Answers to your questions about financial aid for college

Are 529 plans really worth it?  Why should a family bother filling out the FAFSA if you know you won't qualify?  What colleges have "no loans" policies where any financial aid offered is always a grant, not a loan that needs to be paid back?

Mark Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert, author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and the founder of both and which are two of the very best–and FREE–sources of information for financial aid and scholarships.

This week he's been doing a three-part series on "The Choice" blog answering readers' questions about financial aid.  The questions they chose are some of the most commonly asked, and the answers are detailed and helpful.  It's worth taking a look if you're concerned at all about your family's ability to pay for college.  Here are the links for part I, part II and part III


Seniors, do your colleges require 7th semester transcripts?

Seniors who've applied to college, now that you're about to finish the first semester of your senior year, it's time to double check the application requirements for your colleges and see which ones require:

1)  An official copy of your transcript with the grades from this semester (your "7th semester").


2)  A mid-year report from your counselor.  A mid-year report is a form from the application that your counselor fills out and sends to the college, usually with a copy of your transcript.

Remember, it's not a college's, your parents' or your counselor's job to remind you to do this.  It's your application and your college future–it's your job. Go back to the websites of each of your colleges, look up the application requirements, and see if you need to send either of these items.

A new way for teens to stand out

14 year-old Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month (and no, this is not the "new way to stand out" that I'm suggesting).  While she may the exception, the article goes on to describe just how many digital interruptions teenagers face today, and how the constant need to multi-task is affecting their work.

I see a huge opportunity for teens here, one that if you capitalized on could give you a real college admissions advantage.  If you'd be willing to turn off the interruptions regularly, you could become a teen who can get a lot of great work done in a short period of time.  Not many teens can do that today. 

What if you became the only one of your friends who turned off your phone and internet for however long it took for you to get your work done every day?  How much less time would it take to study and do your homework?  How much better would your work be?  How much more time would you have for doing other things while other teens are busy being interrupted?

20 years go, you wouldn't stand out just because you could get a lot of work done in a short period of time.  But that's all changed, and I think the smart teens will take advantage of it.

Don’t abandon your ambition–redefine it.

Does being an ambitious student mean you have to make yourself miserable to achieve your goals?  I don’t think it does, and neither does Cal Newport.

Cal’s latest blog post about college admissions argues that ambition is a good thing; if you work hard and stand out, you’ll have more interesting opportunities (colleges, jobs, promotions, etc.).  But if your workload leaves you stressed, sleep-deprived and miserable, you’re going to miss out on a lot of those great opportunities.  This is the mistake a lot of high school students make.  Their attitude is that if they can just survive their brutal workload and get accepted to their dream school, they'll be set for life.  This survivalist mindset is short-sighted and unsustainable.  The happiest and most successful students are the ones who find a way to pursue their ambitions without sacrificing their happiness. 

There are lots of ways to find and maintain that balance (both my blog and Cal’s give you lots of suggestions for how to do it).  But Cal’s most important assertion here is that high school and the college admissions process are the perfect time for students to learn this valuable skill of finding and achieving balance in their lives. 

He’s not arguing that you abandon your ambitions and neither am I.  He’s just arguing that some students should consider redefining them. 

Why we don’t like career tests

We often have prospective Collegewise families ask us if we do any career testing as part of our program.  That's an easy one.  No.

I understand why they ask.  But if you're looking for college counseling advice based on what a test says your kid's career aptitude is, we're not the right college counselors for you.

Have you ever met a single successful adult who discovered their path because of a career test they took when they were seventeen?  I haven't. 

The truly great counselors we've known would never put much stock in a career test for teens.  We don't think most teenagers are supposed to know what they want to do with their lives yet. And we don't like to see kids making important decisions based on the results of a blunt, one-size fits all, instrument.

