College Planning For Dummies, 2nd Edition, gives you the inside scoop on what to do from grade school through graduation to make college preparation run smoothly. This one-stop reference takes you step-by-step through researching and finding the college that's right for you, filling out applications, writing essays, preparing for interviews, and more.
Inside, you'll discover how to
- Plan ahead and invest wisely for college
- Research and select the best college to suit your needs
- Make yourself "attractive" to college recruiters and admission personnel
- Assess your financial aid needs and establish a plan of action
- Maximize your campus visits by asking the right questions and seeing the right people
- Put your best foot forward on an application and in an interview
- Choose the best school once you've been accepted
- Explore your options for studying abroad, transferring to and from other schools, and more
Read an Excerpt
Setting the Stage
In This Chapter
- Thinking about college before high school
- Thinking about college while in high school
- Making yourself attractive to colleges
- Answering the most important questions in your college decision
- Knowing the early steps to getting more college money
When you start to think about college, two questions probably pop into your mind:
- Where do I want to go to college?
- How do I know that college will want me?
You may also wonder about a third question:
- Can I afford the college of my choice?
Finding college money has so many ramifications, and the money can be found in so many places, that this book devotes several chapters to the subject of getting money for college. But this is not one of those chapters. Here, this chapter looks at you, the student, and just at you.
College Is Four Years, Not Your Whole Life
Where you go to college is a decision that only you can make. You may get a lot of advice, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it absolutely awful. This book tries to help you sort all that advice out and recognize good advice from the other kind. But after considering all the advice, the final decision must be yours.
Occasionally, college is compared to marriage. College is a commitment to spend a portion of your life with someone. A lot of your friends let you know whether they like, or don't like, a person you are dating. When the time comes to think about marriage, your friends' opinions are not the most important item in your mind. That's the way friends' opinions should be with college. You're making a commitment for part of your life. After you research every aspect that you can about your college choices, only you can make the commitment.
No one right college is out there waiting for you; dozens of colleges may be just waiting for you to look at them. When you start to look seriously, you'll probably find several that you think could be right for you. Then you'll decide which three, or four, or five of them to favor with an application.
How do you know that the colleges of your choice will think that you're a student they would like to have? That's also a question only you can answer. If you know what colleges want (and you will if you read Chapter 9), you can make yourself someone they want. Again you may get a lot of advice, but only you can make yourself attractive to colleges.
Like all good planners, you need to look ahead and start the college selection process as early as you can. If you have given some serious thought to both tasks discussed here -- finding a college and making yourself desirable -- when crunch time comes, your application process will be a downhill slide. Easy, swift. Trauma and stress will be for the other guys.
Planning may sound boring, but it's better than having no plan at all.
Read This Book in Fourth Grade
How many fourth graders buy a book on college planning? Your guess is probably right: zilch. To get into Harvard is not high on a 9-year-old's priority list, unless you're Doogie Howser reincarnated.
But the best plan for anything is the plan that starts earliest. The more time you have to walk somewhere, the easier each step is. Fourth grade is a good time to start to plan for college, because in fourth grade you're at the age when you start to think about what's important to you and make decisions based on those thoughts.
When you get to high school, the important stuff of fourth grade is forgotten. You have more mature priorities, and getting into college ranks right up at the top of the infamous priority list. You know that a college will look at your entire high school record, from ninth grade on, and you know that you can do nothing to change the record that you've already put together.
But what if you knew in fourth grade what you now know in high school? Aha, things might have been different. You'd know, for example, that a college would like you to have high grades in the toughest math and science courses. You'd be prepared to handle Advanced Placement math and science, but now you're just not ready for those courses. You shrugged off math and science all those years because that stuff didn't interest you, or your teacher made those subjects boring.
If you had known in fourth grade how important those courses were, you would have paid more attention. You would have mastered math and science in the elementary grades (you know that you could have done it if you had tried) so that you would have a firm foundation to coast through the tough high school AP and honors courses with all As.
Then there's the trombone. You started taking trombone lessons last year, and now you really enjoy playing the trombone. You're in the high school band and orchestra, and you become a better trombonist each week. The trombone will look good on your college application, but it would look even better if you were more experienced. And you know, you could have been. You had a chance to start playing an instrument in fourth grade, but you didn't because lessons took away time that you needed for important things. If only you knew then what you know now.
