New SAT Inflated Scores Leads to Increased Confusion

With College Board’s statement that they needed 9 weeks to release scores from the first “new” SAT exam given in March, everyone was hopeful for concise scores that could be easily understood by students, parents and colleges. College Board’s reputation had been tarnished a few years ago by a disastrous poor quality release of the “new” Common Application and didn’t want a repeat performance. So the good news is they released the scores when they said they would but the bad news is most parties are confused with what the numbers actually mean.

There were many statements and much speculation as to why College Board revised the SAT to begin with. They claimed it had to do with aligning the exam more closely to high school subject content. But doubters, including myself, are of the opinion that it had more to do with losing significant market share over the years to their only competitor ACT. SAT had a monopoly on college prep testing until the ACT came around and recently overtook them as the dominant test provider in the US market. In fact, the new SAT incorporated many of the features of the ACT. So it appears they took the position, “if you can’t beat them, become more like them”.

So all that aside, when the March scores were released this month, many students (and parents) were elated when the vast majority of scores were higher than what the student obtained on the old SAT or what they were expecting for scores. College Board quickly doused that joy with a comparison scale that indicated the new scores were inflated by about 60-80 points depending on your specific score. I’m not a mathematician but I don’t understand with 9 weeks to make adjustments why they couldn’t align the scores with historical percentile positioning instead of inflating the scores and having to develop a new comparison scale. To make the matter a little muddier, they included comparison ACT scores in their new concordance. About 10 years ago, SAT and ACT collaborated on a concordance as a benefit to all concerned when comparing scores between the two test companies. This time however SAT determined they didn’t need ACT’s inputs and just developed it themselves. ACT has now come back and said the new concordance has no validity in their view as they were not consulted on it in any way.

The bottom line is that for seniors who will be applying to colleges this fall there will be uncertainty on several fronts. When you compare a college’s present profile for SAT scores, you will have to factor the inflated SAT scores into the equation. If you’re trying to determine whether to submit your SAT or ACT scores, you can review the new SAT/ACT concordance from College Board but you can’t be sure a particular college will actually accept its validity. For colleges who publish that a specific high school GPA and a specific SAT score will get you a specific merit scholarship, will that still be honored given the inflated scores? The best approach at this point as much as it will require more effort is to attempt to ask each college you’re interested in what their policy is on test scores as it relates to the new SAT and SAT/ACT comparisons for admission as well as the impact of the new SAT scores on eligibility for merit scholarships. An already complex college admissions process has become even more difficult to navigate.

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Gap Year May be the Right Step to Success

“I’m really afraid if he doesn’t go now, he may never go”.

These are the words I usually hear from parents when I bring up the option of their son (or daughter) taking some time off before attending college. Parents who obviously want the best future for their son or daughter become very anxious at the thought of their child doing anything but starting college right away after high school. But in some cases it may be exactly what the student needs to ultimately be successful.

By definition (from American Gap Association), a Gap Year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, challenge comfort zones, and experiment with possible careers. Typically these are achieved by a combination of traveling, volunteering, interning, or working. A gap year experience can last from two months up to two years and is taken between high school graduation and the junior year of college.

Taking a Gap Year has been very popular in the UK and Australia for decades but has significantly picked up steam in the US over the past 5 years. So why are more students choosing this path now? I believe there are two major reasons for this. First, some high school students just aren’t ready for the rigor and commitment that college studies require. Many are simply burnt out a bit from the intensity of their high school academics and activities and just need some time to recharge in a different way before beginning (or continuing) college course work. Others for whatever reason just haven’t obtained the level of maturity needed to maintain the self-discipline and time management required to be a successful college student. Second, some students don’t know what they want to pursue for a career and therefore have difficulty developing the motivation or drive to pursue a college degree. Many also often feel a need to develop increased self-awareness through a new experience.

So what do research studies say about Gap Year outcomes? First 90% of students attend college after taking one year off. Students also state that their Gap Year experience helped them better identify career direction or confirm a path previously considered. It has also helped them develop a better sense of purpose along with greater global awareness (depending on the specific program). They are more self confident and seem better able to take ownership of their educational process. Lastly, many universities are reporting that students who have taken a Gap Year who eventually enroll at their school perform at a higher academic level than their peers. This seems to be especially true for students who students who under performed in high school.

