Jul 30, 2012

Columbia Opens the Door to Score Choice

Columbia University
With a subtle change in language on standardized test requirements, Columbia University has officially opened the door to Score Choice for 2012-13.  This leaves Penn, Cornell, and Yale as the only Ivies not allowing students the freedom to select standardized test scores they feel represent them in the best possible way.

Until this year, Columbia required submission of all SAT and all ACT scores, although permitted students to officially submit scores from their highest ACT composite while self-reporting (honor system at work) results from other sittings. 

It was a complicated policy designed to save the applicant the expense of paying for multiple ACT score reports and paralleled Yale’s policy.

This year, students may submit ACT or SAT scores, and they may use the Score Choice option to select SAT scores.

Columbia is careful to say that if more than one set of SAT scores is reported, students will be evaluated on the highest score received in any individual section.  If SAT scores are submitted, however, two SAT Subject Tests must also be provided—your choice for Columbia College or math and science for Columbia Engineering.

But in another change in policy, Columbia will now allow students to submit the ACT with Writing in place of the SAT and two subject tests.  Though no longer required, SAT Subject Test scores are “welcome” and recommended “if you have a specific area of academic interest.”

Note that Columbia will not be superscoring ACT scores.  Students will be evaluated on the highest “composite” score received.

All this is a lesson in how quickly rules change without notice or fanfare.  While Score Choice continues to cause headaches, it’s clear that colleges are reevaluating reporting policies and it’s up to you to figure out what they are.

For the moment, the only document “officially” listing score use policies is one produced by the College Board.  Sadly, it contains errors and is in need of updating.  For example, the College Board continues to report that George Washington University requires “all scores,” when in fact students may send whichever scores they prefer, according to the GW admissions office.

And the College Board does not concern itself with ACT reporting policies.  If a college requires students to report all SAT’s and all ACT’s (Georgetown and Penn), you won’t know unless you carefully review the college website.  Even then, it’s not always so clear.

The moral of the story is never rely on what you think is true or what was true in the past.  Go directly to the source—the college.

Jul 28, 2012

Countdown to Virginia Private College Week

University of Richmond
Virginia’s private colleges are putting the final touches on plans to host hundreds of college-bound high school students for Virginia Private College Week, beginning Monday, July 30 and running through Saturday, August 4. With most events scheduled for 9:00 am and 2:00 pm each weekday and some 9 am Saturday sessions, true road warriors can visit up to 11 of the 25 participating privatecolleges and universities.

And there’s a special incentive. Students visiting three or more colleges during the week will receive three FREE application fee waivers. That means no application fees for up to three Virginia private colleges of choice—not just those visited. Sweet!

According to the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia (CICV), Virginia's private colleges differ from big-name state schools because of emphasis on smaller classes and the personal attention students receive from faculty. “Our students are engaged in the classroom, involved on campus, mentored by their professors, and prepared for a career or graduate school.”

In addition to the educational benefits of a private college, the CICV wants to remind parents that Virginia 529 college savings plans can be used at any of Virginia’s private institutions. And then there’s the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG), which essentially translates into free money for any Virginia resident attending one of the Commonwealth’s private colleges as a full time student.

VirginiaPrivate College Week is not the only state-wide program of organized private college tours. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa (August 6-12), and Indiana (July 23-27) are among the other state groups offering students the opportunity to tour private colleges during a special week set aside to welcome families on college road trips.

For a list of Virginia's participating schools and the schedule of events, check the Private College Week web page or visit the CICV website.

See you on tour!

Jul 27, 2012

Colleges offering the Most Merit Aid to the Most Students

Johns Hopkins University
This week, the New York Times released a cool interactive chart analyzing data collected by the College Board on more than 600 colleges and universities that award aid based on merit.

And the news was a little discouraging for folks in the middle—not quite poor enough to qualify for need-based aid but unreasonably strapped by increasing college costs.

According to the NYT’s, the latest data available from the College Board show some schools are giving fewer students more money and others are “stretching their dollars” by awarding smaller amounts to more students.

In fact, the Department of Education says the percentage of students receiving merit aid grew so rapidly from 1995 to 2008 that it rivaled the number of students receiving need-based aid.

But many of the most selective colleges and universities—the Ivy League, MIT, and a handful of liberal arts colleges—don’t offer any merit aid.  And even though some are quite generous with aid, it’s simply not available to those who don’t qualify under a definition of “need” that only the colleges can explain.

Still for those schools offering merit aid, the numbers are enough to make you scratch your head.  For example, the biggest scholarships come from the most expensive schools where you’re looking at tuitions around $40,000 with additional expenses upward to $15,000. 

