THE AVALON SCHOOL COLLEGE COUNSELING PROGRAM

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1 THE AVALON SCHOOL COLLEGE COUNSELING PROGRAM Table of Contents Page I. INTRODUCTION 3 II. INITIATING THE PROCESS 5 A. Where to Apply 1. Two questions 2. Three categories 3. Relevant factors in selecting a college 4. Less relevant factors B. College Visits III. THE ADMISSIONS DECISION 9 A. Tangibles 1. Grades and Courses 2. PSAT, SAT I, SAT II 3. Applications 4. Essays 5. Extracurricular Activities 6. Recommendations 7. Interviews B. Intangibles IV. FINANCIAL AID 19 A. Introduction B. How Financial Aid Works 1 Unusual Sources of Aid 2. Loans 3. Grants V. CALENDAR 23 1

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3 I. INTRODUCTION At the 1997 George Washington University graduation address, comedian Bill Cosby observed that whether a glass is half full or half empty depends on whether you are drinking or pouring. There is no question that the college application process can be intimidating to a high school junior or senior. But the application process can also be seen as an opportunity: to present yourself as you really are, to handle a very complicated task, to take a big step towards determining future professional and personal success. This booklet is about this opportunity, and how to make the best of it. Keep in mind during the application process, that what you need to do is to present yourself as you really are. Many applications fail because they look fake. Colleges are very good at discerning applicants who are trying to appear to be someone who they are not. They may not accept you because you don t like yourself enough to present to them who you are. Besides, the more you try to sound original and different, the more you will sound like a lot of other applicants. The best way to show schools who you really are is by telling the colleges about what you love. It is in this regard that your college counselor is helpful. Your job is to show colleges who you are within a few pieces of paper. Your counselor s job is to put himself in the shoes of the college admission officers, and to ask himself, would I admit this applicant? The two of you together will then be able to present you to the colleges in the most attractive possible way. You will need to work with teachers, counselors, administrators and colleges. College applications are therefore in many ways similar to the kind of projects that most professionals face on a daily basis: In order to accomplish this job, you need to set a course of action, including goals and methods: decide where to apply (goals) and set up a calendar (methods). You need to take care of some of the projects personally: taking exams, writing essays and filling out the applications. You need to delegate some of the tasks, such as teacher recommendations, for which you are nonetheless responsible. Delegation rids you of the work the task requires, but not the responsibility of getting it done. All along you are seeking advice from other people: counselors, preparatory courses, admissions officers and parents. 3

4 The college application process can thus be a valuable learning experience, even if a student does not plan to attend college. Finally, before getting into specific concerns of the application process, you might find it helpful to put yourself briefly in the shoes of the Directors of Admissions of the colleges you will apply to. They have a very difficult task ahead of them: to admit all the students they need to admit, no more and no less, and to make sure that they admit the right kinds of students. If they admit more than they can take, they have no room for them. If they admit less, they lose money. Unless they admit the right kind of students; those who are going to do well academically and socially, they will not have happy people on campus, and more importantly, they will not have happy and successful graduates who will contribute to their alma mater. If you do your homework and learn about the schools that you are applying to, you will know when you are the right applicant to the college. Directors of Admission have a problem. You are the solution to their problem. Your application is your way to prove it to them. 4

5 II. INITIATING THE PROCESS A. Where to apply? To start consider using College MatchMaker at or College Search at 1. Two questions: There are two questions that are worth asking yourself as you think of possible colleges: Do I want to go to school here for four years? Do I want to live here for four years? As opposed to high school, in most cases, you are not going home at the end of the school day. You are staying on campus for months at a time. Some students are attracted to a college in the abstract, because of academics, athletics, popularity... and they fail to consider that this is going to be their home for the next four years. You probably will not reach an answer to any of these questions until you personally visit the colleges, but it is still worth your while to be thinking of these questions from the very beginning of the application process. 2. Three categories: You should apply to schools in each one of these categories: Dream schools: One or two long shots. Don t worry if you do not think you will be accepted into these schools, or if you will not be able to pay for them even if you are accepted. These are the schools you would like to attend if everything goes your way. The very top schools are often expensive, but they can be a good investment. Competitive schools: Three or four. Schools you think you have a good chance of getting into and would like to attend. These schools provide a good education, and they may give you a generous financial aid package for the simple reason that you are well qualified and they want to attract you to their school. Safety schools: One or two sure things. Think about safety schools both in terms of academics and finances. There is no sense in having a $200,000 school as a safety school unless you 5

