Episode 24: Having the Money Talk

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by sharing some approaches to having the money talk about college with your child.

Check out the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/24 to link to the resources and programs we mention, or to leave a comment on this episode.

We said in an earlier episode that it was important to talk with your child about how much you have to spend on college and about what that might mean for the colleges your child should consider applying to. We are going to make the assumption that most families cannot pay outright for four years at a private college where your child would live in the dorms; for that scenario, you might be looking at a total bill of $160,000 to $240,000 in round numbers—and that figure might get higher every year. But public colleges cost money, too. Just two years at a public community college, where your child would most likely live at home, might come to a total bill of $4,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live—and that figure will likely get higher every few years. So, let’s look at some options for parents.
1. Do Not Borrow Any Money

Some parents simply do not feel comfortable borrowing money. Some object to buying anything “on time” and paying interest on that money until they can pay it all back. Some feel that their past credit history or job history won’t support whatever background checks are made before money can be lent to them by banks or government programs. If you feel this way, that is your business, and no one is really in a position to tell you that it isn’t right.

But if you feel this way and do not have enough money saved or a high enough salary to pay for your child’s college education, then you need to have that discussion as a family—and you need to start looking hard for scholarships that might make up the difference. As we have said in earlier episodes, scholarships are hard to get.

Many times, we have found that parents and students do not accept the fact that scholarships are hard to get. If you have a child who is great in your eyes, but just average in terms of his or her high school GPA and college admissions test scores, then a substantial enough scholarship (or maybe any scholarship at all) is going to be hard to come by—at least at top colleges. You might have some luck with less selective colleges—perhaps especially very small ones—because they might not be as well known and might not get as many applicants. You might also have some luck with less selective, smaller colleges in a state that is far from your home state, because such a college might be interested in diversifying its student body by attracting out-of-state applicants; however, that scenario poses its own problem of running up expenses because your child would have to live on campus rather than at home. Of course, maybe a great scholarship would cover housing expenses, too.

People say that many interesting scholarships exist and go unused for lack of applicants. Such scholarships might, however, have a variety of specific restrictions on their applicants—for example, ethnicity, geography, family background, subject field of future study, extracurricular achievements, and more. These scholarships do undoubtedly exist and may indeed go unused, but you cannot base your decision about where to have your child apply to college on the outside chance of getting one or more of them.

If your child has a great GPA or very high college admissions test scores—or preferably both—then he or she might get a scholarship based solely on the merit of those academic achievements (especially if you cannot afford to send your child to that school without it and you have indicated that on the completed college application). I was counseling a student recently who had very good SAT scores (over 700 on two of three subtests), an outstanding ACT combined score (34), and grades that were good, but not great (he is the kind of kid who has an 88 GPA, but who could have gotten well above 90 if he had cared more, sooner). He applied to a big, well-known, good private university in a state far from home—the kind of place that I thought might look favorably on his application. He was accepted and received a great scholarship of $68,000 over four years. Wow, I thought. The only problem was that the scholarship was just about half of what he needed to go there. How could his parents come up with the rest—without borrowing all of it? So, even a great scholarship that sounds like a lot of money cannot necessarily make it possible for a kid to go to a college that has accepted him.

There is one other way to get money for college if the parents do not want to borrow any: Have the student take out the loans. There are both private sources of loans (like banks) and public sources. We hesitate to say too much about the world of public student loans because it is always the subject of political discussion and could change between when you hear this episode and when you need to use the information. Suffice it to say that the federal government will lend your child some money for each year of college, at a reasonably low rate, through the Federal Direct Loan Program; one type of loan is based on financial need, and one type is not. However, what your child is going to get will be between, say, $5,500 and $7,500 a year. While that would go a long way at many public colleges, it would not go very far at all at any private college. Additional loans from private sources (like banks) would be needed to pay private college tuition, and those might require some sort of co-signing by you.

Somewhat like the federal government, your state government can also be a source of financial help. For example, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as TAP) will cover most of the tuition expenses at the tuition rate of a New York public college, if your family meets the income eligibility requirements. However, if your family income is too high, your child will not be eligible for TAP funds.

The bottom line here is this: If you as the parent do not feel comfortable borrowing any money for college costs for your child, then the chances are good that your child should look only at or, at least, primarily at public colleges—unless you already have all the money you need to pay for the college of your child’s choice, unless you would feel comfortable having the child take out all of the loans himself or herself (including from private sources, like banks), unless your child has posted an outstanding high school GPA and outstanding college admissions test scores, or unless your child is a recognized outstanding high school athlete who is being recruited by college coaches.
2. Borrow Whatever You Need

This is the opposite of the previous option. Some parents feel that borrowing money—in whatever amount is necessary—to send a child to the best college that accepted him or her is worth it. You might wonder how incurring a huge debt—maybe as much as, say, $200,000—could ever be worth it. But those parents would say that putting a child into the best possible college setting could set that child up for life—whether it is the best academic education the child could have gotten, or the best sports training the child could have gotten, or the best theater group or college newspaper the child could have been part of, or the best circle of friends the child could have landed in (friends who would turn out to be friends for life, have their own successful careers, and be major influences on and supporters of each other for decades to come).

