Welcome to the College Ahead blog!
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.
- Destination Maturation
Julia Surtshin, The Journal of College Admission, Summer 2015
- Where to Start Your Summer Search for Colleges and Financial Aid
Brent Huntsburger, The Oregonian, June 2013
- Reassuring Words About Financial Aid
Higher Education Consultants Association Newsletter, January 2009.
- College Consultant Tries to Allay Jitters
(Interview) The Oregonian, November 2007.
- Liberal Arts & Professional Education
Under 25, Spring 2002.
- How to Write That College Essay
Under 25, Winter 1991.
May 1 is Coming
Seniors — You’ve got two weeks before you need to deposit at the college of your choice in order to secure your place in the Class of 2022. May 1 is right around the corner. No doubt you’re rethinking your priorities and revisiting college campuses to determine the best “fit”. That’s great, but in your enthusiasm, don’t forget about “financial fit”.
Unless college affordability is of no concern, you need to carefully scrutinize the financial aid award letter each college sent you to evaluate what is really being offered.
Not All Award Letters Are Created Equal
There is no standard form for college financial aid award letters. Different colleges include different figures making comparison difficult. All award letters include the cost of attending, but some will include only direct costs such as tuition and fees as well as room and board, while others will include indirect costs such as transportation, books and personal expenses. Be sure to compare total Cost of Attendance (both direct and indirect costs) figures.
Understand the Difference Between “Free Money” with “Self-Help” Aid
Scholarships and grants are “free money”. This is money that is given to you. In scrutinizing offers of free money, you need to know if the gifts are renewable for each year in college and, if so, under what circumstances. What happens if your financial circumstances change? What gpa must you maintain to keep your scholarship? Are you required to take a certain number of units each term? Is the grant or scholarship dependent on your major? What happens if, through no fault of your own, you are unable to graduate in four years? As they say, “The devil is in the details”. Unfortunately, few award letters provide these details, so you’d be wise to inquire before making decisions.
Furthermore, award letters typically include “self help” (loans and work study) figures. While these sources of aid are undoubtedly helpful, keep in mind that they are not gift aid. Loans must be paid back. Some award letters include only direct student loan amounts (both subsidized and unsubsidized), while others add PLUS loan amounts. While both of these are loan programs, they carry very different terms concerning eligibility, interest rates, lending amounts and other significant details.
Work study figures are simply maximum allowances, not gifts. The amount of money allotted must be earned. If you don’t secure a work study job or don’t work the maximum hours offered, you won’t have that amount of money to use.
What to Look For
The best way to compare financial aid offers is by creating your own spreadsheet.
Begin with the total Cost of Attendance including both direct and indirect costs. You’ll probably need to estimate at least part of this including transportation and personal expenses. Then deduct the total of your grant and scholarship awards. This result is the actual cost for your first year. Now deduct any work study you’ve been awarded. This figure is the amount you’ll have to either pay or finance.
Compare this figure across all the schools you’re considering. This is arguably the most crucial figure to wrap your head around. Although your award will include loans, remember, eventually these must be repaid.
Now it’s time to consider how much of your award is in the form of loans, and what type of loans are offered. Because student loans and parent loans are two very different things, and it is critical to understand view them as separate line items.
Direct student loans may be subsidized or unsubsidized. The only difference is that for subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest while you’re attending college. Unsubsidized student loans accrue interest as soon as funds are disbursed, though you aren’t required to begin paying that interest until six months after you graduate.
PLUS Parent loans carry very different terms from student loans. Parents are the borrowers and must qualify for the loans. Interest rates for PLUS loans are higher than for student loans, and repayment and forgiveness terms are very different.
The Bottom Line
Once you deduct the loan amounts you’ve been offered, you’re left with the amount of money you’ll actually have to come up for the first year. How does this compare with the “Expected Family Contribution” figure from your “Student Aid Report”? If the total amount of aid offered is less than your Expected Family Contribution, you’ve been “gapped”. If you’ve been “gapped” you’ll need to come up with this as well as your Expected Family Contribution.
Consider how much you can actually afford out-of-pocket and how much you’re comfortable financing. We’ve all heard horror stories about students graduating with $100,000 in debt, seriously compromising their plans for the future. This happens when families become so enamored with an institution that they believe it is worth attending at all costs.
What is Reasonable Debt?
For most families, at least some debt at college graduation is a fact of life. But, how much student debt is reasonable? How much “skin in the game” should students have? What level of borrowing is manageable without stifling plans for graduate school or buying a house?
Although there is no one right answer for all situations, there are a couple of rules of thumb. One school of thought is that borrowing should not exceed the limit imposed by the Department of Education’s student loan program which is currently $31,000.
Other schools of thought consider post graduation earnings, meaning that engineering students might afford to borrow more that someone preparing for a career in early childhood education. Mark Kantrowitz, a college financing expert and frequent contributor to Money magazine’s online column, says that your total college debt should not exceed your total annual income after graduation. Other experts suggest that monthly student loan payments shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of your pretax, post-graduation income.
