Wednesday, April 29, 2015

SUCH Tour: Day 2 Hamilton and Colgate

The Dark Side
The Light Side
The second day of the tour started out with a visit to Hamilton College. Set apart from the other schools we saw (along with most other schools in the country), Hamilton is a liberal arts college with an open curriculum. This means that it is best suited for self directed students who are intellectually curious. There is also a serious emphasis on writing (there is a quill on their quintessential weather vane prominently featured on many marketing materials). Within the open curriculum, students do have the requirement of taking a writing intensive course and a quantitative course, but they can come from any department of their choosing. After a failed foray into founding a women's college (Kirkland) in the late 1960s, Hamilton became co-ed in the 1970s, with a legacy of these two sides of campus referenced today as the light side and the dark side (not too surprising given when Star Wars came out). These dual personalities - one traditional and conservative and the other funky and liberal - still appear to endure and Hamilton sees itself as a home that embraces all types of students with all different personalities. But, those who thrive are described as being 'smart as hell but don't take themselves too seriously." They identify schools like Davidson, Carleton, and Grinnell to be their spirit animals - an impressive group. Note, when it comes to admission Hamilton's unique edge also shines through. They have a testing 'flexible' policy that allows students to submit alternate combinations of subject tests and AP exams in place of the SAT/ACT. They also are open about the value put on demonstrated interest and are a school that does still recommend having an interview. I will say, as a person who has gone on a lot of college tours, I've never seen a tour guide say hello/be greeted by so many people during the course of the tour. He even got an unsolicited hug from his Biology professor while he was explaining the dining options. If you aren't sure why some people are drawn to small schools, that's why.

Our final stop on the tour was Colgate University, located ironically in Hamilton, New York. Again we found ourselves at a school deeply committed to the liberal arts. There seemed to be a constant theme of the value of interdisciplinary study and combining academics and co-curricular life. The 'largest' of the schools we saw at 2,900 students, Colgate is also different from the other three because it has Division I athletics and a core curriculum. The core has been around since 1929 and consists of five mandatory courses: two relating to the Great Books, one on communities and identities, one on scientific perspectives, and one on global engagements. All courses are, you guessed it, interdisciplinary. Greek life is a large part of the social scene, but students can't rush until their sophomore year. Here demonstrated interest is not a huge factor in admission (though, to be fair, almost half the class comes in ED, so that is technically demonstrating a lot of interest. But, they say they aren't paying attention to visits or phone calls until it comes to the waitlist). I would be remiss if I talked about a visit to Colgate without also mentioning the physical layout of the campus. Be prepared for a big hill. If you aren't crazy about walking up/down a serious incline (and doing it in the snow), this won't be the campus for you. At the same time, if you want a built-in way to ward off the Freshman 15 that also provides stunning views of the surrounding town, add this to your list pronto.

A huge thank you to Skidmore, Union, Colgate, and Hamilton for hosting me on this tour. I learned so much about these four schools and can't wait to share that knowledge with ElRo students!

Monday, April 27, 2015

SUCH Tour: Day 1 Union and Skidmore

As a native Midwesterner, part of the fun of college tours is getting to explore new parts of the Northeast. This tour is particularly great because I am getting to see new parts of New York and campuses that are very frequently on college lists at ElRo. The tour includes: Skidmore, Union, Colgate, and Hamilton.

Our first stop today was Union College, a small college of 2,100 students with options in both the liberal arts and engineering. Unique aspects of Union include: working on a trimester system, meeting full financial need of students that are admitted, being both selective and testing optional, and having a campus that was founded in 1795 (that is 20+ years before University of Virginia, for those keeping track). The thread among all of the panels/experiences that we were shown at Union had to do with being interdisciplinary. I got the keen sense that the students who fit in best are those with interests in more than one field, who are interested in learning to think from many different perspectives but who are also willing to delve deep into their specified field of study. I was pleasantly surprised with our quick drive through Schenectady (a 10 minute walk from campus), a place that is clearly experienced an urban renewal. Between 40 and 45% of Union students end up joining a fraternity or sorority-- though rushing is not allowed in the first year. All students are also assigned a membership to a Minerva, which is a community building technique that gives each student a 'home base' on campus-- used partly for housing some students but more to organize social activities and give all students use of a full kitchen. Facilities as Union are almost completely up to date, I didn't feel like I stepped foot in a single place that was dated or run down. I can't help but wonder what historic details have been lost to these renovations, but for a student who values modern facilities and interiors, I don't think Union will disappoint. Located right in between the state's largest state park (Adironack) and the state capitol, there is something for both rugged sportsperson and those who crave the political pulse of urban life. There is a strong connection with practical STEM fields, but still plenty of students studying the liberal arts.

