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What to Look for in a College: The Heart/Gut Test

What to Look for in a College: The Heart/Gut Test

The former president of my alma mater and the college I worked for always told a story about his daughter’s overnight visit at his alma mater, the Air Force Academy. He dropped her off, glowing because he knew she knew what to look for in a college.

The daughter he picked up the next day, he always said in his speeches, “Was not the same daughter I’d dropped off.”

She was quiet on the car ride home. Toward the end, she burst out, “Dad, I don’t want to go to the Air Force Academy.”

“So don’t go there,” he responded. “Go to Rice.”

So she did. Now she’s a doctor.

Heart Test. Gut Test.

Our former president always said his daughter aced the Heart/Gut Test. If she’d chosen to go to the Air Force Academy just to make her dad happy, she knew that it’d be a long, miserable four years. 

Our former president truly believed that when you know deep down that it feels right, it is. 

But. What about when you hear someone say this, or read quotes like this? 

“You should never ignore your gut. But you should know when to rely on that gut instinct and when to safeguard against it.”

It’s harder to grasp a completely intuitive approach to the college decision. As humans, we want to make sure the decision is logical: 

  • A pros and cons list. 
  • Evidence of oodles of successful alumni. 
  • Statistics and proof. 

But the college decision doesn’t always come down to a pros and cons list. 

Why’s finding the best fit so important? Let’s dive into a couple of scenarios to illustrate why.

SCENARIO A

  1. Your kid does a diligent job of choosing a college. He carefully examines what he wants, visits colleges and scrutinizes every angle of the decision. Your son employs the heart test and gut test to his advantage.
  2. He definitely chooses the best fit for him. Your son thrives! He gets involved in activities, picks a major that is quite possibly the best match that ever existed. He adds a few mentors to his list and finds best friends for life.
  3. Your child happily graduates from said college and gets a great job and/or goes off to his No. 1 choice dental school (or whatever graduate school). Beautiful happy ending. You sob happily at alllll the graduations.

SCENARIO B

  1. Your kid doesn’t really engage in the college search — you can’t get him to move off the couch. 
  2. He chooses a college. Not the best match in history, because it’s pretty expensive and that creates some angst. You’re paying a whopping amount because, due to his inability to get off the couch, he didn’t apply for scholarships. 
  3. He doesn’t really apply himself. But TBH, it actually ends up going okay. His grades? He manages to squeak through! Graduation? Ditto! He says, “I’m just not a school person, Mom.” He manages to gather tons of friends along the way.
  4. He gets a great job after graduation and eventually becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You know, he’s one of those really successful people whose teachers said he would end up as a ditch digger. Like Walt Disney.
  1. Truth be told, you’re just as surprised as all his poor professors. You should have known, looking back. As a kid, he showed up at Boy Scout Camp and ended up leading all the activities — not the Boy Scout leaders.

SCENARIO C

  1. Your daughter (just to shake it up a little) adamantly decides to go to a college based on where her boyfriend’s gonna go. (I can’t tell you how much I despised reason as an admission counselor.)
  2. She breaks up with said boyfriend and melts down in a puddle of existential crisis halfway through first semester. She’s six hours away, in a school that’s way too big (or way too small) or whatever. Needless to say, it’s not a Baby Bear fit. You encourage her to stick it out for at least another semester.
  3. Your daughter transfers out after the first semester, anyway, vowing never to see Bad Brad the Boyfriend ever again. She loses credits due to her terrible grades and in all actuality, must start over. She’s back at square one.
  4. She is actually unhappy at her second institution, too. She transfers again. Classes don’t transfer. By this point, she might as well still claim freshman status in college, even though she should have been at least a second-semester sophomore. Ugh. She graduates late, with more debt than she should have.

There are plenty more permutations than what I’ve covered above. And guess what? I knew a student that fit every one of these descriptions. 

The process boils down to: 

GUT TEST->HEART TEST->CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL->GREATER CHANCE OF GRADUATING ON TIME.

Now, did I say “greater chance of success in life” or “instant fame and fortune”? 

No. Just “greater chance of graduating on time.”

Even so, that’s a big accomplishment. 

Just remember, everything you can do to prepare for the heart test, gut test and ultimately, the college experience, will help your child attain the direct route to the best experience possible. 

How to make sure that happens? Well, when everything strikes the right notes with your child, the diploma almost writes itself! 

These things will help you accomplish all of this. 

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1. Visit the Campus.

Get geared up for your 16th masked campus visit: (“Yep, this is what we do now: Not breathe…”) or amp yourself up for your first non-breathing expedition.

