The new starting date for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just about here. Completing the FAFSA, though, isn’t the end of the road for college preparation. Throughout the school year, students have opportunities to visit with colleges and find out more about what each school offers and how that school does (or doesn’t) relate to a student’s plan for their future.
Making that match is called “college fit” and it can mean the difference between getting the most of education after high school and frustrations that could lead to transferring schools or, worse, not completing a degree.
The good news: Colleges offer tours that allow students to see the campus, talk to professors and students and get answers to questions about their education. Even better: Students can get much of that information without even leaving their own high school thanks to college fairs held throughout the year. These events, often held at the local high school, include representatives from schools both near and far looking to put their best foot forward for prospective students.
College fairs are the first step toward finding college fit and students who attend college fairs will get a head-start on making a smart choice on where to go to school. As with anything, approaching the event with a game plan will help students get even more out of college fairs.
Start with these five tips:
- Is a college strong in a student’s major? Not all high school students are going to have an idea of what their major will be, but it helps to have some idea of what they might be interested in as a career. If students have an idea, they can ask schools about programs in those areas. Some colleges specialize in certain majors or are known for having strong programs in particular fields.
- Does a school’s size matter? Larger schools often mean more students in classes (sometimes over 100 students), but a bustling community. Smaller colleges might have fewer students, but that might mean more direct interaction with teachers and smaller class sizes. A student can talk to representatives at a college fair to get an idea of the school’s size and start to consider which appeals to them.
- What’s college life like? While a visit to the actual campus will give students the best idea of what life is like at a given school, college fairs frequently include representatives from schools who are either current students or recent graduates. Of course, these representatives will always look to emphasize what makes their school better than the rest, but talking to college students is a great way for high school students to get an early idea of what life is like in college.
- Take all the materials available. Schools visiting college fairs will have lots of giveaways: stickers, squeezeballs, pens, and more. But the most important materials to take away from college fairs are the informational brochures that talk more about the school. These materials might not answer every question a student might have about a school, but they will frequently include websites or links to other resources to learn more if interested.
- Make notes, take it all in, but don’t rush to any decisions. College fairs are the introduction to schools for many students and representatives are chosen by schools to present their school in the most attractive way possible. It’s great if students are inspired to learn more about schools after a college fair. But rather than eliminate schools from their list, students would be better off ranking a list of schools that grabbed their attention and listing the reasons why that school might be a good fit. From there, it’s easy to start researching further into which schools should really make the cut.
For more tips and advice for preparing and planning for college, as well as financial aid and college information, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” You can read, download or order your own copy on our website.
GEAR UP Iowa serves over 7,000 Iowa students in 12 partner school districts around the state, offering tools and resources to schools looking to build a “college-going” culture in their classrooms.
But those efforts don’t stop at the school. GEAR UP Iowa engages with students and families directly, through parent and student nights, college campus tours and events like the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit that took place at Grand View University in Des Moines earlier this summer.
Through the combined work of GEAR UP Iowa and partner schools, the seeds of culture change can be seen growing, as students and families become increasingly aware of the possibilities that education after high school brings. Many students in GEAR UP Iowa are the first generation in their family to attend college. GEAR UP Iowa programs not only support these families in preparing for college, but also provide motivation to overcome challenges that parents didn’t face when they were in high school.
Rylie Maliszewski is a freshman at North High School in Sioux City. Her parents, Jennifer and Bill, finished their education with a high school degree. As Rylie participates in GEAR UP Iowa with an eye toward college after high school, the support provided to her is impacting both her efforts and her family’s vision of her future. To honor the last day of #NationalGEARUPWeek, they share their thoughts on GEAR UP Iowa:
GEAR UP Iowa is helping me prepare for my future. Not only do we get free money for college but they also provide SAT/ACT prep, college visits, and even tutoring and mentoring. All of these features are free to us with having this program! I am so absolutely grateful to be a part of this program! I’m a first-generation college student, with my parent’s highest level of education being a high school diploma. This experience is very new to me and my family. Not having much family to talk to about college experiences, GEAR UP Iowa gives me the opportunity to talk with college students and alumni, and explore colleges.
