Paying for College–so many acronyms and terms

No one can use a TLW (three letter words) like a financial aid office at a college. They also work under many state and federal regulations, causing them to be very process oriented, and not always relational or warm (even though they are great, and often very caring, people).

The Financial Aid Office can often be called Finaid, or FA or OFA (Office of Financial Aid). It is the place that creates your financial aid offer and process the aid. The Bursar, Business Office, Office of Student Accounts is typically the place that handles the actual billing. They are often not housed together or lead by the same manager. This can result in being bounced around when you have questions. I typically recommend parents and students ask the person on the phone (or if you are in person) to transfer you (or walk you over ) to the right person and explain the situation so you don’t have to keep repeating your needs/story over and over. Plus when staff speak to staff, they often explain the situation more clearly using the right lingo–getting the problem solved more quickly.

Financial Aid starts with two forms. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form used by most colleges and the federal government to determine approximately what your family can afford to contribute to the cost of college. It is free–never pay to file it. FAFSA doesn’t give you money. The college creates your financial aid offer and distributes all aid. Some schools use an additional, and more complicated form, called the CSS Profile, a form by the College Board. You do have to pay for each school where you submit the CSS.

There are two categories of aid–merit and need-based. Merit aid typically comes from the college and is in return for a grades, a special talent, or background. Some scholarships have specific criteria because a donor has given the money for a specific reason. But typically, the college is just giving a discount, reducing what they are charging you for tuition. Merit aid may come with the offer of admissions, or shortly after (as a marketing tool) but some schools wait and include it in the total financial aid offer. It typically has a gpa or requirements the student must meet throughout college to keep the award (this is very important to note–lots of students lose their scholarship because they don’t maintain a high enough college gpa).

Need-based aid is based on your family’s financial situation. It typically requires you to file a FAFSA, and at highly selective schools, the CSS Profile. Need-based aid includes funds from the federal government but can also include state and school aid. Need-based aid may include:

Grants or scholarships: free money that does not need to be paid back.

Loans: money you borrow and must be paid back after graduation or leaving the school, more details on loans below.

Work study: students must get a position on campus and will be paid via a paycheck or direct deposit. Part of their salary is paid by the federal government (and some states have work study). Students don’t receive the money if they don’t take a work study position on campus (or near campus–some places partner with the colleges like YMCA or boys and girls clubs). Students will then need to apply this money to a tuition bill or use for expenses/spending money.

The parent and student each need to create a FSA ID to sign and submit the FAFSA. Go to to learn more and start that process. You will use this every year you file, so keep them both in a safe place (like in the contacts on your phone).

After you file the FAFSA–which you must do each year for each child in college (if you have two kids in college you file one for each child, each year they are in school, and they each need their own FSA ID), you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). This report is now emailed to the student. Don’t use your child’s high school email as it often is disabled by the high school after graduation. The student email and parent email must be different. Create an email the student can use for the college process. The SAR will provide your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). This is the dollar amount the federal government determined you can contribute to your child’s education. It can range form 0 to over $100,000. Most people don’t agree with the EFC calculated. FAFSA changes are coming over the next few years in a process to simplify the FAFSA but this will detail how it works now.

You can list up to 10 colleges on a FAFSA initially (you can update it later if needed by removing schools and adding schools). Colleges will receive your FAFSA data through a digital file called the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR). The aid office will use this data to create your financial aid offer. Some schools state they meet need–so they will provide a combination of federal, state and school money to meet your financial need (minus your EFC) to attend that college. That is rare (about 50 colleges). Most schools will do their best to meet your need but may provide a gap==an amount of tuition or costs you still need to pay above and beyond the EFC you are also expected to pay.

Direct Costs are the fees you pay directly to the college or university. This includes tuition, fees (parking, printing, sports, activity–colleges are great at charging fees), room and board.

Cost of Attendance (COA) is a budget a school can set to give you a sense of the expenses you may have as a student including books, transportation, personal expenses, childcare (for adult students) in addition to the direct costs of tuition, room, board and fees.

Some colleges build their aid packages off of the Cost of Attendance. Some build it off direct costs. As you compare your aid packages, make sure you are comparing apples to apples.

Let’s look at two hypothetical aid situations:

College A has a tuition cost of $28,000 a year, room and board is another $12,000 for a total of $40,000

The Families EFC is $25,000

The college takes the direct costs of $40,000

subtracts the EFC of $25,000 leaving a balance of $15,000

They offer $5500 in federal student loans (the federal loan limit)

They offer $2500 in work study

and have a gap of $6000

The family would need to come up with their $25,000 and the $6,000 gap in this situation, so $31,000 plus pay back the loans.

College B also has a direct cost of $40,000

They awarded the student a merit aid award of $19,000 at admission.

They also award the $5500 in loan

The family now has to find $15,500 plus pay back the loans.

There are several types of loans. Federal student loans are subsidized or unsubsidized. Subsidized do not accrue interest while in college because the government subsidizes the interest. Unsubsidized do accrue interest while in college. Interest rates are not fixed but are low. These loans are in the student’s name. Payments begin 6 months after graduation or separating from school, if they don’t graduate. They can be paid back through a variety of plans (different year lengths, schedules that have the same payment the whole time or a payment plan where payments go up over time as your income increases). Payment plans are decided closer to graduation or when they leave the school. They can be deferred if students go to graduate school. There are some forgiveness programs but have specific requirements. There are limits to how much a student can borrow each year.

Parent Plus Loans are loans in the parent names. Parents can borrow up to the Cost of Attendance if they are credit worthy (haven’t had a bankruptcy). Payment begins 60 days after disbursement of the loan although can be delayed until after graduation. This debt is in the parents’ name, not the students.

Families can also take private loans. These are through a private bank or lender like INvestED (Indiana specific) or Discover Student Loans. These are typically in the student’s names but require a co-signer. Schools typically have a vendor they partner with for private loans, but parents can also explore their own. Interest rates vary as do origination fees.

You don’t have to accept loans and they won’t automatically be added to your account. You have to complete entrance counseling (typically an online process) to make sure you understand what you are borrowing. Then shortly before graduation or if a student leaves a college, they should complete an exit counseling process that explains their payment plans.

Colleges will have a deadline for their financial aid process. State’s often have a specific deadline. You should file your FAFSA by whichever deadline is earliest. Don’t wait until the last minute as technology can crash. You file the FAFSA at It becomes available in October for the next academic year–so for students entering college Fall 2023, the FAFSA will open in October 2022. It uses your taxes from two years prior (known as your prior prior year taxes). For Fall 2023 that is 2021 taxes. You can link directly to the IRS pulling in most of your data but you will need to have all assets and social security numbers for the parents and students available to complete the forms. Check here for specifics.

If the child’s parents are divorced, only the child’s household has to list their assets on the FAFSA. If parents have equal custody, who provides 50% or more of the support (such as health insurance) or who had the child one extra day since there are 365 days in a year. If the household parent is remarried, step parent’s income is also considered. It doesn’t matter who declares them on their taxes, who is paying the tuition or what your divorce decree says. Only the household has to report their income in the current FAFSA structure.

Any person can be selected for verification (like a financial aid audit) so be honest. If you are selected you must submit documentation to substantiate your information. Lying on a federal form is a federal crime.

Coffman Consulting knows just enough about financial aid to be dangerous. But specific questions should be addressed to the financial aid offices, your financial planner or the federal government. But if we can help, we are happy to work with you and point you in the right direction.

Paying for College-Figuring Out What Colleges You Can Afford

College has gotten expensive. We are going to launch a multi-part blog series helping you understand what you can afford as well as how to navigate the financial process and all the terms and acronyms. The first thing to know is very few people pay the actual sticker price published on the college’s website under tuition and fees. Most colleges give some form of aid, especially private schools (state schools often do not give a lot of aid outside some special honors programs). But understanding what aid and what will be your out-of-pocket costs can help you pick a better list of schools (more on what is merit and what is need-based aid in a future post).

Brand name colleges don’t have to give a lot of merit aid. They don’t need to. They get far more applications (usually from people who can and will pay) than they need to fill their class. They use their big endowments to help increase enrollment from lower income and marginalized communities through need-based aid. Every other college is fighting for a smaller pool of high school graduates. They use merit aid to attract and enroll students. Its become more of a coupon or discount than actual scholarship.

During the Obama administration, colleges were required to add a Net Price Calculator (NPC) to their website. Some are better than others. You can put in your family’s financial info and student’s grades and get back some information on the merit and/or need based aid you might receive (schools change their budgets and aid can change year to year so know its an estimate). Print the NPC results for your records (this could help with negotiating later-another blog post to come).

Most colleges will allow you to pay tuition over a payment plan (for a fee). Most payment plans are 10 or 11 payments. Take the estimated aid you might receive, and subtract that from the tuition, room (if your child will live on campus) and board (even commuters should get some meal plan since they are on campus a lot and they will want to eat with friends). What remains is your out-of-pocket direct costs. Divide that by 10 months. Can you cover that with cash flow, savings or will you need loans (we will talk more about loans in this series)? Can you sustain this for the next four years or will the savings only cover one year? Are you willing to take on these loans times four years? If the answer is years–than its a good fit. If the answer is no, you might need to remove it from your list.

Some schools give free books, some have a small fee for a digital textbook subscription but some places books cost as much as $1500 or more a year. So add that cost. Also, how far away is the school. Estimate cost for plan tickets and gas. Many colleges do this for you and publish a Cost of Attendance (tuition, fees, room, board and all estimated expenses). Can you afford these costs for four years? Again, yes means its a good fit. No, means its not.

Some schools make the scholarship process very transparent (University of Alabama publishes a chart–Roll Tide). Others, its a super secret who knows why I got the amount I did process. Never rule out a school based solely on sticker price but do some research to understand if they are stingy or generous with aid–what type (merit or need) and if you will be able to afford the outcome. If after the research, you think its manageable then keep it on the application list. Don’t assume you can just negotiate the aid package. Some schools will allow you to file an appeal, some will only do so if you have new information (change in job circumstance, medical bills, death, divorce), others may negotiate if they aren’t meeting their enrollment goals. Many don’t negotiate at all.

Aid is often tied to specific deadlines. Make sure you are meeting those and submitting all required materials. Paying for college is often seen by the college as a partnership between the family, the student and the school–savings, loans and aid. Going into massive debt for a college, borrowing from a parent’s retirement or home is not a great solution. There are a lot of amazing colleges in this country that admit a high percentage of their applicants and give generous aid.