6 have been promised a full ride or money is no obstacle. Look for safety schools among your local state universities. 3. Relevant factors in selecting a college: The following are factors to think about when choosing a college: a. Money: Can I afford it? Is it worth the expense? b. Distance: How far away from home do I want to be? Do I want to go home daily, on weekends, breaks, or only Christmas and summer? c. Location: Urban or country, north or south, coastal or inland, mountains or plains? d. Climate: Hot, cold, humid e. Living arrangements: What percentage of students live on campus? What are the dorms like? Cafeteria? Is campus housing guaranteed? Can you move off campus if you want to? f. Where will your friends go: Some people want to start all over again by making new friends, and therefore want to attend a college nobody else from their school is attending. Others want to make sure that they already know a few people when they go away to college. g. What your parents think: There are good reasons to really listen to them in making this decision: they know you better than anyone else yes better than you know yourself even they want what is best for you, they are probably paying for your education. h. What your guidance counselor, and/or teachers think: They don t know you as well as your parents, but they also want what is best for you, and they have professional expertise on what colleges might be good for you. i. School size: Small less than 5,000 students, Medium between 5,000 and 15,000, Big over 15,000. j. Academics: Specific programs that you like, general strengths that match yours. Try to anticipate several majors you would like the school to offer. k. Allows you to fulfill a talent that you have: artistic, musical or athletic. Don t forget that no matter how much you want to play a sport, you will still live at the college, and you will need your education to take the next step in your life. You only have four years of eligibility in varsity sports, but many decades to live and work after those four are over. 6

7 4. Less relevant factors: B. College Visits Some factors which are not as important as people often think they are: a. Student/Faculty Ratio and Average Class Size: Most introductory courses are large, but the further you go in your major the smaller the classes will become. Big courses taught by brilliant professors are better than small courses taught by first year graduate students. Small classes may force you to do your reading, but they will also force you to spend an inordinate amount of time listening to your classmates opinions for which you don t want to pay and not enough listening to your professor s for which you have paid quite a bit. b. Course catalogs: Course titles are interesting but who the professor is matters the most. c. Faculty credentials: Degrees are not as important as the professor s ability to transmit knowledge and his accessibility. d. Viewbooks: They are promotional materials. They better make the school look attractive. e. SAT averages: An average, half the students are below that average. Visit the school before even applying to it. You would not buy a house without first seeing it, going in, walking through the rooms and getting a feel for it. College is a big investment of time, effort and money. You must have a reasonable expectation that you will like it before committing yourself to attending. Save yourself the hassle of applying to a college you will later discover you do not want to attend. Before you visit, call the admissions office ahead of time and make an appointment to meet someone there. Don t just show up and ask for an interview. It is rude and it will be at best fruitless; at worst a strike against you. Find out if you can take a tour of the campus when you visit. Ask for information on this when you call to make an appointment. Try to set up an interview with a professor in the department you are most interested in. Professors generally like talking to prospective students. 7

8 Attend a class or two. Talk to students. Students often like it if you stop them in the quad or go to them in the cafeteria and ask them their opinion about the school. They often have good information on the school, and even tips on how they got in. As you conduct your visit, ask yourself questions about the following: 1. Academics: challenging but doable? 2. Extracurriculars: wide variety? student involvement? 3. Environment: location? climate? 4. Social life: fit in? too wild? too mild? If you want to go to one school more than any other, visit. Be ready to tell them why you want to go to their school. It may impact the decision making process. Some selective colleges will give preference to a student who visits over one who does not. 8