The time for figuring out how much debt is reasonable for you is now, not when your loans go into repayment.
Deciding between schools with varying costs can be confusing. Although it is possible to objectively compare college costs, balancing costs with value is a subjective endeavor. Determining whether attending College A is “worth” more than attending College B is very personal.
Although where you attend college can have a huge influence on your future, what you do during college will have even more impact. During this time of final decision-making, take time to compare costs and consider value.
Whatever school you decide to attend should meet your education and personal needs without either crippling your future or jeopardizing your parents’ home or retirement. Taking on a reasonable amount of debt is a wise investment in your future. Taking on too much debt is likely to cause regret.
Picture a college where the atmosphere is collaborative rather than hierarchical, where students develop close relationships with faculty, and where all students are awarded $2,500 for a study abroad experience? Pretty sweet, wouldn’t you say? Well, that’s Whittier College.
What They’re Saying
The Fiske Guide’s profile says, “Whittier College is fast becoming a global training ground”. Niche/College Prowler rates Whittier favorably across the board. Current student reviews on Unigo emphasize the small, friendly, cooperative community and the demanding yet supportive faculty.
Location, Location, Location
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the small liberal arts college which is located less than 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. This location affords students opportunities to access the vast resources of one of the world’s major cities, while at the same time enjoying the feel of a small town suburb. Uptown Whittier, is a vital, student-friendly community, with restaurants, shops and coffee houses within easy walking distance of campus.
In true liberal arts fashion, the curriculum stresses the value of different types of understanding and is structured around four core categories including community, communication, cultural perspectives, and connections. Students must take at least six credits from each division (Natural Science, Social Science and Humanities/Fine Arts). Students may opt to participate in the Whittier Scholars Program which allows them to design their own academic experience with the guidance of a faculty advisor.
All classes are taught by faculty members who hold terminal degrees in their fields. Class sizes are small with more than 75% of classes having fewer than 30 students. Faculty members know their students well. They engage students in research and support them when they apply to graduate and professional schools.
Whittier enrolls approximately 1600 undergraduates. The student body is diverse: 44% are students of color and 25% are first-generation college students. Geographical diversity is a campus priority and the college has recently added a Pacific Northwest Regional Representative to its admission staff.
Whittier is a tight-knit community. Two-thirds of students live on campus and the majority of them stay on campus during the weekend. Students are friendly, energetic, and open-minded. There are dozens of clubs and activities as well as a broadcasting radio station and video production studio. A small but noteworthy group of students join local societies, Whittier’s version of fraternities and sororities.
Admission & Financial Aid
Whittier admits students with a wide range of academic credentials. Students with “B” averages, as well as those with higher gpas can find themselves challenged and supported. All accepted students are automatically considered for merit scholarships. Whittier is test optional for students who have a minimum weighted gpa of 3.0. Test optional applicants are considered for merit scholarship but not the highest awards. Talent awards for music, theater and art range from $1,000 to $12,000 per year. The college’s retention and graduation rates are well above national averages.
Whittier, in my opinion, is an under-appreciated gem. It provides a nurturing academic environment for a wide range of students. Academic high flyers who want to steer clear of cut throat competition will appreciate the rigorous but supportive academic culture. Students who are looking to “up their game” will find faculty who are push students to produce their best possible work and are dedicated to helping them further develop their academic skills and sense of efficacy.
Although the new year has just begun, it’s not too early to begin thinking about how to spend your summer. Time and money are limited resources – how you spend them says a lot about who you are and what you value. This is why colleges often include questions about your summertime activities in their applications. Making plans now mean that you’ll have more options than if you wait and find that program application deadlines have passed, or jobs have been offered to others.
OK, so now that I’ve got your attention, how do you go about figuring out what to do?
Accentuate the Positive & Minimize the Negative
First, think seriously about what your college applications would look like if you were to complete them now. Would you be a competitive applicant for the colleges (or types of colleges) you’re currently considering? If an admissions officer were reviewing your application portfolio today, which aspects would be impressive and what would be your “weak links”? Use your summer to minimize your weak links and/or build on your strengths. Making a specific plan now to address these issues is the surest way to maximize your options and help you be an outstanding college applicant.
Money, Money, Money
Next, ask yourself and your parents if financing your education is an issue? If so, it’s probably time to develop or spiff up your resume and hunt for a job. Getting a jump on your job search means that you’ll have landed a position before others even begin to think about getting a job. Look for job opportunities that, if possible, relate to your interests or current career goals. Your objective, in addition to earning money, should be to develop skills, evaluate career options, and exercise maturity. No matter what job you land, look for ways to engage and learn. Every job is an opportunity to develop meaningful skills and experience.
If you have a competitive college portfolio and if college financing allows you some freedom, the options are endless. There are however, some important things to keep in mind.
