Essay Exam Writing Tips

Essay exams are a college reality, yet they can seem scary since essay writing can be very challenging, even without the additional pressures of test environments and time limits.

Keep in mind that the purpose of essay exams is to see how well you sort through a large amount of information, distill it down to what is most important and explain clearly why it is important.

To help you prepare, here are some essay exam tips from a variety of sources including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center:

  • Read all the directions carefully! Underline any important information such as whether you are supposed to answer all questions or just 2 out of 3.
  • Set up a time schedule. If you are to answer 4 questions in 60 minutes, then allocate your time accordingly. If the questions are weighted, then prioritize that into your allocation. Make sure to allow some time for review at the end.
    When your time is up on a question, leave space and move on. You may have time at the end to go back. Six partially-complete answers will usually receive more credit than three complete ones.
  • Organization and neatness count. So try to be as neat as possible.
  • Make sure you understand what the question is asking you. If you are asked for facts, don’t give your personal opinion. Underline any key phrases such as “compare”, “contrast”, “criticize”, etc.
  • Once you have read a question, immediately write down any key words or ideas so you don’t lose them.
  • Before answering a question, put it in your own words.
  • Stop and think before you start writing. Make a brief outline so your essay is fluid, but track your time.
  • Get to your point quickly. State your main point in the first sentence.
    • First paragraph should provide an overview of the essay without long introductions.
    • One main idea per paragraph including quotes, examples or statistics to back up your points
    • Keep it brief yet complete. If you only know part of the answer, then present that well. Adding in useless padding comes across poorly and may be held against you.
  • Summarize in your last paragraph. Restate your central idea and why it is important.
  • Review if there is time. Proof read and complete any questions left incomplete.
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FAFSA help

If you are planning to attend college in the fall and you haven’t done so already, you will want to complete and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application by March 2, 2014. How can you meet such an immediate deadline? We’re here for you!

What do you need to fill out the FAFSA?

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one
  • A Federal Student Aid PIN to sign electronically. (If you do not already have one, visit to obtain one.)
  • Your Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
  • IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ
  • Foreign tax return and/or
  • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federal States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans non-education benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate but not including the home in which you live; and business and farm assets for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student

If the idea of having to complete your (or your parents’) taxes is holding you up, you can submit the FAFSA without having filed your 2013 taxes. You can estimate on the application, and make changes and corrections after you submit.

Completing the FAFSA is step one in your journey to financial aid, which you should complete each year that you plan to attend college. You may also want to review the aid that you are likely to receive with the FAFSA4caster, and then compare this with your college’s Net Price Calculator.  But first, start with the free money—fill out that FAFSA!

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Saving for retirement while paying off student loans

