Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Application Tips from a Graduating Senior

My guest blogger, Kasey Wood, is a graduating senior who heads to Bates College in the fall. Kasey recently reflected upon her college admission process and offered to share some thoughtful advice from her own experience. I am posting her tips here in the hopes that rising juniors and seniors might benefit!

Kaseys Tips for Applying to College

1.      Finish the CommonApp before summer ends. It’s eighty degrees outside, the beaches are beautiful, and there’s a party every weekend. The last thing on your mind is writing an essay about a turning point in your life. At the same time, I cannot tell you how much stress I saved myself by finishing the CommonApp before the first day of school senior year. I witnessed my peers as they were on the edge of tears, feeling absolutely overwhelmed. Not to say I wasn’t busy myself, but when I was cramming for my AP Calculus quarterly test, I sure was glad that I didn’t have to worry about finishing the activities section of the CommonApp.

2.      Give the admissions staff plenty of material to work with! Even the strongest writer may have difficulty conveying his or her own uniqueness within the allotted word count of a college application essay. Be sure to ask if you can send in extra work; an art supplement, a short story, or even a home-made movie can really set you apart from everyone else in the crowd. Show admissions your true personality.

3.      Visit campus. This one is a biggie. Before I visited colleges, I thought I wanted a large state school. This made logical sense; I’m from a small, fish-bowl-y community and have lived in it since I was three-years-old. But as I visited different colleges and universities, I realized that smaller schools have offerings that are very important to me. So if it is a reasonable thing for you to do, take the time to experience a potential school firsthand. Watch the people who go there and hear what students and faculty have to say about the school’s personality.

4.      Take notes. Do this throughout the whole process. Whether you are on the computer perusing a school’s website or walking around a campus, write down your thoughts. What impresses you? Is there something that really bugs you about the school? Are you confused about something the school advertises or offers? You will always be able to refer back to these impressions which will help you when deciding which schools to apply to and will prove to be especially helpful when it comes time to write supplements.

5.      Don’t pull the early decision trigger unless you are absolutely certain. You may feel a little left out in December if you choose not to apply early decision anywhere, but do yourself a favor and don’t commit just for the sake of getting the application process out of the way. I’ve seen too many of my peers who were committed to a school by December start to feel anxious as they had time to reconsider whether or not they are actually going to the right place. And that’s most definitely not a good place to be in; you want to arrive on campus full of excitement, not regret.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Football has Taught Me about College Admissions

When I want to expand my knowledge of football, I don’t typically turn to college admissions.  Yet Peter Johnson, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Columbia University, recently introduced me to the term YAC, though Super Bowl Sunday was not the topic of conversation.  Johnson was addressing a group of professional members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) at an industry retreat. Responding to a question about the importance one’s high school plays in the college admission process, Mr. Johnson used yards after catch as a metaphor to form the perfect imagery.  His point: Columbia doesn’t admit schools; it admits students.  Where a student goes to school is the pass; where the student takes that opportunity is what counts. 

Think about that for a moment. Johnson just explained how competitive colleges not only seek to level the playing field, but also identify the MVPs.  Test scores and grades may put students in the conversation, but it’s their independent intellectual curiosity that propels them towards the end zone. 

Though fewer than 7% of applicants will likely be admitted to Columbia this year, Director Johnson’s message is useful advice for anyone seeking admission to a highly selective college or university.  It is no longer simply about having top grades, perfect test scores and a plethora of extra-curricular activities.  The student who catches the attention of an admission officer fills a niche and demonstrates a deep commitment to and measurable success in something that sets him or her apart.  It can be national or regional recognition for science research, development and mastery of a talent, or demonstration of a relentless curiosity through an academic pursuit. Elite colleges are interested in students who have been carving their niche over time and through their own persistence.  And as President Obama seeks to include college accessibility for more low income and first generation students as part of his legacy, colleges will search out the students who have excelled in the absence of certain privileges and advantages. Expect the trend towards measuring the yards after catch to become even more entrenched in the competitive college admission process.  

I am sharing Director Johnson’s candid message with you not to discourage, but to add a bit more transparency to the admission process at the most selective colleges.  His insights also dovetail well with the ideas expressed by journalist and author David Brooks in his February 4th New York Times Op-Ed article: What Machines Can’t Do.  Though the subject of his piece is not what selective colleges look for, Brooks emphasizes that these same qualities are valued in life as well as in college admissions.  The era of technology no longer rewards skills that machines can replicate, i.e., mental functions that rely on facts, rules and the information we are given.  Instead, our new age society will continue to find more value in and reward those who are motivated by pure enthusiasm and who possess “a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity.” Elite colleges look to build a class of niche players who possess this same independent intellectual curiosity to run the distance with the ball.

While Peter Johnson’s talk was specific to Columbia admissions, I think it is safe to say that the top tier colleges in terms of selectivity (not to be confused with quality) all employ their own version of YAC in how they admit students.  Coming to terms with what these colleges want to see is not a cause for despair; it might just be a reason to broaden the focus.  There are many fine colleges and universities that realize students don’t necessarily develop their interests at the same pace.  Instead these colleges hope to provide the opportunities and stimulation to facilitate that discovery.   Sometimes that means we must reassess our own goals. Today’s world and the one our children will encounter in the future will value, as David Brooks noted, enthusiasm that drives their intellectual curiosity.  Now is the time to encourage our kids to not only catch the ball, but also find the college or university that will excite their desire to run with it.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Visit Colleges?

Before heading to New Mexico last week to visit Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), I checked the weather report.  My image of a temperate southwestern climate was quickly dispelled when I read the forecast:  snow showers.  I put away the t-shirts and packed the parka.   Thanks to I was not at all surprised to see the snow covered peaks as the plane began its descent.  Yet other revelations were in store. I was already familiar with Santa Fe’s reputation as an artist haven, yet it never occurred to me that it was also a destination for filmmakers and winter enthusiasts.   In fact, the city, at 7,000 feet, is a short drive to several challenging ski areas and sits at a higher elevation than Denver.   So much for preconceived notions; many of my assumptions about attending college in Santa Fe were tossed before I even stepped foot on the campus.

Seeing is believing, and getting to know a college is no exception.  Visiting is the one sure way to get a feel for a university and to imagine oneself as part of its community.  Do your research before a visit so you have some idea of what to expect, but be open to a few surprises.  A trip to a college is the best way to get to know a university, its offerings, student body, campus feel and surrounding community.  If you are the type of person who needs to experience things firsthand, all the more reason to plan a visit. 

When I scheduled my trip to SFUAD, I did some online research in advance to ensure that I wouldn’t arrive on campus clueless about its programs.  A college’s website is the obvious place to start any search in order to gain an initial sense for whether a school has the right academic fit for a student.  Sites like Unigo and College Prowler can also be helpful in providing the student perspective.  However, nothing can replicate the college visit. It would have been easy for me to make assumptions about SFUAD, a southwestern college in transition, which had been the College of Santa Fe in a recent former life. Today a re-born SFUAD, supported by an outside investor and the city of Santa Fe, has emerged as a niche liberal arts program focused in the fine and performing arts. On paper (or more precisely, online), its offerings sound similar to many other art colleges.  Yet the collaboration, not only among students but also departments, makes for a truly interdisciplinary artistic experience.  How do I know?  I saw it firsthand:  theater majors auditioning for film student productions, musicians involved in multimedia projects, and visual art students exploring every medium the studio art program has to offer.

Answers to questions such as ‘what type of student thrives here?’ and ‘what makes this college unique?’ begin to get to the essence of who might do well on a particular campus.  Yet the ‘being there’ impression is as important as the answers offered, if not more so.  A college may sound perfect from the description in the glossy view book, but it’s the campus visit that will confirm or dispel one’s preconceived notions.

