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Friday, December 23, 2016

Have Special Needs? An IEP or 504 plan? Testing Tips

The College Board, home of the PSAT, SAT, AP, and SAT subject tests just changed their policy for getting testing accommodations. (December 2016) :
"At the College Board, we believe that all students should have access to the testing accommodations they need so they can show their best work on our assessments.  We've heard from SSD coordinators, counselors, students, and families who've asked us to simplify the process of requesting College B testing accommodations.
We recognize that educators know their students best, as we want to cut down on the time and paperwork needed to submit a College Board testing accommodation request.
Beginning January 1, 2017, the vast majority of students who are approved for and using testing accommodations at their schools through a current IEP (Individualized Education Program) or 504 Plan will have those same accommodations automatically approved for taking the SAT®, PSAT™ 10, PSAT/NMSQT®, SAT Subject Tests™, and AP® Exams. Most private school students with a current, formal school-based plan that meets College Board criteria will also have their current accommodations automatically approved for College Board exams."
Homeschoolers Please Note
The above mentions private schools.  In many states, home schools are considered private schools.  Contact the College Board about getting accommodations for your children who need them. 

Regarding the CLEP exams

The CLEP tests are not mentioned in the College Board's announcemnt, probably because they are primarily taken by adults or homeschooled students, neither of which typically have IEPs or 504s. These tests are also designed to be college equivalency tests, where IEPs don't exist and 504s are generally modified.  If you have questions, please contact the College Board directly.

What about the ACT?

The ACT has not made a similar announcement at this time.  Given the incredible competition for students between the two companies, a similar announcement is expected in early 2017.

The Power of PSAT Scores

Your PSAT Score is a Key to Scholarships and Much, Much More!
PSAT results are due to arrive in mid-December.  For sophomores, this is the first nationally compared test score.  For juniors, if you are in the top 10% of scores in your state, you are a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist.  In a few months, you’ll be contacted by the National Merit Scholarship people so you can take the next steps to qualify as a finalist.
College Search (Key to Happiness and Scholarships!)
For Sophomores, this is a VERY useful piece of data.  The College Board now includes an estimate of your SAT score based on your PSAT score.  If you plan to take the ACT, you can search the internet and easily find either the College Board or the ACT’s correlative tables so you can translate the score to an ACT.  Now your search for colleges can get MUCH more focused.  Are you looking to be accepted into the honors college or program?  Are you on track to score in the range required?  Do you need to adjust your sights a little or get serious about test prep?  If you score well and are now serious about going to top tier schools, it’s time to explore the possible AP and CLEP exams you can take this year and next year. 
What to do next summer? A Key to top tier schools and Scholarships
Your increased clarity regarding the tier of college or university you are realistically aiming for will be the conduit to additional clues.  What should you do with next summer?  Take college courses?  Go to a summer camp? Do some research?  Etc.?  What are the schools you are now targeting looking for?  What can you do that develops your skills and abilities and explores your interests in order to continue to prepare to be a competitive applicant at those schools?  Do your research.  Many of the summer programs have applications which are due in January so there’s no time to lose.
For both Sophomores and Juniors, you have gained experience with the College Board’s testing style.  The ACT poses its questions differently and covers slightly different material.  It also includes a science section, which students planning to study majors with heavy science requirements do well to take.  If you choose the SAT, verify with your schools; sometimes SAT subject tests are required to supplement the SAT scores.
Professional Guidance
Given the fact that selecting a college is a $150,000 - $280,000 proposition, getting professional guidance is prudent. If you would like additional help with college selection and college preparations, let’s talk.  Finding the right schools to apply to is absolutely essential if you want to get the best college education you can for the least cost to your family.  Since 93% of all college scholarship dollars come directly from the schools, as do the various programs and majors, college selection is MISSION CRITICAL.  Email or call today to schedule your private college readiness consultation.  We’ll discuss your goals, preparations so far, most pressing needs, as well as available resources.  Schedule yours here.