Okay, so your 9-year-old brother doesn't care about reading this book. Be nice and share its advice with him.
If You're Not in Fourth Grade, Just Read Faster
If fourth grade is in your past, no need to despair. Regardless of when you start to think about college, at whatever stage of life you want to make yourself an attractive college applicant, a few simple facts can guide your decisions.
A college looks first at your high school record. A college wants your record to show that you took the toughest available courses and that you received top grades, preferably As, in those courses. If you plan early to produce that record and lay the foundation you need to do well in tough courses, your task will be much easier when you get to the AP math class.
If You're Out of High School
If your high school diploma gathers dust in a closet, you still have no reason to fret. Anything you do at this point will not change your high school record, but you can still make yourself an attractive college candidate.
Most colleges enthusiastically welcome older students for two reasons that are totally unrelated to each other. Reason one: Colleges can't find enough 18-year-old high school graduates to fill their freshman classes. Reason two: Older, mature students usually are better students. James Walters, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says his records show adults are "remarkably successful'' at college compared to their younger colleagues. As Walters puts it: "They're a heckuva good bet.''
Because most admission officers feel the same way as Walters, older students get favorable consideration when they apply because of their age. Many admission officers consider your life experience, the education you have acquired just by your survival in the world, as a supplement or even an alternative to your high school record. Some picky colleges, though, give no break at all to older students. Those that do tell you so, if you ask.
Here's a number for you: 1.6 million. That's the total of current college students who have passed their 40th birthday. If you're an older student, chances are excellent that you won't be the only one at your school.
Steps to Take Early On
If you want to think about what's important before it really becomes important, I suggest steps you can ponder as you approach those crucial high school years. Many steps are also good advice for high school students as they approach the crucial application time. Of course, every single step is not a good idea for everyone. Pick and choose the ones that suit you.
Stay awake in fourth-grade math
You want good grades in high school math. To get good grades is difficult enough if you're well prepared. But if you're unprepared for algebra and geometry because you slept through fourth-grade fractions -- or ignored them as boring and unimportant -- your chances to do well in these subjects are remote. You should make sure that you have a thorough grounding in math -- if you missed it in fourth grade, go back and study it again.
If you slept through fourth-grade math, you can torpedo your chances of getting into a selective college.
Unplug the TV
If pulling the plug is too hard, just turn your television off. If the rest of the family complains, let them have their way, but go somewhere where you can't hear the TV. You don't need to swear off TV forever, just a couple hours a day.
For those TV-free two hours, do something that requires putting your mind in gear. You can do homework, if your school still requires it. You can read something -- a magazine, baseball box scores, or stuff in your CD-ROM encyclopedia that you need for a term paper. You can write something -- maybe the term paper or a diary entry. (See the "Keep a diary" section, later in this chapter.)
You can accomplish several good things this way. You can keep your mind from getting rusty. (And you need a well-tuned mind for the challenges ahead.) You can practice skills (reading, writing, thinking) that serve you well in those tough high school courses and in the tests and essays you must endure to get into college.
You can do all of these activities with the TV on, of course. But the experience is not the same. TV has a way of quickly numbing all minds within the sound of its speakers. As soon as Seinfeld lures you into his show with a bad joke, your mind is back in neutral. So just do it. Unplug the TV.
Take the toughest courses
Take the toughest courses -- the earlier the better. When you're trying to impress a college admission officer, you'll want your record to show that you met every academic challenge you faced. When you have choices earlier in life, choose the road that's hardest to travel. You'll thank yourself later.
Learn to play the tuba
If you can't stand tuba music, move on to another section of this book. Or think about the flute. Wherever your musical interest goes, follow it.
Playing a musical instrument is a talent that many colleges consider special. And applicants with special talents get special consideration, above and beyond those who do nothing in school but get good grades.
The most special instrument of all is the tuba, because not many students play it. Again, it's the law of supply and demand. Every college band needs a tuba, often more than one. Frantic band directors have been known to plead with their admission offices to find a tuba player because the only one in school is graduating. If you play the tuba well, you may be recruited as heavily as an adept tight end.