Regardless, have a conversation about what you can afford so students focus on schools that are realistic. Nothing is worse than falling in love and being admitted to a school you then can’t afford.

If you need help exploring colleges and creating a college list, Coffman Consulting is happy to help.

Juniors Can Start Their Common Application (and some tips for making applications go more smoothly)

900 plus colleges in the United States use the Common Application, or common app, as their application for admission. Instead of having to complete multiple applications with the same information, the Common App simplifies the process. The Common Application serves as a sort of application portal. Students input data like contact information, high school coursework, and parental information into the common app. They write a personal statement. They can send links to recommenders to submit letters of recommendation, upload test scores and transcripts. Students select the colleges they wish to apply to and can also complete college specific questions and submit materials for those colleges within the common application. It officially opens August 1 each year, but juniors can create an account now and complete some sections (if they want to get a jump on things).

Students should use/create a personal email address that is not their high school email or their parents’ email address. High schools often shut off students’ emails after graduation, making it challenging to communicate with colleges over the summer if you use your high school email address. Many colleges communicate separately to parents and will want their email in their database uniquely from the students. Creating a dedicated student email for the college process can be helpful to keep everything in one place. Sharing the log in details with a parent can allow them to read through admission materials and financial aid materials that tend to come electronically and directed to the student.

To get started, visit the Common Application website here. Select create an account, then first time student, and create an account using the dedicated email address mentioned above. Start a notebook to keep the login credentials for all of these sites. There will be a lot of them over time (you will have a portal for almost every college which we will discuss another time). Once you log in, the student has a dashboard (blank initially). Under the my college tab you can look for a school and add it, and it will appear on your dashboard.

Under the common application tab, students can begin entering their data. There are several sections listed along the left side to complete. Many questions have character limits (like activities and the personal statement). It can be helpful to draft them in a word or google doc then transfer once happy with the content. Save all your work.

On the dashboard there is an application requirements button. This is a chart showing all the schools you have listed with the college admission deadlines. Scroll right to see which schools require which materials. WS means the school has their own writing supplement (their own essay). The blue question mark next to each heading it explains what the section means. It is important to plan ahead and provide enough time to write any supplemental materials. You will not be able to see the school specific sections until August 1. You can not submit a completed common application until August 1 (and no need to submit that early unless you are really ready–most students will submit their applications by the November 1 deadline, typically in late October). But working on the application over spring and summer will give you time to make it truly reflect your strengths and include the information you feel is important to share with colleges.

If your school uses Naviance you can link to your common application in Naviance. Check with your school counselor if they prefer you to use Naviance to request letters of recommendation. If not, you can send recommenders a link to complete the recommendations within the Common Application. Ask teachers this spring before school lets out if they will be your recommender. This allows them to work on your letters over summer.

The common application does change slightly from year to year. The personal statement questions are not changing this year. So feel free to start brainstorming and drafting your 600 word essay.

If you need help with your application components, Coffman Consulting is always happy to help.

10 tips to keeping the peace and your sanity during the admissions process.

I have worked with some amazing students the last few years. But the stress of selective admissions, standarized tests, COVID, and transitioning from high school to college on top of all the normal teenage hormones and angst can be too much for both parents and students. There are behaviors during the admissions process that makes this much harder. Here are ten tips to navigate the process and keep your sanity–hopefully even helping the relationship between parent and child.

  1. Know your budget and how much you might be willing to borrow. Sit down as a family and talk realistically about what you can afford for college. Most colleges will allow you pay the annual costs (tuition, fees, room and board) over 11 payments each year. You will also need about $1200-1500 a semester for books, and will have to get to and from school on breaks (plane fare is high during breaks). How much have you saved? Are other family members (divorced parents, grandparents) contributing? How much on top of that can you realistically cash flow a month (knowing you have one less person at home eating groceries if they are away at school)? Then discuss if you are willing to take on student and/or parent debt and how much. You don’t need to rule out schools based on price tag, as they may give aid (see below). But having a sense of your budget will make the process easier. Having to tell a child once they are admitted that you can’t afford somewhere is a very difficult situation.
  2. Research the aid schools offer and use the Net Price Calculator (NPC) on each school’s website. The federal government requires colleges to publish a Net Price Calculator. These take time to complete. You answer questions about your parent and student finances (much of what you will also put on your FAFSA) and it gives you an estimate of the need-based aid (based on your family financial situation) you might receive. Some schools also include merit aid (scholarships and grants based on students’ grades or talents), some don’t. Some schools publish their merit aid ranges or even charts with exact dollar amounts–some don’t. But having a sense of net/out-of-pocket costs before you apply, will make it easier to create a list of schools that are affordable. Applying, then discovering you can’t afford somewhere a child loves, is a very difficult situation to be in when emotions and stress are already high.
  3. Don’t get fixated on one school. So many students and families come to me saying they want to attend X school. Often these schools are big names with low admission rates (they deny way more students than they admit). Students may have all the right classes, great test scores and wonderful activities and still get denied, because 90+% of applicants to that school get denied. You want a list of many colleges where you will be happy.
  4. Create a list of 5-8 schools you would be excited to attend. There are hundreds of colleges in this country–big, small, religious, secular, selective, non-selective, etc. If you apply to a group of schools that are all a good fit–then you will be happy to attend anywhere you are admitted. This will create less disappointment if you don’t get admitted everywhere you apply.
  5. Start your college search process early and make time for it. The earlier you start looking at colleges (even online) the better. It will help make sure you are on track for admission. They can make sure you understand courses needed to be admissible and timelines or deadlines. It also gives time to research different majors, explore the curriculum and understand how colleges are different from one another (and how they are similar–which helps find several you like). And you can research the aid available (see above). Schools need to be an academic, social and financial fit for everyone to be happy.
  6. Visit a variety of colleges in-person. Looking for a college is a lot like looking for a house. You have to visit in person to see what you like and what you don’t. As you looked for a house, you discovered things you loved and had to have like a third car garage or bathroom in the basement. But you also discovered things you didn’t like or would be a nice option but not a deal breaker. College is the same way. The more you visit, the more you will start to understand what you want, what you need and where you will accomplish your goals. Websites are great, but just like an online listing for a house–they don’t show down side of the place. Family vacations are important memory making opportunities but you might need to use those school breaks for trips to colleges (starting spring of sophomore year and junior year). Don’t try to cram all your visits into fall of senior year. You want to be able to use senior year for applications.
  7. Social media can be helpful and damaging at the same time. The world of instagram, tiktok, reddit, and youtube has created a wealth of information about colleges–many from a student perspective that is more honest than the college’s own marketing materials. But no one is vetting these for truth. Lots of misinformation, rumor, and negativity circulates. While it can be helpful to see past essays from students who were admitted to a specific school or read their stats, holistic admission means colleges are reviewing all candidates to create the most interesting class they can. And applicant pools change each year. A college might win a championship that results in tons of new applications. Take what you see on-line with a grain of salt. Always get the most accurate information from the college’s website and admission staff.
  8. Don’t make your child apply anywhere they don’t want to go. College is expensive. Only 60% of students finish in 4 years at the majority of schools. Forcing someone to go somewhere they don’t want to go, isn’t going to be helpful. If you think they might like a school, visit. Then if they don’t, let it go. This is their education (even if you are paying for it). It is hard to not live vicariously through our children but you have to trust them.
  9. It is ok to be an English major. Liberal arts majors get jobs. Not everyone wants to be an engineer. But engineers are great, too. What is important is finding a college that helps them connect to marketable skills, internships, and employment opportunities. Everyone will publish a stat that says something like “96% of our graduates are employed within six months of graduation”. But they could be employed anywhere and it counts. What you want to ask about is how that particular college’s career preparation and support functions, how faculty mentor students to connect them to career opportunities and do most graduates report being satisfied with their employment after graduation (Gallup has a survey that asks this if you are curious).
  10. Guide, don’t push. Remind, don’t nag. The college admission process has a lot of steps, deadlines, forms and applications, and even more steps once you are admitted. Much of the info will come directly to your child which can be annoying if they don’t share (bonus tip–if you start early enough you can create a general email for all college material that both parent and student can access for all college related material). Set up a specific time each week you are going to talk about college and stick to that appointment. Review schools, materials, work on applications. This will prevent frustrating hallway hijacking…your child is headed into the bathroom and the parent randomly asks about an application or form that needs to be submitted-or the parent has just sat down to a netflix show and the child asks for an application fee. Set clear expectations and deadlines. If you know you and your child will fight about this process, bring in a professional college counselor to help you manage the process.

Hopefully these types will help keep the peace and help you both enjoy the last few years of high school.

Its important to tell colleges you are not attending

Its the time of year where seniors are receiving their admission decisions and financial aid packages. Seniors are also ruling out schools they no longer wish to attend. Its important to tell schools no so they can better plan for their first year class.

Most schools now use a portal as part of the admission process. Login to your portal account and see if there is a button or place to respond to your offer of admission. If there is not, you can send an email to the Office of Admission letting them know you will not be attending. Include your full name, high school and date of birth to allow them to match your message to the appropriate student. This email should come from the student, not a parent.

Most US colleges are members of an organization called the National Association for College Admission Counseling. As members, they had agreed to give students until May 1 to accept or decline an offer of admission. Colleges could not continue to recruit students who had told them no or who had committed or were attending another college. This all changed when the Department of Justice started an investigation into NACAC’s policies, charging collusion. NACAC settled with DOJ and as a result schools can set different deadlines. Schools can also continue to recruit–even once you are enrolled trying to convince you to transfer.

Despite these changes, telling a school no is still important. The school may have students on a waitlist who would love your spot. They may be able to offer a student hoping to attend additional financial aid. It also allows them to plan for students in residence halls, or how many sections of First Year Seminars. Small schools also dedicate a lot of staff time and resources to yielding students. Telling a school you are not attending will allow staff to focus their efforts on students still considering the school–saving you from lots of calls, emails and texts you don’t want. Last year, some schools struggling to meet enrollment goals offered students who had said no, more aid to change their decision.

If you are struggling to make a decision–see if the school offers programs for admitted students. These usually include more interaction with students and faculty to help you make a decision. Talking to a faculty member in your area of interest can also be helpful because they share details about the curriculum, internships, clubs and employment.

As always, if you need help with your college search process, please reach out to Coffman Consulting to schedule a virtual meeting to discuss your needs.

