College and Career Planning

“College Fit” Starts With Knowing The Type of School You Want to Attend

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As students start to think about the next step in their education, they might hear the phrase “college fit” when exploring schools. College fit is the idea that students do better at schools that are best in tune with their academic, philosophical and personal needs.

While the idea of college fit might sound like it comes with a number of things to consider, one of the easiest ways to start tackling the idea of finding a school that works for you is to ask a simple question: What IS college?

While it might seem basic, taking the time to get to know the difference between different schools, including their affiliations, missions and more can help students make subtle, and often important, decisions in choosing the school that fits them best.

What is College?
View our “What is College?” video exploring the different types of degrees

When students are deciding on a college or university, the school’s mission might not be the first consideration, but it is something to consider. It can impact a school’s size, cost of tuition, campus climate and more. In short, it can influence the entire student experience.

Here are some categories of schools and what to expect when attending:

Community colleges

Community colleges are usually publicly-funded, two-year institutions with mission statements reflecting their service to the needs of surrounding region. As a result, access is important to community colleges, welcoming all students and offering low-cost tuition. While community college students can graduate with a technical or vocational associate’s degrees, many students use the two years of community college as a starting point before transferring to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Because of that, most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with colleges and universities that guarantee a student’s community college coursework will be accepted for credit at the four-year institution.

Major research universities

Large institutions (either private or public) where research comes first will be called universities. As a result of the interest in research, these schools often have a portion of their faculty members ho are purely “research faculty,” meaning that they teach minimally (and then only advanced graduate students) or not at all. Their work is focused on the generation of new knowledge, often in conjunction with lucrative grants from external sources.

Putting research first doesn’t leave undergraduates at a disadvantage, though. Large institutions may have larger classes, but typically break into small discussion groups to help personalize learning. Academic departments will work closely to reach out to their undergraduate students and communities form in residence halls and through campus clubs to create a breadth of opportunities to students.

Liberal arts colleges

Often promoted as an alternative to large research universities, liberal arts colleges are usually private institutions that focus on a more individualized approach to learning and building relationships in smaller-sized classes. As a result of this focus on the personal experience, these schools tend to prioritize teaching over research. Students are likely to find smaller classes taught by full-time  faculty and not graduate assistants.

The focus away from research doesn’t mean that faculty at these types of schools are any less well-qualified than those at larger institutions. Rather, it is more of a philosophical reflection of the teaching vs. research divide between the two types of schools.

Religiously-affiliated institutions

As the name would suggest, these institutions (virtually all privately-held) emphasize faith development in addition to educational achievement. These types of institutions range from small Bible colleges to nationally known Jesuit institutions like Georgetown University. For those students who are looking for an education that develops them both academically and spiritually, these types of colleges and universities offer an experience often specifically tailored to their religion.

School Counselors Impact Students In School, Through Life

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This week, we celebrate the work of school counselors throughout Iowa and the country during National School Counseling Week. This year’s theme, “School Counseling: Helping Students Realize Their Potential,” ties closely with the work done by Iowa College Aid through such initiatives as GEAR UP Iowa.

GEAR UP Iowa Program Coordinator Sprouse knows first-hand the impact that comes with interaction and motivation with students early in their educational career. It’s something that she learned early on as a student and a responsibility that she carries forward in her work building a college-going culture with GEAR UP Iowa students.

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I went to a small elementary school where many of the teachers and other staff members had been there long enough to teach my parents as well as my siblings and me. While I appreciated that connection, it was exciting when a new guidance counselor started during my 4th grade year. She was young and energetic, and it may have been her first position as a school counselor. Her name was Mary and she was from outside of our close-knit community. I was immediately fascinated by her. Similar to our previous school counselor, Mary came into our classroom at least once a week for guidance lessons. She liked to have us do interactive and role-play activities, something I would normally dread as an introverted student. However, Mary had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and I usually looked forward to her lessons.

My parents went through a divorce when I was in second grade and I only knew two other kids in my class with divorced parents. I was a relatively quiet student in elementary school and that, combined with my split family, made me feel a little disconnected from everyone else. I don’t know if Mary knew that at the time but she didn’t treat me different either way. She was always happy to see every student and she truly cared about each and every one of us.  Thanks to Mary, I finally started feeling a little more confident and I eventually started getting involved in after school activities.

I lost touch with Mary when I started middle school in a different building and she eventually left the district. As luck would have it, our paths crossed again about 20 years later when we worked together at the same college. She knew exactly who I was and she even remembered the names of my three siblings! We both left our positions from the college within a year from each other and I didn’t keep in touch. Ironically, we ran into each other again in our current positions and I am fortunate to collaborate with her every few months.

