Prep Talk Blog > June 2011

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“What are some of the most unexpected costs for incoming freshman?” —Peter T., Covington, KY

  Surprises Lurk Beyond Tuition, Room, and Board
Linda Turner, President, The College Choice

Think about the items in your bedroom, your bathroom, the kitchen and the family room that you can’t live without. If you’re planning on taking duplicates to college, your shopping list will be expensive. Do you need that down comforter? The microwave and refrigerator always at your command? The high-quality entertainment center? Once you’ve installed these items in your dorm room, don’t be surprised to find that the cost of books and school supplies surpasses the budget you imagined. Be prepared to order food outside of your meal plan more than you expect, and if you pledge a Greek organization, the costs will jump substantially.
  Orientation, Trips Home, and Storage All Add Up!
Jolyn Brand, Founder, Orientation

One of the most unexpected college expenses is usually the student’s very first time on campus: Freshmen orientation. Many college campuses charge a fee to attend, and don’t forget to include travel and hotel costs if the family is also going, and meals, since most student meal plans won’t be in effect yet. Another unexpected expense is travel for trips home. Most students are going to want to go home 3 to 4 times a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, and summer). One final expense is storage over summer break. Many parents rent a truck to take it home for the summer; others pay storage in the college town for 3 months.
  What You Don’t Know Won’t Save You Money: Hidden College Costs
Jeannie Borin, Founder & President, College Connections

In addition to tuition, housing, computers and books, there are hidden costs that can put a dent in your college spending budget. Some things to think about include purchasing software required by some courses, additional library fees, late-night food items and concert tickets. Be aware, too, that tuition rates may change while you are a student and there could be some healthcare costs (many colleges offer insurance plans for students). Decorating your dorm room with a new carpet, longer dorm bed sheets and a small fridge and microwave can run into more dollars. There are also fees for sporting events and parking passes. Add on travel expenses home, too. Budget carefully and spend wisely!

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

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As you prepare to kick up your heels and enjoy your summer, rising college freshmen are dreaming of the Elysian Fields of college that await. As if you are all starring in a remake of Braveheart, I hear your unified cheers of "Freedom!!"

After the regimented structure of high school, rising college freshmen are usually excited to get to pick their own classes in college (not to mention their own curfew, clothing, and other less obvious decisions about lifestyle choices, but that's not the point of today's rant). I'm often surprised, however, at how many students are unprepared for all the limitations on those choices they will encounter. I’ve found very few incoming freshman who really understand all the different courses needed for various programs, and most lack even a basic understanding of the jargon used to describe these requirements prior to hearing them at orientation. Most assume there will be some requirements in their majors, yet I see shock (if not awe) on their faces at all the courses they must take OUTSIDE their areas of study.


The roots of these requirements are a mixture of practicality, thoughtful consideration of your educational needs, and random adherence to a smattering of traditions. I'm told that, at some point in the distant past, colleges followed a Great Books curriculum. This was a series of major pieces of literature or science you were expected to have read (or at least actively skimmed) to be considered a learned person. This is the modern equivalent of being able to engage in an active discussion of the latest PBS documentary and easily quote the latest outrageous statement from the Jersey Shore's “Situation” within one conversation. As human knowledge has expanded (and taste in programming has degraded -- thanks reality TV), being versed in all key areas has become challenging for all but a few of us.

Recognizing this shift, higher education then turned from the Great Books approach to the liberal arts. While I'm sure Fox News thinks that term is part of some elaborate plot, it essentially replaced Great Books with areas of knowledge. As a result, most colleges and universities require students to take a smattering of courses in a variety of broad subject categories. Nearly all have requirements in math and English, and those are often quite specific on the assumption that you really ought to know how to read, write, and do math before you graduate college. You will likely have more choices of courses in the sciences (many require a lab science), humanities and social sciences. There is a huge difference between humanities and social sciences, but that is a secret known only to a select set of individuals, who may or may not also be part of a secret cabal that runs the world, or at least controls digital cable, and supports many of those Fox News theories -- but that's not important right now.

What is important is how all of this will impact you. Apart from your major, you will need to fulfill some set of these liberal arts requirements, sometimes called general education courses, other times coined core curriculum, and sometimes institutions give these courses their own names, like The Great University Ontological Explication of the Universe or, better yet, Bob or Fred (which I think would be a friendlier approach). Most of these course requirements are fairly similar, although all have some variation in an attempt to demonstrate how THAT school is DIFFERENT.

Many schools increasingly include more business/life skill-oriented courses in their liberal arts requirements. I love teaching the speech requirement at Mason, and I'm also impressed that many schools like ours have a technology requirement. Quite a few require foreign language at some level, with many still requiring it for students from non-English speaking countries who have already demonstrated English proficiency. In my book, that makes ENGLISH their foreign language, am I right? But I digress.