What are supplemental essays and how should students prepare?

Supplemental essays can really make or break an application-and most students don’t take them seriously enough. These are essay questions or short answer questions specific to each college. Some colleges have none, some have multiple, and some require you to submit additional essays for their scholarships or honors programs. They require research and are time consuming. But if done well, they help you stand out.

The majority of colleges now use the Common Application for admission. The Common App has a required personal statement of no more than 650 words. Students choose to write on one of seven topics. The Common App officially opens August 1 but the personal statement topics are released in spring on the Common App blog. Many schools have November first early action/early decision deadlines. Having the personal statement done over the summer allows you to focus on writing supplemental essays from August through November (and earlier as you will learn below).

Most schools have a version of “why are you applying to this school”. Some want 200-250 words on this, others give you up to 500. They want to see that you have researched the school-understanding the general curriculum, the major curriculum, student life, career preparation, and what differentiates them from other schools. Most importantly they want to know why this is important to you and fits into your goals. What will you do on their campus to take advantage of these opportunities. Spending time over the summer researching this info is critical to writing successful essays. If you really understand what you want out of a college, your list will be similar (for example you are applying to all small liberal arts colleges or all large research one institutions). You should be able to write a general essay and then tweak it with specifics for each school.

Covid has made it hard to visit colleges in person. However you can still attend virtual information sessions, speak with an admissions counselor, and research the school on websites and social media. Fifty percent of US colleges admit more than fifty percent of their applicant pool, but for those colleges who are highly rejective (deny 80% or more of their applicant pool), demonstrating research and an understanding of the school are critical-but helping them get to know you is also really important.

I often read essays similar to this “I want to be a nurse. You have a strong nursing program. I will get hands on experience in clinicals beginning my sophomore year. I also hope to join a sorority. I look forward to attending football games and taking advantage of all the activities on your beautiful campus.” This could be written by any student about any college.

Here is a slightly better version “From my youngest memories, I’ve wanted to help people. The last two and half years of the Covid pandemic have shown me there is great need for nurses. I have taken certified nursing assistant courses and worked at my local nursing home to gain experience and confirm my career interests. I am applying to Fake University because the focus on critical care will best prepare me for work in a ICU or critical care unit. I also hope to assist Professor Jane Doe with her research on music in ICUs to better understand how hospital environments can impact healing. While nursing is a demanding major, and will take me off campus for clinical rotations, I want to continue my involvement with organizations like Dance Marathon, that raise money for pediatric infectious disease research.

For those who don’t know what want to do as a career or major, it’s ok to express that. Many colleges don’t make you declare a major until sophomore year. But understanding and being able to express how the curriculum will support that exploration is important.

Depending on the school, short answer questions can be completely esoteric like University of Chicago which asked something along the lines of “simple as pie” and you have to write something related to that statement (they basically want to see how you think). Princeton has asked in 150 characters explain what you can’t live without. Many people will say sow thing like “my family” or “oxygen” but it’s a chance for you to stand out, be unique and get to know you better. Think about something you truly love like your childhood lovey. You could say “a well-worn and loved dog blanket I’ve had since infant hood” or “a well-written historical fiction novel that takes me to a new time and place”. Give them a quick snippet into you.

Regardless of whether you are applying to one of the most competitive colleges in the country or a local college you know you will be admitted, do your research. Senior year is busy. Having your essays and applications done early, and well will alleviate a lot of stress. Doing your research is the most important factor in being able to write articulate and effective essays.

Yes, colleges are emailing you. That doesn’t necessarily mean they want you.

If you have taken a PSAT, SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement course, you are probably getting inundated with brochures, letters, and emails from colleges. They often say that they think you are a good fit for their school and encourage you to visit, learn more or apply. Take these messages with a grain of salt.

There are many magazines and websites that rank colleges. They often use a school’s admit rate, the percentage of applicants that are admitted, to determine if the school is selective. The admit rate, combined with the ACT/SAT range, gpa range, graduation rates and other factors also influence rankings. Colleges are concerned about their rankings because it attracts students, donors, quality faculty and staff as well as creates opportunities for students to be recruited by companies and admitted to strong graduate programs. As a result, many are trying to drive up applications to create a bigger and “better” class each year. So they market broadly–including to students who may not be admissible.

Colleges can license your data from the testing agencies to market to you. They use test score ranges, gpas, geography, high school type, race, gender, and major as criteria to create their data files. One or multiple of those factors gets you pulled into that list. Some schools cast a wide net–pulling in scores slightly lower than they admit–assuming you might retest and score higher. Some schools cast a wide net because they want to drive up applications to be able to select from a more diverse pool–not just ethnically diverse but also geographic, majors, gender, etc. Some cast a wide net to be able to deny a large part of their applicant pools (and I dislike these schools especially).

What is hard for students is how to tell which are actually interested in you, and which are just stringing you along. I recommend to my clients to read the material and if a school seems interesting, google {school name} common data set. Every college that accepts federal financial aid must report to the Department of Education certain statistics. Admission statistics are part of that report. You can see the middle 50% of admitted students’ SAT/ACT score (this excludes the bottom 25% which may often be athletes and legacies, and the top 25%). If you fall in the range, its worth exploring and applying. College Board also publishes some of this data on their Big Future website. Some schools also report their admitted gpa ranges to DOE (and Collegeboard). The stronger you match their stats (gpa, test scores, preferred high school coursework), the more likely you will be admitted. But applicant pools change each year based on a variety of factors from winning national sports titles to improved rankings or great press. Admission is never guaranteed unless the college is an open enrollment school.

If you are interested in a school, and are a good match, respond to the emails. If they ask you to click a link or download a form, do so. If an admissions counselor calls or texts you, respond. If a student calls to see if you have questions, ask them some. They track it in their database. Some schools want to see “demonstrated interest”–that you have visited, read emails, visited their website, interacted with students and staff. Some people worry that if you show too much interest they will know you want to attend and low ball your scholarship–probably not. And you can always negotiate, or wait to deposit. Last year, many (but not all) schools offered additional aid right around the May 1 deadline to try and meet their enrollment goals.

I wish admissions wasn’t such a game or puzzle. It shouldn’t be. But it is. I had students this year denied by schools because they were too strong a candidate–the college was protecting its yield rate (the number of admitted students who decide to enroll–another factor used by rankings). I had students admitted to schools that were a reach. Test-optional admission has made this all more complicated (but most students admitted to highly selective schools still submit SAT or ACT scores). Find schools where you will be admissible, but more importantly where you will be happy, can afford, and will exit with the job or grad school admission of your dreams.

If you need help creating a list of schools and determining whether or not to submit your test scores, we are happy to help. Coffman Consulting is still taking a select number of 2022 graduates applying to rolling admissions schools and several more 2023 graduates ready to begin their college search. We can also help freshmen and sophomores with course planning, identifying extra curricular activities and other steps to be college ready and a successful applicant.

How will your AP and Dual Credit transfer?

Over the last thirty years, there has been a big push for students to take Advanced Placement and dual credit classes for a variety of reasons. Some high schools encouraged students to take a rigorous curriculum because highly selective colleges preferred them. Other schools saw dual credit and AP as a way for their students to be college ready, and save money on college tuition with college credit earned in high school. Students began amassing a lot of credit, but it didn’t necessarily transfer or equate to time (or money) saved. As a result, some states have put laws into place that colleges must accept certain credit, or certain AP scores. Some states have also created a core set of classes that can be offered as dual credit at the high school level or transfers easily between that state’s public colleges. But many colleges are still stingy with transfer credit, making it harder for students to get credit for the classes they took in high school.

What does this mean for your student? My son recently shared that he believed he could graduate college early with all of the AP credit he will earn during high school. Advanced Placement, or AP courses, are designed by the College Board and offered at high schools. They contain college level material. Students complete the course and take an exam at the end. The exam score is out of 5 points. Students can also self study for AP exams in some cases. Visit the College Board website for more details and information about AP.

I wasn’t confident that my son could graduate college early, because some schools just aren’t transfer friendly. We researched three colleges he is considering and likes equally–a small well-regarded liberal arts college that is moderately selective, a large state school that has become morevery selective, and a mid-size private Jesuit university that is not highly selective. We had a list of the AP classes he has taken and plans to take as well as his scores on the AP exams.

We went to each college’s website, then to academics and to major requirements or the academic catalog/bulletin and printed out the degree requirements for his future major–this is the list of classes (or categories) needed to get the degree (for example an freshmen English composition, math, natural sciences, social sciences, plus the actual courses in the major, as well as anything like religion, philosophy, or school specific diversity, career planning, or new student transition classes that are part of the curriculum).

We then used the webpage search feature and looked up AP credit. Each school had a page that showed the AP course, AP exam grade needed, and what college class it equated. This is where it got a little complicated. Our state has a law that public colleges must accept an AP score of three. But often they gave a generic 100 level class for that score of three. For example–my son scored a four on the AP World History exam. At the large public university, a three on the exam equals H100 for three credit hours. A four equaled H105 and H106 for six credit hours. He is planning to be a history major, and H105 and H106 are not classes he needs for that major. While they will count as elective credits, he needs the majority of his electives outside his major or they do not count towards graduation. So its somewhat wasted credit at the large public institution. At the smaller Jesuit University, he gets credit for H105 and H106 but they do count as courses in the history major–so he now has 6 credits of his degree completed (if he attends there). At the small liberal arts college he needs a 4 for credit but it transfers as a history courses he needs to graduate. His AP Language and Composition will transfer as three credits at all schools if he receives at least a four on the exam (or a three at the public). He is taking AP US History, which has similar results–will count at the Jesuit and liberal arts college but be unused electives at the public university. Those 3 classes give him a total of 15 credits at two of the colleges–a semester of college done. While he may not finish early he now has flexibility to study abroad, do an internship, double major, or take some fun courses he might not have fit otherwise.

