New Year’s resolutions for college-bound seniors

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New Year’s is a time to look ahead and set goals. If you’re a high school senior, these resolutions can help you stay on track to start college in the fall.

Make a timeline of application deadlines. Most college applications are due by February 1, unless the schools have rolling deadlines. Financial aid deadlines will begin to hit March 1.

Review coursework with your counselor to be sure you have taken all the classes you need. Schedule summer classes if necessary.

File your FAFSA, if you haven’t already. Check with your schools of interest for their priority financial aid deadlines. Remember, filing earlier will increase your chances for some financial aid programs.

Ask your high school to send your official transcripts to the colleges where you are applying. You can make a request through your counseling office.

Be sure your ACT or SAT scores have been sent to all schools where you’re applying. If you’ve added schools to your list since you tested, you can send your scores there for an additional fee.

Check in regularly at IowaCollegeAid.gov and sign up for our newsletters for timely tips and advice. This will be a challenging but exciting year, and we can help you through it!

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Smart ways to use your winter break

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Yes, you’re on vacation, but your brain doesn’t have to be. If you’re a high school student with college plans in your future, here are ways to make productive use of this time away from classes.

Exploratory reading. You probably spend a lot of time reading books that are required for your classes. Here’s your chance to read for pleasure and explore areas that interest you.

College visits. Will you be traveling over break? Check to see if there are any colleges of interest to you nearby. Even if classes aren’t in session, contact the admissions office to ask about campus tours.

Test prep. This is a great time to get ready for the ACT and/or SAT. You can find free online resources through act.org and khanacademy.org.

Online classes. Hundreds of universities offer Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, many of them free. Shorter, self-paced courses are ideal for winter break.

Have fun. Don’t forget this one. You are on vacation, after all!

How many colleges should I apply to?

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University Application FormIt’s a common question, but it’s not quite the right question. The key isn’t how many applications you submit, it’s what kinds of schools you include on your list. Apply to at least one school in each of these categories:

“Safety school”—a school where you’re confident you’ll be accepted. In Iowa, community colleges are open-admission, which means they accept any student with a high school diploma or equivalent. Even if you’re planning to work toward a four-year degree, a community college can be a practical place to start.

“Target school”—a school you can consider a solid possibility. In other words, your GPA and test scores fall within admission standards. To be safe, don’t just look at these stats for the school overall; check them for your specific program of study. Certain areas might be more competitive than others.

“Stretch school”—also called a “dream school” or “reach school.” This school might have an extremely low admission rate, even for students who meet all its requirements, or it might simply be a school where your statistics are slightly below the usual range. Don’t sell yourself short. Outstanding essays or letters of recommendation might nudge you onto the “accepted” list.

Winning application strategies

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We’re hitting deadline season for college and scholarship applications, but you don’t need to panic. Here are some quick tips:

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Apply to more than one school. Yes, you should have a “safety school,” but also try for a “stretch school.” Some students are surprised when they’re accepted at a school they thought was out of their reach. You can’t truly compare costs of different schools until you have award letters from those schools in hand. An expensive school might end up being the most affordable option if it offers a generous financial aid package.

Apply for more than one scholarship. You can improve your odds by expanding your search. Some scholarships actually have trouble giving away all their available money because they don’t get enough applicants. Talk to counselors, teachers, coaches and mentors about scholarship possibilities.

Put some effort into your essays. These are a chance to distinguish yourself, so take your time. Make sure your essay relates to the question, and back up what you say with specific examples. Don’t just list your accomplishments. Show that you’re capable of growing and learning from challenges. Proofread at least twice, then ask someone else to read behind you.

Sell your actual strengths. Don’t exaggerate or lie. Think about the things that you truly do well, and focus on those. Having trouble identifying your best areas? Ask an adult close to you, “What makes you proud of me?”

Be sure to submit. You should see a confirmation screen or receive a confirmation email when you’re done.

Friending Your Education: Social Media and College Applications

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Social media has made communicating with people near and far easier, creating an easy canvas for individuals to paint a picture of what makes them unique. These personal outlets offer opportunities and dangers for college applicants looking to find the right school that meets their “college fit” needs.

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The relationship between schools and prospective students involving social media has certainly become a two-way street. A recent survey of 403 schools showed that 35% of college admissions officers considered an applicant’s social media as part of their approval process. That means that everything a student posts on Facebook or Twitter, or broadcast to their YouTube or Vine channel can effect the chances of getting in to that college they’ve worked so hard to find.

Rather than make this a stern warning to purify feeds, though, students can take advantage of this scrutiny, using social media as a way to present a more fuller picture of themselves, the part of them that doesn’t show up in test scores and GPAs. Yes, Facebook pages shouldn’t show pictures of excessive partying or rude comments about other students or schools. That’s just courteous online behavior.

It’s the elements of social media that allows students “be themselves” that colleges find interesting. So students should find positive ways to show that. Posting content from other sites that underscores interests will help create a fuller image of both a potential student and a person in the world. Linking to articles relevant to hobbies, uploading music or artwork and sharing photos or videos from sporting events, performances or volunteer work is not only a great way to show off personal passions to family and friends, but can also benefit when a college wants to know more that what’s on the application or on the essay.

If a student has a school (or schools) they’ve recently visited or are targeting for application, following that school will not only help give a glimpse at college life through information about campus events, it might offer other important news that may be relevant to an application or admission decision. Plus, it never hurts to know what’s going on at campus when speaking with an admissions rep or during a campus visit. It shows the student has a specific interest in what the school has to offer.

In a way, the relationship between a student and a school is a lot like any other online friendship. Just as people love to see an increasing number of likes or RTs to their posts, schools love to see (and share) positive feedback from potential students. A post or tweet about a student visit or in response to something going on at the school can go a long way when an admissions officer looks at a student’s social media history.

Being aware of the social media’s impact will give students an effective tool in not only learning more about their college options, but presenting themselves as the right kind of student for their desired school.

Personal Connection is Key for College Apps, Says Drake Professor

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College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.

Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.

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To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:

While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.

As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.

Knowing How College Applications Are Evaluated Can Help Students Better Prepare

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Students around the country are awaiting word from colleges on whether or not they’ll be offered admission. 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.