Prep Talk Blog > April 2011

Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“I want to help my parents out with my tuition by landing as many scholarships as I can.  Where should I start, what do they usually require, and what are some crazy scholarships you know of?” – Aimee N., Baltimore, MD

  Beginning the Scholarship Search and Basic Scholarship Guidelines
Jennifer Evans, Counseling Department Chair, Broadneck High School

A good place to start is with your high school counseling office. Many counseling offices have a scholarship website where they post information about scholarships they receive. Also, talk to your counselor. If your counselor knows your interests, he or she may be better able to direct you to appropriate scholarships. Be sure to be thorough when completing applications and remember when applying for scholarships to meet all deadlines. If there is a portion for a counselor to complete, then you should give the counselor plenty of advance notice to complete it.
  A Careful College Search Can Outweigh Scrambling for Scholarships 
John Frahlich, Counseling Department Chair, Hudson High School
The best advice I can give you on scholarships is that you should not be a senior during spring semester asking this question. Assuming you are a junior, remember that most scholarships awarded come directly from colleges and universities. It would be best for you to put your efforts into a college search that includes academic fit as well as financial fit. The stronger your credentials relative to other students on campus, the more likely you are to get merit-based aid. Also examine the average financial aid package awarded and consider the amount of aid that is gift aid vs. loan. Many colleges have financial aid calculators on their websites. This can be a helpful tool. Contact the financial aid experts at colleges of interest. They are your best resource! 
  A Good Reason to Choose a College Major: Scholarships!
Lynette Mathews, Director, The College Planning Center
There are similarities between scholarship committee decisions and investment decisions. Typically, an investor will evaluate an organization’s track record and assess its future potential.  Similarly, scholarship committees review students’ past performances as well as their plans for the future. It’s tough to make a case for a strong future plan without a college major. To take the pressure off a bit, consider it your plan o’ the day – knowing that you can change your major and career objectives at any time. If you are looking to maximize scholarship opportunities, consider reflecting upon your interests and skills, exploring potential careers, and making your plan! 
  Give Scholarship Applications As Much Attention As College Applications
Kristen Tabun, Director of College Guidance, Woodlynde School
When conducting your scholarship search, use one of the many free clearinghouse sites available, such as [or the scholarship search on].  While it's tempting to focus on the big-ticket scholarships, remember that those smaller scholarships add up fast and may have fewer students applying for them.  Most scholarships require essays, so take the time to write an individual essay for each one you apply for.  Be as thoughtful with those essays and scholarship applications as you were with your college applications, and it will pay off.

The Best Source of Aid Is Usually from the Colleges or
Kiersten Murphy, Director, Murphy College Consultants

Before you spend your entire year searching, you should know that if you have been awarded financial aid by a college, outside scholarships, such as those that come from Rotary or Kiwanis, can actually reduce your aid package.  According to federal guidelines, outside scholarships are considered resources, and colleges must consider these numbers when putting together an aid package. And if you were wondering, yes, you do have to report these outside scholarships. To learn more about outside scholarships and how they impact your aid package, be sure to review websites such as and of course, review each college’s financial aid website to review their outside scholarship policy. 

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the Dean of Admissions at University of Illinois, VP of The College Board, and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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I previously rambled on about basic merit-based scholarships and the ways they are awarded: Largely on academic record.  While those are the bulk of the merit awards, however, they are not the only ones.  No matter how incredible your academic record, there will inevitably be a time when you’re likely to be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school.  How is this possible?  Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.

Non-academic talent scholarships are probably the easiest to understand.  Athletic awards tend to be the best known, along with scholarships in the performing arts (and you can add forensics and other special extra-curriculars to that mix. Shameless plug: Mason’s forensics team continues to have one of the strongest winning records in the nation!  Of course, those tend to be focused on actual talent and what you can do for the team/program/department. So, the question is whether the school is looking for a basketball guard or a shot putter, a male dancer or double-reeded instrument player, etc.   These are almost always awarded by the individuals who run those programs: coaches, artistic directors, team directors, etc.  While college admissions offices will occasionally refer students, in general, you want to be in touch with the people who run that team/program/department directly to find out about any funding opportunities in your area of talent.  Note: Athletic recruitment is a bizarre and complex process – check out the NCAA clearinghouse website for more information.

