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The Insider's Guide to the Colleges 2000

The Insider's Guide to the Colleges 2000

by Yale Daily News Staff (Compiler), Yale Daily News, The Staff of the Yale Daily News (Other)
The only guide book researched and written by current college students, this insider's guide features honest, relevant portraits of life in more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.


The only guide book researched and written by current college students, this insider's guide features honest, relevant portraits of life in more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Insiders' Guide to the Colleges: Student
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.29(w) x 8.27(h) x 1.48(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Getting In

The task of applying to college can seem as intimidating as the weight of this book. In the spring of your sophomore year in high school your aunt Millie, whom you haven't seen in three years, pinches your cheek and asks you where you're going to college. How should I know, you think to yourself. That fall, your mother tells you that the boy down the street with the 4.0 grade point average is taking the SAT prep course for the fifth time to see if he can get a perfect score and win millions in scholarship money. You reply that you're late for school. You keep ducking the subject, but the hints keep coming. With increasing regularity, dinner table conversations turn toward college. Pretty soon a few of your friends are visiting the guidance office periodically to talk to counselors or leaf through college catalogs. Finally, you decide to make an appointment yourself.

    When you first talk to your counselor, preferably as soon as possible in your junior year, you may have only just begun to feel comfortable in high school. College still seems far away, but picking and getting into a good one takes a lot of work. The earlier you begin the search, the better. A visit to your counselor is a good way to start. Most are very helpful, but a few should make you wary—such as those who don't want to disappoint anybody, and those who want to keep their track records unblemished. The first group will assure you that you don't have a thing to worry about getting into the college of your choice. Although these counselors may be paying you a hard-earnedcompliment, it still pays to read everything you can about the schools that interest you and to follow application procedures carefully. The second group will tell you not to apply to any school whose admissions they consider "too competitive," and will try to limit your alternatives. Listen to reason, but trust your instincts. Getting a sense of how helpful your counselor will be is important. The good ones can be enormously valuable as advisors and confidants throughout the admissions process.

    The next step is to read, ask questions, and read some more! Leaf through this book and read about any college that catches your eye. Try to get a general idea of what you're looking for. What do you want in a college? A strong science department? A friendly atmosphere? Or maybe just a great social life? While your academic needs should be your primary concern at the outset, be wary of concentrating on only one or two academic departments and making them the sole basis of your judgments. In college, most people change their mind two or three times before finally settling on a major. If you do change your major midway through your sophomore year, you don't want it to affect the overall quality of your coursework or force you to transfer because your college doesn't offer a good program in your new area of interest.

    We realize that you can't possibly think of all the angles. No one can say for sure what your interests will be three or four years from now, or what things will ultimately prove most important to you at the college you attend. But by taking a hard look at yourself now, and proceeding carefully as you begin looking at the colleges, you can be reasonably sure that you're investigating the right colleges for the right reasons.

    In the early winter of your junior year, you'll receive your PSAT scores (discussed later, in "The Tests"). Unless you requested otherwise, you'll also be deluged with mail from colleges throughout the nation. The College Search Service of the College Board provides these colleges with the names and addresses of students who scored in various percentiles, and the schools crank out thousands of form letters to those whose scores show promise.

    Making sense of your flood of mail may at first seem impossible. Glossy brochures tend to portray a diverse group of beaming students frolicking happily and thinking deep thoughts on every page. "They're all the same," recalled one college freshman, happy to be finished with the process. Each brochure speaks of "rich diversity" and "academic rigor" and dozens of other high-minded ideals that are often in reality nothing more than hollow catch-phrases. Likewise, any campus can look beautiful through the lens of an admissions-office photographer. Just remember, the building that looks so picturesque in the fading twilight could be part of the law school, miles from where the undergraduates study and live.

    Also note that the schools who select you for their mailing might not be the ones you would choose, but instead the ones that would choose you! Schools could choose to recruit you for any number of reasons: you could be from a part of the country the school feels is underrepresented in its student body, or your test scores could be higher than their average, and they would like you to bring them up! Chances are you will have to take the initiative to get the mailing information on some of the schools that truly interest you.

    Brochures and viewbooks can be useful if they are read critically. What themes does the college stress most? What isn't mentioned? What does the SAT or ACT profile look like? Look for hard facts to back up the flowery prose. If nothing else, viewbooks reveal something about how the college perceives itself, as well as what it aspires to be. It isn't much to go on, but then again you don't have time to do a thorough analysis of all 2,000 four-year colleges in the nation.

    There's one source of information that's often overlooked just because it's close at hand (though sometimes for other reasons): your parents. They, and other adults who know you well, probably have some good ideas about which schools you ought to consider. Take their advice seriously and investigate the alternatives they suggest. Adults frequently have a better perspective on you as an individual than would most people in your age group. Do not, however, let anyone dictate which colleges you "must" consider. It's important to come to an understanding with your parents early on that the college choice is ultimately yours alone. You are the one who has to live with that choice for four years, not them. If money is a potential problem, reach an agreement on that as well. How much can your family afford to pay? Some colleges might offer substantial financial aid. How much will you be expected to contribute? It's much better to deal with these questions in the opening months of the process than to wait until later when emotions are running high.

    There are two important things to bear in mind as you consult the opinions of others. First, every piece of advice you'll get will be a reflection of a particular person's own life experiences and is likely to be highly subjective. Second, opinions are frequently based on stereotypes that are often false, outdated, or misleading. Still, these are the shortcuts most applicants use to begin narrowing their choices, an unfortunate but necessary phase. The more people you talk to, the more perspective you can gain on the colleges you are considering. The primary purpose of this book is to give you an inside look at the colleges. If you like what you've heard about a particular school, follow up with some careful research; find out if it really lives up to its name.

    As the field narrows, you should begin to dig deeper. See what the guides have to say about schools that interest you. Do you know anyone in college? Do you know anyone who knows anyone in college? Talk to them. You don't have to interview everyone you know, but you may find that real students are your best resource. Don't be afraid to ask "real" questions (for example, is State U really the party school it's made out to be?). Get the "facts" from your college guides, and opinions and insights from the people who really know the school—the students. College nights and visits from admissions officers can also be useful because you get to see and talk to a representative of the college in the flesh. As with the viewbooks, read between the lines. College reps are there to sell the school and will be reluctant to confess any serious problems with it. It's up to you to be critical in evaluating what they say.

    All the things we've been mentioning are just bits and pieces, but if you start adding them up, you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like on each campus. We realize that at this early stage college may still seem miles away. Being editor of the school paper or winning the league championship often seems a thousand times more important than reading through stacks of college literature that all looks much the same anyway. You'll be tempted to put off thinking about college until later (much later). Resist the temptation. Getting off on the right foot is important, and it takes some effort.

The Visit

The summer vacation between junior and senior years is the best time to get serious about college visits. Your list of potential colleges should be narrowed to about 15 schools by this point.

    The point of a college visit is not to find out the information you already know. You can find out all about the academic particulars from the glossy promotional literature each school is sure to send you. The purpose, instead, is to figure out how each campus feels. You will want to see how the students act toward each other to know if you would be comfortable there. Said one student about visiting an Ivy League school, "I just wanted to see if they looked normal, or if they all wore preppy sweaters and drove BMWs. I wanted to be able to picture myself there."

