Welcome to the College Ahead blog!

Julia Surtshin

I'm Julia, a certified college counselor specializing in college planning, preparation, search and admissions. Welcome to my blog. For more than 12 years, I wrote a newspaper column titled College Corner. This blog continues that tradition. I’ve been an independent college counselor for more than 20 years. That means I’ve worked with dozens of students and I’ve seen the successful resolution of dozens of different challenges. Read more about my background here.


First and foremost, this blog is about you! If you want to see a topic addressed here, or if you have a question about college selection or application, feel free to email me. I’ll do my best to answer it, or if necessary, find someone who can.


My professional motto is “Navigating the college search and admissions process with confidence and optimism.” I want you to approach this transition enthusiastically and I’m here to help you do that.


Recent Posts

National College Fair Comes to Portland

On Sunday, October 28 (1 pm-5 pm) and Monday, October 29 (9 am-Noon), the National Association for College Admission Counseling  National College Fair will be at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. This presents a fantastic opportunity for students and their families to learn more about the college application process, connect with representatives from individual colleges and universities, and ask questions of counseling, testing, and financial aid professionals.

The Heart of the Matter                                                                       

More than 250 colleges from across the country as well as some international institutions will have admissions personnel staffing booths in Exhibit Hall D. Students and families can speak directly with professionals to learn about the wide variety of college opportunities that are available. From community colleges, to small, residential liberal-arts colleges,  conservatories, and major research universities, each type of institution boasts a different kind of collegiate experience.

Attending a college fair should be helpful, and leave you feeling energized, optimistic and confident about your future. However, with so many people and so much going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted before you accomplish much. Whether you’re a sophomore or junior just beginning your college search, or a senior who is putting the final touches on your college list, pre-fair preparation is key.

Before the Fair

1. Pre-register at www.gotomyncf.com. Print the barcoded ID and bring it to the event.
2. Decide what you want to accomplish by attending the fair.

Seniors – can use the fair to express continued interest in the colleges on their “short list”,  get answers to questions they developed during their research, and expand their college horizons in necessary.  

Juniors & Sophomores –  can ask themselves questions to help them identify 5-10 colleges that they’ll want to visit at the fair.

1. What do you want to get from your college experience.
2. What factors describe the best learning environment for you?
3. How much academic pressure helps you achieve you best?
4. What academic programs & extracurricular activities would you like at college?

Answering these questions prior to the college will enable counselors on-site to recommend suitable college booths to visit.

At the Fair

1. Use the college locator handout to determine which college booths you’ll visit.
2. Determine which information sessions you’ll attend and what times they’re offered.
3. Take notes–waiting until you get home is a mistake.
4. Get the names and contact information of people you meet.
5. Consider how representatives interact with you. Are they friendly? What do they communicate about their colleges?

Questions to Ask College Fair Representatives as You Start Your College Search

Ask open-ended questions which require more than a yes or no response.

 Tell me about ____ College.
 I’m interested in ___. What can you tell me about this program at            your school?
 What makes your college unique?
 What is your college best-known for?
 What are some of the challenges students at your college face?
 What do you like best about your college?

 If you could change anything at your college, what would it be?              Why?

Time at the fair is limited, so decide on a few questions that are pertinent to you.


1. If at all possible, let your teens take the lead about how to spend your time.
2. Refrain from speaking for your teens.
3. If you have questions for college representatives, go ahead and ask them.
4. Consider splitting off from your teens for at least part of the time. This will allow you to        attend a financial aid presentation and your high schoolers to explore on their own.

The Icing On The Cake: Two additional features

Information Sessions will be presented multiple times each day. Topics include the college application process, college financial aid, writing college essays, and understanding the transfer process.

Finally, counselors, financial aid advisors, and testing professionals will be on hand to provide information and answer questions. Attendees who have questions or are unsure about how to make the best use of their time, can visit the counseling center located at the entrance to the exhibit hall.












Who Wants Money for College?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the gateway for obtaining student financial aid. On October 1 the 2019-2020 FAFSA went live online. Therefore, students who will be attending college in 2019-2020 should file their FAFSAs as soon as possible.

Keep in Mind

1. As the name says, it is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. There is no cost
to use this form when you complete and file it at www.fafsa.gov. Do not confuse this with www.fafsa.com which is a commercial site that charges money for filing the FAFSA for you.

2. Students are required to have a FSA ID in order to sign their FAFSA electronically. The FSA ID is a username and password. To obtain a FSA ID, visit https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm. Do this before you complete the FAFSA. It can take up to three days to receive your PIN, so apply for it immediately.

3. Dependent students (almost everyone under the age of 24) must submit financial information
for one parent. That parent needs a FSA ID as well.