High school juniors and younger: You don't need to worry about any of this for the time being.

High school seniors who are about to be freshmen: You should be thinking seriously about these choices. A few items to consider as you do:

Along with the requirements of your institution, there may be additional requirements or specific courses needed to fill those requirements depending on your major and department. This gets REALLY confusing because most regular humans who don't spend their lives in higher education have no idea what organizational structures are like in higher ed, making this extra bizarre and hard to understand. Simply put, your major may need some specific courses to fulfill your liberal arts requirements. So an engineering major, for instance, may be required at some university to have an economics course, which is how they advise you to fulfill your social science requirement. Where this gets extra confounding is when you aren't yet sure of your major (which, in my last post, I told you not to stress about). My advice is to pick your liberal arts/general education/core courses based on the major you MIGHT pick that has the MOST required courses, and try to pick in your first year courses that are requirements for ALL of your possible majors. For most people that is fairly easy in the first few semesters.

This leads to the idea of "double counting." Most college and universities will let one course fill many requirements. If you are majoring in history, your history courses will likely also fill your social science (and/or humanities) requirement. You might also find that your school requires something with the following terms: global, ethics, communication and/or writing intensive, or reasoning. You will usually find a long list of courses in the school catalog that will cover these requirements, and many of those courses might also be needed for your other liberal arts, major, or minor requirements. For example, I took a course in psychology as an undergrad that counted toward both my majors and covered two of my general education requirements.

Of course, many of you are so talented and brilliant and motivated that you will arrive at college already with a significant amount of credit from various sources. Every college accepts and counts that credit a bit differently. In the meantime, enjoy your summer, and just remember that college is there to make sure you become an educated and productive member of society, preferably one who can easily define Elysian Fields as well as correctly execute the Cupid Shuffle. This is proof that higher education evolves -- in my day it was the Electric Slide.

Enjoy your summer, and be seeing you.

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You’ve been accepted to college, put down your deposit and are completely focused on the first day of the rest of your life after high school graduation. What could stand in your way?

Well, if you let your grades slide so drastically that the college would be admitting someone of a significantly different grade caliber, then the college could rescind its offer. Colleges can also rescind offers for misbehavior, such as plagiarizing, cheating or an arrest.

While very few students get their offers rescinded, there are things you can do if it happens to you:

1. Talk to the college and try to explain the circumstances for which the school is rescinding its offer; you may be able to appeal.
2. You may be able to negotiate admittance to the school on probation and will need to meet certain standards during the first semester.
3. Attend a community college or another school, get your grades up and then reapply as a transfer student.

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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’ve heard that spending a little time with many extracurricular activities is less attractive than a ton of time with one or a few.  If I haven’t found an activity I’m passionate about, how can I still seem like a dedicated individual?” – Tami G., Pine Bluff, AR

  Illustrate Your Unique Interests Through Your Extracurricular Activities
Craig Meister, President, Tactical College Consulting

The key to college admissions success is to parlay preexisting interests into extracurricular pursuits. There is no magic number of activities an applicant should undertake before applying to colleges; however, colleges do want to see that a student has pursued his or her interests deeply outside of the classroom. So, if you have any interests whatsoever, figure out a way to pursue them in the extracurricular realm as opposed to simply pursuing them as hobbies. For example, don’t just play your guitar in your bedroom; share your talent as a guitar tutor, talent show entrant, or local performer.
  Focus on What YOU Enjoy; Forget Being Well-Rounded
John Carpenter, Founder,

First off, forget about impressing colleges with activities. That's entirely the wrong approach to take, and in most cases, admissions officers don't value a list of activities that kids have pursued just for the sake of trying to look well-rounded. Be square. Be yourself.  Make a list of the two or three things that you LIKE to do, and put your energy there. For instance, one year a student came up with the idea of forming a club based on talking about deep ideas -- something she loved to do. So she formed the philosophy club; it was an instant hit.  She did what she wanted to do, and that left a positive impact on her school. College admissions officers notice that kind of thing.
  You're on a Voyage of Self-Discovery -- Pursue What Interests You
Diana Hanson, Independent College Consultant, College Mentors

Do you play a sport, write for the student newspaper, volunteer at your place of worship or in the community, and belong to the debate club? That makes you a well-rounded student with a wide range of interests.  Colleges are looking for curious students who have a zest for life -- in addition to having academic credentials -- so make your diverse interests an asset by including them in your applications, both in the essay(s) and volunteer/activity listings.  While colleges do like to see some consistency in your extracurriculars, there are also benefits to trying a variety of clubs/sports/activities throughout high school. It shows you're doing your job -- finding out who you are and what you enjoy! 

