Some Recommendations on Recommendation Letters

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College Application Month is underway away (including the Iowa College Application Campaign, part of Iowa College Aid’s 3-Step Process), and students are working to complete packages that will best showcase to colleges who they are as a person and a student. An important, though sometimes overlooked part of the application, is the recommendation letter. A good letter can provide a broader picture of what makes a student unique and well-suited for a school, while a bad one can come off as obligatory and offer no personal connection to the subject. Here are some tips to consider when pursuing application letters:

Who Needs Recommendation Letters?

Most schools will state if a letter of recommendation is required or optional, though some may provide the opportunity to provide both. Usually, required letters will be asked from a school counselor or teachers with whom the student has worked. Even if a school only requires an optional letter, students should take advantage of the opportunity to present someone who can reinforce their strengths to an admissions officer.

Recommendations can be essential in the following situations:

  1. A student needs someone else to help explain an obstacle or hardship.  Learning disabilities, deaths in the family, unusual personal or family challenges can all fall into this category and a school counselor is often the person who can help explain.
  2. The applicant needs clarification from a school official to explain what is or isn’t on the transcript.  If a student was unable to complete a certain course because it wasn’t offered on campus or limited by school policy, the school counselor can help explain.
  3. A student knows their application will undergo review.  Letters of recommendation from teachers and optional essays will help in the holistic review process.

Who Should Write Recommendation Letters?

Finding the right person to write a student’s recommendation letter is a strategic decision. The right person will know a student well, be able add something to the application that isn’t well represented in the student resume and essays and can speak to your child’s academic strengths?

Students should include at least one academic teacher who has taught them in class for at least one full semester.  Even if the student didn’t earn an A, a the teacher who can discuss a student’s academic abilities will go a long way to supplementing a list of activities from a student’s resume. Teachers should be encouraged to illustrate with specific examples, if possible, showing how a particular project, paper or situation showed student strengths through handling the work.

Who Should NOT Write a Letter of Recommendation?

The desire to get a big or recognizable name to write a letter of recommendation will not only serve as a poor replacement for quality letters people who know the student well, they can actually undercut the impact of a letter if the writer only offers a broad recommendation that doesn’t show closer knowledge. Just because a family member might be connected to an influential community member or businessperson doesn’t mean that a letter can replace one written by a person who knows the student as a person.

Four Tips To Save On College Application Fees

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College Application Month is underway, encouraging high-school seniors to apply at schools for the next step in their education after graduation. As students put their application plans into action they find themselves dealing with the cost of submitting their application. Facing application fees can discourage students from applying to multiple colleges or, in some cases, applying to even one college.

Many schools, however, offer means by which students can reduce or waive their application fee. With a little bit of research, students can find ways to save on applying to their target schools. Here are four tips to help:

  1. Apply online and by the deadline. Most of Iowa’s private institutions do not charge an application fee if students apply online and by the deadline.
  2. Apply to schools with no application fee. All of Iowa’s community colleges are free to apply to! Search for other schools that don’t charge application fees.
  3. Submit a fee waiver. Students can request their school counselor send this form on their behalf from the National Association for College Admission Counseling if they have a financial hardship. Students on free or reduced lunch programs often qualify for financial hardship. If a student qualified for a SAT fee waiver, they will also receive four college application fee waivers.
  4. Request a fee deferment. Due to Iowa Code, the Iowa Regent Universities can’t offer fee waivers. However, they can offer a fee deferment when the application fees present a financial hardship for the student/family. This means the student pays nothing at the time of application, but if they choose to attend that school the $40 application fee will be added to his or her university bill. This allows students to use financial aid to pay the fee.

The best way for families to learn more about application fee reduction programs is to contact the financial aid office at the school to which they are applying. Iowa College Aid’s Higher Education Center offers listings of all Iowa colleges and universities, including contact information for financial aid and admissions offices at each campus.

Students, Staff at Clinton High School Kick Off College Application Month In New Video

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October is College Application Month, but the students and staff at Clinton High School in Clinton, IA grabbed a head start by holding their Iowa College Application Campaign event last week. We visited during their College Application Event to talk with staff and students about what the Iowa College Application Campaign is and how it can benefit students of all ages, not just seniors.

This month, schools all around Iowa will be working with their seniors to encourage applying to either a two-year or four-year college as part of the Iowa College Application Campaign, part of a national effort to encourage and build a college-going culture in high schools. Iowa College Aid supports schools through programs like the Iowa College Application Campaign, part of Iowa College Aid’s “3-Step Process” for high school seniors preparing for college. The Iowa College Application Campaign kicks off the year, followed in January by the FAFSA Completion Initiative and College Decision Day in May.

Special thanks to Counselor Suzanne Schraeder and the River Kings and Queens at Clinton High School for allowing us to visit and feature them in this video.