You may call me at 858-705-0043 or email me at Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS, Founder and Chief College Planning Specialist at Celtic College Consultants.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Far Reaching Impacts of the 2016 FAFSA Financial Aid Application Changes: Families can Avoid Crippling Loans by Starting College Planning Early

This year, the financial aid application process has been significantly changed.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA, can be filed for the 2017/18 school year starting October 1, 2016.  Previously, the FAFSA was filed in the first few months of the year.  With the filing date change comes a second deviation from the past: the use of the “prior, prior year” income information.  For the 2017/18 school year, FAFSA filers will use their 2015 taxes.  These two changes have numerous implications for all college bound families.

First, families should receive their financial aid awards considerably earlier.  This will give them several months to determine how they will fund the upcoming school year.  For those applying to college, alarming changes to their financial aid awards well after the May 1 decision date should be eliminated.  In the past, numerous families received very unwelcome news after having committed to a school.

Second, families need to begin serious college planning much earlier.  The financial aid base year is now the calendar year which begins in the middle of sophomore year. Used well, this information can help families avoid taking on crushing amounts of debt.  Those working with me will benefit even more from my expertise.

The FAFSA is the financial aid form required by nearly every college and university in the US. In order to be able to take federal student or parent loans or to get any federal grants, the FAFSA must be filed.  In California, the FAFSA must be filed by March 2 in order to qualify for a CalGrant.  Additionally, most of the colleges and universities across the country use the FAFSA results to determine how to distribute their own grants and tuition reductions.

With annual college costs exceeding $70,000 at a number of schools and many more topping $60,000/year, even many wealthy families are qualifying for need based aid.  The FAFSA uses what is called the “federal methodology” to calculate the EFC, or Expected Family Contribution.  In turn, financial aid offices use the EFC to determine the aid they will award.

There are two primary reasons for the filing date change.  A few years ago, the IRS and Department of Education introduced the DRT or Data Retrieval Tool.  This tool enables filers to transfer their tax information from the IRS database into their FAFSA. Unfortunately, the IRS could not process returns fast enough to provide the data in a timely fashion.  As a result, some families committed to a particular college or university, only to have their financial aid package altered months later when their tax return data was finally available. 

Additionally, with the earlier filing period, financial aid offices will be able to provide financial aid awards to families much earlier in the application process.  Families will then have more time to determine how to pay for the upcoming year of college.  They will also have time to work with the financial aid office to create a workable plan or to apply to additional schools, if needed.

In order to make October filing happen, the income information had to come from what is called the prior, prior year.  This is the calendar year before the calendar year that is finished before the year of school starts.  For example, for the 2017/18 school year, the prior year is 2016 and the prior, prior year is 2015.  By October of 2016, when families can file the FAFSA for the 2017/18 school year, the IRS should have been able to process their 2015 tax return.  When the families use the DRT in the process of filing their FAFSA, the tax information should be processed and ready to be pulled into the FAFSA.

The reason you need to start working with me during freshman year is because of this shift to using income data from the prior, prior year.  Here's an example:

For students who just started high school in August 2016, their high school timeline was this:

2016/17 Freshman year
2017/18 Sophomore year
2018/19 Junior year
2019/20 Senior year

Their first college year, assuming they go directly from high school to college, will be 2020/2021.  These students will apply for college during the 2019/20 school year.  In October of 2019, they will also be able to file their FAFSA form.  2018 will be their financial aid base year, the year of income used by the FAFSA processor to calculate the EFC (Expected Family Contribution).  2018 is the prior, prior year to 2020, their first year of college.  Take a look at those high school years again.  When does 2018 start?  It starts in the middle of the sophomore year.  Therefore, any changes which would be beneficial to a family’s financial aid eligibility need to be identified and executed during 2016 or 2017, the freshman year.

Unfortunately, most families don’t consider working with me until the junior or, even, the senior year.  With the changes, college funding planning can start sooner, since families will be able to know their EFC and financial aid eligibility a year earlier in the process.  With student loan debt crippling so many college graduates’ lives, finding good colleges which are affordable is more important than ever.

Additionally, the average time to complete a bachelor’s degree is six years.  Often this is due to students arriving at college lacking sufficient academic skills, the necessary life skills, or a clue what they want to study.  Without these three elements, students cannot complete their degree on time.   By starting to work with a college planning specialist like me who works both with student preparation as well as college financial aid and funding, the student has time to develop a focus for college and the family has time to prepare for their first financial aid base year, 2018.

To schedule an appointment to discuss your particular situation,click here: LET'S MEET!