As he plans his senior schedule, I’ve explained he really shouldn’t take any more AP History. Colleges want the majority of your classes in your major taken at their institution. Plus you only need so many 100 level classes–your degree will require 200, 300, and 400 level courses at college. Most colleges also have a residency requirement stating so many of your classes must be taken at that college and in that major for them to feel comfortable granting you a degree from that college (side note–residency can mean many things– you qualify for in-state tuition if you are a resident, residency requirement can also mean you have to live on campus, but this residency refers to courses taken at a college). If he brings in too many 100 history credits, he may be required to retake the class at the college. He is better off taking AP classes that will give him credit towards his distribution requirements (those math, foreign language, science, humanities courses needed besides your major to graduate). I’ve encouraged him to look at AP Government or AP Economics (political science/humanities credit), AP Statistics (math credit), AP English and Literature (English/humanities), AP Psychology (social science credit). He may not take this many AP classes–because you should only take what you can handle and will do well in verses overloading yourself and impacting your grade point average. However, if he truly wants to save time and cost in college, he needs to choose courses wisely not just continue with the history he enjoys. He is also now leaning towards the schools willing to give him the most credit (since he likes the schools equally). My second son is passionate about science and biology–he will need to balance not taking all AP sciences for the same reasons.

He also has the option to take dual credit classes. Dual credit are a specific college’s courses taught at the high school by teachers credentialed by the college to teach the course. If you receive a C or better in the course, you receive college credit from the college offering the course. If you do not attend that college, you will need to get a transcript from that college and send it to the college you are attending to get transfer credit. You may need to also submit a course description and syllabus for the college to review the course and determine if is equivalent to a course they offer. If they feel it is, you will get transfer credit. If they do not, you will not get that credit. Some colleges use the website to show credits they accept.

Whether you are bringing AP coursework or dual credit classes, you need to find out the process that your college requires to submit this information and grant credit. Often new freshmen have to register for classes before they have AP scores and transfer credits/official college transcripts from dual credit. This may mean you end up registering for classes you don’t need. Its important to advocate for yourself, tell your academic advisor what you took, submit transcripts and official AP scores and check your college academic record to see if the credit has been issued. If you need assistance understanding how things transfer please reach out and we can assist you creating a degree map and prepping you for conversations so you can best advocate for your credit. Don’t just assume you didn’t get credit or you have to retake a class. Colleges are big places and can take time for paperwork and credit to be issued.

Coffman Consulting is happy to meet with student at any time during high school to help recommend classes, review transcripts, and explain transfer credit to help you pick the best college for your interests, goals, and financial situation.

Transferring 101

Students consider transferring colleges for many reasons. Some don’t enjoy their first college. Others did not get admitted to their first choice, and plan to transfer once they strengthen their academic record. Some change majors and their school is no longer the right fit. Some didn’t do the research in the first place, and ended up at the wrong fit.

If a student is considering transferring, they should plan to spend a year at their first college. Most schools do not admit students after one semester, unless that student would have been admissible out of high school. But check each college’s website for the actual transfer policy.

Students should take classes that will transfer to other colleges easily–typically 100 level coursework like entry level English, Math, History, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences. Major specific courses or higher level classes often don’t transfer as easily as colleges want you to take your major courses at the institution issuing your degree. Some colleges participate in credit databases like transferology that allow you to see how your courses will transfer (but these may not be comprehensive).

If you have are taking courses that don’t appear in these databases, keep copies of your syllabi (download if they are digital on a learning management system). You maybe asked to submit course descriptions and syllabi so the faculty at your new college can review and find equivalent classes at your new university/college. You typically only receive credit for classes that you received a C or better.

If you are trying to transfer to a highly selective college, you need to maintain As in the classes you are taking. Make sure you are aware of any particular courses they require for admission. If you previously applied to the institution and were not admitted, it might be helpful to try and schedule a meeting with admissions (if they provide them) to understand how to strengthen your application. While you may not be enjoying your initial institution, take advantage of clubs and activities to show you got involved and are engaged.

Think about what you like and dislike about your college. Then research the new schools thoroughly so you find one that has what you truly need to be happy and successful.

If you need help finding a new college or university, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We are happy to assist you navigate the transfer process as it can be complicated at times.

Here are some tips to make applying to college easier (because we are exhausted from Nov 1 deadlines)

Start early, start early, start early. If I had to offer advice on the admissions process it would be to start earlier than you think. Sophomore and juniors really should be starting now. Seniors should have applications well under way. Here are a few tips to make the process go more smoothly no matter where you are in the process.

Get Organized–start digital folder where you will store all materials. What should you include in this folder? Anything you may need for college applications including test scores, awards, copy of your transcript, copies of confirmation pages from applications and scholarships as well as things you will create like activity lists, resumes and essays.

Create a college application worthy email address ( This will help keep clutter out of your personal inbox. Make sure both you and your parents can check this. Create folders for particular colleges, scholarship applications, and materials as you move through the process so you can easily find it in your drive and on your email. Use this email when you sign up for college mailing lists, collegeboard tests or other college items. Do not use your high school email on applications. Your email will be used through enrollment and your high school may close it over the summer locking you out of messages.

Know your application steps–Create a spreadsheet with the schools you are considering. Look up their application deadlines, type of application they require (common app, their own, coalition, etc), are they test optional, do they require the CSS profile in addition to FAFSA for financial aid, essays, letters of recommendation (how many and from who). Note if you visited and thoughts on your visit (many schools have an essay about why you are applying to that school so you want to remember details of what you liked). As you gather materials keep the spreadsheet updated. If you are a senior and can open the application, do so. Then you can see the essays and questions asked to start drafting your responses.

Talk to your school counselor early (spring of junior year or early in fall) so you understand the process to request recommendation letters from teachers, from counselors, and send transcripts. Some schools use google forms, some use Naviance or Scoir, some just let you email the counselor, others have a software program for transcripts. If you wait until the last minute, counselors and teachers are not going to be able to submit things by the deadline which you need it.

Document your accomplishments–Start a list of activities, honors, work experience and community service. Add to it regularly as you do something new. List where you did it, how many hours a week, how many weeks a year and a small description. You will need this for your applications. Consider creating a resume and keep it updated.

Join school mailing lists–If you really like a school, join their mailing list and check the emails and letters they send you. Attend their events (virtually if they are far away). Show you are interested as it is measured by some schools. Application fees are expensive–up to $80 at some schools. Many schools send fee waivers or application coupon codes to those on their mailing list or give them at events.

Read the school website –The admissions website will give you all the details you need to apply. They also can help you better understand the school’s curriculum, get to know faculty and discover student organization and study abroad opportunities. You will want to have this information handy for when you write your essays.

If you are self directing and task oriented, create a plan for creating applications and stick to those deadlines. An independent college counselor can help you understand the timeline, tasks involved and keep you on track. If you have any questions please feel free to contact Coffman Consulting. We enjoy helping simplify the admissions process.

Parents-finding a college is similar to buying a house

When you are planning to buy a house you spend time online searching for homes. You partner with an expert—a realtor—to help you navigate the process. You look at many different houses to decide what options you really need and what you can live without. You get your finances in order and fill out mountains of paperwork. Picking a college can be a very similar process. It takes time to help your child discover their options.

Realtors help stage houses, write nice blurbs about them and post gorgeous pictures online. They don’t always show the horrible next store neighbors or massive cell tower looming over the yard. Colleges can be similar. They often put their best foot forward on a website and in brochures. They don’t often share that everyone goes home on the weekend, or there is no where to eat in town, or that their dorm rooms haven’t been remodeled in fifty years. But exploring a website can give you a basic idea of what majors are available, it’s size, what activities exist and their admission process.

You can then follow that with a virtual information session or virtual open house. Usually these include a presentation by an admissions staff member and sometimes include faculty or students sharing their experience some let you ask questions and others do not. They help you understand if you like what the college has to say about itself, the curriculum and student life. Your student should leave with a feeling they want to learn more.

Once you have a list of schools your child would like to get to know better, schedule an in-person visit if possible. Open House programs usually include an admissions presentation, tour, student panel, faculty or major event, and sometimes lunch. Or schedule an information session and tour. If they have optional events like major presentations or residence hall fairs, try to go to those as well. There are many more living options than when parents want to college (singles, doubles, triples, quads, suites, Jack and Jill bathrooms, Living Learning Communities, First Year Interest Groups, coed floors, etc). Get as much info while there, take notes, and keep information organized so you can compare and contrast schools.

Admission staff also visit high schools and host virtual high school visits. If you child can make the time (and sacrifice missing class) attending can help them get to know the admissions staff member and have that “expert” to go to when they have questions about the school. College fairs can be a great way to talk to specific school staff members. Many are virtual right now. They include a panel of a few schools then breakouts with individual schools where you can ask questions. Every touch point your child makes with a school helps them learn more about the school, show your student’s interest, and get closer to a decision about where to attend.

If you need more expert help navigating the admission process, Coffman Consulting is happy to help. It takes a lot of time to find the right house, finding a college is no different.

Test-optional admissions has made your essay more important.

I recently read a comment on a group for counselors that really resonated with me. The respondent said applicants are not one dimensional and compared a painting to a sculpture. College applications are a chance to show you are three dimensional. Academic performance shows one side of you. Activities show other interests. But the essay (or essays and short answer questions depending on where you are applying) rounds out the story. Use it to paint (or sculpt) a picture of yourself that leaves the admission committee wanting you to join their campus community.

One of the biggest fallacies I hear from students is they have nothing interesting to say about themselves. Everyone has a story to tell—it doesn’t have to be overcoming a major struggle or obstacle in life. Think about what your friends would say about you. How do you spend most of your time? What are some of things your enjoy in life? What is a passion or dream you have? All if these can be crafted into a personal statement.

Many schools have a supplemental essay that is basically “Why are you applying to this school”. They want you to have thought about how the academic programs and campus life match your interests. How will they prepare you for your career? Get past the basics (I will thrive in a small environment) and get a little personal (I want to interact with biology faculty in a small class setting, gaining mentors who will connect me to research opportunities. Professor Smith’s project on how vitamin D impacts cancer cells is an example of a research project I hope to join). Maybe you have always been a fan of Indiana basketball. Instead of saying you want to watch the Hoosiers win an NCAA title make it more personal, “I can picture myself living with my fellow informatics majors in the Luddy LLC, discussing our latest computer projects while cheering on the Indiana Hoosiers as they defeat Duke”.

If a school has multiple essays try to write something different in each. If your common application personal statement focused on one aspect of yourself or interests, write something different in the supplemental essays. If you are funny in real life it’s ok to be funny in an essay. If your not, now is not that time to write comedy. It’s ok to be vulnerable and take a risk. Maybe you write poetry and you want to submit a poem. Some schools will love it and some will penalize you for not writing an essay—but which school would you rather attend?