    The best time to visit schools is during the academic year. It's a great time to see prospective colleges in action; this is how they'll look if you decide to attend. You want to see dally life. It's best to avoid the exam periods and breaks when students usually aren't around. Also, you'll want to schedule interviews with admissions officers as far in advance as possible.

    Before you go, take some time for a little preparation. You'll need to develop some kind of system for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each college you see. Make up a short list of characteristics to have in mind when you visit: what is the atmosphere of the campus—is it fun and games or conducive to studying? How crowded are the freshman dorms? Try to think of a uniform way to record your findings, especially if you are visiting several colleges on one trip. By focusing on carefully selected criteria, it will be much easier to compare schools later in the process. Take a look at "The College Spectrum" section of this book for some ideas.

    Staying on campus overnight with undergraduates is a good idea. Contact them through friends or ask the admissions office to help you find a host (most will be glad to do so). The prospect of staying with students might sound intimidating but most hosts are genuinely interested in helping you. After a night or two, you'll probably be sorry to leave. The real differences between most colleges are in daily life, so pay careful attention. "I found that it didn't matter much if I stayed over or not, as long as I got to talk to students," one recent applicant said. "But if you do stay over, Friday night is the best time."

    "The best advice I got," another prospective student said, "was talk to students. It's tough ... I'm kind of shy. But it's worth it to ask." Indeed, the best source of information is the living, breathing student body. You'll be surprised by how willing most students are to divulge the dark secrets of their daily lives. After all, most campuses have a healthy dose of school spirit. Who would miss a chance to promote their favorite place?

    You can also learn a lot from the nonverbal clues students emit. Size up the typical student. Are his eyes glazed? Is her vocabulary limited to the word "intense"? Is he tripping over his own feet, weighed down by a calculator, two slide rules, and the Handbook of Physics and Chemistry? These are caricatures, of course, but if you can identify some common thread running through most of the students on campus, you should be well on your way to an intelligent evaluation of the college.

    Keep in mind that college life does not consist entirely of classes. Sample the food, which is, after all, a necessity of life. Check out the dorms. Take the campus tour. Though you're sure to be inundated with obscure facts about the college that don't interest you, it can be useful to see the buildings themselves and the campus as a whole. Look closely at the facilities. If you have questions, don't hesitate to ask. The tour guide is usually a student, so don't let the opportunity pass if there is something you really want to know.

    Most important, though, is to get a sense of the campus atmosphere. How does it feel to walk across the main quad? Does the mood seem intellectual or laid-back? Do T-shirts read "Earth Day Every Day" or "Coed Naked Beer Games"? Focus on these characteristics while you're on campus; you can read about the distribution requirements at home.

    Should you bring your parents along when you visit? Maybe. If you feel comfortable going alone, leave them home. Although they mean no harm, parents can sometimes get in the way. If Mom or Dad takes a wrong turn and starts driving the car around on the main quad (it's happened before), your embarrassment may cloud your impression of a school you might otherwise have loved.

    Even if your parents do go along, make sure you take some time to roam around on your own. Take the tours together, but send Mom and Dad to a hotel while you sleep in the dorm. In all fairness, having your parents along can be a good thing as long as they know when to step back and let you go your own way. They know you as well as anyone, and they might see things you miss. The drive home is often an excellent time to discuss with them the pros and cons of the school you just visited.

The Interview

Just about every college applicant dreads the interview. It can be the most nerve-wracking part of the college application process. But relax—despite the horror stories you might have heard, the interview will rarely make or break your application. Usually the interview can only help you, and at some schools it is nothing more than an information session. "I was constantly surprised at how many questions they let me ask," one applicant reported.

    It is best to look at the interview as your chance to highlight the best parts of your application and possibly to explain the weakest parts. Are your SAT scores on the low side? Did your extracurricular section seem a little thin? An interview gives you the opportunity to call attention to your successes in classes despite your scores, or explain that of the three clubs you listed, you founded two and were president of the third, and so on.

    There are a few keys to a successful interview. The first is to stand out from the crowd. Keep in mind that the interviewer probably sees half a dozen or more people every day, month after month. If you can make your interviewer laugh, interest him or her in something unusual you have done, or somehow spice up the same old questions and answers, you've had a great interview. Second, don't try to be something you're not. Tell the truth. By doing so, you will be able to appear more relaxed and confident.

    A few days before the actual interview, think about some of the questions you might be asked. Some admissions officers begin every interview by asking, "Why do you want to go to this school, and why should we let you?" You don't have to have memorized speeches for every answer, but try not to get caught off guard. Make sure you really know why you want to attend this college. Even if you aren't sure, think of a plausible reason and be prepared to give it. Other common questions include those about your most important activities, what you did with your summers, and what visions you may have for your future.

    A note of caution: if your interview takes place after you have submitted your application, the interviewer might ask you questions about some of the things you included. One student wrote on his application that he read Newsweek religiously. During his interview, the admissions officer asked the student about a story in a recent issue of the magazine. The student had no idea what the interviewer was talking about. He was not accepted.

    It is always an excellent idea to indicate that you have a special interest in something, but make sure the interest is genuine—you may wind up with an hour-long conversation on the topic. Don't start talking about how you love learning about philosophy if you've only dabbled in it once. Don't try to use big words simply to sound impressive during what should be just a friendly chat. An open, thoughtful manner can do as much as anything else to impress your interviewer.

    Having a successful interview usually amounts to being spontaneous in a contrived situation. If you're nervous, that's okay. Said one applicant, "I felt sick and I didn't eat for a day before the interview." The most common misconception is that admissions officers are looking for totally confident individuals who know everything and have their entire future planned out. Almost the opposite is true. An admissions officer at a selective private college said, "We do not expect imitation adults to walk through the door. We expect to see people in their last year or two of high school with the customary apprehensions, habits, and characteristics of that time of life." Admissions officers know that students get nervous. They understand.

    If everything in your life isn't perfect, don't be afraid to say so when appropriate. For example, if the conversation comes around to your high school, there is no need to cover up if problems do exist. It's okay to say you did not think your chemistry lab was well equipped. An honest, realistic critique of your school or just about anything else will make a better impression than false praise ever could. Even more, someone with initiative who overcomes adversity is often more appealing to an interviewer than a person who goes to the "right" high school and coasts along.

    If something you say doesn't come out quite right, try to react as you would with a friend. If the interviewer asks about your career plans, it's all right to say you're undecided. As a high school student, no one expects you to have all the answers—that's why you're going to college. Above all, remember that the admissions officer is a person, interested in getting to know you as an individual. As one interviewer explained, "I'm not there to judge the applicants as scholars. I'm just there to get a sense of them as people."

    Don't get so worried about saying all the right things that you forget to listen carefully to the interviewer. The purpose of the interview is not to grill you, but to match you and the school in the best interest of both. Sometimes the interviewer will tell you, either during the interview or in a follow-up letter, that you have little chance of getting in. If she says so or implies it, know that such remarks are not made lightly. On the other hand, if she is sincerely encouraging, listen to that, too. If an interviewer suggests other schools for you to look into, remember that she is a professional and take note. Besides, many interviewers appreciate a student's ability to listen as well as to talk.

