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.
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.
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.
This post may contain affiliate links.
Oooh, friends, the FAFSA opens October 1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used to calculate something called the expected family contribution (EFC), measures a family’s financial strength and eligibility for financial aid.
Once, Mr. Donelson, my student Chris’ dad, swaggered into my office and said, “We don’t file the FAFSA. I make too much money.”
Not one to meekly say, “Okay, it’s your choice,” I took a wild gamble, knowing full well my boss would have a coronary. I said, “Sir, how close are you to retirement?” (It was a gamble because I wasn’t sure if he was actually close to retirement or not.)
“A year, tops.” (Whew.)
“How many kids do you have in college right now?” (I already knew that answer.)
“After Chris, we’ll have four in college all at the same time,” he said proudly.
“Did you know the FAFSA takes those factors, like time to retirement and kids in college, into consideration?” I asked politely.
“Hmmm,” he responded.
He filed the FAFSA and I’m happy to tell you that his son received federal aid, including work-study. He worked in our admission office as a tour guide and was a total rock star.
Why is the FAFSA important? I’m so glad you asked.
1. You’ll find hidden secrets.
Actually, these secrets — not so hidden. But you won’t know unless you file. Everyone should file the FAFSA! Even if you can fill an Olympic-sized pool with all of your $100 bills, you should file the FAFSA. As I shared with Mr. Donelson, there’s more that goes into the expected family contribution, or EFC, than just parent income.
Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) chips into the formula. Also rolled into it: Family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year.
2. Your child can qualify for federal aid.
Your child will not get federal aid if you don’t file the FAFSA. Completing this form is the only way to receive state and federal financial aid.
The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. This includes low-cost loans, grants and work-study.
3. You might have to do it for your child to qualify for other aid.
Put federal student aid to the side for a sec. The FAFSA may also determine your student’s eligibility for other forms of financial aid through the state, the college and, sometimes, private scholarships.
By the way, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It is excellent at helping you navigate scholarships!
4. Your child can get work-study.
I mentioned this already but I think it deserves a second mention. Federal work-study is a way you can earn money while your child works a part-time on-campus job. (You may be able to get off-campus jobs as well.) Not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so ask whether colleges your child wants to attend participate.
Colleges offer a specific amount of funds to each eligible student. Students receive money based on the hours they work, very similar to other hourly jobs.
5. You might have to do it anyway.
Depending on where your child goes to school, completing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for high school graduation. Check with your student’s guidance counselor for more information.
6. Most students qualify for federal loans.
Never, ever, ever, ever EVER take out private student loans before federal loans. Private loans have high interest rates and lack the consumer protections that federal student loans include.
The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 47 percent of private loan borrowers could have used more affordable federal loans. By completing the FAFSA form, you can make sure your student takes advantage of the best student loan options.
7. You don’t have to accept all aid.
Completing the FAFSA does not obligate your child to accept student loans or any other form of financial aid. So, for example, let’s say your child gets:
- Federal student loans
- State grants
- Federal work-study
You and your child can decide you want the scholarships and grants (free money) but don’t want the federal student loans (must be repaid).
Many families think they have to take everything the student gets awarded — but that’s just not true!
8. Your child may leave money on the table.
Take a wild guess at the percentage of high school graduates who completed the FAFSA in 2014.
Only 44 percent.
All that money — unused! It means billions of dollars left on the table.
9. Situations change.
What happens if you experience a change in income? You’ll be glad you filed.
Situations change. Unfortunately, jobs get lost, people pass away, etc. Your financial situations can change. Remember, you can always appeal for more aid every year.
Just because your student doesn’t receive financial aid one year doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get it another year.
10. It’s free.
Note the “Free” in “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It costs exactly no money to apply, and more importantly, you don’t have to pay anything to find out whether your child is eligible for federal aid.
11. It’s easy.
It’s no longer the behemoth it once was. (I remember my dad spending hours hunched over the paper version when I was in college.) Now, it takes just 55 minutes to fill it out. That’s less than the time it takes to order and eat a pizza. That’s less than an entire Netflix episode.
