Getting smart about award letters

At this time of year, your senior is probably anxiously awaiting award letters from the schools he or she applied to. While receiving an award letter is exciting, it’s important that to understand how to read and interpret these awards.

Award letters may all present the information a little differently, but the key fact you and your student want to find out is how much you may need to borrow to cover your costs. The “Expected Family Contribution” may only be part of that figure.

When schools list your student’s financial aid package, they may include student loans as part of the aid they’re awarding. But remember, that student loans have to be repaid. Look closely at how much of the award package is made up of student loans and how much is made up of aid that doesn’t have to be repaid (grants and scholarships, typically). One school may award more aid that doesn’t need to be repaid, and less in student loans that do have to be repaid. Keep a careful eye on those figures. If you’re not sure whether an award is a loan, grant or scholarship, contact the school’s financial aid office to clarify.

When comparing award letters, there are four main things you’ll want to understand:

  • How much of the aid awarded is money that doesn’t have to be repaid? This type of aid is usually in the form of grants and scholarships. (A student may need to pay back all or part of a grant if they withdraw from school before finishing an enrollment period, but does not need to repay the grant if the student completes the enrollment period as planned).
  • How much of the aid awarded is in the form of loans? This money will need to be repaid, with interest.
  • After tallying the total financial aid package (including all grants, scholarships and loans), how much is your family expected to pay? This is sometimes listed as Expected Family Contribution.
  • What are the total expenses for college? This should include tuition, room and board, books, fees, and personal expenses.

Once you know these things, you can use this simple equation:

Total expenses

- Scholarships and grants


Total amount your student needs to borrow, work to earn, or get from your family contribution

Using this simple math, you can more clearly compare your award letters by looking at how much you’ll need to borrow to attend each school. Make sure to only borrow what you absolutely need. Remember to contact your school’s financial aid office with any questions you may have about your award letter.

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Find your study partner

Taking the SAT or ACT is one big step towards college, since most colleges and universities use these test scores as part of their admissions process. Check with your school counselor or your top choice schools to determine which test you should take, and then get some practice tests and start studying!

Study groups
You may find that putting together a study group of one to three friends may be beneficial. Having a set schedule for studying and a little peer pressure can help ensure that you do put in the time needed. And studying with friends can make the study time much more enjoyable.

Prep classes
If you do better with a class structure, check with your school to see if there are any test prep classes offered. If not, there are plenty of in-person and online test prep courses, as well as SAT question-of-the-day apps.

Hit the books
If you study best on your own and have the discipline to do so, get a test prep book from your local library or bookstore and start taking practice quizzes. The books usually come with companion discs, so you can work both on paper and online.

The best way to do well on the test is to get familiar with it, so whatever method you choose for studying, make sure that you take at least one practice test all the way through before you sit down for the real one. That will ensure that you know what to expect, and will take the stress of the unexpected out of test day.

Good luck!

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Getting down to brass tacks: How to read award letters

Your senior students may be starting to receive award letters from their chosen schools. It is an exciting time, and it’s important to understand how to read and interpret these awards.

Each school may present the award letter information a little differently, so finding a way to break out the costs and financial aid awards clearly is a crucial step in comparing one award letter to another. Finaid.org has a thorough chart which can show the details of each award letter, and the chart on page 7 of Your financial aid journey in 5 steps helps compare up to three different award packages.

Once you have helped your students complete these charts, your students will be able to more clearly compare their award letters apples-to-apples. If any part of the award letter is unclear, you or the student should contact the school’s financial aid office to clarify the issue.

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Understanding your award letter

Soon you’ll be receiving award letters from your potential colleges. Make sure you review them carefully and understand the financial aid that’s being offered and what your final costs will be. It may be helpful to use an online comparison tool or a spreadsheet that you make yourself to fully compare what is being offered, and what you (or your family) is expected to cover.

There may be many types of aid listed, and most students now pay for college from a variety of sources. Some aid may not need to be repaid, like grants and scholarships, though a student may need to pay back all or part of a grant if they withdraw from school before finishing an enrollment period. Some aid you can borrow and repay, like student loans. When taking out a student loan, carefully compare all of your options, including both federal and private student loans.

Decide what aid you want to accept
Just because a loan is listed on the award letter doesn’t mean you must accept it or take the full amount. Learn what each loan is going to cost in terms of interest and fees, review the repayment options available, and then determine if you want to consider different options.

Covering your remaining costs
Grants, scholarships, Perkins and Direct Stafford Loans may not always cover your expenses. It’s important to explore all options for covering your remaining costs.

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Teaming up to help your student tackle ACT/SAT tests

If your high school student is taking the ACT or SAT in the coming months, you can support them by helping them lay the groundwork. Students who get overly stressed may need a little more guidance to help them do their best. Following are some tips that may help:

Plan ahead. Visit the website for the SAT or the ACT with your student to determine which date is best to take the test. Have your student sign up, then plan ahead for that test date. They will need to set aside some time to study and do practice tests, so look together at their calendar for study times and plan those in. Remind your student to clear his or her schedule as much as possible in the days before the test. This will give your student a chance to go into the test relaxed and well-rested.

