applying for college
College sure is expensive. How expensive is it, you ask? Well, the four-year tuition at America’s priciest schools exceeds the nation’s median home price. Yep, some college degrees cost more than houses. Fear not; most colleges are nowhere as expensive, especially public schools where you qualify for in-state tuition. Even so, rising prices mean that in 2019, even ‘cheap’ schools put a financial strain on students and their families.
That’s why you need to spend a LONG TIME researching which school can give you the best bang for your tuition buck. But that’s another article.
Today, I want to talk with you about financial aid and paying for school. Your financial aid journey begins the moment you start researching colleges. Use the following steps to ensure that you can attend the best school at the lowest out-of-pocket price.
Talk to Your Family
Your first step involves determining what, if anything, your family will contribute to your college education. Money can be an awkward topic, but you need to have an honest conversation. The earlier you do this, the sooner you know how much money you need to raise through grants, scholarships, and/or loans.
Fill Out the FAFSA
No matter the amount of money your family has set aside for college, your first stop for financial aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA, a financial questionnaire, determines your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. You can learn more about each of these financial aid opportunities in later sections.
Take a minute to review some essential FAFSA information:
- Application Deadlines: You can submit the FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year between October 1st, 2019 and June 30th, 2020. Of, course, the sooner you file the FAFSA, the sooner you receive your results.
- Requirements: To apply, you must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
- File as Independent?: Certain applicants under the age of 24 can file as an independent, meaning that the FAFSA does not consider their parents’ finances when making its determination.
- Materials: When you apply, you need you and/or your families tax returns for the previous year. You may need other records if your family has other investments such as stocks, a business, etc.
- Determination: The FAFSA doesn’t say whether you do or do not qualify for financial aid. It merely reports how much you or your family can contribute to your education in the coming year. FAFSA calls this amount your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
- What this means is that at some cheaper schools you may not qualify for aid, but at more expensive schools, you do.
- Reapply: To qualify for aid under the FAFSA, you must reapply each year using a special FSA ID you receive when you first register. (Don’t lose this ID!)
Now that you know some FAFSA basics, let’s explore different types of financial aid. Each section begins with the kind of aid directly related to the FAFSA.
Research Scholarships & Grants
If your EFC qualifies you for aid at your college, you may receive a Pell Grant, approximately $6,000. A Pell Grant can go towards any education expenses if there is money left over after you pay tuition, fees, and housing. You can receive a Pell Grant for up to six years if you remain FAFSA eligible.
State Scholarships & Grants
Does your state have a lottery? If so, it might use some of that money to sponsor a lottery scholarship or grant program that pays a portion of your college tuition as long as you attend college within the state. To qualify, you may need to earn a specific GPA or standardized test score. Also, after you start college, maintain good grades to ensure that your scholarship renews.
Even if your state does not have such a program, other financial incentives at the state level may qualify you for special aid. Check with your school’s guidance counselor to learn about opportunities.
College-Specific Scholarships & Grants
As you research colleges, pay close attention to the financial aid they provide eligible students. Schools with large endowments often award generous financial aid packages to students with financial need or those with excellent academic records.
Private Scholarships & Grants
Finally, we arrive at what may be your most significant scholarship and grant opportunity. Navigating scholarships may seem like a daunting task, but like your college search, the effort will have positive results.
If you need some help getting started, focus on subject-specific scholarships and grants, especially if you plan to major in a STEM-related field. Subject-specific scholarships limit the application pool, increasing your chances. They also give you the opportunity to highlight your passions and academic achievements.
When it comes to scholarships and grants, you may come across many scholarship/grant hybrids. These awards have both academic and financial requirements. Some scholarships in this category take applications only from members of a specific minority group.
Consider Work-Study Programs
The FAFSA’s work-study program connects eligible students with part-time employment either on or off campus. This program caps the number of hours students work and imposes different rules for undergraduate and graduate students.
Many schools offer similar work-study programs to help students pay for college. In these cases, students work part-time for their schools. Some schools reserve work-study programs for students with financial need, while others allow all interested students to participate. In some cases, reimbursement may come in the form of tuition reduction or a meal plan. In these cases, students do not receive a traditional paycheck.
Be Wary of (Most) Loans
Federally Backed Loans
First off, there are two types of loans you may qualify for under the FAFSA:
- Subsidized Loans: These loans do not incur interest during your time in school.
- Unsubsidized Loans: These loans do incur interest during your time in school.
Subsidized loans are your best bet, as interest can add thousands of dollars to your loan and lengthen the time you need to pay it back. However, all federal loans typically offer better interest rates than private loans. The FAFSA also caps the amount of subsidized and unsubsidized loans you can take out each year.
