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Thanksgiving for a Supportive Family

By Kendell Shaffer

“At Thanksgiving do we have to talk about college?” Sydney asked in the car ride to school this morning. “I’m exhausted. I just can’t anymore.” I don’t blame her. It’s been non-stop college talk at our house since last Spring. I’m really hoping that by Thanksgiving, she will have finished her applications so that she can enjoy the rest of the year. But I do know it’s going to be the question on everyone’s mind. Because, let’s face it, college was a great time of life. And adults love to reminisce.

Her dad and I are very interested in her college career. We think college is super important and want to help her navigate through the overwhelming options. My thinking is that if her last year at home is dominated by the college process, then I’ll throw myself into it too. This way there is always something for us to talk about. We can help guide her, without pushing and talk about the future in educated ways. We like hanging out with our kids and knowing what they are interested in, so naturally we’re interested in learning about the college process.

I meet parents all the time who are hands off with the college search. Sometimes they don’t even know where their kids are applying. I know teenagers like some anonymity, but if you find clever ways to engage with them you can learn a lot. If they don’t want to talk about themselves, ask them what schools their friends are interested in. By taking the focus off your child, you might be able to find out what they are thinking and then the conversation might shift naturally back to them. I remember when my kids were little reading an article that suggested when your kids come home from school, don’t ask how school was. They will most likely answer with a one word answer like, “Fine.” But if you ask specific questions like, “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” their answer will most likely lead into something interesting that happened that day. I think the same technique can work with teens. Take the focus off them and and their ideas and feelings might eventually reveal themselves.

As we visit family and friends for Thanksgiving, I know college will be a big subject. College is a great ice breaker when talking to a senior or junior high school student. Everyone loves to tell college stories and it’s a fun conversation starter. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents get a twinkle in their eyes when they reminisce about their youth. Parents might tell a story or two that they have never shared before. My kids love to hear about old girlfriends and boyfriends. Even college heart breaks are up for grabs.

Listening to grownups telling college stories allows the kids grow up a bit too. It puts them at the adult table. They start to feel older. Next Thanksgiving the seniors will be the ones coming in from the airport with stories to tell. Their younger siblings, cousins and friends will listen more carefully and soak in every word.

I can’t promise Sydney that no one will ask her what colleges she is applying to. But I bet she will relish in the support from her family and friends and seek out their advice and take in their stories. It’s hard to imagine that next year she’ll be the one serving advice to the younger ones at the table. But I know she’ll have a bounty of stories and advice to share and maybe even a few leftovers.

Too Many Colleges, Too Little Time

By Kendell Shaffer

There are currently about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States. How on earth do you pick the right one for your child? In our house we started with our alma mater, New York University. Sydney’s dad went there for grad school and I went for undergrad. Every trip we made to NYC we’d pass NYU and retell stories of our past. When she and I and her brother did the official tour last Spring, she declared that NYU was the school for her. But as she visited other schools, NYU fell further down the list. In the end, she won’t even be applying there.

She learned universities meant larger classes and a larger student population. Gradually, small liberal arts colleges sounded more appealing. And we looked at some great ones in person and online, most of them in rural areas. There is a helpful book, Colleges That Change Lives, where we read about many we’d never heard of.

The more rural the schools, the more Sydney realized she was a city girl. She decided she wanted a small college in a big city. That didn’t leave a lot of options, but one thing that started to appeal was an all women’s college. I attended an all girl high school and a women’s college was the last thing I would have wanted. But she saw the benefits. She’d be able to go to a selective school, not have to compete with men to get in or during classes and she’d have better shots at leadership positions. She started to focus on women’s colleges as first choices. This all came about as she took the time to realize what was important to her in a school. It never would have been something I suggested.

As her list narrowed we needed to consider the finances. Luckily most of her schools were part of the list of colleges that meet 100% of financial need. The Net Price Calculator helped us to rule out certain ones and focus on some that we might not have considered before.

She didn’t want to go to school in Southern California where she grew up, although when we toured UCLA, she said, “there is nothing wrong with this school.” Except the fact that they had 102,000 applications last year for 6,000 spots! Looking at acceptance rates sometimes puts things into perspective.

If you ask my son what college he wants to attend, he will say NYU. He is pretty certain of it although he’s only in tenth grade. I imagine he will go through a series of discoveries as well and change his mind too. Or maybe not. With over 5,000 colleges to chose from you’d think he could find one that fits. He only needs one.

The Early Decision Decision

By Kendell Shaffer

My daughter Sydney decided to apply Early Decision to her top college. It turned into more of a family decision and a family effort to get out the early application. The deadline being November first.

About four o’clock on Sunday, my tenth-grade son who had burrowed himself in his room all weekend carefully tiptoed between his angst-ridden sister and frustrated father as they proofread her essay for a final time.

