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.

Externally Published Articles

  • 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.

Recent Posts

Test Optional: Is It Really? What Else You Should Know

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the spring administrations of the ACT and SAT to be cancelled, many colleges declared that they would become “test optional”. Plans ranged from test optional for students applying for the Class of 2021 only, to test optional as a complete change in policy for the foreseeable future.

But test optional? Just skip testing entirely? Could it be that easy? Wouldn’t it be better to have test scores, especially good ones? A few months ago most people, myself included, advised many students to “stay the course” and try to test in the fall. But now as August test sites close, test dates are cancelled, and stress levels mount, it’s time to rethink.

If you’re in the Class of 2022 or later, unless you’re already registered for one of the exams, put concrete plans for testing on the back burner for now.

Is Optional Really Optional?

The short answer is, YES. Just recently the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a statement by admission officers just under 500 colleges “affirm[ing] that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score. Together, [they] strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Holistic review has been around for a long time and college admission officers are skilled at evaluating applicants along these lines.

Test Optional ≠ Test Blind

Test optional and test blind are two different policies. Under the first, students who don’t have scores won’t be disadvantaged when their applications are reviewed, but those who do submit scores will have them considered. Under the second policy, no test scores will be part of the review process.

For colleges that are test optional but not test blind, it’s not completely clear how they plan to evaluate applicants who submit scores without disadvantaging those who don’t. One option would be to group score submitters into one pool and those who don’t submit scores into a separate pool and then make decisions accordingly. Because admission officers haven’t explained their plans, asking questions might be your best bet.

So, should I still try to test?

Like so many other things in college admissions, “It depends”. The short answer is that you should submit test scores if you believe they will strengthen your application.

That being said, the decision to test or not is highly individual, and while it’s beyond the scope of this post to give comprehensive advice about whether to test or not, but here are some questions to consider:

  1. Have ALL of the schools on your short list adopted test optional policies? If not, this could be the deciding factor.
  2. Is testing available in a convenient location? Traveling a long distance or to an unfamiliar location could add unnecessary pressure to an already stressful situation.
  3. Do public health conditions allow you to feel comfortable about being in the testing situation? Although both the ACT and the College Board have policies and procedures in place for test sites, masks are not being required and there have been reports of less than ideal circumstances.
  4. What is your testing history? Are you a strong standardized test taker? Have you taken a diagnostic test that predicts a strong score that would be commensurate with your grades?
  5. To what extent have you prepped for the exam? If you haven’t prepped yet, do you have enough time to do the work to earn a score that will boost your application. If you’ve already started prepping, can you keep up that level of readiness until you actually test? Retesting will be unlikely.
  6. How much time do you have? Time is not unlimited. Are you better off spending time prepping for one of the tests or devoting it to preparing and refining your applications and essays?
  7. How are your other academic credentials? If you have a strong high school transcript with rigor and strong grades you might make a different decision than if you haven’t really applied yourself during high school, are a strong tester and have been counting on your test scores to boost your application.

As with many issues during this time of COVID, circumstances change constantly. With all the uncertainty swirling around, it’s important to keep in mind that the number one priority should always be students’ mental and emotional well-being. There is already more than enough stress to go around. This just might be the right time to choose to apply to colleges test-optional.

Be well.

Turning the College Admissions Process on Its Head

If you’re like most parents, you want your student to navigate the college admission process with curiosity, confidence, and optimism. That’s a tall order in the best of times, and as we all know, these are not necessarily the best (or easiest) of times. So what’s a parent to do?

One thing you can do from the comfort of your own, physically distanced space, is read The College Labyrinth: A Mindful Admissions Approach, by Dr. Erin Avery, CEP. A deceivingly slim volume, this read packs a decidedly big punch.

Avery demonstrates her understanding of teenage angst and the unspoken, frequently unrelenting, pressure felt by college-bound teens. Avery’s goal is to define the college search process “in terms of what is best for the student by keeping students centered, rooted in perceptions of self- worth and self-identity in order to emerge from this process a more fully formed adult prepared to embrace the often circuitous pathway of life…” (p. 13). She wants students to view the college search and admission process as a “pilgrimage, a quasi-sacred journey… within which [they] can reflect and explore rather than merely engaging in a win/lose task…” (p. 43).