Admissions counselors read a lot of essays about not making a sports team or play, parents divorcing and Covid. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about these things but how do you make it different or unique? As a result, how have you changed, grown, found a passion or career interest? If you are asked who is your hero, and you pick your mother (which is sweet) have reasons. There is a difference between “my mom is my hero. She is always there for me” and “every side line, she is there cheering me on with a smile. She balances a full-time job while caring for my grandparents and her children. She is up before most of us, and goes to bed after all of us, working tirelessly to make sure others are cared for and accomplish their dreams”.

Highly selective schools often have very cerebral essay questions like “what if the moon was made of cheese”. These are designed to see your creativity, intelligence and academic prowess. It’s also a way to build a diverse class of unique thinkers. Some have short answer questions where you need to get your point across in very few characters. For example if they ask “what can you not live without” you don’t want to just answer “my family”. Instead think about one of your beloved possessions. I know a student who could say “a well-worn, often mended stuffed pig named Porkchop”. You will stand out and be remembered with an answer like that.

We are happy to brainstorm essays or help review them for content and clarity. Colleges know you are smart (they see your grades). They want to see how effectively you can communicate and express your ideas.

How do you determine if you are admissible to a college–Part II Naviance and Scoir

In our last blog we offered some tools and resources to help determine if you should apply to certain schools and your likelihood of admission. There are additional tools, Naviance and Scoir that can be very helpful, if your school subscribes to one of the services.

A great place to start in Naviance or Scoir is taking a career or interest inventory/assessment. These quiz like activities help you identify what career aligns with your skills and interests, and helps you identify future college majors or career training programs. From there, you can use this information to search for colleges that offer that major.

Both websites have a college search tool. You can then like schools (in Naviance you click the heart), and they will send your data to that school so they can contact you/market to you (if you don’t want to be contacted or have your data shared, feel free to explore just don’t “like” any schools). They will also give you a list of colleges that are similar to the school you like/select. Some of those colleges pay to be positioned on that list. It doesn’t hurt to explore them but know Naviance/Scoir make their money both from high schools licensing the products but also selling data and advertising opportunities to colleges.

In Naviance, when you click on the college there is a tab at the top that says admissions. On that page there will be details about the school as well as a bar chart showing how many applicants applied/were accepted/waitlisted/denied from your high school. If you scroll all the way down on the page you will see a scattergram. That will allow you to position your stats (if your school has updated them in Naviance) against the past three years of applicants from your school–you appear as a colored circle sitting on the scattergram. If it isn’t updated–find your GPA on the Y axis and your SAT/ACT on the X axis, then find their intersection point. Do the students admitted (green check mark) have similar stats to you? Great, its a target school. Are the denied similar to you (red x), then its probably not a great fit. Are you way above those admitted–its a safety school or even a place you may get merit aid.

Scoir works similarly. On the school page there is a link that says view scattergram. If your school has your information updated, you can position your stats against the historical data in Scoir. Scoir is newer than Naviance and some schools have made the switch recently, therefore it may not have all the data you need.

Please remember that admissions is a holistic process that involve more than grades and SATs. They will look at the courses you took, what courses your high school offers (high schools send a school profile with details about the school and courses available), did you challenge yourself and will you be able to handle the rigor of their curriculum. They will look at your involvement to determine will you contribute to their campus. Its great to position yourself using Naviance and Scoir to get an idea of how you compare to other applicants, but read the school website and visit to learn more about what the school considers as they review applicants.

You can link to your Common Application on Naviance through the “Colleges I’m applying to” tab. Add at least one school you are considering. You will then see a red bar across the top of the page that says match to your common application. You can then log into the common application (if you have created an account) linking the two, making the application a little easier. Check with your school counselor if they prefer you use Naviance to request transcripts, recommendations, or counselor forms. Indiana high schools use an additional program called Parchment to send transcripts. If you need help navigating these check with your school counselor.

Many colleges are visiting high schools to meet with students. They use these visits to showcase their school but also discuss the application process, learn more about you and the classes your high school offers as well as get to know the high school staff. If you are able to take advantage of these visits, try to attend. Its more important to attend class but if you are doing well missing one class won’t hurt you. Meeting with a college admission rep can show demonstrated interest and also help learn if you might be admissible. Bring your transcript and specific questions. If the school is a popular one at your high school (ie: large state school in your area) you may not get to meet one on one.

As always, if we can help with the admission process please don’t hesitate to contact Coffman Consulting. It is our goal to simplify the admission process for families.

How do you determine if you might be admissible to a college?

Terms like “reach school” and “safety school” often get tossed around during the college planning process. How does a student identify whether or not they may be admissible to a particular college? Here are a few resources and tips to figure out what might be your target schools.

The best place to learn about a college is that college itself. Start on the college website. Look under admissions and applying. Usually there is information about criteria they consider including high school coursework (often listing specific courses they require), essays, SAT or ACT scores or if they are test-optional, deadlines and more. Some schools will share a profile of the students admitted the year before, or at least the middle 50% of that pool (the middle 50% is the bulk of the applicant pool but 25% of students had stats higher than in that range and 25% had lower–although those could be athletes or other special populations).

Every college that receives federal financial aid is required to report their admission data to the federal government. You can access this data at the National Center for Educational Statistics. Select schools to compare and download data on SAT, GPA, and the number of applications. An easier way to do this is on the Collegeboard website. In the search bar put a school that interests you, select that school from the list that appears, then click the applying tab on the left side.

You will see the number of applications received, how many were admitted and how many enrolled. If they offer decision deadlines/programs like Early Action or Early Decision, you may also see the numbers for each of these deadlines. If you scroll further you will see several tabs. Click the academics and gpa (then scroll down) and you will see the rank and grade point averages of admitted students. You can do the same for SAT and ACT. Please note that with so many schools going test-optional, many students are electing to not use their test scores. Those who send scores tend to have high scores which is driving up some of the middle 50% ranges. Collegeboard also lists the classes these colleges require and recommend but make sure you check that information is accurate on the college’s own website.

If your stats fall into the middle 50% of the school, then you are likely a good candidate for admission–you are similar to the profile of student that has been admitted in the past. Applicant pools grow and change–schools may win a national championship in a sport which brings in tons of new applicants, or they may have a scandal that causes people not to apply. Admission is never guaranteed. But if you are similar to the last class (have the right classes, gpa, rank, scores) its a “target school”. If you fall well above the middle 50%, then you will likely be admitted. This is a safety school. This may be a school were you are also a strong candidate for merit aid. If you fall just below the middle 50%, then this might be a reach school for you. If you are significantly below the middle 50% or are missing any required classes, you will likely not be admitted.

Some schools offer admission programs called Early Decision or Early Action. They typically involve applying earlier, by a November 1 deadline (but check school’s for their deadline). Using these programs is a way to indicate to schools they are one of your top choices. Early Decision is binding–which means if you apply and are admitted you are expected to attend (but you may not know your financial aid yet so make sure you are willing to pay whatever it costs). If admitted Early Decision, you are supposed to withdraw applications to any other college. Early Action is not binding. You still apply early but can go through the financial aid process or apply to other schools before you have to make a final decision. Applying Early Action can help admission, but isn’t a guaranteed way to strengthen your application. If you can have your application materials together and they are a strong reflection of your ability, there is no downside to applying early. To make things complicated Ivy Leagues have now created restricted Early Action which is basically binding. If you are applying to an Ivy or highly selective school, be aware of their admission program restrictions before you apply.

We recommend having only 1 or 2 reach schools. The majority of your applications should go to target schools where you know you are a strong candidate and at least 1 or 2 safety schools. Do not apply anywhere you don’t want to go. If it ends up being your only option, you want to be excited to attend not disappointed. There is no perfect number of schools to which you should apply. But application fees range from free to $90, so it can get expensive. 5-10 applications is a typical range.

If you need help conducting your college search or research, please let us know. We are currently accepting new sophomore and junior year clients and a limited number of high school seniors.

US News and World Report Rankings are useless…so stop giving them value.

I usually don’t write my blogs in first person. I also don’t typically include personal anecdotes. However, the US News and World Report (USNWR) rankings came out this week. I hate these rankings. I have hated them since I started working in admissions in in 1997. A family came to one of my first college fairs holding the magazine, and began grilling the admissions reps about our business school rankings. It was my first time with families who put so much weight in articles designed to sell magazines. Magazines know nothing about what might be the right college for you.

One of the main reasons I hate rankings is their measurements are flawed. USNWR asks college presidents to rank other schools. Most presidents have a PhD. Many are from “top” research or highly selective institutions. So of course that group is going to pick the colleges they attended (or wish they attended). SAT and ACT scores and admission rates are also a major factor. Since so many schools went test optional, USNWR made up their own way to calculate school’s SAT/ACT scores this year. That is not ok, nor is it helpful. Just because a school admits a very small percentage of those who apply doesn’t mean its the best place for you.

Those of you who know me know that I am the middle of five kids. We all have turned out well. But we went to five very different colleges–because we were very different kids. My oldest sister had a successful career in journalism and PR, and now runs a media brand. Being the first to go to college (when our parents are not college graduates) she didn’t have the benefit of a ton of experience. She selected the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Many of you probably have not heard of SUNY Plattsburgh. It’s campus is on the border of Vermont and Montreal, Canada in Northern New York. But my sister had great reasons for attending. She wanted a small experience having gone to a small high school. She wanted to be able to host a radio show her first year (she did). She wanted to work on the school newspaper as a freshmen (she did). She wanted to be near a city (Montreal). She also wanted to study abroad (she went to France). She had a set of criteria that was important and used it to find the perfect school–for her.

USNWR also does travel rankings. They rank the top three vacations as Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. Those are all beautiful places. But I don’t like to hike or be out in the sun without an umbrella. Maui is 4th on the list–that’s more my speed. New York is sixth. I love New York. Its where I grew up and still have family. But going to New York is not a vacation for me. Its a whirlwind of visiting family and friends, going to restaurants I love, squeezing in some touristy stuff for my kids and hopefully a Broadway show. It isn’t relaxing, and its often stressful because I feel guilty that I didn’t see certain people. My favorite vacation, pre COVID, didn’t make the list. I love to go on Disney Cruises. They are family oriented (and we usually go with my mom, sister and her kids). They have beautiful pools where my kids can swim and my husband and I can sit and read. I love to go to the beach. Disney Cruises stop at Castaway Cay, a gorgeous island in the Bahamas. I love to go to the movies and there is a movie theater with first run movies on the ship. I sometimes have seen a movie every day on a cruise. The food is outstanding. There are Broadway style shows and comedians. It has it all. Well–it has everything I want in a vacation. It may not be what you want. But again, it wasn’t on the list. Lots of colleges you may like aren’t on the USNWR rankings or aren’t near the top. That’s ok.

