The truth about outside scholarships for college

I did a financial aid seminar for our Collegewise families last weekend and talked a little about "outside scholarships,"  which are little-known awards or scholarships from private companies and foundations.  Families are often given the impression that there is a lot of money available from these sources if you're able to find it.

But according to Paying for College Without Going Broke, the money from outside scholarships accounts for only about 5% of the aid that is available.  The author points out that the biggest chunk of scholarship money comes from funds provided by the federal and state governments, and from the colleges themselves. 

So, is applying for outside scholarships even worth a student's time?  It's not an easy question to answer.  Even if the amount of money available is comparatively small, free money for college is always a good thing.  So here's how I recommend families consider that question.

Applying for outside scholarships is a time consuming process.  Kids have to research and find the scholarships, fill out the applications, and often write essays, get additional letters of recommendation and maybe even interview. So, let's say your student took the time to find and apply for 20 outside scholarships and won $500 – $1000.  Would you think it was worth your student's time and effort? 

If your answer is, “Of course!", then you should consider having your student apply for outside scholarships. 

If, on the other hand, you'd feel like a $500-$1,000 return on your student's investment of time and energy just wouldn't be worth it, you might reconsider and have your student spend her time studying and playing on the soccer team.

Of course, my figure of $500-$1000 is an arbitrary one; your student might win more or less than that.  But our experience with our Collegewise students has been right in line with the logic in the aforementioned book; the biggest awards don't come from the outside scholarships.  In fact, I can't recall ever hearing that one of our students won a $15,000 scholarship from a private foundation or company, but we see it happen all the time from the other sources, particularly from the colleges themselves.  

If you do decide to search for outside scholarships, never pay someone to help you find them.  All the information is available to you for free if you're willing to look for it.  Two of the best places to search, and to do so for free, are here:

www.scholarships.com

www.fastweb.com

How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

Do you have a favorite book?

I don't necessarily think that every student has to love to read.  But I do think every kid—every adult, too, really—should have a favorite book.

If you love to read, that's wonderful.  Read like your hair is on fire.  There are few interests that will make you think more analytically, argue more persuasively, and write more clearly than reading will.

But even if you don't love reading, it's a great way to take whatever your passion is to a logical extreme.

If you love to play the saxophone, who's your favorite saxophonist?  Why not read a biography about him or her?  Or read a book about music theory, or the building of brass instruments?  Or read about life as a member of a college marching band, or about the history of jazz.  It doesn't matter what you read about.  Let your interest be your guide. 

If you love football, why not read a book about how to coach defense, or about your favorite team, or your favorite quarterback?

If you love computers, why not read a book about programming?  Why not read ten books about programming and learn ten different languages?  Or read a biography about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?  You could read about video games or the history of the internet or about how Facebook was created.

Here's the bottom line—smart, motivated people like to throw themselves into their interests.  They want to know as much as they can about what they're doing because that's how you get good at it.

So if you don't have a favorite book, why not make it a goal to find one?  Lots of colleges will ask you what your favorite book is.  And they won't care if it's a classic work of literature or a biography about your favorite band.  If you read it, it shows you were interested enough to want to learn something.

Ten not-so-easy college search questions for juniors

Last weekend, I gave our "How to Find the Right Colleges for You" seminar for our Collegewise junior families.  Here are ten questions I recommended our juniors consider while searching for colleges.

1.    Why do you want to go to college?

2.    Do you think you’re ready to go to college?

3.    How do you like to learn?

Do you work best when the material is interesting?  When the teacher is great?  Or when you can sense the competition with other students? Do you enjoy classes with a lot of discussion?  Or do you prefer to do more studying on your own.

4.    What would you like to learn more about?

5.    How hard do want to work academically? 

6.    Do you have any idea what you want to do with your life?

7.    What would you like to be doing on a typical Tuesday night in college?  What about on typical Saturday night?

8.    How do you like the place where you live now?  Would you like to be someplace similar or different for college?

9.    Do you want to be with students who are like you, or different from you?

Ask yourself, “Am I more comfortable being around a lot of people who are
similar to me? Or Am I excited to meet new people who are very different
so I can learn from them?”  Differences can come in lots of forms, by the way, like ethnicity, sexual orientation, where they’re from, whether or not they drink, etc. 

10.    When you envision yourself in college, what parts of it are you most excited about?

Students who really think about these questions don't just find the right colleges–they get in, too.

Savoring moments of laughter in the college search

From yesterday's "The Choice" blog:

"As a parent, it’s so easy to get sucked into what has been described
as a gut-wrenching, grueling, ridiculous, harrowing (I could go on and
on) process. When I bumped into a friend at the bagel store last week
whose son had just decided where he’ll be going to college next year,
she looked at me and said, 'You are in for the worst time between now
and next year.'”

I grabbed my bagels, got in my car and thought about what she said.
What could be so bad? Is anyone sick? Going to jail? Nope. I continued
on with my day."


Five ways judging Junior Miss is like being an admissions officer

I spent most of Monday doing my duties as an academic judge for a local Junior Miss pageant. Deciding who'd earned the highest academic achievement scores (which is based on qualities like strength of schedule, GPA and test scores) was a lot like being a college admissions officer.  For example…

1.  I'm impressed by the kid who takes hard classes, even if she doesn't get A's.  And if you take easy classes and gets A's, I have to wonder why you didn't challenge yourself more. 