“Should I get my hopes up about tonight?” he whispered to me. We had promised a family dinner at his favorite restaurant once his sister submitted, partly to celebrate her submission and partly to thank him for his patience at being ignored during this college frenzy. We’d thought the application would have been done by Saturday morning but Sydney still wanted one more pass at the written supplements, needed to format the essay for the Common App, write Additional Comments, and create a resume for her Slideroom. She had prepped most everything but there were so many more details. Her dad and I took turns reading over things but between the application, play rehearsal and her full load of twelfth-grade homework, she was exhausted. We all were.

Sydney

I can’t help feeling that some of the household stress was based on the realization that if she gets into this college, it’s binding. She will be going. No turning back. How do you make that choice so early in your senior year? Why make that choice? Well, because the odds are much better to get in with Early Decision. In her case, 48% of applicants are admitted during Early Decision, whereas 15% are admitted during regular decision. It seemed like the best bet.

“If you got into all the colleges you loved and money was no object, would this still be your first pick?” I asked. “I can always change my mind, right?” she laughed, “Let’s do this.” So I retrieved my credit card, we paid the fee and she signed her final signature. It was seven-thirty and we were really hungry. We gathered around as she hit the submit button. And it was decided.

The evening ended in celebration at our favorite Mexican restaurant. The staff who have known Sydney since she was a baby brought over a dessert with a candle. We celebrated her hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Wherever she winds up will be the right place. This weekend’s Early Decision was the only first step. There will be many more decisions and celebrations to follow.

Gardening With the Net Price Calculator

By Kendell Shaffer

With our FAFSA report and CSS profile complete, I started to dig into the Net Price Calculator. Each college and university is required by law to have a Net Price Calculator on their website. About 200 are sponsored by the College Board. The College Board saves your information and makes it easy to estimate your “Calculated Family Contribution.” The other colleges require you to put in basic income and family information.

Once I unearthed our Calculated Family Contribution for our top ten schools, I looked up, bug-eyed, from the computer.

“Give me the rose and the thorn,” my daughter said, using an expression from her counseling class at school.

“Okay, your top school wants to give you a really decent amount of aid. Your second choice, zero aid. Ouch. And your third choice something in between.” The rose, the thorn, and the stem.

But now I wanted to dig deeper. I started checking out lots of schools. Schools we’d never even considered. At the end of the day I think I had looked at about 40 schools, spent over six hours and too much caffeine. It was addicting.

“That’s nothing,” a dad of one of my daughter’s friends told me the next morning. “I ran the numbers for eighty-five schools and I’m still searching.”

The majority of colleges were around the same amount, but there were extremes. I called the top three choice schools asking how accurate those calculations were. The first school told me if my amounts entered were accurate then their calculation would be accurate. The second school, offering us no aid, suggested my daughter might be eligible for merit scholarships, which are not a part of the Net Price Calculations. And the third school said their final package could vary from their calculations based on other factors. I asked if they could tell me what other factors those might be. They said no.

My daughter is planning on applying Early Decision to her top school. This is very tricky since it’s a binding contract financially and I will have to gamble that those estimates are correct. I wonder if it’s better to hold off and have her apply regular decision so that we can weigh the options? Or have her apply Early Decision to her third choice which indicated the best financial aid package, but with unknown factors attached?

We have a week to make up our minds. The Early Decision deadline is November 1. It’s a gamble, that’s for sure. So with a week to go, maybe I’ll rustle around in those rose bushes some more.

Sunday Morning Coffee, the FAFSA Report and a Box of Kleenex

By Kendell Shaffer

Yesterday was the second Sunday morning I woke up early to fill out financial aid applications for college. A friend had emailed me the night before asking, “I filled in the FAFSA report and CSS report, besides making sure the girls turn in their applications on time, is that all we have to do?”

Technically, the financial aid applications are designed for the students to fill out. But they require so much detail of household finances, it definitely seems like a parent’s job.

The most important thing to know ahead of time is that the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and CSS (College Scholarship Service Profile) require your tax return two years back. In other words, if the student enters college in the 2018-2019 school year, you will use your 2016 tax return. For my son, who will be entering college in the 2020-2021 year, we will use the 2018 tax return. This information is crucial. You may want to think ahead as you enter that tax year and consider that those spendings and earnings will be reviewed for financial aid.

So allow yourself some uninterrupted hours. The FAFSA report goes quickly, but the CSS takes more time. Then the day after you submit the CSS, some colleges ask for several documents to be uploaded, many of these requiring your child’s signature. Be prepared to pay a $9 processing fee and $16 per school for CSS. The FAFSA report is free.