Your kiddo can’t successfully ace the heart or gut test without stepping foot on campus.

2. Meet the People.

I know, this sounds so obvious. Duh — you want you kiddo to meet the people on campus. You meet the tour guide, right. Check. 

But no, I mean really get to know the people. Ask them their whole life story. Ask them what they thought about their chosen profession as kindergarteners. 

Don’t ask cursory questions like, “Do you eat every meal in the dining hall?” 

Not only is that boring, it doesn’t get to the root, the heart, the real guts of the kid. Hey, the heart! The guts

Katie effervesced. She was a tour guide on our campus and was so bubbly that I think she floated on bubbles. She was everyone’s friend and pretty much told her life story from the ground up to everyone — on every tour. 

But the thing was, she wasn’t annoying. She was wonderful. Parents loved her. Every student wanted to be her friend. I think it’s because she was so real. 

Encourage your student to talk to everyone in the real-est sense. 

Not every tour guide can be a Katie, but seek out the Katies wherever you are on campus and whether that person’s your tour guide or not. It’s a win for all.

And don’t neglect the Katies who are librarians, admission counselors, professors, the list goes on! Talk to everyone. 

My alma mater’s best ambassador works in the alumni and advancement office. She’s also the wife of one of our most popular biology professors. She’s effervesces, too. 

Meet the people who effervesce. 

3. Keep Semi-Quiet.

Shssshshh. Mom and dad. You’ve got to shhhhh. 

Your child is trying to figure out his way. 

Oh, gosh, I know I encouraged you to ask a billion questions on the college visit. But you must be quiet and kinda let your child come to you. 

I’ve learned from experience that when parents try to push their opinions on their kids, it sometimes backfires. “I loved our visit at College ABC, didn’t you?” One parent says. 

“I loathed College ABC. I hate its colors [or other ridiculous reason].” Says the kid. 

Sometimes they might pick the school you love (yes, with the Katies!) if you don’t project too much. 

Of course, this all depends on your kids’ personality. 

On the other hand, if you’ve got a pretty compliant kid, you might get away with a little more effusiveness. Kids are hard, I know! Gah!

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4. Talk About the Ol’ Rumbly Gut Feeling.

It’s okay to have an instinct that doesn’t make much sense. Encourage your kid to feel that. Talk about the Heart Test/Gut Test and make it a true part of the experience. 

It’s kinda like picking your spouse or partner. Did you make pros and cons list as to whether you should marry him or her? 

Nah, you went with your gut. Or at least, I hope you did.

Who says the college decision shouldn’t at least be somewhat about that, too?

Listen to the Heart/Gut

Now, I hear ya. You’re asking, “What if my kid doesn’t feel the effervescence? The falling in love? The ‘Yep, this is where I’m supposed to go?’”

As hard as it is to hear, your search might not be over. Or maybe you need to start a new search now that you know what to look for in a college.

Keep looking till your kiddo finds it.

Your Quick Guide on How to Look for Colleges in October

Your Quick Guide on How to Look for Colleges in October

This post may contain affiliate links. 

How do you help your child find the right college fit in October? 

The college search is a process. It’s not like your child can usually apply, visit, get accepted and plunk down a deposit all in the same month. (If you can do that, my hat’s off to you! — Ha!)

Again, it’s a twisty road with lots of checkpoints along the way. 

Senior parents, here’s what you need to know about how to look for colleges in October. (By the way, this is great information even for those parents who aren’t parents of seniors!)

1. File the FAFSA. 

The FAFSA opened on October 1 and now’s the time to fill it out. 

The FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges and universities use the FAFSA to consider your child for federal student aid. States and individual colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to award grants, scholarships and loans. 

File the FAFSA as soon as possible — for federal aid, you must submit the FAFSA by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2022.

Does that mean you get to veg out till June 29?

No!

Because colleges also carry deadlines. Check with the college(s) your child’s interested in attending to understand their exact application deadlines. 

2. Encourage your child to work on applications in advance — not at the last minute. 

Most colleges evaluate regular applications between January through March. However,  you’ll unearth a few different deadlines for specific admission types. 

For example, early action and early decision applications require students to submit their materials well before the new year. Application deadlines show up during the — you guessed it — fall months! You might see a few mid-October through November deadlines at colleges that have an early action or early decision process.

Check — and double check — the admission deadlines for each college your child plans to apply. Even if the college uses rolling admission, it’s best to apply early so you know where your child stands in terms of merit-based scholarships and other financial aid early on.