In the afternoon, we visited Skidmore College. At 2,700 students, it was the larger school of the day. Located in Saratoga Springs, it is a school that describes itself as the best fit for an eclectic student. They have strong connections with creativity and the arts, yet the most popular major is business. Originally a women's college that is now co-ed with a 60/40 split, they do not have a greek system and the social scene was described as laid back. About 60% of students spend time studying abroad and the professor's described the students as ambitious, self-starting, independently minded, curious and comfortable with multiple ways of being. I was particularly struck with the strong campus emphasis on women's rights and embracing the LGBT community. I saw gender neutral bathrooms throughout our tour and the campus is plastered with posters from a student generated campaign called 'Show Your Sport' that displays portraits of student athletes standing as allies for the LGBT community. I also loved the posters up about building consent culture in college. More colleges need to follow this lead (like ASAP). If you are looking for a traditional northeastern college campus with Gothic architecture and stained glass, you won't find it at Skidmore. The school was founded about a hundred years ago in downtown Saratoga but moved to the current campus in the 1970s when they went co-ed and outgrew their original digs. This means that you are going to see architecture that reflects that time period up to the present day (it reminded me in some ways of places like Hampshire and Ithaca). About 40% of the class comes to Skidmore through Early Decision. I appreciated also the transparency offered about the fact that Skidmore opts to be need aware but promises to meet 100% of demonstrated need for students that are admitted. To be honest, I'd rather them take this route than admit students and then proceed to gap them in the financial aid process. As anyone who can see the Naviance scattergram knows, Skidmore is not a strictly numbers based admission process. Aside from the need aware issue, they are also a place that pays attention to demonstrated interest. Or, to put it more accurately, they said they pay attention to demonstrated disinterest. Students are given space to share how they have connected with campus. When a student doesn't have anything to share, their disinterest is being heard loud and clear, along with the arrival of their waitlist letter.

The first day of the tour was a great success. Despite being in relatively close proximity and similar in some surface type of ways, I think there were some clear differences between Union and Skidmore and I'm so thankful to have had the chance to see both of them so I can be more informed when talking to students and families.

Friday, April 24, 2015

College Night Follow Up

Thank you to everyone who attended (and participated in) College Night last week. It was a great event and I'm always pleased to see so many students and parents gaining knowledge about the college process. The intent of the night is that 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students and families can come to learn information so that by the time college applications roll around in the fall of 12th grade they are prepared and know the basics.

Because we are always tight on time, I have to limit the panel discussion at the start of the night to only about twenty minutes. This year, I asked for people to submit questions ahead of time using a google survey. I wanted to use this space here to address some of the questions that we didn't have time to answer.

Is it appropriate to include pictures or links in the application essay or anywhere else in the application?

With the exception of a very few rare cases, I would strongly discourage including links in the application essay. Reason being: if the student is applying to a portfolio program or a visual art major that is looking to see images as part of the application, there will be a separate method for uploading images and using a centralized platform to show student work. If you include a link in an essay one of three things might happen. 1) The reader is reading on paper and a link is useless 2) The reader is reading on a computer, and while the link might work, it will pull them out of their reading portal and require extra time/steps on their part 3) The reader will forward on the link to their colleagues, usually for reasons of being memorable in the wrong kind of way. That isn't to say that this is an automatic application killer, only that the best way to stand out in the application is by being a remarkable person. You can do that without images.