In the interest of full disclosure, this is exactly my own personal feeling, and it is exactly what my husband and I did for each of our three children. We borrowed every penny that we needed and did not already have—for three private undergraduate colleges and three private graduate colleges. I would do it all again tomorrow if I had to.

In our case, the federal government made it easy. Our loans were all Direct Parent PLUS Loans, which do require a credit check, which could prove problematic for some borrowers (by the way, if you are not eligible for a parent loan after your credit check, the federal government will actually raise the limit somewhat on what it will lend your child by four or five thousand dollars per year).

To be eligible for all of these federal loans—both student and parent loans—you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The filling out of the FAFSA is much discussed. Free assistance in how to fill it out is available online, and often high schools and colleges run free workshops for parents about how to fill out the application, which will have to be updated and resubmitted each year your child is in college.

I want to make it very clear that I am not a FAFSA expert. I am so much not a FAFSA expert that I got help from a private company, whose services I paid for each year for each child. The company literally filled out the FAFSA application on the telephone with me every time and made sure that I got it submitted properly. I consider the approximately $100 a year per child that I paid to that company as money well spent. If you look at the FAFSA application and are confident that you understand it, then that’s great. If you look at the FAFSA application and are not confident that you understand it, then get help—free if you can conveniently find it, but paid if you can’t. You don’t want to fool around with completing the FAFSA application. It is the easiest way to borrow money for college at a reasonably low interest rate.

FAFSA applications should be completed ideally in January for the following school year, or as soon thereafter as possible. You will need your tax information from the previous year in order to complete the application, so you might not be able to do it as early as January. My understanding is that at least some money is given out on a first come, first served basis. So be first.

One more note: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (where CSS stands for College Scholarship Service) is administered by The College Board and is the way to access nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs. The form can be filled out online and needs to be done only if one of the colleges or scholarship programs your child is applying to requests it. It is easier to do this one after your FAFSA is already completed because you can use the FAFSA to help with this one.
3. Split the Difference: Borrow Some Money, But Not Too Much

Well, there’s always a compromise position, and it is often the wisest. This compromise is that, as parents, you find a way to borrow some money to pay for your child’s college education and, in so doing, you and your child agree to keep those costs under some control so that you don’t have to borrow any more than is absolutely necessary. So what would be some compromise college choices for your child, in likely order of expense to you, from least to most:

Apply only to public colleges, but not limited just to two-year public colleges. In other words, your child would be permitted to apply to four-year public colleges, which are more expensive than two-year colleges and which would always include the flagship state university, which is usually a reasonably good choice.
Apply only to public colleges, but include out-of-state public colleges in that list. While those colleges will be more expensive—really, considerably more expensive —they will still not be as expensive as private colleges. However, opening your child’s search up to out-of-state public colleges will put a lot of great state universities within reach, which might be more highly respected than the flagship state university or other public colleges in your home state.
Add some private colleges to the list, but only if they are at the lower end of the private college price range and only if your child agrees to live at home and commute to the private college. How good this option might be depends entirely on where you live and on how many reasonably priced, good private colleges are nearby. If you live near in or near a great college town like Boston, which is populated with many private colleges, this option could be appealing to your child.

Of course, there are other compromises that we could invent, but you get the idea: Consider borrowing enough to give your child some choice among the best colleges you can afford—whether those are only public two-year colleges, where your child might be able go full time and live on a campus not near your home if you borrowed the money, or indeed private four-year colleges, which would open up the whole world of college to your child if you borrowed the money.

Whatever you decide—to borrow a lot, a little, or nothing at all—make sure your child understands where you stand before he or she gets too far down the track on a college search that you are not comfortable supporting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Federal Pell grants that don’t have to be paid back
The unique perspective of the seven Work Colleges
The complications of divorce when filing financial aid applications

Check out the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/24 to link to the resources and programs we mention, or to leave a comment on this episode.

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education at http://policystudies.org/parents/
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/NYCollegeChat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question in our podcast
Emailing Regina at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by sharing some approaches to having the money talk about college with your child.