Gap Year programs are certainly not for everyone but could be a significant factor in the development and eventual success for some. Although parents may have to take a leap of faith to support their child’s choice on this, it may be a better option than paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for an unmotivated student. For more information, I would suggest exploring the American Gap Association’s website at http://www.americangap.org .

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Exploring the Different Types of Colleges

As high school students begin to put their college lists together, it’s important for them to understand the different types of schools and determining whether what they offer is right for them in order to have a successful and enjoyable college experience.

For definition purposes, a research university is typically a public or private school where conducting cutting-edge research is the primary focus. This would include highly ranked private universities such as MIT, Duke, Stanford and Cornell but also a state’s top public universities such as UNC and the UVA. In New England, this would include schools such as UConn, UMass Amherst and the University of Vermont. At these schools there is also an increased emphasis on teaching and training graduate students including doctoral candidates. Undergraduate class sizes are usually on the high side with introductory courses running in the hundreds and upper level courses ranging anywhere from 20 to 100 students. They will have a large variation in major offerings often dividing into schools such as business, law, education, etc. Lastly, they are more likely to have more of the high level entertainment activities such as division 1 athletic programs.

On the other end of the spectrum are the liberal arts colleges. They generally have less than 3000 students and class sizes averaging around 20-25 students. Their primary focus is on teaching undergrads with research being secondary. Most of their academic offerings are centered in the liberal arts and sciences with degrees in majors such as literature, biology, economics, psychology, math, etc. although some have begun to offer business programs. Some recognizable liberal arts colleges in New England include Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Bowdoin and Bates.

In between the national research universities and liberal arts colleges are what are often referred to as regional universities. These schools can be public or private, offer few doctoral programs if any, and tend to draw their students from the local area. Among the regional universities in New England would be Roger Williams, University of Hartford, Norwich and Westfield State.

So which is right for you as an undergraduate student? I believe if you consider the following questions, it will help you decide. Do you want a school much larger in terms of population than your high school? What class size do you feel you will learn best in and enjoy? Do you desire a close relationship with your professors versus graduate level teaching assistants? How important is it for you to have the opportunity to do research as an undergrad? Do you want the strong school spirit that often comes with division 1 athletics at some large national universities? Is your desired field of study rooted in English, math or the sciences? Pondering these questions will assist in guiding your decision but I would recommend visiting at least one in each category. Remember there will be some overlap in features but identifying the differences will help you determine which will be the best fit for you.

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Early Major/Career Exploration Can be a Key College Success Factor

Most people would be surprised to hear that approximately 75% of college students change their major at least once. The good news is that the majority of them eventually find that program that satisfies their developing interests/aptitudes and go on to graduate. The bad news is that changing majors can often result in lost course credit, transferring schools and needing more than 4 years of college for their diploma which of course results in additional costs.

What are the underlying causes of choosing the wrong major? From my experience, high school students are very impacted by the influential adults in their lives. They may have a very effective teacher who they strongly connect with. This can cause them to better identify with the subject matter and possibly lead them in that major/career direction whether they are truly suited for it or not. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends may also steer students toward various careers for many different reasons. If mom is a teacher and grandma was a teacher, then what is there to think about? Students also feel pressure to make a quick major decision in order to have a specific response when the “what are you going to study?” question is continuously directed at them, whether they truly believe the answer they provide or not.

The problem is that most students are not taking the time to seriously explore suggested majors/careers to determine if they may be a good fit for them. High school juniors and seniors have so much going on academically and socially, truly exploring majors and careers is most often not even on their radar screen. Parents can try to help with this process but most often students tune out their parents and don’t view them as being objective.

What can be done to improve this situation? I believe there are several steps that would help students find the right major earlier. High school counselors need to strongly encourage more major/career exploration during the junior and senior years. Counselors can identify free resources available on the internet that could be utilized to at least provide basic information to get things started. There are also many online career assessments that look at both individual personality and interests to determine if they may be a good fit for specific careers. Students can then take the results of these assessments and then explore specific occupations through talking to or shadowing people who are currently in those fields. This will help them better understand how rewarding they may find studying and working in this field. On the college side, freshman advisers need to do a better job of determining whether a student’s current major is right for them before too much time passes. Perhaps these advisers need more training to become more effective at this type of counseling. This will in turn help the college’s reputation in recruiting students, especially as it should improve their overall retention and graduation rates.