At the very worst, your tuba gives you extra points on your application score. A flute or trombone also adds points, but not as many because flutes and trombones are more plentiful.
If you have an inclination toward making music, don't repress it. Find the person who gives fourth-grade tuba (or flute, or trombone, or violin, or whatever) lessons. And practice well.
Become fluent in Russian
Another talent often considered special is fluency in a foreign language. As with musical talent, supply and demand is at work. Although applicants who speak French or Spanish get extra points, they don't get as many as those who speak Farsi or Swahili. The key, however, is fluency. An accomplished French speaker is a more attractive college applicant than one who hasn't mastered a lesser-known language.
Russian, if your school offers courses in this language, is a good language to learn. Russian speakers are scarce enough that they're treated very kindly in admission offices. And some well-paying jobs are out there for Russian-English interpreters.
If you have an interest in speaking other tongues, pursue it diligently. A second language helps your college application, even if the language is French.
Keep a diary
Keeping a diary is silly, you say? Who would ever want to read what you do every day in your dull life? You'll be surprised. You will.
A diary can do several things to ease the stress when college time comes. The most basic service of a diary is keeping your mind alert. For the time you spend entering each day's report, even if it's just five minutes, your mind is in gear and in less danger of sputtering when you need to work this divine muscle.
Your diary is a record of your life. The time will come when you will thank your diary for being there. When you must list on a college application all your activities and the roles you played in them, your memory will certainly overlook a few. But you don't have to trust your memory alone, because your written record doesn't forget.
For your diary to make its most important contribution, you must help. When you write in your diary, use whole sentences. Make sure that each has a subject and verb. Resist the temptation to just scribble down your stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
By keeping a diary, you gain daily practice in writing coherently about yourself. And that's precisely the skill you need when the time to write that all-important application essay is upon you -- the one part of the process that for many is the most stressful.
College admission officers read your essay to learn something about you and to see how well you write. For most students, the essay is stressful because it's a new experience. Students aren't used to writing about themselves. But for you, the essay will be easy. You will have written about yourself every day.
Your diary can remind you of meaningful experiences that you can use as an essay topic -- and they're experiences about which you've already written. Quite possibly, a diary entry could be the first paragraph in your application essay.
Believe me, your essay will be finished, in whole, complete sentences, while your friends are still biting their nails and scratching their heads. (Read more about the essay in Chapter 10.)
See whether the homeless shelter needs help
Your college application is a snapshot -- actually more like a full-color portrait -- of four years of your life. That portrait includes your life outside school. The application asks you to report your activities in the community and your contributions to them.
Your contributions are more important than the activities themselves. Colleges want to see you doing something, not just joining organizations. A long list of activities is not as impressive as a short list with clear evidence that you have made a contribution. One clear example of contributing is staying with an activity over a period of time.
So find something you like doing as early in life as you can. Volunteering at a homeless shelter is one example, but hardly the only one. Any good cause in your town probably welcomes enthusiastic help.
Make sure that you choose work that you enjoy enough to stay with it through the years. Keep a record -- in your diary -- of all the things you do, all the contributions you make. Later, you won't have trouble remembering them.
So much for your younger days. Later in this chapter, when I get around to the distasteful word money, I have tips on fourth-grade activities that can help your search for cash. But for now, stick with making yourself presentable.
Your First Decisions
Somewhere around your freshman or sophomore year, you need to start thinking about college in specifics, about where you might want to go and why. If your sophomore year already is history, don't worry. Just think faster.
The first thing you need to do is make a list of colleges that might be right for you. I show you how in Chapter 4, where you can start to look at the college-finding process. But you can't very well make a list until you know what you want to put on it. And you may be mulling over some of those list items for months ahead of time. No decisions are needed. Just mull. See which way your feelings make you lean.
Do you want to leave home?
Deciding whether you want to leave home is one of the first decisions you need to make. Are you ready to flee the nest and try flying on your own? Do you look forward to college as, among other things, your first experience with independent living, a chance to explore life free of your hovering family?
