Monday, July 29, 2013

Countdown to Common App!

For those of you in the throes of the college admissions process, or those lucky enough to be spectating from a safe distance, mark your calendars! The Common App goes live on Thursday, August 1.  This is the time to spend an hour looking over the way it is structured, get familiar with moving around within it, and finalize your list. Herewith, a few tips to help wrestle the Common App into submission and a link to a very helpful Powerpoint on this brand-new version:

  • CA4: First Look Webinar PowerPoint Presentation
  • If you haven't yet looked at the new essay prompts, those can be found online prior to 8/1, as in at this very moment. As I discussed in my last blog entry, the topic of your choice prompt is conspicuously absent, so your story has to fit into one of the new prompts. It's not as hard as it may seem.
  • In some districts, the Common App "talks" to Naviance, so make sure your list of schools is the same on both sites.
  • Check and double check all your deadlines. And then check them again.
  • The Common App will ask if you want to self-report test scores and dates, so be mindful as to whether your schools participate in Score Choice, allowing you to choose your best test date, or if they expect to see all your test scores. They will still require you send official score reports.
  • New this year is the chance to submit an app to one school, then return to the Common App and change some elements, including deleting your test scores for test-optional schools. 
  • The Common App has an app, so you can check on some elements on the run. You should not enter any real data on a device though; stick to the desktop, with no diversions around you, when entering data or uploading essays. 
  • In my college advisory practice, I encourage students to create a word doc for all their essay prompts- Common App essay, all supplements and non-Common App schools. This way, using some text from one essay in another is easier, deciding to work on your essays means having everything in one place, and it helps you stay on top of it all. Be sure to back up the file; email it to a parent or save to a flash drive as you work on it. Also, essays are no longer uploaded; they are cut and pasted or typed directly into the text box instead. 
  • EC data is also easier to enter and move around. Be sure to be honest about your hours of participation; inflating them is never worth the risk of being called out on it.
  • Check everything over at least twice. Be sure you don't explain your great affection for School A in an essay for School B. It's been done... 
  • Have everything for RD deadlines ready to go when you submit your ED app. A denial or deferral can take the wind from your sails, and make it tough to get motivated to finish up other applications.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Essay Writing Season is Upon Us!

Fear not, young college applicant! You too can write a great essay that just may tip the scales...and may the odds ever be in your favor!

There is a lot of chatter on college admissions blogs and message boards about how a great essay can get you in even if all your stats are below the middle 50%. Let me disabuse you of that notion; a great essay cannot compensate for below average stats for a given school. If you are within the range of accepted students in the last admissions season, or your application has gone to committee, a great essay can help, especially if you engage the reader with a great topic, first sentence and a theme that makes sense and is well constructed. Even if you are the next Melville, if your stats are not in line, your essay will not be your golden ticket.

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you dive into the juicy new Common App prompts. Don't you love being the guinea pig class that gets to be the first to use these? Yeah, didn't think so...
  • Don't be a Negative Nancy or Nick! Don't blame your teachers, parents, or your own laziness or immaturity for lousy grades. Keep it positive, no matter what. 
  • Don't write about your community service trip, no matter how transformative it was. You can throw in a reference to it, but don't make it the theme! These essays, particularly when penned by a student whose parents paid upward of $5k for that life-changing experience, are not meaningful, and have even been the butt of more than a few jokes in those hallowed admissions offices.
  • Unless you are a recruited athlete, don't write about the big game. Writing about being cut from the team and discovering another passion you suddenly have time for would make a great essay. 
  • The prompt about the place where you are most content doesn't have to be addressed geographically. Maybe it's with your 96 year old grandmother, making mozzarella by hand in her miniscule kitchen, or building Legos with your little sister early on a weekend morning. Please don't write about vacations at your home in Aspen or the condo in Cabo.
  • Don't give away the farm in your first sentence. Draw the reader in with a tantalizing peek at your topic, don't be snarky, it's OK to be funny if you are a naturally funny writer and PLEASE don't throw something out that is so obtuse that it makes no sense...unless you applying to the University of Chicago, where obtuse is practically a requirement!
  • Edit, edit and edit again. Write all your thoughts on your topic in a bulleted list, put together a draft, let it sit for a few days, edit a bit, let it sit again and then edit a bit more. Be sure to ask a favorite teacher, adult who does some writing, or another trusted person to red pen it carefully before you submit. Another set of eyes can be your biggest asset.
  • Don't get into any hot button political issues unless you can present a fair and balanced case. An incendiary or heavily one-sided essay could be read by someone with an opposing view on your topic and might be offended.
  • Word counts really matter this year: 650 tops and 250 minimum are the strict parameters. Its easier to cut an essay that is too long than lengthen one that is too short. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Student Loan Drama Continues...

Congress, by failing to act, allowed the interest rate on Stafford loans for students with demonstrated need to double. While this affects only new loans for the Class of 2017 and those who need to take out new loans for the balance of their educations, student debt has already reached astronomical levels, almost a trillion dollars at last count. $1000 a year increase in interest payments may not mean much to some, but for a recent grad earning $35k a year in an entry-level job, it’s a lot, especially if some have other student debt borrowed privately to service too.  If no extension is passed, the interest rate will remain at 6.8%, the same that students pay who do not demonstrate need. Currently, students who do not qualify for federal student aid can borrow under the Stafford plan and pay the higher interest rate of 6.8% but if there is no extension, students who receive a subsidized below market interest rate on their loans will see their interest rate remain at the same 6.8% rate.  

Why does this stink? Because while the belief that students who cannot afford college without some loans should receive a below market interest loan is that of the majority of our lawmakers, they can’t seem to come to terms with finding enough common ground to pass an extension. Students are still having a tough time finding work even with a degree in hand and servicing debt from Stafford loans and possibly other loans used for education can be near impossible. Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid guru, thinks it isn’t a big deal, but many students think otherwise.

The pundits say the student debt bubble will be the next to burst. If Congress doesn’t enact new legislation, retroactive for new loans, they will have no one to blame but themselves if the bubble does burst. While some Congressional leaders think colleges need to consider why tuition increases have jumped more than any other tracked prices, punishing the students is not a solution.

Personally, I think if colleges and universities stopped spending enormous sums on glossy brochures and mailings, with the goal of driving up app numbers and driving down acceptance rates, and used the money to provide need based grant aid, everyone would benefit and students could borrow less and need to service less after graduation. My own kid received 54 lbs. (yes, I kept and weighed it) of promotional mail from schools during junior and senior year. Oddly the school he chose to attend sent one mailing and the one that sent the most, 22 pieces in all, was one he never even considered or showed any interest toward. College rankings force many schools to market themselves aggressively. Does this marketing have an influence on the increase in debt? I am absolutely sure it does.