Mary hasn’t changed much from what I remember in elementary school. She is still one of the most optimistic people I know. Mary’s caring and welcoming personality helped me through a difficult time and I give her a lot of credit for being one of my first role models. I know there are many school counselors just like Mary and I am fortunate to still have her in my life.

A Good Plan for College Helps Keep Loan Debt Low

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While the national conversation around the importance of continuing education past high school gains much attention, so to does the issues surrounding paying for it. Regardless of politics, the fact remains that paying for college stands as one of the biggest challenges for students and their families.

Getting a head-start on putting together a financial plan is always a good idea for any prospective student. Here are some tips for families to consider now to ensure that they limit the amount of student loan debt accrued while still in school:

Borrow only the amount you need

Many borrowers make the mistake of taking out more loans than necessary. To avoid doing this, create a budget to determine how much loan money will be needed and avoid using loan money to pay for unnecessary expenses, such as trips to the movie theater or expensive dinners.

Consider a part-time job

If a student’s academic schedule allows, they should consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with the financial aid office to see if students qualify for work study, which gives the opportunity to work on campus.

Compare award letters

Once a student receives their financial aid award letter, compare loan offers by reading the fine print. If federal loans are not enough to cover the cost of education and a student is considering private loan offers, be sure to shop around for the best interest rates and repayment options.

Take college credit while in high school

Taking AP, dual credit or college credit courses while in high school can give students a head start on achieving your intended major. Find out the general education requirements at the college a student plans to attend and take courses that will fulfill those requirements. Doing this can help students graduate from college early, which means borrowing less in student loans.

Consider paying loan interest while still in school

Students who start making interest payments on their student loans while still in college will reduce the total amount they have to repay after graduation. Interest payments are usually manageable. By paying off interest as they go, students can  keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases loan balances essentially requiring students to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!

Apply for scholarships

Scholarships can pay for portions or all of a student’s education during an academic year. But students can’t earn scholarships if they don’t apply! Find scholarships specific to a school or department by talking to a representative from the school’s financial aid office or department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places to check for scholarships:

Choose a school that fits into the family budget

Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where students applied and consider how much needs to be borrowed in order to attend each. Keep the goal in mind and select a college where loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level against future income potential.

Get more tips in Iowa College Aid’s “Path to College.”

Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.

Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.

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Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.

Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.

  1. Find “free money”
    Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
  1. Consider loans and work study options separately
    To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
  1. Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
    Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
  1. Determine if awards are for one year or more.
    Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
  1. Make sure the award letter is final.
    In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.

Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.

Five Tips For Eye-Catching College Applications

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As students completing their college applications look for every edge possible to catch an admissions officer’s eye, it’s important to remember that those things that make students stand out are more basic than a fancy essay or overly-packed resume.

Here are some tips for students to keep in mind if they’re applying now or are planning for their college applications in the years ahead:

1.  Get Involved, But From The Heart

Community involvement and extracurricular activities go a long way toward showing admissions officers not only who a student is, but what they want to be. However, throwing together a bunch of activities in an attempt to impress colleges can work against a student (and probably make that student miserable to boot). Students who follow their interests, help others and find activities in which they just have fun will show colleges what a student really has to offer. Even better, starting early (think middle school) and keeping involved through high school will show that a student isn’t just getting involved with extracurriculars to pad a resume.

2.  Test Scores Matter.

“No, duh!” says pretty much every Senior and their family. But, hey, we said these were simple and this one’s DEFINITELY worth a reminder. Don’t take the ACT lightly. Spend the time to study and prepare for the test, including reviewing test-taking strategies. Taking the test multiple times will also give students a chance to work through the nerves of the big day and gain experience that will serve them on subsequent sittings. Don’t worry. Schools are going to take your best individual scores. Admissions officers hate taking tests, too.

3.  Take Challenging Classes, Get Good Grades

Again, not a news flash here: grades are important to show a school that students know what they’re doing in the classroom. The thing worth remembering, though, is that schools pay attention to difficulty of the class as well as the grade. Does a student’s school have Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors classes? If so, a B in an AP class looks just as good as an A in a less challenging class, with the added bonus that the student is achieving success in a more difficult (often college-level) course.

4.  Know About The School

Sure, it would be pretty foolish to think that a student doesn’t know the school for which they’re actually applying. There’s a difference, though, between knowing and KNOWING. Students who research and visit colleges before applying gives them the advantage of determining whether or not a school is the right fit for their future, which might encourage them to take advantage of early admission application and scholarship options. Schools tend to appreciate the commitment and dedication that early application shows and could be the difference that gets a student into that target school. Attend college fairs, either in person or online (if a school offers them) to learn more and get familiar with admissions officers and other aspects of the application process. Plus, there’s no reason students need to wait until their junior year to visit schools. Getting students to college visits as early as 8th grade, like those schools in Iowa College Aid’s GEAR UP Iowa program do, not only gives them a taste of what a college is like but can give them a motivational goal that lasts all the way through high school.

