Saturday, August 31, 2013

Our first college tour trip.

College visits are good because they are invaluable research and – because they demonstrate interest in the school - they can actually help you gain admission.  

Remember, in the fall of her senior year, we want to have seven schools that M would like to attend.  Ideally, I want her to visit every school she might want to attend.  To get to seven schools your student would be happy to attend, you need to start off with a larger list of possibilities, research those schools and refine your list.

Also remember those questions that we started off with… size of school, size of town, distance from home, etc.?  The answers you received when you asked these questions of yourself (or your student) in your home may not align with the way you feel when you are actually there on campus. Can I see myself attending school here?  Is X hours by car too far or not far enough?  What feels too big or too small? Are the students like me in important ways; how seriously do they take school, what do they do for fun?  

We made 10 college visits in the month before M’s junior year of high school.  Is this too many? Is this too early?  When we were on campus, admissions people often asked auditoriums full of potential students 1) how many schools they had visited and 2) what year of school they would start in the fall.  By my observation, most had visited a handful of schools and most were “rising” seniors.  About 30% were “rising” juniors.

So here was our first tour…
  • Thursday - Washington University in St. Louis (MO)
  • Friday - Denison and Kenyon (OH)
  • Monday - Haverford and Swarthmore (PA)
  • Tuesday - Bryn Mawr (PA)
  • Wednesday - Princeton (NJ)
  • Thursday - Lafayette (PA)
  • Friday - Oberlin (OH)
M said that she wanted an academically-challenging, small, liberal arts school preferably in the Midwest. 
  •  Three schools met that description*; 
          o Denison, Kenyon and Oberlin are liberal arts schools in Ohio.
  • Four of them were liberal arts schools in Pennsylvania; 
          o Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr are in Philadelphia suburbs.
          o Lafayette is about two hours north of Philly.
  • Two of them were medium-sized (5,000 to 10,000 undergrads) universities; Washington and Princeton.
*  - By “small” we mean less than 3,000 undergrads.  “Academically-challenging” is harder to quantify, but these liberal arts schools were ranked in the Top 50 in the US, & the universities were in the Top 25.

Why these schools?  I chose these schools in part because they were far away, and therefore would be difficult to visit when M’s high school would be in session.   They were seen as “test visits” where we could find out about tours and information sessions, and learn the similarities and differences among school in a low risk environment.  None of these schools were very high on M’s list.      
Our trip started at what could possibly be the end of M’s college journey - in St. Louis, at Washington U.  If you want to attend a liberal arts college and get a bachelor’s in engineering, you can attend a liberal arts college with a 3+2 program.  These programs say that if you take their math and physics courses, and maintain a high enough GPA, you are guaranteed a spot one of the engineering schools with which they partner.  They all seem to partner with Wash. U. and they were having a “college search kick-off” presentation on Thursday morning.  We arrived Wednesday night and looked around.  

It took about 10 minutes of exploring the campus for M to declare “I could go here.”  So maybe she didn’t want as small a school as she thought she did.   It then struck her that by starting at an engineering school, she could graduate in 4 years instead of 5.  The tour the next day only confirmed her excitement for the school.  Besides having an engineering school, they have a business school, and they allow students to double major and minor across schools.  M imagined double majoring in engineering and business.  

This is the reason to tour campuses; it helps the student envision their future – and not just their college years.  

Without getting into too many details, M was able to remove Denison and Bryn Mawr off her list.  M didn’t like how the campus was laid out at Denison and Bryn Mawr couldn’t persuade her to try an all- women’s college.  But the biggest surprise is that it was the two medium-sized universities that were her favorites.  Unfortunately, these are the two hardest schools to get in to.  While both Washington U. and Princeton have a freshman class bigger than the entire enrollment of some of the liberal arts schools we visited; they get so many more applicants that they still end up accepting less than 20% of those that apply.  And in Princeton’s case it is less than 10%.  

This is why you need to find 7 schools that you’d like to attend.  