12. You can gather just a few materials to fill it out.
What materials should I gather in advance before starting the FAFSA?
- Driver’s license number (if you have one).
- Your 2019 tax records for the 2021–22 FAFSA form. You report your 2019 income information on this year’s form.
- Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans’ non-education benefits.
- Your assets (money) from savings and checking account balances, investments and real estate, though you don’t include your primary residence.
- List of the school(s) on your child’s list. Add any college your child’s considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA.
13. It (could) ensure your child goes to college.
Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, versus only 55 percent who don’t complete the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN).
14. You can fill it out early — then relax.
Fill it out as soon as possible! Even if you don’t know which school you plan to attend. You can always add various schools’ FAFSA code to your already-filled out FAFSA as the year progresses. So, let’s say you file the FAFSA on October 1. You add three schools that you want the FAFSA to be sent to, then you become interested in another school in November. You can log back in and have it sent to that school as well.
It’s also okay to add a school to the FAFSA that you decide later on that you won’t apply for.
15. It helps schools that also require the CSS profile to understand your full financial picture.
What’s the diff between the FAFSA and CSS Profile? The FAFSA awards families with federal grants, scholarships and student loans, while the CSS helps schools award non-federal institutional aid.
Filling out the CSS Profile does not take the place of the FAFSA. Rather, it is an additional application for non-federal financial aid.
Schools that require the CSS typically meet 90 to 100 percent of family need and package their financial aid with institutional grant money.
The CSS has some significant differences from the FAFSA, in particular the way it calculates certain assets.
- The FAFSA considers cash gifts as a part of parents’ total assets.
- FAFSA looks strictly at numbers such as income and family size, so families must discuss personal situations and hardships directly with schools.
- The CSS counts cash gifts as parental income, which decreases a dependent student’s eligibility for aid.
- The CSS takes a closer look at family finances than the FAFSA does.
- The CSS evaluates a family’s medical bills and school costs for younger children, among other factors, to determine a family’s expected contribution.
- For some students, this could mean more financial aid opportunities are available through the CSS.
You Want the Best Shot Possible
The FAFSA is important, even if you’re not sure what will come of it. File it anyway. You don’t want to be wondering “what could have been.”
The FAFSA gives your child the best possible chance of receiving federal aid. Don’t leave money on the table. Like Mr. Donelson, it might make you wonder why you ever doubted it in the first place.
Happy FAFSA filing!
I’m in awe of the things my parents say to my kids: “Sure, you can do/have/play with/buy that! And here’s an ice cream cone. And $50. Oh, and a kitten.”
I find myself wondering, “Where was that generosity when I was a kid?”
Then I remember: Oh, yeah, at my grandparents’ house.
Your parents (your kids’ grandparents) may want to help you save for college.
Bravo for them! The only thing is, they may have very specific ideas on how they want to do it — which might not be the most advantageous to your child or the best option, tax-wise.
Let’s go through a few ways grandparents can help!
How Grandparents Can Help Save for College
Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.
1: Start a conversation.
The first step: Always start with a family conversation.
I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.)
Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:
- Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously.
- You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
- You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college.
- Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.
2: Discuss specific vehicles.
Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.
Talk About 529 Plans
What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)
Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:
- Other educational expenses
Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.
Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion.
Consider UGMAs or UTMAs
Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws.
The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone.
Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.
Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)
Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.
Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.
Talk about Coverdell ESAs
A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.
Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.
Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.
Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.
3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.
“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.”
You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!”
Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.
4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.
The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
- Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
- Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses.
Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.
5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away.
Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?
As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.
If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.
A Sweet Gesture
Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.
The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.
This year, college application season feels like you’re a sloth. You finally move three inches, then get sizzled on a power line.
You should see the questions on college Facebook groups I belong to.
One parent just posted, “My daughter is a senior and her Sept ACT got cancelled again. What can we do to get a test scheduled. The dates r blocked till Dec. any info would be appreciated.”
Another one posted, “So do kids have to take the SAT or ACT and whcih one. I’m confused.”