Although the identification of an appropriate major can eventually result from trial and error, enhancing the process with increased exploration in the early going can only increase the chances of on time graduation, lower costs and a more satisfying college and career experience.

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Demonstrating Interest Can Make the Difference

As colleges review the multitude of applications they are receiving this year, most are taking a careful look at who is most likely going to accept their offer if they make one. Last year about 60% of colleges did not meet their enrollment targets leaving significant revenue shortfalls that needed to be dealt with in various, mostly negative, actions. What this translates to this year is that schools must find a better way to predict the percent of offers that will be accepted which is referred to as their yield. Data has indicated that students who demonstrate increased levels of interest are the ones most likely to accept admission offers. As a result, student applicants, especially those with borderline academics for a particular school, should strive to rise above others in this area.

Which schools are most likely to be influenced by the demonstration of interest? Tier 2 or 3 small to medium size private schools would be best to target for this. Tier 1 private and public schools (Ivy and next level down) don’t need to be concerned about yield as they have such a high demand for their product they will always achieve the number of students they want even if they have to pull a few off of an eager waiting list. Most of the public colleges aren’t seriously looking at applicant interest either as they are offering a lower cost product (in state tuition) with usually sufficient demand. They also normally don’t have the resources to track student interest.

So how do you demonstrate interest to these private schools? The most important factor is to visit their campus. In the age of the Common Application, students can easily apply to one or a dozen schools with the about the same level of effort. However if you haven’t taken the time to actually tour a college campus, schools are left to wonder how serious you really are about potentially attending. Be sure if visiting you always register for an “official” campus tour or if you can’t, somehow let the admissions department know you took an informal tour.

There are several other ways to demonstrate interest to a college. If a college offers a voluntary interview, take it. If you attend a college fair and visit a school’s booth, complete any type of correspondence registration form they have available. Also, if a school visits your high school, be sure to attend their informational session and perhaps offer your resume to the admissions rep. Finally, try to identify who the admissions rep is for your geographic area and email questions to them that could not easily be answered on the school’s website.

Obviously your transcript is the primary determining factor in admission decisions but given what happened last year, certain colleges must put more diligence into who is going to accept their offer. Demonstrated interest is now going to take on even more importance so do whatever you can to leave little doubt as to your intentions if a specific school is one of your top choices.

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Writing an Impactful College Admissions Essay

College applications are obviously full of grades, test scores and lists of activities but the essays are your opportunity to tell your story and express your views on specific issues. If applicants are fairly equal in terms of credentials, the essay could make the difference in who is eventually offered admission.

How much impact essays have in admission decisions usually depends on the size and selectivity of the school. The general rule is that the smaller, private more selective schools put much more emphasis on essays. Most of these colleges have plenty of applicants with high GPA’s and test scores plus lots of activities so they often differentiate by truly getting to know each applicant through essays and sometimes interviews. The larger, mostly public schools just don’t have the resources to get to know students so they rely mainly on the metrics from grades and test scores for their decisions.

So what makes one essay better than another? The best essays tell a story and clearly describe who you have become as a person. If you are applying to colleges that accept the Common Application (CA), you need to respond to one of five prompts. The prompts are a little awkward but have not changed since last year’s major CA revisions. It’s not a matter of which CA prompt you respond to but rather that you get below life’s surface stuff in revealing the real you through an experience in your past. College admissions reps read hundreds of essays so yours needs to stand out from the pack. One way I often recommend students do this is by opening the essay by putting the reader in the moment of a key personal situation. Try to come up with a compelling opening sentence, even a quote to draw the reader in. You can then go on to give some background on the circumstance, the challenges you faced, how you tried to overcome them, how the situation turned out, what you learned from it and how the learning will likely help you going forward in your life. Try not to philosophize or speak in generalities. Colleges want to hear about your thoughts, beliefs and values so try to ensure that is the primary message and you’ll give your application the best chance possible to rise above the rest.

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Who Gives and Who Receives College Merit Scholarships?

Financial aid is often misunderstood especially as it relates to merit scholarships. Total college financial aid packages can consist of both “merit” and “need” based aid. Merit based aid is typically awarded in the form of a scholarship while need based aid is most often provided as some form of grant as well as loans and work study.