9 III. THE ADMISSIONS DECISION A. Tangibles 1. Grades and courses The best way for admissions officers to know that you will be able to handle the work is to see your school grades. The later grades are more important than the earlier. It is not too late if you had a bad first year to pull them up. Don t stop working if you had a good first year. College admissions officers want to see that you are taking a heavy load of courses and that you are doing well in them. Very selective colleges want to see that you took the most challenging program offered. Schools which convert your transcript to a number will weight advanced or AP classes. In any case, all schools want to see motivation and academic ability. Don t stop working second semester senior year. Colleges look at those grades, and they reserve the right to reject an already accepted applicant because of a very poor performance senior year. Also, you want to make sure that you are at your best when you enter college. You need to maintain the habit of study all the way into and through college. 2. PSAT, SAT I, SAT II PSAT: Avalon offers the PSAT at school in October of your freshman, sophomore and junior years. Take it as practice for the SAT. Also because National Merit Scholarships are based on your junior year PSAT results. Colleges will only see your PSAT scores if you are a National Merit Scholar. SAT I: By the end of your sophomore year you will have covered all the material you need to know for the SAT. Take the SAT exam in the Spring of your junior year. Plan on taking it again in the Fall of your senior year. 9

10 Take an SAT Preparatory course during the summer before your junior year. It will help you towards the PSAT exam as well. Take the prep course as many times as necessary if it helps you to increase your scores. You don t want to take the SAT more than three times you ll appear too greedy. If applying to only state universities, then it is OK to take the test more than three times, because they rely much more on the numbers than the whole application. There are more than 20 points between 590 and 610. Take it again if you have a good chance to make it into the next set of hundreds. Take it only once if you are a horrible test taker. If you score a 310 verbal the first time, to get a 320 the second time is not going to make you a more attractive candidate. Take it only once if you did extremely well the first time that you took the test. Extremely well is if you got over 700 on each section of the test. Colleges probably pay more attention to the verbal score than math unless you say that you want to be a math or science major. Colleges say that they only use your best scores, however, they will see all of them, and they will be affected by all of them, even if they are not willing to admit it. Most colleges take your best individual Math score and your best individual Verbal score. Some will take your best set of scores from one test date. Score Choice for the SAT should begin this Spring but you can only choose by test date. If your scores are low, don t try to explain why they are low. Admissions officers have heard all kinds of explanations and they are extremely skeptical about excuses. The only thing you will accomplish will be to draw attention to your scores. If your scores are low because of an objective reason, then have your college counselor explain why to the college. But it better be a very good reason. Otherwise you are better off not saying anything. If you are going to take an extended time SAT begin the paperwork the summer of your sophomore year. Also plan on taking a regular, timed SAT so the colleges will have a basis for comparison. 10

11 SAT II: Find out if the colleges you are applying to require or recommend the SAT II. If they do, they will probably require three. SAT II s are content based tests covering material from high school classes. Aim to take all three exams during the Fall semester of your senior year. If the colleges you are applying to do not specify which subject tests they want; then take the English, math, and either science, history or a foreign language. High SAT II s can redeem low SAT I scores. 3. Applications Make a copy, printout or save a PDF of everything before you send it in. Make sure your final application is neat and clean. Applications need to be typed - not handwritten. Sloppy paperwork will be held against you. Early is better than late. The earlier you get your application in, the better chance you have to be accepted. Georgetown University receives about 3,000 applications for early admission by late August. A University of Pennsylvania admissions officer explained how she only reviews 40 or so regular applications in September, but 400 a month in December through February they ll take a better, and more favorable look, early rather than late. Intended Major. Be sure that the college you are applying to offers the major you write down offering one or two courses does not mean the college has the major. Don t specify your major in an area in which you are not outstanding. Undecided as to major -nothing wrong with that better than saying pre-law, pre-med or even business and not really meaning it. Intended career: undecided is the best. Colleges prefer to work with people who haven t decided what they want to do for the next fifty years. Law and medicine are the worst 11

12 too common and you make college look like a stepping stone and nothing else (they will think that as soon as you are accepted you are already dying to get out). Almost as bad is to say that you want to work with people or help people (too vague or fake seeming). Travel is a plus. Colleges like to see people who are well traveled. Make sure to mention if you paid for your own traveling or at least for part of it, and how you earned the money. If a college offers its own application and the Common App then use the college s application. You show less interest in the specific college when you fill in the Common Application. After all you are already telling the college that at best they are one among many and not your first choice. Try to fit everything in the space they allow you within the application. If you absolutely need more space, type see attached and attach a good quality paper page to your application. Write down your name, social security number, and the whole question before you fill in the page. But remember that admissions officers have a lot of pages to read. 4. Essays Begin during the summer before your senior year. The more time you can spend on them the better. The essay is the part of the process you control, use it to your advantage. The point of your essay is twofold: to show that you are a decent writer and that you are a responsible, mature person. Don t use your essay to apologize for the weak spots on your application. Submit extra materials if they are called for, but don t flood the office with unrequested materials they have a lot of paper to go through as it is. Write about something you care about. Even if they give you the topic, look for something you care about regarding that topic. In general, avoid travel essays; they are hard to read and difficult to offer insights in. Don t try to describe all your interests and activities. 12