Yet for anyone doing this kind of research, just as important as the size of the scholarship is the number of recipients.  Only about one-percent of freshmen at Boston College and Johns Hopkins get merit aid—but they’re relatively well rewarded.

The University of Miami, on the other hand awards merit scholarship averaging more than $23,000 per year to almost a quarter of its freshmen, while Tulane gives an average of more than $20,500 annually to a third of its new students.

For the record, here is the NYT’s list of the colleges offering money to the greatest percentage of students (merit aid vs. total tuition and fees):
  1.  Colby-Sawyer College:  88%  ($17,565 vs. $33,293)
  2. Cooper Union:  71%  ($35,700 vs. $37,383)
  3. Trinity Christian College:  68%  ($4,688 vs. $22,572)
  4. Mississippi College:  56% ($8,858 vs. $13,821)
  5. Hodges University:  55% ($376 vs. 14,600)
  6. Wingate University:  51% ($11,033 vs. $22,180)
  7. Nova Southeastern University:  49% ($5,484 vs. $22,593)
  8. School of the Art Institute of Chicago:  49% ($6,610 vs. $37,560)
  9. University of Michigan:  46% ($5,559 vs. $12,074)
  10. Denison University:  42% ($16,370 vs. $40,200)
  11. New England Conservatory of Music:  42% ($13,118 vs. $36,700)
  12. Truman State University:  41% ($5,354 vs. $6,826)
  13. Westminster College:  40%  ($10,284 vs. $20,570)
  14. Fort Lewis College:  39% ($1,561 vs. $5,022)
  15. University of North Dakota:  39% ($1,254 vs. $7,073)
And here are those offering the greatest dollar amounts:
  1. Trinity College:  $41,980 (<1%)
  2. University of Richmond:  $36,860 (7%)
  3. Cooper Union:  $35,700 (71%)
  4.  Johns Hopkins:  $29,312 (1%)
  5. Vanderbilt:  $24,505 (9%)
  6. University of Miami:  $23,208 (24%)
  7. Babson College:  $22,556 (6%)
  8. Campbell University:  $22,034 (9%)
  9. Sage College:  $21,250 (2%)
  10. Tulane University:  $20,520 (33%)
  11. Lafayette College:  $20,509 (6%)
  12. Boston University:  $19,960 (7%)
  13. Stetson University:  $19,900 (19%)
  14. Georgetown College:  $19,848 (15%)
  15. Providence College:  $19,780 (13%)
Note that for colleges not on the NYT's list, you can do many of the same calculations by using data found on the Common Data Set or College Navigator.

Jul 25, 2012

Time is Running Out for Summer Interviews

George Washington University
If any schools on your list recommend or require on-campus interviews, now is the time to get out your calendar and begin scheduling appointments.

In fact, it’s a good idea to go to individual websites and carefully note all application requirements including admissions advice on the necessity of sitting for an interview—at your place or theirs.
And what better way to demonstrate interest while simultaneously investigating the college?

So what’s a college interview like? To begin with, they come in all kinds of formats and configurations depending on the purpose of the interview or who is conducting it.

In general, they are either informational or evaluative, meaning the college is either inviting you to learn more about what they have to offer or the college is sizing you up as an applicant.

Interviews can take place on campus or in your community. For example, some colleges send teams of interviewers to cities. They camp out in a hotel and invite students to come in. The format can be structured on a one-to-one basis, or some schools have “group” interviews. The latter is far less desirable than the former, but you seldom have much say in the venue or the structure of the interview.

Some schools offer phone interviews, online interviews, or more tech-wise operations will give you a “skype” option. This is becoming increasingly popular as it saves time and travel expenses for all parties involved.

Interviews may be conducted by admissions staff, students, or alums. Alumni interviews usually take place in the fall, after you have submitted an application or some part of an application, while other interviews are scheduled starting now and running through the summer or until applications are due.

The level of professionalism and value of the interview will depend a great deal on how much training the interviewer has received. Staff interviews tend to be the best, but alums and students often aren’t as tied to the college marketing program and may give you a different perspective.

Locally, George Washington University “recommends” an interview and provides lots of different options. According to the GW website:

“An interview is not required for admissions; however, if you are an applicant and elect to participate in an interview, it will be considered in the admissions process. We offer a variety of interview options, both on and off campus, including interview weekends in major locations throughout the country, interviews with local alumni and on-campus interviews.”

Interviews are offered during the summer and fall.  And according to the GW admissions office, the calendar fills quickly.

