Education

Thinking about taking a gap year? Read this first

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Some students take a year between high school and college to work, volunteer, travel or save money. Many educators say that kids who take a break after high school are more mature when they arrive at college and are more engaged in their education moving forward. This is particularly relevant to students who burned out in high school from years of AP classes, test prep, volunteer projects, sports, music lessons and other extracurricular activities.

Still, gap years can be scary for parents and other adults who care about a student’s success. Many fear that one year will turn into two years and will eventually lead to their student never completing a degree.

When considering a gap year, students should take these three steps:

  1. Apply to college and defer enrollment. That way, there is something waiting for you at the end of your gap year. Some colleges also might let you defer their scholarships—check with the financial aid office.
  2. Make sure you apply for financial aid during your gap year. File your FAFSA, apply for scholarships, grants and loans, etc. Remember, you can file your FAFSA starting on October 1 and the earlier you submit it, the better.
  3. Form a concrete plan. Studies show that students who have a concrete plan are much more likely to start college after their gap year. Ask yourself: What will you accomplish during the gap year? Sitting on the couch playing video games doesn’t count. Will you have a job? How will you pay your bills/save money? Will you volunteer? Will you do an apprenticeship or study abroad?

You can find more information from the American Gap Association, gapyearassociation.org.

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How to ace the exam every time

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Studying for an exam can make anyone feel anxious—even overwhelmed. Here are tips to help you ace the exam, big or small, every time.

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Give your brain enough time to process and retain information. When you find out about the exam, immediately mark the date when you need to begin studying. Waiting will just stress you out.
  2. Organize your study space. Some people have trouble concentrating with a million things in front of them. Clear off your desk or clean your room. Do whatever helps your brain focus.
  3. Know yourself. Figure out what time of day you focus best. (Early morning? Lunch? Before bed?) How do you study best? (Alone with silence? Listening to music? In a public place?)
  4. Turn off your Internet, TV and phone. If you get distracted by these things (who doesn’t?), save them as a reward for completing your study session. If you need your computer to study, try an app like this one that blocks websites for a short time. Give your phone to someone until you’re done studying.
  5. Set timed goals for each study session. A schedule will help you stay focused. Example: Study three chapters of U.S. History for 30 minutes, take a 10-minute break and then make a study guide for your math test in 20 minutes.
  6. Make flashcards. Make free virtual flashcards and quizzes on websites like Quizlet.
  7. Explain the material to someone. This is a great use for a study group. Take turns explaining relevant items to each other. You will learn from your peers, but you will also remember the material better if you can internalize and explain it.
  8. Study in different places. Different locations force your brain to form new associations with the study material. Basically, the more unique memories you have with the material, the better you’ll remember it.
  9. Rewrite your notes. Copying your notes by hand is a great way recall older material and reinforce your knowledge.
  10. Get creative. Make up stories and songs about the material. You’ll be surprised how much better it will stick in your brain.
  11. Take breaks. Plan to take breaks while studying. Get a snack. Dance around. Play music. Do jumping jacks. Breaks are beneficial for your brain and concentration.
  12. Plan your exam day. What time will you leave? What will you eat beforehand? How will you get there? Plan to arrive early so you’re not flustered.
  13. Be positive! Half the battle is believing you can win! You got this!

 

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.

Some Recommendations on Recommendation Letters

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College Application Month is underway away (including the Iowa College Application Campaign), 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:

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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.

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:

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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.

Finished FAFSA? Here’s What to Expect Next

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By now, students and families with an eye toward college, or any kind of education beyond high school, should have a pretty good understanding of just how important the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is to helping them achieve their goals. If not, here’s a good place to get started with the FAFSA.

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Filing the FAFSA is crucial to getting money for school. But what happens after submitting the FAFSA? Here are some things for families to look out for, as well as some things to remember when dealing with information

Student Aid Report
After completing the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process the data and compile the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will be sent to families and the colleges selected during the FAFSA. If an email address was provided during the application, instructions to access an online copy of the SAR will be emailed; otherwise it will arrive snail mail.

Typically, applicants can access their SAR within three to five days if the FAFSA was filed electronically (approximately three weeks if filed by paper). The SAR contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as well as initial information about Pell Grant eligibility. Colleges and universities use the EFC to determine student eligibility for federal grants, loans, work-study and other financial aid programs.

How is the Expected Family Contribution Calculated?
Variables that determine a student’s EFC include income and net worth for the student and parents, family size, age of older parent, state and federal taxes and number of family members attending college. As a result, the EFC might change from year to year when the FAFSA is refiled.

Understanding Financial Need vs. College Costs
Each college or university listed on a student’s FAFSA application that accepts that student will determine financial need and present the applicant with an award letter describing the aid offered. “Financial Need” is determined by calculating the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC determined through the FAFSA.

The EFC will remain the same in a given year (unless an unusual family situation arises) regardless of which college or university the student attends. The amount of aid received cannot exceed the total cost of attendance at a college or university.

Award Letters
Each award letter will include federal, state and college-specific financial aid programs. It is likely that a student’s award letter will include one or more types of loans. These letters often don’t cleanly show which funds offered are scholarship or grant aid (free money) and which are loans (money which must be repaid). To get some tips on understanding award letters, check out our video series here and here.

FAFSA: The Most Important Tool for Financial Aid

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key part of college financial aid. While many families might think that the FAFSA is only for lower-income households, the truth is that the application helps make federal, state and school funds available for all students, regardless of their family’s income.

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Here are some reasons to complete the FAFSA:

  1. To qualify for a variety scholarships and grants. Many federal and state scholarships (including those in Iowa) require a completed FAFSA for consideration, even when those scholarships and grants do not consider family income. FAFSA information can also impact the financial aid offered by schools in terms of grants or other awards.
  2. Some financial aid opportunities are available on a limited basis. Completing the FAFSA as soon as possible gives students the best chance for receiving those aid amounts.
  3. Completing the FAFSA earlier gives students the time to focus on other parts of college preparation, such as completing college applications, focusing on coursework and applying for scholarships.
  4. When students have completed their FAFSA, schools can more easily provide estimated financial aid offers sooner. This makes comparing colleges much easier, as students will have a better idea of what their education will actually cost them at each school to which they are accepted.