13 The following are some ideas regarding topic selection and general approach to the essay: a. Don t repeat information from other parts of your application; use the essay to expand on an interesting aspect of your application that you only had a chance to mention earlier, or to bring out some outstanding quality or achievement that you could not include anywhere else. b. Avoid generalities; try to talk about specific things that happened to you at specific times. One good way to avoid generalities is to talk about people. People are much more interesting than theories, ideas, ambitions... People represent, and even more, they incarnate theories, ambitions, and ideals. c. Be humorous if you can, but be careful. Once again you are better off showing your true self instead of trying to sound like someone else. d. Maintain the right tone: respectful, witty, informal, spontaneous... It should read like a good conversation. Don t force it. Be yourself. Avoid the following themes: a. Any topic that you think very personal, but which is too common: your relationship with your girlfriend, a classmate who was killed in a car accident, your personal philosophy, the best game of my life or similar athletic essays, how much you love yourself. b. Any topic that might be divisive and give the reader a reason to dislike you: your political views, your religious beliefs... c. Any topic that might possibly present you as a poor college prospect: how much you like to party, the first time you got drunk or any time after that, how much psychotherapy has changed your life, the pleasure of drugs, how much you hate studying. d. Any topic that you think should be written about for the good of humanity: the evils of drugs, the importance of a college education, big ideas for changing the world and trendy topics such as ethnic cleansing or global warming. In general, avoid any topic that you do not care about, but that you think the admissions officers should care about, and any topic that you care about, but nobody else does. 13

14 Ask yourself what you want to write about. Then ask yourself if others admission officers want to hear about it. If the topic can be around a person be particular, specific, write about people that are important to you personally. Think about the form you might use. Straight prose is fine, but if your theme lends itself to another approach, try it. But if you do, it has to be very good so as not to appear pedantic. Write drafts. Set them aside for 24 hours and reread them to spot clichés, triteness, vagueness, dullness, grammatical errors and misspellings. Don t use uncommon words merely to sound educated, and stay away from quotations you pulled out of a book. Make sure the draft is typed; the essay becomes more impersonal and it is easier to criticize. Does the essay focus on your theme? Does it ramble? Is it confusing? Is it boring? Remember that good writing is writing that is easily understood. Don t say what you are going to say, simply say it. Does the introduction grab the reader s attention? Remember that your essay is one among thousands. Rewrite the essay accordingly, and repeat the same process as many times as necessary to refine it. Ask someone whose opinion you trust to read your essay and give you feedback. Ask that person the same specific questions you asked yourself when looking at your draft. Review your essay for typos, spelling and grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, inaccurate usage, unnecessary words, or anything else that does not sound right to you. Read your essay out loud to locate rough spots. Have a good writer critique your essay; have a good speller proofread it, even if you use spell check. Make sure your essay looks physically attractive and that the print is easy to read. You will have a friendlier reader that way. 5. Extracurricular Activities Colleges want students who are capable of doing the work. They also want students who are interesting and thus will contribute outside the classroom. They judge how interesting students are by looking at their extracurricular activities. Quality and commitment are much more important than quantity. They don t want to see someone who does 14