2. If you take AP classes, you should take the AP tests.  Not taking them makes me wonder why you didn't. 

3. The PSAT is a practice test.  I'm more interested in how you did on the real thing (the SAT or the ACT).

4. When a school ranks its students, it makes my job easier because it's a nice shortcut.  But I don't need that numerical rank to figure out who the highest achievers in the class were.

5.  Transcripts, GPAs and test scores don't tell me anything about who you really are.

So let me just riff about #5 for a second.

I was only judging one thing–academic achievement.  I wasn't trying to decide if each candidate deserved to win the entire contest.  So in that way, my role was much different from that of an admissions officer.

Still, I couldn't help thinking how lifeless transcripts and test scores are.  That's why the essays in college applications are so important.  That's why you can't waste that opportunity by writing a safe, unrevealing essay about how your trip to France taught you to appreciate that foreign countries are different.  In fact, it would have been hard not to resent (a little) the kid who writes that essay. 

Your college application can't just be a lifeless stack of paper.  You should use your essays to inject your personality and maybe even a little soul into the process.  When you get that opportunity, don't waste it.  Use it.

“I’ll do it”

"I'll do it" is a powerful phrase. 

It's the opposite of "I'm too busy," or "That's not my job."  Unless you're responding to someone asking, "Who wants to light things on FIRE?!," then pretty much everybody, from clubs to teams to teachers to colleges, likes the person who quickly says, "I'll do it."

Last Friday, our blog feeds stopped working properly.  So I posted an ad to Craigslist looking for a web developer who could fix it.  I offered $200 plus a $50 bonus if he or she got it done that day. 

I got a lot of responses that wanted more details, or wanted to negotiate the price, or just rattled off their qualifications.  None of them said those words I was looking for.

But then I got an email from Brian that just said, "I'll do it."  He told me he'd start right away and I could pay him when he fixed it.  Done.

Brian didn't get it done that day.  Turns out it was a much longer project than he thought it would be.  But he stuck with it, worked over the weekend, and about 4:30 on Monday, it was completely fixed.

I paid him the $200 plus the bonus.  It wasn't done the same day, but he made my life easier.  He didn't haggle about the price or ask a bunch of questions to see if he really wanted the job or even try to protect himself by making me pay a portion up front.  He just said, "I'll do it."  And he did it. 

So while I'm hoping there won't be a next time, if we have problems with our blog again, I won't be posting an ad.  I'll go right to Brian.  I'd recommend him to anyone looking for web development help.  It's possible that someone else may have twice the skill that he has and could have completed the job in one day, I don't know.  But Brian said, 'I'll do it" first and followed through.

So, what are you going to say the next time you hear…

"Who would like to show the new kid around school?"

"Who can help me coach at a youth soccer camp this weekend?"

"Who's interested in learning more about the Civil War?"

"Who can staff the front desk at the homecoming dance?"

"Who would like to run for treasurer of the student body?"

"Who can help me put up signs to advertise for the bake sale?"

"Who would like to volunteer at the shelter with me this weekend?"

If you become known as someone who says, "I'll do it," and then does it right, people will appreciate you, they'll rely on you, and they'll recommend you when anyone asks. 

Why we’re not in your reader right now

OK, it looks like we're back; our new posts are now appearing in peoples' readers.  If you're a subscriber, you probably missed a few feeds in the last week, but we've got the posts here for your reading pleasure.  Thanks for your patience.  And thanks to Brian for fixing this for us.

I've heard from several subscribers that our blog feeds aren't showing up in your Google readers.  I've got someone looking into it right now, but in the interim, I'm just going to forge ahead and keep putting up my daily posts.  Apologies for the lack of feeding.  

PS:  If you're an expert in Typepad and Feedburner, and you understand how the rss.xml file from Typepad interacts with Feedburner for social media shortcuts, let me know if you'd like a freelance job fixing the bugs in our code.  Email me at kevinm (at) collegewise (dot) com. 

What to do if you were rejected by all your colleges

If you're a senior who was rejected by all your colleges, you can probably still go to college in the fall.  But if you want to do it, you'll have to jump on the project right now.  Here are a few steps to take to give yourself some options.

1.  Meet with your counselor.

This is a time when you want your counselor to know what's happening in your life.  She may be able to suggest schools that are still accepting applications, give you more advice about how to get off waitlists, appeal rejections, etc.  And ask her about public university options available to you, which brings me to…

2.  Look into public universities in your state.

Most states have public universities that are required to admit students who meet minimum eligibility requirements.  That doesn't mean they're required to admit an eligible student who didn't apply before the deadline, but it's an option worth investigating, especially if it's a school that didn't receive as many applications as they'd hoped.   

3.  Use the Common App to find schools still accepting applications.

Go to the college search section of the Common Application website, select "first year student," "Fall 2010" and enter today's date under "deadline on or after."  I just entered 4/19/2010 before writing this and there were 115 schools that came up.  And a lot of them are good schools. 

4.  Use the College Board's college search function.

If you use the search function on College Board website and select "More than 75% accepted" under the "Admissions" section, you'll find a lot of colleges will still be accepting applications. 

5.  After May 1, watch for NACAC's "Space Availability Survey"

After May 1, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling conducts a survey of colleges to find out one thing–who's still got room for freshmen?  Then they publish the results of the survey in early to mid May.  So after May 1, check the NACAC website every day.  Or just keep reading our blog and we'll let you know when it's up.