There are two additional sources of merit-based funds, although neither is nearly as large as the academic and talent awards noted above. The first are donor-based scholarships administered by colleges and universities.  These, by and large, are created when someone decides to give money to an institution to assist some group of students they like, or who they feel are like themselves.  These can be as basic as strong students in a particular major, or as bizarre as students from a particular zip code with a certain hair color with experience in both quilting and raising bees.  Many of these awards are based on college performance (so open only to students already at the institution, which often excludes new freshmen and transfer students) or based on financial need (which I’ll go into in one of my next columns).  The awards that are open to prospective students are usually listed on the financial aid or admissions websites and/or, on less frequent occasions, in the university catalog.

Many external organizations also offer scholarships.  There are a variety of websites (including right here on to help search for college scholarships, and your school guidance counselor(s) often have lists of local awards.  Beware of any individual or organization that tries to get you to pay to qualify for these funds.  Most, if not all, are scams – the information on legitimate awards is readily available online and is nearly always free, although you will often have to hand over your contact information.

Oh, and there is one other way to get that “how in a rational universe is it possible for THAT KID to get a SCHOLARSHIP” feeling: There are an increasing number of offers from very expensive private colleges and universities billed as “scholarships” awarded to students who, to put it bluntly, are shocked to qualify for any award.  This is one of the great mysteries/super-secret marketing efforts of the college funding process. Many expensive schools know they can charge less and still make money.  Of course, it wouldn’t look nearly as impressive if they sent a letter out saying, “You’re not all that academically impressive, but we realize our cost is CRAZY high, and we need a certain amount of students paying SOMETHING to keep paying the gas bills to heat our jacuzzi, so here’s a coupon for a few thousand off our cost.”  If they were totally honest many would admit that you’ll still pay WAY more than many other schools, so it’s really like a lame coupon with an insufficient discount to match the higher cost. You can see how that kind of honesty might slow down enrollment.  It’s SO much better to just go ahead and call it a “scholarship.”

In addition, during the economic downturn we are all enjoying, some private institutions have gotten REALLY aggressive about these awards. One admissions director admitted (even bragged) that, when she realized in April institutional enrollment deposits weren’t what she had hoped, she sent out new, bigger awards to the people who hadn’t yet deposited.  What a great feeling that must be for their most enthusiastic and committed students that deposited early.  Those lucky students will get to pay more – but since they love the school, I’m sure they’re not bitter about that at all!

Next up – how the need-based aid process works, and how colleges and universities manipulate it (the better to serve you, or so we say). 

Be seeing you.

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Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“As a junior looking to stay on top of my college admissions timeline, what are the most important things for me to be doing before senior year starts?” – Andrew S., Renton, WA

  You Have to Know What You Want to Go for It!
Enid Arbelo, Editor in Chief, NextStepU