    Your interviewer might ask you whether you have a first choice—especially if his college is often seen as a backup. If the school is really not your first choice, fudge a little. Mention several colleges, including the one you're visiting, and say you haven't made up your mind yet. Your first choice is your business, not his. If the school really is your first choice, though, feel free to say so, and to give a good reason why. A genuine interest can be a real plug on your behalf.

    Also know that you can direct the conversation. Don't worry about occasional lapses; some interviewers wait to see how you'll react to a potentially awkward situation. Calmly ask a question, or mention something that really interests you. It's your job to present the parts of you and your background that you want noted.

    Selective colleges need reasons to accept you. Being qualified on paper isn't always enough. Think of the interviewer's position: "Why should we accept you instead of thousands of other qualified applicants?" The answer to that question should be evident in every response you give. Use the interview to play up and accentuate your most memorable qualities. Show flashes of the playful sense of humor that your English teacher cites in his or her recommendation; impress the interviewer with the astute eye for politics that your math teacher raves about.

    Too many applicants are afraid to talk confidently about their accomplishments. If the interviewer is impressed by something, don't insist that it wasn't much, or he might believe you. And if he isn't impressed by something you think is important, tactfully let him know that he should be. But don't, under any circumstances, be "too cool" for the college. One well-qualified applicant to a leading college was turned down when the interviewer wrote, "It obviously isn't going to be the end of his world if he doesn't get in. And it won't be the end of our world, either." If there is any quality you want to convey, it is a sincere interest in the school. Always come to the interview armed with a good question or two, and not one whose answer is easily found in the college's viewbook. Don't ask if they have an economics department, for example—ask the average class size in introductory economics courses.

    You'll probably wonder what to wear. This is no life or death decision, but remember that your appearance is one of the first things the interviewer will notice about you. Wear something you'll be comfortable in—a jacket and a tie or a nice dress are fine. Do not, however, be too casual. Faded jeans and a T-shirt will give the impression that you're taking the interview too lightly.

    One crucial point: keep your parents a thousand feet and preferably a thousand miles away from the interview session. When parents sit in, interviews tend to be short, boring, and useless. If the interviewer feels you cannot handle an hour without your parents, she might be concerned about your ability to survive the pressures of college life. Take the risk of hurting your parents' feelings and ask them to wait outside.

    Once the interview is over, it is perfectly all right for your parents to ask any questions they may have if the interviewer walks with you back to the waiting room. Even if this makes you uncomfortable, do not let it show. Admissions officers can learn as much about you by the way you treat your parents as they do in the interview. The interviewer is not judging your parents. As long as you conduct yourself calmly and maturely, you've got nothing to worry about.

    All of this advice applies for interviews given by alumni as well as those conducted by admissions staff. Alumni interviewers usually carry slightly less weight with the admissions office, but they are valuable contacts with the schools and should not be taken lightly.

    What if you don't have an interview at all? Perhaps you live too far away, and you can't get to the school itself. Or perhaps you feel that your lack of poise is so serious that it would work against you in any interview you had. Talk it over with your guidance counselor. In general, geographic isolation is a valid excuse for not having an interview, and most colleges won't hold it against you. But if the college is fairly close and makes it clear that applicants should have an on-campus interview if at all possible, make the effort to go. Otherwise, the college will assume that for some reason you were afraid to interview, or that you simply didn't care enough to have one. If the prospect is genuinely terrifying, schedule your first interview for a safety school, or ask your guidance counselor to grant you a practice interview. You might discover that the process is not as horrible as you originally thought.

The Tests

Standardized tests are known (not necessarily correctly) as the Great Equalizers. Whether you're an Olympic hopeful, a musical prodigy, or a third-generation legacy, you can't avoid taking them. And whether you attended prep, private, public, or parochial school, your scores are meant to indicate the quantity and quality of education you've had in the past as well as your potential to excel in the future. By no means do tests tell the whole story: grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, application essays, and personal interviews all round out the picture. But scores are often the only uniform admissions criteria available, and regardless of your opinion of them, they are necessary.

    The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), by far the best known of admissions tests, is required by virtually all of the nation's highly selective colleges. The SAT is designed to measure verbal and mathematical abilities—as opposed to achievement—so theoretically you can't study for it. (More on that later.) After being administered in the same format for decades, the test changed slightly in March 1994. In the verbal section, antonym questions were replaced by a section on vocabulary in context and more questions on reading comprehension and comparison were added. For the first time, students were allowed to use a calculator for the math sections, which each included ten new "student-produced response" (fill-in-the-blank) questions along with 50 multiple-choice questions.

    According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the test, the format changes were so minor that they neither raised nor lowered students' scores, nor did they affect the way colleges used the test in their admissions decisions. Of course, it is difficult to speculate whether some colleges may lean more or less heavily on the new test in making their decisions. But because ETS made the changes to improve the test's accuracy in determining students' scholastic ability, colleges are likely to find it a better indicator than before. Although test preparation books and services followed the changes carefully, it may take a while for them to perfect their expertise with the new test. The important thing to remember is that no matter what the changes, the test is new for everyone, so your relative scores as they compare to other college applicants will be accurate.

    Beginning April 1, 1995, ETS began reporting SAT scores on a new "recentered" scale. The SAT was originally calibrated so that the average scores for the math and verbal sections would be 500 each, giving an average SAT score of 1000. These scores had slowly slipped over several decades to an average of 900—some say as a result of a declining American educational system, although others argue that the perceived "decrease" is not surprising considering that today's 1.8 million SAT-takers are much more representative of American education as a whole than the 10,000 primarily affluent, prep-school students who took the SAT when it was implemented in 1941. The recentering returns the average. SAT score to 1000 and thus gives the average test-taker a 100-point boost over the old system, which sounds encouraging only until you realize that almost everybody else gets a similar boost, and that as a result, your percentile "rank" will not change. Ultimately, the recentering, like the recent changes in the actual test, redistributes scores more evenly along the 200-800 score scale and therefore makes it easier for a school to differentiate between applicants. A few prestigious colleges and universities with many high-scoring applicants have complained that the recentering blurs the distinctions between top students' scores (yes, it is easier to get a 1600 now), although ETS and the College Board would argue that this is why they changed the scoring: admissions committees shouldn't be using minute differences in test scores to split hairs between applicants.

    The recentering will mean nothing to students in a few years; ETS will only give out recentered versions of scores from now on. All of this concerns the prospective college student only because some colleges are still reporting "old" scores in their statistical information, and some are giving "new" ones; adding 80 to Verbal and 20 to Math on "unrecentered" scores in this edition of The Insider's Guide should give you a rough idea of what the school's recentered scores will be.

    When you take the test, be sure to take advantage of two services offered by ETS upon registration. The first concerns the disclosure of your scores to recruiters. If you mark yes in the appropriate box, any colleges engaged in recruiting can find out the range in which your scores fall, and may send information about their programs directly to you. You might consider some of these pamphlets junk mail, but some of them might help you form the list of colleges to which you intend to apply. The SATs are also the qualifying round for the Presidential Scholar award, a highly selective competition not as well known as the Merit Scholarship program (see "The Money").

    The second service will mail your test scores to specified colleges. At no extra cost ETS will mail your scores directly to the admissions office of up to six colleges. If you have a "bad day," you have three days to cancel the mailing. If you take the test again, however, the form that reports the results of your second try will also contain the results of your previous attempt, so the colleges to which you apply will know about your bad day sooner or later.

