes greater portions of grants—and, possibly scholarships.
Conversely, the attitude toward other students, whose credentials were strong enough to warrant their admission but not strong enough to gain them superstar status at a given school, is that “if they want us badly enough, they find the means to make it happen.” It is when families, often wide-eyed with their students’ acceptances into high profile schools, buy into this logic that they open themselves to unreasonable debt burdens.
As you compare financial aid award letters, then, you need to get to the bottom line “out-of-pocket” expenses for each. Where does the bottom line benefit you most? Unfortunately, the award letters don’t always spell that out for you. The following tips are offered to make sure you are comparing “apples and apples.”
Identify the total cost of attendance for each institution. This will include tuition, room and board as well as books, supplies, activity fees, lab fees and possible transportation expenses. You may need to consult the school’s website for a complete list as very few award letters provide a complete documentation.
Add all of the grants and scholarships listed on the award letter together. These funds comprise the “gift” aid you are receiving—money you don’t have to re-pay. The sources of these funds may include the state and federal governments as well as the institution itself.
Subtract the total amount of “gift” aid from the total cost of attendance to determine the total out-of-pocket expense for your family.
In most cases, institutions will offer a standard “self-help” component to the financial aid award that includes a Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford) of $3,500 and a campus work-study opportunity worth up to $1,500. Note that the two figures are likely to increase in subsequent years: the total institutional cost and the amount of the loan eligibility. Additional loans authorized for the student or the parents (PLUS Loan) may be offered in place of “gift” aid.
A word of caution is in order here. If you have somehow managed to pool your family resources into coverage of costs for the first year on the assumption that, because you will appear more “needy” in the second year, you will be treated to more financial aid—guess again! Colleges and universities typically budget financial aid for students in years two, three and four based on the EFC of the first year. They will have contingency funds available for emergent situations (catastrophic health issues, changing employment status, loss of life, etc.), but not for families who claim sudden poverty because all of their funds were committed to the first-year expenses. In the case of the latter, get ready for a heavy dose of loans for both the student and the parents.
It is not uncommon for the total amount of financial aid offered, both “gift” and “self help,” to fall short of making up the difference between the Expected Family Contribution and the total cost of attendance. This is practice, known as “gapping,” is symptomatic of preferential packaging and is employed by institutions that choose not to meet the full need of the student with financial aid. In such cases, the student is left to his/her own devices to find the remaining funds.
Know the difference between grants and scholarships. A grant is awarded because you demonstrate financial “need.” It should carry forward in subsequent years as long as you continue to demonstrate need and remain in academic good standing. A scholarship is offered in recognition of merit and will likely carry with it academic and/or performance renewal terms.
Appeal financial aid awards with information, not emotion. If your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you completed financial aid applications, submit written appeals to the colleges in question along with documentation of the new circumstances. Some colleges will invite you to submit “better” financial aid awards from their competitors as part of an appeal. In any case, keep your cool. You are only entitled to the financial assistance that the institution decides to give you.
In the final analysis, you will have to complete your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether there is sufficient value to you in accepting a financial aid award that might be less than you need or would like. Now is the time to weigh your options carefully. You need to be entirely comfortable with your ability to manage the cost of attending a college before you submit an enrollment deposit.
Contact me at Peter@TheAdmissionGame.com for a “Comparing College Costs Worksheet” that will help you organize and compare the data you are seeing on various financial aid award letters.
To learn more about financial aid and meeting college costs check out The College Planning Workbook. (Available in the TAG Bookstore; $20)
It’s official. Most colleges have released their admission decisions. By the time all of the mail is open, you should have options. Some will include scholarships or special recognition. Others will simply convey the invitation to enroll. In any case, congratulations! Your hard work has paid off and you get to make the final choice of a college destination.
You need to choose well, however, to ensure a successful experience over the next four years of college. Now, more than ever, you need to be attentive to the details. As you enter the final phase of decision-making, start by rechecking your priorities. Why are you going to college? What do you hope to accomplish? In what type of environment can you accomplish these things best?
Using your priorities as a guide, it’s time to examine more closely the colleges that accepted you. Return to their campuses where you can immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and overall culture of the places. How do they feel to you? The following are ten tips for getting the most out of these campus visits:
Spend a weeknight in a residence hall; eat at least two meals in the dining hall and go to two classes in different disciplines including an introductory first-year class.
Talk with professors from the academic departments that interest you as well as the appropriate pre-professional advisor for those programs. Ask them what they teach, who they teach and how they teach. Do they engage undergraduates in collaborative research or independent study? Look for evidence that they (and their colleagues) are invested in helping undergraduates achieve their goals. Do you see a home for yourself in those environments?
Pull students aside in those departments as well. Ask them about the courses they take. Who teaches them? What do they like about them? What are their opportunities to apply what they are learning? How accessible are their professors? What would they do differently about their learning experience thus far? Can you relate to their experiences?
Ask to see data reflective of outcomes. What is the graduation rate in four years? Five years? What happens to students in your major at graduation? What percent go to graduate school, PhD programs or professional degree programs? How many get jobs? What are the average starting salaries? Ask to see the data for the last five years. Colleges are obligated to give it to you—they just might not volunteer it!
Hang out. Watch people. Listen to them talk. Ask them what they think about campus life, politics, sports, religion, or whatever is important to you.
If you are a recruited athlete, meet with the coach as well as members of the team. These folks may be your support system for the next four years. Where will you fit best?
If you have academic support needs, talk with the coordinator of the Special Needs Support Center or the Writing Center. Look for evidence that you will get the support you need.
If you have financial concerns, make an appointment with the financial aid office. Take copies of your financial aid application AND your 2012 tax returns for reference. Document changes in your family’s circumstances. Don’t assume that troubling financial differences will be worked out after you enroll. By the way, borrowing is a choice families make—it is not a requirement. In making comparisons, ask the admitting institutions to project the likely student debt over four years. Colleges can provide this information as well.
Inquire about safety information, crime statistics and campus escort programs.
Use good judgment as you explore the social scene. Know your limits…
In other words, take in as much as possible during your campus visits. Most students who emerge from this process acknowledge that much of the decision-making comes down to a gut feeling. Let your gut go to work for you. Make sure the college you choose fits comfortably and feels good before you commit yourself.
Finally, a word of caution is on order. Your life is about to change as colleges roll out the “red carpet.” You’ll be invited to acceptance parties and open houses in your honor. Prominent alumni will call to wish you well. Some schools may even offer to fly you to their campuses for the weekend. In the midst of all the ego food being tossed your way, you need to stay focused. Do your own detective work and remain true to your priorities. Much of the activity over the next four weeks is staged by colleges for your benefit. Now that you have been admitted, they want you to enroll—and that’s fine. Just make sure you sort through the excitement to find evidence that the school in question truly values you for what you do well and is prepared to invest in your success.