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

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.”

 

 

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.

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

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.

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-gedye-college-mental-health-20180615-story.html

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.

 

Calling All Parents

Do you have a soon-to-be senior? Maybe a rising junior? Is the “whole college thing” frequenting your radar screen more often than ever? If so, keep reading.

If you think that this “college stuff” is intrusive, let me tell you that your college-bound teen is probably way more stressed about this transition than you are. Without the perspective that comes with experience (read age), teens can feel that college admissions decisions determine their chance for future success and are judgements on their personal worth.

This is where you come in. How you handle the college search and application process can have a huge impact on how they handle things. Although your teens may kindly (or not so much) ask you to keep out of their college search, you do have a significant role.

Summer, with its more relaxed schedule, is a great time to rethink how you view the college search and admission process and catch up with your teen about his/her thoughts about college. That being said, many students dread the “college talk”. Here are some suggestions for connecting with your teen.

1.   Tell your teen that you’d like to catch up about the whole college thing and ask for a time
when he/she would be ready to chat.

Then, listen, listen, listen! The college search process is often a time of personal reflection, change and growth. Share your thoughts and opinions only after you’ve heard what is important to your teen. You could learn some interesting things.

2.   Be honest about restrictions and needs. If there are financial, geographical or other factors that restrict college options, communicate them early in the process. Once you’ve established college search parameters, allow your teen to have as much independence as possible.

3.   Communicate your optimism and confidence. Your teens, though they may not show it, need
cheerleaders. When their self-esteem waivers, as it may, they need you, more than ever, to remind them of their worth, their skills, their talents, and that where they attend college is not the final verdict on their happiness or success in life.

4.  Consult an expert. Whether you have questions about what colleges might be most suitable for  your teen, want to better understand financial aid, or are ready to pull your hair out because your rising senior hasn’t taken any standardized tests, there are professionals to provide guidance.

Independent college counselors are experienced in working with high schoolers and their parents. They can give you and your student information, perspective, support and strategies. Further, most know of top notch test prep professionals, college financial planners, psychologists who specialize in working with teens, and learning specialists, and can make excellent referrals based on your needs.

5.  Consider a road trip. Although ideally college campus visits take place when classes are in session, summer may offer the flexibility you need. A college visit can be as quick and informal as walking through a campus to get a feel for size and location, or more structured as offered through the admission office.

More on campus visits in another post.

6.  Honor your teen’s uniqueness. Don’t compare your teen to others, especially siblings. There is  so much about the college admission process that is evaluative and comparative: grades, test  scores, the list of activities and leadership positions. Teens need a break. Make home a “judgement free” zone.

7.  Keep your need for information and control in check. Although it’s reasonable to want your
teen to keep you apprised of his/her thinking about college, frequent college talks stress some teens, making them really closed lipped. Try to refrain from frequent inquiring and micro-managing. Make mealtimes “college free”.

8.  Take college rankings with a grain of salt. The best college for your teen may not be the most competitive to get into or the highest on some college list.

9.  Don’t confuse selectivity with quality. Selectivity is a function of popularity, nothing more. Price to some extent is also a function of popularity. Quality is something else entirely. To make matters more confusing, quality is not objective. What makes one college great for a particular student may be irrelevant to another. Your teen is an individual and should evaluate colleges based on his/her own carefully thought out priorities.

10. Let your teen be a teen. If you’re anxious, have heard horror stories from other parents, or
are worried about financing, your teen’s procrastination or the impending empty (or emptier)       nest, handling it without your teen is usually best. If you need counsel, seek out a professional.

 

Books on parenting teens through the transition from high school to college

Bruni, Frank, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2016.

Kastner, Laura, Ph.D. & Wyatt, Jennifer, Ph.D., The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002.

Lythcott-Haims, Julie, How To Raise An Adult, Henry Holt, New York, 2016.

Springer, Sally & Reider, Jon, Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College 3rd Edition, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2017.

Evaluating Financial Aid Awards

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.

Loans

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.

Final Words

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.

College Spotlight: Whittier College

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.

Academics

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.

Student Body

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.

Student Experience

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.

Here Comes Summer!

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.

College Programs

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:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/12zHKUq9yhmqq13OzhYziMMhCg_HJBxeTNDhGtKkkeuo/edit#!

https://www.teenlife.com/category/summer/pre-college-summer-programs/

http://collegelists.pbworks.com/w/page/16119590/Summer%20Programs%20-%20General

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.

Read

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.

Parting Words

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!