There is a reason that Baskin-Robbins sells thirty-one flavors. Some people love mint chocolate chip while others are cookie dough people. Some people want a cup, others a cone (sugar, cake or waffle), while there is a whole group who can’t live without sprinkles (chocolate or rainbow). There is a college that is the perfect place for you. But to find it, you have to know a little bit about yourself and what you might like. Do you want a big or a small place? Do you want a specific major or activity? Do you want to go to Division I sporting events or are you more likely to play e-sports with friends? Do you want a robust arts community? Do you want personal attention from faculty? Are you hoping to meet alumni to network for internships and jobs? Reading a magazine’s ranking isn’t going to answer those questions for you. Start doing research on college search engines, then go visit some schools. Talk to people with jobs that interest you and see where they went. Talk to your school counselor and get their advice.

If I can help you create a list of schools, please let me know. I know it can be overwhelming when there are hundreds from which to choose. Starting early helps. Waiting to identify the right school at the start of senior year is stressful, and often late. Give yourself time to look and explore. With each visit you will get a sense of what you like and what you don’t. Its like getting the sample at Baskin Robbins–you get to try it and see if you like it before you get the whole cone.

I’m not a fan of cancel culture but I’d be ok with cancelling college rankings.

Juniors-time to get started

Junior year is the perfect time to start the college admission process. Researching schools, attending virtual and in-person visits, and understanding admission requirements will make life much easier for you senior year. Here is a list of what you should be doing and when to help you prepare for the college admission process.

Fall of Junior Year (August through November)

  • Search for colleges using a search engine like Naviance, Scoir, Cappex,
  • Then explore each school using that school’s website. Understand each school’s admissions requirements. Are you taking the right classes? Maybe you will need physics, pre-calculus or language senior year but weren’t planning to take it. Checking junior year is helpful as you can still make changes to your junior spring schedule and senior year.
  • Read the emails and brochures being sent to you–they may include an invitation to a special program.
  • Visit a mix of colleges-public, private, suburban, urban, rural, small and large to see what you like. Open Houses or Information Sessions and a campus tours are an easy way to learn about a school. If you can’t visit in person try a virtual visit (check the admissions website and the visit options to learn what is available).
  • Take the PSAT or Pre-ACT (your school will register you). You can prep for the PSAT on Khan Academy/Collegeboard. Many schools are now test-optional but having your score will help you understand what type of school to apply and also if you need to do more prep before you take the real SAT.
  • Begin searching for scholarships on search engines mentioned above as well as,, and with your school counseling office.
  • Take a career assessment if you have no idea what you want to do (the search engines in the first bullet have them as well as your school counseling office).
  • Register with the NCAA and NAIA if you plan to play college sports.
  • Study and keep up your grades-if you apply in the fall of senior year most schools will only see up to your junior year grades. Junior year is very important.

Winter of Junior Year (November through February)

  • Continue refining your list–which schools interested you when you visited their website or their campuses, what majors are offered at those schools, what is required to apply?
  • Do some preparation for the SAT/ACT. There are many free resources online as well as books or even courses. Do some practice to understand what each section contains (so you don’t have to read the directions the day of and save yourself time for questions), the type of questions asked and how it is scored.
  • Create an account at Many schools have you apply for admission through the common application. Start getting familiar with how to add schools, look at their requirements, and essay questions.
  • Continue to search for scholarships.
  • Continue to keep up your grades.

Spring of Junior Year (March through May)

  • Take the SAT (Indiana students will take it in school in March/April as it is now the graduation exam replacing ISTEP, but always good to check with your high school).
  • Visit schools in person–many will have spring open houses or programs designed for high school juniors.
  • Ask teachers to write a recommendation letter. You can send them a common application link. Giving your teachers plenty of time to write the recommendation will result in a better one. Waiting until fall when others have asked them might mean they say no or have to rush it.
  • Start compiling a list of your high school activities, leadership, volunteer hours, work experience and awards to list on applications.
  • Continue understanding admission requirements and whether or not you will be admissible to certain schools. Every school has to publish their admissions stats and report them to the federal government. If you are on a school website you can google common data set. But its not very user-friendly. College Board has similar info in their search feature under the applying tab (but they are redesigning their website so this might change). If your school uses Naviance, the scattergram showing the stats from your school’s admitted students is helpful.
  • Keep up those grades!
  • If you aren’t happy with your March SAT score, keep doing prep and schedule to retake it in June or August. Or try the ACT. It tests different info and you may perform better.
  • Keep searching for scholarships.

Summer is the time to finalize where you will be applying through more visits and online research. Its also a great time to start on essays. Most applications will open August first and have priority deadlines around November 1. Using your summer to get ahead will make fall a lot less stressful.

Coffman-Consulting is happy to help you identify the right schools for you, brainstorm essay topics and review your work, practice interviewing, search for scholarships and provide guidance on application strategy (early decision, early action, regular admission) and on application completion. Often students and parents don’t even know where to begin or what schools might be a good choice. We can help refine that list with you.

How do you pick a college when you have no idea what you want to do as a career?

First of all, its ok to be undecided about your future career. Exploratory is often the most popular freshmen major. College will expose you to new subjects and specialties that you didn’t even know existed. However, knowing what you want to study can help you stay on track and graduate on time as well as do internships that help prepare you (and make you competitive) on the job market. It can also help you find a school that offers the right programs for your interests. But how do you take those interests and convert them to a major? There are a few ways.

Career Assessments can be great tools to explore your interests. If your school uses a college or career planning software like Scoir, Naviance or Xello, take the free career assessments on those tools and review them with your school counselor. If your school doesn’t have these resources there are many online career assessments (but some do charge you for the exam or a counseling appointment). Career Explorer is a good one, as is Do What You Are. There are also “career quizzes” these are not full-blown career assessments (which are typically based on years of research and data), but they are fun and can give you a sense of your personality and what careers might interest you. Two we like are and Princeton Review’s Career Quiz.

Many states publish career guides, “Hot job” lists or provide free career resources for students or job seekers. Visit your state’s department of workforce development or employment agency to see what resources might be available. For example, Indiana has a website Indiana Career Ready with lists of in-demand jobs and videos. CareerOneStop has great videos to help students explore careers, although they are aimed at young children.

If you are still completely unsure what you want to do, consider attending a college that has a strong exploratory program. Use college search engines like, or your school’s programs (Naviance, Xello, Scoir) to learn more about exploratory major programs. When visiting schools or attending virtual information sessions, ask how exploratory programs work at the campus. Ideally the program would include an advisor who helps identify your interests, schedules you for a series of classes that expose you to subjects related to those interests, while fulfilling graduation and core requirements.

Liberal arts colleges can be a great place to explore as they typically have a curriculum that incorporates many disciplines into the core requirements. Large universities have many options and majors, but sometimes (not always) they do admission (and scholarships) by major. Check the colleges’ webpages or speak to an admissions counselor to understand how they structure admissions, the design of the core curriculum, and ability to explore before declaring a major. Also, be careful. If a school does admission by major, and some programs are very competitive (think engineering, nursing, and computer science)–will you get into those majors if you don’t apply as an entering freshmen.

There are jobs that have yet to be invented. College will expand your world and expose you to new people, ideas and possible careers. While some may know exactly what they want to do, others will change their major two or three times. There is a perfect place (and major and career) for everyone–some just take a little more work to find.

Looking for Scholarships

College can be expensive. Prices range from a few thousand dollars a semester at a community college to over seventy thousand dollars for tuition plus room and board at top private colleges. Most schools take the philosophy that paying for college is a partnership between the school, parents and students. Using a combination of school and outside scholarships can help make your out of pocket expenses smaller.

Most private schools and some public schools will automatically consider a student for merit-based scholarships as part of the application process. Merit-based awards are based on your academic performance (courses taken, grades and test scores if applicable). Need-based grants and scholarships (based on your financial need) are awarded after you submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile, a Collegeboard form that some schools require. Some schools include scholarships with your admission letter. Others will include them in the financial aid award letter usually in winter or spring.

While top colleges have become even more competitive, many small colleges are struggling for enrollment. The birthrate is down and there are less high school graduates nationally. Smaller colleges or lesser known colleges will offer more merit aid to attract enrollment. Many colleges are beginning to meet full demonstrated need–but you have to have need. This will likely include loans. Always check with the college or university to learn their merit and need-based aid practices.

There are many organizations that offer outside scholarships. Start locally–your school counselor probably has a list of scholarships from the community foundation, Lions club, Elks, Kiwanis, or the education foundation tied to your school district. Check with your or your families’ employers–many large corporations have a charitable giving arm that offer scholarships. If your family is involved in a church, charitable organization such as American legion or Rotary, fraternity or sorority, or union take a look at their website under community relations, education, charitable giving to see if they have a scholarship.

There are many scholarship search engines. They often require you to register and will send you a lot of emails. Some of the most reputable are

Typing a search term into a browser can also bring up scholarships. Google “Scholarships for _________” and fill in your major, parents occupation, activities you plan to participate in during college or any combination. Also think about organizations you were involved with as a child like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, YMCA and see if any offer awards.

Visit the websites of products you use regularly. Your favorite soft drink, hotel, clothing line or shoe might have a scholarship under community relations, charitable giving or education.

Start looking for scholarships your junior year of high school. Make a spreadsheet with the name, website, deadline and requirements (essay, recommendation). Many will not allow you to apply until you are senior, but you will have the information to ensure you don’t miss deadlines.

While it may not seem worth your time to apply for $500 awards–every little bit helps. Lots of little awards can equal big money. Try to spend some time each week searching for and submitting scholarship applications through the end of your senior year and even into college.

How to approach test-optional admissions?

Almost daily we receive questions about test-optional admissions and the SAT/ACT. According to the National Association of College Admission Counselors webpage, 567 colleges and universities are now test optional or test flexible. But many students don’t understand what that means or how they should approach taking standardized tests. College admission officers have found that standardized tests don’t reflect a students potential. Wealthier students are able to take test prep courses and prepare in ways other students can not.