The other take-away is that I need to revise my list and add some more medium-sized universities. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Three Steps in this Dance

What college you (or your student) attend is the result of three individual steps; 1) Deciding where to apply/applying, 2) Schools deciding who to accept/determining aid, and 3) Deciding which school’s offer to accept.  This higher level view of the process might help us understand what is going on.
Let’s start by noting who the actors are in the three steps of this dance; only in the 2nd step are the colleges in control.  The students have control in the 1st and 3rd steps.  We spend most of our time in the first step, and I spent some time discussing pieces of this step; creating a list, refining your list, etc. with the goal of determining the 7 schools to which we apply.  But now let’s think about the colleges’ side of step one; they are marketing their hearts out to get the best and brightest students to apply to their school.  If no one applies to their school this year, the school will have new admissions people very soon.  If they fail to convince enough good students to come to campus for a couple years in a row, the school will be in trouble.  Those schools and their admissions people need you.  They are sales people and they have a product to sell. 
How can they get you to consider their brand?  Tours, colorful brochures, college fairs, postcards, pens, t-shirts, websites, emails, visits to your school.  They are marketing 24/7.  More schools make contact with the student than you can reasonably consider.  If you have your list of 20-30 schools, or at least know what types of schools you are pursuing, feel free to recycle materials from the schools that are not of interest.  If they have a way to remove yourself from their mailing list, do it.  They will save money and the planet will thank you.
Enjoy being the belle of the ball in the first step of the dance, because the second step – the one where you are powerless – is coming.  But what they use to make their decision in step two, is information they will gladly give you in step one.  Listen to what they say.  Not all schools are alike.  Some schools are test optional.  They may differ on who they want (or don’t want) your letters of recommendation from; guidance counselor, core subject teacher, coach, other.  What I heard repeatedly during campus visits (we’ve logged 10 now), is that 1) they want to feel like they know the student through their essay (possibly other contact) and 2) they take demonstrated interest into account.  Showing up on campus for a tour, communication with their admissions officer (admissions officers have regions, so one is assigned to each student), contacting the professors or tour guides you meet with follow up questions or even a simple thank you - are all ways you can demonstrate interest in their school. 
They want to feel that you know - and want - what they are all about.  They want students who will 1) accept their offer if they make one and 2) not transfer out after their freshman year.   One of the reasons for these preferences is that it makes their school look better.  The "best" schools have low acceptance rates.  The more likely that the students they make offers to agree to come to the school, the fewer students they need to admit to reach their desired number of students, so the lower their acceptance rates will be.  The "best" schools also have high rates of graduation - that is the percentage of students who start at a school, graduate from there (usually measured after 6 years).  Students who transfer out lower their graduation numbers.  And lets face it, our students want to go to a school they feel comfortable with, and they want to graduate from that school too.
When we get to step three (April of the student's senior year) we will want to schedule one last visit to the schools we are considering.

What do I know? (My history of applying for colleges)