This summer I was chosen to go the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit in Des Moines. I was so excited when I got accepted because I really enjoy learning how to be a better leader. The Student Summit gave me more than just information on how to be a better leader. My roommates from the Ottumwa and Davenport schools in this program are now some of my very best friends. Every night we would sit in the common area in our suite and talk the whole night. All of us were so sad to leave on the last day but we all still talk today. My favorite activity from the summit was Alan Feirer’s Leadership Workshop; it was very eye-opening to me. Not only did he teach us how to be a leader but he made it enjoyable, too! We did many small group activities and large group discussion about numerous topics. I will truly cherish this workshop and everything I learned at the Summit! I will never forget the people or the great experiences I had!
Jennifer and Bill Maliszewski:
GEAR UP Iowa has had a huge impact on our household. My husband and I only have our high school diplomas, so everything to do with college and preparing our freshman daughter for life after high school has been a bit overwhelming. GEAR UP Iowa is there for us whenever we need help going in the right direction.
Knowing that the people of GEAR UP Iowa are always there to help out gives us some peace of mind. They offer so much to help the students reach their goals, like prep classes for ACT and SAT tests, college visits, guidance on applying for financial aid and scholarships and college visits just to name a few. My family will be ever grateful for and everything they do for the students and their families to make the transition from high school to college a smooth one. They have helped take away a lot of the stress of getting ready for life after high school!
In celebration of National GEAR UP Week, we’re celebrating the students, facilitators and families that make GEAR UP Iowa successful in building college-going cultures in schools, homes and communities. Lessly Ortega is ninth-grade student from Storm Lake, IA.
Earlier this summer, Ortega was chosen to participate in the GEAR UP Iowa Student Summit, which brought together students from all of GEAR UP Iowa’s 12 school districts throughout the state to Grand View University in Des Moines. Students learned interpersonal and leadership skills to not only help them on the road to educational success after high school, but build and grow those skills in their schools. Ortega shares the immediate impact the event had on her:
I wasn’t born into a family where people grew up to go to college. All we have going for us is a simple high school education with work following after that. But ever since I was little I knew I wanted to break that cycle. I’m not a person who likes being average or going with the flow, I aspire to be someone who people will remember for generations to come. I’ve shared this dream with my friends and every one of them told me that was impossible and I should give up before I waste my time. You wouldn’t believe how close I was to giving up. That was until I went to the GEAR UP Iowa Summit, an event that completely changed my life.
When I first heard about GEAR UP Iowa, all I knew was that it meant free money for college, which I was grateful for considering the expensive cost of tuition. But I never would have thought of the lasting impact it would have in my life. The GEAR UP Iowa Summit has been one of the best experiences of my life. It showed me how GEAR UP Iowa is much more than free money. I was able to learn how to better myself and how to become a better leader both in school and in life. The Summit gave me lifelong information which I put to work the day I got home from it. I went to all the places I could think of for volunteer opportunities. I was able to work at a retirement home, a kids club, and, the best experience of all, a girls camp as a counselor. I’m beyond grateful to GEAR UP Iowa for giving me the confidence and tools I need to be able to go out into my community and to be able to make a difference in myself and my community.
GEAR UP Iowa means hope in the future. I will continue on my path of greatness where ever that shall be. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
GEAR UP Iowa is proud to take part in celebrating #NationalGEARUPWeek, recognizing the work done in schools partnering teachers, students and families with GEAR UP facilitators to create a college-going culture in schools not only in Iowa, but across the country.
GEAR UP Iowa’s latest group of students started in 12 partner districts two years ago, following 7th graders, and expanded this year to include 7,000 9th graders at high schools throughout the state.
Students and their families receive a variety of services aimed at preparing them academically, financially and inspirationally to enroll and succeed in college. Upon enrollment in a college, GEAR UP Iowa students will receive a modest scholarship for up to four years.
