Dear College Counselor... The Year's Best Advice from our Counselors of the Month

October is the cruelest month for high school college counselors, besieged on all sides with seniors intent on applications and juniors beginning their college search and testing -- as well as issues with the Common App this year. So we give counselors a pass at this time of year. Instead of our Counselor of the Month feature, we bring you a round-up of best advice from the counselors who have graced our website with their guidance and wisdom in the past year. Read on to learn their best advice for students and parents, recommendations for financial aid, guidance on the college search and mistakes to avoid.  One of our personal favorite sound bites? Niles West High School's Dan Gin who advises students, "Have fun… Everything will work out in the end." Next year at this time, you'll all see how true this is. In the meantime, take advantage of this advice from the experts on the college counseling side of the desk.

The College Search

Laura Stewart, Ensworth School, Nashville, Tennessee

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

This is a continual challenge, but the philosophy of our office is deeply rooted in encouraging students to look outside their comfort zone. One way we do this is through playing a very quick, fun college name game with our ninth grade students in their seminar classes. We have the students break up into teams of three or four and give them one minute to name as many colleges as possible. However, we place stipulations on colleges they can use. For example, because of Ensworth’s location we tell them they are not allowed to use any colleges in the South, as well as, any colleges with University of (a specific state), for example University of Washington. This challenges them to think outside of their comfort zone, beyond colleges they hear about daily because of where they live. Students must think about colleges beyond a specific region of the country and/or certain schools they know from growing up. It is a great way to get students at an early age thinking about the countless opportunities for college that exist.

Mistakes to Avoid

Kelly Dunham, Cherry Creek High School, Greenwood Village, Colorado

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college? 

Looking at colleges that are ALL reach schools, not knowing ALL that is required to complete a college application and also, not being on the same page with their parents, especially when it comes to cost.

Sheila Roberts, Bob Jones High School, Madison, Alabama

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Many students do not grasp the importance of college visits.  This is the first thing I address in the junior class presentations.  If the school is not a good “fit”, they will not do well or be happy in their studies.  I spoke with a senior yesterday who neglected college visits her junior year and now she is playing catch-up on the visits while taking a full senior class load. Fewer than 50% of students graduate from college in five years.  I feel that not researching the college choice thoroughly may have had an influence on this statistic. Also, students must remember the deadlines set by each college. I recommend to juniors that they start a calendar projecting dates of college visits and deadlines for both admission and scholarship.

Best Advice for Students and Parents

Sandra Cernobori, Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, California

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Don’t rule out consideration of a college based on the posted Cost of Attendance.  Many, many college students don’t pay the “sticker price.”  Not only might a student be eligible for institutional need-based aid, but perhaps also merit aid or other tuition discounts (e.g. Western Undergraduate Exchange program).  And, often honors programs found at out-of-state public universities offer scholarships, too.

Daniel Gin, Niles West High School, Skokie, Illinois

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way? 

It is important for parents to understand that the student is the “Captain of the ship” and needs to be in charge of the entire process.   It is up to the student to either sink or swim.    However, parents should be a lifeboat.  If the student is struggling, be there to help, listen, encourage, and support them.  However, the parent should not take over the process for them.

Andrea O'Gorman, Scarsdale High School, Scarsdale New York

What are some of the do's and don’ts for parents as their sons or daughters apply to college?

DO empower your student to take control of this process.

DO allow your son or daughter to navigate the process with support from you.

DO send messages of love and acceptance regardless of what individual colleges decide.

DON’T put unrealistic pressures on your student.  If you are unsure of what is realistic, speak to the counselor.

DON’T frame the college admission process as “life-defining.”  While the decision is meaningful and important, it is only one of many students will encounter in life.  Overstating its significance only adds to feelings of anxiety or even inadequacy.

Financial Aid

Jim Montague, Boston Latin School, Boston, Massachusetts

Helen Montague, Lincoln School, Providence, Rhode Island

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

JM: Complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile, if required, by February 1st.  Be sure that the student applies to at least one “financial safety” school, usually a state college or university in their home state that will provide a less expensive option.

HM:  APPLY for financial assistance!  I encourage families to visit FINAID.org and/or the College Board to read about the financial aid process.  Next I suggest they visit the websites of their child’s colleges to review the process and complete the Net Price Calculator (on each college’s website) in order to get a sense of what their financial contribution might be. 

Attend the financial aid night at your school or in your community.

If financial aid will drive the final matriculation decision, talk to your child about this EARLY in the process.  Do not wait until April!

Frank Palmasani, Hinsdale South High School, Darien, Illinois, and author of Right College, Right Price

You have a particular expertise in financial aid, what is your best advice for families about financial aid?

            Families should not start the process of searching for colleges by reading guidebooks, attending college nights, visiting campuses, or perusing websites.  They should start the process by systematically determining (through an analysis of tax credits, cash flow, available savings, and reasonable borrowing) how much they can actually afford to pay for college each year.   The “financial fit” search program teaches them how to match that affordability with the net price of colleges from 8 different college categories. Those categories are: Flagship State School (in your state); Non-flagship state school (in your state); Flagship state school (out of state); Non-flagship (out of state); Highly Selective Private College: Mid-size private; Traditional private and the eighth category is a financial backup.  If you cannot find a fit in any of the first seven categories, the backup has two possibilities: commuting (live at home and save room and board cost) or community college (attend your local community college for the first two years).    

Valerie Velhagen, Eldorado High School, Albuquerque, New Mexico

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Do the FAFSA (and the Fafsa4caster before senior year), to determine whether you might qualify for some types of aid, even if you think you won’t.  Research all kinds of scholarships and apply for them, and be sure that your student is staying on top of college scholarship deadlines.

(I also encourage juniors and seniors to sign up annually for the free- or reduced-lunch program if they qualify, even if they don’t eat lunch in the school cafeteria anymore; they often don’t realize that this can save them money on the ACT, SAT, college application fees, and AP test fees.)

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