Friday, August 5, 2016

29 Affordable Colleges for Middle Class Families

College prices are absolutely outrageous.  NYU, for example, now costs over $70,000 for ONE year!  Not surprisingly, many are questioning the value of college, which is certainly logical when you consider making a $250,000 - $300,000 investment for a bachelor's degree.  In many places in the US, you could buy a very, very nice house on a large lot for less than that amount.

Be not afraid!  Most families do NOT pay the advertised price for college.  Let's explore some more affordable, yet very high quality, options.  I'll address them in alphabetical order.  Each entry will end with a link to that school's financial aid page.

Amherst College, Amherst, MA

Financial need is NOT considered during the admissions process.  A student's financial need, or lack thereof, will not impact admissions chances.

Amherst College's admissions approach is "high need affirmative." This means that, if all other factors are equal, the college will give preference to first generation students.

Amherst provides generous financial aid packages.  All students can graduate debt free.  Amherst works with QuestBridge for students with very limited means.  They meet 100% of demonstrated need for both American and international students.  Amherst does not include loans in its financial aid packages.

58% of Amherst's students receive aid.

Barnard College, New York, NY

Barnard has a need blind admissions policy.

Barnard awards no merit aid but does meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.  Applicants must apply for aid when they apply for admission, not after they are admitted.  Barnard does include loans in its financial aid packages.

Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME

Bowdoin has the "Explore Bowdoin" program which encourages high achieving students to visit the campus for three days by covering the entire cost of the trip. For more information:

Bowdoin does not consider financial need during the admissions process.  A students' ability to pay will not impact the admissions decision.

Bowdoin no longer includes loans in its financial aid packages.  Bowdoin meets 100% of demonstrated need with grant/scholarship assistance and a small work award.

Nearly half of Bowdoin students receive need based financial aid. (46% of the Class of 2018)

Brown University, Providence, RI

Brown also uses need blind admissions policies, ensuring that a student's ability to pay will not impact his or her chances of admission.

Brown meets 100% of demonstrated need. For families with a total income below $60,000, and assets less than $100,000, no parent contribution is calculated towards the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). (This lowers the EFC, increasing the family's financial aid eligibility.)  For families with total income below $100,000, the loan component of the financial aid award is replaced with additional scholarship. (No loans are included in the package.)  For families with total income below $150,000, reduced loans are included in the aid package.  Brown offers free tuition, room, and board for families making less than $60,000 per year.

42% of the Class of 2019 receive need based aid.

California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA

All of CalTech's financial aid is awarded based on need.  CalTech meets 100% of demonstrated financial need.

52% of Cal Tech students receive need based aid.

Columbia University, New York, NY

Free tuition, room, and board for families making less than $60,000.

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art, New York, NY

Cooper Union has a need blind admissions policy.

Every admitted student is awarded a half tuition scholarship and is eligible for additional merit aid.  Need based aid is also available

Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Cornell has need blind admissions for American applicants.

Cornell does not give merit based aid but does meet all documented need.  Cornell includes loans in its financial aid awards.  Families making less than $60,000 are given free tuition, room, and board.

66% of students receive aid.

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NJ

Dartmouth has a need blind admissions policy for all US applicants.

Dartmouth meets 100% of demonstrated need.  At Dartmouth, free tuition is provided for students from families with total incomes of $100,000 or less—and possessing typical assets. Loans are not required in their financial aid offer.

Duke University, Durham, NC

Duke gives preference to first generation students and participates in the Say Yes to Education program, offering full tuition support to accepted Say Yes scholars with an annual family income under $75,000.

Duke meets 100% of American students' demonstrated need and does not consider financial need in the admissions process.  Duke limits the amount of loans in its financial aid packages.  Families making less than $60,000 get free tuition, room, and board.

55% of Duke students receive aid.  The average scholarship is $46,315.

Georgetown University, Washington DC

An undergraduate applicant's ability to pay tuition is not a criterion for admission at Georgetown.  

In 1978, Georgetown began its historic commitment to meet the financial need of every undergraduate who merits admission. The University works to provide eligible students 100% of their demonstrated financial need through scholarships, loans and other forms of assistance. Our practices mean that every eligible undergraduate student, once accepted, can afford to enroll.  

Each year over half of Georgetown undergraduates receive some form of financial assistance.