Talk strategy. If your student is taking an SAT or ACT preparatory course, they may cover test-taking strategies. Even so, it can’t hurt to reinforce those with your student in the weeks leading up to the test. Check out these key tips for the taking the ACT and the SAT and share them with your student.

Minimize stress. Taking these major tests may seem overwhelming. Your student has no doubt heard about them for years and knows it’s an important step toward getting into college.If your student seems to be particularly stressed about taking the test, try to help minimize the anxiety in the time leading up to test day.

Maximize rest and perspective. It’s important that your student is well-rested on test day. Discourage any last-minute cramming on the night before the test. Try to relax as a family and encourage your student to get a full night’s sleep. Help your student keep things in perspective with reminders to simply do the best job they can, and know they can try again if needed.

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4 reasons your high school senior should take AP/CLEP tests

With all the testing done in the schools today, not to mention the ACT/SATs, your high school student may feel a little over-tested. With that in mind, should you encourage them to take the AP or CLEP test as well?

The short answer is yes. There are four good reasons why your students should focus on taking these tests.

First things first – what are these tests?
AP stands for Advanced Placement, and if your student is enrolled in one of these courses, the course itself is free but there is a fee to take the exam offered at the end of the course. A passing score on the exam could allow your student to earn college credit for that course.

CLEP stands for College-Level Examination Program and these tests demonstrate a student’s mastery of college-level material that’s been acquired through academic study, extracurricular work, etc. Passing these tests may also allow students to earn college credit.

The four big reasons to take them:

  • Earn college credit. Both AP and CLEP exams allow a student to earn college credit with a satisfactory score. Your student can earn up to 12 college credits with a passing score on CLEP exams, and there are 33 tests available to choose from. There are 34 AP courses available, including immersive courses that can allow you to tackle subject matter more deeply.
  • Save money. The cost to take the CLEP and AP tests are each just a fraction of the amount you pay in tuition and fees—not to mention textbooks—for a college course. Testing out of college courses, whether through CLEP or AP exams, can lower the amount your student needs to borrow for college and ultimately may allow the student to complete their degree requirements more quickly.
  • Skip introductory courses.If a student tests out of a course related to their major, they may be able to skip introductory classes and move into advanced courses more quickly. Or, if the subject is unrelated to their major, they may find more time to pursue other classes.
  • Stand out on college applications. Taking AP courses can also help your student stand out on college applications, by showing schools that they are willing to take on the toughest classes their high school offers and can handle college-level coursework. Passing the AP or CLEP exams sends a strong signal that your student is ready for college.
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Accepted! Now what do you do?

If you have applied for early acceptance to college and gotten in, congratulations! It is a great way to lock in the school you’re certain about. So what happens next? Now, you can start planning for the year ahead:

Accept the offer. Early applications are usually made with the intent to attend that school if you get in, but you may still have to formally accept their offer to secure your place. Pay special attention to the paperwork the school included with your acceptance letter, and make note of what has to be sent in and when.

Get your finances in order. With the college decision out of the way, you can focus on preparing financially for the next year. This is the time to ensure you have the right financial tools in place, including a checking account with a debit card attached. Getting this set up now will give you time to become familiar with your bank account and learn how to keep track of your money.

Start budgeting. While you may not have a financial aid package in hand just yet, it’s not too early to start making a college budget. If you haven’t already, check your school’s Net Price Calculator to get an idea of what costs will be, and talk with your family about expectations for next year. What costs should you plan to help with and what is your family able to handle?

Consider job options. While you’re talking about finances and budgets, it’s the perfect time to discuss whether you should get a job while at college. It may be a necessity, but give it real consideration even if it’s optional. You may want to focus on your classes, but a campus job may open opportunities you won’t otherwise find, and add cash to your pockets. It never hurts to see what employment options might be available at your school.

Research housing options. If your school offers a choice in housing, either on or off-campus, now is a good time to start researching options. Housing often goes quickly in college towns, so the sooner you can get started, the better.

Get familiar with the course catalog. You may not be ready to declare a major right away, but it’s important to get familiar with the course catalog and start planning a course schedule for the first year. Gaining early acceptance allows plenty of time for you to look at class options and think them over. Classes sometimes fill up quickly, so also make note of a number of “backup” courses planned in case class sections are unavailable or time slots don’t work out.

Plan for orientation. College orientation often comes up early in the summer, so check out the dates for your school and talk about the best time to attend. The summer before college is often a busy one, so get a jump on planning for orientation and sign up as soon as you’re able.

