Friday, March 14, 2014

A Must-read While You Shop For College This Spring

Two and  a half years ago, when I dropped my 18 year old son off at his new home, a small liberal arts college in a town known for its "cows, colleges and contentment" on the prairie in Minnesota, it was a leap of faith. I had a feeling that the community he would become part of was unique and special, but wasn't sure why. I promote my business on the premise that fit matters most, but until last Friday, I had no tangible proof that this fit wasn't just a good one, it was an extraordinary one, for my son and for me.

As any reader of my blog and my Spotlights in WilsonPrep's newsletters knows, great schools can come in many shapes and sizes, can be found in many settings and can offer many different experiences and opportunities. College isn't just for getting an education. It is also for growing up, learning to screw up and then fix that screw up without a parent's help, and managing life's challenges more independently. It's also for having fun, making lifelong friends, falling in and out of love, and as I discovered last week, can also include grieving and loss. Amazing, life changing communities can be found at many different schools. A giant student population doesn't mean there aren't hundreds of remarkable communities within. A tiny school doesn't guarantee a wonderful cohesive community either. Finding that right fit, regardless of name or ranking, that element of the college search that is so very important, should be every student's number one priority. 

Last Friday, three young men in my son's class were killed and two were critically injured on their way to the airport to fly to an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. The details are irrelevant except that this tragedy did not involve alcohol, recklessness or a fool's errand in the middle of the night, but instead an icy road and an 18-wheeler in the middle of the afternoon. Carleton has only 2000 students so you can just imagine how close each class of 500 becomes over four years or even in just the first month. Over the past two weeks, I have had a taste of just how amazing, unique and remarkable the Carleton community is- parents, students, faculty and administrators- and have been moved to tears many times by the generosity, love, concern and compassion demonstrated by every single member of that community. 

The college immediately arranged a vigil the following day in the Chapel with the campus clergy- rabbi, minister and priest- present. Carleton has a parent listserv comprised of current students' parents, some faculty and administrators, and a surprisingly large number of parents whose kids have already graduated. That group immediately shared information on the accident, began collecting funds for memorials, offered lodging, food, and transport to the families of the students in the hospital, and  shared feelings of tremendous sadness and grief, and concern for how we can help our Carls, as Carleton students are known, cope with their pain. The other college in town, St. Olaf, sent flowers to every Carleton student as well as notes and cards. Professors, who prefer to be addressed by their first names by students, reached out any way they could to get their students through a very rough patch. Graduates the world over wrote notes of support on Carleton's Facebook page, and reached out in other ways to this community that is clearly still dear to them.

Every member of this community was touched by this tragedy. Even those who had never met these students felt the weight of a terrible loss. Those who were close to the students who died and were injured were drawn into the protective embrace of the entire community. It was a remarkable response, in so many ways. I still receive daily updates on the injured students' conditions and offers of help still stream in.

Some schools close ranks when a tragedy occurs on campus for fear of bad press or assumptions about bad behavior, a too stressful environment, or lax alcohol policies. I believe schools that choose that route do their students a disservice. Carleton chose to do the opposite and while the community will never ever forget the loss of these three young men, destined to change the world, the community will eventually heal and move forward. They will be able to do so thanks to the willingness of this community to embrace the sadness, grief and gravity of such a loss. So, remember when you visit and consider, evaluate and ponder and eventually decide where to apply, this new home for you (or your student) should provide good educational value, and a chance to grow up and embrace new challenges. Many schools can provide these things, but only some can offer a  community that can support and embrace its students when tragedy strikes.  Picking up the pieces for an entire student body is no small feat. Find a school that can do that and you will sleep better for it and so will your kid. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Deciphering Your FinAid Offers-CAVEAT EMPTOR!

Students will be receiving their financial aid packages soon from schools to which they submitted a FAFSA (and possibly the CSS Profile, depending on the school's requirements). Comparing the dollar value of your package requires a close examination and comparison of several factors.

Cost of Attendance (COA): this number is what it will cost including tuition, room, board, transportation, books and miscellaneous student fees for one year.
EFC: this is the amount your family will be expected to contribute based on the FAFSA figure calculated from your family income and assets.
Pell Grant: a federal grant to extremely low income families. It is a grant and need not be payed back.
Institutional grant: Money from the college's coffers that need not be repaid. It is not a scholarship, which is based on other factors, like merit or athletic talent.
Work/Study: a federal program that requires students to work on-campus for the college and payments are typically sent directly to a student's account to fulfill a component of the package.
Federal Student Loans: Provided by the Federal government to the student, these loans are available to everyone who files a FAFSA, even if they do not qualify for aid.  Currently both subsidized for students with demonstrated need and unsubsidized loans for students with no demonstrated need carry an interest rate of 3.86% when disbursed between 7/1/13 and 7/1/14. There are maximum and yearly limits. A good source of info is available here: Federal Student Aid