Having the Money TalkWe said in an earlier episode that it was important to talk with your child about how much you have to spend on college and about what that might mean for the colleges your child should consider applying to. We are going to make the assumption that most families cannot pay outright for four years at a private college where your child would live in the dorms; for that scenario, you might be looking at a total bill of $160,000 to $240,000 in round numbers—and that figure might get higher every year. But public colleges cost money, too. Just two years at a public community college, where your child would most likely live at home, might come to a total bill of $4,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live—and that figure will likely get higher every few years. So, let’s look at some options for parents.

1. Do Not Borrow Any Money

Some parents simply do not feel comfortable borrowing money. Some object to buying anything “on time” and paying interest on that money until they can pay it all back. Some feel that their past credit history or job history won’t support whatever background checks are made before money can be lent to them by banks or government programs. If you feel this way, that is your business, and no one is really in a position to tell you that it isn’t right.

But if you feel this way and do not have enough money saved or a high enough salary to pay for your child’s college education, then you need to have that discussion as a family—and you need to start looking hard for scholarships that might make up the difference. As we have said in earlier episodes, scholarships are hard to get.

Many times, we have found that parents and students do not accept the fact that scholarships are hard to get. If you have a child who is great in your eyes, but just average in terms of his or her high school GPA and college admissions test scores, then a substantial enough scholarship (or maybe any scholarship at all) is going to be hard to come by—at least at top colleges. You might have some luck with less selective colleges—perhaps especially very small ones—because they might not be as well known and might not get as many applicants. You might also have some luck with less selective, smaller colleges in a state that is far from your home state, because such a college might be interested in diversifying its student body by attracting out-of-state applicants; however, that scenario poses its own problem of running up expenses because your child would have to live on campus rather than at home. Of course, maybe a great scholarship would cover housing expenses, too.

People say that many interesting scholarships exist and go unused for lack of applicants. Such scholarships might, however, have a variety of specific restrictions on their applicants—for example, ethnicity, geography, family background, subject field of future study, extracurricular achievements, and more. These scholarships do undoubtedly exist and may indeed go unused, but you cannot base your decision about where to have your child apply to college on the outside chance of getting one or more of them.

If your child has a great GPA or very high college admissions test scores—or preferably both—then he or she might get a scholarship based solely on the merit of those academic achievements (especially if you cannot afford to send your child to that school without it and you have indicated that on the completed college application). I was counseling a student recently who had very good SAT scores (over 700 on two of three subtests), an outstanding ACT combined score (34), and grades that were good, but not great (he is the kind of kid who has an 88 GPA, but who could have gotten well above 90 if he had cared more, sooner). He applied to a big, well-known, good private university in a state far from home—the kind of place that I thought might look favorably on his application. He was accepted and received a great scholarship of $68,000 over four years. Wow, I thought. The only problem was that the scholarship was just about half of what he needed to go there. How could his parents come up with the rest—without borrowing all of it? So, even a great scholarship that sounds like a lot of money cannot necessarily make it possible for a kid to go to a college that has accepted him.

There is one other way to get money for college if the parents do not want to borrow any: Have the student take out the loans. There are both private sources of loans (like banks) and public sources. We hesitate to say too much about the world of public student loans because it is always the subject of political discussion and could change between when you hear this episode and when you need to use the information. Suffice it to say that the federal government will lend your child some money for each year of college, at a reasonably low rate, through the Federal Direct Loan Program; one type of loan is based on financial need, and one type is not. However, what your child is going to get will be between, say, $5,500 and $7,500 a year. While that would go a long way at many public colleges, it would not go very far at all at any private college. Additional loans from private sources (like banks) would be needed to pay private college tuition, and those might require some sort of co-signing by you.

Somewhat like the federal government, your state government can also be a source of financial help. For example, the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as TAP) will cover most of the tuition expenses at the tuition rate of a New York public college, if your family meets the income eligibility requirements. However, if your family income is too high, your child will not be eligible for TAP funds.

The bottom line here is this: If you as the parent do not feel comfortable borrowing any money for college costs for your child, then the chances are good that your child should look only at or, at least, primarily at public colleges—unless you already have all the money you need to pay for the college of your child’s choice, unless you would feel comfortable having the child take out all of the loans himself or herself (including from private sources, like banks), unless your child has posted an outstanding high school GPA and outstanding college admissions test scores, or unless your child is a recognized outstanding high school athlete who is being recruited by college coaches.

2. Borrow Whatever You Need

This is the opposite of the previous option. Some parents feel that borrowing money—in whatever amount is necessary—to send a child to the best college that accepted him or her is worth it. You might wonder how incurring a huge debt—maybe as much as, say, $200,000—could ever be worth it. But those parents would say that putting a child into the best possible college setting could set that child up for life—whether it is the best academic education the child could have gotten, or the best sports training the child could have gotten, or the best theater group or college newspaper the child could have been part of, or the best circle of friends the child could have landed in (friends who would turn out to be friends for life, have their own successful careers, and be major influences on and supporters of each other for decades to come).