Turn the College Admission Process on Its Head

In other words, Avery is advocating turning the entire college admission process on it’s head! How’s that for a radical thought?! Rather than students focusing on what credentials they need in order to be admitted to the colleges of their choice, she’d prefer that students start with who they are and what they want, along with thoughts of where they might like to go in life, and only then research colleges to determine how effectively they will support those goals and dreams.

Want to join the revolution? Become and stay student-centered. Steer clear of the US News and World Report college rankings that will hit newsstands on September 9. Step away from the focus on “name brand” that’s perpetuated by the media. Where your teen attends college is not a referendum on either their worth as a student or on your success as a parent. So forget about the car decal cachet competition.

Encourage your teen to start with what they know. Suggest that they begin by identifying their strengths, challenges, preferences, and goals. Have them reflect on their learning styles, social preferences, and extracurricular interests, as well as their goals and expectations for college. Using these as the starting point will help them determine the types of environments in which they’ll thrive and will aid them in maintaining a sense of personal efficacy and control.

Why It’s So Hard

There are umpteen factors at play that make the college search process fraught with uncertainty. Perhaps one of the most salient is Avery’s concept of liminality – of being in between and without the security of structure. Adolescence is liminal, in that it’s a period between childhood and adult-hood with more chaos than structure or order. Avery says, “Applicants to college are journeyers through liminal territory, standing in the doorway of their current life stage and looking outward into the wider world and as such they constitute a nomadic tribe searching and eagerly awaiting their arrival on firm ground…” (p. 26). Our teen nomads are engaged in a journey or quest (think Don Quixote) in which they feel they have little control.

What Parents Can Do

Provide grounding ballast for your teen. Teens, by their very nature, lack the perspective that you, as an adult, have. You know your teen’s strengths and their challenges. Reiterate their strengths, especially when they seem to feel that they don’t measure up. Help them brainstorm for ways to cope with and overcome their challenges. Helping them stay balanced is perhaps the most significant thing you can do for your teen.

Empathize with your teen. If you’re frustrated by your teen’s procrastination, consider this: people always procrastinate for a reason. Why is your teen putting off prepping for the SAT/ACT? Why do they sidestep writing their college application essays? Think about the uncertainty of Avery’s liminality. Contemplate the feeling of futility your teen may be experiencing that no matter how much test prep they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the score that will open doors or that no essay they write will be exceptionally noteworthy. Imagine the anxiety of believing that their future rests in the hands of college admission officers who don’t know them from Adam or Eve?

Be your teen’s cheerleader. We all need them now and then. The process of presenting their academic career for review likely has your teen feeling judged. When your teen’s confidence lags, bring out the pom poms – no, not literally, of course. Be the carrier of your teen’s confidence until they’re ready for it back again. And rest assured, they will be. Just wait until those college acceptance letters come rolling in.

The College Labyrinth contains considerable wisdom. The messages are deep, complex, and far beyond the scope of this post. You may find this seemingly accessible book a challenging read, as it is packed with numerous references to authors, developmental psychologists, philosophers, and theologians. The repeated references to religious symbols, figures and concepts can be off-putting for those with a secular mindset. However, approach this book with an open mind and you’ll discover quite a few precious nuggets that will help you and your teen navigate the college search and admission process with your sanity intact.

Hidden Treasure: The Best College Research Tool You’ve Never Heard Of

In a previous blog post I wrote that researching colleges is like peeling onions. There are many layers to examine. You start by using readily available resources and then, step-by-step, move to an increasingly more intimate understanding of a school’s core nature by visiting and talking with people. Unfortunately, options for visiting colleges are slim to nonexistent during this Summer of COVID 19, which leaves many students and their parents wondering how to get “up close and personal” with the colleges on their lists.

