Mentors

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.

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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.

Parents: The Valuable Key to GEAR UP Success

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For many families, the idea of building a college-going culture lives within the walls of the high school, with teachers, counselors and students driving the conversation about college. Parents, however, are the key partner in helping students stay on the path to achieving their goals of making it to college.

Some parents can draw upon their personal experiences with college. For first-generation students, though, that experience may be an incomplete one. That’s when the experience of GEAR UP Iowa offers the chance to expose both student and parent to the benefits of college. In many cases, this builds an even stronger belief in what attaining a college degree can mean to their student’s future.

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Earlier this year, a select group of students and parents attended the Youth Leadership Conference as part of NCCEP’s National GEAR UP Conference. Jennifer Maliszewski, a parent from Sioux City, attended the conference with her daughter Rylie. Both were inspired by what they experienced and learned (Rylie shared her experiences earlier this year). For Jennifer, being part of the conference showed her just how valuable parent involvement can be for students working in GEAR UP schools. She shares her thoughts:

I feel so very blessed to be able to go to San Francisco with my daughter and experience this amazing summit. I watched my daughter learn new skills and make some great life long friends.
In addition to all that I was able to attend the parent institute. They taught us about all the things we can do as parents to help support our students on their journey to college.  The work books, curriculum and presenter were simply Awesome! Everything was put into terms easy for parents with no experience with college to understand and be able to navigate.
The information was priceless to me. It showed me things I never would have thought about like, making sure the school your student selects is the right fit for them and their goals. Not just the school their friends are going to or following a family tradition. Also to make sure they are challenging themselves and not just sliding by. They need the challenge to grow! Also they need to start building their resumes early and give themselves an advantage. They can accomplish this by job shadowing and internships. They also need to learn how to set goals, be persistent, be self aware, have motivation, be able to seek help, and learn how to fail forward. Failing forward means that they will fail in one way or another in their life. Students need to learn how to use that failure, learn from it and grow. There are SO many other things that are just as valuable for parents to know. It’s our job to help our students in every way we can so that they succeed in life!
My only suggestion is that EVERY GEAR UP PARENT NEEDS THIS INFORMATION. It’s too valuable for it only to be available to a few people.
Thank you again for this amazing experience!

Becoming #FutureProof: GEAR UP Student Leaders Embrace National Conference

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Each year, the annual GEAR UP Youth Leadership Conference brings together GEAR UP students from around the country in an opportunity to engage with each other, learn from their shared experiences and gain an insight to overcoming the challenges that come with preparing for college. Armed with this knowledge, GEAR UP Youth Leaders return to their schools as an example of how to build a college-going culture, showing classmates how everyone can succeed.

Sioux City High School student Rylie Maliszewski served as one of Iowa’s GEAR UP Youth Leaders. Having returned recently from the conference, she shares her experience and the impact that participating has had on her college and educational outlook.

This past week I attended the GEAR UP Youth Leadership Conference in San Francisco, California. I was able to attend this conference thanks to my GEAR UP advisors and coordinators, my wonderful parents, and my mentor, Ms. Ford. Thanks to their hard work and my own, I met so many wonderful people and learned so many new skills that I will use forever. I am beyond grateful for this experience. I met many life long friends at the conference! Many of whom I have talked to everyday since the conference ended. I am so blessed to have been one of 150 students around the nation at this conference. Now that I am home, I want to reflect and share my amazing experience!

On the morning of July 16, my family and I woke up at 2 a.m. to head to Omaha. It was my first time flying and I was very nervous. Luckily, the flight was very smooth and our flight was about an hour shorter than they thought. The view was amazing and I even spotted a waterfall during the flight.

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This conference was different than many others.

About a month before the conference began a Facebook group was created. This gave us a chance to meet and engage with other students around the nation attending. A few weeks after a friend of mine created a messenger group, which allowed us all to be ourselves and not worry about being formal. Soon after I created a Snap Chat group which mainly had students who did not have Facebook on it so myself and a few other student could help spread important news! Later on we decided to do group video chats about once a week leading up to the conference. This first chat had about six to seven and our last chat had about 10 to 12.

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These video chats allowed us to put names to faces which I believed was really cool and, thanks to the Facebook and SnapChat groups, we all recognized each other as the conference began. It was absolutely amazing how close a lot of us were already without actually meeting in person. I even saw a few people before the conference even began.

The first night we did a lot of icebreakers. The following morning at breakfast we had an amazing plenary speaker, Hill Harper, who starred on “CSI: New York,” one of my favorite shows. He talked a lot about the importance of school systems, districts, officials and more, to listen to what the students need from the students and not from outside sources. His speech was truly amazing and very relatable. Monday we worked a lot on making a match between values and behaviors. We also worked on the importance of storytelling and learned the steps in telling a great story. We even had a singing battle.

