Question of the Week: What are private education loans?
Private education loans are loans to college students made by financial institutions such as banks and credit unions. They do not require students to complete the FAFSA and students receive the money directly from the lender.
Many private loans appear to have lower interest rates than federal loans. However, these advertised rates are generally “best” rates that few applicants actually qualify for. You can see a selection of various private loans available at the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation. According to an analysis by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CRPR) in the 2012 Private Student Loans Report, in the period from 1992-2011, those with the best credit rating would have paid less than the Stafford rate but the average borrower would have never paid a rate lower than the Stafford rate.
Private loans generally have longer repayment periods than federal loans and fewer repayment options. Federal loans have income-based repayment plans, pay as you earn plans for this with financial hardship, and forbearance or deferment options. None of these are available for private loans.
Furthermore, severe disability or death many not end your loan obligation. Depending on the loan, co-signers of private loans (which students need to get the best interest rates) may be required to repay the loan. Institutions that provide private education loans have every incentive to make such loans easy to get but little incentive to work with borrowers in time of financial hardship. In general, there are very few situations where a student should take out a private loan.
For more information:
The whole point of this website is to provide families with the information they need to find the best colleges for them. Every family is different and will have issues and concerns that won’t have easily found answers. That doesn’t mean the questions aren’t relevant or important, it just means that no one has gotten around to making the answers easy to find.
So if you have any questions about the finding colleges, applying to colleges, or paying for colleges, please let me know. I want to keep the website as relevant as possible and it’s simply not possible to anticipate all the possible combinations of factors that can affect the college search.
You can email me your questions to email@example.com. I can’t promise that I’ll always come up with an answer but I will respond to all emails with what I do know or where you might find answer.
Even if you think your parents make too much money to qualify for financial aid, you should still fill out the FAFSA. There are certain loans that don’t rely on income such as the unsubsidized Stafford Student Loan and the PLUS loans for parents.
Some colleges will not provide scholarship money without the FAFSA and it can also make you eligible for some state aid. It is also required for Federal college-work study programs.
Remember, FAFSA stands for FREE Application for Federal Student Aid which means you don’t have to pay to file it. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool makes it even easier to complete the FAFSA. Once you have all of your documents assembled, the Education Department states that it should only take 30 minutes to complete the application. Watch out for any scams offering to file your FAFSA for a fee.
If your family can afford to and are willing to pay for full-tuition without any loans, congratulations, you don’t have to fill out the FAFSA.
Most people can’t afford the published private school tuition. But most people don’t pay the listed price for private school tuition either. And while private colleges cost more than public schools, they usually provide more financial assistance than public schools.
Consider the following two institutions:
The total cost of attendance for Austin College is over twice that of Texas State University. However, Austin College also provides over five times the average amount of institutional grants than Texas State. On average, students have 70% of their need met at Austin College with only four percent do so at Texas State.
Two Reasons to Apply to Private Colleges
You should consider applying to private colleges because they are more likely to meet your financial need. There are still concerns since few colleges meet full financial need and some provide more in private loans than grants. The goal is to avoid such colleges and apply to those that provide more grants than loans.
You should consider applying to private colleges because they are more likely to provide non-financial need-based money in the form of merit scholarships. For students who have a high Expected Family Contribution, this is a significant advantage.
The CSS Profile is the College Scholarship Service provided by the College Board, the same people who bring you the SAT. Many colleges require students to submit the CSS Profile to determine eligibility for institutional aid.
The CSS provides colleges with much more information to use in their institutional methodology for awarding financial aid. It also allows colleges to make financial aid decisions earlier since the application can be submitted as early as October 1 of the student’s senior year as opposed to January 1 for the FASFA.
There are several differences between the FASFA and CSS.
- There is a fee for submitting the CSS Profile and an additional cost for sending it to each school. The FASFA is free to submit.
- The CSS asks for much more detailed information including information on home equity.
- In general, financial aid awards based on the CSS Profile will have a higher Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
You can visit the College Board website to find out which colleges require the CSS.
Tuition Coach is an excellent resource to use for filling out the CSS. If nothing else, after completing the CSS, the FASFA will be a breeze.
I have an entire post on EFC at What is EFC? The Start of Your College Search. But for those who need a short answer, EFC is the Expected Financial Contribution calculated on your financial aid application.
The EFC is not necessarily the same at every school since each school can calculate it differently. You’ll see this referred to the institutional versus the federal methodology.
Knowing your EFC gives you an idea of how much need-based financial aid you can expect from a college. Do not wait to estimate out your EFC until after you have applied to colleges.
No. You can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) any time after January 1. The College Service Scholarship Profile (CSS) can be submitted any time after October 1. You do need to be admitted to actually receive financial aid.
Most schools will have a priority deadline for financial aid. You will need to apply by this deadline so that you will know your financial aid award before you have to accept. Accepting before you know your financial aid award is generally not a good idea unless you have no problem paying full tuition.
Ultimately, it is in your best interest to apply as soon as possible for a variety of reasons. Many colleges will notify of your acceptance before the priority deadline for financial aid. The sooner they have your financial aid application, the sooner they notify you of your award, and the sooner you can decide if you want to attend the college.
Getting your award earlier can allow to appeal decisions before you have to send in your acceptance.
Colleges may award aid as applications are completed. Therefore, the later you wait, the less likely you are to receive institutional aid.
Some colleges require a completed financial aid application before awarding any merit aid.
You can’t submit the FASFA until after January 1. Ideally, you (and or your parents) should have already completed and filed your income tax before you submit your FASFA. However, if you will be delaying filing your taxes, you should consider going ahead an submitting your FASFA and amending as necessary.
In the most general terms, Net Price is the price that students actually pay for college as opposed to the “list” price or Total Cost of Attendance. The government defines average net price “by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance. Total cost of attendance is the sum of published tuition and required fees, books and supplies, and the weighted average for room and board and other expenses.”
Why is this important? Because as you may have guessed, most students do not pay the total cost of attendance.
So how do you know what you’ll actually pay? The reality is that you won’t know for sure until you have received your financial aid award from the specific school.
However, there are several tools to help you get a better idea of what college is going to cost. Knowing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is a big first step.
Also, the College Navigator website lists average net price for students for the past three years broken down by income level for each college. It will also provide a link to the college’s net price calculator which should provide you with an even better estimate of your net price.
The College Board also provides a net price calculator which can be useful if you are applying to schools that require the CSS profile.
How good the calculators are at predicting your actual cost remains to be seen.
Self-help financial aid is aid that the student earns through work or is required to pay back. Student loans and work-study are both self-help aid. Many colleges build their financial aid award starting with self-help aid.
Problems can occur when the institution doesn’t meet the student’s full-financial need, often referred to as “gapping.” For example, if a student is awarded a work-study job but still has unmet need, it’s going to be difficult to get a second job to make up the gap. More than likely, the student or parents will have to take out a loan to pay for the amount not cover by financial aid.
This is actually something I have experience with. As a freshman, I was awarded a partial Pell Grant, partial federal loan, and a work-study job. The work-study job, which was federally funded, was in place of a full federal loan. However, because of a changing financial situation in my family, I was going to need the full value of the loan and work part-time as well. Therefore, I turned down the work-study job so that I could get the full loan and still find a part-time job.
Also, the student contribution is separate from money awarded through a work-study job. Students are expected to earn their contribution during the summer.
Given the lack of consistency among financial aid award letters, it is important that families realize that anything listed as self-help aid is, for all intents and purposes, money that the student will have to come up with. Families should compare the cost of attendance based on the self-help aid plus any unmet need rather than the amount of merit, grant, or scholarship aid awarded.
The key to finding scholarships is to understand that most are targeted for specific student populations. This means two things. One, if you want a scholarship, you have to be part of that targeted population. Two, the people providing the scholarship what to get the information to the targeted students, not necessarily everyone who wants a scholarship. So you need to adjust your search accordingly.
This means that scholarships for residents of a specific area are often filtered through local high schools. Anyone seriously looking for a scholarship should already be working with their high school guidance counselor. However, the counselor’s office will often be the source of many local or regional scholarships.
Scholarships based on religion are likely to be found through your church while organizations such as civic clubs will have information on scholarships for their members. Businesses will often sponsor scholarships for employees and their families or for specific professions related to their business needs.
It’s not that you can’t find out information about such scholarships from other sources, it’s just that you’ll have to have some sort of relationship with these organizations to be eligible to apply. Therefore, looking for scholarships with organizations you already have relationships with is a good idea.
Chances are that your biggest scholarship will come from the college you eventually attend. If you think about it in terms of relationships, it makes sense. Colleges have the most money to give out and they’ll be spending on students who attend their school.
For an overview of private scholarships, read 8 Things You Need to Know About Private Scholarships. For a review of scholarship search websites, see College Scholarship.org, Brain Track, and The Scholarship Coach.
Colleges and universities award students financial aid packages to help cover the cost of attendance. The package is typically made up of combination of aid types. Some aid types are better than others.
There are two broad categories for financial aid: self-help and gift. Self-help aid is money that has to be earned through work-study or a loan that must be repaid. Grant aid is money that doesn’t have to be paid back and includes scholarships.
There are also a variety of sources for financial aid including the federal government, state government, private organizations, the college the student is attending, and the military. The largest single source is the federal government. However, at private institutions, the school itself will often be the biggest provider of financial aid.
Scholarships: These are awards that you usually apply for and meet some specific criteria for qualification. Often, private scholarships are only awarded for one year where institutional scholarships are generally renewable for four years. More on scholarships.
Grants: This is money that you don’t have to pay back. Generally, you don’t apply for grants, you are automatically considered for grants as part of the financial aid application. The most common grants are Pell Grants awarded by the Federal Government. Students may also be awarded Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants through their school’s financial aid program. Both are need-based programs. However, some states award grants to students without regard to need. Also private colleges often award non-need based grants to students.
Work-Study: Work-study is a federal program that provides colleges money to pay students to work campus jobs to help pay for tuition. Work-study is awarded based on financial need.
Stafford Loans: These are federal loans awarded to students through the college. Depending on financial need, they can be subsidized or unsubsidized loans. The federal government pays the interest rate while the student is attending college for subsidized loans. Virtually everyone is eligible for unsubsidized loans which have lower interest rates than private loans. These loans have a maximum value of $5,500 to $7,500 per year for undergraduates.
PLUS Loans: These are federal loans that parents may take out to pay the cost of college attendance not covered by the student’s financial package. That means that depending on the cost of the college, PLUS loans can be very large.
Private Loans: Private loans are basically not a good idea. If you are considering a private loan to attend college, you should find another college. You can see a comparison of private loans and federal loans here.
No–with a big assumption. The assumption is that you already know approximately how much you can afford and how much financial aid a college is likely to give you. That means that you have already used a calculator such as the FAFS4caster to estimate your expected family contribution (EFC) and the college’s net price calculator.
Before this sort of information became readily available, students were often told to go ahead and apply to colleges, especially private ones, because that was really the only way to find out what sort of financial aid they might receive. Students had to submit their applications before they received their EFC according to their FASFA application and certainly before the financial aid office let them know about any award.
The same is true today but there is enough information available to make reasonable estimates of how much a school is going to cost you before you ever submit an application. Many schools even have tools to estimate the amount of merit money you will receive as well as any need-based financial aid.
Applying with the attitude that “if I get in I’ll find some way to pay for it” is a bad idea. This leads to massive loans that keep graduates (assuming they graduate) from buying cars and saving for down-payments on their first house. See How Much Should I Borrow for College for more on the subject of loans.
There is a situation where you might apply to colleges that you don’t think you can afford. These are lessor known colleges where your test scores put you in the top 25% of applicants and makes you a candidate for substantial merit money.