3. Check out various other deadlines for specific colleges. 

Your high schooler may not be done with just an application. You may uncover a few other dates to keep track of:

  • Additional deadlines for honors programs
  • More applications or deadlines for scholarships and financial aid

How to keep track of it all? Create an online calendar or spreadsheet to plan campus visits so you don’t — gasp! — miss key application dates for scholarships or financial aid.

4. Note ACT/SAT Adjustments

Does your student plan to take the ACT or SAT? Do a quick study on the latest testing information. Will the test be offered where your child normally planned to take it? What are the COVID-19 requirements? 

If testing is not available in your area or you don’t meet the safety requirements, know that many schools have gone test optional. 

Note: Even if your child’s a senior, it’s not too late to take one of these tests.

5. Start Narrowing Your College List

Your child can only go to one school, right? Time to start narrowing the list! Ask your child a few questions to get closer to a decision:

  • Do you want or need to be closer to home? (Colleges close by may not have popped up on your kiddo’s radar before!)
  • Do you think you prefer a small liberal arts college or a large university?
  • Would you prefer a large city, suburban area, rural community, etc.?
  • Do you think you want community college first?
  • Are you interested in going to a school that’s currently all online?
  • Are you comfortable with some loans?
  • How hard do you want to work for scholarships if schools don’t offer much merit-based aid?
  • What do you think you might major in during college?
  • What types of extracurricular activities would you like to participate in?

Next, divide schools into “safety,” “match” and “reach” schools based on the admission criteria at each school:

  • Safety: A safety school means that based on a school’s admission criteria, it’s likely that your child’s academic credentials are way above the average incoming freshman range. A lot of people call this school a “back-up.” It’s a good idea to make sure your child can proudly say, “I’m okay with attending my safety school” — just in case. 
  • Match: A match school is one that your child is likely to get into based on a particular school’s admission criteria. Your child is likely to be admitted because his or her academic credentials are well within the average incoming freshman’s range. In other words, it’s more likely that your child will attend this school. 
  • Reach: A reach school is not a guaranteed shoo-in. Encourage your child to choose a school that’s not a complete pipe dream (your child can’t apply to Harvard with a 2.5 grade point average, for example). 

Feel like you’re constantly bombarding your child with questions and all you get in return is “I don’t know!” or something along those lines? Remember, your child may not know the answer to some of these questions — this may be the first huge decision he’s ever made. 

Elicit help from a guidance counselor, admission counselor or another individual you trust to help guide him through this experience.

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6. Start Applying for Outside Scholarships

Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.

Totally ask the guidance counselor at your child’s school for insight. Here are a few other pointers: 

  1. Go to area high schools and collect programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships on that list, Google them and then BAM! Your kid’s got lots of local scholarships at her disposal.
  2. Contact various civic organizations in town, like the Elks club or Kiwanis club. They usually give away lots of scholarships.
  3. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Do other family members work for companies that offer scholarships as well? 
  4. Ask your child about scholarship announcements at school. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible, or ask where you can find them online.
  5. Check social media. Join Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. All it takes is a simple search!
  6. Look at scholarship search engines. Google “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! 
  7. If your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement. 

I urge you to check out Scholarship System’s free webinar. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System is amazing — she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process so your child gets scholarship results.

7. Attend Virtual College Fairs

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, NACAC has canceled all Fall 2020 in-person fairs and pivoted to virtual programming. Find out details about 2020 Fall Virtual College Fairs. If you’re wondering how to look for colleges, this is a great place to start because your child can learn a lot about colleges from all over the U.S. from a comfy, squashy chair!

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8. Visit Schools

Visit, visit, visit. I can’t stress the importance visiting schools. How to schedule a college visit

  1. Talk over the type of visit your child wants. Talk to your child before you jump on the phone or set up a campus visit. What does your child want to get out of the visit? Does she want to meet with a faculty member or does that idea terrify her? Does she want what I call the “drive-by” experience — just tour and admission counselor? 
  2. Call the admission office of a college or university. I heavily suggest calling the campus visit coordinator at that college or university instead of signing up online. It’s always better to talk to a live person. A computer can’t hear you talking about your child’s interest in biology, but a campus visit coordinator can — and can offer a one-on-one meeting with a biology major or professor. 
  3. Understand your visit options. What are the options? Let’s say you want to visit on a specific date. Maybe the admission office isn’t doing personal campus visits that day — maybe there’s a group campus visit day. 
  4. Consider a personal campus visit. This is my very favorite type of visit option! I love personal campus visits because they allow you and your child to do a visit that fits your child’s exact interests. It’s personalized! You can visit with anyone in the college you need to (professor, coach, student, etc.) 
  5. Visit in person. I know it’s tempting to do a Zoom visit, but while Zoom is wonderful, it can’t take the place of an in-person visit.