It’s easy to get excited about summer break and zone out during the last weeks of school, but these are the days that count! So wake up and start planning! Your first step is to research colleges and programs that fit your needs and interests. That’s where a counselor comes into play. Set up a meeting with one and get some guidance picking colleges and majors that seem interesting to you. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, you can start applying. Sure, the application process can get overwhelming, but if you’ve picked some top schools and majors, you’ve already tackled some of the hardest work!
  Getting Ready for Your College Search, Think "Marathon," Not "Sprint" 
Susan Sykes, President, SS Advisor
By planning ahead, you can be ready to hit the ground running in your senior year. Do what you can this year, beginning with SAT and ACT testing. Try to take each twice in your second semester. Learn about the college options: large v. small; urban v. rural or suburban; liberal arts college v. university. Don't "think" you know the differences -- take time to see samples of each. Do this at schools near you -- you'll learn how to "do" a college visit and be ready for serious campus visits in the summer and fall. 
  Follow a Clear Game Plan and Meet Your Objectives Efficiently
Gail Lewis, Educational Consultant, College Goals
Paradoxically, much depends on junior year accomplishments, yet application time seems remote in 11th grade. Sharpen your focus by targeting your college goals early; then design and carry out an efficient game plan. Top students aim for highest grades in challenging classes, ace standardized tests through solid preparation and establish strong relationships with teachers/coaches. They invest personal time in meaningful extracurricular activities, assuming leadership roles when offered. Consider how you can excel in unique ways to differentiate yourself from other good students -- through competitions, independent study, talents, and community service. Above all, maintain your zeal for knowledge and joy in learning.
  Sign Up to Take Challenging Courses in Your Senior Year
Julie Manhan, Founder, College Navigation
Contrary to popular belief, senior year is definitely not the time to slack off and take it easy. That is because colleges tend to look for and choose students who they believe are likely to be academically successful at their schools. The best things you can do to show them that are to maintain strong grades and sign up to take challenging courses next year. By choosing to take more rigorous classes, and succeeding in them, you demonstrate to colleges that you have both the motivation to take on new challenges and the preparation needed to do college level work.

Juniors Should Commit to Working Hard in Their Academics
Elinor Adler, Founder, Elinor Adler College Counseling

As the junior year progresses and the college admissions process begins, it is important to remember that a student’s first commitment should continue to be working hard in all their courses. Throughout the college admissions process, the student’s academic performance is the most important element in being successful. Also, talk with your guidance counselor, develop a testing schedule and discuss what things you (the student) have done in and outside of school since starting grade 9. Remember, the guidance counselor is going to be writing your recommendation and knowing you well is the key to being able to highlight your accomplishments. 

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the Dean of Admissions from University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan, and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“I’m worried my financial aid package won’t be sufficient for me and my family to cover my college costs. How can I negotiate with schools to increase my package, and what other sources of aid are available to students, even if they require some more work from me?” – Matthew H., Richmond, VA

  What to Do When Financial Circumstances ChangeMarjorie Donnamarie Hehn, Director of College Guidance, Canterbury School of Florida
First, breathe.  You may be feeling panicked, but college financial aid offices are prepared to deal with this situation.  Make sure that you file required financial aid forms as soon as possible.  Then, when you or your parents call to update your present situation, the financial aid staff may direct you to gather any or all of the following documents that will prove unemployment: letter from former employer, copy of last pay stub, unemployment benefits statement.  You may also need to file a special circumstances form so that your financial aid is recalculated.
  Your Relationship with Your Financial Aid Office Matters
Monica Inzer, VP & Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, Hamilton College
Just as all colleges aren’t equal, all financial aid policies aren’t the same.  Resources will vary, as will financial aid packages and how colleges respond to economic hardship cases.  But don’t panic. In many cases, particularly at places that promise to meet 100% demonstrated need, colleges will be there for families like yours.  Call the financial aid officers at the colleges where you applied; explain your situation.  Usually, you’ll find them to be very sympathetic and willing to talk you through their policies and your options.  And if that isn’t the case, well, that might make your college decision easier. 
  Personal Situations Do Change -- You Need to Advocate for Yourself
Edward Devine, Mainland Director of Admissions, Hawaii Pacific University
The FAFSA is a snapshot of your family's financial situation from the year prior to your enrollment in college.  Loss of income, loss of job and changes in family situations may occur after you have filed the FAFSA.  The family contribution estimated from the FAFSA data is a snapshot and starting point for colleges to award aid.  You can, however, take the opportunity to make the process personal by informing the financial aid officers of these special circumstances.  This is not an appeal, but rather an update, usually sent by letter, to make the school aware of a change in your family’s ability to pay for college.
  Make the Most of Your Financial Aid Appeal with These Tips
Craig Meister, President, Tactical College Consulting
Generally, the more selective the college, the less likely there will be room to negotiate your financial aid package with its financial aid office. Even then, colleges will refer to this process as an appeal, not a negotiation, and they are most likely to come up with new numbers because of a recent change to your family’s financial status, such as a loss of income, high medical expenses, or divorce.  Your appeal is more likely to be successful if it includes information not previously submitted and information that is verifiable by a neutral third party. Many colleges also require that you include a special conditions form, tax return, and letter of appeal as part of any request for reconsideration.

