Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mastering the College Essay

As college applications season kicks into high gear, the application item that seems to strike the most fear in students is the essay.  Follow these tips for a great essay!

·       Show, and then tell. 

Use an anecdote, a real life moment, to grab the reader in the beginning.  Showing takes advantage of those concrete details that we can’t resist: the specifics of something that happened. Who can resist the juicy stuff? Then the writer can “Tell” or explain, analyze, reflect, etc., on what happened later in the essay.
“I don’t hear anything but my own breathing and footsteps” rather than “When you take a step back and observe how modern society functions, it appears quite chaotic and busy.”
This essay is about contentment found through rock climbing.
Remember, college admissions folks read thousands of essays, don’t bore them!

·       Be authentic.
Be yourself.  Don’t try to impress.  Be likeable.  Be honest.  This is a student’s time to shine, to let the colleges learn more about who the applicant is beyond grades, test scores and activities.  Don’t think about what you think the colleges want to hear.  It is more important to be engaging than impressive.
“I am a good loser.  It is an art I have perfected.  When I was six, I lost a button up my nose”…

·       Narrow the lens and own the story.
Be specific.  Use all of your senses through adjectives and details. Owning the story means no one else could tell it and it didn’t happen to anyone else.  It doesn’t have to be an extraordinary event; it just needs details so nobody else could tell the story the same way.
“I was extremely nervous before the orchestra started playing”… Probably every kid in the orchestra felt that.  Instead, “I was sitting on the stage with my violin resting on my shoulder, and I was sure I’d never been that nervous.  I looked out into the crowd and somehow found my dad”.
The best essays are meaningful experiences that also make for good stories.

·       Don’t repeat information from the rest of the application.
As the editor of the school newspaper, a student would certainly be proud and want to write about it.  But it was already listed on the activities section of the application. So rather than writing about what it is like to be the editor, narrow the lens and recall a particular story associated with being the editor, owning the story with rich details.  Another approach is to share a story that has not been mentioned anywhere on the application.  Remember, the college is wanting to get to know the applicant better.

·       Sound like a high school senior.
Find the balance between too formal and too casual as the student tells the story in the first   person. This is difficult for teenagers as they are not accustomed to this type of writing.  Ask these questions:  Is this something the student would actually say to someone else? This keeps the writer from being too formal. How would you say it if you were describing it to your favorite teacher?  This keeps the writer from being too casual.
“Participating in varsity baseball has been a valuable experience for me because it taught me the importance of committing to my goals”.  I don’t know too many teenagers that would actually say that.  But they might say:  “Varsity baseball was the first time in my life that I actually wrote a goal down on a piece of paper and promised myself I was going to do it.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Welcome to the new school year!

With school starting back, here are some tips for all high school students!

-Get involved!
Join a club, play a sport, or participate in an activity that sounds interesting. The high school experience will be greatly enriched, new friends made and perhaps a passion found.

-Grades are important!
Every year! Think of it this way, by the end of sophomore year, 1/2 of a student's grades are in the books. One misconception is that junior year is the most important, but really every year is. In many cases, colleges will only see the first three years of a student's grades when applying to college.

-Take advantage of college visits to high schools and the college fairs!
Throughout the fall, many colleges will be visiting local high schools. Students can meet the college reps and learn more about colleges without having to take big trips.  Additionally, the national college fair at the Oregon Convention Center will be November 2-3. More than 300 colleges will be in attendance and another great way to learn more about colleges.  Go to www.nacacnet.org for more info. After doing a bit of research, students can plan to make some visits.

-Have the Money Talk!
Families need to sit down and clearly communicate financial expectations for college. Will the parents/ grandparents absorb the cost? Is there an expectation for the student to contribute financially or otherwise (through scholarship, work)? Is there an expectation that the student should have some loan debt? Every family has a different philosophy and communicating this among involved parties will create a much less stressful situation later. And don't forget to think in terms of four years, not just the first year.

-Start early on applications!
There are many parts and pieces to college applications, so starting early with testing, identifying teachers for recommendations and essay writing will ease stress so often association with the college application process.  Be aware of all deadlines. Every school is a little different and late applications are not accepted!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

discovering Whitman

Discovering Whitman

Being an independent counselor in Portland Oregon, Whitman College has always been just enough off the beaten path that I had not a chance to visit.  What a great opportunity to visit as a post HECA conference tour.  Boarding the bus at 7:15 am after a very fun and beautiful evening on the Portland Spirit, 42 fellow counselors and I traveled to Walla Walla, “the town so nice, they named it twice”.  I was familiar with Whitman and it’s out of the way location.  I wasn’t familiar with what makes Whitman a special place.