I do love social media spelling and grammar — because you know what it means? You’re BUSY. You don’t have time for punctuation! Don’t waste another second monkeying around figuring out how to get this school year started. Get the College Money Tips Start of School Checklist for the College Search now. You need this checklist, if not just to keep your sanity!
Now, let’s get to our burning topic: ACT and SAT and all the questions.
Should My Child Take the ACT or SAT?
Is this not the question OF. THE. YEAR?
College website says: “Standardized tests are optional.”
You say, “Uhmmmm… Is that a trick question?”
First of all, let’s talk about these tests. Colleges use both the ACT and SAT, or standardized tests, for admission purposes and to determine which students receive merit-based scholarships.
Most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. (Learn more: What Does ACT Stand For? And What Does SAT Stand For?) Typically, colleges have no preference for which test your child takes, despite persistent rumors that one is “better” than the other.
Just when you think you have it all figured out — ZZZZZZszzzt. (That’s the sound of crisping sloth.)
The question just got more complicated because now colleges have introduced test optional, test flexible and test blind.
Test Optional, Flexible and Blind: Versions of the Same Thing?
I marvel at the way college admission offices invent terms to addle our brains. (Consider how many types of admission exist in this world.)
What the. Heck. is Test Optional?
Your child gets a choice about whether to send in SAT or ACT scores.
As if things couldn’t get murkier.
It’s like they’re saying, “Weeeelll, you can send in SAT scores — if you think you want to.”
If this is your response: “Seriously. Just tell us what to do. If we need to, we’ll take the test. We’ll wear eight masks! We’ll stand in line for days! Just tell us what to do — I don’t want to hear that it’s optional.” I completely understand.
But that’s really the deal with test optional. You and your child decide whether to submit test scores with the application. Most test-optional schools consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, with a large caveat. They also consider:
- Student essays
They look at these just as (or more) closely than your test scores.
The benefit: Test optional gives your child a chance to purposefully craft his or her candidacy. It means your child can offer other ways to present herself in the best way possible. Maybe your Scorsese-obsessed child submits a video essay. Maybe your daughter can craft her essay around the novel she started two years ago.
You and your child get more control over what your child presents to those steely-eyed admission officers!
What’s Test Flexible?
So, test flexible. This is my favorite, because it looks like it’s more relaxed, but you still have to take a test!
A test-flexible policy requires your child to send test scores but students submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT. A few examples:
- SAT Subject Test
- International Baccalaureate exam
- Advanced Placement test
Now… Test Blind? (Are They Kidding?)
A handful of colleges allow test blind admission. I know, I know. The fun never stops.
Colleges with test-blind admission policies do not want you to send test scores at all.
Sounds like the most straightforward option of all of them, doesn’t it?
The college’s website might sound something like this, from Northern Illinois University: “Test-blind means that we will not review standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) for general admission and merit scholarship consideration starting with applicants for the fall of 2021.”
But then NIU’s site goes on to say, “We’ll look at your high school GPA instead. Research shows that GPA is a better indicator of success in college. You may need to provide your ACT or SAT score for certain other scholarships. You’ll also need to provide it if you’re applying to the nursing program, a limited admission program.”
Read everything because college policies vary!
How Do Students Get Admitted Without SAT or ACT Scores?
How do students get admitted without SAT or ACT scores?
It’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, most U.S. colleges admitted two-thirds or more of students who apply. And don’t forget that most public four-year and community colleges are open access. This means no exams required!
I decided to catch up with one test-optional college to find out what test optional means at that institution. Terri Crumley, director of admissions at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), says, “At UNI, students not submitting a test score (test-optional) will be reviewed using holistic review. The review will include factors such as the student’s high school GPA and core course selection.”
How Are Scholarships Dished Out Without ACT/SAT Scores?
How does no ACT or SAT translate to scholarships?
“We are offering initial scholarships based on the GPA. We also have some scholarships that will require an ACT/SAT score or an additional application. Need-based scholarships will also be available,” says Crumley.
