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:
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While it may feel like a time to celebrate your accomplishments (and you should), the summer before starting college can have a huge impact on your success as you move forward. Rather than be a potential victim of summer melt, take the time to do these activities to help you arrive at college motivated, excited and prepared.
Sign Up for and Attend Orientation
Many colleges have mandatory orientations for incoming students. But even if your school doesn’t require it, try your best to attend anyway. This is especially important if you haven’t been able to visit the college beforehand. You’ll get a chance to see where things are on campus, check out the dorms and eating facilities, and scope out the local amenities. There will likely be special sessions where you can meet faculty, register for classes, get your student ID, and purchase a parking decal.
You may get an invitation to orientation or your college may leave it up to you to register, so be sure to check their website for a schedule. And if possible, bring your parents along. Orientation can be a little overwhelming and it’s nice to have the support. Your parents can also get answers to some of the questions they have, get a feel for where you’ll be spending your time, and possibly have an easier transition when it’s time to let you go.
Find (and Get to Know) Your Roommate
Since many colleges require incoming freshmen to live in dorms, chances are high you’re going to have a roommate and it’s likely the first time you’ll be sharing your living space with someone outside your family. Some colleges use an online roommate finder to try to match you up with someone that shares similar interests, schedules, or study habits. Some colleges host a roommate fair where you can look for a roommate yourself.
Take the time to find out what you’ll need to do and do it as early as possible. Typically, you can start looking as soon as you’ve committed and paid a housing deposit. And if you can find out who your roommate will be early, go ahead and start getting to know them before you get there in the Fall. Communicate via email or text, or friend them on whatever social media they’re using.
Fortunately, living in a dorm lets you avoid some of the hassles you can encounter when living with a roommate. You won’t have to worry about having a roommate who doesn’t pay their rent, for example. The school will take care of that. Still, living with someone can be challenging, so take the time to learn how to spot a terrible roommate before moving in with them and read up on some other good ways to avoid roommate tension.
Register for Fall Classes as Early as Possible
Registering for college classes might start before you even graduate high school. Some college offer early online registration sometime during May. For others, you might have to wait for orientation or, depending on your major, for a meeting with a freshman advisor. You’ll need to check to see how soon you can register for classes. Take a look at the college’s website or call your admissions counselor. That’s what they’re there for.
As soon as you find out when you can register, go ahead and do it. There are couple of advantages to registering early:
- Classes fill up. While you’re pretty well-assured of getting into your basic required freshman classes, popular electives fill up fast. Registering early means a better chance of getting in.
- There may be summer reading. Some classes have required reading lists for the summer. Why not go ahead and get started now, since the summer’s just going to get busier.
If you’re having trouble picking classes, or if you haven’t chosen a major yet, read through the course descriptions and get in touch with an advisor who can help you out. If possible, talk to a professor or students in your department of study and see what they recommend. When you choose classes, try to choose a balanced load if you can. Create a weekly schedule that works well for you, consider getting some requirements out of the way, and try to strike a balance between the types of classes you take. It’s not fun getting stuck writing half a dozen papers or getting stuck working out multiple problem sets every night.
Now that you’ve registered for classes, you can start looking at the textbooks you’ll need. It’s possible some professors won’t have decided on a book yet or that some specialty books may not be available early. But for most classes, especially core classes, you shouldn’t have any trouble.
When it comes to buying your textbooks, you have a few choices: buy them new, buy them used, or rent them. Unless there’s no other option, skip buying new books in favor of buying used or renting. Be sure to check out our complete guide to getting cheap textbooks and our readers’ five favorite sites to buy textbooks cheaply. There are even apps out there to help you compare costs.
Spend Some Time with Family and Friends
This summer may be the last time you can get all your current friends together at once, so take the time to build some memories. Throw a party, take a road trip, or if you’re looking for something a bit cheaper, go camping. Just do it early in the summer, because some people may leave for college or jobs earlier than others. And be sure to get any new contact information (like college email and physical addresses) they have so you can keep in touch.
You’re excited to get out on your own, so it can be easy to forget that while your parents are also excited for you, a major phase of their life is ending. And believe it or not, you’re going to miss them when you’re no longer seeing them every day. Get them involved in your plans. If you have younger siblings, don’t forget to show them some love, too. Their lives are also about to change. And there’s one last person to take care of: yourself. You will likely find yourself without nearly as much alone time as you’re used to. Take the time to do some things on your own, even if it’s just binge watching your favorite shows.
Learn Some Life Skills
There are a number of good skills to learn before striking out on your own. We’ve covered a lot of them in the past. Two of the most important skills you can learn this Summer include:
- Finances. Hopefully, you’ve already got your own checking and savings account at this point and have had some practice using them. If not, sign up now and learn how to use them. Look for a bank that has a presence at your school or at least has in-network ATMs available when you need them. Take time to get a head start on your finances and avoid some dumb mistakes.