I have talked with other parents of high school students about what I know of the college search process.  They all sound grateful for the information.  But really, what do I know?  Sure, I give links to several of my sources.  But maybe you’d like to know where I am coming from. 
This post is more personal, and not filled with much actionable information.  You have been warned.
First of all, “hello.”  I am Jim from Milwaukee.  My working-class parents sent my brother and me to the Catholic high schools of our choice.  My mother had attended a few semesters of a local college before she landed a job in her field and quit school, and my dad got a job straight out of high school.  They promised to pay for our high school educations, but college was up to us.  A year after my brother went to the co-ed school a short bus ride away; I started at the all-boys school with the reputation of being the best high school in the area.  I wanted to know how I measured up.  
From there, my college search was guided by what I could glean from my friends and college recruiters that visited my school.  Up to that point, most of what I knew about schools was the strength of their football and men’s basketball teams.  I had no idea what to make of the brochures that came in the mail.  I was surprised to learn that there were so many colleges in Iowa.  I was lost. 
My brother had decided to live at home and attend UWM, but I felt I could do better.  But I’m not sure what “better” meant to me. 
Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I decided to turn the choice over to the colleges.  I applied for school specific scholarships.  I stopped working on a scholarship application to Notre Dame because the University of Dallas gave me a 50% scholarship.  The search was over… temporarily. 
I first set foot on the campus a few days before class started in the fall of 1984.  I felt that I wanted to major in psychology and become a clinical psychologist.  It was only then that I discovered that UD had few course options for students.  We all took US History, Math, Philosophy, English, and a foreign language.  Not only was English required; but specifically all freshman took Literary Tradition I in the fall and Literary Tradition II in the spring.  When they said Literary Tradition, they were serious; we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid that first term, and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the second.  Not only wasn’t I interested in these books, but with all of these requirements, I was only expected to take one psychology course before my junior year.  And it was in that course that I learned that the UD taught a particular strain of psychology called “phenomenology.”  The only school that offered a Ph.D. in phenomenology was Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.  If I can’t get in there, then what can I do?
So I was at the wrong school, but I also made a financial aid mistake.  I was presented with a financial aid package that included a small scholarship, a grant, a work study job and a loan.  I looked at the money that I had saved and fearing debt, I rejected the loan.  My second year’s package was identical to the first.  But now my savings were gone, so I would have needed twice the loans to meet my expenses.  I moved home and transferred to UWM.
There I learned what I needed to do to get into a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology.  I decided to double major in psychology and sociology; I got good grades; my test scores were good too.  I was able to work on a research project in the department, and this not only gave me experience but allowed me to get better letters of recommendations.  I took a leadership position in the honor society for psychology students.  I also learned that I would need to apply to many schools in order to get in to one. 
I applied to a dozen.  I can’t remember them all.  I got an interview at the University of Houston.  It didn’t go well.  At least I learned that that Texas school was a bad fit before I enrolled.  None of the schools accepted me right away, but I made a few waiting lists.  The University of South Dakota finally found a place for me, but the thought of living in Vermillion, SD didn’t appeal to me so I held out.  On the final decision day, at 10:30 in the morning, I called the schools where I was on the waiting list.  I got through to a professor at Kent State who checked her list and found that they had an opening.  I don’t think I was the next person on their list to offer it to, but there I was on the phone, so she decided to save herself some phone calls and offer it to me.  I was given free tuition, but I didn’t get a research assistantship (an ok paying, departmental job) until my second semester.
Two years later when I applied to grad schools in Sociology, I was told that they weren’t as selective.  I applied to three of the top 20 programs, and received three letters of acceptance.   I was in at three Big 10 schools; Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern.  I was able to visit Northwestern and Wisconsin before I had to decide.  I loved Northwestern.  It was small, homey, and the facilities were great.  Wisconsin was ranked #1 in the country, but it felt like a sociology factory.  The professor I met with at 10am didn’t know the professor I was meeting at 11am and wasn’t even sure how to direct me to the appointment.  But in the end I chose Minnesota because they were the only school of the three to waive my tuition and give me a job (as a teaching assistant.)
In my grad school days, I learned that many of my classmates when to small liberal arts colleges while others went to large state schools.  They had different experiences and yet we wound up in the same place.  I did feel however that most of them had a better idea what they were doing in graduate school than I did.  The liberal arts kids in particular had worked side by side with professors and most had headed a research project “senior thesis.”  I had pretty much just gone to class.  I know I mentioned the research project I worked on as an undergrad, but a graduate student was in charge of the project’s day-to-day operations - and it was that graduate student who wrote my letter of recommendation and then got the professor to sign it. 
To sum up… I have attended 5 universities (including two classes at MATC) and  I have been accepted into 5 Ph.D. programs.  I complete the course work for a master’s in psychology and a Ph.D. in sociology, but only earned a master’s degree in sociology  – and it only took me 11 years to do it.  I made mistakes by not applying to enough schools, not visiting schools to assess if I fit, rejecting loans that I would need to complete my studies.  I learned that a good liberal arts education would have been beneficial, but also that large state schools can take you where you want to go.   So the #1 question to answer is “where does the student want to go?”  But remember that our 16 year olds may not specifically know where they want to go, so get them to experience some of their options (schools or careers.)  Let them figure out what feels right for them, and find a situation where they are free to become who they want to be.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Paying for College

