Prep Talk Blog > December 2008

I think we would all agree that the college admissions process is a series of evaluations to assemble a "best odds" enrolled student body. Certain measurements, such as GPA and test scores, are hard facts. Let's say that you have made your own predictive mental checklist:
  • Grade point average
  • Test scores
  • AP courses
  • Extracurricular activities
  •  
What is missing from the list above? Perhaps, one of the most winning elements: character. Remember, college admissions officers know that you are going to contribute to campus life in either a positive or negative way for the next four years. How are you going to stand out after the hard facts are considered?

You want to be the applicant who shows integrity and has a demonstrated track record of making things better for those around them. How do you show your character? It can be demonstrated through your actions:
  • Why you do things
  • How you choose to do things
  • Who you do things with (Are you more of a "go-it-alone" or "everybody-join-in type"?)
Also, remember: Don't be a showoff that obviously spent a day at the soup kitchen for the purpose of their college application. Do things you're actually interested in or your enthusiasm won't come through when you write your essays. The more passionate you are about an activity, the easier it will be to communicate this on paper or in person (if you get interviewed).

Joyce Slayton Mitchell provides a helpful set of questions in her book, Winning the Heart of the College Admissions Dean, to help you explore your character
  • What adjectives do I use to describe myself?
  • How would my best friend describe me?
  • Which relationships are most important to me? Why?
  • How free do I feel to make my own decisions?
  • How free do I feel to stand alone from my friends with a decision and point of view different than theirs?
  • How do I feel about going to a college where other students are quite different from me?
  • How do I feel about going to a college very different from my high school?

My advice: Use these character questions above to color your essays and ask those teachers and/or counselors providing recommendations to comment on these areas.

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Whenever I heard the word "scholarship" when I was younger, I thought it meant that you were getting a full ride to college with everything paid for. Only later did I find out that most scholarships given by colleges and universities cover only some of the costs, and that most students who win scholarships from their schools still need to obtain additional money through loans, their families, or supplemental scholarships. 

An article on Citizen.com reports that many current high school students think the same way I did. They expect their award letter -- the letter that details the financial aid package a school is offering to an applicant -- to offer much more money than it actually will, according to several guidance counselors. The interviewed guidance counselors say many students are surprised when they learn that the schools they applied to will only cover a portion of the expenses instead of most or all of them. Here's a reality check: full rides are possible, but rare. 

What can you do to prepare in case your award letter is for much less than you were expecting? 

  • Apply for private grants and scholarships. Hundreds of companies and foundations offer awards in varying amounts, and there's no limit to how many you can apply for. Most scholarships require an essay, but some others require more extreme measures, such as creating a prom outfit out of duct tape. Even if a scholarship is only for $500, apply; every little bit helps.
  • Be sure to fill out your FAFSA. This form will help determine if you qualify for college money from the government, and it can't hurt to fill it out, even if you aren't sure that you'll need it. This will be an excellent backup if you get less scholarship or grant money from your college than you were expecting.
  • Start researching your loan options. If you were hoping to get in on scholarship or grant money and hadn't yet considered getting government or private loans, it's time to begin your research. It's better to explore your financial aid options now, so if you realize you do need more college money, you are not rushed into making an uneducated decision.

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Recently, I reported on MCO that while the economy is in shambles, student loans are still available to those who need them. However, it turns out that getting loans may not be the problem. According to The New York Times, the debt incurred from the loans may be too much for many American families to handle. 

A new report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that while median family income has increased over the years, college costs have been rising several times faster, and college may become unaffordable for many in the coming years. This means while income is increasing, college costs are rising several times faster, and college may become unaffordable for many.

The report also found that in the past decade, college enrollment has risen while student borrowing for college has more than doubled, and the middle class is going into major debt in the name of education. Even worse news is that it appears college tuition costs will continue to rise, even at public universities.

While this news may sound daunting, it doesn't mean college will be out of reach. Here are a few ways to make college more affordable:

1. Consider a community college. The Times article says the average annual community college cost is $3,200, whereas the average private research universities can cost more than $33,000. Contrary to popular belief, community colleges are not "the high school after high school". If community college is not for you, go to a public university instead of a private college.  It will cost more than a community college, but much less than a private school.

2. Start saving. Many students rely completely on their parents to pay for school. If you really want to go to the college of your choice, consider saving some money yourself. In high school, work during the summers and save for college instead of wasting it on fast food and video games.

3. Attend college part-time and work part-time. If you have been dreaming of attending a certain college or university but the price tag seems too high, remember that many schools allow you to attend part-time. While it's certainly possible to attend college full-time and have a job, it can be hard to find time to study. Part-time school will give you more time to earn money, which will help put you through school and leave you with less debt.

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The Myth:  College admissions is a piece of cake if you have a monogrammed sweater or a crest-emblazoned blazer.

The Truth: College admissions departments across the country will draw at least half of their enrolling classes from public schools.

Getting into college is not like gaining access to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory! It is competitive, but there is no golden ticket. Colleges want diversity in their student bodies,and they are seeking applicants who excelled in the toughest classes that were available from all types of schools.

In fact, one of the reasons that colleges work with programs like My College Options® is to find students who are different than those who normally apply to their schools. They want to find students from all types of backgrounds that may not otherwise find them! When colleges find you, make sure that you have done everything within your power to be the best applicant for the position.

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If your college application were a body, your admissions essay would be the face. The essay is your chance to distinguish yourself from other prospective students with a similar bone structure (GPA, academic course history, test scores, etc). As you think about your appearance, remember that you are writing for an audience:  the college admissions officers. They have posed a question and they are looking for a well-formed answer colored by your personality and voice.

Now that you know your essay is an up close shot of your personality, take a moment and identify your angle. Don't just copy and paste the same essay into each college application. Remember, this is a personal communication between you and a unique college admissions department. Pay very close attention to how individual schools phrase the essay question(s), this is the biggest hint that you are going to get! They are reading for a thorough answer with follow-through examples of real life experiences.

Common college essay questions:

Significant Experience- College admissions officers want you to identify an experience that demonstrates your "real life" ability to learn and grow. Be specific and tell a complete story:

What led up to the opportunity/event (set the scene)
What happened (describe main characters namely yourself and event)
What you learned/how you grew (outcome).

Important Issue- College admissions officers are asking you to take a position and think through an issue. Here is your chance to show that you can develop a stance and remain tolerant of the opposing view. It is important to briefly identify the issue and supporting facts then discuss possible viewpoints. Own your viewpoint and recognize any compelling, opposing arguments with rational reasons for why you disagree or only agree in part.

Hint: You may want to steer clear of volatile, high profile social issues that everyone else is likely to discuss. Choose an aspect of an issue that you can own and try to avoid universal issues that may lead to fatal universal statements! 

EssayEdge, a division of Peterson's, provides an excellent essay guide. Just remember that the sample essay structures with fill-in blanks are just that: examples! This is not a Mad-Lib exercise; it is your chance to show your unique face to the people who have the power to accept or deny your application.

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