15 everything minimally. They want to see someone who sticks with something long enough to rise to a position of leadership and responsibility. As a matter of fact you don t want to pad your application with an extremely long list of activities. You list the activities in accordance with the importance they have for you and the importance you think they will have for the college. The following are examples of activities that look impressive on an application, especially if you held a position of leadership in them: student newspaper, student government, choir or orchestra, varsity sports, community service activities or organizations, anything unusual that took a lot of time and effort. Three factors to consider when listing extracurricular activities on your applications: a. Demonstrate commitment and leadership in activities that show you have the respect of your peers. Watch out for activities that don t bring you into contact with your peers. b. Explain those that are not obvious. Be straightforward about what you did and the different activities you participated in. Don t try to make them sound more impressive than they are. c. Skip those you only participated in minimally or which were not important to you. They only distract from those which are significant. An after school job is not a disadvantage. You want to show one of two things with this job, besides the same degree of commitment and leadership you would show with activities: either you are working because you need to bring in money everyone will respect a teenager who has the maturity to work because his family relies on him to bring in some income or you are working at an interesting place that is going to make you a more interesting human being and therefore more wanted by a school. 6. Recommendations Give teachers at least two weeks to prepare letters of recommendation. Who to pick for recommendations: a. Teachers who know you and like you. b. Those who are only going to say positive things. c. Teachers in fields where your principal interest lies. 15

16 d. Teachers who are reliable. e. Teachers who are good writers. f. If possible and appropriate, teachers who are alumnae of the college you are applying to. Fill out the top part of the recommendation form, sign the waiver line colleges are suspicious when a student does not sign the waiver since it gives the recommender a guarantee of confidentiality and give it to your teacher. Attach a resume indicating accomplishments, career interests, hobbies and what classes you took with that teacher. Remind teacher that above all, colleges will look for: a. Commitment to academics and extracurriculars. b. Why you are different from other students in school. c. Examples of motivation, independence, leadership ability and creativity. d. How well you write, think, analyze and research. e. In what ways you contributed in class? f. Personal problems that might have affected your work. As the deadline approaches, politely ask the teacher if he has sent the recommendation. Thank him for his help and work on your behalf. Don t submit too many extra recommendations. Admissions officers have a lot of papers to read and they generally do not look favorably on unrequested materials. If you decide to submit extra recommendations, it is better if they are written by unknown people who know you well, than by well-known people who don t know you. 7. Interviews When visiting a college, make sure to call ahead of time to set up an interview with someone at the admissions office. Never show up unannounced and inquire about an interview. Be on time, neatly dressed and well-groomed. If you must be late, be sure to call ahead of time. Rehearse questions to yourself about GPA, SAT scores, summer/year employment, your school, extracurriculars, goals, and why you are interested in the college. 16

17 B. Intangibles Answer questions to the best of your ability, but relax, don t be afraid to admit that you don t know something. Your interviewer wants to see that you bear yourself well, listen closely, that you have a clear and analytical mind and that you are ready to learn. Be prepared to take some initiative to mention those things you want to emphasize. Carry your half of the conversation and do so with enthusiasm. Ask questions about the college that demonstrate your knowledge of the school and a sincere desire to find out more. Questions regarding housing, internships, year abroad, questions that show you have looked at the curriculum, majors, etc. Explain discrepancies in your application: why didn t you take a certain class, why did you get a particular grade. Explain relevant items that would not fit into the application; such as family background. Do your homework: don t ask questions that are answered in the general brochure, don t be ignorant of easily known facts about the college. You have to show that you like the place so much that you know as much as you could find out about it. As much as possible, save the best for last. Start interviewing with the schools you don t care as much about, and save the dream school for last. This way you will be best prepared for it. Make sure you send a thank you note to your interviewer or any other school administrator with whom you talk. It is polite, and keeps your name in front of them. The rating sheet will show the college what type of candidate you are. The application reader will ultimately decide whom he likes best according to intangibles in the application: overall impression of the candidate, what kind of student the college is looking for and what kind of person the college will contribute to the work force if it admits this candidate. Rule changing attributes that might change the ratings and get you admitted over similarly or more qualified applicants: 17

