• Applying to College (v2.0) Early Senior Year - “Separating The Wheat from the Chaff”

    The strategy at this stage, the summer between your Junior and Senior year, is to locate and identify four to six colleges or universities that are the right school academically, environmentally, socially and financially. This process requires answering for yourself questions such as: do I want to live in a city, a suburb or a college town; do I want to be in a school with 3,000 in my class or 300; how far away do I want to live, and how can I afford the next few years of schooling?  The hard work here is in the research to sort through the hundreds of schools that all have some component of what you are seeking. The big picture:  you want to be in the best possible negotiating position when it comes to asking for scholarship money from schools that would be thrilled to have you attend.  

    The two categories of research are active and passive. Most of you are doing passive research right now: getting mailing from schools, checking out websites, talking to friends and family. There is nothing wrong with this, as a starting point, but in order maximize your opportunity for acceptance and scholarship, we must move quickly to an active state. Do some research online from what you have from your passive search; this site and this site are decent places along with Wikipedia to start. Then get to the phones. Active research starts with talking, specifically, you talking on the phone with an admissions office or counselor (schools have various titles for this person, but it is the person who's job it is to turn you into a freshman at their institution). Eschew email for these opening conversations, because you want to establish an interpersonal connection as soon as possible. You want to introduce yourself, get a name of an admission person, and impress them with some questions about their school. Making a good first impression is key: people give things to people that they know. At this point, your not asking for the Presidential Scholarship, you are asking for time to get to know the college and the department to which you may apply. It is perfectly acceptable to not have a specific interest at this time, but you still want to start asking some questions of the admissions people. The product you need to have from the first part of the active stage is a small list of contacts who will know who you are and why you are considering their school.

    You should feel a lot like a telemarketer in the early, active stage. Make yourself a script that succinctly describes your two or three academic interests for college, your three or four selling points that make you a good candidate, such as interest in a particular subject (*cough* Bemis *cough*) or community service, and a few reasons why you are interested in their school. Check for recent new articles about research or big events (not sports) from the colleges. Keep it short and sweet. The goal is to set up a campus visit in the near future.

    The campus visit. This is your first real introduction to the college as a prospective freshman, and we will have some goals to meet, specifically: building professional and personal relationships by introducing yourself to admissions people and professors, asking good questions of the same people that demonstrate genuine interest and arranging an interview or small one-on-one meeting to discuss how the programs align with your ideas for your future. THIS IS PERHAPS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF THE PROCESS. It takes a lot of guts to assert yourself, especially with a bunch of strangers who are in the same boat as you, the ubiquitous group college tour, and to impose yourself on people with the power of admittance. Speaking to the first point: you will see the vast majority of other prospective freshman who are very passive, not asking any questions and shuffling along. THIS IS A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY! This is great, because you will look better as an interested, active guest of the college. Upperclassmen tour guides and admissions people notice these things! Remember: people give things to people they know. The second point: it is the admissions people's job to recruit the best possible young adults for their schools. YOU ARE NOT BOTHERING THEM OR BEING A PAIN IN THE NECK! If you are polite, professional and are asking smart questions, you should expect to be treated well, since you are making their recruiting job very easy. They speak with hundreds of students over the course of a recruiting drive, and you need to stand out from the crowd! After the campus visit, our small list of contacts should be growing to include a professor or two or three and an additional admissions person or administrator or two. Getting their names is very important because after the campus visit, you will send everyone of these people a thank you card. IT IS MANDATORY THAT YOU SEND EACH OF THEM A THANK YOU CARD, EVEN IF YOU SPENT ONLY A FEW MINUTES OF THEIR TIME. Nothing fancy; I like the blank-on-the-inside cards so that I can write a small note of what we spoke about and a short thank you. This accomplishes two things: first, it shows that you are professional and that you are classy; second, you are reminding that person that you are interested and than you appreciate their time in helping you stay interested. People give things to people they know and like.

    This process of research and talking and visiting is not linear, it is recursive and may go on for the next few months.  That is a great thing!  Your network expands and you have more people on your side.  From the list of four to six researched, trusted, schools you will whittle it down to two or three. These two or three schools, where you have established a network, spoken with admissions, staff and students, interviewed and visited twice or thrice are where you have the best shot at the most amount of scholarship and opportunity.

    Here is a guide/worksheet for you and your parents from PHEAA that explains grants, scholarships and loans.  NOTE:  At all costs, try to avoid private lenders (banks) for any significant costs associated with your education.     
    • 4 types of aid sources:  Federal (Pell Grants); state (see pages 5 and 6 of the PHEAA here, in-state gets you at least $5K, note the reciprocal states and institution where you can still get PHEAA funding but go out of state); college grants and scholarships and federal or private loans (stay away from private loans.)
    • "Undermatched Students," or students who can get into a four year program, but opt for a community college due to cost, as a group are less likely to complete a Bachelor's degree than students who start in a four year college. 
    • The "sticker price" of state schools is out-stripping the need based aid that those schools provide, where private colleges, with resources and endowments, can offer more aid, despite the higher base price.
       1)   Where on the Common Application do we have space to list our Gifted Activities? If you can't find space in the academic section, you could always incorporate them into the essays.  The maturity writing prompt gives you the most latitude for your subject, and depending upon how you want to frame the story, you could center the story around something like Bemis or another big, unique project.  Another option is the failure prompt, especially if you do the math or science competitions.  The readers of these essays are not looking for your triumphant story of how you defeated the rabble in 24, they are looking for self-reflection, personal analysis and your commitment to self-improvement; your kaisen.  AVOID LISTING YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS! You want to tell stories that engage people and make them believe in you!
       2)   Is is better to do a colleges individual application, even if they accept the Common Application?  Macy's will take your Visa, but when you pay with the Macy's card, the cashier's smile is a little brighter, her mood a little lighter, and she may offer to box your bow-tie!  Without a doubt, the individual applications are better, since they show more interest in that particular school. This is more work, absolutely, but the good schools are trying to separate the players from the posers.   However, in order to maximize this effect, you should visit each school and meet some of the admissions and teaching staff.  Preferably, you will visit each school before the early application deadline.  Here is why:  if you are doing a good job meeting people and building the network, and you really love the place, you should consider applying Early Decision.  This is not a step to be taken lightly, since Early Decision carries some serious responsibilities on your behalf, but the rewards can be great:  not only will you be totally done with the college admittance before most of your friends have even started, you will be in a better position for the coming summer and fall and you have a better shot at more scholarship and grant money.  
        If you want to consider Early Decision, you and your parents should sit down with an admissions officer and negotiate: 1) if Early Decision is a good move in general and 2) how much the college will give you in scholarships and grants.  Just having this conversation displays a great amount of interest, and will bolster your case, because this isn't some email or letter correspondence.  So consider this before you get on your horse for these schools.
       3)  http://www.questbridge.org/  This deadline is September 27th!  If you have not been contacted by them, it is not too late, but you have to move!  They have a lot of money for students and some excellent colleges are involved with this organization.  Here is how it works.