    Previously, the American College Test (ACT) was required mostly by colleges in the southern and western regions of the country, but now more colleges are accepting it as a substitute for the SAT I and SAT II tests. The ACT test consists of reading, math, science reasoning, and English grammar sections, each of which takes an hour. The ACT differs from the SAT in that it explicitly attempts to measure past achievement rather than aptitude. Many students feel that the ACT is easier, since wrong answers are not penalized.

    Many of the more selective colleges also require up to three SAT II exams, formerly called Achievement Tests (also administered by ETS). Available subjects include English, a variety of foreign languages, math, history, and several of the sciences. Colleges may weigh these scores as heavily as SAT I, so these tests should not be taken lightly. SAT II scores were also changed to reflect the recentering. By now, you may have already taken the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT). The PSAT is good practice for the SAT and high scores can qualify you for merit scholarships, although the scores themselves will mean very little after you have taken the SAT.

    Advanced Placement (AP) exams are another animal altogether, since their purpose is not to get you into college, but instead to earn you credits once you get there. Administered in May, each test covers a specific subject area. Different schools require different scores for granting college credit. Some will offer credit but still require you to take classes in a subject that you aced on the AP exam. Since the tests require in-depth knowledge of specific subjects, don't put them off. If you plan on taking the American history AP test, take it right after you finish your American History course, be it sophomore or senior year. The fresher the material is in your mind, the better your score will be. In addition, the AP test scores can only help your college applications if you take them before your senior year and score high.

    The most reliable way to keep up-to-date on test dates, sites, and registration deadlines is through your high school guidance office. After the PSAT, which most schools administer to sophomores or juniors every fall, you'll be on your own about when and where you take the tests. Find out which ones are required by the colleges you are interested in way ahead of time; deadlines have a way of sneaking up on you. It's a good idea to begin taking the tests by the spring of your junior year. If you take the SAT in March or May of your junior year and don't do as well as you think you should, you'll have a couple of other opportunities to improve your scores. The required SAT IIs should also be taken by June of the junior year so that if you decide to apply to an early-action or early-decision program, you will have completed the required testing.

    Avoid postponing required testing until November, December, or January of your senior year. One new college student who put off the SAT until the last minute recalled his freshman faculty advisor saying to him, "I just don't understand it ... you went to one of the best high schools in Chicago and did very well. How could your SAT scores have been so low?" He told her how lucky he felt just getting in to college: he had contracted a nasty flu and thrown up before, during, and after the test! On the other hand, do not repeat the tests over and over. The ETS reports that students can gain an average of 25 points on both the verbal and math sections of the SAT if they take the test a second time. Two or three shots at the SATs are sufficient, and there is no need to sit for every SAT II imaginable.

    If you've got the time and money, you might also consider taking a prep course given by a professional test-preparation service. Ideally, the object of the SAT is to measure raw ability, so studying should be forbidden. National test-prep companies like Kaplan, Barron's, and the Princeton Review, as well as dozens of local companies, remind us that our world is not an ideal one. There's a continuing debate among educators about whether these courses actually raise scores—but they can't hurt. The ETS maintains that there is "no surefire way to practice for standardized tests designed to predict aptitude." The testing agency adds that some students improve their scores after coaching, whereas others do better by preparing themselves. Coaching programs generally cost hundreds of dollars and seem to be most useful to students who are poor test-takers or who feel that they have a great deal of room for improvement. If you do take a prep class, take it seriously. You may have six or seven other high school classes to worry about and those might seem more important, but you cannot hope to get your money's worth if you do not attend all of the sessions and complete any homework. In general, the longer the program the more likely it is to boost your scores.

    If you choose not to take a practice course, at least read the instructions on the ETS practice exams carefully and thoroughly. You shouldn't have to waste time during the exam rereading instructions. If you do choose to study by taking practice exams, treat them seriously. Simulating the test-taking environment (real questions, no interruptions, strict time limits) is a good exercise in familiarizing yourself with the situation so you won't freak out when it's for real. The official ETS book of practice tests, 10 SATs, and commercially marketed practice books (the ones produced by the companies that also teach prep courses are the best) contain sample SATs.

    In our opinion, one of the most effective ways to prepare for the SAT is to take as many practice tests as possible under simulated testing conditions. Actual SATs are much better than the practice tests in SAT preparation books. True to its title, 10 SATs has official SATs from two previous years. It is published annually and is available in most bookstores or can be ordered directly from ETS. Set aside three hours every Saturday for the ten Saturdays before the test; try to make it the same three hours when you will be taking the real exam. Instruct family, friends, and your dog to leave you alone for those hours. Such a regimen will give you a keener sense of the overall structure of the test and help you to work faster during the actual exam, and might help you relax a bit. Chances are that your actual score will hover somewhere close to your practice test scores.

    A good student who is confident about test taking will probably do just as well studying on his or her own. One student endured a practice course only to score 100 points below what he received on a practice test he took before entering the course. He then prepared on his own with 10 SATs, took the SAT a second time, and not only gained the 100 points but bettered his original practice score by 50 points. One thing to keep in mind: although test preparation may or may not boost your SAT scores, it can make a huge difference on the SAT IIs, which measure your knowledge of a subject the way conventional tests do.

    The night before the exam, get plenty of sleep. Don't cram the night before. Relax. "My teacher encouraged us to go out and have a good time the night before," recalled one first-year college student. "So I went to the movies as a distraction. I think it worked!" On the day of the test eat a full breakfast, dress comfortably, and don't forget to bring two pieces of ID, a couple of number-two pencils, and a pencil sharpener. Make sure you're up early and know where you'll be taking the test as well as how to get there. The test center may be overcrowded, there may be no airconditioning or heat, and a hundred construction workers may be drilling outside the nearest window—be prepared for anything!

    The key to success on the SAT is to keep calm. During the exam, keep track of how many problems there are, and allot time accordingly. Read and attempt to answer every question since you don't get more credit for the hard ones than the easy ones. The SAT is one of the few standardized tests that penalizes the taker for wrong answers. The best overall rule is to eliminate one or more of the possible answers and try to select from the remaining choices. If you really have no idea about a question, it's best to leave it blank. Just remember to also leave a blank on your answer sheet!

    A word of warning: don't even think about cheating. It's not worth it, and your chances of getting caught and blackballed from college are high. To weed out cheaters, the ETS uses the mysterious K-index, a statistical tool that measures the chance of two students selecting the same answers. If your K-index is suspect, a form letter goes out to the colleges you're interested in, delaying your score until you retake the exam or prove your innocence. Also know that looking at another person's test is not the only activity that the ETS considers cheating. Going back to finish work on a previous section is equally against the rules. Don't tempt fate—a low score is better than no score at all.

    At the beginning of this section, we stressed that standardized tests are important. How important? It varies. Generally speaking, the more selective the school, the less your scores will matter. At many state schools, admission depends almost entirely on test scores and grades. If you score above the cutoffs, you're in. At very competitive colleges, tests are just one of many factors. According to the dean of admissions at Harvard University, "If scores are in the high 500 to low 700 range, they probably have a fairly small impact on our decisions." Each of the schools in this book lists a mean SAT score. Remember that half of the students accepted to that college scored below the mean. Unless you score far below or far above the mean of your desired college, in most cases the SAT won't make or break your chances of getting in. If your scores aren't quite up to snuff, but you've attended an inner-city school or a school in an area of the country where educational standards are below the norm, your apparent deficit might, in fact, indicate real strength—as long as you've passed certain minimum levels. Remember that a combined 700-point minimum is necessary to participate in NCAA athletic programs.