Increased Grant Awards: Ask and You May (Possibly) Receive
Joan Casey, President, Educational Advocates College Consulting Corp.

Sit down with your parents and determine how much more in grant money (not loans) you will need in order to realistically consider your college of choice. Then contact the financial aid office and ask if they would be willing to increase their award by that dollar amount. If a work-study grant was not initially part of your package, you should ask them to include it.  For scholarships, start with your guidance counselor to find out if there are any school or community grants available, and then visit scholarship search sites to identify additional sources of funding. 

Don’t miss answers by the Dean of Admissions from University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan, and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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Unigo Expert NetworkThis blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit

“With several campus visits scheduled, I want to make the most of them – what are some uncommon but important things to do, look for, and ask while I’m there?”
– Jason C., Boulder, CO

BLINK! Your First impression of a College Campus Is Probably Correct
Marjorie Shaevitz , Author & Founder, adMISSION POSSIBLE
Personal visits are the best way of getting to know colleges. What to do? Stop by the admissions office, sign in and meet the rep assigned to your high school. Then take an organized campus tour or go on your own. Ask yourself these questions: Am I turned on or off by what I see? What’s available in my activity/athletic/other interest areas? Do the students seem to be the kind of people I want to spend time with? Ask a few what they like/dislike about the campus. Can I see myself happily spending four years here? Have fun!
  Ask LOTS and LOTS of Questions 
Francine Block, President, American College Admissions Consultants
Always visit on a school day unless the school schedules a special weekend program for accepted students. Take a campus tour, even if you took one earlier. Read the posters, what are the activities/programs/speakers/concerts available for students? Read a school paper. Attend an intro lecture class: What is the interaction? Who is teaching? How engaged are the students? Visit the Career Center -- do they have active career alumni networks helping students get jobs? Does the school help you get an internship? Ask lots of questions: academic requirements, core curriculum, retention numbers, social life -- what would students you talk to change about the school? 
  Grab a Book and Pull Up a Chair...
Lisa Bain-Carlton, Educational Consultant,
Most college tours will take you on a quick run through the library. However, I'd recommend you stop by the library for a longer visit. Bring a book or take one from the shelves and then observe the action around you. Are students working in groups? Do people stop by and chat with one another? Is the physical space comfortable? If you see students studying a subject you are interested in, you might consider asking them about the course. You are going to be spending a great deal of time in the library -- therefore, taking a break among the books can be a good way to determine if the environment feels like a match for you.
  College Tours Should Include Information About Academic Advising Programs
Joanne Levy-Prewitt, Creator & Founder, CollegeMapp
When visiting campuses, students should inquire about the specifics of academic advising. Advisors help students choose courses and majors and can ensure that students make informed decisions about their education. Ask the tour guide, or the admissions staff, how you will be assigned an academic advisor. Who are the advisors? Are they professors? Graduate students? Peers? Will you receive an advisor as a freshman or after you declare a major? If there is an inadequate system of advising, how will you choose your classes or your major? This is especially important at a large public university where students will need to reach out and ask for help.

Observe, Question, Go Off the Beaten Path, Do What Interests You
Patti Demoff, Cofounder, College Circuit

Use the visit for information, but also for observation. Observe students, where they congregate, and their interactions. Do you feel like you will fit in? Go off the beaten path. Walk or drive around the surrounding neighborhood. Are there appealing places to eat, shop and hang out? Ask questions of various people, or if that’s too intimidating, let your parents do it. Arrange in advance to visit areas of importance to you: disability services, arts facilities, sports facilities and coaches, science labs, faculty or program heads, classes. Finally, do what interests you. For example, one passionate, prospective student visited art museums on every campus. 

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the VP of the College Board, Dean of Admissions from University of Illinois and more -- at To send your question to our experts, visit

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