Harvard College, Cambridge MA

Harvard provides generous financial aid packages.  All students can graduate debt free.  More than 20% of Harvard undergrads' families pay NOTHING.  Financial need is NOT considered during the admissions process.  Therefore, your financial need, or lack thereof, will not impact your admissions chances.

All of Harvard's financial aid is based on financial need, with none being awarded for academic merit.  Families with total incomes under $65,000 pay no tuition, room, and board.  Harvard works closely with each family to ensure each admitted student can attend.  They expect families who earn between $65,000 and $150,000 to contribute up to 10% of their income.  Families with significant assets are asked to pay more as are families with incomes over $150,000.  Home equity is not considered, nor are retirement assets.  Harvard does not include loans in its financial aid packages.  They meet 100% of demonstrated need for both American and international students.

Over 60% of Harvard undergraduates receive aid.  Their four year graduation rate is 97%.

Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA

Through the Future Achievers of Science and Technology program, students from traditionally underrepresented populations in the STEM fields can visit for free.  They are also granted an application fee waiver. 

Harvey Mudd has a need blind admissions policy for all domestic applicants.  They also meet 100% of demonstrated financial need and have merit scholarships available.  Harvey Mudd does include loans in its financial aid awards.

76% of Harvey Mudd students receive financial aid.

Haverford College, Haverford, PA

Haverford does not consider financial need during the admissions process.

Haverford meets 100% of demonstrated financial need.  More than 50% of students receive a college grant, with the average grant being over $40,000.  Students with family income below $60,000/year will not have loans included in their financial aid package; loan levels for incomes above $60,000/year range from $1,500 - $3,000 annually.

56% of Haverford students receive some form of financial aid
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

In addition to practicing need blind admissions, MIT meets 100% of demonstrated need.  The six year graduation rate is 93%.  Families making less than $75,000 per year don't pay tuition.

91% of undergraduates receive some sort of aid.  33% receive awards totaling more than tuition.

Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT

Middlebury is need blind in admissions and meets 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students.  They do include loans in their financial aid packages. Middlebury limits the endebtedness of its low income students. Middlebury does not offer any merit based financial aid; all aid is given based on financial need.

Franklin Olin College of Engineering, Needham, MA

Olin's admissions is need blind; they do not consider a student's ability to pay during the admissions process.

Olin college is committed to meeting full the financial need of its students.  Every student is offered a $93,000 tuition scholarship for eight semesters of study. This scholarship covers half of the tuition costs.  In addition to that scholarship, 100% of demonstrated financial need will be met with aid.

47% of Olin's students qualify for need based aid. 

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Princeton has a need blind admissions policy for US and international applicants.
Princeton eliminated loans from its financial aid packages in 2001, the first university to do so.  We determine a family's ability to pay using Princeton's own need formula, with fair and generous individual results.  Princeton offers full ride scholarships (covering tuition, room, and board) for families making $54,000/year or less.  Families making more than $54,000 but less than $120,000 per year, Princeton gives full tuition scholarships.

60% of students receive financial aid.  Class of 2019's average grant: $46,000+

Rice University, Houston, TX

Rice has a need blind admissions policy and meets the full demonstrated need of its students.  Rice does include loans in its financial aid packages.  Rice partners with QuestBridge for low income students.

Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Students with family incomes less than $125,000 are expect to pay nothing toward tuition.  Stanford does not consider financial need when making admissions decisions.  Families making less than $65,000 are not expected to pay for tuition, room, or board.

71% of Stanford students receive financial aid.  Their four year graduation rate is 95%Last year, 47% received need-based aid from Stanford and paid an average of $13,600 toward their bills.

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA

Swarthmore has partnered with QuestBridge to assist low income students.

52% of students receive financial aid.

Tufts University, Medford, MA

Tufts partners with QuestBridge to help low income students attend the university.

Tufts does not offer merit aid.  Tufts includes loans in its financial aid packages.

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

Penn has a need blind admissions policy.

Penn strives to meet the full financial need of traditional undergraduate students with an all-grant aid policy.  Penn does not include loans in its financial aid packages for dependent students whose families' incomes are less than $50,000.