Or are you not yet ready to make the break? Are you more comfortable entering college from the security of your home? Is dealing with college life challenge enough that you don't need other major disruptions? Do you want to save the expense of room and board by starting college from home?
Think about where you want to live as you begin college and think about some other things as well. If you're ready to leave, how far do you want to go? Do you want to come home every weekend? Do you want to be close enough to stay in touch with friends?
Does traveling across the country appeal to you? Can you get by if you see your family only at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break? Can you handle a climate change? If you now live in the South, can you cope with three months of snow?
Mull these questions over every now and then, while you have the TV unplugged. Get a sense of how strongly you feel about each answer. When the time comes to make your decisions, you'll be ready.
Large or small campus?
The University of Nebraska has 20,000 students. Nebraska Wesleyan University has 1,400 students. The only things they have in common are that they offer an excellent education, and they're located in Lincoln, Nebraska. Each is the right school for some students, but neither is right for all students.
Some students thrive in the big sea. They enjoy the wide variety of social, cultural, and other activities that comes with a large university. They're willing to sacrifice some individual attention (sometimes they'll just be numbers in huge classes) in exchange for a giant school's opportunities.
Other students have the opposite reaction. They like the small college atmosphere, where everyone seems to know everyone else, where real professors teach courses and know students' names. They'd feel like they were drowning if they were dropped in an ocean of 20,000 students.
Do you have strong feelings one way or the other? Or is the size of a college not an issue for you? It's something to think about.
Big city or little town?
By the way, the size of a college is not necessarily related to the size of its town. You can find tiny schools in large urban areas and king-size campuses in such remote outposts as Fayetteville, Arkansas (University of Arkansas), and State College, Pennsylvania (Penn State). A college's location is another variable for your list.
Do you want to avoid, or be in, a big city? Do you like the rural life, where a shopping mall is a major journey? Do you lean toward a campus in the suburbs with big city amenities a short drive away? How about a quaint small town where the college and community live as equal partners? Or do you care? Think about the type of community in which you want your college to be located.
Do you have an idea of what you want to study in college? If not, it's something else for the Mull List (see the Appendix). But don't lose any sleep over such decisions. Even if you show up as a college freshman without a major, you'll have lots of company. Most students don't decide how to focus their college years until after they arrive. And many schools, recognizing this widespread indecision, don't require a choice of major until a student's second or third year.
If you have strong leanings toward a certain field, think about how strong those feelings are. Will you be ready, when the time comes, to narrow your search to colleges with your chosen major? If you're not totally sure, stay flexible. Wait until you're 100 percent certain before nailing down your decision.
Where do you want to live?
Do you feel strongly about being a part of campus life? Are you looking forward to living in a dorm? If so, are you fussy about a single-sex or coed dorm?
Do you want to attend a school where most students live on campus? Or do you care whether most of them commute from home each day? A majority of colleges can be classified either as residential or commuter, with at least two-thirds of their students in one of the two categories. But some colleges strike an even balance between on-campus and live-at-home students. Is that important?
With whom do you want to live?
How about your peers? Are you more comfortable with grungy or are you a neat freak? Is the party scene a big thing for you? Do you crave life in a fraternity or sorority? Do you want to be on a campus where your sex dominates? Or where you're outnumbered by the opposite sex?
Is ethnic diversity important? If you're African-American, do you prefer a predominantly black campus? How about geographic diversity? Some colleges get more than 90 percent of their students from their own states.
Don't worry about finding answers to these questions. All you're doing now is wondering whether you want to answer them. These are the kinds of questions that make mulling fun.
Why are you going to college?
Here's the last question, for now -- the one at the heart of why you're asking yourself all those other questions. Do you know why you want to go to college? Be sure to answer this one.
Do you want to go to college because your friends are going? Because your parents expect you to? Because you can make more money with a degree? Because you want to train yourself for a career? Or do you want to go to college because you don't know as much as you think you should know? Because college is an easy way to cut the ties to your parents' nest? Because you can't think of anything else to do after high school?
Your answer may be some, or all, of the preceding. And your answer will probably change as you continue to ask through the years. So think often about why you want to go to college. And answer this question again and again. Your answer will help immensely in your search. And it's a question you likely will have to answer aloud at your interview in a college admissions office.