GEAR UP Iowa Alum and St. Ambrose University student Taylor Hills is featured in a video created by Iowa College Aid and GEAR UP Iowa that shows the impact that these programs have in schools and communities.
Hills graduated with the most recent group of GEAR UP Iowa students from Columbus Junction High school, after GEAR UP Iowa worked with her and the other students in Columbus Junction starting in 7th grade. In the video, she discusses the impact GEAR UP Iowa had on their dedication to completing high school, including being the first to graduate 100% of seniors in Columbus Junction’s history, and the impact that the program continues to have on her life as a college student.
For many students, getting to college is only half the battle. Adjusting to a new world with new freedoms and responsibilities can be just as stressful as the effort it took to get to college in the first place.
The number one cause for dropping out of college during freshman year is mental health and stress-related issues. What makes dealing with these problems that students face when adjusting to college is that many students suffering through stress feel like they have to do it alone. While most colleges offer some type of mental health services clinic and numerous opportunities to talk with other students to find ways through these trying first days, many students feel that theirs is a battle to be fought privately, or else show their struggles as a sign of weakness or unpreparedness.
But the truth is that the best way to deal with the adjustment to college is to have a good game plan and be willing to lean on others who are there to support you. Reaching out and making connections with other students and taking full advantage of student service resources can make a tremendous difference in adjusting to college life.
Here are a few easy tips to help establish a strong groundwork in your freshman year that will support you all the way through graduation.
Create a Routine
Having a focused calendar is just one step in creating a positive routine. Take the time when starting college to establish good habits that balance studying and classwork with extracurricular activities and a social life. There are so many things possible for students to do on a college campus that it can seem overwhelming. But by creating a routine early on, you’ll be able to get the most out of what college life has to offer.
Don’t Get Behind On Deadlines
Perhaps the most difficult adjustment when starting college is having to take personal responsibility for not only your actions, but your studies. Start off on the right foot by making sure that you are aware of the variety of deadline dates that you’ll encounter. From class papers to financial aid filings to scholarship or grant renewals, having a calendar that lays out all of your deadlines will help you stay ahead of the game. Make sure to keep that calendar in a place where you will frequently see it, a constant reminder to stay focused.
Go to Class!
Sure. It seems obvious, but when freshmen are faced with the reality that mom and dad aren’t there to get them out of bed and to school on time, the promise of a cozy bed sounds a lot more promising than walking through the snow from your dorm to class. Remember why you are in college: to get an education and prepare yourself for a career. Your instructors will likely hold your absence against you when it comes time for grades, and they won’t be following up to make sure you received the materials covered in class.
Get to Know Your Professors
College is a new place, but just like in high school your instructors aren’t there to intimidate you, but to help you. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to your professors and take a moment to get to know them. This way, you’ll feel more comfortable asking them questions when there are problems in coursework or other aspects of the class. The best time to do this is during an instructor’s office hours, where they are focused on having one-to-one or small group interactions focused on student needs.
Just as your mom and dad aren’t there to get you out of bed each day, they aren’t there to tell you when to stay in bed, either. The pace of a college student’s life can get hectic. And even with the best-planned routines, pushing too hard can have a negative effect on your health. Know when to lay low and recover. You don’t get bonus points for showing up to class sick and you’re likely not going to pay close attention anyway. Most schools (and even many dorms) will offer some form student health services to provide you with medical care. Make sure to take advantage of them instead of trying to tough out health problems on your own.
With college costs rising faster than increases on household income, more and more students have student loans to help fund their education. Often they don’t fully understand all of the terms and fail to track the amounts they borrow. One of the best ways you can stay on top of this process and set yourself up for an easier repayment process, is to limit the amount of student loan debt you accrue. Taking out the smallest amount of money possible in loans will pay off in the long run.
Follow these tips to ensure that you limit the amount of student loan debt you accrue 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 you will need 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 your academic schedule allows, consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with your financial aid office to see if you qualify for work study, which will give you the opportunity to work on campus.