- Laundry. Lots of kids have never really done laundry or any other real cleaning by the time they leave for college. If that describes you, spend some time this summer learning how to do laundry like a boss. Learn how to decipher laundry tags and maybe even download an app to help you out. It’s not too hard and you can practice while you’re cleaning out your closet and getting packed up for the move.
If you take care of all this, you’ll be well on your way to a more organized and enjoyable Fall semester. Depending on your situation, there may be a few other odds and ends you’ll want to take care of, like making an appointment with your doctor, cleaning up your social media sites, and changing your mailing address. But most of all, enjoy yourself!
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!
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.
The snow coats are finally put away in place of the short-sleeve shirts. Spring is here, with summer right behind. For high school seniors, the end of years of hard work are within your grasp with the goal of a college education just beyond it. But rather than coasting to the finish line, students looking to save money and hit the ground running once they get to college will find the next few months important.
“Summer melt” is the term used in higher education to describe students that intend to go to college after high school graduation, but never make it to college in the fall. Their college plans have dripped away like an ice cream cone in the July heat. Here are some tips to stay on track and keep those college plans firm this summer, and even saving a few dollars once you get there:
- Don’t fall victim to “senioritis.” The end of high school is certainly in reach, but that doesn’t mean students should take their foot off the pedal when it comes to school. Completing AP or dual enrollment courses in high school can reduce the number of credits that need to be taken in college. Think of it as getting free classes that would otherwise be part of tuition costs.
- Plan ahead to avoid changing majors. It’s not out of the ordinary for students to get to college not knowing exactly what they want to do. But changing majors, even once, can add a year or more to a student’s time in college. Use this summer to explore areas of career interest as a volunteer or intern to get a taste of what the day-to-day life in a particular job will be like. It might lead to reconsidering a college major before too much time and money is committed.
- Consider summer courses. Just like taking the AP, any courses that can be taken before college will help later. General education, or underclass, units can be taken at local community colleges, often with smaller class sizes and for less money than when a student gets to a college or university. Math is math, no matter where you take it. Why not get a head start now?
- Take a part-time job. Working during college can help reduce the amount of money that needs to be borrowed, in addition to providing valuable job experience. Use the summer to help build a nest egg for college expenses.
- Research textbook and supply rentals. Course books can be one of the biggest expenses for students once they get to college. While many colleges allow students to rent textbooks instead of buying them, online sites such as chegg.com, eFollett.com, textbooks.com and others can provide other options and the opportunity to compare prices. Getting to know the options ahead of time in school can lead to saving hundreds of dollars come fall.
Summer before senior year: The calm before the storm. For many students about to embark on the final push from high school to college, a busy year awaits. So it only makes sense to take advantage of the slower days of summer to get college applications done before the frenzy of the school year kicks in.
That kind of forward thinking and planning shows a student who has the skills to succeed in college… but also one who might be jumping the gun. Here a few tips on where to move full steam ahead this summer and where to pump the brakes in prepping college applications.
Start organizing documents for college applications. If an application is screaming for a student to complete it, summer is a great time to start collecting the items needed. Checking transcripts and drafting lists of accomplishments, extracurricular activities and awards will save time later when it’s time to compile them for the application. While there will certainly be more to add to these lists as senior year progresses, it will be easier if the bulk of the work has already been done.
Approach teachers for recommendations. Just as students’ schedules slow down during the summer, teachers have a little more free time on their hands. Rather than approaching a favorite teacher during the early hustle and bustle of the school year, reach out during the summer to lock down letters.
Research and visit potential schools. Many families travel during the summer. Working a college visit into the road trip not only adds some excitement and fun, but also gives students a chance to get a look at their next potential home. Summer sessions won’t be as busy as the regular school year, but many colleges offer enough activities and student presence to give an idea of what campus life will offer.
Get ready for FAFSA. While many have called for a simplified version of the FAFSA, it isn’t coming any time soon. The more work families do to organize financial records ahead of filling out the FAFSA in January, the easier the form will be to complete.
To do later:
Write the college application essay. Many incoming seniors might try to seize the opportunity of summer’s lower homework level to focus on writing their college essay. But just as senior year will bring new memories, summer will offer new experiences, many of them possibly lifechanging, that could make for a fantastic college essay. By trying to lock down an essay now, students will rob themselves of the opportunity to create compelling, and more timely, essays down the road. Of course, writing a draft or compiling a list of ideas is never a bad plan. If inspiration strikes, follow where it leads.