Money Is Not Important -- Yet
Okay. Here it is. The nasty word. Money.
In that long list of things to think about, I didn't mention money. That's because you don't need to think about money. Not yet. At least not while you're mulling over decisions you'll have to make soon.
The cost of a college, of course, is a key factor in determining where you go. You won't enroll in a college if you can't pay its bills. But money is not something to think about when you compare colleges this early in the game, because you really don't know how much each college will cost.
Sure, you can look at the price tags in the college directories. Harvard charges $28,896 a year for tuition and room and board. At Stanford, the tab is $27,827. If you're reading this in fourth grade, even modest inflation could push the price over $100,000 a year by the time you're ready for college. But you have no idea -- yet -- how much of that tab (whether you get into Harvard or Stanford) you'll be paying.
You have no idea -- yet -- how much your price will be reduced by financial aid.
Here's one for your memory bank. In September 1996, two-thirds of all college freshmen in the United States were not paying their school's full sticker price.
I'll say it again for emphasis. Two of every three freshmen -- from Yale to Youngstown State -- were not paying the price advertised in directories. They were getting financial aid.
Aid recipients are not just the poor. At high-priced private colleges, which give away millions of their own dollars to help students pay bills, some aid flows to students whose families earn six-figure incomes. And no one bends the rules to get this money.
You can get an estimate of your financial aid eligibility by reading Chapter 12. But that's just an estimate. All financial aid, especially at private schools, is flexible, if not negotiable. If you play the tuba, you could get more aid than your friend who doesn't. (Financial aid is explained in detail in Chapters 11 through 15. You can also refer to College Financial Aid For Dummies® [IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.] by Dr. Herm Davis and Joyce Lain Kennedy.)
Still, you will need to spend money to go to college; you just don't know how much. So your concern right now should not be how expensive College X is compared to College Y. Wait until you have some real numbers for comparison. Your financial concern, as you move through high school, should be finding the money to spend no matter where you decide to go.
Early Steps to Get More College Money
As you set the stage to become an attractive college applicant, you can do several things to set the stage for paying the bills. If you plan with care, you can make sure that you not only maximize your own resources, but that you'll be eligible for all the money the rules say you deserve when the time comes to distribute financial aid.
Find a work-free income source
Many people out there are willing to pay you good U.S. dollars and won't ask you for even a few minutes of work. They go by lots of different names, but quite a few call themselves bankers. These people want to borrow your money for a while, and they pay you to let them have it. They'll take $1 a week if that's all you can afford.
This profitable activity, lending money to bankers, is usually called savings. That's a dull, boring word, and it's why most people don't save. Polls regularly show that most people would rather spend the money they have than, yechh, save it. Saving is not much fun.
So I'm not suggesting you save money. I'm encouraging you to find a new, work-free source of income. Lend some money to a banker, or a mutual fund, or someone every week, every month, or whatever suits your budget. When the banker pays you for using your money, let him keep that money, too. Then he'll pay you not only for using your money, but also for using the money that he paid you earlier. This is the magic of compounding. Compounding is how rich people get even richer. They lend money to bankers.
Tell Grandma what to do with her birthday presents
You may have heard about tax shelters. Tax shelters are where rich people put their money because, through loopholes in the law, they legitimately can avoid paying taxes on this money. Anyone thinking about going to college should be aware of the provision in the financial aid rules that I'll call the Grandma Shelter.
The shelter actually is available to any friend or relative who is not in your immediate family. Grandma is used here because she's handy and she's often very generous with her grandkids.
When you apply for financial aid, you'll be asked to bare your financial soul. If you're a dependent of your parents, they must do the same. Every dollar of your and your parents' income and assets must be reported to a computer, which then crunches the numbers and decides how much you should pay for college. That's the starting point to figure your financial aid.
Nobody will ask about Grandma's money. She could be holding your college nest egg, and it wouldn't be counted in determining how much aid you need. Now I'm not suggesting that your parents transfer all their mutual funds into Grandma's name so that you can get more financial aid. Although that would be a perfectly legal step to take, I'm not suggesting that they do this because some people might consider it unethical.