Proverbial wisdom says that to know where you’re going in life you must first know where you’ve been. The same holds true for our paychecks. By nature, I am the quintessential anti-budgeter. Whatever the genetic gem may be that triggers financial order, mine is a constant misfire. If you’re like me, the task of organizing one’s personal finances can feel like wrangling wild geese. The vicious kind – with enormous bills. Yet in my quest to combat this proclivity towards chaos again and again, I encounter the same, unavoidable first-step advice: get those ducks in a row. So here, in the first part of a series devoted to facing student loan debt today while also building tomorrow’s nest egg (I promise, no more avian puns) I’ll begin by addressing the sometimes overwhelming chore of detangling the financial present.
Caution: Don’t let the big-picture swallow you whole. For instance, I want to be student loan debt free. I imagine that final payment credited to my account, the zero balance shinning back in all her glory like the sun dappling a meadow that I can skip through, waving like the flowers, talking with the animals. This is a whopper of a goal, noble but currently impossible. And that’s when the big-picture starts closing in, the cloud of current balances passing over the sun like a thunderhead.
These big-picture goals are essential because they give us perspective, provide incentive for discipline and show us, in part, who we are by the values we assign. Such powerful dreams are not to be ignored, but it’s also crucial to remember that practicing patience and accountability (not as much fun as skipping through sunny grass, I’ll admit) make these larger goals attainable not by way of a single, great leap but with small, paced steps that incrementally move you nearer and nearer to that shiny zero on the horizon.
So let Goal #1 in our getting organized be Knowing Thy Student Loans. Are your student loans federal, or are they private? Federal student loans are subsidized and unsubsidized government loans lent to students by the Department of Education through a needs-based evaluation of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) There are two types of federal student loans: FFEL (Federal Family Education Loan Program) and Direct (William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program.) Even if all of your loans are federal loans they may be housed with a variety of federal loan servicers that change over time, so if you’re not sure where your loans are contact the Department of Education at 1-800-4-FED-AID or visit their website.
Contact your student loan servicer(s) as soon as possible to discuss the payment plan you’re enrolled in and to see if you would benefit from one of the many consolidation, income-based, or term-extension plans. The following is a list of repayment plans you might be eligible for with federal student loans (grab onto your chair- it’s a doozy): Standard, Extended, Graduated, Income-Contingent, Income-Sensitive, and Income-Based. The Department of Education also has a Federal Loan Consolidation program. Consolidation loans are lent to payoff pre-existing loan debt with a brand new loan that ideally makes repayment more manageable by having one loan instead of managing multiple loans. By consolidating you may also be extending the repayment term of your loan and/or lowering your monthly payment or interest rate. Bear in mind that you may pay more in interest over the life of the loan by extending the repayment term. Consolidation can have many positive effects on your finances, but more on this to come. Suffice to say there are also private student loan consolidation loans available. Consider reaching out to your lender to discuss the repayment and consolidation/refinance options you may have with your private student loans.
For some readers, this first goal may seem self-explanatory, small potatoes business. You don’t know what type of loans you have?! Geesh! I thought we were talking retirement planning here. To these readers I say: be patient and be kind. I have worked with many people consolidating student loan debt and have gone through the process myself. With knowledge comes confidence, and there is a lot to know when it comes to student loans. Of course, this might scare some away, but keep in mind that just because something is unfamiliar or complex does not mean we should hide from it. Quite the opposite, in fact. To meet our financial obligations now and to begin saving for the future, we must know where we stand as of right now. This leads me to introduce the next installment of this series. After getting chummy with our student loans our next step is to widen our view and place this specific debt into a broader context: our personal finances. Yes (cringe) we must track spending and build a budget. This may be more painful for me than it is for you. I am not always pleasantly surprised when I see exactly where my hard earned paycheck goes. I am, however, happy we will be in this together. Come rain, or—hopefully—come shine.

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Job hunting for your first “real” job

Looking for a job is rarely an easy process, and finding your first job can be particularly tough. Don’t be discouraged, though – you just need to be motivated and open to possibilities and angles that may not be exactly what you envisioned.

Tell everyone. When you’re looking for a job, don’t keep it a secret.  Tell your friends, your family and have them tell people what type of job you’re looking for. Networking is important—personally, I’ve gotten every job I’ve ever had through friends and colleagues.

Work at it every day. Treat your job search like a job: work at it every day. You probably can’t spend eight hours a day every day at it, but try to do something to further your job search each day.

Try something new.  Take a fun class (photography, cooking, yoga, etc.). Find a place to volunteer your time. It will help keep your spirits up and broaden your circle of friends. It’s a fun way to make connections that could potentially lead to a job. And if not, you’re still doing something valuable with your time.

Seek out internships. Internships are not just for college students; you can still seek this type of opportunity post-college.   Check with your college’s placement office to see if they have any listings that interest you. Completing an internship is a great way to get your foot in the door at a company and get some solid job experience at the same time.

Be willing to start at the bottom. Your first job out of college may not call on every single skill you’ve acquired while earning your degree. When considering a job that may seem beneath your skill set, look at the job’s potential. Does the company have jobs in your field of interest? Are you excited about the company’s mission and want to work for them in any capacity? Is there ample opportunity for growth? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then don’t feel bad about taking a job you may be overqualified for.

Consider temping. If you’re not familiar with “temping,” it means to be a temporary employee at a company. You can secure such jobs by registering with a temp agency that will match your skills with employers who need people to do short-term assignments. It’s a great way to make contacts and get your foot in the door at a company. I temped at a couple different places after college, and it was a great experience.

