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Independent College Counseling Services
Changes to the Common Application
Visit http://www.commonapp.org/ to start your common application. The Common App or CA is a working document until you hit SUBMIT. For that reason, it's something you should be working on in chunks or sections over many days, weeks, and months. I encourage students to begin working on the CA in August after any updates, additions and modifications have been made. Changes to the form usually occur in late July.
This year the CA (and many individual schools) added sections requesting more information related to gender identity and sexual orientation. There is also a new informational section that provides details regarding financial aid resources. One significant thing to note, is that the Writing section of the Common Application now asks for a Personal Essay, Disciplinary History, and Additional Information. This last option is particularly important as it is the one place the CA gives you to explain anything about yourself, your experiences, your personal history and choices, and your interests not otherwise gleaned from anywhere else in your application. For example, if your transcript doesn't include the most rigorous courses offered at your high school (like APs and IBs), you need to explain why you didn't take such classes. Perhaps you have diagnosed learning challenges or mental health issues that made it impractical or even impossible for you to take such classes. Or maybe your school didn't allow students to take APs without a teacher's invitation or before the junior year, limiting your ability to take more than a few. Maybe your registrar or guidance counselor simply claimed that such classes wouldn't work with the rest of your course schedule. Whatever the reason, the Additional Information section is your one and only place to explain anything you feel it's essential to the Admissions Reader to know about something that might be "missing" from your application.
If you avoided sports all four years of high school because you have asthma or simply lack coordination, explain that in the Additional Information section in a well-written, less-than-650-word essay. If you didn't participate in many extracurricular activities because you were responsible for caring for younger siblings after school, say so. If you're applying to schools that require standardized test scores and your a terrible test-taker with low SAT and/or ACT scores, explain that your scores are not indicative of your abilities as a student. If your grades dropped one particular semester because you were sick and absent from school, or your grandmother died, or your parents got divorced, or your home was robbed, tell that story.
What you should most definitely NOT do is leave this space blank! When you read the question: "Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?" followed by the prompt: "You may use the space below to provide any additional information you wish to share," do it!
Show me the money!
Second only to being admitted, often the most stressful part of the college process is figuring out how to afford the schools to which you've been accepted, especially if you applied to them knowing that their sticker prices were beyond your reach. Understanding the financial aid process is complicated. In my experience, there is much regarding the awarding of aid that is purposefully misleading and confusing, and there is no one institution that is worse than the next in purporting certain myths by using vague terminology and/or only partially explaining the aid process. They're all equally awful when it comes to playing the "financial aid game." For example, note every time you read or hear the phrase: "We meet x% of demonstrated financial need!" This begs two defining questions: Demonstrated by whom and "need" as defined by what??? And here's the real rub: because almost every college conveniently neglects to specify which formula THEIR specific school uses to calculate need, their websites, administrators, counselors and representatives will lead you to believe that the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) generated by your FAFSA is the single determiner of how much aid you will receive. It's not ... not even close!
We're led to believe that the Cost of Attendance (COA) - which should incorporate annual tuition, room & board, books, travel/transportation, insurance, and ancillary fees - minus your EFC yields the amount of aid you'll be gifted from a school that claims to meet 100% demonstrated need. However, there are actually very few schools that use the aforementioned formula. In reality, most schools meet "x% of demonstrated need" only AFTER they redefine the terms "demonstrated" and "need".
One of the ways they do this is by relying on one of 3 formulas (or some combination thereof). Typically you can tell which schools use which formula(s) by the forms they require. A school that solely requires the FAFSA is most likely using the federal methodology that doesn't take things like home equity and alternative income sources into account when determining your EFC. Schools that require a CSS Profile, on the other hand, use the institutional methodology that considers home equity; IRA & 401K contributions; stock, bonds and other such holdings; capital gains; higher education savings accounts; health savings accounts; and more when determining your EFC. If that isn't confusing enough, there's also a consortium of schools, Consensus 586, that have their own formulas used to determine aid. To think that there is any standardized practice used to determine financial aid, at any school in the US in this day and age, is a gross misunderstanding and oversimplification of the system and the process. And this doesn't begin to address whether schools claiming to meet "x% of demonstrated need" include loans in their calculations. Many of them do! That, in turn, means that many schools will expect every freshman to avail him/herself of the $5,500 in Stafford Loans they are awarded. I don't know about you, but my definition of financial "aid" hardly involves borrowing money which I must return with interest! Additionally, there are schools that restrict their offers of aid based on specific criteria, such as state of residency, an income ceiling and an EFC maximum. When you come to understand all the factors at play in determining financial aid eligibility, it's a challenge NOT to recognize the promise of "x% of demonstrated need" as a complete misnomer and an outright falsehood.