However, it’s extremely important to check with the institutions your child’s interested in to determine how each college offers scholarships, particularly scholarships where you might need to audition and more.
How to Decide Whether to Take the ACT or SAT
Now your child must decide whether to take the SAT or ACT. Take these steps to figure it out.
Step 1: Look carefully at colleges’ qualifications.
Check online first. You may quickly figure out that all schools you apply to are kind of in the same pool — all test optional or all test flexible.
Do they require class rank, weighted and unweighted GPA? Make sure you look for all the details and all the requirements.
“Most high schools are not using class rank anymore. If a high school offers both a weighted and unweighted GPA, students should include both,” says Crumley.
Step 2: Reach out to schools your child’s interested in.
Every school is different. I can’t stress this enough. Let’s say your child’s grades aren’t stellar. The ACT may boost your child’s qualifications, so he might want to take the SAT or ACT.
You must get on the phone with admission counselors and find out what they recommend. Share your particular situation.
Ask questions like this:
- Will taking the ACT or SAT greatly enhance my child’s chances of getting admitted?
- What other things can we do to increase my child’s chances of getting in?
- Should we include letters of recommendation or additional personal statements? What additional materials do you need? Academic work? Scientific research?
- What are your exact policies? Do these policies depend on my child’s potential major?
Step 3: Make sure your child gets a seat.
Have you decided it’s in your child’s best interest to take the ACT or SAT?
It might be hard to get a seat. For example, the ACT has done its best to place the class of 2021 seniors in seats at sites that are currently open for the fall. Some of these students could not be automatically registered for fall test dates. However, ACT has tried to secure additional space for students.
Consider where you might be able to go beyond your area to take the test or arrange for alternate test dates.
Make a Decision
By the way, if it seems as if I’m making light of admission policies and processes, it’s simply to get you to smile. In no way do I mean to make light of the situation we’re in.
Colleges continue to exhibit flexibility and adjust requirements for students. For those with younger students: Nobody really knows how the situation will change.
The process of learning about the SAT and ACT might seem sloth-like. No matter what, though, ACT cancellations should not put your child at a disadvantage.
You’re crazy-busy. You’re barely keeping up with your work and home load. Your brain fog bests you on your best day. You simply don’t have time to go on college visits and (admit it!) you’re a teensy bit excited that virtual tours are in.
You can wear your hideous dog-chewed slippers to the meeting and nobody cares about your messy bun piled on top of your head.
The benefits of doing an online tour:
- You don’t have to climb into the car.
- No hotel rooms for you.
- You don’t have to board the dog or your other kids.
- Your partner doesn’t have to take off work (and you don’t have to ask your boss for time off — again).
But hold up. You don’t get off that easy. You don’t get to smack your laptop top down and yell, “Done! That’s college tour number 84 — in my puffy socks! Yahoooo!!!!!”
Because I’m going to challenge you to go a few steps further — including putting on makeup for a Zoom meeting.
Because you can’t — absolutely cannot! — manhandle a virtual tour to make it the same as an in-person experience.
Sure, you want to know how to schedule a college visit that checks all the boxes, but what else can you do on a virtual tour that mimics a college visit? Well, a personal college visit usually includes:
- Campus tour
- Interview with an admission counselor
- Conversation with a financial aid professional
- Meeting with a coach (if applicable)
- Chatting with a professor or a presentation on your major
- Appointments with other individuals on campus
Ready to bend these activities toward a virtual visit? Put on your puffy slippers, put your laptop in front of your child — and let’s dive in.
Check out the College’s Website
Obvious, right? All colleges’ websites should maintain a complete policy update for how the college conducts visits. The college may:
- Do virtual-only visits
- Allow on-campus visits
- Permit on-campus visits with specific protocols in place (masks, hand sanitizer, etc.)
Furthermore, the website explains how you can take a virtual visit.
For example, see Bethel University’s website. It’s a slick design and lets you click on the videos — and it includes all the elements of what would happen during a regular campus visit.