Finally, we arrive at private loans. There are hundreds of lending institutions out there willing to loan you tens of thousands of dollars. “Just sign here,” they say, no doubt like the Devil bargaining for your immortal soul.
Okay, not all private lenders are the Devil, but private loans are – without a doubt – the riskiest form of financial aid that a college student can use. First off, student loans, even the FAFSA ones, never go away, even if students declare bankruptcy later in life. Also, private lenders typically loan much larger sums than federally-backed loans, meaning that young students can rack up massive amounts of debt in a short amount of time.
My advice: be wary of private loans and use them as a last resort.
Learn More About Military Service
Are you thinking about joining the military after high school? If you serve, you qualify for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In a nutshell, military personnel and veterans with at least 30 days of active duty service receive some tuition benefits. These benefits max out after three years of service. Other benefits include housing allowances and tuition discounts for spouses and children. The law is complex, and many stipulations apply.
Joining the military is not a light decision. Weigh your options carefully and discuss them with adults you trust.
You are incredibly fortunate: you have thousands of financial aid opportunities at your fingertips! By starting work now, you can attend your dream college without incurring debt, setting you up for financial, professional, and personal success later in life.
What if your child isn’t a traditional learner? What if following the path of every other college freshman turns them off? Not to worry, there are colleges that cater to the needs of students who want a more independent academic experience.
St. John’s College with campuses in both Annapolis and Santa Fe offers only one major, Liberal Arts. They base the curriculum on a “Great Books Program” and they have few tests and lots of class discussions. The website boasts that it grants one of the most affordable tuitions at $35,000 per year.
How about Hampshire College, a member of the Five College Consortium including Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts. At Hampshire there are no grades and the students can design their own concentrations of study (no majors either). It’s a great choice for creative, self-directed students.
Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio) requires that the students hold down “full-time co-op jobs” switching between work and study. This can be great for students who need to support themselves and still wish to get a college degree.
College of the Ozarks is another college that requires the students to work. This time in exchange for tuition. The entire campus is run on solar power and 30% of their cafeteria food is grown on campus. It’s a liberal arts college that is also Christian based.
Then there is Colorado College which seems ideal for the outdoor student who would like to study one subject at a time for an extended amount of time, (three weeks) then have a week off to explore the great unknown.
Cornell College (not Cornell University) in Iowa offers a one class at a time curriculum. And according to their website, the student can immerse themselves in “1 Course x 18 Days x 8 Blocks. The territory we cover is the same as on a semester system. But the path we travel offers an entirely different journey.”
And for something completely different, Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Illinois is run by McDonald’s and based on managerial training. Classes translate into business management credits at other colleges.
It opened in 1961 and every year about 5,000 students graduate from campuses all around the world. China’s division has an admission rate of 1%.
Your student may find an alternative school that feels like home, or after looking at the alternatives, they might prefer a traditional college after all. But this is the time for exploration and with over 3000 colleges and universities in the United States, surely your student will find a school that is right for them.
Every year, applying to college becomes a more frustrating and challenging process. Also, cut-throat competition to attend the nation’s best colleges and universities have made acceptance rates plummet, even at colleges that were considered safety schools just a few short years ago.
All college applicants should have a trusted advisor to guide them through the process. For some students, that person is the college counselor at their school. For others, it is a private college counselor paid for by parents.
But what if your school’s college counselor is always busy? What if your family can’t afford the fees charged by private college counselors?
To help students like you, myKlovr created the world’s first virtual college counselor.
Virtual College Counseling: The Basics
A virtual counselor performs many of the same functions as a high school college counselor:
- Goal setting
- Progress tracking
- College research and recommendations
What myKlovr has done is taken these functions and put them into a platform. Using the answers you provide to our academic and personal questions, the platform creates a series of goals for you to accomplish throughout high school. All of these goals are designed to help you increase your college admissions chances, even if you don’t yet know where you want to go to college.
Once you receive your goals, you have the option to further custom tailor them. You can choose to replace specific goals with others that better fit your needs. After that, it’s time to start working towards your short and long-term goals.
How myKlovr Helps You
MyKlovr is so much more than a computer algorithm in a shiny package. It’s a network of trusted advisors that help set academic and personal goals and see them through to completion. That way, you are not just interacting with a computer; you’re communicating with your parents, teachers, high school counselors, and other adults whose advice you need to navigate the college application process successfully. As you accomplish your academic and personal goals, they confirm your progress and receive relevant updates.