Here’s a little insider’s secret: GW posts sample interview questions and an interview evaluation form on a web page designed to support alumni interviewers.

While there is no guarantee your GW interviewer will use these exact questions, they offer a great foundation for any interview—at any college or in any context. I recommend taking a sneak peak even if you aren’t planning to apply to George Washington.

Regardless of who is conducting the interview and where, appointments are almost always limited and the sooner you email or call to schedule a time, the better.
If you wait too long, you risk being left out of the interview process. It’s not usually a deal breaker, but if you have the opportunity to market yourself through an interview, why not take it?

Jul 24, 2012

Comparison Shopping Financial Aid Just Became a Little Easier

Coppin State University, a member of the University System of Maryland
This week, the White House took an important step toward lifting the fog that has typically surrounded the awarding of financial aid by colleges and universities.

As part of the President's “know before you go” initiative, the Administration unveiled the final version of the model financial aid award letter, or “Shopping Sheet”—a standardized financial aid letter that will help students and their families understand costs before making the final decision on where to enroll in college.

Developed as a joint project between the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Shopping Sheet will allow students to easily compare aid packages offered by different institutions. 

It’s no secret that students and families often make decisions about colleges and financial aid without fully understanding the fine print.  They don’t always see the relationship between free money (merit aid) and student loans.  And they’re sometimes fooled by the terms and length of the offer.

Because of this kind of confusion, too many students leave college with debt that they didn’t initially understand or that they were forced to assume in order to finish school.

The Shopping Sheet makes clear the costs, terms, and responsibilities of student loans upfront—before students have signed-on with a college.  It includes total cost of enrollment broken into tuition, housing, books, and transportation.   In addition, it specifies grants and scholarships broken down by type as well as provides loan options and the school’s overall graduation, loan default, and median borrowing rates.

To underscore the importance of college participation in the initiative, Secretary of Education Duncan published an open letter to college and university presidents, asking them to adopt the Shopping Sheet as part of their financial aid awards starting in the 2013-14 school year.  He’s also made the form part of the agreement governing the Principles of Excellence for Serving Military and Veterans.

Ten colleges, universities, and systems—including the University System of Maryland—have already committed to the project as part of their aid awards starting in 2013 and others area actively considering the idea.

Although some institutions are wary about government interference in their communications with students, it’s clear consumers are determined to be heard and schools will need to be more forthcoming about disclosing important financial information. 

Those choosing to ignore the initiative may find college applicants and their financially-strapped families a little less than understanding about their desire to make offers on their terms.

Jul 23, 2012

5 Potential ‘Game Changers’ for College Applicants

College of St. Rose
Between now and sometime toward the middle of August, colleges and universities will put finishing touches on application procedures and policies for the 2012-13 admissions cycle. 

But already a few system-wide changes are on the horizon which may alter the way some applicants approach the process.

Here is what we know so far:

1.  Pictures, Pictures, and more Pictures
In response to widely reported instances of cheating on standardized tests, both the SAT and the ACT will be asking students to submit current “recognizable” photos when registering for their tests.  On test day, students will need to present both an admission ticket on which the photo has been printed and an acceptable form of photo ID.  Without both, there will be no test.  In addition, student data “repositories” will be created containing both the information and photo provided by the test-taker at the time of registration.  High schools, colleges and universities, and other institutions receiving scores will have access to those repositories to cross-check or verify information provided.

2.  Counselor Opt-Outs
For the first time, guidance counselors will be given the opportunity to “opt-out” of providing written evaluations on behalf of students applying through the Common Application system.  Counselors (or other designated officials) may check a box indicating that they either don’t know the student well enough or that their caseload is too heavy to write recommendations.  Look for further clarification from the Common Application, but be aware that colleges depending heavily on these evaluations are not happy about the possibility that some counselors may feel “authorized” not to provide them.  Note that the Universal College Application uses a different system for ensuring recommendations are provided when required and has no such blanket “opt-out” mechanism in place.

3.  Colleges Rethink Testing
The College of Saint Rose, Ithaca College, and Clark University are among those institutions announcing a switch to test-optional admissions for the coming year.  According to FairTest, nearly 850 colleges and universities are already test-optional or test-flexible and rumor has it that several more are in the final stages of considering similar changes to admissions policies.  Other schools like Boston University and Cornell University are slightly diminishing the role of Subject Tests in their admissions policies. 

4.  No more Standby
As a corollary to the new photo registration requirement, the ACT and SAT are changing the rules around standby testing.  For now, no students will be allowed to show-up on test day without registering in advance for a specific test.  In addition, students taking the SAT will not be permitted a last-minute switch to Subject Tests.  And students will be required to test at the center designated on their admission tickets—test center changes will no longer per permitted on test day.