One thing to consider though is that there are some colleges that specifically request creative or multimedia portions of the supplemental application. These could include things like sharing a YouTube link or making a piece or art to connect with the rest of your application. Here you are being given space and instructed to give the reader something that is expected to be visual. Link away.

How do you reconcile a student's need to explore various fields in order to find their passions with the college's desire for students to demonstrate interest/focus in or two areas?

I think the heart of this question is asking: do you want me to be well rounded or do you want me to be sharply pointed? Do you want teens who have dabbled in lots of things to 'find themselves' or should I curate my life and resume to show my commitment to my future career path?  I think the answer is to throw out those considerations entirely and understand that you can't be all things to all colleges. Instead, just be yourself. It is way easier and way more satisfying.

I don't say this to be glib. I say it to be honest with you about the fact that yes, colleges each have their own individual enrollment goals. This sometimes means being super impressed with the prodigy who has dedicated every waking moment to the violin and rewarding that person with admission based on this clear talent. But, that same school isn't looking to enroll an entire army of violinists. For every musical genius, they also need to admit an athlete, and a student body president, and an environmentalist, and a person who is an undecided liberal arts major who just has great grades all around and lots of diverse interests. Instead of trying to work backward from admission to extracurriculars, let your interests be your guide. When I was in high school, I was involved in lots of different things. Some of these things are still connected to what I do now as an adult. Other things are no longer a huge part of my life, but they added value at the time. Your goal doesn't need to be breaking the admission code at every single college. Your goal is to pursue your passions and identify colleges where your interests will be recognized, embraced, and rewarded.

High school IS the time to explore lots of fields. You aren't expected to start every single thing in 9th grade and continue it for four years. But you are expected to tell a story through your application. There should be some kind of theme or narrative that helps the reader get a glimpse of your life and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Lead a full life and the crux of this question will become irrelevant. Colleges admit both well rounded students and pointy students. Stop spending time debating which one you should be and be the one you are.

Can a great personal statement make up for a low test score or weaker grades?

To be frank, the honest answer to this question is: probably not. At least not at a highly selective school in regular decision. A great personal statement is certainly not a bad thing to have. But the reality of an essay taking an application from deny to admit is just very very rare. With that said, a great essay can help bring you into the committee room at a highly selective school. It can help you stay on the WL instead of being denied. It can help you be identified for merit scholarships at schools that offer them. But the transcript is the single most important part of an application. For schools that look at testing, testing is usually the second most important part of the application. So for an essay to trump both of those things is unusual.

The better way to look at it is to say that if you are already in range with testing and grades, a great essay CAN help you over the finish line at a highly selective school. The reverse is also true, where at a highly selective school, a student who is in range with scores/grades/extracurriculars a very weak essay can hurt the applicant.

If you have low test scores or weaker grades, don't lose hope. This answer refers mainly to highly selective schools (in my experience, those are usually the schools people are asking about). There are schools out there that admit students from ALL parts of the grade spectrum. There are also hundreds of testing optional schools (


Friday, April 10, 2015

Thanks Vanderbilt!

Thanks to Vanderbilt University for hosting me and 80 (yes 80!) other counselors for a two day in-depth look at life and learning on Vanderbilt's campus. Especially since leaving New York for Tennessee can sometimes be such a tall order, having the ability to speak about a distance campus through first hand knowledge is a huge help in guiding students toward applying to a school like Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt is a medium sized (approx 6500 undergraduates) Research I university located in Nashville, Tennessee. But it is a national university, not a regional one. Only 9% of enrolled students hail from Tennessee. For students concerned about leaving New York and being in the middle of nowhere, this will not be an issue at Vanderbilt. Students can take comfort in the thriving music scene and general energy around campus without fear of being the city puppy who has lost its way.

