Three egregious FAFSA mistakes

Today, October 1, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) goes live. Here are the three most egregious FAFSA mistakes a family can make, all which are easy to avoid.

1. Not filing the form.
Every family with a student applying to college should file a FAFSA unless you (1) can painlessly write a check to cover the full cost of attendance for college next year, and (2) can somehow be absolutely certain that nothing in the future (job loss, unexpected medical costs, the decision to attend a more expensive college, etc.) will change your ability to fulfill #1.

2. Filing the form too late.
Please don’t procrastinate or wait to see where you’re admitted to file the FAFSA. Need-based financial aid is often offered on a first-come, first-served basis. There’s no need to cancel all of your weekend plans and pull sequential all-nighters to submit this form in the next 24-48 hours. But this is also not the kind of thing you want to wait to address until the impending deadline spurs you to action. You may not enjoy completing forms like this one (I certainly don’t). But you’ll enjoy the feeling of knowing you’ve filed a completed FAFSA in plenty of time to avail yourself of aid.

3. Paying to file the form.
If you type “FAFSA” into a search engine, you’ll find several sites that look deceptively like the actual FAFSA but actually charge you for access. Don’t fall for it. There’s only one legitimate FAFSA form, and you should never pay to file it (the “F” in FAFSA stands for “Free!”). Just access the correct form by visiting directly.

It’s rare that mistakes can be so potentially costly and simultaneously so easy to avoid. So now, I have a favor to ask. Please forward this post to someone with a college applicant in the house. You could potentially be doing them a huge financial favor at no cost to you.

Financial aid? It’s on your tab

Meredith in our Columbus, Ohio office shared this helpful update for seniors yesterday. The Common App recently added a “Financial Aid” tab to the application that includes not just helpful resources, but also a link to the financial aid page of each college an applicant has decided to apply to.

Here’s why that’s important.

No matter where you’re applying to college, the first step to request need-based aid is to file the FAFSA, which is released tomorrow. But some colleges also require additional forms or documentation for applicants to be considered for aid and scholarships. And the only way to make absolutely sure that you fulfill each college’s requirements is to follow the instructions on the financial aid page of each individual college’s website. Common App just made that research a little easier.

How to be a super champion

A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology examined what separates the world’s most elite athletes, the “super champions,” from what the study called the “almost champions”—those who were once good enough to compete with the best, but ultimately fell short of reaching the highest levels. It turns out that the answer is not only more complicated than a combination of talent and work ethic. It also has applications that go far beyond sports.

This article gives a nice explanation of the study’s findings, but here are a few that stood out to me as being particularly applicable to high school students and their parents.

Follow your interests.
From a young age, the super champions loved their sports–not just competing, but also practicing. Interestingly, they also did not focus on a single sport at a young age and instead were encouraged to try different interests. The almost champions loved competing, too. But practicing? Not as much. And when questioned, they remembered feeling forced to pursue their sport

The goal: get better.
The “super champions” cared most about getting better, and they judged themselves against their own past performances. But the “almost champions” cared more about rankings and how they compared to their rivals. That focus on external benchmarks and constant comparisons leaves the “almost champions” more likely to get discouraged and give up.

Supportive, but not obsessive, parenting.
The parents of super champions didn’t push or get overly involved, and instead were happy to cheer from the sidelines both literally and figuratively. But the parents of the almost champions were “an ever-present factor, hovering over their every move.”

What if you pursued activities you genuinely wanted to do and worried less about whether or not those choices will help you get into your dream college?

What if you focused more on learning, making an impact, and just getting better, and less on whether those qualifications will get you admitted to an Ivy League school?

What if you stopped comparing your GPA and other qualifications to those of your friends and classmates, and instead just tried to be better than past versions of yourself?

And parents, what if you stepped back and allowed your kids to commit to things they genuinely want to do? What if you let them find their own way even if it meant they will make (and learn from) mistakes? And what if, instead of hovering, strategizing, and otherwise turning their high school years into a career that you oversee and manage, you stepped back and cheered them on, ready to lend support and advice without jumping in?

Sounds like the makings of a super champion.

Is your essay recyclable?