Using Academic Advisors Can Help Students Stay On Track Toward Graduation

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Many students see getting to college as the ultimate goal when it is really the beginning of the next journey. Continuing education after high school brings new pressures and demands. For a student who is living away from home for the first time, the impact of the first year of college can be so intense as to drive them away from their education. Nationally, 77% of first-year students return to their school for the second year. That means that 1 out of every 4 college students is likely to crumble under the demands of a college education. In Iowa, those numbers are better, with over 85% of students returning. But that still means that almost 1 in every 5 college students are giving up on their dreams of a college degree.

Students face a wide-range of pressures, including emotional, social and financial issues, but often overlooked is making the academic adjustment to college. While students may feel like they are struggling through college alone, almost every college campus offers an essential, yet underutilized, resource: Academic advisors.

Academic advisors can help students stay on track for graduation by assisting students in registering for classes and often offer a vast wealth of knowledge regarding classes, graduation requirements, internship opportunities, job hunting and industry contacts in a student’s field of career interest. Here are some tips to help students get the most out of working with an academic advisor:

Schedule appointments well in advance. During class registration, advisors are extremely busy. Email them well before a proposed appointment date and be flexible. Realize that advisors meet with several students, in addition to teaching courses or conducting research.

Visit advisors more than once a semester. Students who only go to see their advisor to register for classes are missing out on a great opportunity to get real-world advice from a professional. By letting academic advisors get to know their interests, students will find advisors offering more insightful advice on professors, scheduling and long-term goal planning.

Research ahead of time. Having information ready for an academic advisor meeting will allow students to get the most out of their time with their advisor. Students who bring items such as their degree audit/degree progress report and research program and class requirements will not only be more efficient, but show their advisor that they are serious about their goals. This kind of preparation will allow for the appointment time to focus on discussing more complex issues or questions.

Come prepared. Have a list of questions written down to make the most use of appointment time. This lets the academic advisor more readily point students to critical information, help them better understand administrative processes and academic programs and connect them to valuable resources.

Choose the appropriate office. While academic advisors are there to help students by offering knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, they won’t have the answer to every question. Students should keep in mind that other on-campus resources such as career services, tutoring assistance, financial aid office and others may be a better source for some information than the academic advisor. Seeking the opinion of friends and peers might also help determine what professor would best suit a student’s learning style.

#GEARUPWorks Thanks To Strong Staff, Parent Engagement in Denison, Storm Lake and Perry

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While National GEAR UP Week draws to a conclusion, the work of GEAR UP Iowa facilitators throughout the state continues. Working closely with schools, students and families, GEAR UP Iowa serves as a critical tool to increasing college enrollment and completion by 2020. Though Iowa stands as the nation’s leader in high school graduation, Iowa’s continued success and growth relies on encouraging students to continue their education beyond high school. Doing so not only gives students the skills to serve a growing economy, but to personally thrive within it.

GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator Flow Slowing works with students in Perry, Denison and Storm Lake, Iowa. As a Latina, she appreciates not only the efforts required to increase education after high school for all students, but also the unique difficulties that face Latinos as they frequently face additional cultural challenges as first-generation students. Armed with engaged teacher and parent teams in her districts, Slowing believes that GEAR UP Iowa’s work with students in these districts will make a positive impact not only on student lives but also on the health of their communities. She shares her experiences from her first year of work with Perry, Dennison and Storm Lake:

As a GEAR UP Iowa facilitator, I have had the privilege of working with Denison, Perry and Storm Lake school districts.  These districts are striving to create inclusive learning environments in their schools to better serve a diverse group of students. I am very passionate about working with underrepresented students and their families, particularly with Latinos. My daily work is informed by the importance of cultural responsive services to promote higher education among immigrant students and their families.

Immigrant students bring both opportunities and challenges to schools and communities. GEAR UP Iowa program is supporting these schools in creating a college going culture among their students, families and communities.

At Perry Middle School, counselor Jody Schuttler manages the GEAR UP grant with the great support of Principal Shaun Kruger. Both are very committed to their students and are always thinking about innovative ways to engage students and families. Some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students received during the first year include:

  • Tutoring and mentoring
  • Enrichment activities: Students who had 90% of homework completion participated in an Adventure Learning Trip that focused on developing communication, problem solving and cooperation skills.
  • College and Career exploration: Around 150 students participated in a field trip to DMACC Center in Perry. They spent time doing hands-on activities in the fields of welding, health occupations, criminal justice and computer programming.
  • Family engagement: During parent teacher conferences, parents and students received information about the GEAR UP Iowa program and scholarships. In addition, 10 Latino families participated in Juntos “Together for a better education” , a series of workshops that promote high school graduation and postsecondary education among Latino families.