Above All Else — Check In!

Take the temperature. How’s your child feeling about the process? It’s easy to become so absorbed in checking all the boxes and forget how your child feels. Start having those heart-to-heart chats!

5 Secrets to Winning Merit-Based Aid

5 Secrets to Winning Merit-Based Aid

I asked the founder of MeritMore to contribute to this post and I was super excited when Neeta Vallab responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Check out her first-hand insights on merit-based aid. Here’s her story.

Two years ago, my daughter started her college admissions process. She had worked hard throughout high school, managing to have both good grades and a good social life. Our family was excited for her — our firstborn was going off to college! She was responsible for taking standardized tests, researching schools for her list, writing essays, getting recommendation letters and submitting applications.

She was responsible for the nitty-gritty parts of the process.

We were responsible for paying for college.

Sticker Price Shock

Early on, we learned that we are a “donut-hole” family — we make too much to qualify for need-based aid but not enough to pay sticker price. Even with our 529 plan, the cost of schools on our daughter’s shortlist was staggering. A public four-year college is as much as $22,000 per year.

A private four-year college would set us back a whopping $50,000 or more per year, and that’s just for tuition. We’d have to tack on another $20,000 for housing. It’s no surprise that 69 percent of students took out student loans in 2019.

How were we going to pay for college without taking on outsized loan debt?

Merit aid was our answer.

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What is Merit Aid?

Merit aid: Why is it a big deal? Why should parents want their children to get merit-based aid?

The largest pool of “non-loan” and “non-need based” money available is merit aid. Colleges use merit aid scholarships to entice students who can boost the college’s applicant stats, which in turn improves their national rankings. Over $8 billion in merit aid is distributed annually by colleges.

Putting strong merit aid schools on your child’s shortlist is a great strategy for middle-class families to reduce college expenses and decrease the need for taking out loans. You don’t have to pay back merit aid. In most cases, grants are renewable if a certain GPA is maintained. Most importantly, merit aid scholarships are also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid. 

How Does Merit-Based Aid Work?

Merit aid scholarships are usually awarded to students in the top 25 percent of a college’s most recently admitted freshman class. These scholarships are mostly extended to students who show academic excellence, but merit aid is also awarded to students who are significantly accomplished in music, art or athletics. There is no separate application process for merit aid and awards are typically announced in your admission letter.

Do All Colleges Offer Merit-Based Aid?

Ivy League schools and other top-tier schools like Stanford and MIT, among others, won’t offer merit aid to their students. Small liberal arts schools are typically the most generous with merit aid awards and state institutions generally have the least merit aid to award. Since many schools offer merit aid, you don’t have to have perfect standardized test scores or straight A’s to get it. Each school will have a different top 25 percent statistic and different criteria for awarding merit grants.

How Do You Find Merit-Based Aid?

You’ll have to go directly to the website of each college you’re interested in to find its common data set. Once you find it, you can apply each school’s top quartile data for your standardized test scores, but not for your GPA.

A merit aid search tool called MeritMore takes your GPA (and standardized test scores if you have them) to generate a list of your strongest merit aid matches (schools where you’re in the top quartile), as well as good schools for you to consider (schools where your quantitatively above average). You can then compare average merit aid amounts for the schools on the list and, if you need to, restrict your applications to the schools that will most likely give you significant merit aid.  

Secret 1: Make sure your child has strong merit aid schools on his or her list.

The best way to get merit aid is to put strong merit aid schools on your list early on in the admissions process. It’s painful for both parent and student to realize that even though you’ve been accepted, you can’t afford to go. 

Secret 2: Prioritize financially fit schools over name-brand colleges.

Dream schools can quickly turn into financial nightmares. Make sure your shortlist is populated with generous merit aid colleges, especially if you need funds for more than just out-of-pocket expenses.

Secret 3: Fill out the FAFSA.

Even if you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, filling out the FAFSA is a must. Many schools need a completed FAFSA for to get full consideration for merit aid. Remember, merit aid can be awarded on top of need-based financial aid.  

Secret 4: Stay open-minded.

Many generous merit aid schools may not be on your radar. Be willing to thoughtfully consider strong merit aid schools that meet most, if not all, of your child’s criteria. When you search for merit aid using MeritMore, you could discover your “perfect fit” college in the list of your merit matches. 

Secret 5: Compare your merit offers and prepare to negotiate.