Since writing that post, I’ve discovered a wonderful new resource that can help you make an end run around this nasty virus. Enter the “virtual college tour”. Design your own virtual college road trip with the help of StriveScan, a company that provides scanning services for college fairs. StriveScan has helped fill a need by hosting a huge library of video recordings on its website, enabling to you “visit” multiple colleges from the comfort of your own home. At www.strivescan.com/virtual/recordings/ you can learn about a wide range of colleges from Augustana College in Illinois to York College of Pennsylvania. Colleges you may be more familiar with include include Whittier College, the University of Puget Sound, the University of Redlands, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Think of these approximately 45 minute recordings as private Info Sessions, minus the Q&A. Although not quite like being on campus in person, these recordings can give you both valuable information and a sense of college culture. They have the added advantage in that you can watch them at your leisure, rather than by traveling to two or three colleges in a single day, leaving you exhausted, dazed, and often confused about what you saw where.

StriveScan’s recordings go far beyond college-specific videos. For those of you just beginning your college search, the site has numerous videos with titles such as: Finding Your College Fit, Being Undecided at a Large Public Research University, How to Utilize your College Admissions Counselor, College Without the Sticker Shock, and the Best Questions to Ask Admission Counselors. To take full advantage of what StriveScan provides on this site, browse the recordings. This site is truly one of the best kept secrets in the college research toolbox.

Getting to know colleges and their individual cultures during the time of COVID 19 requires that you be creative, innovative, and persistent. These are qualities that colleges want to see in applicants. So, think carefully about what YOU want to know about colleges, get off the beaten path, demonstrate your ingenuity, and enjoy the treasure hunt.

How To Research Colleges While Campuses Are Closed

As a recent guest on The College Financial Lady’s Facebook Live series, Ask The Experts, I was called upon to address this topic. This is drawn from my remarks.

Obviously this is of huge concern because finding good college “matches” is key to college success and “match” is based on the coming together of student priorities and institutional offering.

The current stay at home orders, while inconvenient, and by this time probably unpleasant, offer a unique opportunity for you to engage in a very important first step to your college search: thoughtful and focused self-reflection. If you aren’t clear about what you want and need in your college experience, it is impossible to find a great match.

Establish your own list of desired characteristics for the college you attend. These will become the criteria for researching and evaluating colleges. The most effective lists are comprehensive and include:

Academic Factors: intellectual environment, degree requirements, major offerings, learning/teaching style, academic advising services, class size, quality markers.

Personal Factors: institutional size, type of location, residential life, student diversity, extracurricular interests, campus culture, Greek Life, and socio-political environment, among others.

Family Parameters: distance from home, travel logistics, access to public transportation, and affordability.

These are the things that are important to you and should be the factors to focus on while researching college options.

Researching colleges is like peeling onions. There are many layers. The deeper you go the closer you get to understanding the core of an institution.

COVID-19 can’t stop you from peeling the outside & middle of the onion.

Learn everything you can about colleges from a distance. Colleges want students who are resourceful and participate in their own learning. Now’s the time to breakout your research skills. Consult guidebooks, websites, and articles. Don’t limit yourself to institutional websites, Wikipedia, and the obvious suspects: Big Future, College Express and the like. Dig deeper.

Let your criteria direct your search. If you’re looking for engineering programs, visit the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology website and see where that takes you. Budding journalist? Visit the Associated Collegiate Press website to learn about college newspapers. If you’re a young woman, check out the Women’s College Coalition. Data geeks, College Navigator may be the answer to your dreams, but if you’re wanting to really understand which colleges offer quality student engagement, you’ll want to visit the National Survey of Student Engagement website.

By expanding your research beyond the obvious, you enhance your understanding by including a diversity of perspectives. Not only do you get a fuller understanding of the institution you’re researching, but you also demonstrate you’ve done your homework when you do connect with college admission officers on a personal level.

Connect in spite of COVID-19.