When applying to Vanderbilt, a student is asked to select one of four 'doorways' 1) Arts and Science 2) Engineering 3) Peabody (Education and Human Development) or 4) Blair (Music). Other than the things you can infer from those names, note that Peabody is not just for teachers, it also houses majors related to psychology and child development and Blair is mainly focused on classical music. If admitted, all students must stay in the college they were admitted into for one year. But then if it is truly the wrong fit and internal transfer process can begin. Vanderbilt combines highly selective academics (how selective? There is somewhere around an 11% admit rate this year, so prettttttty selective) with a school that can also offer Division I athletics. Once you start comparing those stats with other things like size and location in an urban area, the number of schools with a similar profile really does drop and drop quickly.

So who thrives at Vanderbilt? One professor selected the adjective 'risk taker' when describing who succeeds in his classroom. Students are bright, but they don't seem to always believe it (a student we talked to on campus felt embarrassed to admit his 'low' ACT score of 32. We assured him it was not low). Students are ambitious and outgoing with a strong dose of southern hospitality (apparently gained through osmosis since, as I mentioned, this is not a regional school). Admitted students are all leaders in some way --be it as captain of the Lacrosse team in high school or first chair Violin in orchestra.

What makes Vanderbilt unique? For starters, on campus housing is required for all four years. So expect to be a four year member of the community. Then there is Opportunity Vanderbilt-- a financial aid initiative boldly started AFTER the 2008 crash in which all admitted students are awarded financial aid that covers 100% of demonstrated need. Domestic students are admitted need blind. Other than a $2,300 work study component, the only thing a family is asked to pay is the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution). If you are wondering about loans, keep wondering, because Vanderbilt doesn't proactively offer them. Any family that opts to take one (about 23%) does so by choice. They also offer merit scholarships. Again, when we are talking about schools as selective as this, providing merit scholarships is a very very unique thing. (Who gets merit scholarships then? Assume that one must be in the very top of the class with the very highest test scores to be a serious contender. But, also note that merit scholarship consideration is initiated by the STUDENT via an online application. So those winners are self selecting and the school expects them to take the first step by filling out the scholarship application.)

Though not highlighted much on this tour, it doesn't take much digging to discover that Vanderbilt fills almost half of their class through ED. For a school with overlaps like theirs, that isn't a tremendous shock to me, but it might be to you. This means that the mantra of ED rings true here: if this school is your first choice and you don't want to go anywhere else, you should strongly consider pursuing Early Decision. That isn't to say that you can't be admitted in regular, only that the game of musical chairs ramps up from intramural to Olympian. They are also a school that consistently uses the wait list to shape the class and prevent being overenrolled, so being wait listed really might end up in eventual admission for a sizeable chunk of the class.

Thanks Vanderbilt for a great two days (and letting me wear sandals for the first time in 2015)!

Friday, March 20, 2015

PTA Meeting - College Essay

Many thanks to the PTA for arranging for Harry Bauld to be the guest speaker at last night's PTA meeting. He presented on the topic of the college essay--something he has literally written the book on (See: On Writing the College Application Essay). I had previously read an older edition of the book but was happy to listen to his presentation and have the chance to hear his advice directly from the horse's mouth.

For a full description of all of his advice, the best thing to do is buy the book. But I will highlight here a few of the key takeaways that I encourage students to do when writing the essay:

1) Be authentic. Trying to fit a formula or over-manufacture an essay defeats the purpose. Write about a memory from your life, include details, tell a story that only you can tell.

2) Remember that these essays are being read at a very quick pace. If you repeat a topic that has already been seen 30 times that day, you risk the chance of boring the reader. Frequent trap topics include: 'the trip that changed my life,' 'through participating in X, I learned Y,'  my resume and autobiography in chronological order, and the 'Jock Essay' (aka The Big Game).

3) Be prepared for multiple revisions. If you know how you want your essay to conclude when you start it, you are probably doing it wrong. See where the writing takes you. See where your memories take you. Use writing strategies found in fiction to tell your true story - moments in time from your life.

4) Personal narrative writing is NOT like the writing you already do in school. Trying to think about the essay as a school assignment is taking the wrong approach.