Denison’s fantastic GEAR UP Iowa team includes Director of Secondary School Improvement Scott Moran, Director of Elementary School Improvement Heather Lagerfel and Denison Middle School 8th grade teacher Maggie Gorman, who also serves as the school’s GEAR UP Iowa coordinator. This group meets regularly to discuss data on student academic performance and to ensure that GEAR UP Iowa activities address the students’ academic needs. During the first year they offered the following services:

  • After School Tutoring: Students were identified based on their academic needs and proficiency. The schools offered math and reading tutoring as well as homework help. Around 30 GEAR UP Iowa students were mentored by high school seniors in the Cadet Program. Mentors helped with homework and provided a nurturing relationship as role models.
  • Enrichment program: The GEAR UP Iowa team at Denison Middle Scholl created two after-school clubs. The Engineer Club focused on the fields of electrical, mechanical, civil, and computer engineer while the Earth Club focused on agriculture, gardening and conservation.
  • Family Orientation Night: GEAR UP Iowa students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and its benefits. Students received special certificates for their involvement. Separate meetings were held in English and Spanish to accommodate families.
  • Denison also acquired National Clearinghouse Tracking Analysis to track students’ educational attainment after high school graduation.

For the upcoming year, Denison is planning to continue their tutoring, enrichment and mentoring program, as well as activities for college exploration and family financial awareness.

Storm Lake Middle School Principal Jay Slight oversees the GEAR UP Iowa grants at his school. He is very committed to serve a diverse group of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and believes in the importance of professional development to increase student academic achievement. We are also fortunate to have an enthusiastic group of teachers and counselors who share the GEAR UP Iowa goals.

These are some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students at Storm Lake Middle School received during the first year.

  • Support programs: Selected students participated in AVID classes to increase student achievement and interest on higher education.
  • Tutoring: Students received after-school reading and math programs, interventions during the school day and lunch “study table” in order to increase their proficiency in math and reading.
  • Mentoring: Twenty students were mentored through the “Team Mates” program, which featured many college student mentors.
  • College Exploration: Students visited Buena Vista University and had the opportunity to learn about college requirements, scholarships and financial aid while touring the campus.
  • Family Engagement: Students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and had the opportunity to learn more about Iowa State University. An ISU admission counselor shared information about college requirements and the importance on getting good grades in school and participating in extracurricular activities.

Storm Lake parents have also stepped up to offer support. Two Storm Lake Middle School parents (Emilia Marroquin, who serves as Outreach Coordinator at Head Start, and Nichole Kleepsies, County Youth Education Coordinator at ISU Extension & Outreach) have helped create a GEAR UP Iowa parent group in Storm Lake to grow with GEAR UP Iowa students as they progress through school.

Each of these communities allow me to further understand both strengths and barriers among underrepresented students as they strive to graduate from high school and continue with postsecondary education. The GEAR UP Iowa program is sending a powerful message to students, letting them know that we, as a country, believe in their potential to pursue postsecondary education and will be there to support them academically and financially through this journey. The GEAR UP Iowa program is providing services and scholarships to increase educational attainment among minority students, but most important the program presents open opportunities and brings hope.

#GEARUPWorks In Fort Dodge, Columbus Junction, Clinton and Davenport to Help Prepare Students Early for College, Career

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GEAR UP Iowa works closely with schools to help build a college-going culture and increase career awareness and readiness as students progress through middle school, onto high school and into post-secondary education (aided by the GEAR UP Iowa Scholarship that each GEAR UP Iowa student receives after graduating from their high school in the Class of 2020). For GEAR UP Iowa facilitator Nathan Svare, working closely with these students gives the opportunity to provide support to first-generation students who might not otherwise realize the importance of college (and college preparation) until later in high school. He shares how GEAR UP Iowa is personally meaningful to him and how that impacts his work with students in Davenport, Clinton, Columbus Junction and Fort Dodge schools.

GEAR UP Iowa is very important to me. As a first-generation student, I had various barriers to overcome on my way to success. I only started seriously thinking about college late in my junior year of high school. I did not participate in a college visit until my senior year. I only applied to one college. I did not take the ACT as seriously as I should. I did not spend nearly enough time pursing scholarships.

Given what I know now, I was lucky. I had tremendous support from teachers, coaches, and most importantly my family. For many first generation students, the barriers to college become so large that they do not go to college after high school graduation, let alone successfully earn their bachelor’s degree in four years. Many additional problems can stand in the way of student success: rising costs of college, lack of family support in pursuing a higher education or a lack of understanding the post-secondary system for applying to and affording college. It became clear to me that I wanted to assist students like me in overcoming those challenges to successfully earning a certificate or degree.

GEAR UP Iowa offers that opportunity to assist students in a positive way. As a facilitator, I work with school districts to make sure they are compliant with the GEAR UP Grant and that they are able to generate meaningful activities and services that encourage students to start thinking about life after middle school and high school.