Take a Tour
Ideally, a virtual tour will show a real tour guide giving an actual tour of the campus. As you know, you’ll encounter a few downsides of a virtual tour:
- You can’t grill the tour guide.
- They show the very best a campus has to offer. (Do you think they’ll show you a dungeon-like residence hall?) Nope!
- It’s tough to get perspective. You can’t see the giant ceilings in the chapel or hear the echoey reverb in a huge lecture hall.
- You won’t feel the chill in the air or the leaves crunch underfoot.
- Most virtual tours exclude throngs of students. Virtual tours clear all people out so the tour guide (and the tour guide alone!) is center stage. You won’t see many students scurry to class.
- In short, nothing replaces an on-campus visit.
The cure to these problems is obviously to take an in-person campus tour to get a feel for the classrooms, dorms, dining halls and other hot spots on campus.
The next-best thing is to get on the phone with a student, and most admission offices can make that happen. Just ask — prepare a list of questions beforehand.
Contact Your Child’s Admission Counselor
Take the visit one step further. Don’t just listen to the admission counselor video spiel online. You want to get to know your child’s admission counselor — more specifically, you want your child to get to know his own admission counselor.
Your child’s admission counselor gives out trade secrets. The dirt. Everything you want to know about the college.
Isn’t the admission counselor’s job to get you to attend an institution?
Sure. But that doesn’t mean that if you ask really pointed questions that they won’t be honest with you. They should.
You won’t get insider tips from virtual college tours. That’s why it’s vital to pick up the phone or have a Zoom chat as part of your tour.
It’s okay if your virtual tour doesn’t coincide with your counselor talk. You and your child may take the virtual tour on Monday, then talk with an admission counselor on Thursday. It gives you a chance to think of great questions you have after watching the tour.
Talk with Financial Aid
This is another conversation you want to schedule. Your situation is unique. Don’t let a generic video from a “Hurray! Go Tigers!” virtual visit be your only guide to financial aid from a particular school.
You deserve better than that!
Again, if financial aid is part of the online tour, watch it. Then call the college or university to explore how the financial aid process works for your particular situation. You can get a lot accomplished during one financial aid phone call. You get to ask questions that pertain directly to your situation, such as:
- I’m nearing retirement. What will my child’s financial aid award look like then?
- We have $5,000 in an UTMA for our child. How will that affect his aid award?
- Could you put together a financial aid early estimate for my child? We’d like to see in advance what the award letter will look like.
- [Insert your questions here.]
Get on Zoom, on Google Hangouts, on the phone. Make sure your child listens in (no matter how bored he is). Do you know how many kids were on the verge of slumber when they listened to my financial aid spiel in the admission office? (I shoulda made it more interesting.)
Anyway, give yourself permission to poke a little more than most people will. Don’t settle for the online video!
Listen to Students Online
As part of the virtual tour, many colleges include videos of students talking about themselves, their majors and extracurricular activities. Listen to these online videos. Then remember it’s all a marketing ploy.
I know that’s a cynical attitude, but remember that colleges usually pick their most accomplished, affable students to video. This isn’t always a great representation of the student body.
Do you know someone who already goes to the school your child’s considering? Encourage your child to set up a coffee or Zoom meeting with the student. It’s the best way to get the most candid analysis — students will likely blurt out the pros and cons without prompting. Listen for information like:
- “Get a load of this. Our college did X, X and X right after COVID-19.”
- “Our cafeteria food is awesome. You’ll love Stromboli Day.”
- “Here’s what I’d change about College X.”
- “I love this about College X and that’s why you should go here.”
Remind your child that information from one person is just that — one person’s experience. If it’s possible for your child to talk to more than one person at the college, that’s great! The more feedback from a large number of students your high schooler can get, the better.
Just because one student’s having an awesome or crummy experience doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone else.
Listen to Coaches Online
Coaches might also put up videos online of the “Go Tigers!” variety. Again, make it a point to talk with coaches individually. Most likely, you and your student won’t have to worry too much because coaches will want to talk to you if they’re interested.