Colleges and universities are as concerned about this distancing as you are. They’re working hard to offer robust virtual offerings. Most college websites prominently feature virtual info sessions and campus tours either from their homepages or from their admission websites. That’s not all. Type the name of any college into the YouTube search box and you’ll see a plentitude of options from students sharing their activities and experiences, to professors discussing topics of current interest, admission officers offering suggestions about applying, and sports teams highlighting their exploits. Make thoughtful use of these and you’re on your way to great college matches.

Check out college newspapers and pay attention to how institutions are responding and communicating with students regarding the current COVID-19 situation. These are key to understanding institutional priorities.

Contact the admissions officer who handles your region/high school. This person is not only a valuable resource who can connect you to a wealth of information and campus personnel, but also typically has a significant impact on furthering your application for admission. To put your best foot forward, make sure you’ve done your homework and, have a significant reason for reaching out.

And now for an end run around COVID-19.

Current restrictions are keeping you from campus tours, visits with coaches and sports teams, and overnights in residence halls, but they won’t last forever. Until large gatherings are allowed and travel is easy, you’re going to need to be creative.

Think about your ideal campus visit. If you were ruler of the world, what would you see, what would you do, who would you meet? Use your brainstorming to direct your subsequent connections. Reach out to faculty members, coaches, financial aid officers, career development specialists – any college staff member who might further your understanding of the institution. If you can’t find these people online using campus directories, ask your admission officer to connect you. The same goes connecting with students from your hometown, athletes, orchestra members, club officers, Greek Life ambassadors, or students from any group that interests you. Lastly, request introductions to college alumni who are additional sources of information and perspective.

No two students’ college research will look the same. Your research should be directed by your priorities. COVID-19 may be turning your college search on its head, but it just might make for more thoughtful and effective “matches”.

The World is Insane: So What About College? Important Questions You’re Too Distracted To Ask

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar featuring several college admission professionals: Adam Ingersoll, founder of Compass Prep, a leader in the testing industry; Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University, and college counselors from several selective private schools nationwide. They were all discussing, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Many of you are wondering…

Will colleges and universities will be operating in Fall 2020? It is unclear as to whether schools will resume normal on-campus operations or continue to offer online/distance learning in the fall term. Faculty and administrators are working hard to develop contingency plans so that students can begin and continue their higher educations. Not only are they planning for online instruction, but many are working to roll out virtual orientations, academic advisement, and student services. It’s likely that no decisions will be made until after May 1 at the earliest. (My guess is that it’s apt to be later, perhaps quite a bit later.) It also may be likely that some schools will open their doors on schedule, others will schedule a delayed opening, and still others may begin the school year online and open their doors second term. At this point, I don’t expect uniformity.

Some colleges have been transparent about their planning for the fall, while others have been less so. Although there is nothing you can do to hurry these decisions along, you CAN think about your own needs, preferences, and priorities. Ask yourself some questions.

  • How has online learning worked for you this spring?
  • How comfortable are you with returning to a college hundreds or thousands of miles away?
  • Would you benefit from taking a term off from school? (More about this later.)
  • How has the pandemic impacted your finances and college affordability?

How will this pandemic affect juniors’ plans to apply to college? Juniors, continue on the path you set for yourself, albeit with some significant changes. Finding “right fit” colleges is still your task at hand.

Consider this COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity. If nothing else, it’s given you time. Without the tyranny of your normal schedule, you have time for self-reflection. Now is your chance to take a time out to reexamine your priorities, your goals and your values. As lame as it might sound, doing so will make your college search more satisfying and effective. Seriously consider keeping a journal – not only about how you spend your days, but also your thoughts, feelings, and dreams. This is the stuff of history. Believe it or not, you’ll be telling your grandkids about this someday.

Many significant changes are being implemented and others are on the horizon. Let’s count the ways:

1. Standardized Testing: This is perhaps the most immediate disruption being felt. Spring 2020 test dates for both the SAT and ACT have been cancelled and the College Board has just cancelled its June test date. It is highly likely that the ACT will cancel its June test as well. While it is not clear when this testing will again become widely available, (panelists suggested that it might not be until schools are reopened), what is clear is that when that happens, both the ACT and the College Board will be inundated with test- takers.