In my first post I mentioned applying to seven schools, but I didn't really explain why.  Sure one of the reasons is to make sure you get in somewhere, but the other reason is because of the cost of school.  If you have multiple schools that you'd be happy to attend, then you can make your choice based on the cost of schools.  Your reach schools might end up costing less than your safety schools.

Do not assume that you need to be rich to go to a private school, and that the rest of us must go to state universities.  Schools offer financial aid, and the private colleges tend to have endowments that they use to make attending affordable.  Aid packages can include scholarships (awarded based on some criteria), grants (free money), loans, and work study jobs.  M and I just returned from a tour that included of seven of the top 50 "best liberal arts colleges in the US" according to US News and World Reports (Swarthmore #3, Haverford #9, Bryn Mawr #26, Oberlin #26, Kenyon #32, Lafayette #39, Denison #49) - and two of the top 25 "best universities in the US" according to (Princeton #6, Washington U. #23)- and 1) they all said that they meet all of a student's need for four years, 2) the top schools said they admit students without knowing if the student needs aid (need blind) and 3) the many of the top schools don't make loans part of the package.

Determining Need
There is a form that needs to be filled out annually to apply for financial aid, the FAFSA.  FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid - and it is located at  Using the FAFSA information regarding a family's financial situation, the schools are able to determine how much a family can afford to pay for tuition.  This is what you are asked to pay.  The rest of the expenses - tuition, books, fees, transportation, room and board, etc. are covered in your financial aid package.  So if at school one the total cost might be $60,000 per year; and school 2 might be $20,000.  But based on your FAFSA, the schools figure that your family can afford $10,000 per year - so to you the schools cost the same $10,000.  Many schools have financial aid calculators where you can run your actual numbers and get an idea of what a school will consider your need to be. 

I heard this sort of thing before, so that is why I felt that touring these expensive schools was not a waste of time.  But Princeton actually put a financial aid chart on their materials, along the lines of  "Students from families earning less than $40,000 annually - 100% who applied for aid, received aid. And the average award was 100% of the cost (including expenses) of school.  Student from families earning between $40K and $60K - 100% who applied for aid received aid and the average award covered 100% of tuition and 80% of expenses..."  In our bracket we could expect to pay 2 or 3 thousand more than we are paying for M's high school tuition.  No loans.  This is cheaper than the in-state tuition and room and board at any of the UW system schools.

Need Blind vs. Need Aware Admissions
Like I mentioned, the top schools we looked at (Princeton, Haverford, Swarthmore) are need blind when it comes to admissions.  This means that your ability to pay has no influence on their decision to admit you/ your student.  Other schools like Lafayette might take a wealthier student over a less wealthy one ("need aware") so that they don't drain their endowments - but they said that this only ends up effecting "borderline students."

Money on Campus
Good students should not be discouraged to apply to good schools.  They are not easy to get into - Princeton accepted just less than 8% of applicants last year - but if you can get in, they have the resources to support your education, and I'm not talking only tuition, room and board... but also research jobs, internship grants (where they pay for you to take an unpaid internship), travel stipends...  Another money matter; the cost of life on campus.  Some of these schools don't want money to be a barrier for students, so everything on campus - concerts, sporting events, plays, etc. are free with a student id.  Swarthmore allows you to apply for funds to finance your own campus event - as long as everyone on campus is invited.  They told the story of one student who threw herself a birthday party every year with these small grants.