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Getting a job after college

During the last semester of college, I expected to easily find a “real” job post-graduation. All of my friends graduating ahead of me were getting great job offers, I went to a good school, and had good grades. I was working with my career services office to put together my resume and reached out to alums in my field. Everything looked good. And then I found out how much my choice of major and career made a difference: I had chosen a field that was difficult to break into and had low pay prospects once I got in.
After seven months of emailing and mailing out resumes, letters and applications, networking, and spending more and more time in the career center, I decided to take the afternoon off. For cheap entertainment, I bought myself a newspaper and sat down to read the whole thing and do all the puzzles. After reading for a while, I took a look at the thin “help wanted” section and found two jobs in my field. Immediately, I put together a cover letter for each, printed more copies of my resume and walked each one over to the companies who had advertised. Two days later, I had an interview and a week later, I had a real job!
You never know where you will find a link to your next job, so when you are looking, look everywhere: local jobs boards (including your local newspaper), national jobs boards and career websites; network with your friends and colleagues; and if there is a professional organization for your chosen career, reach out to them for job listings and networking opportunities. Here’s how some of our other bloggers got their starts:

I responded to a Craigslist posting for an Account Coordinator at a high-tech PR firm. Unfamiliar with downtown San Francisco at the time, I decided to drive to my interview instead of taking public transportation – BIG mistake! I ended up circling around for several minutes looking for parking, and had to settle for a lot a 20 minute walk from the firm’s offices. I remember frantically calling their front desk, letting them know I was running late, and thinking I’d just killed any chance at an offer while sweating profusely (good times!). But, the interviews went great, and they made the offer to me on the spot. A director there later told me that even though I was late, she loved my “positive energy” walking into the room. Although it ended well for me, I wouldn’t recommend this approach!

It took me about nine months after graduating from college to land my first professional job. I had moved from Iowa to Colorado after graduation and sent out numerous resumes trying to land a job at an advertising agency. Several months later, I moved back to Iowa and worked as a temp while I continued to job-hunt. A friend who worked for a small-town newspaper mentioned that the newspaper in the neighboring town was looking for a reporter and said that I should apply. I interviewed soon afterward and was working in my first “real” job a couple weeks later. Never underestimate the importance of networking. Every professional job I’ve ever had was found through a friend or associate.

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Hunting the Elusive Summer Internship: Start now!

It is January and looking for a summer internship may be the last thing on your mind. You may also be thinking that internships are offered year round. What’s the rush? Well, summer is when most students have the largest amount of time available, so this is when the bulk of professional experience will occur.  Also, the choicest summer internships are the ones that give you the most experience, look good on your resume and provide valuable contacts; however, these are scarce and as a result the selection process can be competitive.

Some of your fellow interns may have started looking far in advance of the position’s start date. To start your process, begin with researching what experience you need for your career and put together your wish list of jobs or employers.  Go to your career services office and research employers in your field and what types of positions they offer. Then choose the ones that are geographically desirable and find out if they offer internships including when, where and what types. Some career offices can even put you in touch with alumni in your field and preferred location. Reaching out to these alumni can help land an internship, either with them or because of useful information you glean in an informational interview.

Your next move is to meet people. Beyond any contacts provided by your career office, reach out to your wish list of companies on the phone or even in-person. This may not work with large companies, but smaller organizations may appreciate the opportunity.  When you do reach someone, ask them about their internship program, how they recruit and if they attend career fairs.  If they are not starting the career fair circuit until Spring, ask them how you can get a head-start.  Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask.  You will look like a person who is organized and really wants to work for them. These are good characteristics to an employer.

Reach out to family and friends to build your network. Let everyone know what you are looking for. If you don’t know, ask them for help.  You never know where a contact will come from. Consider using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as well. If you are unsure about creating a profile on LinkedIn, get help from your career services office.

Starting early will give you a better chance in the world of competitive internships, while providing you with confidence and contacts for your future.

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Mentoring for success

January is often a time for fresh starts. It is a time when many of us embark on a mission to lose weight, get organized, become a better friend, or prepare for a new job.  We often take this time and reflect on our weaknesses and opportunities rather than focus on the strengths we already possess.  I invite you to be a little different. Take a moment and think about what you are good at. Are you a great listener? Are you a fantastic public speaker? Are you great at organizing your schedule? No matter what you are good at, there is someone else, a peer or maybe someone younger, who can learn from you.  In addition to a time of resolutions, January can also be a great time to become a mentor. In fact, January is National Mentoring Month and you can become someone who matters to someone else.