All this nonsense aside, "You have to be in it, to win it!" In order to receive any offers of aid - loans, grants, certain scholarships, and work study - you MUST fill out and submit the FAFSA. If any of the schools to which you are applying require the CSS Profile, you MUST prepare and submit that as well. Submissions open on October 1st. Schools claim that they dole out aid on a first come, first serve basis. If you make a mistake filling out your forms, you will lose your place in the queue. My advice: Go to bed early on September 30th and get a good night's rest. On October 1st, set aside 90 minutes per child per form, find a quiet corner of the house with a stellar wifi connection, and with your 2016 tax returns, W2's, 1099s, et al in hand, lock yourself away until you've circumspectly finished all submissions....
Then uncork a bottle of wine. Cheers!
Decisions ... decisions ...
Early Decision ... Early Action ... Regular Decision ... Rolling Decision ... What's the difference and why would I want to choose any one of these over any of the others??? Are there really advantages to applying ED and EA? Is it true that I'll definitely get into a school to which I ED? And if I do decide to ED, what's the difference between ED1 and ED2?
Let me try to break this down for you as simply as possible:
Early Decision is a binding agreement. This means that a) you can only ever apply to one school Early Decision - unless you apply to a school ED1 and are notified that you did NOT gain admission, in which case you could then conceivably apply to another school with a later ED2 application deadline date; b) if accepted to your ED school you are contractually obligated to attend and will have to pull any and all additional applications made to other schools. I do not recommend applying to any school Early Decision UNLESS your family's financial health is secure enough to meet whatever the financial obligation will be. Being accepted Early Decision does not necessarily mean that you will receive a financial aid package sooner than other students, although that does sometimes happen. And while the offer of aid you receive may be negotiable, the school literally has NO incentive to increase your offer of aid as you're contractually obligated to attend. Many clients have asked me if there is a way to negate this obligation in the event that they truly cannot afford to attend the school. The short answer to that is "yes;" however, it comes with some caveats. First, the school may require that you show them "proof" of being unable to meet your fiscal responsibilities. Additionally (and unfortunately), it is not an uncommon practice for schools to then contact every other school to which the applicant applied to notify those schools of his/her having breached his/her legal and fiduciary responsibility. I have actually spoken to several college admissions reps who have admitted to me that they have indeed done this. And if you're wondering how they would even know what other schools to contact, all the schools to which a student applies are listed on the Common App (or similar applications). Trust me, they know! The only students who should ever consider applying Early Decision are those who are 110% certain that this is the school for them and who are willing AND ABLE to attend it no matter the cost.
While Early Action is non-binding, it does show colleges that you are very serious about enrolling if admitted. I almost always recommend that the students I work with apply to schools EA if that is an option. In the event that a school has two EA dates, I encourage applying EA1, as again, that's one of the best ways to show true, significant "demonstrated interest." There is only one reason not to apply EA and that's if something unusual happened during your junior year of high school that resulted in lower than normal grades. It happens! Whether there was a death in the family, a divorce, you were dealing with a serious illness or injury which prevented you from being able to keep up with your academics ... things happen. If this describes your experience, then applying EA is not in your best interest as admissions counselors will pay the most attention to your scholastic choices and achievements in you junior year. If you wait to apply Regular Decision, you give yourself an opportunity to improve your grades and return to form in the first semester of your senior year which is what the admissions counselors will note when given that opportunity upon receipt of your Jan., Feb. or Mar. senior year application submission. NOTE: some schools offering Early Action may have a single choice restriction which means that you may only apply to their one school EA. Otherwise, you can apply EA to as many schools as you choose.