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

Vanderbilt makes three important commitments to U.S. Citizens and eligible non-citizens to ensure that students from many different economic circumstances can enroll at Vanderbilt:

First:  Since talent and promise recognize no social, cultural, economic, or geographic boundaries, our admissions process is need-blind for U.S. Citizens and eligible non-citizens. 

Second: Vanderbilt will meet 100% of a family’s demonstrated financial need. 

Third:  Financial aid awards do not include loans. Instead of offering need-based loans to undergraduate students, Vanderbilt offers additional grant assistance.

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Vassar has a need blind admissions policy.

Vassar meets 100% of the demonstrated need of all admitted students and eliminates or reduces loans in the financial aid packages of low income families.  Some families receive over $60,000 in financial aid.

Nearly 60% of Vassar students receive financial aid.

Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO

Wash U meets 100% of demonstrated need for all its students. Entering first-year students and returning full-time undergraduate day-school students with parental incomes of less than $75,000 annually are not awarded need-based loans and instead receive grants from the university that will not have to be repaid. Families with parental income somewhat higher than $75,000 also may receive additional student loan relief based on demonstrated need and their financial circumstances.

Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT

Wesleyan does not consider financial need in the admissions process.

Wesleyan meets 100% of demonstrated need.  They do include loans in their financial aid awards.  All financial aid is need based. 

58% of students receive aid.

Williams College, Williamstown, MA

Windows on Williams (WOW) gives high school seniors the opportunity to spend three all-expenses-paid days at Williams. WOW is a selective program open to high school students in the U.S. and Puerto Rico; preference is given to high-achieving students who couldn’t otherwise afford to visit Williams.

Williams practices need blind admissions.  They admit the most qualified and compelling students without regard for their ability to pay—a family’s financial circumstances will never play a role in their admission decision.  Williams also partners with QuestBridge to assist low income students to study at Williams.

Williams meets 100% of demonstrated need.  There are no hidden costs at Williams. Once you’re here—no matter how much financial aid you receive—you’ll have access to the same opportunities as every other Williams student. Financial aid is portable and can be applied to study away programs as well as Winter Study trips and projects. It covers 100% of the cost of books and course materials so the price of books will never be a factor in the courses you choose. The college also subsidizes most campus events. You’ll attend parties for free, movies for $1, and major concerts and events for less than $5—making the cost of living at Williams far lower than at almost any other campus.

Nearly half of their students receive aid. 

Yale University, New Haven, CT

Yale admits students without regard to financial ability to pay for the costs of a Yale education.

Yale's financial aid is given on the basis of financial need.  No merit aid is given.  Yale’s financial aid policies ensure that 100% of every student’s demonstrated need is met with a package that does not include loans. The main component of Yale’s undergraduate gift aid is the Yale Scholarship, a type of need-based grant, but a financial aid award may include other grants and outside scholarships. For costs not covered by scholarships and grants, students and their families have options such as campus jobs and education loans.  Family's making less than $65,000 are given free tuition, room, and board.

In 2015/16, the average scholarship was $43,989.

64% of students receive financial assistance.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Ten Things High School Grads Need to do Before Leaving for College

Congratulations!  You are preparing to head off to your college campus for the first time!  What an exciting, and scary!, time this is.  Here are a few things for you to take care of so you'll be ready when you arrive.

1. Verify that your financial aid is ready

By now, you should have filed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  If not, complete and file it RIGHT AWAY! (

Early summer is a great time to check in with the financial aid office to verify that all of your paperwork is complete.  This will help prevent unpleasant surprises when you arrive.  Many colleges are great at communicating with incoming students but, sometimes, things can fall through the cracks.  Since this is mission critical, be sure to take a few minutes to give them a call to verify that everything is in good order.

Be sure to make arrangements to cover any gaps between the costs at your school and the financial aid you have been offered.  If you need some ideas, here is a blog from the Dept. of Education: 7 Options to Consider if You Didn't Receive Enough Financial Aid.

If you are taking out student loans to help pay for college, be sure to borrow only what you need and to keep track of what you borrow.  You'll likely be borrowing again in future years.  For your federal loans, you can see your loans here: .

2. Find A Part Time Job Near or On Campus

Working while you are in college is a good idea for most students.  The extra demands on your time will actually hlep you use your time better.  Most college students struggle to use their time well.  The schedule at college is vastly different from traditional high school (but not that different for most homeschooled students).  Having so much free time is a definite temptation to spend time having fun while not spending enough time studying.