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Tuesday came with a lot of fun. We learned about the importance of living “about the line” and also worked on creating our large presentation for the last breakfast plenary. I helped others make their story as best as it could be. Many worked on a skit and the “Show Me What You Got” box. At the end of the night we did a really amazing and touching activity involving our biggest fears and struggles in life and vowing to not let “them” bother us and get to us anymore. It was cool “breaking” my fear/struggle and watching others do the same.

Wednesday was a very sad day for many of us. I had made so many amazing friends from the social media groups and beyond. Our presentation was truly mesmerizing and I was so glad to be a part of it. All of us were so supportive of one another.

After our group presentation, we wrapped things up and said goodbye. During our goodbye and thank you to everyone, I don’t believe there was a dry eye in the room. Every day at this conference felt like a party, we had so many dance parties and battles. I truly am grateful for this experience and the opportunity to meet amazing lifelong friends I miss them all dearly and really hope we will be able to do a reunion soon. I can’t wait to see how my fellow attendees and I use the skills we learned and how our futures end up.

Thank you GEAR UP Iowa for this amazing experience, one that I will never forget. Thank you for allowing my Mom to go with me as well. Thanks to this conference, I am Future Proof! #GEARUPWorks #GUCon

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Need Help With Summer Transition? These Resources Can Help

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For students making the transition from high school to college, nagging questions can turn into doubts. Left unchecked, those doubts can turn into the dreaded “summer melt,” where students who accept an offer to attend college don’t manage to make it to campus in the fall, for whatever reasons.

Those reasons can be abundant: From financial concerns and fears about academics to feeling overwhelmed by a larger campus or not knowing how and when to turn in housing applications, there are as many pitfalls for students transitioning to college as… well, there are students heading to college.

If you’re a student heading to college this fall, don’t let the changes ahead psych you out and take you off your game. College is an exciting time with new opportunities and there are many resources for helping with those questions and concerns you might have as you get ready to walk on to your new campus.

Here are some great places to look for answers, support and a confidence boost this summer:

Your College’s Financial Aid and Admissions Offices

Many students feel that once they’ve been accepted to a college that their next interaction with the school shouldn’t come until the fall. The truth is that financial aid and admissions offices are the perfect place to answer questions about tuition, fees, student aid, housing deadlines and more. Much of this will be covered at orientation (make sure that you sign up for it!), but if you have questions before then, a call to your school’s office can lead to a quick answer before it becomes a big issue.

Your College’s Student Organizations

Just as the school’s financial aid and admissions offices want to see prospective students succeed, so to do student organizations. Even though the school year is over, many organizations are already working to help embrace a new class of students, engaging in their community and working to make the transition to college easier. First-Generation students can especially look to these groups for support, advice and a chance to meet new people before even getting to campus. Having a familiar face when you get there makes the move to college that much easier.

Local Colleges

Many of the questions and concerns that students have during their summer transition aren’t unique to a particular campus. For more general questions, you can always call a local college to get insight to other resources or advice on how to move forward in the fall.

Local Organizations

Iowa College Aid’s “Course to College” program works to build community engagement in many towns throughout the state. That means that you may have a local organization in your own backyard that’s looking to help students making the transition from high school to college. Even if there isn’t a group in your town, reach out to local organizations such as United Way, your church or even a mentor or friend who has made the transition to college before you. They’re advice may have more in common with your concerns than you think.

Our Website 

Iowa College Aid’s website offers advice and answers for students facing any number of issues heading to college. From our blog to our video gallery, we can help students feel a little more secure about what awaits them in the fall.

Your Course to College

Iowa College Aid’s annual guide to preparing for, and succeeding in, college offers guidance of the steps that students can take before getting to school. More than that, the guide offers advice from college students on what to expect, as well as an example of average college student’s daily schedule. Getting a heads-up and hearing first-hand from other students can make a big difference in a student’s confidence.

Knowing How to Avoid Summer Melt Can Help Meet Your Academic Goals

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For many, summer vacation is the reward for a year of hard work and dedication in the classroom. But for those moving from high school to college, the months between graduation and arriving on campus can be fraught with challenges and distractions that can lead to students not completing their college goals.

“Summer melt” is the name given to those students who, for whatever reason, apply to a college, accept admission, but never arrive after high school graduation. There are many factors that can drive a student toward summer melt. Being aware of a few of those, and taking the steps to stay focused on the college path, can help make sure that the only thing that melts this summer is your ice cream!

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Keep in touch with Counselors and Reach out to College Advisers

School counselors are there to help when challenges arise. Before graduation, students should ask high school counselors what resources are available to them in the summer. Need a helpful boost or reminder of why it’s important to get to college? Give your counselor a call!