5.  Uncovering Application Fraud
Sadly, there are applicants who lie, plagiarize, or otherwise cheat on college applications.  As a result, colleges are increasingly concerned about the quality of information they are receiving.  So much so that the entire UC system, Stanford, and Harvard routinely “audit” applicant information at some point either before or after admission.   In addition, increasing numbers of colleges are signing on with Turnitin for Admissions to check for the possibility of plagiarism on essays.  Look for this trend to continue, and be prepared to stand behind the application you submit.

Look for more policy adjustments as time goes on.  While the Universal College Application has already made enhancements their software, the Common Application will soon begin beta-testing entirely new in-house software for the 2013-14 admissions cycle. 

Jul 21, 2012

10 Ways to ‘Visit’ a College without Leaving Home

Harvey Mudd information session held in Maryland
Colleges expect students living within a “reasonable” distance of their campuses to make an effort to visit.  It not only demonstrates interest but also shows the applicant is doing his or her best to determine if a college represents a good “fit.”

But these trips are expensive, and it may not always be possible to tour all the colleges on your list. If that’s the case, here are a few alternatives to the in-person tour:

1. Get on the mailing list. Colleges maintain mailing lists for the purpose of communicating directly with students. Take advantage of the opportunity to receive information and learn more about the colleges you are considering. But be aware—once you get on a mailing list, you will need to differentiate between college “spam” and real mail. And it’s not always easy!

2. Subscribe to college blogs. An increasing number of colleges are opening lines of communication through blogs. Bloggers can be admissions staff or students who have agreed to write regular columns on their experiences. Both can be enormously helpful in understanding the college, its community, and the process you will need to submit a successful application.

3. Attend college fairs. Colleges and universities typically send admissions counselors or alumni representatives to fairs all over the country. There are regional fairs or
fairs centered on a theme or an alliance of colleges. Although they can be hectic, college fairs are great opportunities to make an initial connection and pick up some glossy brochures.

4. Sign-up for school-based presentations. Throughout the year, colleges send admissions representatives to meet with high school students on their turf. These events are generally organized through the guidance or student services office. Be sure to keep up with the schedule of visits and sign-up for presentations that interest you.

5. Try the virtual method. Colleges are increasingly participating in websites designed to support “virtual” visits to their campuses. The most popular of these sites include CampusTours.com, ecampustours.com, and YOUniversityTV.com. In fact, you can even attend a virtual college fair at CollegeWeekLive.com or take a college course via podcast through iTunes UYouTube offers some professionally-produced marketing pieces as well as a huge sample of student videos, which can also be found on TheU.com. And finally, check out on-campus webcams, which some enterprising colleges use to give viewers a sense of “being there.”

6. “Friend” a college. Colleges discovered that high school students spend lots of time on Facebook. Surprise! As a result, many have built their own “fan” pages, which they use as tools to display videos, pictures, and news articles about their schools. By setting up a presence on Facebook, colleges keep in touch with potential applicants as well as provide them with important information and invitations to events.

7. Tweet. For the most part, colleges don’t expect their Twitter accounts to necessarily result in active exchanges with high school students. They’re content to establish these forums to pass along newsworthy items or basic information. By following a few colleges, you can use Twitter as a tool for gathering data or keeping abreast of deadlines.

8. Check out campus media. There’s hardly a college in the country that doesn’t have a student-run newspaper. Most also have campus radio and/or television stations. What better way to keep up with campus goings on—without editorial oversight from the admissions office or college marketing. You can find most newspapers online, and with a little creative searching you can stream a live radio or TV broadcast.

9. Attend a reception. A local or regional college reception is less of a social event and more of an off-campus information session. Don’t go for the food, but consider it another opportunity to meet admissions staff, ask questions, and pick up more marketing material. You’ll also get a good peek at the competition—students from other high schools in your area who are also likely to apply to the college sponsoring the event.

10. Schedule a local interview. Many colleges are expanding their capacity to provide off-campus interviews either conducted by admissions staff or alumni in the area. Although the staff interviews are largely extensions of the service offered on-campus, alumni interviews usually kick in after you’ve submitted an application. Either interview may be “informational” or “evaluative.” Regardless, don’t neglect this very important method of connecting with the college of your choice.

Keep in mind that after you’ve been admitted to a college, there will be opportunities to visit.  If money continues to be a problem, contact the college in question and explain the situation.  You may be surprised to find many schools have travel accounts to help low income students visit their campuses.