April is the Craziest Month for Seniors and their Families

Jane Kulow, aka Dr. StrangeCollege, is back with advice for seniors and their families as application season nears the finish line of decisions. 


April is the craziest month.

T.S. Eliot may have called April the cruelest month, but for high school seniors that label might go to March. After the long autumn months of writing college applications and the cold winter months of awaiting a response (and hoping for the best), March delivers the stark reality of college admission decisions:  yes, no, or would you like to wait for a possible yes later (at very low odds)?

Which brings us to the craziness of April and the decisions seniors and their families face. Even when the student is accepted into his or her favorite school, most families will want to look closely at each of the colleges offering admission.

Closely, and quickly: the May 1 deadline for the student’s decision fast approaches.

Here’s what many senior households may wish to do this month:

Visit the campus

If you haven’t yet visited the campus, now’s the time to take a look, before anyone writes a deposit check. Virtual visits may be great, but they cannot convey the smell of the freshman dorm, the path from one end of campus to another, or the typical style of students at the school.

Or visit again

Financial Aid Checklist for Decision Time!

It's decision time! Your financial aid award letters will usually arrive with your letters of acceptance, or soon thereafter. Even though you will be celebrating and contemplating your choices, you will also need to be focused and diligent about evaluating your financial aid offers. College advisor Alice Kleeman is back with advice and answers for your questions during this important time.


·        You will often receive financial aid offers (also called "financial aid packages" or "financial aid award letters") with your admit letter or shortly thereafter.  Review these offers carefully. Ask questions at your College and Career Center or Guidance Office if you don't understand your letters.

·        Colleges vary tremendously in their cost of attendance, present their costs in different ways, and offer different amounts of financial aid in different combinations. This can make it difficult to understand which combination of price and student aid award is best. Here are some tools for comparing financial aid awards:  

                      US Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center

                      College Board Big Future

Trevor Rusert, Sewickley Academy

We want to tell you a story. A story that we think gets to the heart of who most high school college counselors are -- at least the ones every parent wishes for their son or daughter. This is a story about Trevor Rusert and a student named Amanda.

Amanda lives with her father, a single parent. Her family is working class and Amanda had a significant scholarship to attend Sewickley Academy in Pennsylvania where Rusert is Director of College Guidance. But her scholarship didn't cover everything, so Amanda worked 30 hours a week at McDonald's as shift manager -- 6 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then full shifts on the weekend -- to make up the difference. In the summertime, she worked with Sewickley's maintenance crew during the day and was back at McDonald's at night -- 70-plus hours a week.

Planning and Paying for College: You Need to Do What, When, How?!?

We're thrilled to have Mark Kantrowitz, Senior VP and Publisher,, join us today to lay out the case for when, where and how families should approach financial aid. Kantrowitz is one of the most authoritative voices out there on this subject and he has authored a new book along with David Levy -- Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid The book is available for free download in PDF format for students and parents who register for free on and available for purchase on here. 

Seniors: Review Financial Aid Awards Carefully

As you receive financial aid offers (also called "financial aid packages" or "financial aid award letters") from the colleges that admit you, review these offers carefully. There is no standard financial aid offer or award letter format. Each college has its own way of reporting and itemizing your aid package. This can make it difficult to understand which combination of price and student aid award is best from offer to offer. Be a wise consumer! Make sure you understand what is being offered and what you are accepting.

For example, pay particular attention to how much you have been awarded in grants vs. loans. Note the proportion of loans to grants—and the actual amount your family will pay -- each year! Figure out whether the grants are for one year or can be renewed.

Carolynn Laurenza, Uncommon Charter School

Carolynn Laurenza grew up in a farm town in the middle of western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, also known as the "Five Colleges" corridor because it's home to Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This might have presaged her choice of profession in life.

Today, Laurenza is the College Placement Coordinator for Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Swarthmore College, she earned a Masters in Education from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Laurenza spent three years as a guidance counselor at a regional public high school in the "Five Colleges" area before joining Uncommon Charter in the summer of 2011.

"It's a different reality," says Laurenza, who was named a "Counselor that Changes Lives" earlier this year. "As a public high school guidance counselor, you're juggling many types of social/emotional issues, the administrative needs of the school, trying to help kids in all grades and doing college counseling. At Uncommon, I get to focus on college counseling."  

Seniors: Find out how colleges handle outside scholarships in calculating your aid award

Seniors, you should still be applying for scholarships at this time. But, as you do, please check with the colleges to which you’ve applied about how they handle scholarships from private groups and organizations— known as “outside awards”—in the calculation of their financial aid award. Different colleges calculate their impact differently.

Colleges are legally prohibited from over-awarding federal aid. In other words, the total amount of aid a student receives cannot be greater than a college’s cost, and usually not more than a student’s overall calculated financial need. Some colleges count half an outside award toward grant aid and half toward student self- help, lowering the student’s work- study or loan amount by the equivalent of half the outside award. Others count the entire outside award against loans and work- study, and only lower the institutional grant portion of an aid award if self- help is brought down to zero. Still others count the entire outside award against institutional gift aid.

Best advice: always apply for a scholarship, but check with every college and university on your list about their *outside scholarship policy* so you can understand what happens to your need-based financial aid package when you win a merit scholarship.


Seniors: Treat your financial aid officer well...

Right now and in the coming months, you and your family will have a lot of questions about financial aid. It's important to understand how financial aid offices work so that you can foster the best relationship with their representatives.

Financial aid offices are not set up like admission offices. They are often less well staffed, and they have the college’s existing student body to care for, as well as applicants and their families. So financial aid officers walk many tightropes simultaneously. They are charged with meeting the demonstrated need of each family in a way that is consistent with their college's guidelines. Typically they have an institutional aid budget they must stay within, and the pressures related to this can be significant. They must also disburse federal and state funds in accordance with law so must keep up with an ever- changing array of rules and regulations. What's more, they are audited annually, and the stakes are high— if they have not done their jobs well and kept excellent records, their college can lose a great deal of money that will then not be available for students who need aid.

What does this mean for you? You cannot ask a financial aid officer to hold your hand. You need to do as much as you can to master the process, and call him or her with specific and informed questions. That is how you will obtain the best guidance.

Deadlines: Parents, it's your turn!

Hello, second semester, senior year. After the last few months discussing college applications, the focus now shifts to financial aid applications.

Parents often ask whether these applications are worth the time and trouble. My short answer:  Yes. These applications offer the possibility of funding a college education -- grants, loans, and scholarships. (A number of colleges use the FAFSA and CSS College Profile along with the student’s file to determine merit awards or scholarships.)

As Michelle Obama recently said to northern Virginia high school students and their parents, “Don’t leave money on the table.”

The applications

FAFSA—Every college, from a local community college to a very selective private college, requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for any federal aid, whether grants, subsidized loans, or work-study funds. The application is free; the 2014-15 school year version became available January 1, 2014.