18 geographical location, special skill, legacy son of alumni, faculty, etc. having some skill the school is looking for. Minorities generally compete against applicants of the same minority population instead of all the other applicants. Special skill: A good musician will get in if he is at least borderline and the band director is looking for someone who plays the instrument. Sports: If you would play for a team from the beginning and contribute to that team, then you will likely be accepted as long as you were at least borderline. Most of these candidates are contacted by the college once they apply, and in some cases even encouraged to apply by the college. If you play a sport, but would not contribute from the beginning, you will enter a pool with all the other applicants who can do the same job. If you do not get in from that pool, then you enter the general pool with all the other applicants to the college. Physical disability: Mention in the application. Be sure to attach a doctor s statement. Unusual background: A plus. It is also helpful if you have a name that will bring good publicity to the school. Early Decision: It depends on the school, although it helps for most of them. Schools are interested in having a high yield of acceptances students that attend the school when accepted. You are making their Spring admission process easier for them, especially when you apply binding early decision. Because of that they will give you a break. Some of them receive so many early admission applications that the percentage they accept is the same as the percentage of regular admission acceptances. Most schools do not reject students who apply early admission, but rather a decision on the application of those who are not admitted will be deferred until regular admission. Financial aid: Even among need-blind colleges it might make a difference when deciding between two people who are otherwise equally qualified. After the admission decisions are made, but before sending the acceptance letters out, the admissions office will review the incoming freshman class to look for two things. First, is there the right male - female distribution? It may need to reject some men or some women. Second, is it sending the wrong message to some high school? Is it admitting a lower rated candidate at least on paper and rejecting a higher rated one from the same school? Is there a good reason to do that? 18

19 IV. FINANCIAL AID A. Introduction is a good place to start. has very thorough explanations of the process. There are four free scholarship search sites that are popular: and the collegeboard.com scholarship search. In addition to the scholarship websites above; look locally for scholarship money through area clubs, associations and businesses. Your college education could cost up to $200,000. Somebody will have to pay this sum. How much you pay will depend partly on how professionally you approach the application process. In your initial search, do not rule out a college because of cost. The Financial Aid Form (FAFSA) will determine how much you are expected to pay your expected family contribution (EFC) not how much they will pay. Online calculators to determine EFC are readily available. A Financial Aid package will be a combination of: a. Grants or scholarships: do not have to be repaid. b. Loans: have to be repaid, usually after you leave school. c. Work: earning money through a job, usually provided by the University. Senior year is no time to start thinking about how to pay for a college education. It is possible to bargain with colleges for more money. The aid package that you first receive may not be as high as the college is willing to go. Ask for financial aid information from the colleges themselves. Because of stiff competition among top colleges, some of them are coming up with innovative ways to defray costs. Read the literature carefully. When putting together the list of colleges that you are going to apply to, you need to add a couple of financial safety schools. These are schools that are cheap enough that you can afford them, or schools that you know want you so much that they will give you all of the aid that you need. 19

20 The decision to go into debt should be made carefully. You need to look at how you are going to be able to pay back that debt after graduation. Especially if you are almost sure that you are going to attend a graduate program immediately afterwards. Are you going to need more financial aid for that graduate program? At the same time, the quality of the school may make it worth your while to incur some debt. B. How Financial Aid Works: All colleges use the FAFSA, which should be filed in January of your senior year and is the only form used by state schools. In addition, many private colleges use the PROFILE form, put together by the College Board or some version the college creates for its own use. This form will determine the size of your family contribution how much the college determines that your family can pay of your college education. If the college is full need many colleges are then the college will offer you a financial aid package to fill-in the gap between the family contribution and the college sticker price. This package will consist of a combination of grants, loans, and work-study. The PROFILE form is intrusive in its questions; it is similar to a tax return. You should be careful how you fill this out, because it will determine how much you are expected to contribute. Many families who are very careful in filing their tax returns, don t receive as much aid as they could because of careless filing of the PROFILE form. There are many other sources of aid. But you must remember that the constant is your family contribution. Any other aid that you receive will usually diminish what the college gives you, not what you are going to contribute to your education. It is worthwhile to receive outside sources of aid, but not always wise to devote a lot of time to seeking it. Not all offers are the same, even if they promise the same amount of money: how much of it is in grants, how much in loans and what the interest rate is on those loans are all important concerns. 1. Unusual sources of aid: AP exams: By placing out of required classes and earning credit, some students can finish their college education in three years, thus saving up to $50,000 by receiving a year s worth of college credit through AP examinations. PSAT: Money is available by becoming a National Merit scholar. ROTC: can be as much as free tuition, room, board and books. Check out these programs as early as junior year. Colleges themselves: always talk to them, ask them for help. 20

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