Researching the college list and visiting
There are many parts to the college application process. To start, you need to find out accurate information on different colleges, what majors and special programs they offer and what standardized tests may be required for admission. Then, you need to explore what else each college has to offer in terms of clubs, sports, and academic rigor to see if the college would be a good fit for the student. Despite all the great information that can be obtained online, it is important to try and visit any school that the student is interested in as it helps to get the 'feel' of a campus that cannot completely be conveyed through a website. It can motivate a student to work harder once they see some real life colleges that they desire to attend. It can help to refine the college list and eliminate schools that are not liked.
Visiting can also show the college 'demonstrated interest' that can improve a student's chances of acceptance. In addition, once the student has hopefully been accepted to several colleges it can be difficult to try and rush to see all the schools in the spring. A campus visit affords the opportunity to speak directly to admissions staff, as well as current students, where asking questions is very important. Students and parents should feel empowered to ask anything of concern to them: from roommate selection, the political leanings of the student population, the school's policies on safety, to how easy or difficult it is to change one's major.
Another step in the college admissions process is developing the student's resume. This includes the transcript, extracurricular activities, jobs, special talents and one or more essays. A problematic personal essay has been known to sink an otherwise promising college application. It is very important for students to get adult feedback on their essay as well as how to best present themselves to the colleges, especially if there have been one or more academic bumps along the road. Parents can play a role but often have a harder time being objective and are unlikely to know what the admissions officers are looking for. Further complicating matters, it is often hardest for students to hear feedback from their parents rather than other adults.
Once a well thought-out list of colleges to apply to has been compiled, most families will apply for financial aid. There are many details to this process which can be confusing. Here again, it is most important for students and parents to follow through with questions on anything that is not clear or where information is missing and to be aware of deadlines. Read carefully through all paperwork sent from the college as soon as you receive it. When filing the FAFSA, be aware of common errors, such as how to make sure all the colleges receive your financial information if the student is applying to more than ten schools. In that instance, after you've verified that the first ten schools have been sent and received your information, you can then go back and replace additional schools in those slots. Increasingly over the last few years it is not enough to simply submit the FAFSA. Some schools want the CSS Profile, a more thorough questionnaire about a family's financial information. Many schools now want an IRS transcript sent to them as proof that the family did, in fact, file their tax returns and that the numbers are consistent with what they reported on the FAFSA.
One needs to clearly understand the different types of financial aid that may be offered to the student. Failure to do so can cost a family thousands of dollars. There are scholarships and grants offered from the college (both one-time and renewable) which don't have to be paid back and are the best type of aid. There are various types of federal grants or loans if you qualify. While grants are preferable, federal loans are the most desirable of the loans because they have the lowest interest rates and have several deferment options following one's undergraduate education. There are also private student loans, which can be used to pay the gap between what monies are offered and each college's cost of attendance. Ideally you want to minimize the proportion of private loans in the financial aid package as these are the most costly upfront and during repayment.
One of the reasons it can be valuable to apply to several schools is that you then have a wider selection of financial offers. While money isn't everything, no one wants to leave school saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans. It is important that the student and the parents have ongoing open and honest discussions about each school's desirability and affordability. Even with a family's demonstrated financial need, colleges are not required to offer scholarships or grants to fill the gap. They may expect the family to take out extensive loans to pay for college. Often private colleges have greater endowments than state colleges, and are thus able to offer more scholarships, despite having a higher stated cost of admission, the 'sticker price'. In addition, state colleges are mandated to provide for their in-state residents, and many offer little money to out-of-state residents to offset costs to their in-state students. Ironically, therefore, students can often pay significantly less for a private college than for a seemingly less expensive state school out of their state.
Be proactive and follow through
With all the hours and effort put into the college application process, it is crucial that important details are not overlooked. If a student or parent has a question or concern, it is not sufficient to simply send an email and then wait for weeks to get a reply. Emails can get overlooked, people can get sick, go on vacation, leave their job or simply make mistakes. Do not assume that the college staff are always thorough. Teenagers have to realize that adults are not necessarily competent. Other adults, such as parents, realize this. This is a truism of life in general. Communications from colleges sometimes are not clear. Do not doubt yourself or not follow up because you don't want to seem foolish or be a nag. Do not rely on a 'reminder' from the college for missing documents. It is the student's and parents' responsibility to respond or to call and get clarification if something is not clear or does not seem right or goes beyond the time expected to get an answer. It's always good to be proactive when dealing with the importance of the next four years of a student's life and their future job prospects.
Do not hesitate to call a college's admissions office, specific department office or financial aid or bursar's office, or FAFSA itself with questions. That is part of their job. If you do not get a thorough answer, politely ask to speak to someone higher up who might know the information. Often students are manning the desks at the colleges and the initial person on the phone does not have the experience or authority to correctly answer a question. Be courteous but do not allow yourselves to be put off. Students should utilize their parents if they feel that they are not getting clear or thorough information. Make sure all information received by the student is shared with the parents. Do not assume parents received a duplicate of the information and that they will 'take care of it'. Many parents want to be helpful but do not understand a lot of today's requirements because things have changed in the last 20 to 30 years.
Learning to be strong self-advocates will enable students to navigate college more successfully, as well as serve them for the rest of their lives. Getting expert college advice is an investment in a student's education that can increase their chances for acceptance and the offers of scholarships. College Docs works with students and their families to help them obtain the best opportunities for successful college admission. Feel free to call us for questions on how we can help.
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