5.  Take Advantage A Secret Weapon: Summer

Out of school? There are many ways to take advantage of vacation to get ready for college. From high-school student programs and classes at a student’s target school to volunteer and internship opportunities to a summertime job, colleges love students who make good use of their free time. Yes, there’ll still be time to hang out by the pool with friends (adults have to make time, might as well start learning now!). But more importantly, when it comes time to reviewing similar student applications, a college admissions officer might end up giving the nod to a student who spent their summer teaching at their church’s day camp instead of playing Xbox One all day. Students who take the extra step will be the ones who succeed.

Think Like an Admissions Officer When Completing Your College Application

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December and the start of the new year is crunch time for students filling out college applications. Some students who submitted for a variety of early admission programs have received word while others are hoping to find replies from regular admission programs in the coming weeks.

To better understand the “why” of college admissions, it’s important to appreciate the “how” used by admissions officers to determine which students are the best prospective fit for their incoming class. While many of the factors are obvious, other elements about a student and their application that families might fear as negatives can actually be positives.

Many of the leading criteria for a student application are the ones that most people immediately consider when targeting a prospective school: academic criteria, talent and community involvement are all major parts of an application.

Academics are the best predictor of a student’s academic success at a highly selective college, including grades and standardized test scores. The competitiveness of a student’s high school letters of recommendation from the guidance counselor and the teachers who know the student the best are also considered other highly significant academic factors.

Having a particular talent also can be a key way to individualize a student application. Borin points out in the article that when a college has received almost 20,000 or more applicants, a talented oboist is only competing against other talented oboists with similar grades and standardized test scores. The most competitive colleges are always seeking to form a well-rounded class of talented students. Having a particular talent can help set a student apart.

Other facts that impact an application are ones that might not immediately jump into a family’s mind. For example, while some families might consider geography a negative influence on applications, it can actually work to their benefit. If a student is applying to a highly competitive school, but is from a state that has fewer applicants, they could have an edge as, once again, the most competitive schools try to maintain diversity in their student body not only in race and socioeconomic status, but in geographical representation as well.

Many other factors can influence a student’s chances with an admissions officer. The all-important essay and the willingness to show a commitment to the school through such things as early-decision applications are major factors, but being a legacy at a school (having relatives that attended the same school) can apply at any college, and not just if a student comes from a wealthy family.

The number of things that can influence an admissions officer can seem overwhelming. But, in the end, the best way to make an impact is for students to not only be unique, but authentic. Being able to show a student who can balance academics with extracurricular activities and involvement in their community is appealing to any admissions officer. These students are the ones who often show the passion and drive that will make them a success both in the classroom and in life. And that is appealing to any school.

Winter is Coming: Three Easy Ways to Fight Off Winter Blues

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Many students see getting to college as an educational goal achieved. Once they get there, though, stress and other issues related to life on a college campus becomes a new challenge to be overcome. An increasing number of studies show that many college freshman give up on their education due to mental health problems, as that variety of pressures a new environment can make students think that school is more than they can bear. Throw winter into the mix and it can become even more difficult for students to maintain their path on the course to success.

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Here are some easy ways for students to deal with the change of season while staying on top of their mental health during the winter:

Adjust schedules

The usual routine of leaving a warm dorm bed minutes before class won’t cut it come winter time. Take at least 5-10 minutes extra to account for ice on your path to class, snow and time to admire the cute squirrels. Not only will this change help students overcome the perils of winter, but a change in routine is an easy way to get out of a rut that can lead to depression.

Maintain a healthy diet

Physical health is tied to mental health. While dining halls might offer more hot chocolate and marshmallows during the colder days, comfort food doesn’t always mean healthy food. A 2010 study found that the quality of diet impacts levels of depression in college students more than other factors such as socioeconomic or family issues. [1]

Take personal time, but don’t be afraid to talk to someone

College is challenging, but it’s important that students remember that they can succeed. Having support both from home and campus can mean a great deal to students dealing with the stress and emotional difficulties of facing college on their own. Having time to sit back and watch TV, read a book or just relax is an important part of a student’s day. And while calling home or writing letters or emails to touch base with family is important, the support of friends, social groups or even the mental health services available on campus can be more important in staying mentally healthy and addressing the depression that can come with winter. Talking to someone and asking for support is NOT a sign of weakness, it’s an important part of dealing with difficulties and staying on the road to success.