Picking a college is an important and potentially expensive decision.  So it's smart for kids to ask themselves if they have any idea what they might want to do with their lives before they decide where to apply.  And if a teen really does have a future career in mind, that should probably be one of many criteria they consider when picking colleges. 

But for most kids, their path to a future successful career probably won't be a straight line.  And we think that's OK.  No need to carve a premature path because of a what a standardized tests tells you to do.

Ask Collegewise: How should I address my college interviewer?

Zack asks:


I got an email from the alumni interviewer at one of the colleges I applied to asking to set up a time to meet.  My question is, what should I call him?  Should I use his first name or call him Mr. Smith (last name changed by the editor)?  He signed the email with both his first and last name, so I'm not sure what to do." 

Good question, Zack.  Stick with "Mr. So-and-so" until he says otherwise.  And if you hear from female interviewers, go with "Ms."  Nobody has ever been offended by being referred to as Mr. or Ms., and they'll appreciate that you're being respectful.

When and if the interviewer tells you it's OK to use their first name, start doing that.  Don't make them tell you twice.

Why our office is full of guidelines

I take a lot of friendly flack for writing guidelines in our office–documents that describe a process and exactly how we do it.  Whether we need to prepare for a new employee's arrival, train essay specialists, or make a good pot of coffee, I've got a guideline for it. 

Our guidelines aren't about enforcing standards of conformity.  We're not McDonald's, and I don't think it's good to legislate every step of every process in a business like ours.  Instead, our guidelines prevent us from having to recreate and re-explain a process over and over again.  For example, preparing for a new employee's first day is a lot of work for us.  From setting up the office, to getting office supplies, to having all of the employment paperwork ready, it's a lot to remember and easy to forget a step.  So way back in 2004 after we'd just hired another counselor, I wrote down everything we did to prepare (and included a few things we forgot).  I included lists of what to buy, links to the forms we'd need, and a description of what we want the first day to be like.  Each time we've hired a new employee since then, we go back to that guideline.  We always make some updates and improvements, but the guideline ensures some consistency no matter who's in charge, and it saves us the trouble of having to remember everything each time we hire someone.  It makes it easier to do a good job. 

Our guidelines also help us commit to improving everything we do.  Margot spent last spring completely revamping our counselor training.  Everything she did, from the schedule to the reading list to the outline of each day is written down.  Now that the training is done, she's going back through all of it and making adjustments based on what we'd like to do differently next time.  We're not currently preparing to train a new counselor.  But the last training is still fresh in her mind, so it's easy for her to make tweaks now.  We couldn't do that if our trainers just kept all that information in their heads.     

It takes some discipline to make yourself create them, but the payoff from guidelines have been well worth it for us.  Maybe a guideline could help your office, club or organization?  If you just ran a fundraiser for your club, why not write down what you did, what worked, and what you'd like to do differently next time?  It would probably make the next fundraiser easier to do and even more successful.

Seriously, we really do have one for making coffee:

Download The single most important document at Collegewise–how to make coffee

For teachers who write letters of recommendation

If you're a teacher who regularly writes letters of recommendation for students, you've probably experienced the struggle of trying to write one for a student who hasn't given you much to work with.  And at that point, it's already the fall of the student's senior year.  It's too late for that student to show you the kind of effort and attitude that would make for good anecdotes in a letter of recommendation.

So why not preempt that problem by telling your students now–six months before they complete your class–what you'll need to see from them if they want you to write a strong letter of recommendation?

If I were a teacher, here's what I'd tell my kids this spring:

I'm happy to write college letters of recommendation for my students.  But this is a team effort.  I can't write a positive letter for a student who didn't earn it.  And since your transcript will show the colleges what grade you earned in my class, there are other things you'll need to do if you want me to say nice things about you to a college.  So here's what I expect from you.  I hope you'll take the advice, but if you don't, please don't ask me to write your letter next fall. 

1.  I expect you to be engaged.  I promise that I'm trying as hard as I can to make US history as interesting to you as it is to me.  So please be nice and act like you want to be here.  Don't just sit there and look bored. 