In the interest of full disclosure, this is exactly my own personal feeling, and it is exactly what my husband and I did for each of our three children. We borrowed every penny that we needed and did not already have—for three private undergraduate colleges and three private graduate colleges. I would do it all again tomorrow if I had to.

In our case, the federal government made it easy. Our loans were all Direct Parent PLUS Loans, which do require a credit check, which could prove problematic for some borrowers (by the way, if you are not eligible for a parent loan after your credit check, the federal government will actually raise the limit somewhat on what it will lend your child by four or five thousand dollars per year).

To be eligible for all of these federal loans—both student and parent loans—you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The filling out of the FAFSA is much discussed. Free assistance in how to fill it out is available online, and often high schools and colleges run free workshops for parents about how to fill out the application, which will have to be updated and resubmitted each year your child is in college.

I want to make it very clear that I am not a FAFSA expert. I am so much not a FAFSA expert that I got help from a private company, whose services I paid for each year for each child. The company literally filled out the FAFSA application on the telephone with me every time and made sure that I got it submitted properly. I consider the approximately $100 a year per child that I paid to that company as money well spent. If you look at the FAFSA application and are confident that you understand it, then that’s great. If you look at the FAFSA application and are not confident that you understand it, then get help—free if you can conveniently find it, but paid if you can’t. You don’t want to fool around with completing the FAFSA application. It is the easiest way to borrow money for college at a reasonably low interest rate.

FAFSA applications should be completed ideally in January for the following school year, or as soon thereafter as possible. You will need your tax information from the previous year in order to complete the application, so you might not be able to do it as early as January. My understanding is that at least some money is given out on a first come, first served basis. So be first.

One more note: The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (where CSS stands for College Scholarship Service) is administered by The College Board and is the way to access nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs. The form can be filled out online and needs to be done only if one of the colleges or scholarship programs your child is applying to requests it. It is easier to do this one after your FAFSA is already completed because you can use the FAFSA to help with this one.

3. Split the Difference: Borrow Some Money, But Not Too Much

Well, there’s always a compromise position, and it is often the wisest. This compromise is that, as parents, you find a way to borrow some money to pay for your child’s college education and, in so doing, you and your child agree to keep those costs under some control so that you don’t have to borrow any more than is absolutely necessary. So what would be some compromise college choices for your child, in likely order of expense to you, from least to most:

  1. Apply only to public colleges, but not limited just to two-year public colleges. In other words, your child would be permitted to apply to four-year public colleges, which are more expensive than two-year colleges and which would always include the flagship state university, which is usually a reasonably good choice.
  2. Apply only to public colleges, but include out-of-state public colleges in that list. While those colleges will be more expensive—really, considerably more expensive —they will still not be as expensive as private colleges. However, opening your child’s search up to out-of-state public colleges will put a lot of great state universities within reach, which might be more highly respected than the flagship state university or other public colleges in your home state.
  3. Add some private colleges to the list, but only if they are at the lower end of the private college price range and only if your child agrees to live at home and commute to the private college. How good this option might be depends entirely on where you live and on how many reasonably priced, good private colleges are nearby. If you live near in or near a great college town like Boston, which is populated with many private colleges, this option could be appealing to your child.

Of course, there are other compromises that we could invent, but you get the idea: Consider borrowing enough to give your child some choice among the best colleges you can afford—whether those are only public two-year colleges, where your child might be able go full time and live on a campus not near your home if you borrowed the money, or indeed private four-year colleges, which would open up the whole world of college to your child if you borrowed the money.

Whatever you decide—to borrow a lot, a little, or nothing at all—make sure your child understands where you stand before he or she gets too far down the track on a college search that you are not comfortable supporting.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Federal Pell grants that don’t have to be paid back
  • The unique perspective of the seven Work Colleges
  • The complications of divorce when filing financial aid applications

Check out these resources and programs we mention…

Connect with us through…

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

Episode 23: College Admissions Tests

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Whether test preparation courses are worth it
How to take a practice test at home and how not to
Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

Check out our show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23 to find links to the schools and programs we mention in this episode

Connect with us through…
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
Following us on Twitter @NYCollegeChat
Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education
Inquiring about our consulting services if you need individualized help
Following us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nycollegechat

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/23
Calling our hotline at 516-900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about standardized college admissions tests.

College Admissions Tests on NYCollegeChat

We spoke in an earlier episode about colleges that did not require college admissions test scores and about colleges that looked at those scores perhaps for placement in college courses, but did not use them as an admissions hurdle. However, there are still a lot of colleges—both selective colleges and not-so-selective colleges—that do require college admissions test scores. For that reason, your child is better off taking one or both college admissions tests, even if you believe that he or she will not do particularly well on those tests.