Consider paying your loan interest while still in school.
If you start making interest payments on your student loans while you are still in college, you will reduce the total amount you’ll have to repay. Interest payments are usually manageable and by paying off interest as you go keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any of your balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases your loan balance essentially requiring you to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!
Apply for scholarships.
Scholarships can pay for portions, and at times all of your education during an academic year, but you must apply! You can find scholarships that specific to your school or department by talking to a representative from your school’s financial aid office or your department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places you can search for scholarships.
Choose a school that fits into the family budget.
Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where you applied and consider how much you would need to borrow from each. Keep the end in mind and select a college where your loan debt can be kept as a reasonable level to your future income potential.
You’ve made the trip, moved into your dorm, met your roommate. Mom and dad are gone and you’ve survived your first day of classes. What’s next for a new college student? The habits you start in your first days as a freshman will lay the groundwork for your success throughout college. The best part? It’s easy to take advantage of one of the greatest opportunities available to help college students grow and succeed: getting involved with your campus or community.
Much of your college career will happen outside of the classroom. Although your studies should be top priority, getting involved on campus is a great way to ease the transition into college and help you gain experience for your resume. Studies show that those who are involved in activities outside the classroom are more engaged and have greater academic success in college. In addition, many employers indicate that they look for real-world experience when interviewing recent college graduates. So, what are you waiting for? The reward that you can gain from getting involved in part-time jobs, volunteer work, campus organizations and industry-related groups will follow you well beyond college graduation.
An obvious advantage to getting involved is the opportunity to meet new people. Joining a club or organization allows you the benefit of making friends and networking with those who share your similar interests, goals and values. This can be especially helpful for commuter students who would otherwise leave campus as soon as class is dismissed. Students who are involved in campus activities often feel more connected to the school, campus and people, increasing their satisfaction with their college experience and reducing the likelihood of transferring schools or dropping out all together.
Employers want to see college graduates with real-world experience. Getting involved in a campus or career-related organization can help you gain leadership experience, improve communication skills, and provide you the opportunity to work as a team to solve problems. Helping your organization achieve its goals, such as increasing membership or organizing a special project or program will help you stand out to potential employers in the future. Your school’s campus serves as a representation of life after college, where the concepts are ever important to your future success. On campus, you can apply these skills to real-world situations in a safe environment.
Few extracurricular activities can beat the experience gained through a part-time job. Working while in college demonstrates your ability to manage time, communicate with supervisors, take direction, work as part of a team, and manage stress. Look for part-time jobs related to your major. For example, a job on campus in a lab for a student majoring in chemistry, or as a counselor in an after-school program for an elementary education major provides that real-world experience employers are looking for. As a plus, you will have a greater chance of meeting professionals in a field of work that interests you, therefore building your network of people. After all, there is some truth in the saying “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
Volunteering is great way to explore a potential career field while building on your existing skill sets. In addition, it demonstrates to potential employers that your time management skills have enabled you to fit an unpaid position into your busy schedule. Opportunities on campus can include things such student government involvement, working as a campus tour guide, or helping with a campus-wide event. You can also volunteer with local organizations in the community. Check out www.VolunteerIowa.org to find organizations seeking volunteers. Even if you don’t find a volunteer opportunity that matches your major, you can probably find one that will use skills you hope to develop in the workplace. Keep track of the things that you learned from each experience so you can use that information later. If you stay in touch with the people in charge, they may be willing to be a reference for you during your future job search.
Extracurricular activities can be just as important to potential employers as your GPA, but that doesn’t mean you can let your grades fall. The key to successful campus involvement is finding balance between your school work and activities. A more structured day can help to decrease procrastination; however having too much on your plate can become overwhelming. To find ways to get involved on your campus, visit your student activities or campus life office, stop by your academic department, check out the school calendar, and search the school website. Most come at little or no additional cost to you, but can add plenty in the way of college and work experience.