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unCommon Fall Searches: Colleges, Financial Aid, Scholarships and Validation

Fall is quite the busy time in the college-prep world. As I create this post, I’m streaming the annual New York Times Symposium on College Admissions and Preparation and, on breaks, blogging, prepping lessons for The Hudson School (Interviewing; PSAT Math), and communicating with students who are in the midst of it all.

From the Times Comes Validation

Fortunately, I find the majority of the Times session validating. Some topics are those addressed regularly, for example:

  1. The Common App Personal Essay (Personal Statement). The presenters repeatedly stated that the essay is to tell a story, specifically, the student’s story. They explained that it should only be in the applicant’s voice (as opposed to an adult’s).

  2. Testing. In the opening panel, admissions deans from DePaul, Wesleyan and Cal debated the merits of standardized tests.  Amy Jarich, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Admissions at Cal, explained that her institution looks at the scores not only for “validation” but also takes note when there’s a gap; students with high test scores who didn’t apply themselves in high school. At the same time, she added, there may be students who don’t have the best of standardized test scores but “had something else on their application that drew us in.”

  3. Transcript. Wesleyan’s Dean of Admission Nancy Meislahn asserted, “The best predictor of success is day-to-day work in the classroom.”

Also, I was very glad that the symposium addressed some subjects that families avoid, in particular, students who:

  1. Take a different path. Dean Meislahn stated that students who transfer for whatever reasons bring with them life experiences, adding tremendous value to the campus. Those of us who have counseled students are believers.

  2. Mature throughout the process. Dean Meislahn also shared that the college application is a major step toward adulthood, especially when students have to set up accounts and monitor emails. We college counselors know that this organizational task is quite difficult and, as a result, is often managed by a parent.

  3. Struggle with learning and other issues. Finally, in the context of college essay writing, Marybeth Kravets, former NACAC director and an authority on learning differences, believes that it’s fine to disclose [struggles with issues such as learning disorders], but that the essay must “show that you’ve navigated through it.”

Searching for Colleges?

Who says Google doesn’t own (or at least track) the world? Now, when we search for a college, Google will provide College Scorecard information alongside search results. College Scorecard is a U.S. Department of Education initiative to help students get the best results and avoid debt. According to the DOE blog, it contains “the most comprehensive data ever published about college costs, graduation rates, employment outcomes and student debt for every college.”

So when you search Google for a college, you will see acceptance rate, graduation rate, average cost for students receiving federal aid, average salary after attending undergrad, and undergraduate tuition and fees.

Caution: Take College Scorecard data for what it’s worth (sort of like ratings). Also, I tested the capability even after the new search results were supposed to go live and found inconsistencies from college to college. But you can see the names of some mascots! (Did you know that Haverford’s mascot is the black squirrel?)

Making Financial Aid Easy

Michelle Obama works on her resume, while a student doesn’t remember her name. Those scenes are part of a new video geared toward showing students and their families how easy it is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The video is part of a campaign called Form Your Future.

Michelle Obama plays herself in a new FAFSA video.

Message to the Student: (Rep)resent Yourself

Sometimes, students wonder what to do to separate their application from the pack, especially when applying to a large college. A suggestion: get to know the rep. If a prospective college is sending a rep to your high school, be sure your student introduces himself or herself. After submitting the application, there may be an opportunity for an email exchange. (Students are cautioned to not overdo it!)


Unigo is a great source of unusual scholarships. This month’s list includes scholarships awarded for innovative ideas about cars, the water supply, and even surviving a zombie invasion.

Early Action: A Win!

No matter how talented a college applicant may be, he or she shouldn’t hold out for a single college. If you student is thinking Early Decision, have some backups decided and drafted. Adding some Early Action colleges is very smart; they are nonbinding, and students get a good read on their candidacy—and hopefully an acceptance. We can thank PrepScholar for its complete list of Early Action colleges.

Don’t “Fall” Behind!

Early deadlines are just a month away! Seniors need to: complete the Common App; use Naviance as instructed; and share essays if they want constructive feedback.

Leaves are just starting to fall, and questions about college keep coming. You or your student should email me with your concerns.


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