5) Don't disregard the supplemental essay. Don't use it as a place to repeat information you've pulled from their glossy brochure. Do critically think about why that specific college is asking you this question and what will show them that you understand their mission and how you will be a strong fit for their campus.

Another big caveat to help keep this all in perspective is that the college essay is absolutely a significant part of the application process, but the kind of essay this book is focused on is really directed toward more selective colleges. There are a large number of colleges that really do have a numbers driven admission process and stressing over the minutiae of the essay will not have much impact on the end result. The majority of essays that students write are just fine and don't have a huge impact on a final decision. The places where it matters most though are usually at the reach schools and that is why understanding how to maximize the impact of the essay is essential.

Thanks to Mr. Bauld for a great evening!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dear Seniors (and your Parents/Guardians) . . .

In the next two weeks, over 650 unknown application decisions will reveal themselves. Each year, I repost a link to this blog entry that I wrote way back when I first started making posts here. I wrote it because I wanted to offer nuggets of wisdom both to students who were crestfallen AND those who were on cloud nine.

In that same vein of 'must read' ruminations, I hope you've all already seen Frank Bruni's New York Times Op-Ed 'How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.' If you haven't, open a new browser tab and go read it immediately. 

Parents/Guardians: I observe that sometimes your children conflate their academic performance and college outcomes with your love and approval. Even if you think you are already doing a good job of separating the two, have a direct and concrete conversation with your child to make sure they hear you say the words "I'm proud of you just as you are."

Students: You may get the news you want to hear in the next few days. You may not get the news you want to hear in the next few days. Either way, the only thing keeping you from your goals and aspirations is you. I went to an Ivy League* graduate school and had classmates who started at community college. The seal on your diploma doesn't dictate your destiny. Your individual work ethic, your personal value system, your motivation, your creativity, and your talents are what will take you where you want to go.

This is an exciting time. I celebrate with you when you get good news! I'm so sorry when you are denied admission or put on a waitlist when your heart was set on going to that school. But you'll get through it. Don't let a little bit of bad news cloud the rest of the great news that you have to share. I'll regularly speak with parents or students who are dwelling on not getting into one place, but don't acknowledge the six or seven acceptances they do have. Remember in the fall when we talked about how you have to like your likely? That was only a few months ago and you liked the school then.

Brace yourselves for the decisions coming out. Prepare for the worst while you hope for the best. But remember that I'm proud of you just as you are.

*But, didn't I just tell the 8th graders that Ivy League schools aren't all they are cracked up to be? I did! And it wasn't! ;)

Image by Ben Wiseman NYTimes

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dear 8th Grade Parents . . .

Ivy Guirlande 

This blog is not typically directed toward middle school students, but bear with me on this. We recently received our 'matches' of who was offered a seat at ElRo by the DOE for next fall.  This list includes some students who are picking between us and a specialized high school (some other students are also choosing between us and a private school). I've been getting phone calls and emails from parents/guardians of these students with offers and I'm hearing one question over and over again: "What percentage of students go to Ivy League schools?"

The short answer is, I don't know. I don't know because I don't keep track of what percentage of students get into any particular group of colleges. The Ivy League is an athletic conference (congrats Harvard, btw, for making it to the bracket). It also happens to be a grouping of particularly old, particularly well-respected, and particularly selective colleges. But, there are more than eight amazing colleges to choose from and giving magical power to these eight is not productive for anyone (other than maybe those eight and their revenue stream generated from application fees).

With that said, I won't keep you in suspense. Yes, we've had students admitted to the Ivy League. Yes, we've had students attend the Ivy League. Yes, this has occurred in the past two years. Yes, we've had students get admitted to the Ivy League and choose to attend a school that wasn't in the Ivy League. Yes, sometimes those schools they choose instead are even public universities (and no, they did not choose University of Michigan, or University of Virginia, or University or North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

This occurs because the cornerstone of ElRo's philosophy is individual fit and personal choices. Ivy League schools are great schools for a lot of people. If and when ElRo students opt to apply to them, I support their applications 110% and celebrate with them if they are admitted. As anyone can see from Ivy League admission profiles, it is common for some highly selective schools to admit fewer than 10% of applicants that apply. As you can extrapolate from that data, it then comes as no surprise that out of the total ElRo student body, we see a similar percentage of students who are in the typical range of admission for these schools. You can't know in 8th grade if you'll fall into that category, but if you do end up there, no matter where you go to high school, you'll be in the running for admission.