    Many students mistakenly believe that the SAT is the only test that "really matters" in competitive college admissions. In fact, SAT II scores taken as a whole are usually of equal importance. Many colleges actually view these scores as a more accurate predictor of future performance than the SAT. In almost every case, your high school record is more important than your SAT scores. A strong performance in high school can sometimes compensate for weak scores, but standardized tests alone rarely make up for a poor showing in the classroom. If scores are exceptionally high or low, however, they do tend to take on more importance in the eyes of the admissions officer.

The Application

By the time the leaves start to change in the fall of your senior year, you should decide on four to eight schools to apply to. If you are fairly certain of your first-choice school, you may apply to as few as two or three others, but if you're looking at highly selective schools, seven or eight is a more realistic number.

    Ideally, the colleges you choose should form a continuum from highly selective to less so. A common tendency among applicants is to aim too low or too high. Don't let high median SAT scores and low acceptance rates at your two favorite schools intimidate you and keep you from applying. Even if the odds are against you, you'll be happier attending your third choice knowing you at least tried for the other two. However, don't go to the opposite extreme of overconfidence and forget to choose a "safety school"—one where your chances of getting in are excellent and where you'll also be comfortable and happy. "At my school, we use the 2-2-2 plan," explained one senior. "Two `safeties,' two `middles,' and two `reaches.'"

    Once you've decided where you want to apply, start thinking about when. Make a list of when each application is due, and think about completing them in that order. You can put the schools most important to you closer to the front so you won't rush through them, or save them for last when you've had the most practice. If you truly want to go to a school, get the application in on time, preferably early. If a school needs to weed an applicant pool of thousands down to a few hundred, nothing is easier than immediately eliminating a late application.

    Once you start considering due dates, you'll want to decide whether to apply under any of the varying "early" programs. These typically include early decision, early action, and rolling admissions. Early decision and early action are similar. Both require you to submit your application by early fall, usually mid-October to early November, and both will notify you by mid- to late December. The key difference is that early decision is binding, whereas early action is not. An early-decision candidate signs a contract stating that if he or she is accepted, he or she will enroll. Be sure to read carefully any early-decision agreement you sign. All applications to other schools usually must be withdrawn, and the student will most likely pay some sort of retainer fee immediately. Failure to comply with the agreement can lead to rather disagreeable consequences, typically blackballing from other schools. Needless to say, a student can apply to only one school early decision.

    Early decision should only be used if you have a clear first choice in mind, as it allows no flexibility. It does have advantages, however. Applying for early decision expresses a clear interest in the school and may give you an advantage over regular applicants. In addition, if you get accepted, you will be spared many of the hassles of the application process (and you can be wearing your college sweatshirt as early as Christmas vacation of senior year). If you feel your credentials will greatly improve during the first semester of your senior year, though, you might not want early decision. Rejections are final, regardless of when they arrive, and robbing yourself of an opportunity to put your best application forward for the sake of an earlier reply is not wise.

    Early action is offered primarily by a few Ivy League schools, although other schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Because early action is not binding, it offers convenience without commitment, but for this reason it may not give as much of an advantage to the applicant. Typically only the top applicants are accepted, with borderline cases deferred for consideration with the main applicant pool.

    Rolling admissions is another process offered by some schools, usually those that are larger and less selective. The process is a simple one. You send in the completed application, the staff considers it, and sends you a reply within a few weeks. Rolling admissions means you are judged on your own merits as opposed to being judged against the rest of a pool, but the relative difficulty of gaining acceptance increases as the spaces fill up, so apply as early as possible. Rolling admissions lets many students ensure acceptance to a "safety" school early in the process.

    Once you know when to apply, you must begin the process of filling out the application, and there are some general rules to follow. Read the entire application carefully, cover to cover, before you begin. Always fill out or type the applications yourself. Never allow more than one person's handwriting to appear on anything you send to the admissions office. If you must write by hand, again, do so yourself and do it neatly. Keep ink color consistent throughout the entire application as well. If you use a word processor or computer for your essay, select a basic font, preferably the one that looks most like a typewriter, and use the best printer you can find.

    You will find that each application has a certain "style." Some are very stiff and formal; others make an attempt to be casual. You can let the style of the application help you determine how to fill it in. Some schools insist that the application must be handwritten, for example, and others strongly encourage you to type. Some colleges don't make it easy to follow their own suggestions. "My Emory University application encouraged me to handwrite, but there were no lines on the page!" complained one new freshman. Do the best you can.

    Applications are usually divided into several sections. Treat every section as important, and use every page to your advantage. If a section gives you some degree of freedom to answer, don't repeat information you've listed elsewhere. The following explanations of the sections include some things you should remember when filling out your application.

· Personal Information. This usually is the first section, and is fairly straightforward. Certain questions of race or ethnic background may be optional, but it's not a bad idea to answer them, as they can't hurt you and may help you. Again, don't try to be something you're not. Having a third cousin twice removed who has a Cherokee grandfather does not make you a Native American in the eyes of the admissions office. This part of the application may also ask for specifics about your parents: their careers, college degrees, and places of birth. You might want to write all this out on an index card to keep with your applications, so you only have to ask once.

· Standardized Tests. This section, also straightforward, tells you which tests are required, and gives you a place to list your scores and dates of past exams. You will most likely have to send an official copy of all your exam results to the school, through the Educational Testing Service. Make sure you request the copy of this report early enough for it to arrive before the deadline.

· Extracurricular Activities. Here is your first chance to be more than a statistic. Along with your essay, your activities define your personality in the eyes of the admissions office. Take the time to list them as the college requests. "Some schools want them chronologically, some want them in order of importance," said one recent applicant. If it doesn't say, use the order of importance, and check this order against the rest of your application. If you intend to write your essay about your experiences as a hospital volunteer and you list it as your fifth most important activity, the committee will have doubts, either about the sincerity of your essay or the accuracy of your list. Make sure your information doesn't contradict itself.

    As for which activities to list, remember that quality consistently takes precedence over quantity. Two or three activities to which you have committed yourself and that reflect your character in some manner will far outweigh membership in 20 clubs that you dropped after your first year. The general rule is that there are very few "superstars" of extracurriculars—nationally ranked athletes or concert musicians, for example—in any applicant pool, and that activity lists are designed more to give some depth to your application than to tip the scales of an admissions committee in either direction.

· Transcript. Grades are a vital part of any application. There is little we can do at this point to help you improve them, but you can work on their presentation. Your percentile class rank counts for a lot, and those with the strongest applications will be in about the top ten percent. With any luck, you have taken the majority of your classes in the "meat and potatoes" disciplines: math, English, science, and so on. Colleges aren't likely to be impressed with sociology, psychology, and other frill courses some high schools offer unless you've also mastered the basics. Senioritis makes offbeat electives tempting, but watch out. If the school of your choice sees that you have selected "Leadership Skills" instead of AP English, they will be somewhat less than impressed.