As I confirmed the list of colleges we were sending the report to, ten for us, I started to tear up. All the college prep so far has been super fun. College tours with the family, looking through colorful brochures, imagining how my California daughter might endure a winter in Maine. But sending off our taxes so that we might get money to actually send our daughter to one of these places was too much for me. I looked at her hand-picked college list and pictured her 3,000 miles away. She only had one close-to-home college on her list, and that was a safety school. I listened to her read her college essay out loud as her brother played basketball nearby. I imagined the house without her. I couldn’t.

So it wasn’t the act of digging up our finances that was hard, it was hitting the submit button and realizing the actual road to her moving on was in play. Technically my friend was right, my only responsibilities are filling out the forms and helping her meet the application deadlines. But it’s not the only thing I need to do. Emotionally prepping for her to leave home… that will be the hardest job of all.

 

 

PSAT: To Panic Or Not

By Kendell Shaffer

My son Jasper has PSAT’s on Wednesday and my daughter is suffering from SAT-PTSD. At dinner last night I asked Jasper how he was feeling about the upcoming test. Before he could answer, his sister Sydney, a senior, cried out, “Do we have to talk about SAT’s?!”

Over the past three years, Sydney has taken the PSAT twice, the SAT three times and the ACT once. Each time she does better. Incrementally better. But with all her prepping, her score is still not where she wants it to be. She can technically take it two more times before turning in her scores to college admissions this winter.

Jasper has watched his sister’s stress elevate. He has sympathized, endured her outbursts and even made her a special breakfast early one Saturday test-taking morning.

Jasper’s strategy is to go in unprepared. He thinks the results of the first PSAT will alert him to his weaknesses. He’ll deal with those then.

Sydney was not letting him get away with the nonchalant attitude. She wrestled him to the couch after dinner and went over each section of his College Board practice guide, giving expert guidance. She looked at me, worried. “I won’t be here when he applies to college.” She tried to give him a hug. He pushed her away. “It’s fine, since I won’t be panicking during the tests.”

An increasing number of colleges are now test optional.  They realize some kids are not good test takers. Graduation rates at colleges are growing as a measure of excellence, and high SAT scores are not the best predictor of a student’s ability to follow through for four long years.

“You gotta stress out a bit,” said Sydney.

I’m curious if keeping his cool will be beneficial to Jasper. Is it worth it to study for the PSAT? Experts differ on the value of test prep, especially if takes away from school work. Grades are still the most important thing.   

I have to think his will be healthier than Sydney’s approach, worrying and being nervous on the way to the test. It’s hard to know what to do as a parent. It always is. I can only look to my kids for guidance. And I think on Wednesday, we’ll just treat it as another day. No special breakfast, not talk about it. We’ll just hope he gets a good night’s sleep and does the best he can.

Enjoying College Tours With The Entire Family

By Kendell Shaffer

My kids, Sydney and Jasper, have always loved road trips. From our base in Los Angeles, we’d take weekend trips and along the way, we’d always veer off to stop at any nearby college. Just to walk around, grab a meal in the cafe, or take in an art gallery. Were we pushing the idea of college too soon, too young? We thought we were just getting them used to the idea that one day they would be going to college. Or maybe we were being pushy.

When Sydney was a tenth grader, she and I took our first mother-daughter road trip. The explicit goal was to look at colleges in Northern California. We didn’t sign up for formal tours, just walked around as we always had, this time with her interest peaked. Could she see herself living in Santa Cruz or Berkeley?

This past spring, Sydney was a junior and Jasper a freshman. Sydney wanted to visit East coast schools. Since I grew up in Baltimore and my husband was from New York, we decided to make it a family vacation. To keep things affordable, we stayed with friends and family, some of whom we’d never met. This time we booked formal tours. Which meant we followed along with the student guides, wincing as they stumbled backward while explaining all the pros and a few of the cons of their schools.

I was thrilled how willingly friends and family opened their homes to us and fed us and drove us to the tours. We never needed to rent a car. We traveled on trains, buses, and subways. Getting to know relatives we had never even met was a wonderful bonus. There seems to be something about the college quest that opens an easily shared bond, especially with the parents who had been through it with kids of their own. We dined in college cafes and had a great time. But it was exhausting; the tours lasted two to three hours so we couldn’t do more than two in one day.

Jasper didn’t want to think about college yet, but he was a good sport. He toured every college with us except for one woman’s college, where my daughter did the tour with her aunt. That day Jasper and I hung out at a cafe, threw rocks in the stream and kicked a ball around the soccer field. When I asked him which college had impressed him the most so far, he said Columbia University. It was the only one where the tour guide didn’t walk backward, so he didn’t have to worry about them tripping.

Then, on a formal tour of a nearby college last weekend, our tour guide fell backward over a low wall. Jasper shook his head and whispered, “I’m not applying here.”

It’s so hard to pick a college. But it’s never too early to establish criteria. Walking forward is a good start.

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