Making financial aid part of your college admissions strategy

PrincetonWhen it comes to seeking financial aid for college, many students and their parents feel at the mercy of the process. Actually, you can improve your chances of success—if you consider this issue from the very start. That means finding out about a school’s aid policies before you even think of applying there.

Some colleges provide excellent financial aid; some provide very little. Some offer generous grants only to the low-income students they admit, a few are able to give generous help to middle-class applicants, too.

If you just concentrate on the admissions process, with the hope of dealing with the cost of college later, you run the risk of being accepted at schools you can’t afford. Even worse, you might miss an opportunity at a great school because you didn’t realize how large its financial aid packages are.

Contrary to popular belief, the time to start thinking about financial aid issues is not during the winter of 12th grade. By then, all you can do is fill out the financial aid forms, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Instead, take at look at your financial aid prospects at least a year or two before that.

This is a guide to how to integrate financial aid planning into your college admissions process. To help you do that, here is an explanation of the many different forms financial aid can take.  Understanding the interlocking issues can make all the difference to you and your family.

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What are colleges really looking for?

ColumbiaLowStepsSnowIMG_3975What are colleges really looking for?

“What did he do wrong?” asked an unhappy mother who’d begged me for insights after her son was rejected by the top five colleges on his list. This boy had not been one of my clients, so his mother summarized his profile: straight As at a fine high school, impressive SAT scores, glowing letters of recommendations and several summers devoted to foreign travel and academic challenge. She showed me a photo and told me anecdotes. I could tell he was a bright and charming boy, beloved by family and friends.

“What did he do wrong?” she repeated. She was not the first disappointed parent to ask me this question. I know she won’t be the last. But the fact is, it’s the wrong question. And it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the college admissions process.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” I assured her. “It’s just that there are thousands of excellent students, and they’re all competing for a small number of spots. The numbers were against him. They’re against everyone.”

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The time to file the FAFSA is now

ColumbiaWalkSnowIMG_3970High school seniors: after getting your college applications in on deadline, you probably feel you deserve at least a month’s vacation.  In principle, I agree.

But in the real world, now is the time to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is the basic form that must be completed by students (or their parents) who hope to receive need-based federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal loans and work-study jobs. It’s also used by many colleges to help determine how much non-federal aid to give you.

Most colleges that offer aid require you to file the FAFSA. Some also ask for an additional form, such as the CSS Profile. And a few have their very own financial aid forms you will be required to fill out. The FAFSA, however, is the generally the first and most important one. January is the time to start working on it.

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How early admission is changing the college application process

PrincetonArchIMG_4692When it comes to college application deadlines, November is fast becoming the new normal. Every year the number of high school students applying to college early via Early Action and Early Decision programs is increasing. Not only are more students applying early, more are being accepted in the first round. That means the whole timing of the college admissions process is changing.

Savvy students know they can increase their chances of admission at highly selective schools by applying early. Last year Harvard accepted 18% of its Early Action applicants, compared with just 5.9% of its total applicants that year. Princeton accepted a full 21% in the early round, compared with its much lower rate of 7.9% overall. Yale accepted 14.3%, in contrast to 6.7% overall.

Numbers for this year are still coming in for many schools, but Harvard’s Early Action acceptance rate is up about three percentage points, Yale’s is up one percent, while Princeton’s is up slightly less than one.

Although some schools have tried to gloss over the obvious conclusion—arguing that many students who apply early are academically superior—it seems clear that students who apply early boost their chances of success.

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Anarchy & Ivy: Allen Ginsberg’s days at Columbia

kill-your-darlings-680Daniel Radcliffe’s new movie about Allen Ginsberg offers us a chance to reexamine the poet’s student years, raising the question: what is education, really?

The movie “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Danielle Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg, is an engrossing biopic that follows the future Beat poet through his student years at Columbia University. It was there that Ginsberg, as a 17-year-old freshman in 1943-44, met soon-to-be Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, along with their circle of bohemian friends. He also spent a lot of time reading, writing and breaking rules. The last of those activities got him into trouble with the university—trouble that almost kept him from graduating.

Today we may laugh at the minor infraction that actually triggered Ginsberg’s suspension—an obscene phrase traced in the dust of his dorm room window—an incident described in Ginsberg’s letters, though not depicted in the film. But his involvement with a group of friends that included thieves and drug addicts, as well as a brilliant young Columbia student named Lucien Carr, who ended up murdering another member of their circle, is certainly troubling.

“Kill Your Darlings” devotes plenty of screen time to Ginsberg’s relationship with Carr, and to the murder, a controversial chapter in Beat history. Yet it barely touches on another important relationship—that of the young Ginsberg and his real-life professor, literary critic Lionel Trilling.