But say that Grandma, or Uncle John, or Aunt Cathy decides that your birthday present every year will be a $100 contribution toward your college education. Grandma can serve you better if she just tells you she's putting $100 aside for you and actually keeps it in her name. Then she can write a check when the time to pay tuition arrives.
Tell your parents they need an IRA
If your parents don't have an IRA, encourage them to start one fast. An IRA not only is a work-free income source (see the preceding section), but you also save taxes on the money put into it. And IRAs, as an added bonus, make you eligible for more financial aid. (I'm using IRA, the most common term, to include all tax-deferred retirement accounts that go by such names as 401[k], Keogh, and SEP.)
When you apply for financial aid and the government's computers calculate how much you should be expected to pay, they don't count your or your parents' assets in an IRA. Get as much into an IRA as the law and your family budget permit. You can read more on planning for college costs in Chapter 15 and College Financial Aid For Dummies® (IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.) by Dr. Herm Davis and Joyce Lain Kennedy. To find out more on tax-deferred retirement accounts, check out Personal Finance For Dummies®, 2nd Edition, by Eric Tyson (IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.), at a bookstore near you.
You've got lots of company
Take it from the experts. If you're not applying to Harvard or Yale, you have plenty of company. The students who shoot for the high-prestige colleges are a tiny, elite group.
A study by the U.S. Education Department found that only 6 percent of all college-bound seniors meet the five basic criteria required by highly selective colleges. That's about 150,000 of the 2.5 million students out there looking.
The five minimum criteria generally required by very selective schools:
When the cutoffs were lowered to a 3.0 grade point average and a 1000 SAT score, the government experts found just 19.5 percent of the college applicants made this cutoff. Don't shy away from college because the geniuses in your class are applying. Four of every five applications are filled out by regular people who took the time to have a life.
In Chapter 1, you can see a list of the 22 colleges that accept fewer than 35 percent of their applicants. That's 22 of the 1,500 four-year colleges in the country. If that list were expanded to colleges accepting fewer than half their applicants, it still would have only 78 names. More than 1,400 colleges take more than half the students who apply.
Table of ContentsIntroduction.
About This Book.
How to Use This Book.
Who Are You?
Who Should Read This Book?
High school students.
Mom and/or Dad.
Adults thinking about college.
Anyone accepted to college.
Who Should Not Read This Book.
Anyone with a Ph.D.
College admission officers.
How This Book Is Organized.
Part I: Getting Ready.
Part II: Finding the Right Colleges.
Part III: Getting In.
Part IV: Paying for College.
Part V: The Rest of the Story.
Part VI: The Part of Tens.
Icons Used in This Book.
Where to Go from Here.
Part I: Getting Ready.
Chapter 1: What You Need to Know.
Chapter 2: Setting the Stage.
Part II: Finding the Right Colleges.
Chapter 3: What You're Doing (And Not Doing).
Chapter 4: Tenth Grade -- Starting Early.
Chapter 5: Eleventh Grade -- Starting Later.
Chapter 6: The Campus Visit.
Chapter 7: The Interview.
Chapter 8: Decision Time.
Part III: Getting In.
Chapter 9: How Colleges Look at You.
Chapter 10: How to Look Your Best.
Part IV: Paying for College.
Chapter 11: Shake Off the Sticker Shock.
Chapter 12: Money You Get Because You Need It.
Chapter 13: Money You Get Because You're You.
Chapter 14: Getting Financial Aid.
Chapter 15: Easing the Pain.
Part V: The Rest of the Story.
Chapter 16: You're Accepted, Now What?
Chapter 17: Evaluating the Money Offers.
Chapter 18: What If You're Coming to the U.S.?
Part VI: The Part of Tens.
Chapter 19: Ten Essays Heading for the Circular File.
Chapter 20: Ten Terms Colleges Hope You Never Know.
Chapter 21: Ten Abbreviations You Wish You Never Saw.
Chapter 22: Ten Big Mistakes in College Planning.
Chapter 23: Ten Questions to Ask about a College.
Chapter 24: Ten Reasons Why a Two-Year College Is Worth a Look.
Glossary: Words You Should Know.
Appendix: The Mull List.
Questions to Ask Before Picking a College.