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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

FAFSA. Five letters that change lives for millions of students across the country

By Susan McCrackin -- College Board

This year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is here. Because government grants compose 74 percent of the $185 billion financial aid pool, it’s no surprise that FAFSA is a source of stress for students and their families.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Susan McCrackin, Senior Director Financial Aid Methodology at the College Board, offers this eight-step map to help educators help students work through FAFSA.

1.   Gather Documents First

Here’s a list of documents students should have in hand before they begin to fill out FAFSA. Also steer students to get a U.S. Department of Education personal identification number (PIN.) Here’s the PIN application link.  

2.   Think About Taxes

Parents’ taxes are an important part in the FAFSA process. Getting taxes done by February 1st may be unrealistic, so last year’s taxes and this year’s paystubs can help create estimates. After February 3rd, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool becomes available, allowing students and parents to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS website.  Plus, remind families that they can complete taxes without actually filing. So if they owe money, they don’t have immediately cut a check to Uncle Sam.

3.   Find Quiet Time 

Many of us work with FAFSA every year. Families don’t have that familiarity. Encourage them to break down this large application into smaller pieces. These do’s and don’ts can help.

1.     Don’t sprint. Take questions one at a time.  
2.     Do read each question carefully and out loud. It improves question comprehension.
3.     Don’t multi-task. Turn off cell phones, music players and televisions.     
4.     Do find a quiet place where FAFSA will have your full attention. 

4.   Stay Student Focused

Parents often forget that the student always provides information. Parents are required to provide their information if the student is a dependent. 

So when parents see a question that refers to “I,” remember that “I” is the student.  “You” is also the student. When questions address parents, you will see questions that refer to “your parents.”  That is where parental information goes.

5.   Avoid Parent Traps

When you see “parents,” FAFSA is referring to the student’s biological or adoptive parents.  When the parents are married, then the student and both parents complete the FAFSA. 

If the parents are not together, things can get confusing. BigFuture by the College Board created the corresponding infographic to help address some commonly asked questions.

6.   Keep Track of Deadlines

Every college has a different set of deadlines based on priority, merit, early decisions etc. BigFuture by the College Board helps families sort through these deadlines with detailed college profiles and a free, customized action plan. And just like a student should raise his or her hands with a question in class, encourage them to call a college with a specific question.

7.   Profile CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®

FAFSA opens the doors to federal aid. There’s also almost $50 billion in non-federal aid available – from colleges, states and private institutions. Some colleges and programs use the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE to help award these monies.

CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is an online application that collects information used by almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs to award financial aid outside sources from the federal government.  Families must complete the application and the College Board sends it to the colleges and scholarship programs they have chosen.  

Here’s a list of colleges that use CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® and where you go to complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®. One CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® report costs $25. Additional reports are $16 each. There are fee waivers available for low-income families.

8.   Practice Makes Perfect

Educators can’t be with every student as they fill out FAFSA. To provide support BigFuture created a free FAFSA webinar that walks students, section by section, through an actual FAFSA application. Families can access the free FAFSA webinar 24/7 on their terms.

FAFSA can change a student’s life forever. Following this map can help extend your activities with students and guide them to a better future. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Make Your Stories Pop: 10 College Application Essay Guiding Questions