Sport that college gear with pride! Knowing which college you’ll attend next year can be a great relief, and its wonderful news to share with family and friends. Take some time to celebrate—get that college mug or sweatshirt and enjoy the moment!

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College application time: encouraging your student to look at many options

Students may start their college search with a set of preconceived ideas. They may have their heart set on a prestigious college, or they may simply want to attend the nearby school where their friends are headed. Neither choice is necessarily wrong, but during the college search, one of the most important things you can do is help your student consider all of their possible choices.

Choosing a college is a big decision, and probably one of the most significant your student has undertaken so far. Talk over the following topics with your student and challenge any assumptions they might have about certain schools or types of schools. The idea is to ensure your student has thought through all their college options, not to change their mind about any one school or the other.

Big school vs. small school. If your student is strongly in favor of one school size over another, ask why. Talk about the pros and cons of each—one isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s more about which is the right fit for your student.

Is it an academic match? For any school your student is considering, this is important. Of course the school should offer the major your student wants to pursue, but what’s the coursework like? What approach and philosophy does the school take? What are the professors like? These are questions that will require some digging and talking with both students and professors at the school. You may be able to find some answers online, or by emailing people at the school, but it’s also a primary topic to explore when you and your student make a campus visit.

Is it a social match? This is a little tougher to get a handle on, but is critical to your student’s success at college. Do the campus and student body offer an atmosphere that feels comfortable to your student? Does it feel like a place where he or she can make friends? Pursue extracurricular activities?

What’s the cost? If the cost of tuition is a concern to your family—and it is for many families—be sure to let your student know early-on that price may be a deciding factor. That doesn’t mean your student has to avoid looking at private schools or even colleges with higher tuition. You never know what financial aid packages you may be offered. But be sure your student understands that cost is an important consideration.

Location, location, location. Geography is another key consideration. Some students look forward to going a college far from home, others want to stay nearby, maybe even live at home. Again, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of each option—going to school far away means adventure and independence, but also increased transportation costs and possibly fewer trips home during the year. Living at home may save money, but would your student benefit from the independence of living on campus? There is no one right answer for every student—it’s important that your student consider the possibilities and all the options available.

As your student continues the college search, keep in mind that there is no set formula for choosing the right school. But working through the above questions can help your student work out which school to choose—it may mean they’ll end up considering a school they never would have before, or perhaps circling right back to their original choice. Either way, you’ll know they’ve considered a variety of options first.

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Send out recommendation thank yous

This fall was likely full of tests, applications, and essays of all sorts. And that doesn’t even cover your school-work. College and scholarship applications not only took up a lot of your time, however: there were all of those recommendations that you needed.

To all of those trusted teachers, mentors, parents, counselors, or coaches that took time out to help you with your application, this is a good time to say thank you. Each recommendation letter can take an hour or two to write, and is something they had to do in their off-hours on evenings or weekends. Thank yous can come in many forms, so here are some ideas to get you started:

A thank you note. The classic never goes out of style, and is always appropriate. Tell them how much you appreciate their help in getting into college. If you have already received your acceptance and know where you’re going, this is a good place to share that, too.

A small gift. A gift is always appreciated, and does not have to be expensive. You can bake some cookies, draw a picture, or include a gift card with your note. Let your talents and your budget be your guide.

A video. Look into the camera and tell them sincerely all of the things you appreciate about them, and how they have helped you.

How will you say thank you?

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Get your students ready for college acceptances

Early acceptance letters are already trickling out, but soon a flood of acceptance letters will be sent to your high school seniors. Once your students have received their acceptance letters, what happens next? It’s the perfect time to help them figure out what they’re looking at and get a jump on planning for the year ahead.

Start budgeting. While your student may not have a financial aid package in hand just yet, it’s not too early to start making a college budget. Many students are not familiar with the budgeting process, so help them get started with a basic budget worksheet.

Review the award letters carefully. It may be helpful to have your students create a side-by-side comparison of offers to fully understand the aid that each school is offering and what each student’s final costs will be. An award letter comparison tool may help compare apples to apples. If your students don’t have all of the information they need to complete the comparison, you can help them contact the school to get all of their questions answered.

Accept only one college. After reviewing the award letters, the student should select their college, and send them the appropriate paperwork. Then, they should send a decline to the other colleges that have offered them a place, so those schools can start contacting their waitlists.

Make a strategy for the waitlist. If any of your students have been placed on a waitlist by their top choice, there is still plenty to do. Encourage the students to accept one offer that they have received, and help them evaluate their options. Perhaps redoubling their efforts and pulling their grades up will show the college they are on the right track. The waitlist time is not a time to be passive, so encourage your students to keep communication open with their preferred schools.

Keep going! With acceptance letters in hand, your students may be tempted to slack off a bit, but encourage them to finish the year strong and in a way that will make themselves and their future school proud. After all, the acceptance can be revoked if a student’s grades fall too far.

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