2.  I expect that you will regularly participate in class discussions, not because you're looking for extra credit, but because you're engaged (see expectation #1).  Put your hand up.  Ask and answer questions.  And be nice to other people when you disagree with their interpretations.  This is what colleges are going to expect from you, so this is the perfect time to start being that kind of student. 

3.   I expect that you will try your best.  The effort you show is much more important to me than the grade you earn is.

4.  Please don't be a grade grubber–a student who cares only about the grade and will complain if you don't get an "A."  I encourage you to set high goals for yourself, but I can only give you an "A" if you earn it. 

5.  Find what interests you about US history.  You don't have to think every chapter we cover is fascinating.  But I hope you'll be open to the idea that you just might have a favorite period of history by the time we finish the year together. 

How to be a leader without a leadership position

Every high school has students in leadership positions–student council presidents, yearbook committees, and editors of the school papers. But you don't need to have a leadership position to be a leader.  Leaders rally people towards a better future together, and you don't have to be elected to do that.

Here are five examples of ways you can be a leader in your club or organization even if you haven't been elected to lead.

1.  Unstick a project.

Maybe your club, organization or team has a project that's been stuck, something that the group has been slow in accomplishing.  Why not make it your job to unstick it and get it done?  If it's too big for one person to do, be the one who takes on responsibility for driving the project forward and solicit volunteers to help you.

2.  Grow the group.

A lot of organizations need more members to really be successful.  Make it your mission to find and recruit new members and help the group grow.  Come up with creative ways to get the word out.  Organize activities designed to allow potential new members to learn more about what you all do, like a "Get-to-know-us" barbecue.  Approach people who you think might enjoy what your group does and invite them to come to a meeting.

3.  Solve a problem.

What's something that's slowing down your group's progress or inhibiting your success?  Make it your project to find a solution for the problem.  If your choir needs more sopranos, or your school newspaper needs more advertising, or the French club needs money for its annual luncheon, you could be the leader who solves that problem yourself (or organizes the team effort to do it).

4.  Organize all-star teams.

In a lot of clubs and organizations, teams of people come together based on who is interested in the project.  But those teams may or may not have the right people needed to get the project done.  What if you put a team together for a project based on the relative strengths of the members?  For example, if you're planning the homecoming dance, put an all-star team together.  The best math student can be in charge of keeping track of the money.  The most organized person can keep track of all the project's details.  The funniest member can actually have a job of doing comic relief and keeping peoples' spirits up when the stress builds.  And here's a bonus tip.  When you're putting together an all-star team, ask the quietest person in the group what he or she would like to do and encourage them to join you.  Sometimes it's the quiet people who have the most to contribute–they just haven't told anyone yet. 

5.  Put one of your own skills to use.

If you know how to make good websites, offer to make one for the drama club and put up clips of each of the members' best performances.  If you love to write, start an email newsletter for the student council and write articles are so useful and interesting that the student body will want to opt-in and read them.  If you can play guitar, put a small band together to play at the next club fair.  You're not leading a group, but you'll be leading by example as someone who's enthusiastic and committed to the group.

You don't need the title to be a leader.

Avoid this common FAFSA mistake

Any class of 2011 senior who wants to apply for college financial aid should now be completing the FAFSA form, availalbe here.  But here's a common mistake you can easily avoid. 

"You" and "Your" refers to the student, not the parent, unless the form specifically says otherwise. 

The FAFSA is written with the assumption that the student–not the parent–will be the one completing it.  But that's often not what happens.  Many parents fill out the FAFSA for their kids, which is fine, as financial aid is the one part of the college application process where I think it can be a good thing for parents to jump in and help or just take over completely.

So parents, if you're completing the FAFSA for your student, remember that the form wants your student's information (name, birth date, social security number, etc.) until you get to the section that specifically requests parent information.