After lunch and a campus tour, we met with Adam Miller, director of Admissions.  I was already getting a sense of “why Whitman” from the themed houses, to the open quads to the laid back Northwest feel.  Miller described it best:  “Whitman is a place for those students that go about their college search a little differently”.  Whitman is out of the way; Spokane (not really considered a major city by many) is three hours away.  Portland and Seattle are four hours away.  There is a small regional airport in Walla Walla, but does not serve Portland.  Students that choose Whitman are looking for something out of the way. 

In an environment that is challenging but not competitive, professors are not afraid to take the class out of the classroom, whether to Ankeny Field or to the nearby state penitentiary to study the judicial system.  Nearly 30% of students participate in Greek Life, yet the atmosphere is open to all and anything but the typical party scene.  The student panel we heard was varied in their activities and studies, yet all shared enthusiasm on their Whitman experience.  Hard questions were asked from this group of counselors and these students embraced them.  Of course, that is why they were chosen, right?

We enjoyed an evening on our own in Walla Walla which provided the opportunity we don’t normally get on such tours.  Walla Walla has a vibrant downtown with a farmer’s market, great restaurants featuring local wines, ice cream and candy shops as well as bike and outdoor shops.  Although a student wouldn’t need to use the bike shop in town as Whitman’s outdoor program provides all the equipment and excursions a student could want.  The Scrambles program is an outdoor adventure (many choices) for incoming freshman. The outdoor program at Whitman is top rated in the state.

Another one of our stops around the Whitman campus was in the Hall of Music.  We were treated to Dr. Susan Pickett and her student research assistant.  They shared their love of music and in particular the project they are working on this summer: transcribing female composer’s work from the 18th century.  Her student Ryan, received a Parry grant (exclusive to Whitman in the music department) to compensate him for his work over the summer.  The passion from both student and professor were evident and I marveled at the opportunity this young man was having doing one on one research with his professor.
With new appreciation for the town of Walla Walla and especially Whitman, we boarded the bus home Friday for Portland.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Summer... a great time to...

Read, work, volunteer, relax, visit colleges, update your activities resume, and if you are a rising senior, get a head start on the college applications!  As I have toured many schools this past spring, I hear many themes over and over.  One that is standing out to me right now is "The  most successful applicants begin the application process during the summer."  So what should you, the soon to be senior, do?

Come up with a college list you love.  Think about your interests, what would you like to learn more about?  How far away from home would you like to be? What about college costs?  By spending some thoughtful time thinking about these and other questions, you can begin to research schools.  Part of that research should include net price calculators found at every college website which will help determine the actual cost of an individual college.  Talk to family members and older friends about their college experiences. Once you have a few colleges on the list, it's time to...

Make contact with the schools.  Many qualified applicants will be denied admission simply because of never having made contact with the school before submitting an application.  It's called "demonstrated interest" and colleges use it as a way to predict likelihood of a student enrolling if offered admission.  Contact admissions and find out who your admissions rep is.  Ask about interviews, how to get more information about the school, will they be at a college fair near you.

If possible, visit a school or two (or three) on your list.  This can be a great opportunity for an interview and also decide if you love the school or not.  It can also help determine other suitable schools.

Update you activities resume.  You will need this information for applications.  Be sure to come back to it or ask a parent to look it over to see if you have forgotten anything.

Start on the college essay.  Most applications will not be available until August, so getting this done will put you ahead of the game.

Carving out  a few hours each week will get this done and you will be smiling next fall and ready to enjoy your senior year!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

529 accounts, a great way to save for college, or are they?