Can you think of an adult who mattered to you and who helped shape who you are?  Think about how that person made an impact. As you work on your goals for 2014, why not add “becoming a mentor” to the list? You can help a high school student prepare for the college application process. You probably remember how challenging that was; and now that you are in college, you can be a fantastic asset to a high school student.

Maybe you don’t feel quite ready to be a mentor.  If you are like most people, you have many areas of your life you would like coaching on. This is also a great time to think about who would be helpful to you.  Most of us seek career guidance. If you already have an idea of what your dream job is, get to know a professional in that field. One way to open their door is to request an informational interview. This could be an informal lunch where you can get to know what a day in the life of, say, an investment banker, is like, if that’s what you’d like to become. If that lunch meeting goes well, keep in touch with that person and let a mentoring relationship grow organically. If that doesn’t suit you, there are also countless formal mentoring programs. Take a look at what your campus has to offer or do some exploring on-line.

In my life, I have always had mentors who have looked out for me and have taught me from their experiences or mistakes. It has really made an impact on my career. I really appreciate when others take the time to show me a better way to do something or give me some career tips. This is why I volunteer for an organization that provides mentoring to high school students. I also never shy away from an opportunity to provide coaching or guidance to a less experienced colleague. So, I hope you will give some thought to mentorship and how it could add value to your life, whether you become a mentor or find one, or both!

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The Pros and Cons of Student Loan Consolidation

You might find entering repayment after graduation to be a bit of a challenge. You’re starting a new phase of your life, launching your career, and adjusting to a whole new set of responsibilities and freedoms. Trying to figure out the best way to handle your repayment plan adds another dimension of complexity to the equation.

An important step in managing your financial future is to make sure that you have student loans to meet your needs. Many graduates are considering student loan consolidation as a way to simplify or possibly reduce their payments. There are potential benefits to loan consolidation, but there are potential drawbacks for some borrowers as well. It’s worth taking a careful look at the options and how they relate to your individual situation before making a decision.


Simplified payment schedule

One of the things that makes dealing with student loans so complicated is that often, when you apply for student loans, each semester gets its own separate loan which must be repaid separately. Each has its own payment schedule and its own interest rate. Keeping track of all these payments can become quite the task. If you end up missing payments, you may incur late fees and additional interest costs. These missed payments may damage your credit score and may also affect your ability to borrow money for future purchases such as a car or home.

Improved cash flow

Consolidating your student loans may result in a lower monthly payment, which makes things more manageable for a recent graduate who may not have a large salary or full-time job yet.

Interest savings

Some private student loans have a variable rate which can be consolidated into a loan with either a lower variable rate or one with a fixed interest rate, depending on the terms. When you consolidate your loans, you can lock in a fixed interest rate for the life of the loan. By taking advantage of the current low rates, you could end up saving a significant amount over the years.


You may end up owing more in the long term

Unfortunately, the low payments often come with a cost. By lowering your monthly payments, you may be extending the life of the loan by years. Interest is charged on your overall balance, so the longer it takes you to repay the loan, the more interest you will rack up over time. You may reduce the amount of interest you pay over the life of the loan by paying as much as you can afford each month, on top of your required payment amount.

You will lose your grace period

Typically, there is a 6-month grace period after graduation before you need to begin making payments on your student loans. Your student loans will begin repayment immediately once you consolidate, so make sure you are ready to begin payment in full.

You may be required to obtain a student loan cosigner

It’s not necessarily a negative, but it is something to be aware of. If you are consolidating private student loans and you don’t meet the income or credit history requirements, you might need to ask someone to cosign your new loan. Your student loan cosigner will be liable for the amount borrowed in the event that you cannot make your payments. Therefore, choosing a student loan cosigner is something to consider carefully. You may be able to release your cosigner from the loan after as few as 24 months of on-time payments. This option varies, so check with your lender on what terms they can offer.

You may lose some benefits from your original lender

Lender-specific benefits as well as any cancellation provisions will not transfer when you consolidate. If you think you might be able to take advantage of any of these benefits, consolidation might not be right for you. Make sure you understand all of the terms of your existing loans as well as your potential new loan, to make sure that you won’t lose out.

Student loan consolidation is a useful option for many graduates. Explore all your options so that you can make a decision that works for you.

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Scholarships or Student Loans, what comes first?

As you start to look for options to help you finance your education, should you first search for scholarships or loans? Both scholarships and student loans are forms of financial aid that are available to help you pay for your education but the biggest differences become apparent after graduation.