We had many successes in our first year:

  • 65% of Davenport GEAR UP Iowa Students participated in one of the Iowa State University “College Going” sessions.
  • Additionally, over 50% of GEAR UP Iowa Students in Davenport participated in some college or career field trip.
  • Virtually all of our Columbus Junction students went to the Langwood High Ropes Course participating in both low-ropes and high-ropes activities designed to help build confidence in leadership.
  • Almost every student at Clinton Middle School participated in a college visit at Clinton Community College and Ashford University.
  • Students at McKinley, Roosevelt, and Wilson Middle Schools in Cedar Rapids met and spoke with filmmaker Jaye Fenderson after viewing her documentary on First Generation students.

As we move into the second year of GEAR UP Iowa in these districts, there are even more activities designed to help middle school students think more about college and career as they get ready to make the move to 9th grade and high school:

  • Clinton will be visiting the Chicago Science and Industry Museum to augment their learning in their science classes.
  • Columbus Junction will be working closely with Taylor Hills, a recent GUI Alumni, who will provide additional support and mentoring to the current GUI cohort.
  • Davenport is working closely with the Quad Cities Career Connections to provide their students with job shadowing and career fairs.
  • Fort Dodge is working to provide students with a daylong event to further develop students non-cognitive abilities.

Each year of the GEAR UP Iowa Cohort introduces new ideas and experiences to help students see their future possibilities and realize the importance of continuing their education after high school to reach their goals. I’m proud to be part of the team that brings them closer to their dreams.

For Des Moines and Marshalltown, #GEARUPWorks with college visits, outreach programs and family nights

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Our celebration of National GEAR UP Week continues with a look at two Central Iowa districts, Des Moines and Marshalltown. GEAR UP Iowa facilitator Tiffany Berkenes brings career experience with such groups as Trio and Upward Bound to bear on her work with Iowa College Aid, a passion that shows in her work with GEAR UP Iowa schools. She discusses the impact of programs like GEAR UP Iowa on schools and shares the ways that schools in her districts are building a “college-going” for students.Brody

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a quote that mirrors my holistic philosophy on education and how our communities and nation can most effectively guide our students towards academic success. You’ll often see me use #ittakesavillage on my @GEARUP_Tiffany Twitter posts or retweets and it is one of many reasons why I pursued this position as a GEAR UP Facilitator.

I have had the privilege of initiating collaborative discussions among schools and district personnel, parents, students, community partners, colleges/universities and other college access professionals to review needs and develop services of which will improve college and career readiness for ALL students. I truly believe that preparing our youth for higher education, the workforce, and how they can be global citizens of good character through events such as college visits, mentoring and non-cognitive skill development have a direct impact on everyone, and the economy.

Students are our future and they are my #1 priority as I work with my assigned GEAR UP districts, Des Moines Public Schools and Marshalltown Community School District. I was excited to continue working with Des Moines when I started with GEAR UP since I worked closely with their schools and students at my previous job with Upward Bound.

I’d like to highlight below some of the successes and anticipated GEAR UP activities at the middle schools in Des Moines and Marshalltown:

Marshalltown Career Days

  • Marshalltown hosted Career Days in which 80 staff and community members presented about their careers and educational paths to students and parents

Graceland U College Visit

  • Des Moines Weeks had their nearly 200 7th grade students visit Central College, University of Northern Iowa, Iowa Central Community College, Indian Hills Community College or Graceland University and all ten middle schools will be hosting college visit days this academic year
    • In fact, Weeks reported that approximately 70% of students agreed or strongly agreed that going on a campus visit changed the way they think about college in a positive way and 80% agreed or strongly agreed that they could see themselves on a college campus after they graduate from high school.
  • Marshalltown and Des Moines Goodrell staff participated in ISU Extension’s Juntos facilitator training and many schools plan on implementing this 5-session Latino family workshop series

Brody Library

  • Des Moines Brody purchased several books and resources to create a college and career library for student exploration and for teachers to use within the classroom
  • All of the schools plan on hosting family nights with speakers such as College Savings Iowa and Iowa State University’s Middle School Outreach Counselor, Nick Morton, discussing financial aid and college planning
  • Des Moines Callanan will be sending all 8th graders next month to the ISU Extension Adventure Learning Center ropes course, which will encourasge students to work on communication, problem solving, teambuilding and leadership development


  • The Des Moines Hiatt counselor, Julia Minnehan, will be leading a new Girls on the Run program next semester, which is a transformational physical activity based on positive youth development by teaching life skills through interactive lessons and running games

I look forward to hearing how our GEAR UP students are positively impacted by these opportunities and continuing to be an integral part of the TEAM effort to enhance learning and increase college aspirations through early awareness! After all, as Nelson Mandela proclaimed, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”