Great question and the answer for the most part is yes!  I get this question a lot.  One of the reasons it is questioned, is that when it comes time to file the FAFSA, the assets in 529 accounts will be taken into consideration.  After all, it is money you saved for college!  But here is the deal:  it is better to open the 529 account in the parent's name with the child named beneficiary.  Here's why:  in determining EFC or estimated FAMILY (not parents) contribution, the student's assets (529 account for one) are assessed at 20% versus the parent's at 5.65%.  Family members can make gifts to the 529 accounts to help or open their own with the student named as beneficiary.  Earnings in a 529 grow tax free until withdrawal and when used  to pay for higher education expenses are tax free.  But what if little Johnny doesn't go to college? Money saved in 529 accounts that is not used for educational expenses will become fully taxable as ordinary income and subject to a 10% penalty.
There is another often overlooked alternative:  Roth IRA.  Roth IRAs can be used for college expenses in addition to retirement income.  These accounts grow taxed deferred and are exempt from withdrawal penalties if the funds are used specifically for qualified educational expenses.  For the most part, only the contribution portion of the Roth IRA balance can be withdrawn tax-free.  Roth IRAs also offer a bit more flexibility over the 529 plans.  Any left over funds after withdrawing for college expenses (good luck with that one!) can be converted to retirement income with no tax consequences or penalties.  And since the Roth IRA is considered a retirement account, funds there are not considered when calculating the EFC.  Roth IRAs do have drawbacks though.   There are contribution limits, you need to have earnings in order to contribute, and there are income limitations.  But used in combination with 529 accounts, Roth IRAs can be a great supplement.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Waiting, waiting, waiting

So here we are, beginning of the end:  second semester of senior year.  For some, you have heard from colleges and may even know where you will be headed next fall.  For others, you may be waiting on all the offers and financial letters to make a decision.  Which likely will not happen until late March.  And the buzz is reaching fever pitch.

Unfortunately, some parents view where their child has been accepted as a reflection on parenting skills.  Throw in a little friendly competitiveness, and one can start to fell less than adequate.  How fondly I remember running into a mother whose daughter was a friend of my son's.  Within 60 seconds, unsolicited, I knew where she had been accepted and how much money she had received.  The she asked where was my son going.  I replied we were still deciding.  It was roughly this time of year and we hadn't heard from all the schools.  She looked at me as though I had 3 eyes.  It was great that she was so proud of her daughter, and I know she meant no ill will.

Students also can get a bit frenzied.  Many colleges notified students of acceptance decisions via email.  With all the smart phones out there, this became a very public event as students screamed with joy upon learning the acceptance.  But how about the deferred or rejected student?  It is tough in front of friends when the news is not what a student was hoping for.

What to do?  As much as possible, avoid those conversations and be strong when you say, "we are still deciding", because you are!  In the words of a favorite teacher, "Don't get sucked in"!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Applications are done, but wait, there's more!

So the college applications are submitted, and now it is time to get the FAFSA done as well as any other financial aid forms schools are requesting.

What is FAFSA?
  • ·         FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid and it's the form students and parents  fill out to receive federal  financial aid for college. The FAFSA will ask about the student's demographics, student dependency and student and parent financial info.  It is FREE and if one is at a site requesting payment, that is the wrong place!

Why should I fill out the FAFSA?
  • ·         Filing the FAFSA is the only way to qualify for federal and state financial aid, including  grants and work study. (Grant money does not have to be repaid!)
Who needs to fill out the FAFSA?
  • ·         The application asks for information from both students and parents, especially when it comes to finances. (EVERYONE!)
What do I need to fill out the FAFSA?
How do I fill out the FAFSA?
  • ·        It's easiest to fill out the application online at www.FAFSA.ed.gov because using an online form will yield a more accurate and quicker result. However, paper copies can be requested by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.
WHEN is the FAFSA due?
  • ·         It is available after Jan 1 and should be filed in January.  Schools have different priority deadlines so best advice is to get it done in January.  Estimate taxes and then file an addendum when taxes are filed.
What if my child is younger?
College Goal Oregon is a FREE event designed to help Oregon college-bound students and their families with the financial aid application process. Everyone is invited to attend this event, whether they are high school or non-traditional returning students. Financial aid professionals will be on hand to help attendees complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the Oregon Student Access Commission (OSAC) scholarship application. For dates and locations, check http://collegegoaloregon.gov/index.html

Finding Scholarships through OSAC:
  • Oregon Student Access Commission (OSAC) is a clearing house for many college scholarships for Oregon residents. 
  • Students can apply online at www.getcollegefunds.org
  • There is an early bird drawing of $500 for applying before Feb 15.  Final deadline is March1.  This is for high school seniors as well as college students. 
  • Some of the scholarships are need based and some are merit, but all will require the FAFSA.