Your merit aid award will likely be included in your admission letter. If you’re accepted to multiple schools, compare your offers and don’t hesitate to call your top choice if the merit aid offer is lower than merit aid offers you received from other schools.

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Help Your Child Get Merit-Based Aid

After recovering from sticker price shock, we sat down with our daughter and candidly discussed our financial picture relative to the schools she was applying to. We realized that several schools on her list gave very little merit aid. Even if she was accepted, we would be on the hook for paying almost sticker price. Finding and applying to generous merit aid schools was the best strategy for a middle-class family like ours to make college more affordable.

My daughter added two schools that were likely to offer her a significant merit aid award to her shortlist and deleted two schools that historically awarded much smaller amounts. Her final shortlist was balanced both in terms of acceptance probability and financial fitness.

About Neeta Vallab

Neeta Vallab is a digital platform expert and a New York City public school parent. Frustrated with the lack of tools and data available for parents with college-bound students, she founded MeritMore, a free online tool to help parents find merit aid and navigate the admissions process.

The Ultimate Guide to Ways to Get College Paid For

The Ultimate Guide to Ways to Get College Paid For

This post may contain affiliate links.

Have you ever gone to bed worrying about college money? Paralyzed, gripped by the all-consuming question: “How will I pay for this?” 

I can help you. 

What you might not realize is that the ways to get college paid for doesn’t just involve one approach. 

Often, paying for college is like a puzzle. Or a pizza.

You pay for college using lots of different sources — need-based aid, merit-based aid, outside scholarships, etc.

Well. Let’s not list it all out here. Let’s dive in and go over the puzzle pieces, one by one.

1. File the FAFSA.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) gives you major access to scholarships and aid. You can file the FAFSA starting on October 1 of your child’s senior year. The first thing you need to do is get an FSA ID for both you and your student. 

You can choose any of these methods to file a FAFSA form:

  • Apply online.
  • Fill out the form in the myStudentAid mobile app, available on the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android).
  • Complete a 2021–22 FAFSA PDF.
  • Get a print-out of the FAFSA PDF by calling us at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or 334-523-2691 (TTY for the deaf or hard of hearing 1-800-730-8913). You can mail it in instead.

The FAFSA qualifies you for not only federal student aid, the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for certain state and college and university financial aid. Your FAFSA information is shared with the colleges and/or career schools you list on the FAFSA.

2. File the CSS Profile.

What’s the CSS Profile? 

It’s one of the best ways you can get aid for college. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile is a private independent survey you fill out through a nonprofit organization, the College Board. Nearly 400 universities rely on the CSS Profile to award your kid scholarships and other non-federal financial aid.

What does your child get from filing the CSS Profile? The application could help your child secure institutional scholarships as well as grants or student loans from the federal government.

What colleges accept the CSS Profile? 

Great question. Check out the list of participating colleges and universities. The list includes colleges and universities that use CSS Profile as part of their financial aid processes for some or all of their financial aid applicants. Check schools’ websites or contact the institution’s financial aid office for more information.

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free, It costs $25 for the application and one report to a school. You’ll pay $16 for each additional report.

The CSS Profile gathers information about your family’s annual income as well as medical expenses and anything else that could affect your ability to pay for college — it takes a deeper dive into families’ finances than the FAFSA. 

Note: Divorced parents must complete the CSS profile separately.

3. Explore your options for merit aid.

You’ll run into a lot of myths about aid. Let’s take a machete to these harmful myths:

  1. My kid has to be a genius to get money from a college or university.
  2. Students must be incredible athletes to receive money. 
  3. It takes an exhaustive search of scholarships don’t have to look any further than the college or university your child is looking into.

Did you know that there’s unlimited merit aid from schools around the country? Merit-based aid is aid not based on financial need. Instead, it’s based on items like grade point average, test scores and specific talents.

Let’s look at one school for an example. I’m going to adopt my cousin’s alma mater, St. Olaf, for a second, and show you the merit-based scholarships available there:

  • The Buntrock Scholarship (a renewable award of $25,000 per year) recognizes students with outstanding academic accomplishment and exemplary achievement across many facets of the high school experience.
  • The Presidential Scholarship (a renewable award of $23,000 per year) recognizes salutary academic achievement.
  • The Dean’s Scholarship (a renewable award of $21,000 per year) recognizes a strong and sustained academic achievement.
  • The Faculty Scholarship (a renewable award of $19,000 per year) recognizes a balanced record of consistent academic achievement.
  • The St. Olaf Scholarship (a renewable award of $17,000 per year) recognizes academic achievement.

What would your child have to do to get these scholarships? Fill out the Common Application and include test scores, high school transcripts and letters of recommendation. 