As you undoubtedly know by now, there are two college admissions tests: the SAT, offered by The College Board, and the ACT, which came out of work originally done at the University of Iowa. The histories of these two tests—of how they came to be and of how they were designed to fulfill their missions—is not really relevant to what parents and high schoolers need to know today, so let’s look at what is relevant.

Both of these tests have elaborate websites that can tell you—in simple, straightforward language—all about themselves. Those websites do it far better than I can in this episode. They can tell you what subtests they have (that’s English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing test for the ACT vs. critical reading, mathematics, and writing for the SAT), when they are given, how they are scored, what the questions are like, whether to guess when you don’t know the answer, and a lot more. So you should absolutely study the two websites for all of those details. There are also quite a few independent websites that do a good job of comparing the two tests on many different aspects. What we would like to talk to you about in this episode are some larger issues about taking the tests.

1. Which Test To Take?

It used to be that the SAT was the test more commonly asked for by Eastern colleges and the ACT was the test more commonly asked for by Midwestern and Western colleges. Now it seems that many, many colleges will take either one. Unless your child knows for sure which test is likely to be easier for him or her, it probably makes sense for your child to take both—at least once.

It is possible that your child will do much better on one than on the other. You might be able to tell this from practice tests your child takes, but it is my experience that practice tests do not necessarily predict perfectly how a student will do on the actual test.

Now it is true that some high school students can barely be persuaded to take even one test. And some students are frozen with test anxiety. For such students, forcing them to take both the SAT and the ACT could be counterproductive. If your child is fighting hard not to take each test one time, then look at the colleges he or she is interested in and make a reasonable choice between the two tests. Ideally, have your child try practice versions for each test to see whether one seems easier to him or her than the other.

2. When To Take the Test?

Each test is given six or seven times a year, including three times in the fall months and two times in the late spring months. Many students take the test of their choice for the first time as juniors in the late spring. If your child is a good student, has taken an upper-level math course, had solid English classes as a junior, and is interested in colleges that require test scores, then taking one or both tests before school closes in the junior year makes sense. Scores at this point will give you an idea of how competitive your child is as a college candidate for a selective college and could affect any college visits you might be planning in the summer and/or your choice of a college for an Early Decision application.

However, we have often advised students to wait and take one or both tests for the first time as a senior at the first fall testing date (either September or October). This gives your child just that much longer to mature and/or to prepare for the test. Taking practice tests over the summer and/or taking a test preparation course (live or online) during the summer are excellent reasons to put off test-taking till the early fall of the senior year.

Both the SAT and the ACT are also given in December, which is the last reasonable time to take the test before college applications are due for the regular admissions cycle, since most applications are due January 1 or later. However, that is too late if your child has applied on an Early Decision or Early Action timeline. So a little advanced planning is required as you and your child start the testing game.

3. How Many Times To Take the Test?

How many times a student should take the test depends a bit on how the student does. It is likely that most students will take a test twice. If a student takes both the ACT and the SAT, the student will probably take whichever one he or she did better on a second time.

Some students who are not happy with test scores on either of their first two attempts might take one of the tests a third time. That is a sensible decision—but only if such a student actually does anything more to prepare for the test the third time around. If a student is not going to study or take practice tests or attend a prep program or get a tutor or work with a friend before the next test-taking, then it does not make any sense to take the test again. There is very little chance that a student’s score will improve between, say, October and November or even October and December, if the student does not do something directly aimed at improving that test score.

Because most—though not all colleges—allow the student to choose to send only the best scores they posted, most colleges will probably not see how many times the test was taken. So, in a sense, there is no harm in trying multiple times. There is, however, an expense in trying multiple times (unless you have a waiver, which is based on your family’s income) and some stress for everyone as well.

4. How To Prepare for the Test?

In the old days, no one really prepared for the SAT or the ACT. Now, anyone who can afford it does. So, if you can afford a test preparation program for your child, you should pay for one and put your child in it.

There are many versions of test preparation programs. The high-priced version is a test preparation company with a track record of success, like the well-known Princeton Review. I am not an expert on all of the test preparation companies, and I do not keep track of their claims. I do know that they offer a range of products—from online self-guided study to small classes with an experienced leader to individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. As you might guess, there is a considerable difference in price in these options.

There are many cheaper options from other providers, too. You can buy a book of practice tests from the test publishers. You can buy a book of practice tests at a local bookstore. You can take advantage of any after-school programs your child’s high school or a local public college might offer. You can hope that your child’s high school English and math teachers discuss test questions in class. You can talk to your child’s principal about making test preparation available at school.