Rebecca Joseph, PhD

Working on the drafts of your personal statements for your college applications? The drafting process is critical and can help make your stories and messages clearer.  Please be willing to draft and re-write to make your essays stronger.
Here are 10 questions to help guide you through the editing process. I hope they can help make your stories pop on the page and help you get admitted to your match colleges and receive lots of scholarship money.
  1. Does your essay start with a story that hooks us in from the first paragraph?
  2. If you start in the past, do you get to the present very quickly? Colleges want to know about the recent you. Great essays can start more recently and weave in past events.
  3. Do you write only in the first person and not spend too much time describing anyone or anything else? Use my one-third-two-third rule. You may not spend more than 1/3 of the essay describing anything other than your own activities and goals.
  4. If you are writing about your community or family, do you get to the present and your life and life works quickly? Can this description only connect to you and your story of who are you and how you are making a difference?
  5. Do you only tell one story and not try to tell your entire life story?
  6. If you are writing about an obstacle or challenge overcome, do you get to how you have responded and made a difference in the life of your community by the second or third paragraph of the essay? Admissions officers want to know who are you and how you make an impact drawing upon your obstacles or challenges.
  7. Do you have a metaphor that goes through the entire piece…does this metaphor reveal who you are and what you offer to potential colleges? You can embed this metaphor throughout out your piece.
  8. Can I close my eyes and picture your story? Does it make you sound unique and not like anyone else applying? Can I see your leadership and initiative and the power of what you will offer a college campus?
  9. Do you tell new stories and qualities in each separate essay your write? Do you make sure to reveal powerful information and core messages that colleges will need to know to admit you and give you money to attend?
  10. Endings-Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals and aspirations that drive you. Your endings must be specific for some prompts like the University of California and University of Texas, but can be more oblique and implied in Common Application and many supplementary essays. Do you end leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more, to see you on his or her campus, and to share your essay with someone else?
a.       If you are responding to University of California Prompt 1, do you end with how your story has affected your dreams and aspirations—in terms of majors, life goals, and your community?
b.      If you are responding to University of California Prompt 2, do you make sure to connect whatever you writing about to a major activity or project you have done that makes you proud?
c.       If you responding to the Common Application long essay, do you end with a bang. You don’t have to have a formal ending like the UC applications. Do you clearly let us know that you understand the power of your story?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Is your kid going to school in Canada next fall? A couple of tips from a parent.

Many students and parents are looking north for colleges.  There are a lot of great colleges and universities across Canada, most, significantly less expensive.  I have a friend whose daughter just finished her freshman year at Mcgill University in Montreal.  Talking with Ann, I learned a lot about going to college north of the border, and some issues I never imagined.   I asked Ann if she could answer some questions about what she has learned, and hopefully give some tips if you or your child is interested in attending college in Canada, or oversees in general.  If you have other questions not addressed here please forward them along.

Q. Your daughter just finished up at McGill, overall was it what you expected?

From the first time we arrived on campus, we found the McGill community to be friendly and welcoming.  We actually arrived at school the day before the dormitory she was assigned to was scheduled to open.  We decided to take our chances and go see if we could possibly move her items in early.  When we came to the dorm and asked we told it was fine.  I cannot imagine this scenario being repeated on campuses in the U.S.

Mary had a great first year at school.  She loved living in Montreal, made great friends and found her classes challenging  and interesting.  We believe it is a great choice for her. 

Q. Tell us about the process of getting a student visa?  Is it complicated?  How long does it take?

McGill did a good job walking students through the application process.  Students and parents were reminded in writing on several occasions to begin the visa process as soon as possible.  When I had visa questions, I contacted the International Students office and was always able to get an answer pretty easily.  We also were required to offer letters from our banks which affirmed we had adequate funds in our account to pay tuition. 

One issue that came up was a strike by the Canadian Postal Service.  The matter was resolved and Mary received her visa in plenty of time.   

Prior to heading to Montreal, we were told to expect to wait at the border to process the visa for a new student.  It took about an hour and a half to complete the process which was a little longer than I expected.  While waiting for process, I made the most of the delay and wandered around and met other parents making the trek north. 

Q.  Is it possible for a student to work in Canada without a visa?

I am not an expert in this field.  It is my understanding that some U.S. students are permitted to obtain on-campus jobs only.  Our daughter will be able to work in Montreal as a sophomore.  It appears as though Canada is less restrictive than the U.S. when it comes to foreign students working while at university.

Q. I know you mentioned cell phones was a problem you never anticipated, what was the problem and what is the solution?

For some reason, I was fixated on the cell phone issue.  In a perfect world, our daughter could have continued to use her iPhone, expanded her coverage to include Canada and kept her same plan and telephone number.  This simply was not the case.  Folks at our local AT&T store could not offer much assistance.  We spoke to other parents in the same situation her simply shook their heads and wished us luck. 

One of the biggest stumbling blocks was the fact that she had an iPhone from AT&T that was locked and could not be opened in Canada.  We purchased a new iPhone that is not locked in Canada.  She ended up signing a three year contract with Rogers and kept her U.S. plan in place.  She carries two sim cards with her and simply exchanges them when she is at the border or airport.  When she was in Canada, we reduced the phone service in the U.S. to a minimum plan.  When she came home for the summer, we dropped many of the features for the Rogers plan.