Instead of fixating on 'Ivy-ness' I instead encourage students to think about fit. In what environment do you learn best? Do you value competition amongst peers or are you more of a self motivated learner? Do you like feeling like a big fish in a small pond or would you prefer to be in a more homogenous setting? Do you like a traditional setting or one that is more progressive? Do you like writing papers or taking tests? When you consider those things, you very well might end up with an Ivy (or three) on your list. When you consider those things, you might instead uncover a set of totally different colleges that will make your face light up when you talk about them.

In closing, parents/guardians please remember that sending the message to your child that their high school is going to 'get them' into college is not a healthy message to send. Asking what percentage of students go to Ivy League schools insinuates that the high school is the reason for admission. Instead, be reminded that highly selective colleges are looking for outstanding candidates for admission regardless of where they go to high school. Support your child. Embrace their strengths. Celebrate their talents. These are the ways to maximize their admission to the college of their choice. Also keep in mind the rules of basic statistics. Our school has approximately 125 seniors per year. Our average SAT score this year was 1226 out of 1600/1842 out of 2400. Those scores are AMAZING for an urban public high school. Those scores are, however, outside the typical range of admission for an Ivy League school. Thus, it isn't surprising that a specialized school might have a higher percentage of graduates going to the Ivy League. It is just too hard to make a meaningful comparison when the pools of students are so different. But, I'll put it this way: if a senior here has the grades, test scores, and extracurriculars to be in range for admission at an Ivy, they will have equal consideration as their peers at other schools with similar grades and scores and extracurriculars.

I know the 'Ivy' question comes from a good place. Parents and guardians are just trying to exhaust every possible option to give every available opportunity to their child. This is New York City and it can be hard to see the forest through the trees when it feels like the landscape is fiercely competitive. But, do what you can to breathe and trust that you have raised an outstanding child. If they got into ElRo I can promise that they will get into a great college for them, Ivy or not.

As with the considerations made when enrolling in college, I urge middle school students to use a similar process now in selecting a high school. Do you like big or small? Do you want individual attention or can you navigate through on your own? Just like the Ivy League isn't right for everyone, ElRo isn't right for everyone. We want students who want to be here.

If you do pick us, we are SO excited to meet you at orientation and start you on your journey to college.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

The changing testing landscape for the Class of 2017

If you attended our Demystifying Standardized Testing evening last month, one thing I think you probably learned is that the current 10th grade is going to be faced with more testing options than any previous class has ever had. The reason for this is that the current SAT is retiring after the January 2016 administration, leaving current 10th grade students with the option to either:

A) Take the current SAT earlier than normal
B) Wait to see their performance on the redesigned PSAT and be the guinea pig for the redesigned SAT being offered for the first time in March of 2016
C) Choose the ACT right off the bat, since it is a known entity, circumventing any of this SAT mishegas

So, what should you do? Unfortunately none of us can see the future, so while I can help give you some general advice, I don't have a way to predict what is the definite right choice. The nature of any of these paths is it leaves the other roads untaken. But here is what I would recommend:

With testing, things are usually distributed in a normal curve -- with some people on each end (the extremes) and most the people in the middle.

I predict one extreme will be option A. These are current sophomores who can see from their 10th grade PSAT score that they are naturally gifted on the existing SAT. (I would probably say this is the type of student who scored a minimum of a 200 or a 205 on the PSAT this year). That kind of percentile suggests that you will have a good chance of doing well on the real thing and why pass up the chance to be in the 90th or 95th percentile of a college admissions test. If this is you, consider registering for two SATs - probably something like October and December of your Junior year.

It is hard to know if options B or C will be the other "extreme" for our school, but my money is on B. I suspect that a smaller cohort of students will give the new SAT a completely fair shake and be willing to opt for the path we know the least about.