If you watch the presidential debates, you’ll see both candidates sometimes so intent on driving home their talking points in a response that they never actually answer the question. This isn’t specific to one party or even one election cycle. It’s just an example of a candidate (1) identifying an idea or accomplishment that they’re comfortable with or proud of, and then (2) expressing it at all costs, even if it doesn’t actually answer the question.

Many students do the same thing with their college essays.

Some students write one essay that they’re proud of and then try to wedge it into every application possible. That instinct isn’t inherently bad—great stories tend to lend themselves to more than one response.

But your essay still has to answer what’s being asked. If it doesn’t, it will be pretty obvious to the reader that you either didn’t bother to read the question, or more likely, you’re just reusing an essay from another school without worrying about whether or not it addresses the prompt. Neither one of those conclusions works in your favor.

You can only recycle what’s recyclable.

Here’s a past post with more on this.

Clean it up, or make it private

I’ve written before (here and here) about how information shared on social media can (and has) hurt students’ candidacy for admission. But I did not know this tidbit, courtesy of financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz:

“Kantrowitz suggests that students applying for scholarships clean up their Facebook and Twitter accounts to exude a more professional online presence. ‘More than a quarter of scholarship providers require finalists to friend them so they can look for red flags,’ he says. ‘Google yourself, to see what comes up,’ he adds. ‘The scholarship providers will.’”

You can read the rest of the article here.

I have no idea what social media tools high school kids are using these days—when my business partner, Arun, advised a classroom of students last year to make their Facebook profiles private, he said they looked at him like he was wearing pleated jeans.

But the particulars are less important than the practice. Whatever you’re using, make it clean, or make it private.

Too much of a good thing

Some families respond to college admissions anxiety with too much of a good thing. Here are five examples of actions that start with good intentions but have unintended consequences when taken in large doses.

1. Too much assistance.
Students need to take responsibility for their own college application process. When Mom or Dad picks all the schools, completes the applications, calls the colleges with questions, etc., they’re sending a message to colleges and to their kids that this is not an applicant who’s ready for college. Parents can advise, support, and help applicants stay organized. And you should certainly be involved (and probably lead) the financial discussions. But in the college application process, too much assistance usually leads to the opposite of your desired outcome.

2. Too many reach schools.
I’ve got no problem with a student taking a shot at a few schools where the odds of admission are slim as long as they’d genuinely consider attending if admitted. But some students apply to a long list of reach schools in the hopes that it will increase their chances of being admitted to one. But this lottery logic doesn’t work. Applying to that many schools just increases your workload without increasing your odds. Apply to a balanced list of schools so your biggest risk will be too many acceptances and offers of financial aid to choose from next spring.

3. Too much essay feedback.
When too many people give you feedback about your essays, especially when they don’t know anything about admissions or college essays, it’s like having five coaches of varying experience shout contradictory advice from the sidelines. You’ll just end up confused and you’ll probably play worse. I’ve seen this happen too many times when a student shows their essay to anyone who’s willing to read it and then struggles to somehow incorporate all of the feedback. It always chips away at the quality and ends with an essay that reads like it was written by a committee. Applicants should absolutely seek essay advice from a few (1-2) trusted and knowledgeable sources, like a high school counselor, English teacher, or qualified private counselor. But don’t assume that feedback from even more people will lead to an even better essay.

4. Too much information.
Some applicants try to impress colleges by sharing as much information as possible. They present long lists of activities that include even the briefest and oldest involvements. They’ll include unsolicited extra materials like resumes and letters of recommendation. Some will even forward press clippings and copies of awards they’ve received. But the college admissions process is a classic case where quality will always win out over quantity. Even the most qualified applicant becomes harder to identify when their most meaningful, impressive, interesting accomplishments are buried in a pile of less important information. Share what you’ve done and what you’re proud of. Do it clearly and forcefully—this is no time to be bashful. But remember that admissions officers are human beings with limited attention spans. Don’t dilute that already strained focus with too much information.

5. Too much comparison.
Some families approach college admissions like a status competition. Grades, test scores, colleges applied to and the ensuing results—everything becomes a comparison of how their applicant stacks up against others at school or on the block. Parents and kids who are going through the college admissions process should talk about it with each other. A sure way to relieve admissions anxiety is to remind yourself that you’re not alone and that other people share your stress. But once you start keeping score and comparing, you’ve moved from good conversation to bad comparison.