But the bottom line is this: If your child does no preparation at all, he or she will be at a severe disadvantage because many, many other students are preparing for these tests.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether test preparation courses are worth it
  • How to take a practice test at home and how not to
  • Whether to take both the SAT and the ACT

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Episode 22: Preparing for Essays

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the essay.

NYCollegeChat episode 22 tips for preparing high school students to write college application and scholarship essays

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 500 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by over 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application when a college does not use either one, there will most likely be a required essay, sometimes called a “personal statement.”  While some large public colleges do not require essays, most selective colleges do require essays.

Sometimes there will be more than one required essay.  Sometimes the required topic or topics will be given to the student; sometimes the student may choose from several topics.  Sometimes the essays are quite short—just 250 to 300 words; when they are this short, there is usually more than one required.  Sometimes they are longer—more like 500 to 650 words.  Sometimes there is an actual character count, like 2,500 characters.  That means that every letter and space counts.  That is when great editing really comes in handy.

It goes without saying that students should write their own essays.  It also goes without saying that adults in a student’s life might read and reflect on that essay with the student—in other words, help the student do the best job possible.  Indeed, some high school English teachers do just that when they have students write personal statements for use in college applications as a class assignment.  It seems to me that many—even most—students get some kind of adult review of their application essays, and I imagine that colleges understand that.  Nonetheless, these essays should tell students’ own stories, their own views, and their own observations and should be told in the words of teenagers—albeit, teenagers trying to put their best feet forward.

This episode is not about actually writing the college application essay.  We might do one on that later, and there are other resources that can help you help your child produce a nicely edited essay.  This episode is instead about what you can do to help your child prepare to write those essays eventually.  There are two kinds of essays that students can, in a way, prepare for in advance.

1.  The Why-Did-You-Choose-Us or Why-Are-You-a-Good-Fit-for-Us Essay

Essays with topics like these require students to have some understanding of the college and of how they would fit in well at the college.  To answer such a question, your child will need to know how to do research about a college, find out what makes it unique or special, understand the academic majors it offers (and, if it is a university, the various colleges or schools it comprises), the activities and sports it does and does not offer, and the type of community it is located in.  All of these could be addressed in such an essay.

No college wants to hear that a student is applying because that student thinks that he or she can get in.  Your child has to make a more convincing case than that.  So, as college application time approaches, help your child study up on colleges of interest.  Internet websites can be a great way to do that, but some college websites are really quite difficult to comprehend.  Even professionals have trouble with them.  So, start early.

At a minimum, understand exactly the name of the major your child would be interested in at each college he or she is applying to.  Keep in mind that something as simple as a biology major is not called the same thing at every college; furthermore, at universities, a biology major might not always be in the same college or school within the university (i.e., sometimes in arts and sciences, sometimes in health sciences, sometimes in something else).

If your child is interested in continuing with certain extracurricular activities or sports in college, it is important to see that those activities and sports exist at the college.  For example, a student should not write about his interest in continuing to be part of a wrestling team if the college does not have one.

So our advice is this:  Doing research about potential colleges of interest ahead of time enables you and your child to call an admissions office with questions—before it is time to write that essay.  It also enables you and your child to realize that some colleges might not be what you had thought and are not necessarily the right choice after all.

For more tips, listen to our Series 2: Choosing Where to Apply episodes here.

2.  The What-Can-You-Contribute-to-Our-College Essay

This is a slight variation on the first topic, but with more of a focus on what your child brings to the college.  This is not so much a how-do-we-match-up essay, but more of a why-should-we-admit-you essay.  This topic requires your child to speak about his or her accomplishments and why those would improve that college community.  It’s a bit like, “Ask not what the college can do for you; ask what you can do for the college.”

Admittedly, this can be daunting.  What can one high school kid contribute to life at Stanford University?  Well, it’s time to help position your child to answer that question.  Encouraging your child to play an instrument, participate in drama groups, play on sports teams, be part of the student government, write for the newspaper or yearbook, help younger students in school, and/or do volunteer work outside of school to help others—all of these are values and talents and abilities and skills that your child can bring to a college campus that can help make life on that campus richer for other students.  If your child does very little in your community or at school, except go to classes, writing this essay will be very difficult indeed.

Of course, academic contributions could be important, too, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.  Perhaps participating in science competitions or successful independent research projects or inclusion in selective school literary publications or being part of a winning robotics team could count for something.  So encouraging your child to go the extra mile when it comes to academic competitions certainly couldn’t hurt.

The Bottom Line

Other essay topics do not require so much preparation in advance.  Essay topics I have seen recently include these:  write about a person, who is not in your family, who has had a major impact on your life; choose a current issue and tell us your feelings about it; write about something that is so important in your life that it defines you; invent a course that all freshmen should take.  All of these take thought on the part of your child, but they are not really questions that your child needs to prepare for before it is time to complete the college applications.