PLUS Loans: These loans are also provided by the Federal Government but are made to parents, not the student. They are also available to students in graduate school. The current interest rate is 6.41% and there are also maximums and limits. Parents must also have a good credit rating as these loans consider credit history when evaluating applications, unlike loans made to students which do not consider credit history.
Perkins Loans: These are for students with significant financial need only. These loans are made by the institution, not the federal government. The interest rate is currently 5%.
Scholarships: This money, which need not be repaid, is made from the school's coffers and standards are different at every school. Some schools require students maintain a certain GPA, or expect participation in an activity. The NCAA oversees the requirements and rules for athletic scholarships. Many schools will offer merit scholarships to attract the best students and those with test scores and GPAs above the typical admitted student's. Merit money can make attending a certain school a more attractive choice.
State Aid: Some states offer loans or scholarships for students and require attendance within their home state. For New York State residents, more info is here: NYS Higher Ed Services Corp

While many expect that public colleges and universities will be cheaper than privates, if there is significant demonstrated need as evidenced by FAFSA and CSS, a student may find a private a better deal. Why? Private schools with more competitive admissions often have large endowments from which they draw money for grants for students with need. This money which does not have to be repaid can replace loans in an aid packages and often allow students to graduate with no debt. Unfortunately the list of schools that can meet all need without loans is shrinking every year. That list is here: Princeton, Davidson, Amherst, Harvard, Pomona, Swarthmore, Haverford, University of Pennsylvania, Bowdoin, Stanford, Wellesley, Columbia, Claremont McKenna and Vanderbilt.
Williams, Dartmouth, Yale, Cornell, MIT and Carleton have recently modified their no loans policy to include modest loans in packages for students with household incomes over $75k or so.

In order to compare the real cost of attendance including debt incurred, be sure to consider the money you may have to borrow to meet the cost of attendance. While your aid package may show a number that matches the COA, be sure to read closely how much of the package is student loans, PLUS loans and private loans which can be very costly and should be a last resort. Incurring debt over what a student might expect to make his or her first year out of college can be a costly mistake so borrow judiciously. Student loans are not dismissed in bankruptcy either. Be wary of private education loans too as many begin accruing interest when they are disbursed, not upon graduation. And lastly, if your package is not generous enough to attend but a small increase would make it so, call the financial aid office and ask if you can discuss the package. Many schools will find the additional dollars to make up for a shortfall, especially if you call as soon as you are admitted. Do this earlier rather than later as most schools have finite resources for financial aid and you want to appeal before they exhaust their budgeted amount. Any questions? Drop me a note at 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Post-season Wrap Up, Sort of...

Now that the last RD deadline has passed, I have time to sum up what this application round was like. I worked with 63 students, from as far away as Canada, Mexico and China, on essay development and editing, and walked many students through the complexities of the new and purportedly improved Common App, a challenge all its own, as if the admissions process isn't stressful enough! I also experienced the sheer pleasure of hearing students I worked with were admitted to their first choices. One especially grateful student sent me an orchid! I also helped a lot of students find that one last likely school just to make sure every sleeps well between now and April. All in all, it was a VERY busy six months, but I loved almost every moment of it. I loved meeting so many super kids, many of whom focused their energies on writing thoughtful essays and meeting deadlines, staying on top of all the details that needed to be attended to, and never hesitating to ask a question if they just weren't sure. I was also happy to field more than a few phone calls, emails and texts from nervous parents, and help them find some measure of peace!

So, as in the past few years, the schools with the lowest admit rates were even more selective this year. ED/EA/REA/SCEA acceptance stats dropped again for the Ivies, Stanford, UChicago and their peers. Those with slightly less competitive admissions also saw increases in their numbers of ED/EA applicants, and lower admit rates. Overall, the top 50 or so schools all saw increases in the number of applications, even those that had seen slight declines last year.  As predicted, admissions are not getting any easier at the higher ranked schools and are getting even more competitive at the less competitive schools.

The Common App was a major headache for hundreds of thousands of students. I received many panicked phone calls, texts and emails asking me why PDFs were blank, why the Common App was crashing or not recognizing previously used login info, and that Naviance was not showing any recommendations or transcripts had been requested or sent! I spent hours sitting with students as they filled out the Common App, if only to assure them they were doing it right. I suggested filling everything out and setting the alarm for 4 AM to submit, hoping that less traffic on the site would enable proper submission. Almost every school that had an ED/EA/SCEA/REA deadline extended it for a week or more in recognition of the problems students were having. Many also extended their RD deadlines, aware that there is even more traffic the days before 1/1/14. Let's hope that Eric Furda, UPenn's Dean of Admissions and the incoming President of the Common App will sort out these issues before the next admissions round!

Here are the lessons learned from this round of applications:

  • Do NOT wait until the night before the deadline to submit your Common App!
  • Start thinking about and drafting your essay in August before you are overwhelmed by the start of school
  • Finish your junior year with the best grades you can muster!
  • Ask your favorite teachers, or those for whom you have produced great work, if they will write you a letter of recommendation BEFORE the end of the year, instead of in September, so they have time over the summer to think about how they can highlight what makes you an outstanding applicant. 
  • If your standardized testing outcomes are disappointing, check out and see how many great schools do not require SATs or ACTs. 
  • Take advantage of your counselor's relative free time now and make an appointment to review your plans for next year. Remember they will be writing a recommendation for you too!
  • Start visiting if you haven't already! Make a list of your possible schools and do some day trips and plan an overnight or two.
  • Create a list of your ECs so you have something to work from when completing the Common App next fall. It goes live on 8/1!