So don't worry about the money, at least not until you're deciding which offer to accept.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A College Search

Welcome to my blog "A College Search."  Note that it isn't "My College Search" - I am not looking to attend college, I am old enough to have a child looking to attend college.  In fact, it is my 16 year-old, soon-to-be high school junior who is looking to attend a school.  For the purpose of this blog, I will refer to my daughter by the initial M.  My goal here is not to document M's search, I mainly want to discuss the process in general, but it will be colored by her specifics. 

It would also be incorrect to refer to this blog as "M's College Search," because she is not doing much of the driving.  As a high school student, M is busy with her sport, plays and other activities.  So to a large degree this is my show, but I cannot do it alone.  I can do the work, but M needs to provide the dream.  Also note that the goal is not to get into someone else's idea of "the best school," but to get your student into the best school for them. No website can give you that answer.  You need to know your child and his/her goals.  The best way to start might be asking the question... 

Q #1:  Where do you see yourself going to school?
M and I first discussed what she wanted out of a college after her first semester of high school completed.  Yes, this is a little early, but she brought it up.  I asked her general questions like the ones that can be found at; large school or small school? big city, suburb or small town? how far away from home?  what might you want to study?

Task: Create a List
She wanted an academically challenging small school, in our region - but at least an hour from home.  She didn't have a preference for setting, and she said she might want to study engineering.  With that information, I was able to start compiling a list of possible schools.  (I decided to keep that list - and everything else related to M's search in a spreadsheet.)   

Tip #1: Plan on your student changing their mind, especially if you are starting early.  Create a broader list than the one they defined.  In my case, M said "our region" - the Midwest, but I included schools that were in the south and east coast.  I also included some medium and large schools.

Task: Research the Schools on your List
For this I used  Two nice features of this site are 1) "Other Schools to Consider" on the lower left of any particular school's page.  (Use their list to build your list if you think it might need building or refining.) and 2) Rankings and Lists on the right side.  These give you some sense of what the students think of the school.  By research, I mean start recording the information that might be important to your student.  For M, I recorded those ranking and lists data, the number of students, location, the percent female, the percent international, academic rating (and no, I don't know exactly what that number means).  I also copied and pasted the "(School's) Students Say..." text into my spreadsheet.  Also are the student's possible majors offered?  I also quickly discovered that small liberal arts schools don't offer engineering - but the school websites explained that they had partnerships with schools with engineering programs.  M could start at a small school and - if her grades were high enough in her math and physics courses - she would be able to move to an engineering school to finish her schooling.  So I started to record these types of programs (4+1 yr at engineering school, 3+2, and  2+1+1+1  - where your 3rd and 5th year are at the engineering school, but you get to spend your senior year with your class).  I also recorded which schools they typically partnered with.

Task: Check in with your Student/ Refine the List of Schools
I then presented her with a sheet on each school.  (I also removed the name of each school from that sheet, to prevent her from selecting a school based on perceived reputation or some other bias.)  M's task was then to give each school a judgment -  Yes/ No/ or Maybe.  Record these judgments in your spreadsheet.  Pay attention to if the student said "yes" or "maybe" to any school that was outside of her original parameters.  Ask her why.  Have her parameters changed?  If so you might want to add more schools that meet her new parameters.

So now your student has told you that school X is a "No" because they got listed in "dorms like dungeons" or something else that you think is a ridiculous reason to not consider a school.  You can push back and ask them if they want to change it to a "maybe" and see for themselves, or you can just go with it.  Remember, there are thousands of colleges in the US and each student only needs to go to one.  The list needs to get culled.  You need to eliminate schools.  Some will be eliminated for reasons you don't understand or agree with.  That is OK.

So where are we heading? 
We want a list of schools to which our student will apply.  If your student wants to go to a less selective type of school, you don't need to apply to many schools.  The school I graduated from, for example accepts 70% of applicants and my test scores were well above their averages, so if that is where I wanted to go, I would only apply to that one school.  But the general rule when applying to more selective schools is to apply to 7 schools; 2 "reach schools" that the student would love to get into but they fall short of that school's typical student profile when it comes to test scores or grade point average, 3 "match schools", and 2 "safety schools" where the student exceeds the school's average student.