Additionally, you'll have the opportunity to develop your money management skills and to contribute toward your expenses at school.  When you "have some skin in the game", when you are contributing your own hard earned money to paying for your college, you are literally more invested in your success.  You realize that failing is going to cost you; you potentially will lose your investment.  Sometimes called sweat equity, personal contributions to an effort generally make a strong positive impact on the outcome. Studies have shown that working while you are in school actually has a positive impact on your grades.  They have also shown that, until you are working 30 or more hours per week, there is not usually a negative impact.

If you are interested in working while you are in school, it's a good idea to explore the options before you arrive on campus.  If you were awarded federal work study as part of your financial aid package, here are eight things you should know about it.  Of course, being awarded work study does NOT guarantee you a job!  Some schools help match students to jobs but most do not.  You will need to find, apply, and interview for positions on your own.  Check with the financial aid office about whether your campus has a work study office which coordinates these jobs.  You may not get your first choice job your first year; oftentimes, Fall jobs are snatched up at the end of the Spring term.  There will still be jobs for the freshman, they simply aren't likely to be the most popular jobs.  I recommend getting a job in the financial aid office, so you will know about new scholarships as they are created or a job as a parking lot attendant or other position which will allow you to study while you are working.

3. Craft a Good Resume and Learn how to Network

Since work experience is important when you are looking for a job after you graduate college, it's a good idea to focus your search on jobs related to your career field.  Create a resume now, before you head to campus, so you are ready to apply and interview as soon as you arrive (you may even be able to apply online before you arrive!).  Most employers want to see a resume.  Preparing one now, before you go, obviously, will be helpful.

Also, look for networking events for professionals in your desired field, and attend.  Get yourself out there!  Make contacts with people in the industry.  Keep your ears open for opportunities to work an internship in their offices, even if it will be unpaid.

4. Have an appropriate email address

Sometimes students have emails which will not make a good impression on potential employers.  Avoid having an email like heretoparty@... and the like.  Yes, have an email address which is not associated with the college or university you will attend.  While you will get a college email address, having a permanent email address is important, too.  You'll be able to apply for jobs before you arrive on campus and get that student email address.  Potential employers will have both an email address and your phone number to use when contacting you to arrange an interview (which may be able to be done via Skype or FaceTime if you haven't moved to campus yet).

5. Create a Budget and a Bank Account

Sit down with your parents and sort out who will be paying for what.  Know what you will be responsible for and how you will take care of your portion.  Know the dates you'll need to make payments.  It will be helpful to sit down with your financial aid award and the list of costs (found on your school's website if it's not included in the aid award).  Add insurance, transportation, school supplies, toiletries, cell phone service, and entertainment (movies, pizza, etc.) to it.  If you are not sure how to create a budget, here's an article and a tool to help you.  And here are some tips!

Create a bank account with a bank or credit union with location(s) near your campus.  It's best to find one with location(s) near your parents - or an app they can use to access your account.  You definitely want to make it easy for them to put money into your account!  And easy for you to access cash when you need it.  Be sure to keep close tabs on your balance.  With most transactions happening electronically, it's easy to lose track of how much money you are actually spending and really have available.

6. Register for Classes and Take Charge of your Calendar

Watch for emails and mail from your college.  Be sure to follow the instructions and complete any online pre-registration requirements.  Register for your courses as early as you can.  Sites like can give you insight into the temperaments of the various professors you might have.  I encourage you to take the time to do a little research; it can make an enormous difference when you get to campus.  If you think having some teachers in high school was preferable to having other teachers, that is even more important at college, when professors have nearly complete free reign in their classrooms.

Once you have registered for your classes, sit down and prepare a weekly schedule.  Then think about what you will need to do to be successful on campus.  When will you need to go to bed in order to get up in time to be at your first class, which is a fifteen minute walk from the cafeteria which, in turn, is a ten minute walk from your dorm.  How long do you need to allow yourself to get dressed, etc. before you are ready to hike to the cafeteria?  In the worst weather expected during the semester?  Take a look at how the rest of your day will flow.  Determine when you can work and study.  Now you are ready to set up a work schedule with your new employer.  At least, you'll have it ready when you get to campus and are out interviewing for positions.