    One more thing to remember: It is vitally important that any honors classes you've taken are marked as such on your transcript. (See your counselor to make sure.) If you aren't taking honors classes, try to schedule some for your senior year. It can be damaging not to have taken the most rigorous courses offered at your school. Include any transcripts from summer programs at other schools or universities as well. Taking a college-level course shows initiative and is always a plus with the admissions office.

· Recommendations. Many colleges require one or more letters of recommendation. In cases where they are optional, the recommendation of a guidance counselor or teacher may not guarantee your acceptance, but it certainly won't hurt. Look for teachers who know you personally, perhaps as coaches or advisors. You should obviously choose teachers in subjects that are your strong points. Writing skills are highly valued by any college, so English teachers are a good choice, especially if your verbal test scores are strong. You should once again aim for a balance of subjects and viewpoints in selecting your teachers. Make sure they receive all of the necessary information in plenty of time to meet the deadline, and make sure to follow up. "I casually asked my bio teacher about my recommendation on the day before the deadline, and he hadn't even written it yet!" Most teachers are quite careful and considerate, but it never hurts to remind them when the deadline is near.

    Most recommendation forms have a line at the bottom asking the student to waive his or her rights to see the completed recommendation. Unless you are extremely uncomfortable about allowing your recommendations to be submitted without your approval, sign the waiver. It shows that you have faith in those who've worked with you. Besides, many teachers will let you see what they've written anyway. "Mine showed me the results voluntarily. I think they put a lot of time and effort into them, and they want as to know," said one applicant. A few schools demand confidentiality—The College of William and Mary asks that the teacher seal the letter in an envelope and then sign over the flap.

· The Essay. Last but not least, you must write The Essay. Too many students needlessly stress out over the essay. If you think about it, the essay is, along with the interview, the only part of the application process that lets you determine the form and/or presentation. Even better, you get to go back and correct the parts of your essay that don't come out right the first time. There are some guidelines to follow, though.

    Be concise. If the essay gives you a length limit, adhere to it. Pick a topic that not only will interest an admissions officer, but also truly interests you. Trying to write about something that you don't really care about just because you think it will make a good topic will only result in an essay no one else will care about either. Be yourself. If that means writing about a topic someone else might deem trivial, let an interesting, expressive essay be your answer to their criticism.

    Begin thinking about your essay almost immediately, and don't be afraid to simply sit down and let some words pour out. Revision is the key to truly good writing, and under no circumstances should you send in a first draft. Procrastination, as tempting as it might be, can result in an inferior product. If you begin early enough, your writing will be relaxed and natural, and can be revised and tinkered with until it reaches the desired level of perfection. Writing your college essay the night before you mail it is a pressure-cooker situation that can only lead to disappointment. If you can, ask a teacher or counselor to work with you, not only to give grammatical and stylistic advice, but also to check for typos. Under no circumstances should you write on an application form until your essay is perfect.

    Many schools ask what seem to be similar questions, but unless they are exactly alike, don't use the same essay more than once. Sometimes rewriting the introduction and conclusion can do the trick, but get a second opinion. Trying to make an essay written for one application "fit" a specific question from another college can be a fairly obvious ploy, and one that will only make you look bad. "I ended up writing about ten essays," explained one college freshman. "I wanted to be sure they were specific enough."

    Essentially, your goal in writing an essay is to clearly and concisely discuss yourself by discussing something different. Your writing style should say as much about you as your words. To say people find you funny is one thing, to make a reader laugh is quite another. You don't need an admissions officer to tell you which is more effective. Speak in your own voice and do so consistently throughout. Being humorous or unorthodox can make you memorable, but only if you're good at it and it is consistent with the tone of the rest of the application.

· Miscellaneous. If you feel that something about you speaks strongly in your favor, and it cannot be included in the application proper, think about sending it anyway. Many schools accept portfolios from aspiring artists and tapes from musicians. This does not, however, include such gimmicks as videotapes of your friends extolling your virtues, or sending your application inside a cake. Essentially, if your "creative writing sample" still needs to be written, don't bother. It probably isn't worth the extra effort and certainly isn't the purpose of sending additional materials. Think "past accomplishments" when you are trying to decide if something should be sent.

    Above all, be certain that your application is neat, honest, and all your own. Never put down anything fake, haft-true, or almost true. Admissions officers have sensitive bullshit detectors, and if something in your work sets off their alarms, you've kissed your chances at that college goodbye.

    Once all the stamps are licked and envelopes sealed, try to relax. This may be easier said than done, but if you're like most students, the months before your deadlines will have been frazzled ones. Go out, have fun, and enjoy the rest of your senior year. April is just around the corner....

The Wait

We realize, of course, that no matter what we say, you will worry. From the day the final application goes in, students across the nation torture themselves with the ever-present, "What if?" What if my first-term grade report got lost in the mail? What if my physics teacher forgot to send in my recommendation? What if ETS reports my SAT scores to the wrong schools? For some applicants, this period of suspense will be short-lived. Those who apply on a rolling admissions plan will have to wait only the few weeks it takes their application to be processed, while early-action and early-decision applicants should have their suspense ended (or prolonged) around December.

    For those of you remaining, the pressure can be intense. "The whole school was waiting," recalled one college student. "We had all applied to the same schools, and we were all wondering who was going to get in!" The following information may help you understand what really happens while you're waiting.

    Some colleges have relatively uncomplicated ways of evaluating applications. Many state universities use simple cutoffs for grades and SATs, accepting everyone who is qualified. At more selective colleges, however, the process is much more complex. After all the applications are in, every piece of information about each applicant, from the application to jotted notes from an interview, is assembled in a folder. Much of the applicant pool is academically qualified to attend; therefore, nonacademic factors play a more important role. Each admissions office has its own criteria for organizing and reading the folders. Many do them by secondary school, others by state or region; sometimes all the "legacy" applicants (sons and daughters of alumni) are evaluated together. Each college starts with a rough idea of the optimal mix of "types" to enroll. Instead of being judged against absolute standards, applicants are evaluated relative to others who apply. Your fate will probably be determined by how well you rate within your subgroup.

    Ethnic-minority status can be an important advantage in college admissions. Talented African-American students are much in demand. Being of Latino or Native-American descent also can be an asset. Recent years have seen a tremendous rise in the number of qualified Asian-Americans applying to prestigious colleges. Consequently, their acceptance rates have seen a steady decline at these schools—so much so that questions have been raised as to whether limits have been imposed on the number of Asian-Americans admitted each year.

    Aside from ethnicity, chance diversity factors (as opposed to special talents or skills developed through a student's own initiative) are of limited importance. Relatives who attended the college or university may be an important asset at some schools and mean little at others. The same goes for geographic distribution. In general, the less successful a college is in attracting students from your school or region, the better your chances for admission. If you live very close to a selective college, you'll sometimes get a break because the school wants to keep good relations with the community by admitting more local students. All these factors are far less important than the other parts of your application, but they can give you an advantage among applicants with similar qualifications, and sometimes that makes all the difference.

    At most schools each folder is read and evaluated by one to three admissions officers. Many colleges have numerical ratings that are assigned to every application. Some rate the academic and nonacademic sides of the folder; others are more complex. After a folder has been read, usually one of the staff will present it to the admissions committee as a whole for final action. Faculty members frequently are involved in the deliberations, either to contribute professional opinions on artwork, music, and so on or as full-fledged members of the committee. Coaches and alumn i groups can also have their say about particular students they'd like to see admitted.