Institutional Merit Scholarships are those offered by schools (from their pockets) to applicants to reward them for some form of high school achievement and to entice them to attend their particular college or university. Although they can be given for a talent (athletics, music, etc.), most are provided for strong GPA’s within a rigorous high school course load and may also be connected to standardized test score performance (SAT or ACT).

So which colleges give merit scholarships and who gives the most money? The answer is a bit complex given the number of colleges in the US but there are a couple of basic principles to guide you. First, just about all of the most selective 35-40 colleges in the country give very little if any merit scholarships. You may be asking, if they attract the highest achieving students, why don’t they provide merit scholarships to reward them? The answer is simply, they don’t have to and choose not to. The demand is so strong for their educational product, enticements are not necessary and they provide aid based only on demonstrated financial need.

The second rule of thumb is that public schools generally provide less in merit scholarships than private schools. The primary reason for this is that most of these schools already have lower costs of attendance (especially for in state residents) and many also just don’t have the resources to provide significant merit awards.

As far as what a specific student may be offered for a merit scholarship at a particular school, there are two ways to possibly get a clearer picture. The first is through a school’s Net Price Calculator (NPC). By law, every college in the US must have an NPC on their website. In theory, if you submit your academic profile along with your family’s financial information, it should provide an estimate of the net cost for you to attend including potential merit scholarships. There can be drawbacks to this as some NPC’s are more accurate predictors than others and also inputting all of this data for several colleges can be very time consuming.

The other more general approach would be to determine if academically (GPA and test scores) you would be in the top 20-25% of applicants to a particular school. The percentage of students receiving merit awards can vary greatly by college but nationally the average is about 25%. You can obtain the specific academic profile information for a particular college from an online source such as collegeboard.com or collegedata.com. They can also provide you the average merit award amount for that school or whether they provide them at all.

The bottom line is that if receiving merit scholarships is important to you, there are ways to determine if you would likely be offered one so that you can incorporate this information into your overall application strategy. Good luck!

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Financial Aid Packages Need to be Scrutinized Carefully

At this time, just about all college financial aid packages should have been sent to accepted students for fall 2014 admissions. Students generally have until May 1 to decide if they will accept the package and attend that institution. It’s very important to understand the terminology and the details of each item listed in the package to effectively do an “apples to apples” comparison of all offers.

The term “scholarship” given by a college is generally a reward for something in the student’s background. Most times it relates to academic high school performance (certain GPA) but can also be provided for a standardized test score achievement, musical or artistic accomplishment, athletics (Div. 1 and 2 colleges only) or some other activity. The important question to ask is whether it’s applicable for all undergraduate years and what is required to maintain it. There is usually a certain college GPA required to maintain these scholarship each year but it may not be clearly evident so students should contact the college to be sure they understand the terms for continued eligibility.

When you see “grant” attached to an item listed in the aid package, it is usually associated with an offer that is financial need based versus merit based. It is most often not guaranteed every year even if your family’s financial picture does not change. Specific grant funds available to a college can change from year to year so the availability of these funds to a student for successive years is questionable. If a family’s finances were to significantly improve for 2014 (based on FAFSA and CSS Profile submissions), there’s a fairly good likelihood a college may not provide this grant in the sophomore year. Also, sad to say but there are colleges that provide more grant money in the freshman year to entice the student to enroll then lower it for the following years even when financial need remains constant. Yes, it’s the old “bait and switch”.

Another item that may be listed is “work study”. It’s important to realize that work study is a federal need based program where a student is paid (like a normal job) to work a job on campus for a certain hourly rate. The student is not paid or given credit until they actually work the hours so don’t expect to see your tuition bill reduced by this amount. Students normally need to apply for the many work study jobs designated by the college.

The last and most misunderstood item on financial aid packages are loans. In my opinion, these probably should not even be listed with the other items mentioned above as they are truly not a benefit offered by a college but most present them as if they are. You will likely see “Direct” or “Direct Stafford” Loan totaling $5500 for the freshman year. All students are entitled to these federal loans so the school’s role is basically to be the administrator. Parts of these loans may have the interest subsidized while the student is in school but that is paid by the government not the college. It is even more misleading when a school lists a Parent “Plus” Loan as part of their package. These are federal loans for parents to help pay for college expenses but again the school is only the administrator. Often schools will show a very small student balance to attend after subtracting these loans when in fact considering these loans could put the real very cost very high.