Simple.

As you can imagine, the highest scholarship amounts get offered to top students, but the lower-tier GPA and scores still get merit scholarships. As you can see, the “lower” tier totals $17,000 per year for four years. 

That’s still a whopping $68,000 over four years for the lower-tier scholarships. 

My point? Find out what your child can get for merit-based aid. Merit-based aid is also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid. 

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4. Apply for outside scholarships.

Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up. 

What can you do besides ask the guidance counselor at your child’s school for insight?

  1. Ask area high schools for graduation programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships, Google them and ta-dah! Your kid’s got an abundance of choices.
  2. Contact various civic organizations. Is your next-door neighbor a Kiwanis member? Your co-worker’s husband on the zoo board? 
  3. Talk to the company you work for. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Your partner’s? Your sister’s? 
  4. Scour emails from the guidance office. Gone are the days when a printed-out list of scholarships came from the guidance office. Unfortunately, it’s much more fleeting than that. Your child could see it on an email — then, blip — it’s gone. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible.
  5. Check social media. Social media is a great place to search for scholarships. You might join any number of Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. You can do a simple search and find scholarship groups. 
  6. Look at scholarship search engines. (I know, groan. When I was an admission counselor and offered this idea to parents, they always groaned, “There’s so many, they’re all competitive, they’re all national scholarships open to thousands of kids.”) 

Don’t hastily dismiss! I suggest Googling “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! And if your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement. 

Also, encourage your child to continue to apply for outside scholarships throughout college. You can find so many scholarships even while your student’s knee-deep in scholarships. 

Check out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It details absolutely everything you need to know about how to track down scholarships — and win them. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System totally impresses me because she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process and get rid of waste completely. She’s the bomb!

5. Ask department heads about scholarships. 

Yes! Don’t shy away from asking academic departments at schools about scholarships. Here’s how this can work:

“Dr. Fletcher, you’ve been a biology professor here at X College since 1975. You’ve got to know about some excellent scholarships in your department.” 

“Why, as a matter of fact, we have three options for incoming freshmen.”

“One that would apply to my child’s deepening interest in European water voles?”

“Yes! How marvelous is this? My graduate research dabbled in voles.”

“What can we do to apply?”

“Here’s what you need to do…”

So, how can you do this if you’re not able to meet with professors in person? 

Email is splendid. Communicate with these people! Build relationships! Do your best to communicate with these influential individuals ahead of time so you start to build relationships. 

6. Pay for it on your own. 

Remember how I mentioned that paying for college is a giant jigsaw puzzle? It’s also a subtraction problem.

Take the total cost and subtract small bits at a time to get your out-of-pocket cost at the end. It could look like this. (Note: these numbers are completely made up and geared more toward private college costs): 

Total cost: $60,000

Merit-based Scholarships: $20,000

Grants: $2,000

Work-study: $2,000

Federal subsidized loan: $3,500

Federal unsubsidized loan: $2,000 

Total out-of-pocket cost: $30,500

Outside scholarships: $10,000

New out-of-pocket cost: $20,500

See how we subtracted, subtracted, subtracted from that total cost to arrive at an out-of-pocket cost?

Check out the next part to see how you can further take that $20,500 and break it down.

7. Use a tuition payment plan.

Many people underestimate a tuition payment plan — or don’t know about it in the first place. You pay for college using your own money, but break it up into monthly payments. 

Let’s take that $20,500 from above and break it into a 10-month payment plan. 

Breaking it into a 10-month payment plan means you’ll pay $2,050 per month. 

Check out the beauty of the next section!

8. Get creative.

Next, how can you get creative to pay for that $2,050 per month? Can you ask other people to pitch in — both sets of grandparents, your child (think work-study, summer earnings) and maybe an aunt or uncle want to help.

See, what usually happens is most people fixate on the $20,050 and can’t get beyond it. (Trust me, I saw it happen all the time in the admission office.)

Or, figure out what one person will pay you to do for $10. Then, do that 10 more times.

Am I advocating for a side hustle? Maybe! But this really could be an idea for more than a side hustle. It could be your full-time job, if that’s your passion. Save for college by making more money (it’s how I save for my own kids’ 529 plans). Ask yourself this question: What would someone pay you $10 to do?

What do you do better than everyone else? Cook fried chicken? Babysit? Walk chihuahuas? Write goofy ad copy? 

Do that one thing for that person, then do it 10 more times. Then do it again 10 more times. Maybe you’ll need to get help from others to help you! To be honest, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it generates recurring income.