Advantages Over Solely Using Your School’s College Counselors
The primary benefit of myKlovr is that you can access the services of a virtual college counselor anytime, anywhere. When you have a question, we’ll answer it. When you need personalized advice, we can help. When you can’t wait to see your school’s college counselor, we’ll be there. Gone are the days of making appointments or waiting in line.
Advantages Over Other Private College Counseling Services
One word: money. The best private college counselors’ hourly fee compares to that charged by top lawyers. Over two years, those fees can add up to the price of a good used car.
myKlovr’s base price of $19.99/month provides the same benefits of private college counseling at a fraction of the cost. Also, you gain a digital college application portfolio that will help you tremendously when it comes time to apply to college. Think about it: if you use myKlovr throughout high school, you’ll have curated and organized all the materials you need to write stellar personal essays.
Future you will thank present you.
If you’re a high school freshman, sophomore, or junior, I encourage you to sign up for myKlovr and give it a try. The basic features are free, which means you can see if it’s a good fit before you or your parents invest a single penny.
I am sure that once you get to know myKlovr, it will become an invaluable tool for your college application journey.
After going through the college application process with my daughter, I don’t know how students can navigate through this world without some kind of guidance. The college application process is so much more complicated now than it was when I went to school. There are too many articles written and books published about the subject, it’s hard to know where to start.
The one thing that comes up a lot with high school college counselors is that colleges want to make sure the students are taking advantage of what the high school offers academically. For example, if your high school offers honors classes, then the colleges want to see that the student is taking them. And they don’t want to see that your child has free periods. If your student only needs three years of a language to graduate, encourage them to take that fourth year of a language. Same with math, don’t stop at the three year minimum. Senior year isn’t the year to take it easy. On the contrary, colleges especially look at what the student has taken on in their final year.
I’ve also learned that consistency is better than variety. It’s better to be on the Student Council for four years than to try a different club each year. Colleges look at follow through and how the student can grow within that experience. What the student does in the summer before junior and senior year is important too. Colleges want to see the student spending part of the summer either taking academic classes, doing an internship or working a summer job.
Some kids are driven by test scores, others want to enjoy high school and come out with a well rounded transcript. It’s important to get to know which kind of student yours is. My daughter realized she wanted to study journalism, so she picked her high school electives and internships around that. My son wants to go into the performing arts so he is gearing his extra circulars in that direction. Both kids already understand from their school that a high GPA and a rigorous course load is important, so that’s a given.
After watching my daughter study and retake the SAT three times and still end up with not the grades she wanted, I am convinced that she might not be the best standardized test taker. I don’t think my son is either, so instead of getting him a tutor and stressing him out about studying for the SAT’s I think he should focus his energies on his GPA and maybe apply to schools that are test optional. It’s not fair to force your student to do something they are not good at when they could spend that time working on what they excel in.
If you have the means, I think a virtual college counselor is a great idea. The virtual counselor will focus on your child and be able to access all the information out there. Sometimes working with an adult who is not the parent is important. An objective point of view can be refreshing to the student. And with crowded high schools, college counselors can’t always devote time to every student. So don’t take on the entire burden yourself. There is help out there and you’ll need it!
Winter break is the perfect time to visit colleges. Whether your student is a senior who has been accepted to some Early Action schools or if you have a junior or sophomore, now is a great time to visit college campuses. It’s easy to schedule a tour of any college by searching for “campus tours” on their website. They will give you a list of dates and times to sign up. Try not to tour more than two schools in one day as the process can be exhausting.
While at the campus, especially if you are traveling and staying nearby, look into any student performances that you could attend. Perhaps a play, musical or music concert. There might be art galleries on campus you could visit. Visiting a campus while it’s in session is a great way to give you a feel of what it will be like to attend. And a performance that showcases student talent will be a great insight into the school too.
If you and your family can’t travel during winter break, then tour some local colleges that might not have even been on your radar. For example, we plan to go out to Occidental College which is about a forty-five minute drive. We’ll have have lunch out there and go to the Norton Simon Museum which we love, but don’t always have a chance to get to. We’ll make a day of it, a stay-cation.
If your senior is completely exhausted of campus tours and already has seen the one she or he plans on attending, then I’d say it’s time to do something completely fun, almost maybe even child-like. Why not, go to the zoo or a local amusement park one day as a family? Embrace their childhood. They have worked so hard and deserve some fun silly times too. Most likely they’ll be moving away from home in the fall, so have some fun together. You have all worked hard this year! Or maybe your senior is like mine, when I asked what she wanted to do this break, she replied, “Sleep!”
Last week was a big one. Early Decision and Early Action results were mailed. Sydney applied Early Decision to her reach school and unfortunately was not accepted. Of course, she was disappointed. But she has so many other colleges she’s excited about and now she’s free to apply to them.