    Inevitably, the folders of marginal applicants get closer scrutiny than those of clear "admits" or "denies." Particularly close calls are saved until the end for final action by the committee. Sometimes, the director or dean of admissions retains a number of "wild card" acceptances for applicants denied admission by the full committee.

    Although the process is subjective, it is by no means haphazard. Many admissions officers are recent graduates who vividly remember what it's like to be an applicant, and others on the committee bring many years of admissions experience to the evaluation process. In addition, each college has built-in safeguards to ensure that admissions officers with headaches or hemorrhoids don't bias the process.

    Finally, after the admissions machine has ground to a halt, decision letters arrive in mailboxes across the nation. "My dad had about 1,000 copies of that acceptance letter made. And then he framed it!" reported one triumphant acceptee. "It's true what they say about a thick or thin envelope!" said one recent graduate, "but not for early action—the acceptances arrive in a thin envelope for those." Making the waiting list, once a booby prize or a sop to the child of a potentially disgruntled alumnus, has come to have value in this age of overlapping acceptances. If schools underestimate the number of accepted candidates who will reject them, there will be holes in the incoming freshman class, which will be filled from the waiting list. Even so, the waiting list is usually a long shot. Final notification may not come until well into the summer, so for safety's sake it's best to accept an offer of admission from another school, even if it means sending in a nonrefundable room deposit.

    If you happen to be denied admission to a college you especially wanted to attend, never call the admissions office to vent your anger or ask why. If you're not satisfied, have your counselor make a discreet inquiry sometime later. As one admissions officer told us, "If somebody is contemplating transferring a year later, a bitter encounter with the admissions office can seal that person's doom forever."

    When it comes to the final decision, go with your instincts. In the end, the best choice is probably the place where you'll feel most comfortable.

The Money

Getting into the college of your choice is not the end of your worries, for four very expensive years lie ahead. Presently, the annual costs at the most expensive colleges are past the $25,000 mark with some already costing more than $115,000 for a four-year education. Few families can afford this expensive price tag, especially if there is more than one member of the family going to college, but there are millions of dollars out there in the form of scholarship money each year. You shouldn't hesitate to apply to a college because of its cost of attendance, so you should always look into the possibility of financial aid.

    The most important step of the financial-aid process is to get organized (as with any step in the college application process). The money is not going to come to you, so you have to look for it. A good place to start is with your high-school guidance office. Often guidance counselors receive information about various types of scholarships (more on that later) and will usually post them somewhere in the school. Take note of these announcements and fill out the applications and you're on your way. The applications can be time consuming, but if you are well organized, there should be no problem. The following Web sites also provide information and services for students seeking financial aid: www.finaid.org and www. fastweb.com. The more persistent you are in your search, the better your chances are of finding all the funds you need.

    By far the best sources of aid are the colleges themselves. Most earmark large sums of money for financial aid and also distribute much of the money available from federal and state governments. Depending on the school, some may award only on the basis of need while others award on the basis of need and/or merit or achievement. The policies at various schools differ widely.

    Carefully read the bulletins provided by the colleges you are considering. If you have any questions, write to the admissions or financial-aid office right away. Find out what their admissions policy is regarding financial-aid applicants. Some of the nation's wealthier schools have "need-blind admissions," which means that your application for admission is considered with no regard to your ability to pay. However, at some schools, financial need may affect the admissions decisions, especially in borderline cases where preference may be given to those with the ability to pay. Even if you don't think you can afford it, apply to the school and for financial aid. Then, just wait and see. Sometimes it is cheaper to attend a more expensive college because they sometimes provide superior aid packages. Of course this is not always the case, but it does prove that you should never decide against a school because of money until you have a financial-aid offer (or rejection) in your hand.

    As a financial-aid applicant, you will soon notice all the paperwork involved. Most colleges require you to file a standardized needs-analysis form to determine an expected family contribution (EFC). Depending on the school, the form will either be the College Board's Financial Aid Form (FAF), the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or occasionally the ACT Program's Family Financial Statement (FFS). The school will also have its own financial form for you to fill out, which you have to send along with the family's income tax forms for verification. The school will determine a reasonable family contribution for one year. (The student is also usually expected to contribute around $1,000 from summer earnings.) To come up with an estimate, a formula established by Congress is used. The formula takes into account family income, expenses, assets, liabilities, savings accounts, and other data. The cost of attendance minus this expected family contribution yields an approximate financial need. The school then designs a financial-aid package that may consist of a low-interest, federally guaranteed loan, a work-study job, and a combination of different types of grants. This would lead one to believe that all packages would be similar, yet this is not at all true. Even though all schools receive the recommended family contribution, they don't all use the same formula. The family contribution will thus vary slightly, but there won't be a big difference. The differences in aid packages comes mainly from the way the school issues money. Some schools may require you to get more loans, or they might give you more money.

    Some schools will always make better offers than others. Wealthier schools guarantee to meet the full "demonstrated" need of every applicant they accept. At other colleges, however, the financial-aid package may leave an "unmet" need that you'll have to cover on your own. In unfortunate cases like these, students can bear the extra financial burden or choose a college that gives them a better offer.

    There are a few things you can do to improve your chances of receiving an adequate financial-aid package from a school. First of all, be efficient in getting all the forms in as early as possible. Some schools have a limited supply of funds available for financial aid, and the earlier they look at your application, the better your chance of receiving a larger share. Getting your forms in early shows a good-faith effort on your part, and schools are more likely to be cooperative with you if they feel you are being cooperative with them. Another thing you can do is write a letter to the financial-aid office explaining any special family circumstances that are not reflected on the financial-aid forms. If you don't let the school know about such situations, there's no way they can take them into account.

    If a school offers you a financial-aid package that you consider inadequate despite your best efforts to let them know about your family situation, all is still not lost. After you have been accepted at the school, make a polite call to the school's financial-aid office. If you noted any special circumstances either on the financial-aid form or in a separate letter, ask if they took them into account when determining the award. Sometimes letters or comments get overlooked in the haste to get the aid awards out on time. If they say they took the circumstances into account, or if you didn't mention any, tell them that you would really like to attend the school but don't think you can without more aid. If another school has offered you more aid, mention that, especially if the school is a competitor of the one you're talking to. Calling may not help, but they're not going to withdraw your acceptance once you're in.

    If you are eligible for money on the basis of need, then the school may list some federal government assistance. The first of the types of federal government assistance are grants. Grants do not have to be paid back, unlike loans, but they are also harder to obtain. The federal government offers two grants: the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. You have to demonstrate "exceptional" financial need for either, but the latter is harder to obtain since the government does not guarantee as much. A Pell Grant is as high as $2,340, and the FSEOG is as high as $4,000 annually.

    The federal government also offers lower-interest loans. If you demonstrate "exceptional" financial need, you may be eligible for a Perkins Loan, which can be loaned at 5 percent interest up to a maximum of $3,000. There are two types of Stafford Loans, one subsidized and the other unsubsidized. The subsidized Stafford Loan is only for people who demonstrate financial need, and it has a cap of 8.25 percent interest. The government pays for the interest while you are in school and during the grace period after you graduate. The unsubsidized loan is for those who do not demonstrate financial need, and they have to pay interest the whole time. There is also a new loan called the Federal Direct Student Loan, which is just like the Stafford except that the lender is the federal government and not a bank.