A word to the wise, avoid the telephone company tents that pop up on campus at orientation time.  Many of them require cash payments for phones and service.  Moreover, the individuals working in the tents are often temporary workers who do not know the plan well.  It would have been better for us to visit a local phone store in Montreal to initiate service.  There was a dispute concerning whether or not we signed up for international texting.  If you remember anything from this article, it is to always sign up for international texting.  If you don't, the bill for the first few days can exceed $400 and lead to the phone service being suspended.  We are able to resolve the dispute and were credited on the account but it took many telephone calls to accomplish.  Consider tying the phone bill to be paid via your credit card each month.  It is a very convenient way to go.    

Q.  You also mentioned banking: again, what was the problem and what is the solution?

We wanted to be able to make it easy to deposit money in her account and make wire transfers without incurring fees which can exceed $40 a transaction.  I opted to keep a TD Bank account in Boston in the same branch as my daughter.  She signed paperwork granting me access to make deposits and track the account on line.  She then opened an account at TDCanada in Montreal.  The banks have an agreement to waive wire transfer fees between the U.S. branch and its Canadian counterpart.  I simply remind the bank each time I wire money and the fee is waived.  

Q. Canada also has an 18 year old drinking age.  What effect does that have on college age kids, and how did you deal with it?

I believe the fact that students can drink at 18 is a positive.   Students can purchase beer, wine and liquor and are able to frequent bars in clubs in Montreal.   Unlike in the U.S., drinking in Montreal is not done behind closed doors and students do not risk being brought up on disciplinary charges for having a beer with some friends.  Students learn pretty quickly that they cannot go out each night and make it to a 9:00 a.m. lecture.  Moreover, liquor is more heavily taxed in Canada than in the U.S. so the cost of a drink is much higher. 

Due to the lower drinking age, Montreal is a popular destination for students from New England.  Our daughter had lots of visitors from home.  Some of her friends' favorite memories of their freshman year is when they visited McGill which is funny considering that they go to school in Vermont and Boston.  I did remind her that she needed to make sure that her friends visiting from home made it back to campus.  No one could be left behind. 

Q.  Any other issues ?

The 2011 McGill Parent Orientation was cut short due to the Hurricane that moved through Vermont and into Quebec.  The storm did not take an expected course and many of us found ourselves saying goodbye rather quickly and jumping in our cars in order to leave quickly, hours earlier than planned.  No one lingered.  As a result, students found themselves stuck in the dorm during a Hurricane.  It was a great way to meet all of the other freshman. 

There are protests going on in Montreal concerning proposed tuition increases.  Many of the college students living in Montreal are on strike and protesting in the streets.  Although McGill students did not opt to join the strikers, the protests in Montreal did significantly impact the campus life.  The State Department cautioned U.S. residents traveling to Montreal about the protests.  To the best of my recollection, I did not receive regular updates from the administration about what was occurring on campus.  Perhaps the administration assumed parents were following these developments in the papers and on the news, but for families residing in the U.S. , the problems received little coverage.  Over time, McGill did put up regular updates on its website and did create a protestor blog which parents could access.  I simply checked the Montreal Gazette web site to stay informed. 

McGill does not bill students during the summer before school begins.  All of our friends had paid room, board and tuition prior to stepping foot on campus.  At one point I panicked and thought she was not registered.  This is not the case in Canada.  We did not get billed for the food service until sometime in October.  Tuition is due at the beginning of each semester and dorm costs are paid monthly.  Unlike the U.S., students in Montreal have access to their dormitories even during break.  It is much more similar to a landlord-tenant relationship that a college dorm arrangement.

Mailing packages from the U.S. to Montreal takes time - some packages will not arrive for 7-10 days.  I once sent a care package for exams and it got stopped at the border.  Turns out the company that sent it for me filled out the paperwork improperly and it resulted in a delay.

This past winter was quite mild compared to others but it is still cold in Montreal in the winter.  Buy the warmest boots and winter clothing that you can find!