Regular Decision is a great choice for any student who struggles academically and is working really hard to show improvement or consistency year-after-year. It's also the only choice for procrastinators. If you can't get your applications ready for submission in the fall of your senior year, and a November/December deadline is unrealistic for you, then Regular Decision is your friend.
Rolling Decision just means that a college/university reviews each application as it is submitted. So while you may submit your application as early as August, it does not mean that you will be notified any earlier than the standard March or April timeframe.
Whichever decision deadlines you choose to pursue, don't wait till the drop-dead date to make your submission. If I had a dime for every time I worked with a student - my own children included! - who waited till the final day of submissions and then missed the deadline because of a system crash or a website being shut down or because they misread the date, I wouldn't be writing this because I'd be retired!
Summer Time Campus Tours
I, like many rising seniors and a smattering of rising juniors, prefer to hit the college trail for tours, and admissions and financial aid seminars in the summer months. Because student and parent schedules can often grow overwhelming during the academic calendar year, summer touring is convenient, and if planned correctly, can include several schools in one shot and maybe even some vacation time. The only downside to this is that college campuses are often "dead" in the summer months, or at best, dotted with grad students and perhaps some undergrads catching up on classes in the hopes that doing so will make it possible for them to graduate in 4 years. There's no doubt that the vibe on a college campus in June, July and early August is completely different from that of the other 9 months of the year. So, does it really make that much of a difference WHEN you visit schools of interest? The short answer is no ... and yes!
It really depends on what your hoping to gain from your campus visit and how interested you are in a particular school. For instance, if you're visiting a school in the summer between your sophomore and junior year because it's a) close to home, b) affordable, and c) you just want a basis of comparison for a school of its particular size, then no, visiting it in the summer months isn't going to be much different than visiting it in the fall. However, if a) you're a rising senior, b) you're visiting a school far enough away that it requires planning and taking time off of school or work, c) the school is one of your top 3 choices, d) you're hoping to generate some interest in yourself with the Division 3 soccer coach, e) the school requires an interview, and f) you would really like to see a specific lab facility, then yes, visiting in the summer is not ideal.
Most professors, coaches, department chairs and even specific regional admissions representatives will not be available in the summer. Having someone associated with the school - "on the inside," so to speak - can only work toward your advantage. Anytime someone "on the inside" can identify your name and accomplishments with your face, makes you more memorable. You want to take every opportunity to make these people remember you so that you have someone advocating for you from "the inside." It is nearly impossible to make this happen during a generic summer admissions presentation and tour.
Additionally, any school of primary interest is worth visiting at the height of activity. For this reason, I strongly encourage taking advantage of Open House dates. They're not offered frequently, usually only in the early fall (Sept. and Oct.), and they are often too well-attended, sometimes, to the point of being so overcrowded that it makes it virtually impossible to get one-on-one time with anyone "on the inside" unless you've scheduled that in advance (which you should). But one of the things I like best about college Open Houses is that they are an excellent indication of just how active and organized a campus is. Every school's website will provide a list of their sports teams, clubs and organizations, fraternities and sororities. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're all active or well-supported by the school. But at a college Open House, active organizations will have a presence. You'll be able to ascertain their influence and popularity based on how well-staffed their tables/booths are and you'll be able to talk to current, involved students.
And if you can't make a scheduled Open House, there's still added value in a fall or spring visit as opposed to a summer visit. STUDENTS! I used to drive my own kids nuts when I would randomly approach college students ... in the library, in the cafeteria, in a dorm corridor or just sitting out on the lawn ... to ask all sorts of questions: What year are you? What are you majoring in? Where are you from? What other schools did you apply to? Which ones did you get accepted to? Why did you choose this school? Have you ever regretted your decision? What are the top 3 things you love about this school? If you could change anything about it, what would that be? Engaging actual undergrads who aren't interning or working in the Admissions Dept. (like your tour guide) is the very best way to get straight answers and a real sense of whether or not a school would be the right fit for you.
Lastly, I'd recommend taking advantage of every opportunity made available to you when visiting a school - no matter what time of year. "Demonstrated interest" - registering for programs and suggested (as opposed to required) activities and offerings - is the best way to show a school how vested you are in applying, being accepted and ultimately, attending their university. So if a school offers the opportunity to attend a seminar in the department of your intended major, register for it! If they offer the chance to sit in on a class, stay overnight, or attend a weekend program, do it! If they don't require an interview, but rather offer interviews either onsite or with an alum in your area, make an appointment! If you're interested in a particular subject, sport, club, and/or activity, email the coach, the department head, the activity advisor to introduce yourself, express your interest and ask for suggestions on how to boost your acceptance potential! And ALWAYS get the business card or email address of those people you meet with individually and use it to send a hand-written thank you not and to keep in touch over email periodically.
Inspired by an interview I recently read taken by another independent college consultant, I attempted to answer the same questions. Here goes:
What inspired you to become a college counselor?
The first time I went through the college admissions process was with my oldest child. Fortunately, she attended a private high school where the designated College Counselor was a recent, former Admission Rep at a well-known New England University. Working with someone who knew what colleges were looking for in an applicant and who took the time to know her students was invaluable. That's what I aspire to do for each of my students.
What do you enjoy most about your position?
Getting to know and collaborate with so many amazing and diverse young people.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your position?
Readjusting student and parent expectations. Unfortunately, most students wait until their senior year to seek advice with college admission. They often come to me with expectations that their transcript, resume, and financial circumstances don't support. In these instances, my biggest challenge is educating families on the college admissions process so that they understand the things they can change and the things that they can't and how that may affect their student's chances of acceptance into particular schools.
What are the qualities that make you a good college counselor?
That's easy! There are four things that set me apart in this field.
1) I don't have any hidden agendas. I don't publish a list of schools that "my" students get accepted to or choose to attend, because I don't believe that "one size fits all." Finding the right college for each student is an individual and personal experience; not a comparative one and not one that says anything about me. As I tell all my students: "Nothing I do or don't do is going to get you into college - YOU get yourself into college!"
2) I'm not just a college counselor. First and foremost, I'm a parent who has gone through this process, recently, three times. Secondly, I'm an educator. I've been teaching homeschoolers in grades K-12 for 15+ years and as a teacher, especially of AP classes, I recognize the direct effect my instruction and grading has on my college bound students.
3) I "get" teenagers and I'm good at motivating them based on their interests, passions, goals and objectives. For example, blindly assigning one of the Common App essay prompts rarely yields a standout essay. The best essays are personal ones that read like a creative writing piece. I can best help a student when I've gotten to know him/her on a personal level.
4) I know what's currently going on in the world of college admissions and acceptance! This is probably the most important requirement for a counselor because the college admissions world changes CONSTANTLY. I start every meeting with, "What I tell you today is true of today, but could be totally different tomorrow." A good college counselor needs to stay apprised of changes in testing, financial aid, high school course trends, applications and supporting materials, etc. I believe the best way to do this is to regularly tour college campuses, sit in on admission and financial aid info sessions, and meet with college admissions counselors and application readers. I do all of this at a minimum of 12 schools a year.
In your opinion, what are some of the best ways that students can make themselves stand out?
The most successful college applicants have a rigorous transcript, having availed themselves of the most challenging courses offered at their high schools and must have taken several AP courses that include an English, a math, a traditional lab science, and either US history or US government. Additionally, they will have a resume that includes a paying part-time or summer job; volunteer/community service work with one or two organizations over an extended period of time; identifiable and quantitative leadership skills in student government, in a club or on a team; involvement in a club, marching band, team sport, theater or musical production, or in an academic team competition. Lastly, one of the best ways to make yourself standout is to show demonstrated interest in the schools on your list. Visit them; reach out to a sports coach, academic dean, club advisor; opt for an interview or attend a class if they're offered; go to a revisit day; ask to do an overnight stay; find out who the college admissions rep is for your area and email him/her; and ALWAYS send a hand-written thank you note to anyone you've met or spoken with individually!