Check out the coach section questions to ask on a college tour for a great list of questions.
Other Ways to Learn More
You want to get as snoopy as possible when you’re looking at colleges, so here are some other ways to do it.
Follow Colleges’ Social Channels
Follow schools your child’s interested on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to get brief updates on activities on campus. Try to find social channels not connected to the admission or marketing offices!
Get a Subscription to…
The student newspaper! The student newspaper is full of delicious nuggets of truth because it’s written and published by students — and no topic (no matter how juicy) gets left behind. Get notifications when the newest events and issues happen and learn opinions written by your child’s potential peers.
Online Maps Exist for a Reason
Do some colleges offer a cool aerial view of a campus? They sure do. Tap into the bird’s-eye view of college maps to get a sense of colleges’ layout. Try mapping the distance between common places, like the library and the dining hall. See whether your child can walk to restaurants, theaters and coffee shops close by.
Check out the College’s Online Events Calendar
Colleges often host an array of events, from musical artists and comedians to free movies and game nights. Seeing a calendar of events can give you a better understanding of the fun activities available to students.
Research the Surrounding Town
Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called the “campus bubble?” I referred to it sometimes when talking to students who lived in our town. It means when students become insulated from the town and never leave campus because everything they need is there. The town kind of vanishes and the campus is the town. Does that make sense?
Still, your child might have to venture to Target every once in a while. So, what’s the town or city like? Do some online research and learn about the benefits outside The Bubble.
Check Out Student Profiles
During the virtual visit, you’ll probably see student videos like Bethel’s. Poke around more, however. You might find more student testimonials on the website or through social media channels. Can your child relate to that student? Does he get excited by the student’s research project, internship or other opportunities? Does he want to have the same major?
Ask the admission office whether your child can talk to that exact student profiled.
You Can Still Do a Lot, but Remember…
Yes — kick your feet up, coffee cup in hand, messy bun proudly displayed while you take a campus tour.
“Ooh” and “Ahh” over beautiful residence halls, cool science labs and more.
Just remember, nothing replaces a true college tour. If your child thinks he can choose a college based on virtual college tours, remind him that:
- People make a great college experience, not beautiful buildings.
- Campuses show all their best stuff in a video. The junior/senior apartments might be beautiful (they’ll show these on video) but the freshman residence hall could be a pit.
- It’s important to talk to as many people as possible — get comfy with Zoom!
And when (and if) you feel comfortable, go on an in-person visit. Please. I’ll even send you the mask and hand sanitizer myself.
It’s essay season!
Itching to get your hands on your student’s application essay or personal statement essay? Just once?
Don’t do it.
Your child’s essay may be deeply personal. Unless your child offers you a share in the review, remain as hands-off during this process as possible.
What you can do: Go over the “rules” beforehand. You don’t want to be the parent who says, “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any other part of the application, like your awards, grades or test scores. You’ve already reported those” — after your child wades through the essay.)
You’ll hear, “Mooo-om! That’s the whole third paragraph!”
Instead, intervene at the beginning if you want to help with the college essay — read this first!
1. What’s unique?
You know your child better than anyone else. You know
what makes him tick (oooh, get rid of clichés!)
He shouldn’t write about what he thinks will impress a scholarship committee or admission committee.
In other words, your child shouldn’t write about world hunger if it’s not his thing. Let’s say his thing is caring for animals. Does he get up at dawn every day to birth calves with the veterinarian next door?
He should write about cow placentas if his life is all about cow placentas! Admission committees want to hear about unique interests.
Can your child think of something unique — besides football, soccer or school subjects? (Overused topics.)
Maybe your daughter’s an Origami wizard. Maybe your son overcame OCD.
Get your child thinking about his own passions — and how to craft these ideas in his own voice.
2. Writing can’t suck.
Obviously. It’s got to be interesting. Check out this intro:
Let’s acquaint. Born in New York City, I grew up filthy on the streets. Snowflakes landed on my dà pán jī and my sleeping bag in synchronicity. Mrs. Ming at Hou Yi fed me six times a day and I learned to swear in Chinese.