How does one get the most out of a college visit?  With an open and inquisitive mind.  The feel is not just about physical beauty.  It’s also about the intangibles which are sometimes more difficult to see at first glance.  A few years back I visited a small Midwestern college that did not make a compelling first impression; the campus looked tired and downright sleepy. My colleagues and I reassessed our plan:  say a quick hello in admissions and leave as quickly as possible.  Three hours later, we were still choice!  The students we spoke to were smart, passionate and genuinely fired up about the many cross-disciplinary opportunities available to them and about the exceptional faculty mentoring.  We left applauding the college’s decision to choose the intellectual investment in the faculty and students over building a more sensory appealing state-of-the-art athletic facility.  Our focus had shifted from observing the physical setting to seeing the less tangible environment where possibilities abounded.  So take the time to get out of the car even if the grass is parched from an extended drought.  A college experience should be more than skin deep. Classroom environment, student engagement, career services, academic rigor, social scene, and opportunities in one’s chosen major…these are just some of the many areas that can and should be explored.

Reflecting on my trip to SFUAD, I am reminded that finding the right fit college is an art, not a science.  Getting to know my students and understanding the vibe of the colleges I visit are both essential to my assessment for which schools would be appropriate for each individual.  However, the decision in the end rests with the student and family.  It is an important decision which warrants as much firsthand knowledge as possible.  So whether your child sees each campus before he or she applies or just prior to making a final choice, don’t under estimate the value of a road trip.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Who Should Apply for Financial Aid?

“If we aren't likely to qualify for need-based aid, should we file a FAFSA?”  “Is it true that everyone should complete financial aid forms, regardless of need?” “Do I need to complete the FAFSA to receive merit aid?” These are questions I often get from parents who are trying to determine whether there is any benefit to filling out this "black box" form.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is the federal form that all colleges require students to complete in order to qualify for certain types of financial assistance and any federal student aid.  (Nearly 400 colleges also require submission of the CSS/Profile form, found on the College Board website, for the allocation of their own institutional aid). You will need to fill out the FAFSA to receive need-based aid, but that is not the only reason to spend the time and effort.

Who should complete the FAFSA?  Anyone who believes he or she may qualify for need-based aid should invest the time; filling out the form is the only way to know for sure.  There is no maximum income or set amount which precludes one from qualifying.  Rather, many factors in addition to income influence eligibility including the age of parents, assets owned, family members living in the household and number of children in college.  Yet the FAFSA is not only required to calculate demonstrated need.  Any student or parent who wishes to borrow under the federal Stafford loan program, regardless of financial situation, must file a FAFSA.  This even applies if a parent chooses to take out a PLUS loan.  A handful of colleges require that students complete the FAFSA in order to receive merit aid awards.  The single best way to find out a college’s documentation requirements is to visit the financial aid pages on its website.  
Completing the FAFSA is relatively straight forward for those who have already filed a tax return and meet the eligibility requirements to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.  This enables filers to fill in much of the financial information on the FAFSA automatically by transferring data from their tax return.  But here’s the Catch-22:  You must wait approximately 2 weeks if you process your return electronically, or 6-8 weeks if you file by mail before you can access this feature.  By then the college financial aid deadline might well have passed (check individual college websites) so you may still be faced with the challenge of estimating your prior year tax information (a word of advice: better to under than over-estimate earnings).  For those who estimate, you will ultimately have to amend your FAFSA with the actual numbers, and can take advantage of the data retrieval tool at that point.  If you are certain you will not qualify for need-based aid yet will complete the FAFSA in order to borrow either a Stafford student loan or PLUS loan, you are not constrained by college financial aid deadlines so file your tax returns first to simplify the process. 

For a helpful guide on filling out the FAFSA form, you may want to view the 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA tutorial before you get started.

Keep in mind that qualifying for financial aid is not a guarantee that you will receive lots of free money so go into the process with realistic expectations.   As I have emphasized in many of my blog postings, your personally estimated need, your FAFSA determined “demonstrated need,” and the amount of assistance you might actually receive can and will likely be three different numbers.  Financial aid formulas may yield a higher Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and lower demonstrated need than what you believe you can afford. The FAFSA is not frequently updated and consequently underestimates today's cost of living, especially for those who reside in expensive regions of the country. Furthermore, most colleges won’t fully plug the gap between the Cost of Attendance and what you are expected to pay. Like many of us managing our personal finances, colleges struggle to judiciously allocate a finite pool of resources.  So embark on this process with tempered hope and expectations.