Colleges are also looking to help students stay on track during the summer transition, many schools can reach out to students by text and email to make sure that the important dates during the summer transition aren’t missed.

Find a Mentor

It’s always easier to tackle a new challenge if you’ve spoken to someone who’s been through it. Community groups, schools and other non-profits offer mentors who can talk to students about the transition to college. But it can be as easy as talking to anyone you know who’s either in or graduated from college. Don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns about the transition when talking to a mentor. These relationships can last beyond the transition to freshman year and can offer a resource for support both in school and down the road. To hear some advice from first-generation students about making the move to college, check out our video “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me.”

Visit the College Website

Your school’s website is a great resource to answer questions you might have before starting school. Everything from student life, financial issues, academics, organizations and more can be found on a school’s website. Take some time to review the website, even before your student orientation. You’ll have a level of expertise that will make the transition to college that much easier.

Look into Placement Testing Before Orientation

Most schools have some sort of placement testing for incoming first-year students. These tests help gauge where students are in math, reading, and writing skills and makes sure students are taking the courses appropriate for their level of understanding in each subject. Some colleges will offer these tests at orientation, others require students to do them online or on-campus before fall semester starts. Students should make sure to contact the college to know when they need to take the tests.

Check College Health Insurance Plans

Many colleges have health insurance plans for students. Students should check their college’s requirements early to see whether it is affordable. Sometimes, colleges will automatically enroll students in the college’s health care plan. If a student already has qualifying insurance, they can usually apply for a waiver. To learn more about transitioning healthcare for students after high school, read the healthcare guide.

Take the time to emotionally prepare

No matter how much you prepare, college is a big change for many people. Whether you’re travelling far away or staying close to home, college is a major step into adulthood, complete with personal responsibilities that may not have been part of your high school routine. The stress of that change can have negative effects, with many freshmen citing it as a reason for dropping out during their freshman year.

If you’re leaving home, take the time to get you (and your family) used to the idea of you not being there every day. And if you’re staying closer to home, start identifying the people you can lean on in times of stress or the ways that you can deal with the pressures of school in a positive way.

Believe in Yourself

The best support students can find to stay on path to college is themselves. Remember: You’ve done the hard part and gained acceptance to college. Your dream of an education, as well as the career and life that comes with it is in your reach. But you can’t get your degree if you don’t show up.

For more tips and advice for planning for, getting to and succeeding in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s Your Course to College.

Avoid Getting Stressed Out Over College Decision With These Tips

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After years of hard work and months of waiting, students are starting to receive acceptance letters from colleges. Those students accepted into more than one college might face some difficult decisions to make when weighing the pros and cons of one school against another.

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“College  fit” means finding the school that best meets at student’s needs for the future, but there is no such thing as a “perfect school.” Students shouldn’t stress themselves out thinking that if they pick the wrong school, their life will be ruined. After all, college is what you make of it. But with a little research and effort, students and families can feel more secure about the school they pick. Here are some tips :

Compare financial aid awards

While cost shouldn’t be the only thing considered when deciding between schools, the financial aid offered can go a long way to giving one school an edge over another. The financial aid award letter often comes after the acceptance letter, and has many things to consider when reviewing. Check out our videos on comparing financial aid award letters for more tips (here and here).

Dig deeper with schools

Students already researched schools before applying, but now is a chance to get more detailed information to get a more complete picture of what a school offers, not only in education, but day-to-day life. Such questions can include:

  • What is the graduation rate? How many students return after their freshman year?
  • Are there work or volunteer opportunities that reflect a student’s major or interests?
  • What do students do for fun?
  • What student support services does the school offer?

Students can talk to college admissions counselors, current students, recent grads or even the college’s official website to research these and other subjects. It’s important to use only trustworthy sources of information and to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. A college’s official website and its admission officers are often the best sources of factual information about that college.

Visit — or revisit — the campuses

Now that a student has been accepted to a school, a college visit becomes even more important. Even if a family has taken a campus visit previously, going back with a more focused approach will help students see if they truly see themselves as a student at that school. Can’t visit a campus? Call or email the admission office with questions, reach out to professors in your areas of interest or ask to connect current students and recent graduates. High school counselors and teachers may also be a good source to recent grads or current students.

Think about it

Research and asking questions can provide the information that students need to make a decision, but asking and answering the important questions can only be done by a student with their family. How did the student feel during their campus visit? Did the school offer both the academic and social aspects that will lead to success? Will they be happy there? These basic questions might lead to some further reflection about each school.

Make your decision

The good news is that schools don’t need to hear back immediately. Many colleges don’t expect a final decision until May 1, so students and families have some time to make up their mind. Lay out the pros and cons and find the school that fits best with financial, academic and career goals. Remember, though, that colleges are serious about reply deadlines. Not sending a deposit by the deadline can lose a student’s place in the incoming class.