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Beware of glitches in the Common Application

IMG_4697 This fall, major bugs in the Common Application software continue to bedevil high school seniors as they attempt to file their college applications.  Although some colleges are now offering software alternatives, such as the Universal College Application, the Common App remains dominant for now.

That’s why it’s important for applicants to confirm that the entire form has been not only correctly submitted, but also received by each college.

Some students mistakenly believe they’ve completed the process before the application has actually been submitted. That’s because a misleading “receipt of payment” notice may seem to signify that the process is complete.  It isn’t.

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Planning college visits

ColumbiaStudentsTalkingIMG_4663SOPHOMORES and JUNIORS: It’s not too early to start thinking about those initial college visits. In fact, the sooner you start, the more relaxed and enjoyable it will be. The spring of junior year is good. The spring or summer of sophomore year is better.

But which colleges should you look at? It pays to do some pondering, as well as some research before hitting the road for the classic college tour. There are thousands of schools out there—dozens of which might be good fits for you. No matter how early you start, you’ll never have time to see them all.

To save yourself and your family time, energy and money, I suggest you focus on colleges you have reason to believe may suit your needs. Here are seven key questions to consider before you start mapping those trips.

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What can college applicants learn from Tina Fey’s movie ‘Admission’?

Admission Movie Poster

“Admission” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. Focus Features.

At this time of year, high school seniors from coast to coast are wracked with stress about the college admission process. Is there any way to turn this ordeal into a romantic comedy? Tina Fey and company give it a try in “Admission.”

Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton who gets way too emotionally involved with one of the applicants to the freshman class. Instead of remaining a name on an orange folder and a series of grades, tests scores and extracurricular accomplishments stapled to a personal essay, a 17-year-old boy named Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff) becomes all too real to Portia. She comes to believe she is actually his birth mother and soon is doing all sorts of questionable things to try to give him a leg up in his struggle to get into Princeton.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Korelitz, who worked in the Princeton admissions office, the movie milks a seriously touchy subject for some good laughs. But high school students facing the daunting college application process will wonder how closely this movie hews to any real college. Their parents may ask whether it will help or hinder their kids as they wait out the verdicts from the schools they’ve applied to.

There are no simple answers to these questions. The movie has its moments of truth as well as its flights of fancy. Whether a particular teenager will have a good, lighthearted time or find the film painfully stressful will depend mostly on the person. But, underneath its humorous exterior, “Admission” does offer some earnest commentary and a few real lessons to be learned. Here are a few admissions realities I think the movie got right.

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‘Admission’ the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

“Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Grand Central Publishing)

Before the soon-to-be-released movie “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, there was the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Princeton faculty wife and sometime admissions reader

If you’ve always wanted to know what happens behind the doors of Ivy League college admissions offices—and prefer reading novels to non-fiction—this book’s for you. Author Jean Hanff Korelitz spent 2006 to 2007 working as an application reader at Princeton University to do her research for this fact-filled fiction. In her novel “Admission,” first published in 2009 and due to be reissued soon as a movie tie-in, she takes us inside the secretive process.

Like the author, the book’s protagonist Portia Nathan works in admissions at Princeton and is obsessed with her job. When the story opens, she’s headed to New England—her new territory—where she’ll be visiting the elite prep schools, some public high schools and one new progressive private school based on a farm. As she flies north, we look over Portia’s shoulder while she reads through students’ application folders and considers whether they are Princeton material. It is just the first of many such sessions.

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The Gatekeepers: Inside the admissions process of a premier college

The Gatekeepers cover

The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg (Penguin Books)

First published a decade ago, Jacques Steinberg’s book “The Gatekeepers” still offers a revealing window into how the college admissions process really works

Every fall, as almost three quarters of American high school seniors prepare to apply to college, a new crop of teenagers and their parents wonder: who gets into the top schools and why? As anyone involved can tell you, it’s not based only on grades and test scores. Those are just two of many factors, some quite mysterious. In fact, how admissions offices at the most competitive colleges weigh those factors and make their decisions has long been a closely guarded secret. Oh, to be a fly on one of those ivy-covered walls!

A little over a decade ago, New York Times education writer Jacques Steinberg convinced Wesleyan University to let him be that fly. At the time, Wesleyan was a well-respected and up-and-coming school profiting from the rapidly multiplying number of college applicants in this country. As Steinberg describes it, the pyramid of elite colleges worked like a tower of champagne glasses, with applicants who didn’t quite make it into the Ivy League spilling down into the next tier of schools, which included Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore and Wesleyan.

If you’re concerned with quality education, that’s a simplistic way to think about any of these schools, each of which offers an excellent education and has unique qualities of its own. But if you’re tracking admissions statistics and developing marketing strategies, the image of a champagne pyramid makes perfect sense.

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