Scholarships are a great source of financial aid that can help supplement your college costs.  In today’s world, you do not have to be in need, a blue-chip recruit or a straight-A student to get one.  They can be based on a range of elements like music, painting, leadership, cooking, volunteering, etc.  What’s the best feature of a scholarship you may ask?  YOU DON’T HAVE TO PAY IT BACK!  That’s right, it’s what is referred to as free money, which means you are not required repay any amounts you receive through scholarships after you graduate.  It will take some work on your part to research and submit applications, but if you apply early and often you will improve your chances of receiving something.

Student loans are another helpful source of financial aid.  Yes, you read that right: student loans are considered financial aid and can be a great tool for helping you pay for your education.   The difference between a student loan and a scholarship is you are required to repay the money you borrowed after you graduate.  These loans are designed with the student in mind; they often do not require payments while attending school, have low interest rates and options to help with repayment.  The key is to understand what you are getting into and manage the debt you are borrowing:

  • Take time and read before you sign anything related to your financial aid
  • Ask questions if you do not understand how the loan works
  • Know what is expected of you
  • Make a budget and only borrow what you really need
  • Read the mail from your lenders and school or college

The financial aid office will determine if you are eligible for a student loan and what type.  Student loans do not have to be scary, but take the time and educate yourself before you accept one.

So based on what we know, which should you search for first?  I would say scholarships should always come before student loans.  Although some scholarships are awarded through the Financial Aid Office, for the most part it is up to you.  Student Loan eligibility has to be determined, so know what you are looking for. Besides, free money always wins over money that has to be repaid.  As I stated above, it takes some effort on your part but applying early and often increases your chances of getting selected for a scholarship.  You may be eligible for more scholarships than you think, but you won’t know until you look.  There are many free search sites like Tuition Funding Sources and FastWeb on the internet, so no time like the present to start looking.  Happy hunting!

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Young professionals series: Protecting your paycheck

Editor’s note:  We at the Student LoanDownSM are launching a new series of posts aimed at those just starting out in their careers.  Look to these posts for tips on handling your money, and managing a lot of the “firsts” that come along as you begin your post-college professional life.

Protecting your paycheck

Beginning your first professional job is an exciting time in your life. And just as it’s important to start out on the right foot professionally by managing your job responsibilities appropriately, it’s key to get off to a good start in managing your new salary.

Invest in a retirement program.  As you begin your career, retirement planning may be the furthest thing from your mind. But let’s face it, as exciting as your career may be, you will probably want to stop working at some point.  And now is the time to start saving for that day.  If your company offers a 401K program or a 403b plan, take a few minutes to learn how it works and whether your company offers matching funds. Then get started saving for retirement right away.

Taking advantage of employee benefits. When you think of employee benefits, you probably think about health insurance.  That’s one benefit to take advantage of right away.  But many companies offer other types of benefits:  they may pay for additional education or training related to your job, they may offer discounts to employees for various things like personal cell phone plans.  Read your company’s handbook, pay attention to employee websites and emails, and talk with your manager if you have questions about any employee benefits available to you.

Putting aside savings.  If you’re already in the habit of saving money, good for you.  Be sure to keep it up and increase it as your salary increases.  But chances are that you’re not coming out of college with much money socked away, and you may not even be in the habit of saving.  Now is the time to start.  Even if you aren’t making all that much money, start automatically diverting some of your paycheck into a savings account.  A good goal to shoot for is to have six month’s salary put aside for emergencies. It’s good to start building your cushion of savings immediately—you’ll never miss the money if you put it aside right away. As you start making more money, gradually increase the amount you’re saving.  It will get easier as you watch that money build up over time.

Move to online banking and bill-paying.  If you aren’t already banking online and paying bills electronically, now is a great time to get started.  Online banking allows you to view your accounts all in one place; and automating your bills can help you streamline the process and may help avoid late fees.

Spend wisely.  It’s likely that with your first professional salary you’re making more money than you ever have before.  It’s natural to want to revel in that a bit and perhaps spend a bit on some things you couldn’t buy as a college student.  Just take a cautious approach and wait until you have the money in hand before buying something new.  It may be tempting to buy some new furniture on a payment plan, but you’ll be better off if you take a deep breath and save up for it instead.

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