Depth, not Breadth
College admission officers are not impressed by applicants who present long lists of activities in which they participate in only minimally. They prefer to see students pursue over time, a few, well-chosen activities. Students who achieve excellence or recognition, take initiative, and assume leadership roles are particularly coveted. If you have an activity that you really enjoy, consider increasing your involvement: teaching your skill to others or assuming responsibility for some club function. This is often a better strategy than starting a new activity.
Some of you may want to consider summer enrichment programs taking place at colleges. These can be very interesting and give you a taste of living away from home, but unless they’re actually college programs with selective admission, they aren’t likely to boost your chances of being admitted to that college as a matriculating student. If you know that going in and are still interested, all’s well. Some sources for information about college programs are:
Many of these programs have early application deadlines. To have the most choice, apply early.
Passions & Purpose
Pursuing hobbies, traveling and community service are other worthwhile options. If you’re an artist, paint. Writers, use your summer to write. Often you can combine your hobby with doing community service. Sharing your passion for something with others creates a special sense of satisfaction that other activities don’t. Painters, consider applying for jobs at arts camps. Writers, you might volunteer to lead a memoir writing group at a local senior citizens facility. Computer gurus, seniors could use your expertise as well. If you love animals, you might be interested in Zoo Teens https://www.oregonzoo.org/get-involved/volunteer-zoo/zooteens. Applications open during January and typically fill quickly.
You don’t need to travel halfway across the world to have a meaningful experience. There is nothing wrong with traveling to Mexico to volunteer at an orphanage, but college admissions officers are well aware that many of these volunteer programs are costly and that there are children in your local communities that could use your interest as well.
Another novel option (pun intended), use your summer to read, for pleasure! When school is out and you don’t have school reading assignments coming out of your ears, read. Read what you like. Keep track of what you read and annotate your list with thoughts about why you chose a particular title and what you thought of it.
Any activity can be “meaningful”, depending on your attitude. Whatever you choose to do, keep in mind three things. First, admissions reviewers are experts at spotting “put ons”. Don’t choose an activity just because you think it will look good on paper. Secondly, arrange your summer schedule to allow you some time to relax before school starts again so you’ll be refreshed and ready for school in the fall. Finally, ENJOY!
No, I’m not talking about supersonic travel, but rather fall college fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacacnet.org) where you can speak directly with admission professionals from dozens of colleges nationwide.
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 your barcoded ID and bring it to the event.
2. Decide what you want to accomplish by attending the fair.
1. Use the fair to connect with colleges to which you’re planning to apply.
2. Determine a few things you don’t know about those schools and come to the fair prepared with thoughtful questions.
Junior & Sophomores
Ask yourself some questions to help you identify 5-10 colleges that you’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 to participate in at college?
Time at the fair is limited, so decide on a few questions that are pertinent to you.
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?
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.
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 do you like best about your college?
If you could change anything at your college, what would it be? Why?
Many college fairs have counselors as well as financial aid and testing professionals whose sole reason for being there is to support you. If you have questions or are unsure about how to make the best use of your time, be sure to meet with them.
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, “I don’t know what I want to study in college and so how can I figure out where to go to college?”
The belief that you need to know what you’re going to major in during college in order to thoughtfully select schools to apply to is perhaps one of the most prevalent and damaging myths surrounding the college application process. Although it’s true that some students need to decide on a major prior to applying to college, particularly those interested in specialized subjects such as architecture, engineering, or nursing, the vast majority of college applicants don’t need to have chosen a major in order to engage in a thoughtful college search.
So, What’s the Reality?
When college applicants are asked to identify their desired major or course of study, they list “Undeclared” or “Undecided” more commonly than anything else. And even when students do enter college with a major in mind, an estimated 75 percent change their major at least once before graduation. Finally, while students may agonize over their choice of major, many sources including The Washington Post, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Census Bureau report that the vast majority of college graduates work in jobs unrelated to their major.
What to Do?
So, if choice of major isn’t the best way to go or only way to select colleges to apply to, what academic factors should guide your choices? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you a visual, aural or tactile learner? Is your favorite class lecture style, discussion based or hands on? Each of these have implications for the types of schools and classes that would best meet your needs.
- Do you prefer to work independently or in groups of students?
- How much does your relationship with your teachers impact your performance? Many students report that they do much better in classes where they like the teacher and the teacher knows them. If this is you, keep it in mind. If your introductory biology class has 600 students, it will be next to impossible to develop a relationship with the instructor.
- How assertive are you? How comfortable are you with seeking support? Academic advising and support systems vary widely by institution. Know your own style and seek colleges that will foster your success.
- How well do you manage time? Are you a “quick” study? How you answer these questions might suggest whether you’d be happier at colleges with quarter system calendars versus those with semester systems. Keep in mind that a few colleges offer alternative calendars such as a block calendar.
- How do you prefer to demonstrate what you know? Objective tests and term papers are very different ways of demonstrating knowledge. Class size impacts how you will be evaluated.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but one to help you begin thinking about yourself and what kind of student you are. Understanding yourself, your strengths and your challenges are key to choosing colleges that will help you not only succeed, but also thrive.