That leaves option C as the one I'm predicting will probably be the most common path for ElRo students. Why do I think people will jump ship and just stick with the ACT? Considering that many students do equally well on the current SAT and ACT, I think all this transition on the SAT side will be enough to convince ElRo students to just opt for the ACT with a traditional testing pattern of taking the April ACT along with a second ACT in either June or September.

Again, I do think there will be some students who see a high percentile score on their redesigned PSAT this fall and who know that will be the path that will lead them to success -aka option B. (Success being defined as maximizing their standardized test score). If this is you, more power to you.

It is technically possible for students to take all 3 exams (the current SAT, the redesigned SAT, and the ACT) but I would STRONGLY discourage that. The reason I discourage it is that I never encourage Testing Robot Syndrome. If you have enough time in your life to prepare for three totally different tests, you are missing out on being a real person. (Plus, from a less philosophical place, you are totally ruining your chances of having a meaningful resume. You can't put 'SAT tutoring' on your Common App list of activities). You are also increased the chance that you will experience testing fatigue - another sure fire way to sabotage your ultimate goal of maximizing your test scores.

As far as we know, all three testing paths will be viable options for college admission. The choice is up to the individual student. Keep in mind that while all these changes might feel unfair, they are a universal challenge for every other person you are competing with in the pool. Instead of dwelling on 'fairness' instead think of it as a unique opportunity to really be able to craft a path that is best for you with more options than in other years. 

As always - don't forget that if this entire entry is making your head spin, you can always just go for option D: out of testing completely and apply to testing optional schools. You can see the full list of testing optional schools at


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thanks Bennington!

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending The Public Theater Presents The 24 Hour Plays®:A Bennington Alumni Tribute to Nicky Martin as a guest of Bennington and it was such a fun night. To give a little background, Bennington is a small college in Vermont that I visited last spring. You can read more about that here.

The concept of last night is that the participants had 24 hours to write, produce, stage, and perform 10-minute plays. I haven't attended this kind of theater since I was in college, so that alone was a treat. More than that though, it gave me a peek into just what makes Bennington tick. There was a palpable energy that was still so present in the alumni (some of whom graduated over 30 years ago). The identity that Bennington had then is, clearly, still alive and well.

The plays that were put on also had a nice dose of college inside jokes and ribs (Williams is a clear nemesis: noted), which made attending as a college counselor even more fun. Bennington knows it is unique. It knows that it isn't for everyone. It knows that it is for dreamers, and thinkers, and free-spirits. But I get the sense that if a person went there who was none of those things, they would still be welcomed with open arms because it isn't a place where judgement is part of the itinerary.

I saved the program not only because Peter Dinklage and Tim Daly were part of the cast (they are both alums), but because the talent I saw from the rest of the performers leads me to believe a few of them could be household names in the future. 

To donate to Bennington to endow the Nicky Martin scholarship, click here.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

FAFSA Info Night Summary

Thanks again to Anthony Becker for once again generously taking the time to present to our students and families about the FAFSA and financial aid application process. The Financial Aid application process can be tedious and confusing, but approaching it with a clear understanding of how the forms work is the best way to maximize your chance of getting aid. Remember, all the FAFSA does is calculate what the government thinks your family can afford to pay toward college each year. This calculation is done assuming that you are going to change your lifestyle in order to accommodate a $5,000-$60,000 purchase (depending on the cost of the college you are looking at). If you want to pay for college and not change a single thing about your lifestyle, be prepared for that to be very very difficult. Look back at your spending for the year. You might be able to identify some of that 'extra money' the government has determined that you have.

I couldn't possibly cover all of the issues that were brought up in a single blog post, but I do want to try and put some key themes below:

1) The FAFSA is required by all colleges if you are applying for financial aid. This is the government's form that determines the estimated family contribution. Colleges then use this EFC to decide how much and what type of financial aid they are able to give you. Only US Citizens and Permanent Residents can submit the FAFSA because it is a federal form. Sometimes international students are asked to fill it out and mail in a hard copy so the college can calculate an EFC, but international students will not be eligible for federal financial aid dollars. The FAFSA is mainly used to determine eligibility for federal and state aid (aka Pell grants, SEOG, Work Study, TAP, etc).