When possible, go online and get your syllabus for each course.  Order your books and supplies.  Pay any lab fees.  Note the deadlines for papers, exam dates, reading week, and finals week on your calendar.  Schedule out extra time to study before the various exams and make two or three preliminary deadlines to work on your papers.  In college, procrastination leads to failure.

Don't forget to note where you can buy toiletries and school supplies and clothing near campus.  You will definitely need to do some shopping now and again!

7. It's time to Embrace the Coupon and the Sale!

BOGO is a key to stretching your few college dollars.  Take a look at Groupon and other opportunities for learning about deals on and around campus.  Your college ID will be the ticket to many student discounts; learn to watch for them.

Textbooks are a major expense.  From the syllabi (that's the plural form of syllabus), you will learn which books are required and which are suggested for each class.  You have several options for getting your books: the college bookstore - for new and used (pay attention to the version/publication date!), Amazon, and many other vendors.  You can also rent your textbooks and/or get electronic versions of them.  For classes outside your major, renting books is ideal.  You probably don't want to keep them.  For classes in your major, you may well want to keep the book, at least for a while as you take the next course in the series (so you can refer back to it).  Whether to get actual books or e-books is a major consideration.  While e-books are certainly easier to carry around, studies have confirmed that we retain what we write and manipulate much better than what we merely read or type.  Sometimes saving a few dollars on texts will cost your grades, which is not a good trade off. 

Should you purchase the "optional" books on the syllabus?  it depends on whether you want to have a shot at getting an A in the course.  I refer you to "How to Become a Straight A Student" by Cal Newport for guidance on determining which of the readings you really need to read in order to be able to excel.  (If you haven't read this book yet, I strongly encourage you to do so.  The tips are invaluable.)

At the end of the term, be sure to sell back the books (whether you got them new or used) that you bought and don't want to keep.  If your school isn't using them for the next term, you may not be able to sell them to the college bookstore.  Take a look online for other opportunities to sell them.  And do it right away.  It's far too easy to get distracted at the end of the term and miss the window of opportunity.

8. Lessons in Safety

Dorms are wonderful places to live.  Lots of interesting people living together engenders lively conversation and lots of fun.  However, theft is a real problem.  Determine how you will lock your laptop (not having that is a catastrophic problem when a paper is due!!)  Discipline yourself to back up your files to the cloud so you can retrieve them if something awful does happen.  For the other items that you will take to campus, think about what you need to secure and explore options to do so.  Kryptonite locks for bicycles, ways to secure your jewelry, other electronics, etc.

Program Campus Safety's number into your phone.  And be prepared to use it!  Do NOT walk across campus alone at night!  Learn some self defense techniques, especially the habit of being aware of your surroundings.  Learn basic first aid so you can help yourself and those around you.

Now that you are heading out on your own, there is significant information and some sensitive documents that you also need to protect.  Employers often want to see your social security card but it's not a prudent thing to carry.  Where will you keep it?  How will you track your usernames and passwords?  Post-it notes on your desk, or in your desk drawer, are not good places to keep track of passwords!  If you create a file of usernames and passwords, remember to password protect it.  And find a way to keep track of that password, too!

Set up expectations with your parents regarding communication.  They will want to know that you are safe and doing ok.  They will want to know if you need their help or advice.  They certainly will want to know when you plan to visit or when they would be welcome to visit you.  Be sure to share your new address with them and any other relatives who might send you a care package (what a joy it is to get one of these!!!) (A care package usually contains food and goodies as well as practical, useful items.  It's terrific to get one just when you are running out of things!)

9. Be ready to file your FAFSA!

Beginning in 2016, the FAFSA will be available starting October 1 for the following school year.  As a returning student, it's probably fine to wait until Christmas break to file yours but it's worth checking with your financial aid office BEFORE you leave for campus.  If they want it sooner than that, make sure you have the required tax information and that you schedule it on your calendar.  Remember, with financial aid, it's first come, first served!