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

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Ah summer -- the time when everybody relaxes in hammocks whilst children run through sprinklers, blow bubbles and partake in other equally annoying warm weather activities. Meanwhile, I’m still trudging into the office and to assault potential students with an onslaught of recruitment materials or review hordes of applicants who feel our decision to deny them admission cannot possibly have been correct and that, if I just met them personally, I would see past their miserable academic records. Bah.

Fortunately for those of us who believe misery loves company, I know that most rising high school seniors are equally uncomfortable. Not only are they still stuck in class while they watch their graduating friends romp off to the beach, but they are also confronted with ever-increasing levels of stress. While most of the country plans road trips and barbeques, every rising high school senior I meet looks like someone faced with life-changing decisions that have to be made RIGHT NOW.

Relax, or at least be a bit less overstressed. In reality, you soon-to-be seniors still have LOTS of time to make LOTS of decisions.

Perhaps the most persistent misinformation I hear is the unshakable belief that students MUST immediately pick a major. Soon. Like, now. Yesterday would have been better. This misinformation is compounded by a general misunderstanding of college programs and what it really means to pick a college major.

As background, you should know that your college courses will likely be made up of three broad categories, all of which can overlap. The bulk of your courses are divided between your major, and your “core.” I use “core” in this case as shorthand for the core requirements of a baccalaureate degree. These are courses (or, more often, categories of courses) in common for all students at an institution. They may be called other names (core curriculum, general education, liberal arts, confusing mishmash of apparently unrelated courses -- stuff like that), but it all means essentially the same thing.

Your major will usually take up only about a fourth to at most (again usually) half of your courses. Nevertheless, your major is likely the question you get all the time from Grandma, right after which school you’re going to attend and why you don’t call more often. Hence your stress.

Probably the most important thing you should know about picking a major is that, with a few notable exceptions, they don’t matter NEARLY as much as you think. There are a few career fields, like engineering and nursing, where you need to take VERY specific courses to be credentialed to work in the profession, and/or move through the coursework required for those jobs -- so in those cases your major choice is significant.

Most jobs (and grad schools), however, care very very very (very very) little about your major. I know dance majors who became business executives, biology majors who became police officers, and business majors who went on to grad school to become psychologists. Even admission to medical school doesn’t depend on your major. You do need some specific courses (fun stuff, like organic chemistry) but you could, if so inclined, do those with a theater major. Actually, science majors often make great law school candidates, and business backgrounds can be tremendously helpful these days for medial careers.

In other words: Your choice of major, in most cases, does not need to determine the rest of your life -- just a portion of what you’ll study in the next few years.

What about how your major selection impacts your chances of admission? There are few schools where your choice of major has a significant impact, and those schools are usually very up-front about the fact. They are often admitting you into a very specific college of the institution and have limited space for each area -- so it’s like you’re applying to a specific college inside a bigger university. For most schools, however, majors aren’t a big admission influence, especially since we know well that most students tend to change majors a few times on their way to graduation.

Often schools will have some variation when the program needs different preparation. At Mason, for instance, I look particularly at math preparation more closely for engineering majors, and my dance majors require auditions. At most schools, however, this won’t keep you from being admitted to the institution; although you might be admitted outside your preferred major.

Of course, there are years when I need a few more music majors or a few more engineers and look for those in the applicant pool. Unfortunately, you will have NO IDEA if that is the case, so picking your major based on what any particular school MIGHT need in any particular year has as much a chance of hurting as helping your admission.

Fortunately, at most schools you can switch your major around pretty much any time. There are, however, a few where this is really challenging. Usually the schools that are stricter on admission to a particular program are also more challenging when switching majors. This may be confined to a few majors that have limited space (architecture or nursing, for instance) or might be a general policy of the institution. In any event, it’s pretty easy to ask about that before you apply.

In most cases, if the school won’t admit you to your major (or at least pre-major -- many schools make you go through a second application/qualification process, especially in fields like nursing), should you go to that school? If they tell you that getting into that major was very competitive and that few students transfer into it, it’s a strong sign that you might want to add some more schools to your list.

Remember also that not every school calls every major the same thing, and admissions officers can be terribly confusing on this point. If you know, for instance, that you want a particular field of interior design and the admissions officer says her school offers graphic arts, that’s not the same thing. Fields like business, international affairs, political science, and criminal justice, however, can be called by a whole slew of other names, so you need to check around.

Confused yet?

The main point is that a college major means, in general, a lot less than you think. By FAR the most popular major is UNDECIDED. Picking a major isn’t the same as deciding what you’re going to do with your life, and deciding on your college major doesn’t have to happen before you apply, or even in your first year.

So you can tell grandma you have the whole major thing all set. Now you can relax, kick back in the hammock, and stress about where you’re going to apply. I’ll be waiting here in my office, pummeling you with propaganda so you make the RIGHT decision, which would be to apply to MY school, of course.

Stay cool, and be seeing you.

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Don Munce