We still recommended to take the SAT or ACT. But you can now control who sees your score, when they see the score and which scores you want them to see. When you register for either or both tests, you are asked to list colleges you want to receive your score. Leave this blank. You do not want your score automatically sent to schools. Rather you want to see how you do first, then decide how to use it.

If you decide to apply using your test scores, most schools allow self-reported test scores. This means you can submit a copy of your score report or a screen shot from the test agency websites. Very few schools require you to send official scores from Collegeboard (SAT) or ACT.

Test-optional means the college does not require SAT or ACT scores for admission. Some schools ask on the application “do you want your scores used”. If you check yes, you will need to submit scores. If you check no, they should not use your scores. However, if you submit the scores or they are on your high school transcript, they may get seen by the person reading your application. It is hard to ignore something you have seen. If you don’t want to use scores, don’t send them.

Make sure you read each school’s policy on test scores. Some maybe test optional for admission but require them for scholarships. Some may require them if you have not taken certain coursework. Others may still require them for competitive majors or direct admit programs. If you have questions contact your admission counselor at each school.

To learn more about taking the SAT and registration dates visit and for information on the ACT visit While Coffman-Consulting does not provide test preparation, we are happy to discuss with you ways to strengthen your application.

How to get strong letters of recommendation?

Many colleges still require letters of recommendation as part of an application. Getting a strong letter can help round out your application materials. It provides insight into how adults perceive you, your academic performance, your work ethic and your contribution to your community.

Begin by checking what type of recommendation is required. Some colleges will specifically ask for a recommendation from your counselor and provide a form for counselors to complete. These are our least favorite–often large public school counselors don’t know their students well (its no fault of their own, they just have really large student case loads). But these forms will indicate how you compare to the peers in your grade level and how prepared you are for college.

Other schools specifically ask for a teacher recommendation. Teachers are the best recommenders because they know your academic abilities. Look for a teacher you had as sophomore or junior preferably in an academic core class like English, Math, Science or History. If the subject relates to your intended major, even better. Do not use classes where you did not get strong grades, participate or turn in assignments on time–especially if the class was virtual. You want a teacher who will say POSITIVE things about you!

If a school requires multiple letters of recommendation and you don’t have multiple teachers who fit the category above, you can ask an advisor of a club, a coach, or even a manager at a part-time job. But again, you want people who will write a strong letter and say positive things. People who know you in several ways–taught a class and coached you in a sport or is your history teacher and student council advisor–are great choices.

Approach your recommenders early–even towards the end of junior year. They will get asked to write a lot of recommendations. Most are due in November or January. If you ask when they are busy, you may not get their best work. Give them at least a month to complete the letter and provide any necessary forms, links or information they need to ensure it is sent to the right place. Also, give the recommender your updated resume, where you are applying and why, some key bullet points about your interests, activities and awards. For example

Mr. SmithThanks for agreeing to provide my recommendations. Below are the links to the three schools’ recommendation forms. Please submit your letters directly through these links. I’ve also attached my resume. I’m applying all three schools because they have strong international studies and political science programs. I hope to one day work for the state department and feel they will give me the background I need. I have been active in student council throughout high school and have taken several government electives. I’m attending boys state and also an active member of “We the People”. In addition, I have run on the cross country and track teams all four years. Please let me know if I can provide you any additional info. Applications are due November 1st but I would like to have everything submitted mid October to guarantee they are on time. Thanks for your help with this! Its really appreciated.

If you need assistance completing applications, please do not hesitate to contact Coffman Consulting.

What to do if my grades suffered last year?

For many students, last year was not a great school year. They dealt with school being virtual, hybrid, in-person but socially distanced with masks–or for many– some combination of all of the above depending on COVID cases in their county. Understandably, grades suffered. Its hard to learn chemistry when you can’t do labs or are watching them via zoom.

There are several ways to approach the fact your grades are lower than they might have been. First, do you best this quarter/semester. If you apply this fall, colleges may ask to see your 7th semester (first-semester senior year) grades before they send a decision. Or depending on the school deadline, you could apply in January giving you the opportunity to submit strong senior year grades.

Letters of recommendation can also help your application. Choose teachers who had you prior to the pandemic that can comment on your strong academic achievement in their class. Do not use a teacher you had last year if you tended to have missed assignments, didn’t attend zoom meetings or were disengaged during class. If you had a teacher last year where you did excel or they were an excellent virtual teacher, that could be a good choice.

Many schools will give you the opportunity to write an optional (COVID) essay. Using your essay to explain any legitimate challenges you faced during COVID (you got sick and missed school, you had to help care for siblings while parents worked virtually, your school was not set up for e-learning, you had access issues, etc) may help. If you just choose not to do school work, that will be harder to explain. But if you experienced mental health issues during COVID, you can talk about those. Be sure to share how you got help and how you will prevent those arising in college or how you will deal with those in the future.

It is also helpful to visit colleges either in-person or virtually. Try to schedule a one to one meeting with an admission counselor. They will be able to assess your transcript (bring it with you). They can make recommendations on whether or not to apply or how to strengthen your application.

If your grades are lower but you have good ACT or SAT scores, submit those. They may help.

Please let us know if we can provide any assistance as you navigate the college admissions process.

April is coming, what does that mean for your senior?

April is a big month for seniors. Those who applied to highly selective colleges will be getting their admission decisions. Others need to start deciding where they are attending and pay an enrollment deposit. Many students never got to see these colleges in-person. Making a decision is incredibly difficult when you have limited information.

Many schools are hosting virtual or in-person admitted student events. They typically showcase a student panel, faculty and academics, and student life. The in-person events would normally include either a day on campus or an overnight where students attend classes with another student, meet faculty, eat lunch in the dining room and experience student life. Whether virtual or in-person, these events can help your students discover which school they want to attend.

If your student is really struggling with what school to pick, ask the Office of Admissions if they can speak with faculty in the major areas they are exploring. Often meeting the people who will mentor them, connect them to internships and research, will help your student feel at home. Or, if the faculty are not welcoming or supportive, it might not be a good fit. If student life is more of a concern, see if they can talk to current students who have similar interests to theirs.

If cost factors into your decision, don’t forget to file a FAFSA , if you haven’t already. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples on your financial aid packages. Just because one school gave you a larger scholarship might not mean its the cheaper school. Take a look at all tuition and fees, subtract scholarships and grants (free money). Where will you have more out of pocket expenses or loans? Don’t be afraid to have an honest conversation with the colleges about what you can afford. Not all will adjust aid packages, but some may, if they still need students. Also make sure you sign up for a tuition payment plan, if offered. It usually allows you to pay your portion over 10 or 11 months. Often these must be completed in June or July.

Make sure you get your enrollment deposit in by the deadline. This will allow your child to sign up for orientation programs, register for classes and pick housing (some schools may have a separate housing deposit or orientation fees). The longer you wait to make the decision or pay your deposit, the later an orientation date they will receive. They will have a better class selection if they attend an earlier registration date.

Don’t pay two deposits if your child is still deciding. It makes it difficult for schools to know who is really coming. It also keeps a student who may be on the waitlist from being admitted. Do what you can to help your child make a decision and select their school. Once you have paid your deposit, have your child notify the other schools they are not attending. That way, their spot can be offered to another student.

As always, if you need assistance do not hesitate to contact Coffman Consulting. We know making a decision can be challenging. We can often help your child answer some questions and conduct some research that will finalize their decision.

It is spring of your junior year…so what should you be doing?

Normally, you would be visiting colleges in person. But COVID is making that more challenging. Juniors can still use this spring to search for colleges, start the application process, strengthen their applications, and gather recommendations.

Exploring Colleges

Some colleges are open for limited visitors. Check the college’s website to learn if you can tour in person or attend only virtually. Virtual information sessions are a casual way to learn about a college. Typically there is a presentation by an admissions staff member. There may also be a student panel, information from faculty or administrators and a chance to ask questions. They will cover their admission and financial aid process including deadlines, recommended high school courses and requirements like SAT/ACT scores, interviews and essays.

Admission officers may also be “visiting” your high school. Check with your counseling office to learn how to register. Your school may use an online system like Scoir or Naviance to manage the college admission process–they will post visits and allow you to register via these sites. Most of the visits are virtual right now, but will likely be in person next fall.

There are also virtual college fairs through organizations like NACAC and College Board. The fairs will use break out rooms to let you meet with different schools and learn which might interest you.

Strengthening Your Application

Most students apply to college in the fall of their senior year, before first semester senior year grades are official. Your junior year grades will be the last chance to boost your grade point average before you submit applications.

While many schools are now test optional, you can work on test prep for free through Khan Academy If you have a copy of your PSAT score report, you can link your PSAT results to Khan Academy. Khan Academy will then customize the test prep–helping you strengthen your areas of weakness.

Create a Common Application Account

Over 600 schools use the Common Application as their application for admission. Students create one profile, write an essay from the common application choices, upload one set of grades and test scores, and centralize recommenders through the common application verses submitting multiple applications to schools. Schools can require additional information and essays as part of their common application, but it simplifies the process for applicants. Juniors can create an account and explore colleges through the common application. Member colleges can then connect with you and share requirements and deadlines.

Think about, or even ask, recommenders

Not every application requires you submit recommendations but many will. Now is the time to think about which teachers know you best. Who can comment on your academically ability, your work ethic, your class participation and your character. Teachers, coaches and counselors get inundated with requests for recommendations in the fall. Talking to them now, then getting the appropriate forms or links needed for your application to them in early fall, will give you an advantage (and make their life easier). Most colleges prefer at least one recommendation be from a teacher who can comment on your academic performance.

College admissions can be both fun and stressful. Preparation and planning now, will make senior year easier. If you need help, contact Coffman Consulting for assistance.

It’s registration time…what courses should your child take?

It is the time of year where high school students and 8th graders are planning their courses for next year. Based on the questions we are receiving, we thought we would compile a list of tips and advice that might help.

No two kids are the same, so often our advice is “It depends” because it does. You need to think about your child’s academic potential, how busy they are with sports/extra curricular activities/work, what type of career or college they want to attend and the requirements for those programs, your child’s mental health and what can they truly handle.

Is it better to take challenging classes or have a high grade point average? Colleges will look at both–did the student challenge themselves in high school and did they do well? No college wants to see a student taking honors or AP/Dual credit and getting C’s or D’s. The student should take the most challenging classes they can handle with a B or better. Also think about what other classes and activities they have–will they be able to balance it all? Loading up on a very challenging schedule plus playing multiple sports or having a job can lead to time management challenges. Make sure you child has the capacity and time to get the school work completed well, but can also have some activities and interests to help them be well-rounded.