The bottom line is that there is nothing worse than having nothing to say in an essay.  That problem cannot be fixed by editing.  It is just like having no activities to list in the activities section of an application.   So you and your child must think ahead.

When it comes time for your child to write the essays, he or she would likely benefit from talking about them with you or an older sibling or a teacher or another caring adult.  Sorting through ideas and experiences can be a difficult process.  But you have to have ideas and experiences to sort through—and that’s why you can’t wait till the last minute.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Whether essays can be important, even if not in the application process
  • Why talking to an adult can really help your child think through an essay
  • How to think about family responsibilities as topics for essays

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Episode 21: The Art of Getting Recommendations

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations. Show notes for this episode are available at http://usacollegechat.org/21

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why recommendations are important even if they aren’t needed for college applications
What to do when someone doesn’t seem excited about writing a recommendation for your child
Whether your child should waive his or her right to see recommendations before they are sent to colleges

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Leaving a comment on the show notes at http://usacollegechat.org/21
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In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college by talking about the art of getting recommendations.

The Art of Getting Recommendations on NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast for parents of high school students, brought to you by Policy Studies in Education

I have spent a lot of time in my life writing recommendations for students and colleagues pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea, really, how seriously colleges take recommendations because I have never been on the reviewing side. But, as long as colleges ask for them—and some do not, especially large state public institutions, which receive thousands of applications and have generous acceptance policies for students in their own states—we should make every effort to get the best possible recommendations for your child.

Some colleges will be quite specific about the recommendations they want to see. For example, they will ask for recommendations from teachers who taught your child for a full year, preferably the junior year of high school. Or they will ask for recommendations from teachers in core academic subjects. But, absent any specific requirements, you should have some good candidates of your own for recommendation providers.

In some high schools, by the way, the college counselor or guidance counselor writes a recommendation for each student, often based on the comments of teachers in the building. If that is the case, that is one of the recommendations that your child will need. But he or she still might need one or two more.

1. Teachers in Core Academic Subjects

Core academic subjects include English, mathematics, science, social studies, foreign languages, and sometimes technical subjects, like engineering. Your child should have a recommendation from a teacher of one of these subjects—and preferably from teachers of two of these subjects, especially for selective colleges that want two academic recommendations.

Ideally, your child would be able to get a recommendation from a teacher in the subject he or she hopes to major in at college. Don’t forget that your child most likely had to declare a prospective major in the application, so the college knows what your child is interested in studying. For example, if your child wants to be a doctor and has proposed a biology major, with a pre-med professional interest, then one teacher recommendation should be from an upper-level science teacher—AP or honors or other advanced biology, in the best case, but chemistry or physics would be fine as well.

However, you also have to think about what kind of recommendation a teacher in that proposed major field is going to write. It’s a balancing act. For example, if your child wants to major in a natural science, but does not have great grades in science classes, then don’t ask a science teacher for a recommendation. It is surprising to me how naïve students can be about this. You need to impress upon your child that he or she needs to ask a teacher who has given your child good grades in the high school courses the teacher taught. Obviously, the recommendation needs to say that your child is a good and serious student; if your child got a B– or an 82 in a teacher’s class, the recommendation is probably not going to say that your child is a good and serious student.

My advice is to go with a teacher who has given your child good grades, even if that teacher is in a subject your child does not intend to pursue in college. But apart from the good grades, your child would ideally have some sort of relationship with the teacher. That could be from an after-school club the teacher sponsored or from helping the teacher clean up the classroom after projects or from being useful as a peer tutor for kids in the class that were having trouble or something else. In some way, your child needs to distinguish himself or herself from all of the other seniors that teacher might be writing recommendations for. You would be surprised how many students will say to me, “Yes, I think that teacher will remember me from class last year.” That is not likely to be a strong enough relationship to produce a great recommendation.

Knowing this ahead of time—we are talking to you, parents of sophomores and juniors—should help younger students seek out and develop relationships with teachers who can become good references for them in the future. Asking such a teacher to write a college recommendation at that time—say, at the end of the sophomore year or certainly at the end of the junior year—when your child is still well known to the teacher is a great way to get a solid recommendation on file in the college counselor’s or guidance counselor’s office—so it is there when you need it later. It avoids the last-minute rush when every senior is asking teachers for recommendations and when they are then, understandably, done in a more hurried, less personal way.

2. Teachers in Other Subjects

By “other subjects,” we mean art, music, theater, health, physical education, and sometimes technical subjects, like computer technology. Teachers in these subjects can also write strong recommendations, especially if your child is interested in majoring in one of these subjects. So, for example, if your child is applying to fine arts programs at a university or to art or music schools, then a recommendation from a teacher in that field is important. If your child is applying to art school, then there is a good chance that one of the art teachers helped your child prepare a portfolio that will be judged by the college admissions committee. That teacher undoubtedly knows your child and his or her work quite well and would make a good reference.