Just kidding. I grew up in Greenwich — privileged, yes, but check this out. I’m typing this essay with my toes. That’s right — no arms!
Wow, doesn’t that get your attention?
Compare this to the first two sentences of my own autobiography (I wrote it in fourth grade):
I was born on a cold, windy day in November. I was a greenish color and I cried when I was born.
High schoolers sometimes can’t kick the passive voice because it’s easier.
Plus, bad English teachers + maxing out word count = raging passive voice.
How do you make sure your kid writes unlike he speaks? We all speak passively, and not everyone writes well. Remember those old summer vacation essays?
“We were on our summer vacation and Cape Cod was the only place I wanted to be.”
Get rid of clichés in your own speech and remind your high schooler. By the way, your child should strike anything redundant (extra words — yuck!) and ambiguous (give concrete details!).
3. Get someone else on board ahead of time.
Ask to critique his work and your kid looks at you, buggy-eyed, like you suggested staring at elephant poop. “Mom, you’re an insurance agent, not an English professor. Please sit this one out.”
Get a third party involved wayyyy in advance, preferably someone who knows really good writing. Ask your copywriter friend, your child’s English teacher — someone other than you or your partner.
(Even if you know your writing skills sparkle!)
4. Encourage your essayist to take it slow.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. (No clichés, remember?)
The Common App requires a 650-word essay, so encourage your child to make them count — slowly. Let’s say your child must meet a November 1 deadline for School X.
Ask him to start the essay now. Why not write 100 words over the course of six weeks? (Beats writing it all two days beforehand.) Pencil it out, like this:
- Write 100 words: Week of September 13
- Another 100 words: Week of September 20
- Crank out another 100 words: Week of September 27
- Get it! Another 100 words: Week of October 4 (Already up to 400!)
…and so on. There’s nothing worse than last-minute panic. You know that from personal experience, right?
Help your child map out the entire next six weeks — and make sure he or she ends up with more than 250 words. It’s tough to impress an admission committee in only 250 words.
Your child may fill out other applications instead of the Common App. Schools often offer a “suggested limit” — don’t go over that. Try to use the Common App’s 650-word limit if no suggested limit exists.
5. Add in buffer time.
Add in time for creative stewing. For Netflix spirals. For reading a book chapter, typing a sentence, reading another chapter and writing another sentence.
It’s impossible for most people to sit down and write in one sitting. (Right now, I’m watching T.V., reading and working on three other freelance articles at a time.) I can’t commit to one thing at a time — your kid can’t, either. The point is, within those 100-word weeks, add in lots of buffer time.
Don’t forget to have your high schooler put the essay down quite a few times — think cold eyes and lots of revisions!
7. Answer the prompt!
It’s easy for admission officers to throw out essays that don’t specifically answer the prompts provided. Maybe the prompt asks about your child’s achievements and he answers with a lengthy blow-by-blow of his latest breakup.
Not relevant. Furthermore, make sure he relates it to his future performance in college.
Read the prompt, then set it aside for a day or two. You don’t want your child to misread the prompt!
8. Resist the urge to take over.
You can’t write the essay for your child. Not even a small sentence here and there. If you do, you might give yourself away! Many old-timers slip in two spaces after every period or exclamation mark. Nobody does that anymore. (And if you do it, stop.)
Designate yourself “Cheerleader Mom” and reach out to your already-appointed proofreader instead. Your copywriter friend offers a subjectivity that you don’t have. The copywriter friend you know doesn’t have the same “My kid’s a genius!” bent or ample criticisms. (And if he does criticize, he’ll use a diplomatic approach — “How ‘bout we say this instead?”)
Help, but Stay Hands Off
Just like nobody warned you how hard it would be to watch your child fall down as a one-year-old, nobody warned you how tough it would be to keep your mitts off that admission essay.
Trust that outside advisor to walk your child through it — and if you need to, hire help!
One last tip: Encourage your child to read great essays. Your child can glean a lot from samples, as long as he doesn’t copy them verbatim.