My son applied to very similarly situated colleges and received any where from $7,500 to $21,000 in merit money. There was no way of knowing without applying how much he would received.
However, this still requires that you have firmly established what you can afford and be willing to turn down those schools that don’t become affordable even after merit money is awarded. Definitely, do not fall in love with a school you if you don’t know you can afford it.
A financial aid gap occurs when a college’s financial aid award for a student doesn’t meet the student’s financial need as defined by the college. This unmet need is referred to as the gap.
Gapping became a verb as some colleges have earned a reputation for failing to meet student need, especially students admitted with qualifications placing them in the middle to bottom of the class. Students in the bottom quarter of a class in terms of qualification are always at risk of being gapped with the exception of the most competitive institutions that meet 100% of need.
The financial aid gap is a serious concern because the student and family will be responsible for the unmet need in addition to the Expected Family Contribution(EFC). Usually, students with gaps will not be able to use federal loans to help cover the gap or the EFC because the college has assigned it to cover part of the defined financial need.
Often, students may not realize that they have been gapped because the financial aid award letter will have the amount covered by a PLUS loan. However, a PLUS loan is money borrowed by the parents and should not be considered part of the college’s financial aid award. Read 5 Ways to Get Smart About Financial Aid Award Letters and 5 Ways for Learning About Financial Aid to get the most possible financial aid.
An outside scholarship is one that is not part of the financial aid package awarded to you by the college. You need to report any outside scholarships to the financial aid office because it will affect your need-based aid. Schools are required by Federal rules to adjust your financial aid package so that the total of all of your aid does not exceed the school’s cost of attendance by $300.
Each school has their own policy on how they apply the outside scholarship to your financial aid package. The best case scenario applies the value of the outside scholarship to reducing the amount of any loans that are currently part of the package. So a $1,000 scholarship would reduce a $2,500 loan to only $1,500.
The outside scholarship cannot reduce the amount of a Pell Grant. Depending on the school, it could reduce the institutional grant.
You will have to check with each school for their policy. You should be able to find this out on a school’s financial aid webpage like in the case of George Mason University. However, you may need to contact the financial office to get information specific to your situation.
If you don’t report outside scholarships, you could end up having to repay the “overaward” amount back.
For more information
The federal work-study program is one of the financial aid options available when you qualify for federal aid. The work-study program is administered by the college with the federal government paying half the salary. The amount of money earned by the student in a work-study job is considered part of the financial aid package and doesn’t reduce future financial aid awards.
Students must apply for financial aid using the FAFSA to be eligible for a work-study job. They must also indicate on the application that they would be willing to accept a work-study job. Students are still eligible for work-study even if they don’t check the option on the FAFSA. However, it will delay the process and increase the likelihood of the money running out before they get a chance to apply for a job.
Students get work-study jobs through their school, not the federal government. Each campus will have their own process for applying for work-study jobs. The availability of work-study jobs will vary by campus. Simply being eligible for a work-study job doesn’t guarantee that students will find a work-study job.
The amount of hours a student can work at a work-study job is limited by the amount of the financial aid award. A student can not earn more than the financial aid award. The money earned through work-study is paid to the student directly and is subject to income tax.
The advantage of work-study is it often takes the place of student loans. However, unlike loans, students have to earn the money before it is awarded. Also, if there is a gap between your financial aid award and the student’s ability to pay, the student may not want a work-study job so that he can work a job and earn money to cover the gap.
Check the university’s website for work-study information.
Examples of College Work Study Program Rules/Requirements
Merit aid refers to college awarded financial aid that is not based on financial need. The most commonly recognized form of merit aid is the scholarship. Scholarships may be awarded for academic skills or achievements based on talents such as athletic, artistic, or leadership. Other types of merit aid include tuition waivers or institutional grants not based on financial need. Unlike most outside scholarships, merit aid is awarded for all four years of college.
Merit money is awarded by colleges to attract students to the college. Not all institutions provide merit money. The top ranked private colleges and universities generally do not provide merit money since they easily attract the country’s best students. Such schools claim that all of their students are academically talented and therefore only provide need-based financial aid.
Student generally don’t apply for the majority of merit aid that is available. The college makes the awards during the admissions process, another indicator that merit money is used to encourage students to attend the institution. This means that students must apply to a college to find out how much money they might receive. However, some net price calculators provides estimates of merit aid as well.
Merit money can range from a few thousand dollars to the full cost of attendance. A good student, not necessarily a straight A student, can expect to receive between $10,000 to $20,000 in merit money from less competitive private colleges. Private colleges may award minimal amounts of up to $5,000 to weaker students who can afford to pay the full cost of tuition.
Public universities do award merit money but generally not nearly to the extent of private institutions. These awards will often be much more competitive and require a separate application.
US News has a list rankings colleges on the percent of students receiving non-need based aid.
Just because a student is paying for all of his own expenses doesn’t make him an independent student for financial aid purposes. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has very specific requirements to qualify as an independent student.
You must answer “yes” to one or more of the following questions to be considered an independent student. (The dates change each year.)
|Were you born before Jan. 1, 1990? (this question is to see if you are over the age of 24)||Yes||No|
|As of today, are you married? (Answer “Yes” if you are separated but not divorced.)||Yes||No|
|At the beginning of the 2013–14 school year, will you be working on a master’s or doctorate program (such as an M.A., M.B.A., M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., graduate certificate, etc.)?||Yes||No|
|Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training? (If you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee, are you on active duty for other than state or training purposes?)||Yes||No|
|Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?*||Yes||No|
|Do you have children who will receive more than half of their support from you between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014?||Yes||No|
|Do you have dependents (other than your children or spouse) who live with you and who receive more than half of their support from you, now and through June 30, 2014?||Yes||No|
|At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a dependent or ward of the court?||Yes||No|
|Has it been determined by a court in your state of legal residence that you are an emancipated minor or that you are in a legal guardianship?||Yes||No|
|At any time on or after July 1, 2012, were you determined to be an unaccompanied youth who was homeless, as determined by (a) your high school or district homeless liaison or (b) the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development?**||Yes||No|
|At any time on or after July 1, 2012, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?**||Yes||No|
As you can see, simply living on your own and working a job instead of going to college will not qualify you as an independent student. You will still have to report your parent’s income as part of the FASFA application.
It may be possible to change your status. You will have to contact the financial aid office of the school you plan to attend which will make the decision about your dependency status. The school’s decision is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) is a federal program that allows parents of undergraduate students or graduate and professional students to borrow money not covered by student financial aid awards.
Parents can borrow up to the full cost of attendance and there is no cumulative limit for borrowing. The lender is the Department of Education and the loans are for a fixed interest rate of 7.9%. You must contact the college’s financial aid office for instructions on how to apply for the loan. For parents, loan repayment begins once the loan is disbursed.
Parents with an adverse credit history may still receive a PLUS loan is they have an acceptable endorser (cosigner) or are able to document extenuating circumstances regarding the adverse credit history. In 2011, the Department of Education made changes that made it more difficult for parents to qualify for PLUS Loans. Students whose parents have been denied PLUS loans may be eligible to for additional unsubsidized Stafford loans to help pay the cost of attendance.
Families should maximize the student’s Stafford Loans before the parents take out a PLUS loan since Stafford loans have lower interest rates. According to FinAid.org
In 2007-08, 8.2% of students whose parents borrowed from the Parent PLUS loan program did not borrow from the Stafford loan program, and 33.2% borrowed less than the maximum total amount available from the Stafford loan program.
How much should I borrow for college?
The Academic Common Market (ACM) is a program that allows students to pursue degrees not available in their state at out-of-state institutions but pay in-state tuition. There are 15 members of the Academic Common Market: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Florida and Texas participate only at the graduate level and Texas does not include any online programs.
Not all public institutions in each state participate in the program. For example, the University of Texas at Austin does not participate but Texas A&M does as well at the UT Health Science Centers. The Academic Common Market website provides a list of member universities.
First-professional degree programs, such as law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and optometry, are not offered in the ACM and cannot be requested. Each state may impose other restrictions on applicants.
As an example of what is available, students from Arkansas would be eligible to enroll in Bachelor Degrees for Architectural Engineering at Oklahoma State University, Marine Science at the University of Alabama, Health Services Administration at the University of Memphis, Nanosystems Engineering at Louisiana Tech, or Aerospace Engineering at West Virginia University.
Other Regional Tuition Discount Programs:
The Federal Methodology is the formula used by the federal government in calculating a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Students receive their EFC by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and receiving their Student Aid Report (SAR).
The Federal Methodology is used for calculating the Pell Grant, Perkins Loans, Federal Work-Study, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans, and TEACH Grant Programs. The Secretary of Education announces the Federal Methodology each year in the Federal Register.
Individual colleges and universities do not have to use the Federal Methodology for deciding how to award their institutional aid. This means that the amount of aid awarded by schools can vary dramatically from school to school. Not only will the amount of institutional aid awarded depend on the school, if the amount is large enough, it could reduce the need for students to take out federally subsidized (need-based) loans. Otherwise, the amount of need-based federal financial aid a student qualifies for will not vary from school to school.
Federal, state, and institutional financial aid is distributed through your college. Outside scholarships maybe be distributed directly to the student with the student being obligated to report the scholarship to the school’s financial aid office.
Financial aid is usually distributed once per term. The college first applies your financial aid award to tuition, fees, and room and board. This includes loans as well as grants and scholarships. If any money is left over, the school will pay the remaining funds to you. The methods will vary, so check with your college to see what options are available to you.
Work-study earnings are paid directly to the student. The school is required to pay work-study students at least once a month. If students do not work enough hours to use the entire amount of the work-study award, they will not receive the “remaining” funds at the end of the semester.
Federal loans will require first time recipients to go through entrance counseling and sign a promissory note before receiving funds.
If your parents are taking out PLUS loans, the school will generally apply the money to school related expense first as in the case of money awarded directly to the student. However, any money that is left over is paid to the parents, not the student.
Each college will have their own policies concerning financial aid disbursement. These include the order in which costs are paid such as tuition, housing, and fees as well as how the remaining aid is paid to the student. Summer and study abroad terms may have different procedures. They may not distribute money while students have academic or financial holds on their accounts. Work-study students may be paid more than once a month and may have options for receiving a check or direct deposit to an account.
Students also need to be aware of any charges made to their student account after they are paid the remaining part of their financial aid. Since the money has been distributed, there is no “money” available for the school to use to credit the charge. Therefore, the student will have to pay for these charges.
“Need blind” admissions refers to the process of a college evaluating an admission application without regard to the student’s financial status. In other words, the admissions office makes its decisions without knowing the student’s financial situation.
To understand what this means it helps to know under what circumstances admissions might consider a student’s financial situation. When colleges are deciding among students to fill the last remaining positions in their classes, some might consider admitting a student with more financial resources over another student with less financial resources but better qualifications.
The reason is that the college knows that it will not be able to provide financial aid to help the better qualified applicant to attend the college. Therefore, rather than admit a student who will likely reject the college, the college admits students who are more likely to attend because they have the financial resources to do so.
Colleges and universities that state they are need blind are generally assumed to meet the full financial need of all accepted students. However, they will often exclude international students from this category.
Furthermore, just because a college is need blind doesn’t mean that it will meet a student’s financial need. For example, Brown states the following:
Need-blind admission does not require that an applicant with demonstrated financial need be awarded financial aid, nor does it require that 100% of the applicant’s demonstrated need be met.
Consider also that all public schools are need blind but few, if any, meet the financial need of all of their students.
The fact that most colleges aren’t need blind means that students looking for financial should apply to schools where the student is likely to be among the first accepted in a class rather than the last.
Preferential packaging is the practice of changing the type and amount of financial aid awarded to a student based on the desirability of the student relative to the applicant pool. This policy is common among private colleges but not by public institutions.
Since most colleges have a finite amount of aid available, they have to decide how much and in what form to distribute it. Financial aid can come in the form of gift aid such as scholarships or as self-help aid such as loans and work-study. Gift aid is preferential to money that must be repaid, therefore, the composition of a financial aid award indicates the preference a university has for the student.
Muhlenberg College is one of the few colleges to explain the use of preferential packaging in financial aid.
Students who are admitted but in the bottom half of the admitted student group will probably receive a package that is built from self-help up. That is, the college will award the student’s entitlements and work first, and then review how much grant money it will take to reach the student’s full need. The college may or may not decide to meet the student’s need in full.
Students least preferred will probably find a significant “gap” between their actual financial need recognized by the college and the amount of financial aid awarded.
While the preference doesn’t have to be academic qualifications, a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found “Colleges that practice differential packaging offered preferential aid packages most frequently based on academic merit (93 percent), particular talents (50 percent), and income level (39 percent).” You can see an example of preferential packaging of three students at one university at Beware of Preferential Packaging.
Financial aid consists of all awards from government sources, private organizations, and colleges themselves. Therefore, eligibility for financial aid will depend on the source of the aid.
For federal financial aid and most state programs, besides demonstrating financial need, students must meet the following requirements:
- be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen;
- have a valid Social Security number (with the exception of students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau);
- be registered with Selective Service, if you’re a male (you must register between the ages of 18 and 25);
- be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program;
- be enrolled at least half-time to be eligible for Direct Loan Program funds;
- maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school;
- sign statements on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSASM) stating that
- you are not in default on a federal student loan and do not owe money on a federal student grant and
- you will use federal student aid only for educational purposes; and
- show you’re qualified to obtain a college or career school education by
- having a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or
- completing a high school education in a homeschool setting approved under state law.
Private organizations and universities may not have the same requirements, which can open up their financial aid programs to international students. Many colleges require international students to complete the FAFSA even though they will not qualify for financial aid. By submitting the FAFSA, the school will have access to the student’s financial information.
Some colleges will require international students to submit the CSS Financial Profile or the institution’s financial aid form for international students.
State aid will also often require students to submit the FAFSA to qualify for state aid. Some students who may not qualify for federal aid because of citizenship status may qualify for assistance through state programs such as the California Dream Act. Students need to check with each states‘ financial aid program for specific information.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be filed anytime after January 1st of the student’s senior year. You should submit your FAFSA as early as possible since many schools distribute certain types of financial aid on a first come, first served basis.
Since the FAFSA requires information from both the student’s and the parent’s income tax forms, it makes sense to wait until you’ve completed your taxes before you file the FAFSA. However, if for some reason there will be a delay in filing the taxes, you can use an estimate and go ahead and complete the FAFSA. You can make any adjustments as needed once you file your taxes.
It is possible, even likely, that you will submit the FAFSA before you know which schools have accepted your application. Many schools have a priority deadline for financial aid that occurs before the official notification date of notifying applicants of acceptance status.
Another date to know is the deadline for your state’s financial aid program. Most states (not all) use the FAFSA for students to qualify for state financial aid. Therefore, you will need to make sure you file in time to meet the state’s deadline as well.
If you are applying to a college that uses the College Scholarship Service (CSS Profile) by the College Board, you can submit your application as early as October 1 of your senior year. Again, it is in your best interest to apply as early as possible.
Even if you have completed the CSS Profile, you still need to submit the FAFSA if you want to receive any federal aid including unsubsidized student loans.
There are four major federal grant programs available for undergraduates:
- Federal Pell Grants
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
- Teach Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants
All programs require students to complete the FAFSA. The Pell and FSEOG grants are need-based programs. The maximum amount you can receive for a Pell Grant can change yearly. For 2013-14, the maximum award is $5,645. Students can only receive Pell Grants for 12 semesters.
The FSEOG program is a campus-based aid program. The school’s financial aid office receives a certain amount of FSEOG funds each year and then distributes the money to its students based on financial need. The school sets the deadlines and the award can vary from $100 to $4,000. Not all students who may qualify for the FSEOG will receive them. It all depends on how much money the school has for distribution. Therefore, you should apply as early as possible for financial aid.
The TEACH grants is also a campus-based program in that you must be enrolled in an eligible program to qualify for the grant. Not all schools participate and some programs that qualify at one school may not qualify at another. TEACH grants are not need-based program. Anyone who meets the qualifications can participate in the program.
Students can receive awards of up to $4,000 per year. Within eight years after graduating, students are obligated to teach four years in designated low-income schools as a highly qualified teacher. Students who do not meet their obligations have their grants converted to unsubsidized student loans.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants are not need-eligible program. Qualified students under the age of 24 whose parent died in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan are eligible to the maximum Pell Grant award.
The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid administered by the Office of Federal Student Aid. Students must submit the FAFSA to qualify for any federal financial aid, most state aid programs, and the vast majority of college aid programs. There is no cost to complete the FAFSA.
The FAFSA requires financial information from the student and from the student’s parents unless the student qualifies as an independent student. To complete the FAFSA, students will need income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, records of investments or untaxed income, and their social security number.
Students will also enter the codes for each school they are applying to. You can list up to ten schools on the FAFSA. You can add schools by updating your FAFSA and substituting a new school for an old school. However, if you make any other changes to the FAFSA, the old school will not receive the information.
The Office of Federal Student Aid has a worksheet that provides a preview of the questions you will be asked on the FAFSA. Students can use this to determine their dependency status and collect the information they will need to complete the FAFSA. The worksheet also lists state financial aid deadlines and is updated every year.
Students can complete the FAFSA online or through the mail as early as January 1st of their senior year. Using the online form will reduce the number of errors and will allow students to use the IRS retrieval tool to complete required fields.
After the FAFSA is processed, the student will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) which will provide the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is calculated using the Federal Methodology. You need to check that all of the information on the SAR is correct.
There are two types of federal student loan programs, subsidized and unsubsidized. For subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest for student borrowers while they are in school or during specific deferment periods. Since the government is paying the interest, it is “subsidizing” the loan. Students must demonstrate financial need by completing the FAFSA to qualify for a subsidized loan.
Unsubsidized student loan programs are where the borrower is responsible for payment of any interest of the loan. Borrowers do not have to meet any financial need requirements to qualify for a loan. However, they must still submit the FAFSA and meet other requirements such as citizenship status.
The Stafford loan is the largest federal loan program. Interest rates are linked to the 10 year U.S. Treasury rate with maximum interest caps. There are both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans. The amount students are allowed to borrow varies according to the student’s dependency status and year in school. There is a lifetime limit of $31,000 for undergraduate dependent students with up to $23,000 being subsidized. Students do not make payments while attending school.
Students with exceptional financial need may qualify for Perkins Loans. Each school’s financial aid office determines the amount of Perkins Loans. The loans are subsidized with a yearly maximum of $5,500 and a lifetime maximum of $27,500 for undergraduates. Students do not make payments while attending school.
The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) is an unsubsidized loan and requires borrowers to immediately begin repaying the loan.
Scholarships are taxable depending on what they are used to pay for. If you are a degree candidate, the amount of your scholarship that covers tuition and any required fees, books, supplies, and equipment is not taxable. These books, supplies, and equipment have to be required of everyone taking the class in order to qualify. The portion of your scholarship that covers room and board, travel, research, clerical help, and equipment is taxable.
You do not have to report your scholarship or file an income tax return if your only income consists of non-taxable scholarships.
The following is from the IRS publication 970 which includes information on athletic scholarships and fellowships as well:
Qualified education expenses. For purposes of tax-free scholarships and fellowships, these are expenses for:
- Tuition and fees required to enroll at or attend an eligible educational institution, and
- Course-related expenses, such as fees, books, supplies, and equipment that are required for the courses at the eligible educational institution. These items must be required of all students in your course of instruction.
Expenses that do not qualify. Qualified education expenses do not include the cost of:
- Room and board,
- Clerical help, or
- Equipment and other expenses that are not required for enrollment in or attendance at an eligible educational institution.
It depends on which colleges you apply to. If you apply to colleges that use the FAFSA only for calculating financial aid, equity in your primary home is not considered. However, if you apply to schools that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, home equity is likely to be considered.
Since each school decides if they use home equity in their methodology and how much to consider, how much home equity will affect financial aid will vary by institution. Mark Kantrowitz of Fastweb, estimates that colleges cap the amount of equity (value of home-mortgage) considered at between two to three times annual income. Troy Onink in Forbes reports that “home equity counts under the Institutional Methodology, but only up to 1.2 times the parent’s adjusted gross income (AGI) under the Consensus.”
This is based on standards initially released by the 568 President’s Group where a group of schools agreed to a consensus methodology for calculating family financial assets. However, the formula has been adjusted since then and very few schools include the actual formula with their financial aid information.
Currently, Stanford provides information on how it uses home equity stating that “we cap the amount of home equity considered at 1.2 times the total family income.” Yet, it’s difficult to find any other schools as forthcoming. You can get some idea of which schools count home equity by using net price calculators (NPC).
Of course, this assumes the NPC is accurate and that the school has a standard formula for considering home equity. Inside Higher Education reported that “Harvard is flexible in considering home equity: ignoring it entirely in some cases and taking it into consideration in others.”
If you want to know the actual figure, you’re best bet is to ask the college. According to Money Watch.com
If your home has appreciated a lot, ask private colleges how they factor in home equity when determining aid, advises Paula Bishop, a financial aid consultant in Bellevue, Wash. Their answers may differ dramatically. Some schools, such as Princeton University, ignore home equity. Others, such as Boston College and American University, include 100 percent of it as an asset.
You can find a list of schools that are using the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE here.
SAR stands for Student Air Report and is what you receive after your FAFSA is processed. If you provided an email, you should receive a link to your SAR three to five days after submitting the FAFSA. If you submitted a paper version without an email address, it will take up to three weeks to received the results. Federal Student Aid has a table showing the timelines for receiving the SAR.
The SAR contains your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is based on the information you submitted in the FAFSA. The SAR contains a summary of all of the information you submitted. You should review the data carefully to make sure there aren’t any errors. If you need to make any corrections, the SAR will have instructions on how to make corrections.
You cannot change “income or asset information to reflect changes to the family’s financial situation that took place after the FAFSA was filed. For example, if the student’s family spent some of their savings after filing the FAFSA, the student may not update his or her information to show a change in the family’s assets.” Students will need to the contact the school’s financial aid office directly to explain significant changes in family circumstance. (From the 2013-14 Counselors and Mentors Handbook)
Other information on the SAR includes any federal student loans you currently have, your Pell Grant Eligibility, and Data Release Number (DRN) which is used as a reference for your SAR.
Some FAFSAs are selected for verification. If your SAR indicates that you have been chosen for verification, the school will contact you to let you know what documentation you must submit and the deadline. Some FAFSAs are selected for verification randomly while others because of discrepancies that appeared in processing the data. You should complete the verification as soon as possible since so much institutional aid is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.
You may also add schools to receive the FAFSA. Only ten schools are allowed to be listed on the FAFSA at one time. If you add an eleventh school, one of the original ten schools must be removed. Any school removed will not receive any updates made after being removed from the list. You can have schools add themselves to your record by providing them with the DRN.
If you do not need to make any changes to the SAR, you don’t have to do anything. Just keep a copy for your records.
For more information: Understand Your Student Aid Report
Yes. You can appeal your financial aid award if there has been a change in your family circumstance or if you believe that the process did not account for a specific aspect of your family situation. The following is a list of reasons why you might appeal your financial aid award:
- Job loss
- Reduction of income
- Addition to family
- Natural Disaster
- Private Tuition
- Care for elderly parent
- Increase Child care expenses
- Changes in number of dependents in household
- Unusual or one-time events that inflated your income the previous year
There other reasons why you might appeal an award. A school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) may not capture your actual costs. For example, a student from out-of-state may have much higher travel expenses than the average used in the COA. Also, if you receive a higher award from another school, some schools may match the award. Some schools, however, have explicit policies stating that they will not consider awards from other institutions.
You can only make changes by contacting the school directly with an appeal for a change in financial aid. You cannot change the financial information reported on your SAR. The school’s financial aid office can change your EFC making eligible for more federal and institutional aid.
There are specific limits for federal financial aid programs. Since July 1, 2013, first time borrowers of subsidized loans are limited to a maximum time of 150% of the length of the student’s program. This means that those in a four-year program are limited to six years of loans while those in two-year programs are limited to three years of loans.
Unsubsidized and PLUS loans do not have a time limit. These financial aid programs are limited to specific amounts that can be borrowed each year with maximum limits for undergraduate and graduate students depending on their dependency status. These limits include any subsidized loans received. The following table from the Federal Student Aid website shows the current limits.
|Year||Dependent Students (except students whose parents are unable to obtain PLUS Loans)||Independent Students (and dependent undergraduate students whose parents are unable to obtain PLUS Loans)|
|First-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit||$5,500—No more than $3,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.||$9,500—No more than $3,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.|
|Second-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit||$6,500—No more than $4,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.||$10,500—No more than $4,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.|
|Third-Year and Beyond Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit||$7,500—No more than $5,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.||$12,500—No more than $5,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.|
|Graduate or Professional Students Annual Loan Limit||Not Applicable (all graduate and professional students are considered independent)||$20,500 (unsubsidized only)|
|Subsidized and Unsubsidized Aggregate Loan Limit||$31,000—No more than $23,000 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.||$57,500 for undergraduates—No more than $23,000 of this amount may be in subsidized loans. $138,500 for graduate or professional students—No more than $65,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans. The graduate aggregate limit includes all federal loans received for undergraduate study.|
Pell Grants are limited to the equivalent of six years of funding. Students who receive Pell Grants as part of their financial aid are allowed 600% of Lifetime Eligibility Use (LEU). If for some reason the student doesn’t receive 100% of the eligible amount for a Pell Grant, she could receive the amount in subsequent years. The most common reason for not receiving a full award is to drop below full-time status.You can see an example of LEU at the StudentAid.gov website.
The answer is not “as many times to get the score she wants.”
As usual, the answer depends on the student. The simplest answer is that the lower your score, the more likely taking the test will raise it while the higher your score, the more likely taking the test will lower the scores.
The College Board reports the following concerning retaking the SAT:
- 55 percent of juniors taking the test improved their scores as seniors.
- 35 percent had score drops.
- 10 percent had no change.
- The higher a student’s scores as a junior, the more likely that student’s subsequent scores will drop.
- The lower the initial scores, the more likely the scores will go up.
- On average, juniors repeating the SAT as seniors improved their combined critical reading, mathematics, and writing scores by approximately 40 points.
- About 1 in 25 gained 100 or more points on critical reading or mathematics, and about 1 in 90 lost 100 or more points.
You can view the actual retaking results by score in the Percentage of Students with Senior-Year Score Gain or Loss table.
The ACT provides similar information. Its research shows that:
- 57% increased their Composite score on the retest
- 21% had no change in their Composite score on the retest
- 22% decreased their Composite score on the retest
The ACT provides a summary of retesting results in the Summary Information for Retesting By Initial ACT Composite Score table.
Don’t Retake the SAT or ACT test if:
You did serious preparation for the test the first time you took it and had a “good” test session. There is probably little to gain in taking the ACT or SAT again.
Retake the SAT or ACT test if:
You didn’t prepare for the test the first time and will spend the time to seriously prepare for the test next time.
You didn’t have a “good” test session. This can include only getting four hours of sleep the night before, getting into a fender-bender on the way to the test site, not having the classroom AC working while taking the exam in June in South Texas… you get the picture.
You are close to a score cut-off qualification. For example, if you can get your 550 SAT math score up to 600, you’ll qualify for a scholarship or some special program.
The conventional wisdom is that juniors should take the SAT or ACT sometime in the spring of their junior year. If need be, they retake it in the fall of their senior year.
My recommendation is to take the exam as early as possible in the fall of their junior year.
Here are my reasons:
- Most students will be taking the PSAT in their junior year when it “counts” for National Merit Scholarships. Why not kill two birds with one stone and prepare for both tests at the same time?
- Reduce the stress of the junior spring. Juniors will already be asking teachers for recommendations and preparing for final competitions in extra-curricular activities, class projects, final exams, and possibly AP exams. You have to do these things in the spring, you don’t have to take the ACT or SAT in the spring.
- It isn’t just the exam but the preparation. Students will be “fresher” and better able to concentrate on test preparation at the end of summer and beginning of the fall compared to the spring. How many students want to start a study class for the SAT or ACT during spring break? And this preparation will help you on the PSAT as suggested in the first reason.
- The sooner you know your test scores, the sooner you can start targeting colleges to build your college search list.
- If you decide you want to retake the exam, you will have a lot more options of when to retake it.
No. All four-year colleges accept both tests. Both the SAT and ACT provide concordance tables to “translate” scores from one test to another.
However, there are reasons why you might want to take both tests. The tests are not the same and if you do poorly on one, you might do better on the other.
The basic difference is that the SAT is considered a reasoning test while the ACT is an achievement test. Other differences include subjects covered, level of subjects, essay requirements, and penalties for guessing. You can find a variety of website that will detail the differences and their implications for the students. I like the StudyPoint table that summarizes the differences.
Ultimately, both tests are going to kill half a Saturday to take and set you back $50 ($49.50 for the ACT with the essay option.)
The best thing to do is to take the practice tests offered by each and see which one you prefer. Knowing which test better suits you means that you can prepare for just one test and pay for just one test.
For those who attend schools that offer both the PSAT and PLAN, taking both tests will also give you an idea of which one might be better for you.
Taking these practice tests can be especially useful for those who waited until their senior year to take the tests. You only have a short time to prepare so you’ll want to spend your time on the test you’re likely to better on. And for anyone who wants to avoid spending the time and money on two test prep classes, figuring out which test for you is the way to go.
You can see what percentile you rank in for each test at:
Probably the majority of high school students haven’t heard of SAT subject tests which is as it should be since most won’t take any.
The SAT Subject Tests (previously called SAT 2′s) are one hour high school level subject tests that are given during the same time as the SAT. The tests are offered in the following subjects:
Student can take up to three subject tests at one time. Not all subjects are offered each test date.
SAT Subject Tests are required by the more competitive colleges as part of the admissions process. They will generally require two subject tests although some will waive the subject test if the student submits ACT scores.
Some colleges only recommend SAT Subject Tests as part of the admissions process while others use them for placement purposed. Homeschoolers often take Subject Tests as a way of providing outside validation of high school work.
The best time to take the subject test is immediately after finishing the high school course. Unfortunately, many students aren’t aware of the need of the tests until their junior year and will lose the advantage of having just covered the material before taking the test.
Students who take AP Exams should check with each school to see if they will allow the AP to be substitute for the Subject Test.
There doesn’t appear to be one comprehensive list of schools that require the Subject Tests. The following two sites provide the most complete that I have found:
The PSAT is the Preliminary SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Basically, the PSAT is a practice test for the SAT that is given in high schools in October.
The PSAT takes only about half the time of the actual SAT and at $14 costs much less than the SAT. Students register for the test through their high school. Some high schools restrict which students can take the test. For example, only sophomores and juniors might be allowed to take the test. The test is administered during school hours on a Wednesday or on the following Saturday.
The scores can be used to estimate a student’s SAT scores. The student will receive scores in Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. Multiplying the score by 10 will give the equivalent of the SAT score.
Juniors who take the test may qualify to be a National Merit Scholar depending on their score. The cut-off score varies each and by state. Students who meet the cut-off score will qualify for recognition for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The top third of this group of students will qualify as finalists and may progress in the scholarship competition. Finalists are determined by transcripts, application, and SAT scores. Winners are selected from the finalist group. Winners receive a $2,500 scholarship and may be eligible for a corporate or college based scholarship.
Often colleges and universities that are trying to improve their academic reputation will actively recruit National Merit Scholars. However, qualifying as a National Merit Scholar isn’t going to distinguish a student in the application process for the most competitive schools. In many ways, it is considered just part of the minimum standard for applying.
If possible, students should take the PSAT as sophomores. This gives them a low-cost way to determine their likely SAT score and their strengths and weaknesses. Students can study for the SAT the summer before their junior year and benefit with higher SAT and PSAT scores.
Superscoring is the practice of taking the best sub scores from multiple test dates to create the highest superscore possible. For example, if a student took the SAT twice with the following results, the superscore would be the third set of numbers
Test Date 1
Test Date 2
This is not something the student controls. It is up to each college to decide if it will superscore test results. Many colleges have been superscoring the SAT for some time. The College Board maintains a PDF list of participating institutions and their superscoring policy.
Colleges have only recently begun to superscore ACT scores. College Admissions Counseling is maintaining a list of institutions that are superscoring the ACT.
If you don’t know if a college superscores, ask the admissions office.
Superscoring is not the same thing as score choice. Score choice is the ability to choose which test results to send to the college. This is something the student does control. However, the student can only choose which scores to send based on the test date. In other words, you can’t pick to send just a math score from one test data and critical reading from another. All scores for the test date are sent.
The term “test optional” generally refers to colleges and universities that do not require students to submit ACT or SAT test scores to be admitted to the institution. However, there really isn’t a set definition as seen at the Fair Test website, an organization that tracks such testing requirements.
Even the Fair Test definition is less than definitive. The organization defines “SAT/ACT Optional 4-Year Universities” as “Schools That Do Not Use SAT or ACT Scores for Admitting Substantial Numbers of Students Into Bachelor Degree Programs.” It’s not clear what constitutes “substantial.”
Fair Test’s listing of over 800 institutions includes the following seven footnotes:
- SAT/ACT used only for placement and/or academic advising
- SAT/ACT required only from out-of-state applicants
- SAT/ACT considered only when minimum GPA and/or class rank is not met
- SAT/ACT required for some programs
- Test Flexible: SAT/ACT not required if other college level exams specified by school, such as SAT Subject Test, Advanced Placement, or Int’l Baccalaureate, submitted
- Placement test or school-specific admissions exam score required if not submitting SAT/ACT
- Admission/Eligibility Index calculated with 3.5 GPA and combined SAT Critical Reading plus Math score of 400
Obviously, just because the test isn’t used primarily to admit most students, many students will still be required to submit the test or take some other test instead.
Furthermore, Fair Test’s list includes all institutions that offer a bachelor’s degree. This includes 53 schools that are online or include multiple sites such as the University of Phoenix. It also includes for-profit institutions as well as specialty ones such as The Art Institute and numerous schools with enrollments of less than 100.
According to the IPEDS data in the DIY College Rankings College Search Spreadsheet, only 250 public or non-profit institutions with 500 or more full-time undergraduates list SAT/ACT testing as “Not Applicable” or “Neither Required nor Recommend.”
It is also important to realize that test optional will not apply to NCAA D1 and D2 athletes. The tests may also not be optional when applying for merit aid. Many schools use a combination of GPA and test scores to award merit money.
See 5 Ways to Get Smart About the SAT, ACT and College Admission Testing for more information on the college testing.
The College Board and ACT have created concordance tables to compare ACT and SAT test scores. The tables are based on a group of students who have taken both tests.
If you use the tables, you should be aware of their limitations. There may be differences in students who take both tests and those who take only one of the tests. Students who can afford to take both tests or who take both tests to see on which they score better may have a different academic background than those who take only one test.
According to the methodology used to develop the tables, there is a significant difference between students who take the ACT Plus Writing compared to the total group of ACT test takers.
Furthermore, since the two tests are structured differently, some students may do better on one test than the other. For example, one student scored a 25 ACT Composite which would be an 1150 SAT score on the concordance table. When he took the SAT, he scored a 1340 which was an ACT Composite score of 30 on the concordance table.
The maximum SAT test score on all three sections of the test is 2400. This score is based on the combined individual scores for the Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing sections. The lowest score for each section is 200 and the highest is 800.
According the College Board, for 2013 college-bound seniors the 50th percentile scores were:
You can also look up the percentile rankings for students in your state. Most schools do not report the writing portion of the SAT.
Whether or not your scores are “good” depends on the colleges you are applying to. Most colleges report their 25th and 75th percentile scores. For example, the University of Texas at Dallas reports the following test scores:
This means that 50% of students had scores within the given range. If your scores are above the 75th Percentile, they would definitely be considered “good” for the school. However, it is important to remember that 25% of students attending had scores lower than the 25th Percentile. Scores are not the only thing colleges consider in admissions.
Among 50-50 schools where at least 20% of freshman reported SAT scores, the unweighted average percentiles were as follows:
This puts the lowest 25th percentile for 50-50 schools at approximately the national 50th percentile for all high schools seniors. For Critical Reading, 607 is between the 80th and 82nd percentile nationally and 615 for math is between the 77th and 79th percentiles.
If you eliminate the admission rate requirement (all schools with a 50% graduation rate, four-year for private schools, five-year for public), the unweighted average is as follows:
The ACT test has four sections, English, Math, Reading, and Science, each scored on a scale of 1 to 36. The ACT also calculates a composite score which is an average of all four test. The single composite score is generally used when discussing ACT scores. However, the total of all four scores, 144, is used by organizations such as the NCAA.
According to the ACT, of the 2013 college-bound seniors, the 50th percentile scores were:
The ACT offers a writing section that is offered in addition to the regular test. Generally, colleges don’t report Reading and Science scores, only the Composite, English, and Math scores.
Whether or not your scores are “good” depends on the colleges you are applying to. Most colleges report their 25th and 75th percentile scores. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports the following test scores:
This means that 50% of students had scores within the given range. If your scores are above the 75th Percentile, they would definitely be considered “good” for the school. However, it is important to remember, that 25% of students attending had scores lower than the 25th Percentile. Scores are not the only thing colleges consider in admissions.
Among 50-50 schools where at least 20% of students reported ACT scores, the unweighted average percentiles were as follows:
This puts the lowest 25th percentile for 50-50 schools at approximately the 65th percentile for all high schools seniors. For English, 21.6 is between the 59th and 64th percentile nationally and 21.6 for math is between the 56th and 61st percentiles.
If you eliminate the admission rate requirement (any admission rate, 50% or better graduation rate, the unweighted average is as follows:
Whenever you search for colleges using the College Board, Peterson’s, or US News & World Report, you are using data based on the common data set (CDS). This survey captures some information that isn’t available through the government’s Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data Set (IPEDS) used for the College Navigator search website and others.
When you’re researching colleges, you might find the following information useful and it may only show up on the CDS survey:
- Percentage of classes by size categories
- Average GPA of the freshman class
- GPA-breakdown of freshman by high school GPA
- Percent of freshman by SAT/ACT test score ranges
- Percent of freshman by class rank
- Percent of students who join a sorority or fraternity
- Percentage of students who have their institutionally defined financial aid need met.
- Information on aid to foreign students
Usually searching by the college name and “common data set” will locate the information.
Some colleges don’t make their Common Data Set public. Others, like Harvard, make it public but do not include all reported information on it such as GPA or class rank break-downs.
There are also some characteristics for which you should not rely on the common data set or the websites that use it. The biggie is teaching assistants (TAs) or graduate assistants. If you look up Harvard University on the US News and World Report College Search site, you will see that the “Classes taught by graduate students” is listed as “N/A.” The fact is that the CDS excludes any graduate students by definition. You will find the following definition under section I- INSTRUCTIONAL FACULTY AND CLASS SIZE of the CDS instructions.
|(d) undergraduate or graduate students who assist in the instruction of courses, but have titles such as teaching assistant, teaching fellow, and the like||Exclude||Exclude|
So even though Harvard reports through IPEDS 1,173 part-time instructional graduate assistants, they aren’t going to show up in the CDS or the sites that use them. Some universities do report “Classes Taught by Graduate Assistants” in the US News College Rankings but I’m not sure where they are actually reported in the Common Data Set form.
The simple answer is not to apply to any college that you can’t afford to attend.
Of course, given that the vast majority of financial aid is awarded by colleges, most students don’t actually know if they can afford a college until they are accepted and have received their financial aid award letters.
However, the fact is that families can get an idea of how much aid they are likely to receive from a college using the institution’s Net Price Calculator. (There will be a link to it at the College Navigator website if you can’t find it on the college website.) If you can’t afford this basic estimate, then pass.
Next, find out what percentage of need the school meets. The calculator might say that you have a certain need but that doesn’t mean the college is committed to meeting it. Look to see what percentage of students are taking out non-federal loans to attend the school. If it’s a high percentage, it’s probably something you can’t afford.
Does the college require the CSS form instead of or in addition to the FASFA? Make sure you use the College Cost Calculator at the College Board since it requires information that isn’t required for the FASFA and can result in a significantly different expected family contribution (EFC).
Finally, the family needs to consider the situation of being able to afford the reach school but paying significantly less at a match or safety school because of merit scholarships. Are you willing to pay $100,000 difference over four years to attend the reach school? The difference could fund study abroad, new car, graduate school, or start-up money for a new business. Is the reach college worth it?
The one sign that you really shouldn’t apply to a reach school? When the student and/or family says that if the students gets into x school, “we’ll find a way to pay for it.” If you don’t have a good idea of how you’ll pay for it before you apply, you shouldn’t be applying.
If you know enough to ask the question, you are ready to start visiting colleges.
But what if you’re only a freshman in high school?
Now it may matter to the colleges. Many colleges will host special visit days only open to juniors or seniors so you won’t be able to participate in them.
However, virtually all colleges have some sort of campus tour that anyone can attend although you might have to register for it. Also, students can usually attend college fairs at anytime.
This doesn’t mean that freshman should be planning summer college visit tours across the country. It means that as soon as students are interested (or are willing to tolerate it depending the student) they should start visiting area colleges and universities to just get a feel for the process. When traveling, if there is time, do a quick tour of a local college.
At this point, there isn’t any pressure (I hope) and there isn’t any reasons to not visit a school, no matter how much the student doesn’t like the campus. It’s not a commitment, it’s not even a fact-finding mission. It’s developing the skills to get the most out of future college visits by doing “practice” ones now.
There is no official definition of what is a flagship university. In general, when people talk about flagship universities, they are referring to the most prominent public university of their state. It is usually the first public university that was established in the state and receives the most state support.
It doesn’t have to be just one university. In Texas, both the University of Texas and Texas A&M are consider flagship universities.
The term is relevant to the college search process since state flagship admissions, especially to honor programs, are considered low-cost, high quality alternatives to private institutions.
And while there generally isn’t any official designation, there has been at least one case of official “undesignation.” The Idaho State Board of Education removed the word “flagship” as part of the University of Idaho’s mission because members felt it was unfair to other public state universities.
The basic difference is that Early Decision (ED) is binding and Early Action (EA) is not. Binding means that if you are accepted, you agree to attend the college and withdraw or not apply to any other colleges. You can only apply to one college through early decision. The only way for students to get out of an early decision commitment is to show that even with their financial aid awards, they can not afford to attend the college.
The main reason why students would choose early decision over early action or regular decision is because students have a better chance of being admitted under early decision. This is true especially of competitive schools.
At one time, the use of early decision was criticized since it meant that students who needed to know their financial aid award couldn’t apply early decision. Thus, early decision tended to benefit students from wealthier families while reducing the changes for admission for poorer students. Consequently, many schools dropped their early decision option. However, recently some universities have added the option back to their admission process.
Applying early action generally doesn’t have any admission benefits. However, often students must apply early action to receive consideration for all institutional scholarships and grants. Also, some colleges waive application fees for students who apply early action.
Why wouldn’t someone apply early action if she had the option? A student who needs her senior fall semester grades and activities to strengthen her application might wait to apply regular decision.
Articulation agreements are agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions on how students’ credits will transfer. This is not the same thing as simply transferring to another school. These agreements state that students who have completed specific requirements will be admitted as a transfer student. The goal is to eliminate any questions as to which classes will transfer and meet basic requirements. Ultimately, such agreements provide a smoother transition transferring from a community college to a four-year institution.
An increasing number of states have required four-year state institutions to accept specific credits for transfer from community colleges. These policies can usually be found on the state’s higher education website.
There are also private colleges that have articulation agreements with local community colleges. These agreements allow students to attend their first two years at a community college taking specific courses and then transfer to the private school for the last two years. Depending on the agreement, the student may actually be admitted to both institutions initially and provided with a common student ID.
There isn’t any one place that lists all articulation agreements. This is why it’s important to consider your transfer plans before you even start at a community college. You should check with the community colleges to find out if they have any such agreements with four-year institutions. If you already have a four-year institution in mind, you should find out which schools, if any, they have agreements with.
Students can still transfer to a university even if it doesn’t have an articulation agreement with the student’s current school. There’s just less certainty in being admitted and how many classes will transfer.
Examples of Articulation Agreements
In the United States, there isn’t any official difference. There are no rules that require certain types of institutions to use the term “college” and others to use “university.”
Many perceive the difference in terms of size, “university” means big and “college” means small. But there are some pretty big colleges out there:
- Columbia College, MO: 18,091
- Boston College: 14,754
- College of Charleston: 11,646
- Rhode Island College : 9,044
- College of William & Mary, VA: 8,200
There are even more small universities.
- Finlandia University, MI: 602
- University of New Hampshire at Manchester: 1,010
- Lawrence University, WI: 1,487
- Sewanee-The University of the South, TN: 1,557
- University of Charleston, WV: 1,372
- Kettering University, MI: 2,079
Another possible distinction related to size is that a university will contain more than one college. Big universities have colleges of business, engineering, education, communications, and so on. But again, big isn’t always the case. Lawrence University designates itself a university because it has a separate music conservatory.
And somewhere along the way, “University” must have sounded better because there a lot of small institutions called “University.” There are just under 300 universities with 3000 or fewer students.
A lot of them may have started out as colleges and changed to university. Texas Lutheran College is now Texas Lutheran University. For some, the change represented an actual change or addition in its offerings. For others, “university” was simply was better marketing than “college.” Or maybe that was the original name and it just never “grew” into its name.
Of the 279 universities with less than 3000 students, 47 would be considered traditional Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) with a Carnegie Classification of “Baccalaureate College-Arts & Sciences” including Lawrence University.
What’s a Carnegie Classification? Well, that’s another FAQ. But it is the system used by US News & World Report’s College Rankings to sort institutions into different categories. You can actually search on the classifications at CollegeResults.org.
As far as the differences between “colleges” and “universities,” there really aren’t any. Or rather, there aren’t any that are well-defined enough to actually use in your college search.
Often students do not have a choice of whether to live on or off campus. It’s simply a matter of finances-to be able to afford to attend college, they live at home and attend a local university.
But for those who have the choice, research shows that students who live on campus do better academically. The University of Northern Iowa found the GPA of students on campus was approximately 0.5 points higher than those off campus for the first two years. They were also more likely to make the Dean’s list. Students living on campus were much more likely to graduate than those living off campus.
Kent State also shows advantages to living on campus. James Murray of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has a working paper showing the academic advantage of living on campus even after moving off campus. A study published in Urban Education shows that Black students living on campus have higher GPAs than those living off campus. This was true for all students living on campus at Liberal Acts Colleges as well.
There are always individual exceptions to the rule. However, the available research means that students considering living off-campus for their freshman year should carefully re-evaluate their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of living on-campus before making a final decisions.
A learning community is when a group of students take two or more courses together. The courses may be based on a theme or simply core classes required by the college. The goal of a learning community is to provide students with increased opportunities to form relationships with other students and interact with faculty.
Learning communities are especially appealing in large settings where students would normally attend large classes and are not likely to have the same students in each class. Some learning communities have a residential aspect where students all live in the same dorm.
Learning communities come in a variety of forms. Some are combined with First Year Experiences for freshman. Others are based on majors, honors programs, or special interest such as outdoor experiences or community service. Not all learning communities require students taking the same classes or require them to have a shared residence. Because of space limitations, students may be required to apply to learning communities.
Appalachian State has residential learning communities that include Active Living, art Haus, Brain Matters, Business Exploration, and Living Green. Visit Ohio University to see an example of learning communities based on majors.
For more information visit (the links at these sites aren’t all up to date):
- The Washington Center
- The Residential Learning Communities International Registry
- NACADA Learning Communities
There is little research that actually documents the benefits of Learning Communities. However, I do find that the possible disadvantages of learning communities to be rather weak.
One argument is that learning communities will not make up for students poorly prepared for college work. I can see how some administrations might use this as a “solution” for poorly prepared students. But I would imagine that there would be other signs warning students off of such schools.
Another argument is that students with limited attention spans might not be able to handle the extended interaction that occurs within learning communities. I think this falls under the student not being prepared for college to begin with category.
I would expect the quality of learning communities to vary from college to college as well as within the colleges themselves. If students are interested in Learning Communities, it would be a good idea for them to talk to students who are currently in the programs they are interested in.
A gap year is time taken off (usually a year) after graduating from high school and before starting college. Gap years are common in places such as England and are becoming more popular in the United States.
Gap years originate in the desire to take a break from the academic stress of high school before starting college. Students from highly competitive high schools who were admitted to a highly competitive college wanted a chance to explore interests that had been set aside or regimented as part of high school.
The colleges that have accepted these students will generally allow them to request a gap year and defer admissions for a year. Their experience has been that students who take a gap year take more ownership of their education and do better academically.
However, there seems to be an increasing number of students who are using a gap year as a way to get into the highly competitive colleges that rejected them as seniors. These students take a year off without having been admitted and accepted into a particular college. Their goal is to do something during the gap year that will impress the admissions office and get them accepted the next time around.
So instead of a gap year being a break from high stakes college admissions, for some people, it is simply a continuation of the process.
There are a variety of organizations that offer gap year programs, usually for a price. However, paid programs are not necessary for a successful gap year. Many students create their own plan of activities and studies to follow their passions for a year. Some work to get experience in fields they’re interested in.
Gap years aren’t about working to save for tuition. After all why would so many families be worried about the cost of a gap year if it was about saving money? However, gap years do have the potential to save money if the result is the student being more focused about their education so that they graduate in four years with higher grades.
If you look at the US News College Rankings you’ll see that there are two major rankings, National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges. In general, people have heard of National Universities but few are familiar with the Liberal Arts Colleges or why they are a separate group.
US News defines the two groups as follows:
- National University- “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master’s, and doctoral degrees. These colleges also are committed to producing ground breaking research.”
- Liberal Arts College-” emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study.”
According to their methodology, US News used the Carnegie Classification of “Baccalaureate Colleges: Arts & Sciences” for the Liberal Arts Colleges category. The Carnegie definition includes the following:
- Awarded fewer than 50 master’s degrees.
- Among institutions where bachelor’s degrees represented at least half of all undergraduate degrees, at least half of bachelor’s degree were in majors in arts and sciences field
- Some institutions that had been classified among Master’s Colleges and Universities could be in this category if they met the following criteria:
FTE enrollment of fewer than 4,000 students
Highly residential (Size & Setting classification)
(a) Enrollment Profile classification of Very high undergraduate or High undergraduate, combined with No graduate coexistence or Some graduate coexistence (Undergraduate Instructional Program classification), or (b) Enrollment Profile classification of Majority undergraduate combined with No graduate coexistence.
So basically a LAC is a small, residential college, with little or no graduate teaching, and most majors are in the arts and sciences (not engineering, health careers, accounting, or communications.)
Why would you attend a Liberal Arts College? Because they are small, they offer consistently smaller classes for students. And since there aren’t any graduate students, undergraduates have more interaction with faculty in terms of teaching and research.
Liberal Arts Colleges are a great way to prepare for graduate school. Proportionally, Liberal Arts Colleges produce more PhDs than other institutions, including Research Universities. Students at LACs know their professors well enough to ask them for letters of recommendation to graduate school.
Many Liberal Arts Colleges offer 3-2 programs that allow students to spend three years at a Liberal Arts College and their last two years at an institution that offers engineering to complete an engineering degree. Similar programs are offers in the health and business areas.
In general, the required courses of study at Liberal Arts Colleges are the foundation of many university’s core requirements or common curriculum. Students can study the liberal arts at large universities with graduate students. A Liberal Arts College offers a more personal experience while studying the liberal arts compared to larger universities.
This turns out to be a very interesting question. I never really looked into it and just assumed that Tier 1 was a school ranked in the top 50 of US News College Rankings for National Universities. Tiers 2, 3, and 4 were the next group of 50 institutions. Anything not ranked in the top 200 were considered unranked schools. I do remember at one point something about US News deciding not to do Tier 2, that those schools would be part of a larger Tier 1, or something like that.
The reason why I’m actually using fuzzy impressions is because there really isn’t any official definition of Tier 1. I think that it often used by those in the college search process to refer to the top 50 schools ranked by US News and therefore, the most desirable or prestigious to attend.
However, if you go by US News’ definition, all ranked schools in a category are now considered Tier 1 schools. That’s approximately 200 universities in the National University category. All unranked schools are considered Tier 2.
Wasn’t that nice of them? Now the top 75% of schools in any category can be called Tier 1 schools.
The meaning is furthered muddied when you considered the Texas initiative to increase the number of Tier 1 universities in the state. According to the Texas Legislature, Texas has three Tier 1 universities in the state while California has nine.
These are “schools that receive at least $100 million each year in research grants, have selective admissions and low student-faculty ratios and competitive faculty salaries are typically considered tier-one universities.”
But it might also include any school that is a member of the American Association of Universities which includes five institutions that didn’t quite make it into the top 100 of US News National University rankings.
Since there doesn’t seem to be an official Tier 1 definition, it seems to me that it’s a matter of perception. And it’s up to you to decide if the perception is based on your values and needs or of someone else’s.
Guess what? It all depends! The first thing it depends on is whether or not the scores are a reflection of your actual abilities and accomplishments. There really are people who don’t test well but are superb students. Or they were sick the day of the test or maybe they were in the test center from hell. If you know that you can out perform students with much higher test scores, then your test scores alone should not be the deciding factor in which schools to apply to.
The next consideration is the college-does it have holistic admissions or is it strictly a class rank/GPA/test scores kind of process? Institutions with holistic admissions consider more than just test scores. That means that if the rest of your application shows you to be a good match for the school, your test scores are not a deciding factor. Especially for competitive colleges, test scores are just one way to demonstrate to the college that you are minimally qualified. It’s the rest of the application that determines admissions.
If there are two equal applications with the only difference being test scores, the admissions office will probably take the student with the higher scores. However, all things are rarely equal.
And consider the fact that someone has to be in the bottom 25th percentile of students admitted. One out of four students will have scores lower than the middle 50th percentile range.
You can look up how low the scores go in the common data set or go to the Big future website. For example, Lehigh University has a 50th percentile range of SAT Critical Reading scores of 580 to 680 but five percent of student had a score less than 500.
If you have good reasons to attend a college and demonstrate it through your application and letters of recommendation, you can still get into colleges where the majority of test scores are higher than yours if the school uses holistic admissions.
Just make sure that you are realistic about your abilities. Also, it’s easier to get merit scholarships at schools where your test scores are higher than average. However, if a student has an exceptional application in all other respects, she can still get merit money at less competitive private colleges.
You can go to a four-year college with less than a 3.0 GPA. There are a number of colleges that are open admissions meaning that they will admit anyone who meets their minimum standards. This can mean just having passed specific classes in high school or meet minimum scores on selected placement tests.
Students with below a 3.0 GPA are also admitted to colleges without open admissions. For example, Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio admitted 55% of its applicants and 13% had less than a 3.0 GPA. McMurry University in Abilene, Texas admitted 61% of applicants and 31% had less than a 3.0 GPA.
The question is should you start at a four-year institution if you have less than a 3.0 GPA. It’s basically a question of the GPA reflecting your actual work ethic and academic accomplishments in high school. If the low GPA is explained by an unusual, one-time disruption to your GPA, you may be more than ready to handle college work.
However, if the low GPA is a reflection of poor work and study habits, why do you think you’ll do any better once you start college? Given the higher costs of attending a four-year institution as opposed to a public community college, you may be better off testing your abilities at a community college where it wouldn’t cost as much while probably providing more support services. Establishing a new GPA at a community college would also expand the number of four-year colleges that would accept you.
A first year experience is a program designed to help freshman transition to college. These are increasingly common at larger institutions since they provide a built-in peer group for entering freshman. Colleges of any size may have a first year program that is built around some common experience. Students who participate in first year experience programs may be less likely to dropout and have better GPAs than those who don’t.
First year experiences can consist of a variety of elements including the following:
- Limited credit course where students are introduced to various campus resources and taught how to use them.
- Small seminars on special topics lasting one or two semesters with emphasis on developing research skills.
- Common core classes that members of a first year group take together.
- Extended summer orientation sessions that develop peer groups.
- A common reading experience.
- Special opportunities to conduct laboratory research.
- Programs to develop leadership.
- Academic, social, and service activities and events.
- Specific freshman learning communities that allow freshman to share residence and common classes.
You can find out more information and effectiveness of first year programs at the University of South Carolina National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Independent college counselors are individuals other than high school guidance counselors who provide college counseling to students and families. They are hired to provide these services independent of the high school.
A common depiction of independent counselors in the media are high-priced consultants who “package” students for admission to prestigious institutions. Such individuals do exist.
However, most independent counselors provide a much more modest range of services at a corresponding price. Professional college counselors educate the student and family about and guide them through the college admissions process.
A good counselor will not guarantee admittance into a specific college but work with students to identify the most appropriate colleges and how to best present themselves in the application process. This can include testing strategies, help with essays, time management, and researching appropriate schools.
There are several independent counselors professional organizations that set standards for their members. Reviewing their Principals of Good Practice provides an overview of their general services.
When looking for an independent counselor, keep in mind that these organizations have virtually no requirement for knowledge of the financial aid process. In other words, do not expect to receive expert financial advice from an independent college counselor. I think that this description of what an independent counselor does is very telling in that it never mentions “financial fit” or the financial aid process.
You can find counselors who are very knowledgeable and experienced with the financial aid process but it is not something you can assume to be true about all counselors. When hiring a counselor, be sure that they consider the financial aspects of the best college “fit” as well as the social and academic ones. You can read about one person’s experience with a college counselor here.
Places to find an independent counselor
American Institute of Certified Educational Planners Provides a list of 12 questions to ask when hiring a counselor. Expects counselors to meet with college admission representatives but doesn’t say anything about the financial aid office.
Independent Educational Consultants Association Some good advice on paying for college and comparing financial aid awards.
National Association for College Admission Counseling I find this site interesting because of the standards they list for their members who are part of the college admissions office. They sponsor national college fairs and you can download a free guide to the college admissions process.
The Common Application is an application for undergraduate admissions that is accepted by almost 500 colleges. Member institutions are required to evaluation students using a holistic selection process.
Colleges may use the Common Application exclusively or accept both the Common Application and its own institutional application. Members that accept both applications do not treat applicants differently based on the which application form they use. Each college may have supplemental forms but they cannot duplicate questions already asked as part of the Common Application.
The application can be completed online or students can print out the forms and mail them. The online system allows students to track applications and submission of forms by teachers and counselors.
The only fee to use the Common Application is the application fee, if any, charged by the school the student is applying to. The maximum number of institutions that a student can apply to using the Common Application online is 20.
The Universal College Application is another undergraduate application but is accepted by fewer schools.
No. You do not have to visit a college in order to be admitted to a college. I get the impression that emphasis on campus visits is partially a generational thing. I don’t know of anyone my age (that is old enough to have kids in college) who visited the college before they showed up for orientation or the move-in day. Then again, college didn’t cost as much at the time.
Should you visit a college before applying or deciding to attend? Ideally, yes. The main reason has to do with being able to see yourself attending the college. This is more important the smaller the college. At large universities, a person can generally find a peer group while smaller colleges just may not have the numbers for everyone to find their place.
Again, this is an ideal situation and may not be as big of a deal for some students as others. You know if there is something that would absolutely turn you off (or on) attending a school. That’s something will depend on the person.
It’s like buying a car or house. There will be several that meet your minimum requirements in your price range. But without test driving you won’t know if you can adjust the seat for the best position. For most people, it’s probably not a big deal, but if you’re on the short or tall side, it’s a big deal.
The second reason to visit the campus is because some colleges view visits as a sign of interest and will take level of interest into consideration in admission decisions. Don’t worry if you can’t afford to visit a college, there are other ways to demonstrate interest.
And about finding out if the seat will adjust? There are ways to get that information without visiting the campus. Talking to alumni, visiting online forums, or asking the admissions office to put you in touch with current students can help you get at the same information.
No. If your high school offers AP classes then taking AP classes demonstrates taking the most rigorous academic program available. If AP classes aren’t available, you can still take the most challenging academic program available, it just won’t include AP classes. Colleges know what classes are available based on the school profile that is sent with the counselors letter or transcript.
If your school doesn’t offer AP classes, you might consider yourself lucky. It means that you can demonstrate academic interest and challenge as you define it. Students who attend high schools that offer AP classes have to be prepared to defend their choice not to take AP classes so that they can spend time on other interests.
Some of the most selective private high schools are actually reducing or eliminating the number of AP classes offered. They believe that it offers more flexibility in the curriculum to develop the students’ interests and strengths.
When applying to colleges, students are often encouraged to apply to reach, match, and safety schools. These categories describe the likelihood of students being admitted based on how closely their qualifications match those required by the colleges. A safety school is one where students qualifications would easily put them in the top quarter of applicants and ensure their acceptance.
A safety school should be a financial safety as well. If the student can’t afford to attend the safety school, then it isn’t really a safety school.
Safety schools should be colleges that the student wants to attend. Students should take as much time selecting safety schools as they do in selecting match and reach schools. Between the unknowns of the admission and financial aid process, treating the selection of safety schools as an after-thought is a recipe for disappointment . If students don’t understand the process well enough to recognize the possibility of attending a safety school, what other areas might they have less than realistic perceptions?
One issue concerning safety schools is that some colleges know that they are considered safety schools for applicants aspiring to some of the most competitive colleges in the nation. They may see these applicants as less likely to attend their institution if accepted. Therefore, they reject these applicants in favor of others more likely to attend the school and require less financial incentive to do so.
An academic resume is simply a summary of your high school “career.” It will include the same information that will be requested on most college applications-GPA, test scores, activities, awards, etc. In that respect, an academic resume isn’t necessary since the admissions office will be getting the information from the college application.
However, taking the time to create an academic resume has several benefits. Having all the information already collected in one place will make completing college and scholarship applications much easier.
An academic resume also allows you to decide which accomplishments to highlight. This can be an advantage if you have the opportunity to give your resume to an admissions officer before you actually submit your application. Her first view of your information will be how you choose to frame it.
Taking an academic resume with you to a college interview can be helpful to the person conducting the interview, especially during alumni interviews. Often, the alumni have no specific information about the individual before the interview and may ask for a resume to help focus the questions.
Ultimately, an academic resume is not necessary for college admissions. Given that a resume should only be a page long, all of the information should also be part of your official college application. I haven’t heard of an academic resume being required as part of the official college application. Don’t worry if you show up to an interview without one. The academic resume should be a tool that makes the process easier for you.
The academic resume is not the same thing as an athletic profile which is a necessary part of the athletic recruiting process.
Information on Academic Resumes
- What to Include in a College Application Resume
- Composing Your College Admission Resume
- The College Admissions Resume
Sample Resumes and Templates
Honors colleges are more likely to exist in large research university settings with many other existing colleges such as engineering, business, agricultural, natural sciences, etc. Honors programs tend to be at smaller institutions that don’t have college divisions or only two or three such colleges.
Many honors colleges evolved from university honors programs. Becoming an honors college is important in terms of structure and funding at universities. The Differences Between an Honors Program and A Honors College: A Case Study shows the differences between the two programs at one institution. However, many of the features added to the honors college in the case study can be found at honors programs at other schools.
Given the wide variety of honors programs and colleges, it is difficult to make a distinction useful for students in terms of their college search. The Dean Emeritus of the Honors College at the University of South Carolina argues that the terms do not necessarily make a difference for the student. The Public University Press found little differences between programs and colleges with the exception that universities with colleges had higher national rankings than those with programs.
In general, an honors program or college is designed to provide academically talented students with challenges and opportunities available at the most highly ranked colleges and universities. The highly competitive institutions do not have honors programs or colleges because their entire programs are supposed to be considered to be the most demanding available.
The National College Honors Council has a listing of two and four-year institutions with honors programs/colleges.
A suitcase school is college where that is a predominately residential campus, unlike a commuter school, but where a significant percentage of students go home for the weekend. Suitcase schools tend to be less selective and have a majority of students who live in a close travel radius to the school.
Suitcase schools are a concern for students don’t live close enough to go home every weekend or cannot afford to. Schools that do not have a large number of students on campus on the weekends may close libraries early and have limited cafeteria service Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. A suitcase school will often have fewer activities or social activities available on the weekend.
This makes it difficult for the students on campus to develop close relationships with other students. This can especially cause problems for freshman far from home with no other support system available. The lack of engagement can negate the benefits students received by living on campus.
There are multiple strategies for getting the most out of a college fair. Any strategy starts with the same premise: talk to the admissions representative. After all, given the amount of information available from the internet, the point of attending a college fair is talk to actual people. And if you are going to talk to admission representatives, there’s no point in asking questions that can be easily answered by going to the website.
Therefore, find out which schools are attending the fair. Look up their basic information such as size, location, average test scores, etc. before you go. If you are interested in a unique major, find out which schools offer it before you go.
If the fair doesn’t have an online registration option, print out mailing labels with your name, address, phone number, email, graduating year, and major. This way you can just stick the label on information cards rather than spend time filling out each card at the fair.
Make sure you get the cards from the college representatives. This gives you a chance to email follow-up questions or just thank them for their time.
If the fair has general information sessions as well, it might be a good idea to get a parent to attend them. Remember, the admission representatives are interested in speaking to you, not your parents.
Strategy 1: You have specific schools you are interested in and plan on applying to
Make a list of the schools in order of importance to you. Get hold of a map of the fair as soon as possible and plot out your schools. Have questions ready that are relevant to your situation. Decide before hand how important it is for you to wait in line to actually speak to a representative versus just leaving your information and getting to other schools on your list.
Even if you don’t have the chance to speak with a representative, you should still get her business card. This way you can use the situation to email them later with questions along the lines of “I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to talk to you at the fair but wanted to ask you….”
Strategy 2: Find out about schools you haven’t even considered
Use the list of participating colleges to identify schools that you haven’t considered before but you would qualify to attend. Often, these will be schools that don’t have a lot of people waiting in line which gives you the chance to spend more time with the representatives.
In these cases, you still don’t want to waste time asking about easily answered questions such as size. However, it is the chance to ask more open-ended questions such as “I don’t know much about your school and would like to know what you think its most appealing features are?” My son found one of the schools that was among his final three choices this way.
Ask the representative their opinion
- What do you like best about your school?
- What do you think are its strongest programs?
- What kinds of students do well on your campus?
- How is you school different from other (insert similar type of school such as Liberal Arts Colleges, research universities, engineering schools, etc.)
Ask about special situations
- I’m going to be moving before my senior year, how should I handle letters of recommendations and/or changes in how GPA is calculated?
- What are the requirements for homeschoolers?
- I won’t have three years of a foreign language, can I still apply?
- Can I send in a sample of work I’ve done on a project as part of my application?
- Are there cooperative programs for specific majors? (generally engineering)
- How easy/hard is it to change majors to (music, art, engineering, business)?
- How are roommates assigned?
- How are dorms assigned, lottery by year, GPA?
- How are advisers assigned?
- How do freshman register for classes?
- How do students get involved in research?
- Can any student audition for theater or music ensembles?
- What sort of intramural sports are available?
- Are there funds for student initiated clubs and activities?
- How do most students find internships?
- When does the career placement center start working with students?
When trying to decide how hard it would be for you to get into a specific college, you have to realize that there are at least two categories you’re dealing with. The first category consists of schools that are hard for everyone to get into, no matter how qualified. These are the schools with acceptance rates that range from the single digit to the 20′s. It may be harder for you than another student to get in because of qualification differences but it’s still hard.
Once you get past this category of hard schools, it’s actually difficult to just rely on acceptance rates to figure out how hard it is to get into a school. The main issue is self-selection. Students may apply to a college because it is the closest one available. Since there is limited space at the college, it may accept less than 50% of the applicants. However, the middle 50th percentile test scores for the freshman class may be in the average range.
Therefore, many use the test scores are as a way to judge how hard it is to get into a school. The schools report the 25th and 75th percentiles. It is generally expected that if your scores are above the school’s 75th percentile, you should be easily admitted to the college. If your scores are below the 25th percentile, it may be too difficult for you to be admitted without some sort of hook.
However, these numbers maybe “inflated” if the institutional is a test optional school. Only students who do well on the tests (relatively speaking) would report their scores. If the scores of the students who were admitted without submitting test scores were included, the overall range may be significantly lower.
A weighted GPA is a grading system that provides extra grade points for harder classes. For example, in a 4.0 grading system, an A for an US History class is worth 4 points but an A in an honors version or Advanced Placement is worth 5 points. This means a student could get a B in an Advanced Placement class and still have the same GPA as a student who got a A in the regular class.
Weighting is done by high schools so that students who take more challenging classes don’t suffer in terms of class ranking. Students who take only easy courses to get A’s won’t come out on top in class rank.
However, the weighted GPA isn’t very useful to college admission officers since they need to compare students from different high schools with different grading systems. Colleges will often recalculate a student’s GPA stripping any weighting as well as including only certain core classes. This provides the admissions office with a better opportunity to compare apples to apples.
This still not a “fair” comparison since some students will have a B in Advanced Placement Calculus while another student may have only complete math through Trig but with all A’s. But this is why admissions officers answer the question, “which is more important, harder classes or higher GPA?” with the answer “yes.”
This system is essentially the same as the one used by the NCAA in determining eligibility for athletes. According to their requirements, only core courses, specified for each high school, will be used to calculate GPA.
