Prep Talk Blog > January 2009

Contrary to some popular movies and social networking sites, admissions officers don't spend their days poring over video resumes or DVDs of dance recitals to decide who is "in" and who is "out".

The less-than-glamorous truth is that character, hard work, dedication, academic success and evidence of commitment are still the ingredients for getting in to your dream school. According to a great myth-debunking article in the NY Times, admissions officers tend to toss out the "show and tell" application add-ons and dig deep into the standard college application and essay.

My advice: Focus on your essay, not your music video. This is your moment to distinguish yourself from the crowd of fellow applicants with similar GPAs, course selections and test scores. Write like you have never written before and get a very diverse set of test readers. If they did not know you at all, what sort of mental picture would they take with them? When you are satisfied that you have painted a compelling and accurate portrait of yourself, proudly submit your essay.

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With tuition costs running high at home, some American high school students are looking north for college. A recent article in The Boston Globe reported that an increasing number of New Englanders are choosing Canada as their college destinations. At the moment, the stronger US dollar, coupled with lower-cost tuition, makes Canadian colleges more appealing than their American counterparts. If the dollars and cents difference is not enough to pique your interest, consider these benefits reported by® Student Loan blog:

    * You can use your US federal student loans at Canadian colleges.
    * You may be eligible for merit-based financial aid.
    * The Canadian college admissions process often does not require an entrance essay or interview.
    * Many American students are accepted to higher caliber schools in Canada than they would have been in the US because of less stringent admissions standards.

Given these factors, it is not surprising that nearly twice as many Americans have applied to colleges in Canada over the last decade and that the trend is expected to rise in the next few years. Canadian colleges are focusing recruitment efforts within the U.S., given the spike in American student enrollment. If you are considering visiting Canada in your college search, I would suggest applying for your passport in advance. Beginning this year, you'll need it to cross the border and return to the United States .

Even if Canada is not in your college forecast, you may consider expanding your college search to get a bigger picture of your college options. Realize that there are great colleges out there beyond the schools where kids from your high school typically apply or where your brother or sister may have gone. Most of us have a short mental list of colleges that we are familiar with because of highly publicized sporting events or close proximity to our community. But, why limit yourself?

My advice:

Do yourself a favor and keep an open mind when you approach your college search. You may find your ideal college in the last place you expect it! 

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Now that it's January, it's time to start thinking about filling out the FAFSA, the government paperwork that determines a student's eligibility for financial aid for college. Some colleges and universities use it to determine financial aid, as well. Sure, the federal deadline isn't until June 30, but some states require its submission by February or March in order to qualify for state financial aid.

The hefty form has over 120 questions and takes a decent amount of time and effort to fill out, especially because it requires several tax forms and other documents. Despite the pain-in-the-butt factor, it's best to get started on it sooner rather than later, says a recent article from The Dallas Morning News. It's easy to procrastinate, but this is not something you want to put off and risk forgetting about if you need financial assistance for school. 

The article quotes Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as saying that the intimidation factor of the FAFSA alone keeps 40 percent of students from seeking financial aid, which is equivalent to about 8 million students (and she believes most of them would have been eligible for some type of aid had they applied). Because of this, in the next five years, the government is working to make the FAFSA simpler to understand and easier to complete, especially for low-income families.

In the meantime, what can you do to conquer the beast? Make the paperwork easier by filling out the form online, the article says, which is quicker and helps cut down on errors. 

Remember, the FAFSA isn't a one-time thing; students must re-submit it every year they're in college if they want to continue to receive financial aid. Look at it this way – you'll become a pro!

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If you are an avid My College Options® reader, you've heard us mention the FAFSA application process over and over again. There's a good reason for that: Beyond academic and extracurricular accomplishments,college financial aid centers around the FAFSA application.

Because we are committed to getting you through the college admissions process, we are going to do a weekly guide with every reason we can think of to get you through the financial aid process. Remember, getting accepted is great, but enrolling and being able to afford to attend is even better!

FAFSA Rule One: Get your family to file their 2008 taxes now!

You can't complete the FAFSA until you have last year's income tax returns in hand. Remember, FAFSA is "first come; first serve"- so your next click needs to be the FAFSA website

According to a recent article entitled "Don't Be Afraid of FAFSA",competition for government and college-funded financial aid is expected to rise given the recent economic downturn. Your future college and the federal government use the information in the Student Aid Report (generated by your completed FAFSA application) to determine how much your family is able to contribute and how much aid that they can provide to help bridge the financial gap.

So here is my advice for the week:

   1. Print off the FAFSA required document checklist: 

   2.Run, don't walk! Take the checklist to your parents or family member who supports you financially and set a date for when you are going to work through the application process using their W-2 or other taxable income documents, tax returns and other required information. 

   3. Stress the importance of time: Other students are filling out their FAFSAs even as you read and you need to know what your "Expected Family Contribution" is going to be for college your first year!

Have questions regarding the FAFSA?  Post a comment or send us an email!

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Why wait to study abroad? Learning in a foreign country isn't an option limited to college students. As a homeschooled high schooler, I received a full scholarship for one year of international study through a program sponsored by the US and German congresses. I learned about it through my German tutor who referred me to the local representatives for my state. Once I convinced my family that this would be an excellent opportunity to further my violin studies and to learn about a new culture, I sent in a basic scholarship application with letters of recommendation and an essay. A few weeks later, I was invited to a panel interview with other prospective applicants and won the scholarship.

No Foreign Language Experience Required

The year in Germany is spent attending a German high school and living with a host family to fully engage students in German life and culture. Many of my fellow scholarship recipients were learning German for the first time and within six months, all had achieved fluency. As part of the scholarship program, we also attended German congress sessions and learned about the modern political and social systems.

Enrich Your Life And Develop Skills

Spending a year immersed in a new culture provides wonderful material for your future college essays and shows serious commitment to personal development. According to,your time abroad can benefit you by: 

Improving your cross-cultural communication skills

Opening up more employment opportunities in business, international affairs, and government service

Enhancing your analytical skills

Honing your ability to adapt and be flexible to new circumstances.

If you are considering studying abroad, talk to your high school guidance counselor about the best way to make sure you have all of your high school credits for graduation.                         

To learn more about the full scholarship program to Germany, visit 

It's never too early to satisfy your wanderlust!

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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
Yes. If it's out there, it's fair game.
No. If it's not part of my official application package, it shouldn't be considered.
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Don Munce