Even if your child is not interested in majoring in one of these fields, your child might have a good relationship with one of the teachers as a result of in-school or after-school activities. For example, if your child takes instrumental music classes or music theory classes and has played in the band throughout high school, then the music teacher can speak about your child from more than one perspective and should be able to write a strong recommendation. Or, if your child loves science, but took an acting class and did well in it and was in a school play, then the theater teacher is well-positioned to write a multifaceted recommendation for your child.

The bottom line, again, is this: Impress upon your child the importance of building a relationship with a couple of teachers so that those teachers are able to write more personal recommendations for your child. That will mean that your child needs to go the extra mile first—for example, by helping out in class, volunteering for extra projects outside of class, joining clubs, working with younger students, or something else.

3. The School Principal

If your child knows the high school principal well, the principal is a great choice as a recommendation writer. Perhaps your child has been a student government officer or a star athlete or top student or a dedicated volunteer at the school. When we opened our small Early College high school in Brooklyn, we had an incoming first class of about 120 students. The principal knew every one of them—well.

A sincere recommendation from a principal could mean a lot to a college because it means that a student has somehow sufficiently distinguished himself or herself from the crowd so that the principal took notice—in a good way, of course.

4. College Professors

If your child has been fortunate enough to take a college class while in high school—either during the school year through dual enrollment or during the summer—that professor could make a good choice as a recommendation writer. This would be true only if the college class were small enough that the professor knew your child, of course. And again, ideally, only if your child did well in the course. Clearly, having a recommendation from a college professor saying that your child has already succeeded in college-level work would be reassuring to a college. Just make sure that your child requests the recommendation as soon as the college course is over; otherwise, it will likely be difficult to get in touch with the professor, and the professor will likely have difficulty remembering your child.

5. Internship Mentors

If your child has been fortunate enough to have an internship in the workplace before the second semester of the senior year of high school—whether it was paid or unpaid—your child’s mentor would be an excellent choice for a recommendation from outside the academic world. Some colleges accept one or even two such recommendations—not to take the place of academic recommendations, but to supplement them.

We have already said in previous episodes that internships are one of the best ways for a high school student to spend time and that they are priceless learning experiences. Being able to use the internship mentor as a reference is just one more plus to the internship experience. Mentors will be able to write about your child’s initiative, dependability, seriousness, determination, creativity, and/or intelligence—all of which a college would be happy to get in an incoming freshman.

As is the case with all of these recommenders, make sure your child asks for the recommendation at the end of the internship, not months later when a recommendation is due. If your child has spent any time with his or her mentor talking about future college plans, that’s all the better.

6. Workplace Supervisors

If your child has worked in part-time jobs or done substantial volunteer work during high school—either during the school year or during the summer—then your child’s supervisor might make a good reference. Just as with internship mentors, these real-world adults can speak about the qualities in your child that make him or her a good employee or good volunteer—all of which are likely to make your child a responsible college student as well. If your child works or volunteers each summer, then start collecting those recommendations after the freshman year—because those early jobs or supervisors might turn out to be the best.

By the way, sometimes these adults in the real world ask the student to draft the recommendation for them. That makes it easier for the supervisor, of course, and the supervisor probably wants to deliver a recommendation that the student can use. If that happens, make sure that your child is positive and complimentary in the recommendation, but does not go overboard. It should sound as though the supervisor actually wrote it!

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why recommendations are important even if they aren’t needed for college applications
  • What to do when someone doesn’t seem excited about writing a recommendation for your child
  • Whether your child should waive his or her right to see recommendations before they are sent to colleges

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Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EDWorks, a Subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks

In this episode, we continue our series on getting ready to apply to college with an interview with Andrea Mulkey.

NYCollegeChat podcast, Episode 20: An Interview with Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, EdWorks, a subsidiery of KnowledgeWorks

Listen to Andrea Mulkey talk about the great guidance and support that her organization, EDWorks, gives to innovative high school and college partnerships across the U.S. An early advocate and designer of the Early College high schools initiative, Andrea has done a lot in the past decade to spread this win-win idea from state to state—including a long assignment right here in New York State.

In the interview, Andrea chats with Marie and Regina about the impressive numbers of high schoolers taking college courses for credit and the kinds of successes these students have had. Students enrolling in college courses for credit—whether through an Early College high school program or in a traditional high school with a college partner—is truly one of a handful of education innovations with no downside. Every high school parent should know about it.

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  • The impact of college study on struggling high school students
  • Saving on college tuition by taking college courses during high school
  • What community colleges might have to do with it

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