The sure thing

Last week, someone forwarded me a 2011 article about a former Collegewise student who’s now a computer engineer with the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Two gamblers who’d found and exploited a bug in video poker machines had taken Las Vegas’s casinos for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He investigated and solved the case in a story that not only made national news, but also led to an industry-wide overhaul to patch the video poker machines’ programming.

Updates like these are always fascinating for me because I still have a crystal clear memory of this engineer as a bright but introverted seventeen-year-old high school student who showed up at our offices with only a casual interest in computers and not the faintest idea what he wanted to do with his life.

I share his story here because while his dramatic takedown of the Vegas scammers is certainly atypical, his story of how he arrived at his career is not. He used his time in college to identify an interest (computer engineering) and to pursue it to a healthy extreme. According to his LinkedIn profile, he doesn’t seem to ever have had trouble finding a job even as a fresh college graduate. And today he’s flourishing in his career.

He didn’t get here by taking a career aptitude test back in high school and then drawing an imaginary straight line to his future. He was just a smart, hardworking kid who took full advantage of opportunities college presented to him. That was enough for him to take it from there.

Some teenagers know exactly what they want to major in and what they want to do as a future career. But many more do not. I’ve always believed this uncertainty is normal, no cause for parental alarm, and not something that should be discharged prematurely by forcing a college applicant to commit to a future path.

College is a significant investment of time and money, and I don’t think any student should attend without at least considering what they want to learn and accomplish. I can’t imagine a rational person would invest as much as $150,000 on any experience with no idea at all what they hope to get out of it.

But certainty isn’t a requirement for success during or after college. Even if you have no idea where you want to go, your curiosity, work ethic, character, and grit will turn you into a future sure thing.

Who you are–and want to be

I still remember receiving one of my high school yearbooks and noticing that the yearbook staff had taken one last jab at a graduating senior who’d spent four years as the butt of a lot of people’s jokes. They’d replaced his chosen senior quote next to his portrait with one proclaiming that he was the king of all nerds. Not funny or original, but still plenty mean-spirited.

Today, that former student is a graduate of Berkeley and Harvard Law School, and a bestselling author with a wife and family. His life is full enough that I’m sure he never thinks about (or even remembers) that last high school slight. But if he does, he must feel pretty triumphant.

For some students, high school is just about the most unpleasant experience that you’ll ever need to survive (surpassed only by junior high school for similar reasons). The good news is that you’re pretty much certain to find a different experience in college.

Yes, cliques, barbs, and social pressures still exist in college (far less so at some schools than others), but not nearly to the degree that they do in high school. Fitting in is an abstract concept in college. Between the diversity of backgrounds and interests, the maturity that comes after leaving high school, and the fact that there’s almost always someone at college who looks and acts weirder than you do means that there’s a place—and a group—for everyone.

My freshman dorm at college included two former high school football stars, a fan of Medieval Times who wore authentic clothing and jousted with fellow warriors, a drummer in a popular local band, a rock-climbing engineering major, a collegiate basketball standout, two fraternity members, three bespectacled pre-meds, a (computer) hacker, and a Marine Corps ROTC recruit. That was just on my floor alone.

Every college bound student has a lot to look forward to (here are 50 examples). And for some, the top of the list might be the opportunity to finally escape high school and be in a more accepting environment.

If that’s you, high school might seem like it’s lasting forever. But don’t worry. It will pass and eventually become just a distant memory in your life’s rearview mirror. Hang in there and look forward to the new world that college will present to you, one where you’ll have the freedom to be who you are and the opportunity to become who you want to be.

Try the right self-talk

When you’re nervous about an important event—like taking the SAT, going to your college interview, playing in the finals on the tennis team, etc., what does the voice in your head say? Second-guessing yourself with thoughts like, “I should have studied more” or “I’m probably not as good as the others” definitely won’t help your performance. But pumping yourself up with positivity like, “You can do this!” isn’t actually as effective as a third option.

In this short video, author Dan Pink explains interrogative self-talk, a simple, easy-to-use technique to improve your performance in pressure situations. Research shows that simply asking yourself, “Can you do this?” and then answering the question with all the reasons you’re likely to succeed actually improves the chances that you’ll do just that.

If your nerves sometimes get the best of you before that big test, big game, or any other situation where the pressure is on, why not give interrogative self-talk a try?