2) Some colleges ALSO require a CSS Profile. This online profile assesses assets in a different way, but is also intended to give colleges a full picture of the financial situation of the family. The CSS also includes a non-custodial parent portion if the parents are divorced. Most colleges that use the CSS are private colleges and it is mainly used to determine eligibility for discounts from the college (aka scholarships and school based grants).

3) Never use fafsa. com - ONLY use  - you should never pay to submit a FAFSA - the first F in FAFSA is free. Do not get your identity stolen.

4) A lot of concern was expressed around 529s. Having a 529 is a great idea for families with high income and lots of assets. For these families that are not eligible for need based aid, a 529 is a fabulous idea to make dollars go the farthest when it comes to education. Unfortunately, for the majority of families though, having a 529 just means that you have an asset with huge red letters on it that says 'money for college.' The college is going to expect you to draw down that account first before they go into their own pocket to give additional financial aid. If you think about it, it makes sense because it is hard to tell a college that you can't pay the tuition when you have an account sitting there that can only be used for said tuition. In a perfect world, a crystal ball 18 years ago would have let people know how quickly tuition was going to increase, but it is what it is. If your child is young, you may still be able to unwind the 529 with the help of a professional to move that asset somewhere to protect it. If this isn't an option, don't be too upset though because many colleges still gap in their financial aid packages regardless of if a family has a high EFC or low EFC. In other words, don't spend too much time lamenting the fact that you tried to save for college. The grass on the other side is most definitely not greener.

5) You must submit your FAFSA in January of the student's senior year. If your child is not a senior, you cannot fill anything out now. You should fill out the FAFSA with estimates of things like income and taxes, then complete your taxes as quickly as you can (read: NOT in April, way before April), then log back in to the FAFSA and update your numbers with your final tax information. Do not wait to start the FAFSA until your taxes are done. Being last in line for financial aid is not a good place to be.

6) Just like all the different types of people out there in the world, there are also lots of different types of colleges, each with their own financial aid methodology. Some schools give no merit aid whatsoever but meet 100% of demonstrated need. Other schools gap some families tens of thousands of dollars, but award very generous merit scholarships to students with the top grades and test scores in their applicant pool. Others still don't give tons of aid, but have a lower total cost which makes them most affordable even though they have low discount rates. How can you sort through it all? Start by filling out the net price calculators on the college's individual financial aid websites. This will give you a preview of the type of aid you might be able to expect.

7) As I mentioned earlier, part of paying for college will probably mean changing your lifestyle. Every dollar that you can avoid taking in a loan is a dollar that your future self will thank you for. I know many people feel like they are already living paycheck to paycheck, but what sacrifices are you making to improve your financial situation during the years that there is a tuition bill? For example, at ElRo we are having a lunch crisis where so few students are eating in the school cafeteria that the city told us that we might no longer be able to staff the kitchen. Almost every ElRo student leaves school mid-day to buy lunch outside. At one of the cafes nearby (that I admittedly also go to) it is easy to ring up a bill of over $10 a day. Multiply that by 5. Now by 40. That is about $2,000 on lunch per year. Full price school lunch is $1.75. That comes out to about $350 per year. Yes, it is a sacrifice to not get the cafe lunch. But the colleges are expecting that you are making sacrifices in order to invest in education. (Other common sacrifices might include things like: taking public transit instead of cabs, eating dinner out less often, canceling cable, eliminating Starbucks, etc).

When looking into financial aid always read the directions clearly and always stick to advertised deadlines. It is a system that can be navigated, but it does take time an effort. We didn't talk about outside scholarships last night, but that is another thing that far too many students ignore. It is hard to tell a college that you are broke and then have a student who has applied to zero outside scholarships. It is true that scholarships usually can't pay for all of college, but it is often possible to piece together a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.