4. Read the instructions carefully. Specific instructions are built into the online FAFSA form. Be meticulous about understanding what must be reported and what doesn’t.

5. It is very helpful to gather all the necessary information before beginning the FAFSA. Visit  https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out#documents for a list of documents to have on hand.

6.  Think carefully about using the Data Retrieval Tool (http://www.irsdataretrievaltool.com) that is available. The feature transfers information from the IRS to the FAFSA. This likely cuts (or eliminates) errors, but the downside is that for security reasons, the populated figures aren’t visible, so filers can’t see or verify the transferred information.

7. The FAFSA can be completed and submitted in more than one sitting. The application has provisions for saving information and returning to it later.

8.  The early bird gets the worm. Some sources of aid are limited and may award money on a first-come, first-served basis. The date a FAFSA is filed is the applicant’s “place in line”, so it is important that filers submit their FAFSAs as soon after October 1 as possible. Because the financial information required is based on prior-prior year tax returns (the 2019-2020 FAFSA asks for information from 2017 tax returns), so there is no reason to wait.

Common Mistakes

1. Not filing a FAFSA.

Many families don’t file the FAFSA because they assume that they won’t qualify for aid.
Never assume when money is on the line. Estimate your Expected Family Contribution at
www.finaid.org or www.fafsa4caster.gov.

Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, some schools are reluctant to award merit aid to
students who don’t complete a FAFSA (and CSS PROFILE if required). Further, if you want
to take advantage of students loans, or get work-study, you’ll need to file a FAFSA.

2. Filing the FAFSA in the name of the parent.

Although parents will in fact complete many FAFSAs, applications are actually students’ and must have students’ names and identification information.  Failure to keep this in mind can cause errors, delaying the processing of the application.

3. Including the name and financial information for the wrong parent.

Applicants are required to identify only one parent. For some students this is a straightforward matter. However, other students, particularly students whose parents are no longer married to one another, may find this to be a complicated issue. FAFSA instructions include detailed information about who is considered a parent and which parent to list.

4. Including assets or other financial information that isn’t required.

The FAFSA requires applicants to submit a income and asset information. However, some assets are not taken into account. For example, applicants should not include information about their parents’ equity in their primary residence or the balance in their retirement accounts. Read all instructions carefully and submit what’s required. Don’t include assets or other figures that can be excluded.

Continuing Students

Students who filed FAFSAs last year may be eligible to file Renewal FAFSAs, which prepopulate much of the information. Updated financial information must be provided and students may edit prior information as well. Visit https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/fftoc01e.htm for additional information about renewing.

For additional information about completing the FAFSA visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out or contact a local college financial aid office.

College First Years Offer Reassurance & Advice for Rising Juniors & Seniors

The new school year is right around the corner. Last year’s seniors are headed off to college full of hopes and dreams. At the same time, if you’re a new junior and senior, you’re probably stepping up your own college search.

With a plethora of websites and guidebooks competing for your attention, decisions needing to be made, and parents, counselors, teachers and friends all asking well-meaning but sometimes intrusive questions, how do you navigate?

I asked a few students who recently completed their own college searches to share their thoughts.

Authenticity is Key

Leo S., who is heading to Harvard, suggests, “Figure out what you enjoy and go all in on that one thing. It doesn’t need to be something that would be ‘good’ for college, just something that you genuinely enjoy. That enjoyment will show.” Marissa L., who’s off to Northwestern, echoes that saying, “Be your genuine self in the application process. I expected to have to ‘make myself seem better’ in my applications but, instead I chose to focus on the meaning of my achievements and activities.”

Peter Van Buskirk, former Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College and one of the most well-respected voices in the field once said, “The goal of the college admission process is to gain admission to colleges that ‘prize you for who you are’”.

Focusing on your own needs, preferences and wishes will help you throughout the process. First of all it gives you a known place to start. Starting with what you know lessens anxiety and provides momentum. Whether you’re a junior who doesn’t know a lot about colleges, or a senior who’s unsure about how to approach your essays, you do know about yourself…or you will if you take some time to reflect. Heeding the Leo and Marissa’s advice will help you use your time and energy in the right direction instead of spinning your wheels.

Take Some Risks

Molly K., who’s about to start her sophomore year at Barnard College, encourages some reasonable risk-taking. She says, “Push yourself, trust your gut and put yourself out there. I’m not saying that your entire college list should be reach schools, but if you feel strongly about a college, don’t let others dissuade you.”