    There is also a federal government—sponsored loan for parents called the PLUS loan. It is particularly valuable for those who qualify for little or no financial aid. Each year, parents are allowed to borrow the full amount of tuition less any financial aid the student receives. The loan requires a good credit check, repayment while the child is still in school, and interest rates that are not far from market rates. Still, it can help to ease the burden on middle-class families.

    You will also probably be required to take a job through the federal work-study program. Many applicants worry that working part-time will detract from study or, equally important, play time. But if you work on campus, you certainly won't be the only one: most colleges report that about half of their students hold term-time jobs. It is possible to take a full load of courses, participate in extracurricular activities, and work 10 or 15 hours per week, all while maintaining a good grade point average. Although freshmen tend to get the least exciting jobs on campus, in later years you may well find yourself working on interesting research, in a lab, or in a library job.

    Many private colleges also provide scholarships based on academic, athletic, or artistic ability. As competition among colleges for the best students intensifies, more and more colleges are offering lucrative merit awards to well-qualified students. There are many excellent schools, including many state universities, that offer merit scholarships in ever-increasing numbers. The best source of information is your high-school counselor and state Department of Education.

    Be sure not to overlook the millions of dollars of aid available from private sources. Organizations ranging from General Motors to the Knights of Columbus offer money for college, often as prizes to assist students from your community. Sometimes large companies offer scholarships to children of their employees, so have your parents find out if their employers have such programs. There are also several scholarships out there related to specific majors, religions, or even ethnic heritage. Or if you scored very high on the PSAT, you could be in the' running for a National Merit Scholarship. There is often a catch to merit-based awards, however: If you qualify for awards from private sources, your school will often deduct some or all of the amount from any need-based aid you receive.

    The only other significant federal aid available that's not based on need is ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) scholarships. Thousands of dollars are available annually for students willing to put in several years in a branch of the armed forces. Sometimes they will even repay a portion of the federal government loans. More and more, federal aid is being reserved exclusively for the very needy. Many families with incomes over $35,000 who qualify for PLUS loans must now pass a needs test to get Stafford Loans. But if you play your cards right, your family shouldn't have to undergo severe financial hardship to put you through school.


If you're already in college and are thinking about transferring to another school, the preceding comments are mostly old hat. Theoretically, you know what to do now, but there are a number of new considerations that all potential transfers should keep in mind. The most important is the actual decision to transfer. If you are unhappy, it is easy to blame your school first. However, the cause of your troubles might not be your school in particular, but college itself, so don't assume that you will automatically be happy at another university. One dejected Ivy League student formed a transfer club during his freshman year and recruited friends to join him. Now he is a happy senior at his original school, thankful that he and his friends ultimately decided not to transfer. Another student left Stanford in search of what she thought were "greener pastures," but found New England "cold, gray, and without pastures at all." According to one transfer student, "It's a big risk. You have to really want to leave where you were or really want to go where you will be."

    Most schools accept transfer students who have up to two years of credit at another university. It is safer, however, to transfer after your first year, because your old university will be more likely to take you back if you change your mind. One student advised that it is better to take a leave of absence from your original school than to withdraw completely. This way, if you don't like the new school, you will have an "escape hatch" and little trouble returning. If you received financial aid from your former institution, make sure the schools you are applying to can offer an adequate aid package.

    Another new consideration is the application itself. Be aware that colleges tend to consider a transfer student in a different light from a high school senior. Few students tend to leave top private universities, so the acceptance rate for transfers tends to be much lower than that for first-time applicants. The situation can be different for state schools. One student at UC Berkeley reported that many of her classmates spent two years at Bay Area community colleges, then transferred to Berkeley to complete their degrees and benefit from the prestigious name. Each school looks for different students, but grades, recommendations, and the essay that explains why you want to transfer are usually the three most important parts of the application. Standardized tests and extracurricular activities are not as important. College grades will carry far more weight than your high-school grades. Although you rarely will be able to transfer out of a college at which you're getting low grades, admissions committees understand that many a high-school or freshman-year dilettante suddenly gets serious. It may not be too late. If your grade point average just shot up from 2.0 to 3.7, a tougher school than your current one may well accept you. As much as you might want to leave your school, don't ease up on classes.

    Recommendations from college professors will be important. An English professor at Louisiana State University who is writing your recommendation, for example, might personally know an English professor at Tulane. In such a case your recommendation will naturally go much further than one from an unknown high-school teacher.

    Because colleges will expect you to prove that you have developed and matured in your first year or two of college and to show why you absolutely can't stay at your old school, your essay (and interview, if you can arrange one)is critical. Be definite about why you want to transfer and what you expect to find. Academic reasons are best; personal ones (such as a heartfelt need to live in a more rural setting after suddenly developing acrophobia in your skyscraper dormitory) are only as persuasive as you can make them. Never mention long-distance love unless the two of you are married. It helps if the department in which you want to major is undersubscribed at the new school.

    If you do transfer, consider your housing options carefully. College housing is often best because experienced students will be all around to answer your questions. Whether or not your dormmates are friendly is "the luck of the draw, but you can expect them to at least be responsive and civil," said one transfer student. Another successful transfer felt that sharing a room with a fellow transfer student in a regular dorm was ideal because "when you have two people in the same situation, you help each other, and when you have regular students close by, it's easy to make new friends." Once acclimated, transfers tend to be extremely adept at getting involved in campus life at their new schools. One Stanford admissions dean noted that "it's not unusual for transfers to take a lot of leadership positions."

    It pays to choose your college carefully the first time around, but no one is prescient, and change is an inevitable part of the college experience. If you've made up your mind to transfer, don't delay.

What It All Means

After the final i is dotted and the last t is crossed on every application, or maybe when the decision letters—fat and thin—have at last arrived in the mailbox, take some time to reflect on the college admissions process and what it all means. Getting into a "top" college is not one of life's most urgent tasks, nor will it make or break your entire future. How you go about applying to college is extremely important, but don't be discouraged as long as you've given it your best. If you have, you should get into a good school at which you'll also be happy.

    Admittedly, what we've just said runs a little against the grain in these status-conscious times. The obsession with getting into a "name" school has never been greater. And after all, it is a nice feeling. A degree from a prestigious college may give you a leg up in the job market someday and can make a good first impression with people you meet. But the final proof of merit lies in your own work.

    What too often gets lost in the shuffle during the admissions process is that college is where you go to get an education. It's the people you meet, the ideas you absorb, and the values you define and redefine. You'll emerge with marketable skills, but also with a new perspective on the world. Getting an education really amounts to finding out what is important to you in life, as opposed to what merely appears to be.

    The college admissions process is the first step into the wider world beyond home and family. It can be an intense time, full of challenge and anticipation, and sometimes also pain and disappointment. The real world is like that. Just keep in mind—no matter what school you attend—that admission is only the beginning.—Amy Kappelman

What People are Saying About This

"Student-written profiles in The Insider's Guide...are lively and informative and strike the tone of a college pal offering advice." --Rolling Stone

"Invaluable in choosing and getting into a college." --Chicago Tribune

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