The rest of the week was filled with Sydney’s friends being accepted to and rejected from Early Action schools. Sydney didn’t apply to any of those as she was focusing on her ED application. The benefit of Early Action is that you hear about your acceptance earlier. And they are non-binding. The Early Decision applications are binding.
So what’s next? Sydney can still apply to one school Early Decision II with a deadline of January 1 and hear back on February 15. But there are so many other wonderful schools out there, she is hoping that by applying regular decision to all her picks, she might have a choice of schools. It’s really hard for her to narrow down a specific school right now. Once again we’d be faced with the Early Decision offering a high acceptance but if accepted, a binding contract and having to withdraw all the other applications.
Not all schools offer Early Action, but from my current point of view, that’s the way to go. It’s the best of all worlds, you hear early, it’s non-binding and you have the freedom to wait for the other offers. I think with Jasper, who is in tenth grade now, we will encourage Early Action.
Sometimes you take a risk. And sometimes it doesn’t turn out. And sometimes it turns out for the better in unexpected ways. And that’s not just an expression because within just a few days we’ve already had discussions about other options which are maybe even more intriguing.
PSAT scores were released Monday, so now is an ideal time to create a test prep strategy with your tenth grader. The options: test prep classes, private tutor, test prep workbooks or as my twelfth-grade daughter, Sydney advised her tenth-grade brother, online test prep.
The in-class test prep classes are expensive and time consuming and they also require the student keep up with a daily practice. A tutor can be terribly expensive, and even with an hour tutoring session a week, the student is still encouraged to do test prep homework every day. Online test prep should be done everyday as well, but it is free.
Sydney’s point is that in all three cases, the student needs to self motivate in order to get through all the SAT/ACT concepts. So why spend the money when online test prep give you video explanations that can be re-watched if needed? Chances are that after a three-hour class on Saturday afternoon, you’ll need to review that info anyway.
With so many things going on during a school year, your student needs to pick their battles. If they score well on tests, that’s great. If they don’t, there are so many other important factors in a college application. If they are more confident in their writing abilities, they should focus on the essays and make those the pinnacle of their application. I suggest, save your money on test prep and put that money towards application fees later.
Sydney’s Test Prep Tips:
- Time Management is essential. Start doing online test prep the week after Winter Break of Sophomore year. And keep it up over the summer.
- Continue to review concepts. If you only do a concept once, it’s useless.
- Become familiar with the test. Take a Sample Test once a month.
- Be super comfortable with all the directions so you aren’t surprised on the day of the test. For example, there are a few questions at the end of the math section where you fill in your own answers. Make sure you understand how to fill in those answers correctly.
- Familiarize yourself with how to fill in the bubbles in the demographic section. This is the first thing you’ll do and it can be super stressful if you are not prepared.
- Don’t take the test more than three times. But do take it two times so you can use your Superscore. (From prepscholar.com: Superscoring is the process by which colleges consider your highest section scores across all the dates you took the SAT. Rather than confining your scores to one particular date, these schools will take your highest section scores, forming the highest possible composite score.)
- And most important: don’t stress about it too much! Know that there are a lot of test optional schools out there and the list is growing.
“No C’s senior year!” says Sydney’s high school college counselor as she helps students navigate college options and keeps them on track with applications.
“It’s important to build a strong relationship with your college counselor so that they can write the best recommendation possible,” Sydney told me.
My daughter is extremely lucky to have such a hands-on college counselor at her school, but not all students take advantage of this opportunity. “Some kids just don’t care,” Sydney added. Others at her school feel one counselor is not enough. They find outside counselors to lead them through the process and read essays, etc.
Sydney did not get an extra counselor but she did ask her relatives and teachers for help throughout the process. Sydney noticed that some teachers got the message of her essay more than others and she was able to incorporate their suggestions to make it as polished as possible. “But too many suggestions can be overwhelming and stressful,” said Sydney, “Don’t lose your voice.”
Sydney went on to add more suggestions, “Write your essay early on in the year, preferably during summer. Have your college counselor and one other trusted mentor read it first and get their general opinions on the content and structure of the piece. After you make those comments send it to a new person and see what they think. Ignore a comment if it is totally unrelated to what other people are saying.
“Try to get a college representative to read your essay (this is so helpful!). And lastly, do all the edits but keep your very first original essay untouched. After all the edits are done go back and read your first version and make sure that you feel comfortable that your individual voice is still there.”
It’s an insane amount of work, but with the help of a counselor who keeps you on track and a supportive family your student can do it all and still manage not to get C’s senior year.
“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.