10. Explore the possibilities

A huge study was done recently about whether certain colleges produced students who were happier in their lives and careers.  It found that the college or university attended didn't matter.  What mattered was what students did while they were on campus.  They found six factors to be key:

1. Find a professor who makes you excited about what you are learning
2. Find professors who care about you as a person
3. Find a mentor
4. Work on a project that lasts more than one term
5. Do an internship or get a job in your field
6. Participate in extracurricular activities

So, before you get to campus, take time on you college's website to explore the various opportunities, both academic and extracurricular.  Note what is required to participate.  For example, courses might need to be taken in a particular sequence in order to accommodate a study abroad program or an internship or summer research program.  Have a few extracurricular activities in mind before you arrive on campus and seek them out once you have gotten settled into your dorm.  Many colleges have orientation events which usually provide an opportunity to meet people in various clubs and organizations.  You will profit well from those events if you know which groups you'd like to explore.

Congratulations on your decision to attend college.  All the best to you!

Adopted from:

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Digging Deep When Researching Colleges & Universities

This summer, I'll be giving the Keys to College Success online seminar I've created to help anyone stressing about getting into college and being able to handle the costs.  Sign up now.

When researching colleges, many people gravitate to what they consider to be “great” schools without having any idea whether those institutions merit their reputations or even whether the reputation is that of the graduate school(s) or the undergraduate school(s).
It is critical to understand that no college or university is uniformly excellent, average, or just plain bad. 

Where Schools Differ in Quality

The real differences in the quality of an institution are found within the various academic departments and programs.
For example, a university may have a tremendous business department which enjoys a strong job placement record for its graduates, but have a weak faculty and mediocre facilities in the biology department which, in turn, has a poor track record of graduates being accepted into graduate school or finding jobs.
When exploring schools, it’s extremely important that families drill down and ask critical questions about the education students are getting in the departments of particular interest to their child.
From a recent article by Kevin Carey in the New York Times, "The Fundamental Way that Universities are an Illusion," comes

"The bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. The latest edition was published in 2005 by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, professors at the University of Iowa and Penn State.

The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.
But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

So, How Can You Determine Which Schools are Best for Your Child?

When researching possible colleges, it's essential that you evaluate the kind of education students are getting in academic department(s) of interest to your child.  Here are some things you can do:


Visit the academic department website.  Read everything you can.  Look for information like this:

Departmental Mission Statement & Description of its Undergraduate Education
Undergraduate advising
Graduation Outcomes - graduate school acceptances, employment stats of recent graduating classes
Number and background of the professors in the department - read their CVs
Number of undergraduates in the major (NB Some schools are discontinuing unpopular majors in order to cut costs)
Undergraduate Research Opportunities - overall and by professor
Opportunities for internships and co-operative education placements
Faculty Awards - particularly those for teaching
Undergraduate Awards (Rhodes, Fulbrights, Goldwater, etc.)
Departmental newsletter
Student clubs associated with the major


After identifying a promising school, your teen should reach out to one or two professors and ask intelligent questions about the major.  If the professors don't answer their email, call the department secretary and ask her the questions.  Also mention that the professor didn't answer the email - perhaps she'll explain why. That tells you more about that professor and department.

Some sample questions for your student to ask:

How much access do undergraduates have to professors?
Is there access outside office hours?  Are office hours adequate to give interested students time?
On a 1-10 scale, how would you rank the professors in your department?  Why?
How easy is it to find mentors among the faculty?  Do undergrads have a faculty advisor?
Are lower division classes simply meant to weed out students or are efforts made to keep students progressing in the major?  Or both?
How would you rate the academic quality of the courses?  Why?
What are graduates from the major doing now?
Is there support for those desiring to attend grad school?
Is study abroad possible with this major?
What haven't I asked that is also relevant?
Would they give contact information for one or two recent graduates or upperclassmen in the major so I can contact them?


Visit the college before you apply.  Meet the professors. Talk to students in the major.  Sit in on general ed/core classes as well as in classes in the majors you are interested in. Spend a night in the dorm.  Ask about places to study, dorm life, social life, etc.

In Summary

It is absolutely essential that families look beyond the general reputation of the colleges when determining which to apply to.  I am often asked whether a certain school is right for a student.  I can't answer that question without doing a lot of research and interviewing the student.  Remember, one-third of students end up transferring from one college to another.  That makes the necessity of doing this hard work BEFORE applying obvious.

Learn More...

The best way to cut the costs of college is to become an educated consumer.  I'll be offering my Keys to College Success Webinar several times this summer.  Register here.

-Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS