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

Portland Welcomes Student Centered Higher Education

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

It is NOT about where you can get in.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

College Fair

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

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

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

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

Parents, Please Have a Conversation About Mental Health

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

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.