More and more schools are going test-optional and the list is growing daily. Some institutions have gone test-optional on a permanent basis, while others for trial periods, and still others, only for the incoming class of Fall 2021, current juniors.

Decisions about testing should be made strategically. The best person to help you with making this important decision is an experienced counselor who understands both the nuances of the college landscape and your own individual situation.

2. Summer 2020 Plans: Colleges want to know how you spend your time and now is no different. How you spend your time says a lot about who you are and what you value. This summer many of the traditional avenues for pursuing interests, developing skills, earning money, and exploring new pastimes may not be open to you. But all is not lost. Think creatively about what you’d like to accomplish this summer. It doesn’t have to be monumental. It just needs to reflect who you are and what you care about. For some suggestions about putting this into practice, contact me at www.collegeahead.us.

3. Extracurriculars: look different now. You have no track records to boast about, you won’t be able to captain your softball team as you planned, the spring fundraiser for your club isn’t happening, and your lead in the spring musical is kaput. Yes, you got cheated. It totally sucks, but you do have a choice of how your respond. You could throw up your hands and think about how you lost out or you can re-imagine your previous activities and commitments. How can you demonstrate leadership, creativity, perseverance, and teamwork in this vacuum? Take your club online. Develop a service to help others: sew masks, do chores or errands for people at risk, or offer to teach a senior to Zoom. Paint up a storm. Bake for your neighbors. There are a million ways to transform your extracurricular activities. All you need is a fresh perspective. If you can’t muster this on your own, talk with a friend.

4. Demonstrated Interest: is likely to still be of interest to schools that considered it in the past, but it’s apt to look different. There are, at least for the time being, no high school visitations, campus visits, or preview days. One of the webinar panelists astutely suggested thinking of demonstrated interest as “demonstrated understanding”. Use all the tools at your disposal to really understand the institutions you’re considering. Don’t just look at the numbers. Think about what the numbers say about the institution.

5. Early Action and Early Decision Deadlines: Some schools may make minor changes in their EA/ED deadlines to accommodate students’ need to take standardized tests in the fall of their senior year. However, expect most deadlines especially those at the most selective institutions, to remain fairly consistent. Colleges most likely won’t make decisions regarding deadlines until May 1 or later.

6. Admit Rates & Waiting Lists: Media hype would have you believing that admit rates at “good colleges” are downwards of 10%. While this is true at the Ivies and similar schools, this is by no means representative of higher education as a whole. Furthermore, the uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 outbreak means that the models that colleges use to predict yield may be less accurate for this year and the near future. Which leads me to think that there will be more wait list activity since so many people’s plans are in flux. Does this mean that you should hold out for a wait list admit? Heavens no.

Which leads to…

How will colleges handle Gap Year and Deferral requests? All this uncertainty may have more of you considering gap years and other deferrals. Most students thinking about deferrals as a possibility move through the search and application process as if they’d be enrolling right away. You should as well. Once you receive your acceptances and have made a decision about where you’d like to enroll, then contact the school to request the deferral.

Individual institutions will handle deferrals in ways that best meet their own needs and goals. At Boise State University, the process is a straightforward as submitting a couple of forms. Other schools ask students to submit letters outlining their reasons for wanting a deferral and such requests may or may not be granted.

Depending on how many deferral requests an institution has, it might limit the number it grants. Some schools, when granting deferrals, essentially guarantee you a spot in the following year’s class. Others may not. SO, make sure you understand the terms and conditions before your formally request a deferral.

These are complicated times. Things change constantly. If you have questions or concerns about looking at and applying to college, College Ahead is operating and happy to support you during this time. We are using phone, email, and videoconferencing to support our students and their parents during this time of uncertainty. Feel free to reach out to us.

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.

Articles

Recent Posts

Seeing Is Believing: “Visiting” Colleges in the Time of COVID19

Seeing is believing – we all know that. Whether you’re a senior trying to decide between your offers of acceptance or a sophomore or junior looking to add context to your college search, visiting colleges is often the Spring Break activity of choice. So what to do when colleges are closing campuses, cancelling visitation events and curtailing admission activities?