How many years of a foreign language does my student need to take? Most states have minimum requirements for their high school diplomas. So first check your diploma requirements. It is usually 2 years for a basic college prep diploma and 3 for a more challenging diploma. Most colleges want to see at least 2 years but there are some that want to see four. Take a look at some of the colleges your student wants to attend and see what their requirements are (we list how to do that at the bottom of this blog). If your child is wanting to do something with an international focus, having strong language skills or multiple languages is a plus. Start your foreign language as a 9th grader. Don’t put it off incase you do poorly and need to retake it, or decide you want to change languages.

What’s the difference between Dual Credit and Advanced Placement courses? Dual credit is a college course that is taught in high school and is affiliated with a specific college. You receive college credit from that college/university. For example, many Indiana high schools offer Indiana University’s W131 composition class. If you take a dual credit class and get a C or better, you typically receive the college credit for that class. You will need to get an official transcript from the college that offered the course and send it to the college you are attending for the credit to be applied to your degree. Not all colleges accept all credit. As you met with the admissions officers on your college visit, share what you are taking and ask what you will need to get credit. For example, if you take an engineering course for dual credit but attend a college that does not offer engineering, you may not get credit.

Advanced Placement are courses designed by the College Board. You then take an exam at the end of the school year that is scored on a scale of 1-5. Some schools require a 4-5 to get credit, some give credit for a score of a 3. Most colleges will publish a list of scores needed to receive credit for an AP class. Not all colleges accept all AP classes, so again its good to check before you register. Some AP classes are worth more credit at certain schools. Its frustrating that it is different at every school, but schools are allowed to determine what credit they accept. You will also need to check if you have to have official College Board scores sent to get credit or if schools accept self-reported scores (a screen shot or photo copy of your score).

What electives should my child take? There are several different strategies that you might consider. If your child is applying to a highly selective program, the college may want to see subjects related to that major–advanced math, science, engineering for example. Check the college website or speak to an admissions officer to better understand what they want to see. If you student is an artist or performer, taking advanced art or music might be critical to succeeding at auditions. If your child really dislikes a subject and wants to get it out of the way in high school, taking dual credit or AP in that area will give them college credit and free up space during college to take classes they enjoy more, do an internship or study abroad. Or you child might just take things they like now to have a few things on their schedule at which they will excel. Its also a chance to explore–trying something they are curious about or think they might enjoy but don’t have much current exposure (like business, coding, career and technical courses).

Should my child take summer classes to get ahead? Summer can be a great way to challenge yourself, explore interests, and strengthen college applications. Summer classes are one way to take additional coursework. There are many intensive programs offered at colleges where students can take courses with faculty in a wide array of subjects–sometimes for college credit. If you child loves writing, forensic science, art, etc you could probably find a program that matches their interest. These are typically several days, involve staying on campus overnight and have tuition costs. There are many summer camps around the country that also have an academic scope from immersive spanish experiences, theater and music, or robotics. Some students just need to work and make money, or help with younger siblings, so they can’t do camps or residential programs. That need can be explained in an essay.

How do I find requirements for certain colleges? While every college website is different, most have an admissions section. Within admissions look for first-year admissions (or transfer if you student is transferring between colleges). Some colleges have a section called requirements, or high school courses. Some might say applying and under that have information about your high school transcript and what courses are required. Every school will say something about the high school preparation they want you to have, if they require an SAT or ACT, and deadlines. If you can’t find it, reach out to admissions. Always get your answers from the college where you are applying.

What is a typical schedule? There really isn’t a typical schedule because everyone has their own interests. There are 7-8 periods at most high schools each day, unless schools are utilizing block schedules. Taking 5 academic courses is typically looked at by admissions as a college prep schedule. Most colleges want to see at least:

Four years of English. It is also helpful to have Speech or Public Speaking.

Three to four years of Math. Students will want to take four if going into a science or math field or applying to a highly selective college. Typically the fourth year should be pre-calculus or calculus for highly selective colleges. Dual credit courses like Finite Math or Statistics are also a good option depending on the college.

Three years of science with two years of lab sciences (Biology, Chemistry or Physics are lab sciences)

Four years of Social Studies including US History, World History, Government and Economics.

Two to Four years of a foreign language. Students can do two years of two different languages. American Sign Language is considered a foreign language. Students applying to highly selective colleges, international studies or international business should consider taking four years.

2-3 challenging electives or academic electives. These could include performing or fine arts. They could include career related coursework such as business, education, computer science, healthcare, or other technical classes. Many states require physical education. Taking weight lifting each semester is not considered an academic elective.

Please send us additional questions through facebook messenger or the contact form on our website and we will answer them in future blogs.

Overwhelmed by Financial Aid and Tuition Costs

We haven’t had a blog recently, and we apologize for that. Like many of you we are juggling virtual work, virtual school and dealing with pandemic related fatigue. While we haven’t put much in print, we have had the pleasure to work with families through workshops and individual counseling. We continually hear that families are overwhelmed by the cost of college, the financial aid process and how to understand what they can afford. We are going to answer a few questions we get asked often and provide some resources to help you plan.

Should I file a FAFSA? Yes, even if you don’t think you will qualify for need-based aid. Many schools require them for their merit aid process. You also never know when tragedy might strike-job loss, death, divorce. If something occurs where you might need more aid or a loan, having a FAFSA on file can’t hurt. You need to make sure to submit your FAFSA before the school or state deadline–whichever is first (for example, Indiana’s state deadline is April 15th but many colleges have a March 1 deadline, so you would need to file before March 1). You then need to file the FAFSA for each child every year they are in college. Tip: Parents and students will have a PIN you each create to access and sign the FAFSA. Save your PIN in your phone so you can find it next year when you file again. The FAFSA is free. Never pay to file it. You can find it at

What tax year does the FAFSA use? The FAFSA now looks at tax data from two years ago (called prior prior year data). The FAFSA typically opens around October 1. It has gotten easier to file because it now includes an IRS look up tool that pulls in your tax data automatically. If you don’t use the IRS look up tool, you may be selected for verification. Verification requires you to submit hard copies of all your info to be “verified” by each financial office, slowing down the process.

What if your parents are divorced? The FAFSA will look at household financial data. If parents are divorced, list the parent who provides 50% or more of support or has the child 50% or more of the time. If parents have joint custody there are 365 days in a year–who had the extra day? Or who provides health insurance? If parents are remarried, the parent selected will also have to provide the step parent’s financial info even if that step parent contributes nothing financially to their college education–the FAFSA looks at household. The parent listed does not have to be the parent who claims the tax deduction for the child. It does not matter who is responsible for college tuition in any divorce decree. If the divorce decree says mom and dad must split tuition costs, only one parent (and any step parent) has to be on the FAFSA.

How do I know what I can afford to pay for college? This is often one of the hardest questions to answers and discussions to have with a family. We rarely met anyone who agrees with what the FAFSA calculates as their estimated family contribution. We like to drive newer cars, take vacations and eat out–but the government doesn’t care about that. Sit down and budget out your monthly expenses. What do you have to pay each month (mortgage, car payment, utilities, groceries, insurance, etc) and what is left. Reasonably, with making some sacrifices, what could you pay each month in tuition and costs? Most schools allow you to divide tuition payments into 10 or 11 months. If you think you can handle $1000 a month then you need to be at $10,000 out of pocket or take a loan to cover the rest.

I need help comparing financial aid packages? Colleges don’t use standard language on their financial aid letters so it is hard to compare apples to apples. We have created a spreadsheet you can use to compare costs and aid. We are happy to walk through this with your family to help you understand what is your bottom line cost and what options do you have to cover those costs.

Can I ask a college for more aid? The answer to this is maybe. First, we will look at need-based aid, then we will talk about merit aid.

Need-based aid: If something in your life has changed (job loss, death, medical bills or divorce for example) you can work with your college financial aid offices to complete an unusual circumstances form. The college is allowed, by the federal government, to use their professional judgement on whether or not to adjust your FAFSA data and recalculate your need-based aid. But you must have a FAFSA on file. Make sure to file it by the school/state deadline.

Merit aid: Some schools will not negotiate their aid packages. Other schools may be willing to review it. First, you need to have a reason for the adjustment. Saying “X school gave us $20,000 and you gave us $15,000” is not reason enough. X school might be more expensive to begin with, have weaker applicants, or just be able to afford to give more. Sit down and compare you net costs (your out of pocket costs after aid is applied) at each school, understand what you truly can afford, then have a conversation with the aid office (the spreadsheet above can help). If schools are very similar (both are small privates for example) but the aid packages are very different, that might be worth sharing. But if you are comparing a state school and a private school, the costs are not going to be equal. A school will likely not make an adjustment in that case. It never hurts to ask (nicely), have a discussion and learn what options might be available to you. You should only do this if your child is truly going to attend. Don’t waste people’s time just trying to game the system. They are busy professionals trying to help your family make the best decision for your child. Respect their time and expertise.

Is it too late to get a 529 plan? No, its probably not too late. Look at your state’s plan, as it will probably have the best tax incentives to optimize. See if you can withdraw contributions made in the same calendar year? If so, then put the money you would use to cover your out of pocket costs into the plan, get the tax credit/deduction (depending on your state) and follow the process to use the money to cover eligible educational expenses. In Indiana we get a 20% tax credit (not deduction, credit) on contributions up to $5000. That is up to $1000 off your state tax bill each year that can be directed to tuition. We are not tax professionals so check with your financial planner or CPA to get the most up to date info for your state and to also understand how other tax credits or college savings plans can be optimized for your family.

How can we avoid loans? This advice is going to be controversial–we don’t think you should. Too much loan debt is a bad thing. But a reasonable amount of loan gives your child “skin in the game”. It will also help them establish credit while in college. There are many different payment plans to fit many different income levels. Interest rates are low. However, you need to balance a variety of factors–what will their salary be like when they graduate? If they are entering a low paying field will they be able to pay off their loans. Are they planning to go to graduate or professional school, likely resulting in more loans? If so, minimizing undergrad loans might be important so they don’t have too much debt after graduate schools. Debt of 30,000 or less is reasonable–many people borrow that for a car and will pay it off in 5 years. College loans can be repaid over a longer time period.

We are happy to meet with families to help you understand the financial aid process. Happy Holidays, stay safe and healthy.