Establish Boundaries

Marissa, a member of Northwestern University Class of 2022 and the youngest of several children says, “Parents are especially difficult during this time. Establish boundaries with them.” One way to set boundaries is to arrange a mutually convenient time each week that you’ll update your parents on how you’re progressing with your college search and applications. This will keep them in the loop while giving you the freedom from having to deal with “all college all the time”. You could also get them to agree that college talk is banished from family mealtimes.

Parents mean well, and it’s helpful to understand that this going away to college stuff is hard for them as well. They want the best for you and have their own dreams, expectations and fears.

Keep An Open Mind

Hanna B. began her college search feeling already burned out from high school. She approached the process with dread, yet recounts that going through the process helped her see that she had options. Hanna, who will be taking a gap year to travel and trek, thinks that keeping an open mind is crucial. Not only did she open her mind to the idea of a gap year, but she also was open to exploring colleges whose names she didn’t recognize or which are frequently mentioned in the news.

Writing Essays

College application essays can be the bane of students’ existence. Even students who enjoy writing likely have never tackled this type of assignment. Neither academic paper or creative writing assignment, college essays are in a category of their own.

Much of the work on essays comes before the writing even begins. Selecting topics that genuinely interest you, that highlight important items, and that allow you to share your “voice” is essential. Leo suggests that students “be willing to completely scrap ideas rather than trying to salvage bad ones into mediocre essays”. Further, students who typically write one or two drafts of a paper and earn “A’s” soon find that it’s not unusual to write four or five drafts before an essay is ready for prime time. While essays can’t get you into colleges for which you’re really not qualified, they can make a huge difference in borderline situations. With so much riding on your them, your essays deserve all the time and effort you can devote.

Last Words

From Leo: Compile a list of accomplishments/awards/etc. so it is easy to transfer them to applications. Having a list of things that I did and wanted to incorporate into my applications was really useful. It enabled me to make sure that everything got included. I ended up putting in there multiple things that I might not have even thought of had I not spent a good amount of time talking with parents and making the list.

From Marissa: Only apply to colleges that are truly essential to your list. In other words, don’t apply to as many schools as possible in hopes of getting into any random one.

From Hanna: Trust the process. “This process helped me clarify my goals, feel secure in my decisions, and provided a solid launching pad for my new life.”



Portland Welcomes Student Centered Higher Education

“With my grades and test scores, where can I get in?” Oftentimes this is the first question students ask when they come for an initial appointment. Typically I respond that I don’t know them well enough to answer that question, and respectfully add that they have, in my opinion, asked the wrong question.

It is NOT about where you can get in.

Rather than determining which institutions will accept them, students should be asking which colleges have the mission and resources to provide them with the experiences they want and need to accomplish their goals.

This turns the college search and admission process on its head in some very important ways.

Colleges That Change Lives: A Pretty Audacious Name, an Even More Audacious Mission

The folks at the non-profit, Colleges That Change Lives understand this distinction and are dedicated to helping students connect with higher education opportunities that build knowledge, character, and values.

Forty-one colleges nationwide have been awarded the CTCL distinction. Although they have varying missions, different admissions requirements, and wide-ranging academic programs, all are dedicated to fostering the growth of undergraduate students. CTCL colleges include such diverse institutions as Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s college in Atlanta; St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota that is best known for its outstanding vocal performance programs; Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan; and St. John’s College, known for its Great Books program.


The West is well represented among CTCL schools. Reed College, Saint Mary’s College of California, The Evergreen State College, University of Puget Sound, Whitman College, Willamette University are all members of the group.

If this sort of student-centered education seems appealing to you, you’re in luck. The CTCL folks are coming to town!

College Fair

Colleges That Change Lives College Fair
Wednesday, August 1, 2017 at 7 pm,
Oregon Convention Center Ballrooms 203 and 204
777 NE Martin Luther King Blvd, Portland, OR 97232

This is an unusual opportunity to hear some very wise folks talk about college admission in an entirely new way. You won’t hear a lot of hype about testing, but you will hear talk about “holistic review”. With the frenzy ratcheted down, the focus is on student reflection and the importance of “match”, between student needs and campus means.

The college fair begins with a 30 minute information session, followed by approximately 1.5 hours of free time. According to the CTCL website, “During the college fair, students and families are invited to collect information from and speak directly with admission representatives from the colleges and universities that inspired the book Colleges That Change Lives.”

All CTCL events are free of charge and open to the public. For your convenience, you may register online.

Parents, Please Have a Conversation About Mental Health

This timely op-ed piece from the New York Times is important reading for everyone. Read it, share it, post it.


Students, know that your friends, your parents, your teachers, everyone is more concerned with your welfare than with your grades. If you have more than just a few days when you don’t feel okay, please let someone know. Sharing lessens the burden.