Sophomores do not live on campus which means students find apartments with very little parent input.  Our daughter is so excited about her new apartment.  We saw it on google earth and think it looks nice.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Choosing a College, Intelligently

By: Louis E. Newman
You are among the hundreds of thousands of high school seniors who are about to begin the difficult process of selecting a college where you hope to spend the next four years of your life.  For most of you, it will be the most significant decision of your lives to date; for many of your parents, the most expensive.  This is especially the case for the increasing numbers of you competing to be admitted to the nation’s most selective private schools.  Yet few students ask the sorts of questions that really help distinguish one college from another. 
            Here is some advice from an insider.  Skip the campus tour.  Most students are unduly swayed by the enthusiasm of the tour guide, which tells you nothing meaningful about the school.  Don’t bother attending a class.  Every college has good classes and bad ones.  What you experience in one session can’t be generalized, not even to the whole of that course.  And don’t ask about the cafeteria food.  There will always be enough of it and students will always tell you it could be better.
            Here are some questions to ask and things you should investigate:
            1.  How available are faculty members?  Check out how many office hours they set aside for students each week.  Do a random survey of students you meet to find out how many can name a faculty member they would call a “mentor.”  If college, especially private college, is worth the cost, it is because it gives you an opportunity to really engage with great teachers.  If you’re not getting that, you’re probably not getting your money’s worth.
            2.  What sort of advising system exists, especially for first-year students?  How often and how extensively do advisers talk with advisees about course choices and academic (and personal) concerns?  Every college student needs help navigating college requirements, finding courses at the appropriate level and learning how to meet the challenges of college.  Without a good advising system, the chances of your floundering are greater and the likelihood of recovering when you do are slimmer.
            3.  How satisfied are students (and alumni) with the quality of the education, the co-curricular activities and the campus climate?  All colleges survey students and alumni to gather this information.  Ask to see this data, especially the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement; or equivalent surveys conducting by the college.  Ask about the CLA (Collegiate Learning Assessment;, a measurement of students’ analytical reasoning, which many schools now administer to both freshmen and seniors to see how much their scores improve.  Then do your own comparison among the schools you are considering.  The results will be far more telling than the generally vague answers you get from asking a few random students, “how do you like it here?”
            4.  How extensive are the health, especially the mental health, services available on the campus?  How long does it typically take to get an appointment for a routine medical problem?  How close is the college to a major hospital?  You will probably get sick at some point during your college years and when you do, the answer to these questions will matter—a lot. 
            5.  How satisfied are the professors with the institution?  How strong is the sense of collegiality among faculty and how deeply committed are they to institutional values and goals?   These data are collected from most major colleges in the country through the HERI (Higher Educational Research Institute; survey of faculty satisfaction and engagement.  Ask to see this information and compare it for the colleges you are considering.  If your professors have a strong sense of shared purpose and believe their work is valued, it is more likely that they will bring that positive energy into their interactions with you. 
            6.  How much support does the college provide for faculty development?  Does the college have a “learning and teaching center” that offers programs to help new faculty succeed and more seasoned faculty remain energized?  What sorts of incentives does the college provide faculty both to pursue their research and to develop new courses (or revise tired ones)?  All faculty need opportunities to collaborate, hone their pedagogical skills, and learn the latest technologies to enhance their teaching.  They also need mentoring from more established colleagues and support to attend conferences, so they can continue to grow intellectually.  If the college supports its faculty through such programs, you will experience the benefits in ways that you couldn’t discover just by reading the College’s course catalog or publicity materials.
            While you’re visiting the college, you might spend some time checking out the bulletin boards and reading the college paper—there is no quicker way to gauge the atmosphere on a campus.  Try standing in a well-trafficked place looking lost (often not a hard thing to do) and see how long it takes before someone—preferably another student--offers to help.  It will give you one indication of how friendly and supportive the campus is.  Another way to determine student satisfaction with their college experience is by the percentage of alumni who make annual contributions to the college—ask the Admissions office for this information.  Finally, count the number of students you see wearing items of clothing with the college’s name emblazoned on them—it’s one measure, albeit a rough one, of school spirit. 
            Most of us long ago learned not to buy anything we really care about, especially if it’s expensive, based on the ads, the hype, or the personality of the showroom salesperson.  Consumer Reports is a much surer guide to the sorts of considerations that really matter.  Choosing a college will have a profound impact on the quality of your education and, very likely, on the rest of your life.  This is one time when doing your homework really matters.  Start your college career right by making this decision intelligently.

Louis E. Newman is the Humphrey Doermann Professor of Liberal Learning, the Director of the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching, and the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota