FAQ College: Frequently Asked Questions about College Admissions and Costs

Question of the Week: What is a likely letter?

person raising hand in classA “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 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.

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What are your questions about college admissions?

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 questions@diycollegerankings.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.


FAQ College Money Issues

I won’t qualify for financial aid, why should I fill out the FAFSA?

Even if you think your family makes too much money to qualify for financial aid, you should still fill out the FAFSA. You need to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for certain loans that don’t rely on income such as the unsubsidized Direct Student Loan the PLUS loans for parents.  The FAFSA is also required for many state-based college financial aid programs.

Furthermore, you may qualify for more financial aid than you think. Many families believe that their home equity is automatically considered in the financial aid process. However, it’s not required information on the FAFSA nor does it ask about your retirement accounts. Only the CSS/PROFILE asks about your home equity and retirement savings.

The FAFSA formula also protects a set amount of non-retirement money through the asset protection allowance. Depending on the oldest parent’s age, a certain amount of money is excluded from consideration on the FAFSA. This figure changes each year. The remaining parental assets are assessed at 5.64%. This is much lower than 20% rate used for child assets.

Remember, FAFSA stands for FREE Application for Federal Student Aid which means you don’t have to pay to file it. Watch out for any scams offering to file your FAFSA for a fee. There are legitimate services that you can pay to complete the FAFSA the same way you can hire someone to complete your tax forms. However, they shouldn’t be promising you large amounts of financial aid.


I can’t afford private college tuition, why should I even bother applying?

Most people can’t afford the published private college tuition. But most people don’t pay the listed price for private colleges either. So why even bother to apply to private colleges? While private colleges cost more than public schools, they usually provide more financial assistance than public schools.

Consider the following information from CollegeData on two institutions:

Texas State University

Austin College

Total Cost of Attendance



% Applied for Aid



% Judged with Need



% Offered Aid



% Full Need Meet



Average % of Need Meet



Average Amount Received



The total cost of attendance for Austin College is over twice that of Texas State University. However, Austin College also claims to meet 100% of student need. On average, Texas State meets 82% of student need with only 39.1% of needy students having all of their need met.

Two Reasons to Apply to Private Colleges

ONE: 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 financial aid in the form of loans than grants. The goal is to avoid such colleges and apply to those that provide more grants than loans.

TWO: 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.

College Scholarships: Where to Look
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What is the CSS PROFILE?

The CSS PROFILE is basically a non-governmental financial aid application administered by the College Board, the same people who bring you the SAT. Although used by some scholarship programs (the CSS stands for College Scholarship Service), it is more commonly used by almost 300 colleges to determine eligibility for institutional aid.

The PROFILE asks much more detailed questions than the FAFSA including in some cases the year of the car you drive. However, given that some of the schools most generous with their financial aid use the PROFILE, it can be worth answering the financially intrusive questions. After all, it is their money.

Unlike the FAFSA, the EFC calculated by PROFILE schools use their own institutional methodology (IM) as oppose to the Federal Methodology. This means that EFC calculated by the PROFILE will vary from school to school-there is no one PROFILE EFC.

There are several other important differences between the FAFSA and CSS.

  • There is a fee for submitting the PROFILE and an additional cost for sending it to each school. The FAFSA is free to submit. Students don’t request a fee waiver, the PROFILE actually calculates the waiver at the time the PROFILE is submitted.
  • The PROFILE can be submitted as early as October 1 of the student’s senior year as opposed to January 1 for the FAFSA.
  • The PROFILE asks for information on home equity although not all schools use that information as part of their institutional methodology.
  • Some PROFILE schools require information from the non-custodial parent whereas the FAFSA does not. You can find a list of PROFILE schools that require the non-custodial form at the College Board.

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What is EFC?

EFC stands for expected family contribution. This is the amount of money families are expected to pay for their students to attend college. Colleges and federal and state governments use the EFC to calculate a student’s financial aid award. The basic theory is that the lower your EFC, the bigger your financial aid award.

There are two versions of the EFC, the federal methodology and the institutional methodology. The federal methodology is calculated when the student applies for financial aid by submitting the FAFSA. The federal government uses the EFC to award financial aid such as Pell Grants and Direct Student Loans.

Most schools base their own financial aid awards on the federal methodology although they may make adjustments to their institutional awards based on their own institutional methodology. You can find out which methodologies schools use by looking up the schools on the COLLEGEdata website under the Money Matters tab, Application Process.

Financial aid methodology example

Since the FAFSA formula is standardized and available through the Department of Education, you can get an idea of how much your Federal EFC will be before applying for aid. Troy Onink of Stratagee has a very useful table that provides a quick reference for your EFC based on income. According to his table, a family with an adjusted income of $50,000 and two dependents would expect to have an EFC of around $3,800 without considering any other financial assets. A family with income of $100,000, would have an EFC of approximately $20,000.

There are over 250 colleges and universities, mostly private, which use a completely separate institutional methodology when making financial aid awards. Students still must submit the FAFSA for any federal aid but in order to receive any institutional aid, they must complete the CSS/PROFILE application which is administered by the College Board. There isn’t any table showing EFC estimates using the Institutional Methodology since it varies by institution. In fact, PROFILE schools don’t even ask the same questions–each school decides which questions to include in calculating the EFC. You can see which schools use the PROFILE at the College Board.

There’s actually a third methodology used by 26 colleges referred to as the “consensus” methodology. This group of schools, called the 568 President’s Group, doesn’t use a third form to calculate your EFC. Rather, they use the PROFILE but assess the assets differently, generally in a manner more favorable to families.

Most students will only have to deal with the FAFSA. However, given how the PROFILE’s Institutional Methodology treats assets differently than the FAFSA, you need to pay attention to which schools do require the PROFILE. There are various EFC estimators available but only the College Board’s EFC calculator provides Federal and Institutional EFC estimates.

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.


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Do students need to be admitted to college before applying for financial aid?

No, students do not need to be admitted to college before applying for financial aid. You can submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) any time after January 1. The College Service Scholarship PROFILE (CSS PROFILE) 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.

Colleges may award aid as applications are completed. This can apply to both institutional and federal money. In the case of Perkins Loans, colleges often do not receive enough funding to provide loans to all eligible students. Therefore, the later you wait to submit the FAFSA, the less likely you are to receive institutional or some forms of need-based aid.

Some colleges require a completed financial aid application before awarding any merit aid. Also, getting your award earlier can allow to appeal decisions before you have to send in your acceptance.

You can’t submit the FAFSA until after January 1. Ideally, you (and or your parents) should have already completed and filed your income tax before you submit your FAFSA. If you will be delaying filing your taxes, you should consider going ahead and submitting your FAFSA based on estimate taxes and amending as necessary.


What is Average Net Price?

In the most general terms, average 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 college net price for students for the past three years broken down by income level for each college. The following example is for Trinity University.
Example of college net price for Trinty University
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.

Net price does not include any loans or work-study often referred to as self-help aid. Some school’s net price calculators will include a figure called “net cost” to the student or something similar which will often include loans. This is not the same thing as average net price.

It’s important to remember that the average net price is an average based on the previous year. Depending on your family’s financial situation, your price could be very different. This is why it’s important to estimate your EFC and use net price calculators as soon as possible.
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What is self-help financial aid?

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 financial 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 financial aid plus any unmet need rather than the amount of merit, grant, or scholarship aid awarded.
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Where can I find college scholarships?

The key to finding college 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 want 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 college 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.

College 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 colleges 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 The Truth About Scholarships. For a review of scholarship search websites, see College Scholarship.org, Free Scholarship Search Engines, and The Scholarship Coach.
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What are the different types of financial aid?

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 of all financial aid is the federal government. However, at private institutions, the school itself will often be the biggest provider of financial aid for the individual student.

Grant 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.

Direct 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.



Should you apply to colleges you don’t think you can afford?

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 College Board’s EFC Calculator to estimate your expected family contribution (EFC) as well as 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 FAFSA applications before they had any idea of what their EFC might be, much less have a clue as to how much financial aid they might be awarded.

While you still have to apply to know your actual financial aid award, today 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. All colleges are required to have Net Price Calculators that provide students with estimates of how much they would have paid to attend the college the previous year. 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 you don’t think you can afford based strictly on average net price. These are colleges where your test scores and academic credentials put you in the top third of applicants and makes you a candidate for substantial merit money.

My son applied to very similarly situated colleges and received anywhere from $7,500 to $21,000 in merit money. While we knew he was a good candidate for merit aid at these schools, there was no way of knowing how much he would actually receive without applying.

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 if you don’t know you can afford it.
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What is financial aid gapping?

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 be unable 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.

Learn More:

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Do I have to report outside scholarships to the financial aid office?

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 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 allows the student to use the money to help meet the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

For students receiving any need-based financial aid, the best case scenario is a little different. The outside scholarship is essentially considered another form of income or financial support. This means that the student’s financial need has been reduced by the amount of the outside scholarship just as if the student had extra money in the bank. In this situation, the best case scenario is the college applies the value of the outside scholarship to reducing the amount of any loans that are currently part of the financial aid 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 its policy. You should be able to find this out on a school’s financial aid webpage like George Mason University does. 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:


What are work-study jobs?

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 cannot 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

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What is merit aid?

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.
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How do you become an independent student?

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.

Students must answer “yes” to one or more of the following questions to become an independent student.  (The dates change each year.)

table to becoman an independent student

As you can see, simply living on your own and working a job instead of going to college will not qualify someone as an independent student. Even if the parents don’t claim the student on their taxes, students will still have to report your parent’s income as part of the FAFSA application.

It may be possible for students to change their status. Students will have to contact the financial aid office of the school they plan to attend which will make the decision about  dependency status. The school’s decision is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Department of Education.

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What is a PLUS loan?

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 have a fixed interest rate determined by the 10-year Treasury yield. 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 Edvisors

In 2011-2012, 3.4% of dependent undergraduate students whose parents borrowed from the Federal Parent PLUS loan program did not borrow from the Federal Stafford loan program. Of those who borrowed from the Federal Stafford loan program, 7.1% borrowed less than the effective maximum.

This is just not smart. For more information on PLUS Loans:

See also:
How much should I borrow for college?

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What is the Academic Common Market?

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:

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What is the Federal Methodology?

The Federal Methodology is the formula used by the federal government in calculating a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which determines their eligibility for financial aid. 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 eligibility for 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. Because the formula is public, families can get a good idea of their estimated EFC based on the federal methodology using EFC calculators.

Individual colleges and universities do not have to use the Federal Methodology for deciding how to award their institutional aid. This is why students applying to some schools will have to complete two financial aid applications-the FAFSA and the form used by the school, usually the CSS/PROFILE.

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.

However, regardless of the methodology the institution chooses to use, the Federal methodology is used for all federal aid. Therefore, the amount of need-based federal financial aid a student qualifies for will not vary from school to school assuming the aid amount does not exceed the total cost of attendance.


How will I get my financial aid?

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.


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What does “need blind” admissions mean?

“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 have need blind admissions 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 have need blind admissions 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.
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What is financial aid preferential packaging?

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.
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Who is eligible to receive financial aid?

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 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.

Get Your Free Copy of the Financial Aid Timeline


When do I apply for financial aid?

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.


What federal grants are available for college students?

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.


What is the FAFSA?

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 a variety of calculators that will estimate your EFC. The Office of Federal Student Aid has the FAFSA4caster and The College Board has an EFC Calculator that will use the Federal or Institutional methodology.


What are the federal student loan programs?

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 Federal Direct loan (Stafford) 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.
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Are scholarships taxable?

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,
  • Travel,
  • Research,
  • Clerical help, or
  • Equipment and other expenses that are not required for enrollment in or attendance at an eligible educational institution.


Does home equity affect financial aid?

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 “under the CM home equity is capped at 1.2 times the parent’s adjusted gross income.”

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.
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What is the financial aid SAR?

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
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Can you appeal your financial aid award?

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
  • Illness/Disability
  • Addition to family
  • Natural Disaster
  • Death
  • Relocation
  • Separation/Divorce
  • 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.

An Inside Look at Financial Aid Appeals

Tips For Appealing Your Financial Aid Award

Financial Aid Award Appeal Samples Special Circumstances
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Is there a limit to how many years I can get financial 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.

Studelent loan limits by yearPell 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.


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:

8 Ways Private Lenders Make Your Life With Student Debt Harder

Public vs. Private Student Loans: Why the Differences Matter to You

Should I take out a private loan to pay for college?


If my EFC is 0 does that mean I can go to college for free?

Unfortunately, the answer for most students is “no.” There are several issues in dealing with your EFC.

The first is that the college you attend may not agree with the federal government’s calculation of EFC and determine students’ need by its own formula. In these situations, the student would be eligible for the maximum amount of federal financial aid but not necessarily aid from the school. The amount of federal aid is limited to a combination of grants and loans you have to repay.

The second issue is that most schools considered need-based loans such as subsidized Federal Direct Loans as need-based aid because the government is paying for the interest while the student is in school. Therefore, with the exception of a select few generously endowed institutions, the majority of colleges will expect students to take out the maximum amount allowed in federal student loans.

College work-study programs often fall under the same situation. Because work-study is funded by the federal government and the school, many schools classify it as need-based financial aid although it is money the student must earn.

The third issue is that many schools “gap” student aid. Some schools simply do not have the funds to meet the financial aid requirements of all students while others choose to fund more merit aid programs. In either case, students do not receive the full amount needed to meet demonstrated need and will have to find aid elsewhere, usually in the form of private student loans or parent loans.

Students who have an EFC of 0 should target schools that state they meet 100% of demonstrated need. Unfortunately, these are some of the most competitive schools in the nation. This also means that families need a reliable estimate of their EFC long before the student actually starts applying to schools.

For more information:

Financial Aid for Low Income Students-No Cause for Envy

50-50 Highlights: Schools with Lowest Average Net Cost for Families in Lowest Income Category-and which to avoid

Download a free PDF
listing of all 50-50 colleges.


How can I add more than 10 schools to the FAFSA?

Students can enter up to 10 schools on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid if completed on the web. To add more than 10 schools to the FAFSA, students will have to replace a previous school. Students can choose which school to replace with the new school. Replacing a school means that the old school will not have access to any updates or corrections you make to the FAFSA after you have added the new school. However, given there is only a limited number of changes you can make to the FAFSA after you submit it, this shouldn’t be a major issue for most students.

Changes to Federal School Codes: If You Want to Add or Delete a School


Does applying for financial aid hurt your chances for admissions?

There are very few situations when applying for financial aid could possibly hurt your chances for acceptance. Financial aid hurts your chances for admissions only if you were applying to a school with all of the following criteria.

Need-aware institution. In general, you would exclude public institutions since they aren’t likely to provide generous financial aid. The exception would be for students applying to popular out-of-state schools. Such institutions often expect out-of-state students to pay full-price. According to survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, only 10% of private schools and 2% of public schools are “need conscious” in admissions.

Reach school. Any school where a student is likely to be among the last admitted isn’t likely to receive generous institutional aid anyway. At this point in the admissions process, given two students with equally below average qualifications for the institution, the committee has incentive to opt for the full-pay student.

Low information admissions process. The committee would have to be using the fact that students applied for financial aid rather than the actual EFC figure for determining need. This is possible but it seems that a stated “need-aware” school would have immediate access to the EFC as part of the process.

Ultimately, if you believe that financial aid hurts your chances of admissions, there is nothing preventing you from applying for financial aid after you have received the admissions decision. While this would likely eliminate the possibility of any institutional aid, it would still allow you to borrow through the federal loan programs and apply for work-study jobs. However, this strategy is only viable if you don’t require any need-based aid and you’re prepared to pay the full cost of attendance.

Does Applying For Financial Aid Hurt Your College Admissions Chances?
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My parents are divorced. Which parent do I use on my FAFSA?

For students with divorced parents, the custodial parent is the one the parent they lived with the for the previous 12 months. This isn’t necessarily the parent who has legal custody or who provides the most financial support. If your lived with both parents for the same amount of time, then the custodial parent is the parent who provided the most financial support during the past 12 months.

The FAFSA does not require information from the non-custodial parent. However, the FAFSA will assess the assets and income of the custodial parent’s current spouse the same as the custodial parent. There is no consideration for the length of the marriage or prenuptial agreements.

The fact that the custodial parent is defined by who the student lived with for the past 12 months provides an opportunity in some cases. This is 12 months from the date you file the FAFSA, not the previous year. If one parent has substantially fewer asset and income than the other, then the student could live with that parent to improve her ability to qualify for need-based aid.

This definition applies only the FAFSA. Colleges that use the CSS/PROFILE may require the non-custodial parent to report his or her income or assets as part of the institutions financial aid methodology. You can see a list of schools that require students to submit the Noncustodial PROFILE at the CollegeBoard. Again, if including the non-custodial parents information could significantly affect a student’s financial aid award, families might want only to consider schools that don’t require the form.


What are 529 plans?

529 Plans are college savings plans operated by the state or educational institutions. The main advantage of a 529 plan is that earnings are not subject to federal tax when used to pay for qualified education expenses. Contributions to the plan are not tax-deductible.

There are two kinds of 529 plans, pre-paid tuition plans and college savings plans. Pre-paid tuition plans lock in tuition prices at eligible institutions. College Savings Plans cover “all qualified higher education expenses” and are not limited to a select number of colleges and universities. You can look up eligible schools here. They also don’t have residency requirements, limited enrollment periods, or age limits as do Pre-Paid Tuition Plans. You can see a comparison of differences at the SEC website.

In addition to the federal tax benefit, some states offer a similar benefit. You need to check with your state or financial advisor for a complete listing of benefits for state income taxes.

529 Plans held in the student’s name are for federal financial aid purposes assessed at the maximum parental rate of 5.64% rather than the 20% for student savings. If you withdraw money from the 529 account and do not use it for eligible college expenses, the money is subject to income tax and a 10% federal tax penalty on earnings.

You can compare 529 Plans at:

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What are Net Price Calculators?

Net price calculators (NPC) are a way for students and their families to estimate how much it would cost to attend a specific college. All colleges that accept federal funds are required to provide Net Price Calculators on their websites. The NPC is supposed to

provide estimated net price information to current and prospective students and their families based on a student’s individual circumstances. This calculator should allow students to calculate an estimated net price of attendance at an institution (defined as cost of attendance minus grant and scholarship aid) based on what similar students paid in a previous year.

The net price is the estimated price students in similar situations have paid in the past. It is how much a student pays after grant aid is deducted from the total cost of attendance. It is not supposed to include any loans or work-study.

This is not the same thing as the Expect Family Contribution, EFC. In fact, the schools are not required to even provide the EFC. This is why it’s a good idea to know your estimated EFC before you start using a school’s NPC. Essentially, a college’s NPC is supposed to tell families if and how it will meet families’ demonstrated needs. Some schools, such as Trinity University, actually have users get their EFC from the College Board website and then enter it into Trinity’s NPC for a net price estimate.

All net price calculators are not created equal. Many schools use the federal template which asks only a minimal number of questions and is unlikely to provide users with higher incomes with a meaningful estimate. These are easy to spot. They usually have a blue background and if you enter you aren’t seeking any financial aid, the calculator simply stops and provides you with the total cost of attendance for the school.

Other schools make it difficult to distinguish the net price as required by the government, no loans or work-study, from potential financial aid awards. The results from the UCLA NPC contains and “Estimated Award Letter” section listing “self-help” and “family help” awards rather than calling them what they are, work-study and loans. This appears before the actual net price which may cause users to think the amount in the “award letter” is the net price.

Many schools incorporate merit aid into their net price calculators. These schools will ask for academic information such as test scores, GPA, and class rank and provide an estimated scholarship as well as the net price.

One of the most important things to remember about NPCs is that the results are not guarantees–they are estimates only. However, if you do receive a financial aid award from a school that is significantly lower than what the NPC lead you to expect, it is perfectly acceptable to ask the financial aid office why the two numbers are so different.
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What is tuition discounting?

Tuition discounting refers to the scholarships and grants colleges and universities provide to students. The Association of Government Boards of Universities and Colleges defines it as “Tuition discounting is the process by which the institution offsets its published tuition price (sticker price) with institutional grant aid for enrolling students.” The students are not paying full tuition therefore the tuition is discounted.

While tuition discounting includes all gift aid to students, need-based and merit-based money they don’t have to repay, it’s most commonly used when discussing merit awards. Tuition discounting is also the result of the practice of charging more for tuition to indicate “quality.” The college then offers the more desirable students large discounts in the form of merit aid. Colleges often increase these discounts when they fail to meet their enrollment goals.

Inside Higher Education reports that the National Association of College and University Business Officers survey calculated the average discount rates for private colleges is 46.4% which was only 38% a decade ago. According to the College Board, this means that “On average, net tuition and fees for private nonprofit four-year institutions are lower in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2013-14 than they were a decade earlier — $12,460 versus $13,600.”

Why don’t colleges just lower the tuition for everyone and eliminate the need for tuition discounting? Some are. But other don’t because as one college discovered, “twice as many families preferred the high-cost, high-discount approach, and the consultants warned that cutting tuition would cut the freshman class in half.”

The colleges aren’t the only guilty party–people like getting “merit” scholarships. And many schools believe the high prices and high discounts gives them flexibility in attracting the more desirable students whether through merit or need-based aid.


Do you get the same amount of financial aid every year?

Students are not likely to receive the same amount of financial aid every year. This can be a good thing or a bad thing but too often is a bad thing. Students must apply for financial aid each year and any changes in their families’ circumstances can affect their EFC and the amount of money awarded. This can be a good thing when a family’s situation changes for the worst and the student receives additional aid to compensate for a lower EFC. The same would be true if the EFC remained the same but the cost of attendance increases as it has been known to do.

Unfortunately, students can have the exact same EFC from year to year but receive less financial aid, or at least, less grant aid. This is referred to “front loading.” According to Mark Kantrowitz, approximately half of all colleges provides more grants or “gift aid” to students in their freshman year than in the following years. This means that students are likely to be taking out more loans each year as the grant amounts decrease.

You can get an idea if front loading is a concern by visiting College Navigator and comparing the amount of “Grant of Scholarship aid” freshman receive to the average for all undergraduates (This is also available on the DIY College Search Spreadsheet). For NYU, you’ll see that freshman average $25,619 while all undergraduates average $20,736. Or you can check the “Average Percentage of Need Met” at CollegeData.com. NYU met an average of 73% of freshman need but only 60% of all undergraduates. (The Free College Data Workshop shows you how to use the CollegeData website.)

Schools are able to get away with this because students are unlikely to transfer after their freshman year. Transfer students tend to receive even less generous financial aid awards than “native” students. In other words, after the freshman year, the school has a captive audience and doesn’t have to try as hard.

Finally, scholarships from the school not dependent on need are usually renewable for four years at the same amount only if the student maintains a specific GPA and any other eligibility requirements. Higher GPA requirements make it more likely that students will lose their merit scholarships. Students should check with the school if they have any questions concerning the scholarship requirements and any possible grace periods.
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What are the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) requirements?

The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) program is a campus-based aid program. The school’s financial aid office receives a certain amount of SEOG funds each year and then distributes the money to its students based on financial need. The school sets the SEOG requirements, the deadlines, and the award amounts which can vary from $100 to $4,000.

As mandated by statute, funds are distributed to institutions first on the basis of the institution’s fiscal year 1999 SEOG program base guarantee and pro rata share (a hold harmless basis), and then on the basis of the aggregate need of the eligible undergraduate students in attendance. The current hold harmless provision distorts the allocation of funding among institutions so that institutions receive more funds than if the funds were solely distributed to institutions based on student financial need (Department of Education STUDENT FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, pg 26)

Approximately nine percent of undergraduates receive SEOG awards. The average award is $770 for dependent students with 68% of dependent recipients having a family income of $30,000 or less.

Few students, despite their need, receive the $4,000 maximum award. For example, Texas A&M University-Kingsville requires students to have an EFC of 0 and demonstrate exceptional financial need by having family resources that do not exceed 50% of the cost of the education. The maximum award is then limited to $2,000 per academic year. The University of Houston also requires an EFC of 0 for SEOG eligibility. Northeastern State University in Oklahoma limits SEOG grants to $1,002 per academic year, California State University Fullerton allows only up to $800, and the University of Kansas‘ maximum award is $600.

Not all students who may qualify for the SEOG 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.


What’s the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans?

There are two types of federal guaranteed student loans: subsidized and unsubsidized. The subsidy refers to the payment of interest while the student is attending school or is in a deferment or grace period. For qualified students, the federal government pays the interest on the loans and therefore “subsidizes” the student loan.

Subsidized student loans are only available to students with financial need based on the FAFSA. These include the Direct (Stafford) and Perkins loans. Students do not have to demonstrate financial need to qualify for direct unsubsidized loans.

Unsubsidized loans do not require students to pay the interest while in schools or during deferment or grace periods. However, the unpaid interest will accumulate and be added to the principal amount of the loan. You can find out how much you could save by paying the interest using the Interest Savings Calculator. Unsubsidized loans include the PLUS loans and a version of the Direct (Stafford) loan.

Students with financial need may be awarded both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. When comparing college costs, families need to be aware that many colleges include subsidized loans as part of the college meeting student’s need. The Common Data Set, used for college rankings such as US News Best Colleges, allows colleges to include subsidized loans under funds used to meet student financial need. They are not included as part of the average net price calculated by the federal government.

Learn More:

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What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money students are awarded to pay for college. There are two general forms of financial aid: gift aid and self-help aid. Gift aid is money that the student doesn’t have to repay. It can take the form of scholarships or grants. Self-help aid is money the student will be responsible for repaying such as loans or earning such as work-study.

Financial aid is available from the government, colleges, and private organizations. These organizations may award financial aid based on student financial need or some non-need qualification such as merit, athletics, or other skills or characteristics.

The majority of financial aid is awarded through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students submit the FAFSA to be eligible for federal government programs. Most federal gift-aid programs are need-based. However,  the most popular federal loan programs do not have need-based qualifications.

When students submit the FAFSA, they are assigned an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is used by the federal government and colleges to determine how much financial aid to award to students. Some colleges have students submit a second application form called the CSS/PROFILE to qualify for financial aid directly from the college.

Private organizations will have their own application process for awarding financial aid separate from the FAFSA. Students will have to complete individual applications for each organization. However, any gift aid students receive from these “outside” organizations will have to be reported to the college financial aid office.
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What’s the difference between average net price and cost of attendance?

The Cost of Attendance (COA) and Average Net Price (which for some reason never gets abbreviated) are actually defined by the government. Basically, the COA is the total cost to attend college for one year, Fall through Spring. This includes tuition, room and board, books and schools supplies, fees, equipment and room materials, and travel and miscellaneous expenses.

The Average Net Price is the average amount full-time freshman were charged after subtracting the average amount of federal, state, or local government and institutional grants or scholarships from the COA. This does not include any loans or student work study.

It’s important for families applying for financial to understand that these terms have specific definitions. Some colleges will include terms such as “net cost” on financial aid award letters or Net Price Calculators. These numbers may include student loans and college work-study that reduces the amount families are required to pay the college “upfront.”

Net Price is what the college is actually charging the student to attend which is why it doesn’t include any self-help aid.

While Net Price is the number families need to use to compare the cost of attending colleges, they still need to understand COA. Even though the number is defined by the federal government, colleges have leeway in what is actually included under categories such as living expenses, meals, and transportation. How colleges calculate these expenses can vary by thousands of dollars as seen in the current effort for athletic scholarships to cover the full COA.

If the COA doesn’t account for unique costs for individual families, they can use this to appeal financial aid awards. For example, many schools have a set amount for transportation. However, this amount is an average that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the expense of students having to travel long distances.
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How do you get in-state tuition?

Public colleges and universities charge non-residents higher tuition than in-state residents. Therefore, students who want to attend an out-of-state public university often think they can simply move to the desired state and get in-state tuition.

It’s generally not that easy. There’s a difference between establishing general residency and residency for tuition purposes. Each state has its own rules for establishing residency for tuition purposes. Students are required to live anywhere from 6 to 24 months before becoming eligible for in-state tuition.

Living in the state is only the beginning. In addition, students will generally be required to provide additional proof of intent to live in the state other than just for tuition purposes. This can include:

  • Driver’s License
  • Car registration
  • Utility Bills
  • Voter registration
  • Local Bank
  • State Income Tax State
  • Wage statements
  • Hunting or Fishing License
  • Register for selective service in state

However, it is possible that will still not be enough. Some states such as Arkansas classifies all students under the age of 23 as legally dependent on their parents. As long as the parents don’t live in the state, the student will not qualify for in-state tuition.

There are some other ways to out-of-state students can lower their tuition at public universities.

There are 12 colleges that reported out-of-state tuition as the same as in-state. Another 27 public institution’s out-of-state tuition is no more than $5,000 higher than the in-state tuition.

Some universities will charge students in-state tuition if they receive a minimum scholarship or have qualifying test scores or GPA. Others will classify children of alumni as in-state residents for tuition purposes.

There are also regional tuition discount programs that allow students to attend out-of-state public universities and pay a discounted rate. These programs may be limited by majors and not all schools participate.

States will have different policies for military personnel and their families as well as state employees or other special categories. These policies can also vary between schools in the same state so it’s always a good idea to check with individual institutions.

University Parent and FinAid.org both have links for individual state residency requirements.
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What is need-based financial aid?

Financial aid is awarded based on two general categories, need-based and non-need (merit) based. When people hear the term “financial aid,” they are generally thinking of financial assistance provided because of the student’s financial need.

A student’s financial need is based on her financial status and the cost of the school she actually attends. Financial status is calculated when students submit the FAFSA or the CSS/PROFILE and is assigned an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Financial need is based on subtracting the EFC from the school’s Cost of Attendance (COA). Financial aid awarded based on this calculation is need-based aid.

A student’s need will vary according to the COA. If a student has an EFC of $10,000 and attends a school that only costs $2,000, he has no need. If he attends a school that has a COA of $30,000, he has a need of $20,000.

The majority of federal gift aid such as Pell Grants is based strictly on need. Colleges may award a combination of grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans to meet financial need. Most colleges are unable to meet 100% of financial need. The portion of need that isn’t met, is the gap between financial need and awarded aid.

The most important thing to remember about need-based aid is that need is calculated by the government and the colleges, not the family. However, families can implement financial strategies that will improve their chances of qualifying for need-based financial aid.
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FAQ College Admissions Testing

How often should students take the SAT or ACT?

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.

5 Ways to Get Smart About the SAT, ACT and College Admission Testing



When should students take the SAT or ACT?

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.

If you don’t have any reason not to such as playing a fall sport, my recommendation is to take the exam as early as possible in the fall of their junior year.

Here are my reasons:

  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. The sooner you know your test scores, the sooner you can start targeting colleges to build your college search list.
  1. If you decide you want to retake the exam, you will have a lot more options of when to retake it.

For more reading:

The SAT is Easier in (Insert Month Here)!

Is There a Perfect Date to Take the ACT or SAT?


Do I Need to Take Both the SAT and ACT?

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 the SAT and ACT. Even with the proposed changes to the SAT in 2016, the tests will not be the same. Therefore, if you do poorly on one, you might do better on the other.

Until 2016, 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 number of websites 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 around $50 ($51.00 for the SAT; $52.50 for the ACT with the essay option, $36.50 without.)

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.

Both tests provide two fee waivers for qualifying students. The SAT also allows students with fee waivers to send reports to an additional four schools other than the four that are include free with taking the test. The ACT states that there are only a limited amount of funds so students requesting a fee waiver should consider taking the test early in the school year.

You can see what percentile you rank in for each test at:

Get your Best Free Resources for Finding and Paying for College Guide


What are SAT Subject tests?

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:

Literature Biology Chemistry
Physics Math US History
World History French Spanish
Modern Hebrew Latin Italian
Chinese French German
Japanese Korean Spanish

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:

College Admission Requirements-SAT Subject Tests

What Colleges Require the SAT Subject Test?



What is the PSAT?

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 qualifying scores 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.


What is superscoring?

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


Critical Reading
















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.

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What are test optional colleges?

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 of test option college 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 test optional colleges 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 253 public or non-profit institutions with 500 or more full-time undergraduates list SAT/ACT testing as “Not Applicable” or “Neither Required nor Recommend.” Of these, 95 are some combination of Associates/Bachelor institutions, 31 are special focus or unaccredited, and 5 are tribal colleges. A total of 68 50-50 colleges list testing as “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 college testing.

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How do I convert my SAT scores to an ACT equivalent (or my ACT scores to the SAT)?

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.

College Board ACT and SAT Concordance Tables

ACT’s Compare ACT & SAT Scores


What is a good SAT score?

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:

Critical Reading



Composite CR+M+W

Composite CR+M






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:

Test Scores

25th Percentile

75th Percentile

Critical Reading






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:

Test Scores

25th Percentile

75th Percentile

Critical Reading






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:

Test Scores

25th Percentile

75th Percentile

Critical Reading







What is a good ACT score?

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:


25th Percentile

75th Percentile










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:


25th Percentile

75th Percentile










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:


25th Percentile

75th Percentile











FAQ College General

What is the Common Data Set?

Whenever you search for colleges using the College Board, College Data, 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. The vast majority of colleges and universities make their common data set available on their websites. There are exceptions. If the school doesn’t release the data on its own website, you can usually find the information on one of the college search websites mentioned previously.

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 1,215 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.



Should Students Apply to Reach Schools?

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.

Does the college require the CSS PROFILE form instead of or in addition to the FAFSA? Make sure you use the College Cost Calculator at the College Board since it requires information that isn’t required for the FAFSA and can result in a significantly different expected family contribution (EFC).

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. You can look-up the percentage of need met as reported by the school at the College Data or Big Future websites. You should also check on College Navigator for the percentage of students taking out non-federal loans to attend the school. If it’s a high percentage, it’s probably something you can’t afford.

Finally, the family needs to consider the situation of being able to afford reach schools but paying significantly less at match or safety schools 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, a 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.


When should you start visiting colleges?

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?

Doesn’t matter.

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.

Consider this preparation for the college visits that really matter. 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.

Are college campus visits necessary?

Why People Waste Their College Campus Visits

The Campus Visit Alternative

Can Virtual Campus Tours Replace the Real Thing?


What is a flagship university?

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.

Gary Olson at The Chronicle of Higher Education offers the following definition:

While the criteria used to determine flagship status will vary from state to state, typically a state’s flagship is its land-grant institution. It is likely to be the university with the highest research profile and the most doctoral programs. It may house the state’s medical school, law school, or both. And it may be the largest and best endowed university in the state. Membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities may be yet another factor, and NCAA Division I athletics is a must.

The claim that the only “must” in the definition is NCAA Division 1 athletics may be more revealing about the value of flagship status then intended.

Depending on the definition, the flagship doesn’t have to be just one university. In Texas, both the University of Texas and Texas A&M are consider flagship universities and there is a push to elevate more universities to “flagship” status. However, the College Board appears to only recognize one flagship per state and in Texas that’s the University of Texas.

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 state universities.

For more information on the politics of the term flagship university, see The Future of Flagship Universities and the Wikipedia talk on Flagship University.
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What is the difference between early action and early decision?

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 cannot 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.
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What are articulation agreements?

College 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 in place of articulation agreements. Virginia community colleges have established guaranteed admissions agreements with most of the state’s four-year institutions, including the University of Virginia. 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 college 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.

College Partnerships and Articulation Agreements


Examples of Articulation Agreements

Austin College

California Lutheran University

Clarkson University

Eastern Michigan University

University of Texas at Arlington




What is the difference between a college and a university?

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 think the difference between a college and a university is size: “university” means big and “college” means small. However, there are 467 institutions with “university” in their name that have 3,000 or fewer undergraduates with 109 having less than 1,000. There are some pretty big colleges out there as well. A total of 79 have 5,000 or more students, 163 have 3,000 or more.

A more traditional definition is that universities have graduate students where as colleges do not. Of the 983 institutions calling themselves “university,” 86 have no graduate students with 178 having five percent or less of their students classified as graduate students. As for the 552 schools with “college” in their names, only 243 have no graduate students while 211 have five percent or more graduate students.

The closest thing to an “official” definition is the Carnegie Classifications but even it is vague on the differences between a university and college. It has three types of Baccalaureate Colleges where 205 have “university” in their name. There are also three categories of university and there are only six schools that fall into one of these categories and have “college” in their names.

But perhaps most indicative of the inability to use “university” or “college” to distinguish between schools is the Carnegie Classification for Master’s institutions. More precisely, the category is “Master’s Colleges and Universities.”?  Of the 602 schools that fall into this category, 126 have “college” in their name while 474 are some sort of “university.”

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.

Download a free PDF
listing of all 50-50 colleges.


Should students live on or off campus?

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.



What are learning communities?

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):

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.




What is a gap year?

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.


What is a Liberal Arts College (LAC)?

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.


What is a Tier 1 school? (university or college)

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 is 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 the 60 United States schools that are members 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.

The University of Houston, one of the institutions trying to improve its status to Tier 1, states that:

there are three organizations that are generally accepted as national arbiters of an institution’s rank as a Tier One institution. They are the Association of American Universities, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Center for Measuring University Performance, which issues Top American Research University (TARU) reports. Recognition by any of these three is taken as an indication of Tier One status.

The Carnegie Foundation definition would increase the number of Tier 1 schools to 105, including the University of Houston. The Top American Research Universities lists 88 institutions that have at least one measure in the top 50. The measures include data on research, support, faculty awards, graduate training, and undergraduate test scores.

Since there doesn’t appear 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.

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Should I apply to a college where my test scores would be considered low?

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. If you know that you can outperform students with much higher test scores, then your low test scores alone should not be the deciding factor in which schools to apply to. However, if you were sick the day of the test or maybe in the test center from hell, you should consider retaking the test.

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 low test scores are not the single 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 at the BigFuture website. For example, Lehigh University has a 50th percentile range of SAT Critical Reading scores of 580 to 670 but five percent of student had a score less than 500. Of course, since Lehigh is a D1 school, chances are those admission slots are reserved for highly recruited athletes.

If generous financial aid is a critical factor in your college search, you should avoid colleges where you don’t rank in the upper third of applicants because of preferential packaging. Colleges have only a limited amount of money for financial aid and are more likely to meet the need of the more desirable students, and they get to define “desirable.” However, if financial aid isn’t a necessity, you may have a “full-pay hook” that can increase your chances of admissions even if you have low test scores.

If the college allows you the opportunity to provide more than just test scores as part of the application process, it’s possible to be admitted with lower than average test scores. The question is whether or not you can afford to attend if you’re admitted.


Can you go to college with less than a 3.0 GPA?

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, McMurry University in Abilene, Texas admitted 55% of applicants and 21% had less than a 3.0 GPA. Midwestern State University accepted 75% of students and also had 21% of its freshman with less than a 3.0 high school GPA.

In some states such as Texas, students can be admitted to state public institutions without consideration of GPA. The University of Texas at El Paso has an admission’s grid based on class rank and college test scores which may account for 26% of the freshman having a GPA below 3.0. Texas A&M-Kingsville has a similar process and has 22% of those enrolling with less than a 3.0 average.

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?

Despite the drawbacks in attending a community college, you may be better off testing your abilities at a community college given the higher costs of attending a four-year institution. Most community colleges cost less than state universities, have smaller classes, and will probably provide more support services. An increasing number also provide dorms and honors programs.

Furthermore, considering the low graduation rates of some four-year institutions, community colleges with articulation agreements with four-year schools may be preferable approach to a four-year degree. Some states such as Virginia and California have guarantee admission agreements between their community college system and four-year institutions, including some of the more prestigious state universities.

If nothing else, establishing a new GPA at a community college would also expand the number of four-year colleges that would accept you.


What is a first-year experience?

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.

Check the U.S. News First-Year Experiences for a list of schools with reputations for stellar first-year experience programs. 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.
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What are independent college counselors?

Independent college counselors also known as independent educational consultants (IEC), 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 membership and ethical standards will give you an overview of their general services.

When looking for an independent counselor, keep in mind that these organizations have virtually no specific requirements for knowledge of the financial aid process. While some organizations are starting to provide to more resources in this area, 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 see another example of how financial aid isn’t necessarily a primary focus here. This post, written by and Independent Education Consultant, lists questions to ask when hiring one. She includes “Have you placed students in top-tier schools” If so, which ones?” but never anything related to financial aid strategies. Taken together, I think it probably gives you a good idea of the type of clients she works with.

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

Higher Education Consultants Association

Independent Educational Consultants Association Provides a list of 12 questions to ask when hiring a counselor. Also has a road map to help consultants assist families in determining if a college is affordable.

National Association for College Admission Counseling  You can download a two-page PDF that provides a limited overview of Breaking Down the college Admission Process.

National College Advocacy Group Provides a College Domino Track that actually includes a step for determining your EFC although I would move it up in the list.


What is the Common Application?

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.



Are college campus visits necessary?

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 something will depend on the person.

It’s like buying a car. 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 for campus visits is because some colleges view them 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 campus visits. 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.

Don’t forget, there’s no guarantee that visiting the campus will provide you with more or better information to use for making your decision. If you don’t take the time to do a little research before the visit, you could end up with having only the information from the equivalent of the cars salesman to show for your visit.

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My high school doesn’t offer AP classes, will it hurt me in admissions?

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. AP courses help in  college admissions only when high schools actually offer them. Colleges know what classes are available based on the school profile that is sent with counselors letter or transcript.

According to Yale:

Does your school offer AP courses? An International Baccalaureate program? Both? Neither? We know you did not design your school’s curriculum, and we only expect you to take advantage of such courses if your high school provides them. Different schools have different requirements that may restrict what courses you can take. Again, we only expect that you will excel in the opportunities to which you have access.

From Oberlin:

As another example, I read applications from much of the Southeast, and I often get applications from rural schools that I’m not familiar with. If I look at a transcript from one of those schools and don’t see many advanced classes, I know better than to categorize the student as a slacker. I’ll check and see what advanced classes this school offers, and often find out that this student, who is taking what might be a modest workload at another school, is actually taking an exceptionally rigorous courseload for this particular school. That information then becomes an important part of evaluating the student’s academic commitment and achievement.

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.

It’s not so much that AP courses help in college admissions but rather that not taking them when they are offered can hurt your application.

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What is a safety school?

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.


What is an academic resume for college admissions?

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

Sample Resumes and Templates

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What is the difference between an honors college and an honors program?

An honors college is more likely to exist in a large research university setting 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 how 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 honors colleges had higher national rankings than those with honors 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 ranked institutions often 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.

Public University Honors has a list of 50 Honors Programs at public institutions. The website has a ranking of programs by SAT minimum requirements as well at a ratings system.

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What is a suitcase school?

A suitcase school is college 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.
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How do I get the most out of college fairs?

There are multiple strategies for getting the most out of college fairs. 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.

Before you even show-up at the fair, you should 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.

Where to Find College Fairs

Questions to Ask at College Fairs

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)?

General questions

  • 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?

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How do I know how hard it is to get into a college?

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 colleges 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 college. 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 college. The schools report the 25th and 75th test score 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.

You can also get an idea of how you compared to freshman by looking up the GPA and class rank of enrolled freshman at websites like CollegeData.com. Under the Admissions section, you can find the average GPA and the percentage of students by GPA categories. It also displays a breakdown of freshman by high school class rank. When comparing the GPA information, it’s safest to use unweighted GPAs.

While these numbers can provide a good indication of how difficult it may be for you to be accepted at a school, they aren’t necessarily the final answer if you can get in. At some public institutions, the numbers are an absolute cut-off point but that’s not the case at many private schools.

Homeschoolers are often accepted at private schools without class rank or GPA information. Potential applicants need to be aware that high schools are increasingly not reporting class rank so it may not be a reliable indicator depending on the school. Also, the growing number of test optional schools means that students can be admitted with other qualifications.

The statistics of the enrolled freshman class can provide a reasonable set of expectations for qualifications but there will always be exceptions.

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What is a weighted GPA?

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 4.5 or 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 an 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 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.

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What are college retention rates?

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 69 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 41% to 93%. Only eight institutions in this group have a four-year graduation rate of 90% or better. That’s one fewer than the nine schools that had graduation rates less than 70%. A total of 19 had four-year graduate rates of less than 80%

There are 106 schools with a retention rate between 90% and 94%. Their four-year graduation rates vary from a low of 11% to a high of 90%. Only ten had four-year graduation rates of 85% or higher while 28 had graduation rates less than 60%.

Ultimately, college retention rates are not an adequate substitution for graduation rates. Nor are they useful in comparing institutions.

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How many colleges should you apply to?

student applying to collegeA 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 relative to those 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.

Some high schools have placed limits on the number of colleges students can apply to by restricting the number of counselor letters students may request.

Another consideration is the actual time involved in completing the applications. While the Common Application has made it easier to apply to multiple colleges at once, many 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, non-need based aid that 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.

For students looking for financial aid, merit or need-based, ten schools is a reasonable number. Ultimately, students should not increase the number of colleges they apply to as a way to compensate for failing to research their options before applying.

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What are Public Ivies?

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. The following table includes all schools on the Greenes’ and Moll’s lists as well as public institutions listed in the US News College Rankings Top 50 National Universities. It also indicates universities that qualified as a 50-50 school in the past three years.

Listing of Public Ivies
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What are residential colleges?

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.

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How important are grades in college admissions?

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.”


Do you have to major in the sciences to get into medical school?

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)

Most schools require calculus or statistics as well although some may accept advanced placement credit. More schools are starting to require specific courses in the social sciences.

The AAMC reports that in 2014 only 9.9% of medical school matriculants had majored in the Biological Sciences and 10.1% 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 advisers.
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What is demonstrated interest?

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”).

Some colleges, like Tulane, are very transparent about the importance of demonstrated interest in accepting students. But not all colleges are. One way you can find out how important demonstrated interest is for a college is through the common data set. You can look up the information through websites that use the Common Data Set such as Big Future and CollegeData.com. If “Level of Applicants Interest” does not show up under “What’s Important,” then it is not considered.


Should I avoid Liberal Arts Colleges if I want to major in science?

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[5]) was studied in the mid-1980s and was found at that time to contribute greatly to producing future S&E doctorates.[6] 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.
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What are the different types of college calendars?

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 college 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 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 college calendar 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 throughout 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 college calendar, 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


What are 3-2 engineering programs?

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.

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What is a likely letter?

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 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.


How important are extracurricular activities in college admissions?

Extracurricular activities are important as a secondary factor in the college admission process. According to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Grades in College Prep Course, Strength of Curriculum, Tests Scores, and Grades in all Courses are more important in the admission decision than Extracurricular Activities.

The Essay or Writing Sample, Teachers Recommendation, and Counselor Recommendation also surpass Extracurricular Activities in importance. In fact, Extracurricular Activities comes in just behind Student’s Demonstrated Interest and Class Rank.

Given the pressure on students to not just participate in activities but to excel at them, you would think that extracurricular activities would be more important. They are important for a small subset of students applying to the most competitive colleges and universities in the country and those are the ones that media likes to talk about.

Students applying to these schools will all have “maxed out” the previously mentioned categories. When everyone has high grades and test scores and outstanding teacher recommendations, colleges need some other way to distinguish students from one another. This is why candidates for these schools are encouraged to have something other than ordinary extracurricular activities to put on their application.

There is one other situation where extracurricular activities can be important-scholarships and merit aid. In some cases, the activity may be required to even apply for the scholarship. Otherwise, the situation is similar to students applying to the most competitive schools, it’s a way for candidates to separate themselves from the competition that has similar academic qualifications.

Ultimately, how important your extracurricular activities are will depend on how competitive you are compared to other candidates’ academic qualifications.


What is a stealth applicant?

stealth admissions candidateYou are considered a stealth applicant if the first time the university has any record of interacting with you is when you submit your application. This may be confusing since many students have received multiple emails from schools before deciding to apply but are still considered stealth applicants.

The problem is that many schools contract out emailing potential students based on information from the College Board or ACT but don’t bother to include the contacted students in their records. In these situations, until a student actually contacts the school through email, phone calls, or social media, as far as the college is concerned, the student doesn’t exist.

Why is this a problem for the student? Because colleges often want to know the student’s level of interest in the school before admitting or awarding financial aid. In other words, they don’t want to admit or provide financial aid to a student who isn’t likely to attend.

This isn’t just about increasing yield or rejecting students to improve college rankings. It’s a matter of efficiently allocating resources.

Therefore, even if a student has browsed the college’s website, has recommendations from relatives, and even visited a friend on campus, it’s in her best interest to make “documented” contact with the school. This shows “demonstrated interest” and improves chances for admissions and financial aid.

You can find out how important a college considers applicant interest by using CollegeData.com. Under the Admissions tab, you’ll see a table with the different factors considered when selecting a student. “Level of Applicant’s Interest” is one of the listed factors.

As the available applicant pool begins to shrink again, colleges will no longer have the luxury to ignore stealth applicants. But it’s better to be safe than sorry so be sure to fill out a contact form for all schools before you apply.

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What’s the difference between public and private colleges?

Families need to understand the difference between public and private colleges because of the differences in prices and financial aid.

Public institutions are colleges that operate under the ultimate control of a state or local government. These colleges receive a significant amount of their budgets from state appropriations although the amount has been dropping over the years.

Since state residents are subsidizing the school’s costs, tuition for in-state students is lower than that for out-of state students. The additional tuition charged to out-of-state students is usually much more than the amount the state actually provides in subsidies. Therefore, out-of-state public universities generally don’t make sense financially.

Some public universities will offer scholarships to out-of-state students to attract highly qualified students. However, the most prestigious public universities rarely offer scholarships or financial aid to out-of-state students.

Private colleges and universities are controlled by a board of trustees and do not receive direct funding from the state. However, students attending the institution may pay for it with public financial aid. Private colleges usually charge 2 to 4 times the tuition of public institutions. There is no difference in tuition between in-state and out-of-state residents.

While private colleges have a much higher sticker price than public institutions, they also generally offer more generous financial aid. On average, a much higher percentage of freshman receive institutional grants at private schools than at public schools. Private colleges are also more likely to meet the financial need of students. Few students actually pay the sticker price at private institutions.

Private colleges will often have lower student to faculty ratios than public universities. Because of overcrowding, students at some public universities are finding it difficult to register for classes needed to graduate on time. Ultimately, since financial aid can vary dramatically among both public and private institutions, families need to target schools most likely to meet their needs.
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