Although you might be tempted to throw up your hands (washed, of course), actually there is a lot you can do to further your understanding of what colleges would be the best fit for you. As the CDC continues to recommend social distancing, a number of my colleagues have come together to offer thoughtful suggestions.

Dana Rolander, an IEC in the Midwest, points out that virtual tours can help fill the void created by the current situation. Many colleges offer virtual tours on their websites. Youtube videos can provide additional and varied glimpses into life on campus, providing rich perspective. A recent search for one school yielded multiple “day in the life” videos, tours of residence halls, pros and cons, and a peek at Greek life. Campus Reel https://www.campusreel.org. offers virtual tours of more than 300 colleges.

But of course, there’s more to a campus visit that just touring buildings. Visits offer opportunities to gather additional data and ask important questions.

If you want to know more about colleges’ outcomes (what students do and how they fare after graduation), Denise Eliot, and IEC hailing from Southern California recommends that you look at institutions’ Linkedin pages. By clicking on the Alumni tab you can see where alums live, what kind of work they do and also conduct a variety of searches. Further, many students have Linkedin profiles and you might be able to message them with questions.

Although many colleges and universities are closing, that doesn’t mean that nobody’s working. Take this opportunity to email university administrators and staff with your questions. For example, contact the career planning office to inquire about job fairs, on-campus recruitment and other services. Most colleges have campus directories on their websites, so take advantage and reach out to the people you were hoping to connect with during your now-kaput campus visit. The only caveat here is make sure that you’ve done your research by carefully reading the office’s webpage before posing questions.

Admission representatives are likely working as well, although perhaps remotely. Reach out to them for suggestions about furthering your investigation sans a campus visit. Reps can often connect you with campus resources and student ambassadors with whom you can connect through Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. Be respectful of reps’ time by being clear about what you want or need from them. They are working under difficult circumstances as well, so don’t waste their time with vague pleas.

The obvious is often easily overlooked, as New Jersey IEC, Lisa Bleich, reminds us. College students are fabulous resources and they’re coming home! Connect with students from your high school who attend colleges on your list. Ask them anything and everything you can think of. They can give you perspective that isn’t available anywhere else!

Massachusetts IEC, Eric Endlich, suggests that although you may not be a Facebook regular, most colleges and universities have Facebook pages. Furthermore, they frequently have groups for admitted students. Connecting with others, can add to your understanding, especially about campus culture.

Juniors, while Spring Break visits may be out of the question, you’ll have other opportunities to visit colleges of your liking. In the interim, use this time to really work the process provided by College Ahead. Use a wide range of resources to investigate the colleges on your list – both those suggested here, as well as those provided with your CollegePlannerPro account.

Seniors, yes, making a decision about where to attend college, especially when you can’t “test drive” it, can be a daunting prospect. However, if you’ve worked with College Ahead you’ve engaged in a thoughtful process with built-in help.

  • Review your Shopping List. This is your foundation. Think about your current priorities and how they might be different from when you started your research.
  • Review your completed College Information & Assessment Sheets and take time to think about what kind of picture the information paints of each college.
  • Reread your “why this college” essays and consider how what they say resonates with you now.
  • If you have unanswered questions, conduct some final research. Consult the website list you received in your initial consultation packet for such useful resources as www.collegedata.com and https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/.
  • Make a list of pluses and minuses for each school where you’ve been admitted. (Remember, there are no perfect schools and everything is a trade off.)
  • Compare financial aid awards when affordability is a factor.

Most importantly, keep in mind that the single most significant factor in making an wise college choice is YOU! Your attitude and your willingness to engage have the biggest impact on the success of your college decision, your college career, and your life trajectory. Although where you attend college is likely to have a lasting impact on your life, even more critical is the extent to which you take advantage of the resources and opportunities offered by your college or university.