The college retention rate is the percentage of full-time students who return after their freshman year. The retention rate is not the same thing as the graduation rate. There may actually be significant differences between the two numbers.
The retention rate will always be higher than the graduation rate which is why prospective college applicants will often hear about it. However, colleges with similar retention rates may have dramatically different graduation rates.
According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), there are 66 colleges and universities with 500 or more undergraduates that have a retention rate of 95% or better. The four-year graduation rate for the schools in this group range from 45% to 91%. Only seven institutions in this group have a four-year graduation rate of 90% or better.
There are 94 schools with a retention rate between 90% and 94%. Their four-year graduation rates vary from a low of 17% to a high of 92%.
Ultimately, retention rates are not an adequate substitution for graduation rates. Nor are they useful in comparing institutions.
A common recommendation is that students should apply to six colleges with some going as high as ten. These recommendations usually suggest applying to a certain number of Reach, Match, and Safety schools. These are often defined in terms of where your academic record places you in terms of students the colleges accept.
There are several other factors that influence how many colleges you should apply to. The first is cost. Each school adds another college application fee and college test score reports. For the more competitive colleges, this can add up quickly.
The Common Application has made it easier to apply to multiple colleges at once. However, many of the colleges require supplemental essays that will require extra time to complete.
In the past, students might apply to many schools to increase their chances of receiving financial aid. The use of Net Price Calculators should allow students to target schools most likely to meet their financial aid needs.
However, merit aid, the non-financial aid money colleges award as scholarships, isn’t easily predicted by most Net Price Calculators. Therefore, students will still have to apply to a variety of colleges to maximize their chances of receiving merit money.
Students should not increase the number of colleges they apply to as a way to compensate for failing to research their options before applying.
The term “Public Ivy” was coined by Richard Moll in Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities which was published in 1985. Moll identified eight public institution with Ivy League characteristics. He argued that these characteristics, which included both academic and non-academic elements, provided an Ivy League experience at a public school price.
Moll had selected eight specific institutions to compare with the eight Ivy League institutions in an attempt to capture the fact that “prestige in higher education is an odd combination of tradition and folklore.” The original eight Public Ivies were:
- College of William & Mary
- Miami University (Ohio)
- University of California
- University of Michigan
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Texas at Austin
- University of Vermont
- University of Virginia
According to the Los Angeles Times, Moll determine the criteria for a distinctive college to be “selective admissions, a quality education program focused on the liberal arts and enough money to buy a superb faculty and build an attractive campus.” Moll created his list based on these criteria and then consulting with others and visiting campuses.
Moll included nine “runner-up” universities:
- University of Colorado
- Georgia Tech
- University of Illinois
- New College in Florida
- Penn State
- University of Pittsburgh
- State University of New York at Binghamton
- University of Washington
- University of Wisconsin
Others have since expanded this list. Howard and Matthew Greene added eleven universities to the list. They also created a list of 30 “hidden” public ivies. Often the term is used to identify top ranked public universities.
Depending on the university, residential colleges can mean simply themed housing or dorms set aside for specific majors to a division of the university that groups students academic activities and living needs in one location such as the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford.
The Collegiate Way defines residential colleges as “an internal system of residential colleges: permanent, cross-sectional, faculty-led societies.” Some institutions require all students to join a house or a college, others make it optional or limited to a select group of students such as honors colleges.
The key element for the more traditional residential colleges is that faculty members are key participants in residential life and students are not limited to specific major. At Rice and Yale students are randomly assigned to residential colleges. The University of California Santa Cruz , Murray State University, and Harvard allow students to indicate a preference for a college after admitted.
Other examples of institutions that offer students the chance to participate in a variation of a residential college.
According to a survey completed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), grades are the most important factor in college admissions. Nearly 85% of survey respondents listed grades as being of “Considerable Importance.” Admission test scores placed a distant third behind “Strength of Curriculum” at 59.2%.
The study noted that small colleges tended to have a more “holistic” application review process while large colleges have a more “mechanical” process. The exceptions were large selective colleges that also used a “holistic” approach.
However, a holistic approach probably shouldn’t be interpreted that grades don’t matter. An article in USA Today, Grades pointless? Some colleges don’t care about GPAs, suggests that some of the most selective colleges don’t really care about grades. Part of the reasoning is that since US News doesn’t include it in the rankings and schools don’t always report class GPA, grades aren’t important. However, of the example schools provided, all but one listed grades in the highest category of importance in the Common Data Set.
You can look up colleges on the Big Future, College Data 411 Match, or US News and World Report websites and see how the colleges rank various admission factors from “Not Considered” to “Very Important.”
No. Medical schools do not require applicants to have a specific major. They require that students have completed specific courses. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the required courses vary from school to school but most include:
- One year of biology
- One year of physics
- One year of English
- Two years of chemistry (through organic chemistry)
The AAMC reports that in 2012 only 9.7% of medical school matriculants had majored in the Biological Sciences and 10.0% in the Physical Sciences. Slightly more actually majored in the Humanities or Social Sciences.
According to the Harvard Medical School Admissions page:
A study at Harvard Medical School has shown that students are successful in their medical studies regardless of undergraduate concentration, providing that they have had adequate science preparation. Students are urged to strive for a balanced and liberal education rather than specialized training. No preference is given to applicants who have majored in the sciences over those who have majored in the humanities.
The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health states that the:
Admissions Committee values intellectual diversity among its applicants and does not necessarily value science courses (beyond those listed below) more than upper level courses in humanities, social sciences and other fields. Courses that improve communication skills or prepare students for the social, psychological and economic aspects of medical practice are all important.
Whatever major students choose, they should work closely with their schools’ premed advisors.
Demonstrated interest refers to the interactions initiated by college applicants with colleges they apply to. These interactions include:
- Requesting information
- Contacting the admissions office
- Campus tours
- Overnight visits
- Campus interviews
- Alumni interviews
- Virtual interviews
- College fairs
- Information sessions
- Social media interaction
- Early admission
Some colleges use demonstrated interest as a way to gage a student’s likelihood of enrolling. Offering admissions to students with demonstrated interest means lower admissions/recruiting costs for the college since they can establish their freshman class sooner and are less likely to lose students to transferring.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that
From 2003 to 2006, the percentage of colleges rating demonstrated interest as a “considerably important” factor increased to 21 percent from 7 percent, according to an annual survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Since then, that number has held steady (another 27 percent of colleges now deem it “moderately important”).
You can find out how important demonstrated interest is for a college through the common data set. You can look up the information through websites that use the Common Data Set such as Big Future. If “Level of Applicants Interest” does not show up under “What’s Important”, then it is not considered.
No. Many people believe that only universities can provide the facilities and classes for undergraduates to complete a strong undergraduate major in the sciences. Like most sweeping assumptions, it isn’t true.
Liberal Arts Colleges have long been known to prepare students for graduate studies in the sciences. The National Science Foundation did a study of the Baccalaureate of Science and Engineering Doctorate Recipients. It found that
when normalized by the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, the baccalaureate colleges as a group yield more future S&E doctorates per hundred bachelor’s awarded than other types of institutions, except research universities (figure 1). A group of 50 small, private baccalaureate schools (the Oberlin 50) was studied in the mid-1980s and was found at that time to contribute greatly to producing future S&E doctorates. These schools have long outproduced (by yield) even the research universities.
Although I haven’t found the complete report that breaks down PhD production by specific sciences, you can find references from various college websites. These are generally incomplete, only highlighting the institution’s ranking but do provide evidence that it’s not necessary to attend a research university to pursue graduate studies in the sciences. The following are just a few I’ve found:
One commonly cited concern about pursuing the sciences at a small college is the lack of upper-division opportunities. Critics will point to the limited number of classes offered in the subject by LACs. However, many colleges make it easy and encourage students to design independent study courses with faculty that can provide similar opportunities.
While Liberal Arts Colleges may not be the best choice for all students, they should not automatically be excluded for students considering majoring in the sciences.
The most common calendar system for colleges is the semester system. The school year is divided into a Fall and Spring term of approximately 15 weeks each. Students usually take four or five classes each semester. The summer session may be split into shorter terms with longer hours. The vast majority of colleges and universities use the semester calendar system.
A quarter system divides the calendar into four equal terms with the traditional school year consisting of a Fall, Winter, and Spring term of 10 to 12 weeks. The Summer term is the same length as the other quarters but not part of the standard school year. Students usually take three classes each quarter. Over two hundred colleges and university use the quarter calendar system.
The 4-1-4 calendar is a variation of the semester system with a January term between the Fall and Spring terms. The January term consists of only one class for the entire period. This allows classes to meet at outside the regular time block schedules or even travel off campus as part of the studies. Over 100 colleges have a 4-1-4 calendar system and many participate in an January exchange program.
The block system consists of eight 3 1/2 week sessions where students take only one class at a time. Generally, students complete an entire semester class in one block although some classes may require two consecutive blocks. The block system allows intensive study of one subject with freedom to schedule classes as necessary. Some students find taking math and science classes on a block system more difficult than a semester system. Colorado College and Cornell College use the block system.
Trimester may refer to the traditional academic year divided into three terms similar to a quarter system or to three semesters of equal length through out the entire year. The more common situation is three equal terms, Fall, Winter, and Spring, for the academic year with a possible separate summer term. The other form of the trimester system is a variation of the semester system. In a trimester system, the summer session is the same length as the Fall and Spring terms. The goal of the trimester system is to allow students to select any two semesters to complete their academic year.
For more information: Merits of Semester versus Quarter System
3-2 engineering programs commonly refer to dual degree programs in Engineering and Liberal Arts that are completed by attending two different institutions. Students spend their first three years attending a college without an engineering program, usually a Liberal Arts College. The last two years are completed at an institution with an engineering program and the student graduates with two bachelors degrees.
Students in 3-2 programs must complete specific required courses in order to be able to complete the engineering degree on time. They generally include chemistry, mathematics, physics and any non-science or mathematical distribution requirements.
The Liberal Arts programs will generally be formally affiliated with a selection of engineering programs that will automatically admit students who fulfill all prerequisites, have the required GPA, and are recommended the school liaison. However, some do not guarantee admissions and require a separate application.
The participating schools, either the Liberal Arts College or the Engineering Program, will list affiliated programs. Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis are two examples of the participating engineering programs. You can find a list of additional programs at 3-2 Engineering.
The advantage of the 3-2 program is that students can spend their first three years at a smaller Liberal Arts College and build a solid foundation in the math sciences. They will also have the chance to experience a different school and environment.
The disadvantage is that students will not graduate with their senior class. They will also have to “start over” at the engineering institution. Also, many engineering programs are offering engineering classes to incoming freshman to help student maintain their interest in engineering.
For more information:
A “likely letter” is a letter from the college admissions office stating that you are likely to be admitted as long as nothing changes before the official admissions deadline. They are not formal offers of admissions–just notices that students are very “likely” to be admitted. Students receive likely letters a month or two before the regular admissions decision deadline.
Likely letters are common for athletic recruits to the Ivy League. Since Ivy League schools no longer have early admissions and don’t award athletic scholarships, they use likely letters as a means to indicate to the athlete that they will be accepted at the school. According to Tier One Athletics, “it varies from between sports and schools, but 2/3 to 3/4 of the varsity athletes in the Ivy League are Likely Letter recruits. ”
However, it isn’t only athletes that receive likely letters. According to the Harvard Crimson, the admissions office sent out 300 likely letters in 2011 and 100 of them were addressed to non-athletes. Instead of offering these students early admissions, they receive likely letters. At Brown, approximately 1/5 of the class receives likely letter with about half sent to athletes.
It’s not just Ivy League schools that send out likely letters. The University of Virginia also sends out likely letters. Other schools that send out versions of the likely letter are Smith, Clark, and Grinnell.