The bottom line is that each financial aid package needs to be examined carefully for present and future year costs before deciding whether to accept it. Be sure to contact each school on any item that is not fully understood. When it comes to financial aid, down the road surprises are usually not good ones.

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How Does Divorce Impact Need Based Financial Aid?

For a senior in high school or a current college student desperately seeking financial assistance to pay college expenses, the divorce of their parents could lead to good news or bad news, depending on their specific situation and the schools they apply to.

The first thing to be determined in the financial aid process is which parent should complete the FAFSA, the form that utilizes federal methodology for determining a student’s need. In a divorce situation, the custodial parent completes the form and it is only their income and assets (as well as the student’s) that is considered in the formula. It does not matter which parent claims the student as a dependent on their tax return as the determining factor is where the student lived at least 51% of the time over the past year. The FAFSA does however require the reporting of child support received but totally disregards the non-custodial parent’s income and assets.

The consequences of the above can be very beneficial to a student in a certain circumstance. A student who lives with the parent with the lower income and who is applying to colleges requiring only the FAFSA could benefit greatly by not having the higher earning parent’s income considered in determining their ability to pay for college. Unfortunately this changes if the custodial parent has remarried, as the new spouse’s income and assets now become part of the equation.

The scenario for a student with divorced parents becomes less favorable if they are applying to schools (mostly private) that require the more comprehensive CSS Profile financial aid form. These schools utilize the information obtained from the Profile to determine how their own financial aid will be distributed, but federal and state aid is always derived strictly from the FAFSA. Most of these schools require both the custodial and non-custodial parent to supply their financials. In addition, if one or both parents remarry, all of the new spouse’s income and assets are now considered as well in determining need regardless of whether the new spouse has any intention of assisting with college costs. Perhaps this doesn’t seem fair to most but it’s the school’s money so I suppose they can distribute it in any way they want to.

With college costs still continuing to soar, financial aid is critical to avoid accumulating student loan debt that can be a significant burden for many years after graduation. Students need to think through which colleges they apply to as it relates to the marital status of their parents and how each college will view the availability of family resources in the financial aid process. This analysis can’t be taken lightly as it could easily make the difference of thousands of dollars in aid that could come from both public and private resources.

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The Cost of College Major Changes

About 50% of college students change majors at least once and many switch two to three times. Why does this happen and what impact does it have on the entire college experience?

Let’s first look at the potential reasons this occurs. While in high school, a student’s thoughts of an impending choice of major are influenced by many factors. They may have had a teacher who they admired and whose class they really enjoyed due perhaps to teaching style, not necessarily for subject content. It could also be that a highly revered family member of the student is in occupation A, thus occupation A looks like the way to go to be viewed in the same light. There could even be some pressure or influence from family, friends or various media sources to go into occupation B because of the high income or job security derived from it. Any of these factors can contribute to a major selection that just may not be a good fit for a particular student and often not realized until sometime in their junior or senior year.

Changing majors can be very costly in terms of the extra time it takes to graduate and the additional cost that goes along with it. In some cases, the change in major could be slight and most of the core courses and electives taken to that point can be transferred into the new major. For example, a student could switch from accounting to finance and may still graduate in 4 years. However a more drastic change such as from political science to nursing could easily lead to 5-6 years of undergraduate schooling and possibly a transfer to another school. This type of scenario can easily lead to an additional cost of 25K-100K not to mention the lost earning potential during the extra college years.

What can be done to minimize the chances of college major changes? First, students need to diligently do their homework in selecting a major during the high school years. Research on any proposed major should be sought through various sources but most importantly by interviewing and shadowing those currently utilizing that degree in their profession. Often times this leads to authentic visibility and honest input about the reality of a specific career. Secondly, career assessments can often be effective in helping with the major decision. I would recommend utilizing one that considers both individual personality and interests in suggesting which occupations might be potential fits for the student to explore.

The bottom line is to be sure students objectively and thoroughly look at potential majors especially as it relates to an objective self-assessment in order to avoid a prolonged college experience that could have a detrimental impact on the total cost of obtaining a college degree.

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