You do not need to make this decision in isolation. In addition to talking with your parents, remember, I’m here and available to help you sort through the options. Often this last step in process is the most difficult. Zoom meetings are a convenient and safe option in this challenging time. Feel free to reach out with your questions and concerns.

Be Well-
Julia

Take a Look in the Mirror Before Planning That Spring Break College Tour

March is here, there’s finally some sunshine, and college searches are getting ramped up. Juniors are taking standardized tests and families are planning Spring Break college tours.

This is a time when, unless you’re working with a dedicated professional, it’s easy to get carried away.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

If you’re regularly checking College Confidential, diligently scouring college guidebooks, scheduling campus tours, or booking travel, but haven’t done a thorough and thoughtful student assessment to identify the important aspects of your own personal “college fit”, you’re putting the cart before the horse.

The lure of college websites and the prospect of campus visits is undeniable. Don’t get me wrong, spring break is a great time to visit colleges, especially if your destination schools are in session at the time. BUT,

Looking at colleges without a “shopping list” leaves you at risk.

Colleges spend significant resources marketing themselves. Websites, guidebooks and the like are designed to pique your interest. While they genuinely want you to discover colleges where you’ll succeed, college admission officers are expert painting rosy pictures of their institutions. Developing a college list, or worse, scheduling spring break visits before you’ve clarified what you actually want and need in the college you attend can be a colossal waste of time and money, and you don’t have enough of either to waste.

It’s like shopping for a car when you don’t know if you need a cheap ride to get you to and from school and your job, or an AWD to get you, your friends, and your gear to the slopes and back safely. You may get a car alright, but it might not be the best choice.

Get Ahead: Identify What You Want & Need

Put in the time at the beginning of your college search journey to identify what you want and need in college to accomplish your goals. Doing so will help you:

1) Save time by directing your attention to suitable college options,
2) Avoid being unduly influenced by slick admissions brochures,
3) Focus your college research and visits,
4) Evaluate colleges on the factors that are most meaningful to you.

And, these are only the short-term benefits.

In the long run, your “shopping list” will also help you:

1) Develop significant questions and talking points for interaction with admissions officers,
2) Write meaningful personal statements, and
3) Effectively evaluate your final college choices.

Expectations, Goals, Needs & Preferences

What goes into a thoughtful student self-assessment?

Taking a written inventory of expectations (both you and your parents have them, though they might be unspoken) and goals, as well as your hopes, fears, and your academic, personal strengths and challenges is key. It’s critical to consider financial parameters as well.

Some important questions to ask yourself to develop your own personal “shopping list” include:

  1. Why are you going to college?
  2. What do you expect from yourself during college?.
  3. What do your parents expect from you during college?
  4. When you think about college, what comes to mind?
  5. What do you like/dislike about your high school experience?
  6. You aren’t the same person as you were when you were 12. How would you like to be
    different at college graduation than you are now?
  7. What is your learning style?
  8. What is your social style?
  9. What experiences would you have liked to have before you graduate from college?
  10. What financial parameters/considerations do you have?

Your answers to these questions will point you in the right direction. Clearly identifying your needs and preferences is key to getting your college search started on a firm foundation.

Effective Approaches Share Common Elements

Although there is no one best way to do a student inventory, thoughtful self-assessments are:

  • Holistic in scope. Include a wide range of factors. financial.
    Being a student is only one aspect of who you are. Think about what you want the next four
    years of your life to look like academically, personally, and socially.
  • Open ended. Ask yourself complex questions requiring you to develop a nuanced responses. Questions that ask for only yes or no answers don’t yield much information.
  • Reflective. Allow plenty of time to contemplate your responses. This is not an exercise for rapid-fire, spontaneous answers.

You don’t have to work with a professional to “take a look in the mirror”, but if you’re unsure about where to begin, what to focus on, or what your answers mean, consulting a professional will likely save you time and money.

College Counselors Can Help

College counselors are experienced in guiding students and families though the college search and application process. They know both the questions to ask and how to make best use of the results. Individual college counselors use different approaches. To get your college search on solid footing, check in with a college counselor, either at your school, or one who works independently.

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.

Parents

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.”