In general, it’s a simple way to think about how you could leverage your passions and talents to save for college. Then stuff the money you make into an ESA, 529 or custodial account. 

Instead, take the break-it-down approach! 

9. Have your child take out loans. 

Okay, this may not be what you had in mind when you Googled “ways to get college paid for”… but you know what? It’s still a way to pay for college. 

Loans have their place, and while you probably don’t want your child to take out loans for the full cost of his entire four (or more!) years of college, you can still strategize to figure out how loans fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the full financial aid picture.

In other words, if your child must take out loans, do it as conservatively as possible, in this order: 

  1. Take out federal loans. 
  2. Round out as much as you can with your own money. 
  3. Take out private loans as necessary.

10. Use life insurance.

This is a slightly more morbid way to handle paying for college because you and your spouse must die in order to get it. I know. I hesitated to stick this in here but today is the second anniversary of my father-in-law’s death and I decided to mention it. 

If his kids had been in college when he died, my mother-in-law could have relied on his life insurance to pay for college.  

Read about how I got brave and bought life insurance for college after my mom got pancreatic cancer.  

I sincerely believed that during COVID-19, I’d avoid the crowds and opt for a no-exam life insurance policy. You can get a quote from Bestow and get coverage from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Choose from 10- and 20-year terms built to suit your needs.

Get a Quote!

11. Use your Roth IRA. 

The busy-as-a-squirrel retirement saver in me squeaks just a little bit when I suggest this option. It kind of feels like trying to say something while having my finger smashed in a drawer. 

Why? 

Because I really, really believe you must take care of your own retirement first before you worry about paying for college. 

However, there’s no denying it: You can use your Roth IRA for both retirement and college tuition. You won’t pay withdrawal penalties with IRAs, including Roth IRAs, if the funds are used for qualified educational expenses — tuition, fees, books and room and board.

For most folks who are sending their kids off to college, only the contribution portions of their Roth IRA balances can be withdrawn tax-free. (Any earnings in the account will be taxable for those people under 59, as well as for those over 59½ who haven’t held the Roth for at least five years.) 

But Roth IRAs enjoy a somewhat unique tax treatment. Withdrawals are treated as a “return of contribution” first and as earnings second. 

Uh… English, please.

No problem. So, what this means is that if you’ve been contributing $4,000 per year for the past five years, you can withdraw $20,000 tax-free (as long as you use the money for tuition, fees, room, board, etc.) 

What happens if your withdrawals exceed your total contributions? 

They’ll be taxable for those under age 59½.

Just remember, always take care of yourself first. You can always borrow for college but you can’t borrow for retirement. If you’re a little thin on the retirement funds, be a busy squirrel and keep contributing to your Roth IRA!

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Ways to Get College Paid for in Action

Don’t limit yourself or your child. So much goes into the process of learning how to pay for college.

Also — one more thing. Don’t stop figuring it out. Ever. This isn’t a process you quit as soon as your child is safely secured in his or her residence hall room on the first day of college. Keep looking for scholarships, keep side hustling, keep finding ways to make college work.

It’s doable — and you can do it!

Do You Need to Fill Out the FAFSA? Make it the “FUN”SFA!

Do You Need to Fill Out the FAFSA? Make it the “FUN”SFA!

This post may contain affiliate links. 

Do you need to fill out the FAFSA? 

You don’t wanna do it. You’re dreading it. Almost as much as the Q4 proposal project at work. Or cleaning the garage. Or staining your broad-as-a-beach deck.

You. Just. Don’t. Want. To. Do. It. 

So, how to make you feel better about the FAFSA? I wrote “Why is the FAFSA important?” the other day, then realized I didn’t dig deep into how you feel about this dreaded experience. 

My bad. I spent so much time convincing you that you need to file that I forget everyone has a giant mental block about the thing.

Plus, most of this going-to-college business is so serious that it’s time to put the energy back into the college search.

Let’s try to trick your mind into thinking you’re having tons of fun! Stop saying, “But… it’s not!” 

Who says the FAFSA can’t be fun? 

1. Tell yourself, “It only takes 55 minutes.”

That’s the amount of time it takes to fill out the FAFSA. Just 55 minutes. 

Only 55 minutes. You can do anything for 55 minutes. If you can work out for an hour (and put yourself through that torture daily — (let me tell you how much I dislike exercise!) you can file the FAFSA.

2. Do something enjoyable while you file.

Quick — what can you do while you file? Right off the top of my head: 

  • Watch “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes (gosh, I love that show). Or, obviously, another show you find fun to watch.
  • Bake something that takes an hour (bread, a pie, etc.) and it’ll be doubly rewarding at the end of 55 minutes.
  • Self-pamper — glass of wine, mud mask, pedicure, etc. Might as well be relaxed as you sift through your 2019 tax information.
  • Relax in a lounge chair outside (as long as your papers won’t blow away… I swear, it’s like we live on the edge of a cliff on the edge of a violent ocean or on the top of a mountain, it’s so windy here. I’d never be able to work outside). If you can do it without chasing papers across your backyard, enjoy!
  • Go somewhere else. If you find it relaxing to go to the library or a coffee shop and remove yourself completely from the chaos at home, go for it.
  • Eat something enjoyable. Get takeout. A noodle bowl. A container of brownie cookie dough chocolate chip ice cream (that’s the kind my husband brought home the other night). 

Obviously, you can’t summit one of Colorado’s fourteeners while you file the FAFSA, but why not watch your favorite movie? Slurp a mudslide? 

Make it fun!

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3. Get your partner or spouse on board. Or involve your child.

Okayyy, so this might not be the most relaxing idea ever. But at least you’ll have some company while you file, even if your go-to person isn’t that much help. (I keep thinking about all the moms and dads who do the FAFSA all by themselves every year. So sad!)

Make it a FAFSA date night! (LOL!) 

4. Get some help. 

Don’t even worry about trying to figure it out yourself. If you’ve never done it before, you can find someone at your state planning agency who can help you. (For example, if you live in Nebraska, you can have EducationQuest help you.) These agencies provide programs, tools and resources to help students and parents with all aspects of planning and preparing for the academic, social and financial aspects of life after high school.

5. Think past the gargantuan task of filing the FAFSA.

Focus on the first thing you must do first — turning on the computer, then going to the website and log in. When you start to think about the FAFSA as a whole, that’s when you might feel like you’re choking or not getting enough air. 

6. Watch videos to get you geared up. 

EducationQuest offers some great videos to show you how to file the FAFSA. They take you step by step through each FAFSA section. Watching them helps you realize the FAFSA is easy-peasy, pumpkin squeezy (something my seven-year-old daughter says). 

After you watch the videos, just make sure you actually do the FAFSA next. 

7. Think of all the scholarships and other financial aid your child will get. 

Is that not motivation enough? Filing the FAFSA is the way to get the most federal money you possibly can. 

And if that isn’t enough, check out the Scholarship System’s list of scholarships. It’s an excellent, comprehensive list, and the Scholarship System even has a fantastic list of scholarship websites to boot!

8. Zoom with a friend and do it together.

Chances are, you’ve got a friend who also has a child going off to college. Set up two screens — Zoom on one, FAFSA on the other. Chat happily away as you fill out the FASFA, line by line. Warning: You’ll have so much fun you won’t get done in 55 minutes. 

9. Get prepared. 

There’s nothing worse than scrambling for documents when you’re trying to fill something out. You’ll need a few things before you get started, including your: 

  • FSA ID: See why it’s a major bonus to get the FSA ID ahead of time so you don’t have to wait when you’re ready to file?
  • Social Security numbers: You’ll need both your student’s and your own Social Security number to fill out the FAFSA form.
  • Driver’s license number: Don’t worry about this step if you don’t have a driver’s license number.
  • 2019 tax records: You always work two years backward on the FAFSA. On the 2021–22 FAFSA form, you report your 2019 income information.
  • Untaxed income records: Gather information about child support, interest income, veterans’ non-education benefits and more. Again, you’ll need your 2019 tax information. 
  • Assets: Gather information about your money — savings and checking account balances, stocks, bonds, secondary real estate and more. 
  • List of schools your child may attend: Add any college (you can list up to 10!) your child is considering, even if your child hasn’t applied for it yet. The FAFSA form will automatically send your FAFSA results electronically to those schools. 

10: You can speed it up! (Whew!)

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to make the FAFSA a breeze. The DRT allows you to securely transfer original IRS tax return information using the FAFSA’s easy-to-use prompts. 

Note: Not everyone is eligible to use the IRS DRT. Furthermore, the IRS DRT does not input all the financial information required on the FAFSA form. Make sure you have your 2019 tax return and 2019 IRS W-2 available as a backup.

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How Else Can You Make it More Fun?

Again, do you need to fill out the FAFSA? 

YES.

There’s no reason it has to be un-fun. Just do it, get it over with, submit it to those schools.

Maybe you’ll come out of the process smelling like lavender with perfectly manicured nails. Or with messy hair — because you file the FAFSA on the beach. 

It’s 2020 and weird. Embrace it!  

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