“Next Steps” to Take After Attending a College Fair

shutterstock_469602389So you attended a college fair. Great! You learned about some schools, hopefully discovered a new one or crossed a “possible” one off your list, and made some fantastic connections with college reps. However, now you’re home, brain abuzz with “dining hall” this and “extracurricular” that. You’re swimming in pamphlets and wondering how to move forward.

Wonder no more! Here are several useful, tangible “next steps” to take after you leave a college fair.

First, identify which of the colleges were your favorites. Set their materials aside, and get rid of the rest. No sense in hanging onto pamphlets you’ll never look at again!

Then, organize the material from the colleges you are considering. An easy way to do this is in a binder, with one tab per college. If you don’t want to hole-punch the pamphlets themselves, add two-pocket folders and slip the materials in there.

Review the information you’ve collected. What questions do you still have about each school? Write these down and add them to your binder.

Continue to research your colleges of interest. Look for answers to your questions online, and if you didn’t already sign up for their mailing list at the fair, be sure to do that either online or by mail.

After conducting your own research, contact the college representative you spoke to at the fair. If you didn’t already, be sure to thank them for their time at the fair. Then, ask any outstanding questions you still have. (But make absolutely sure the answer is not available on the school website!)

If you like, ask to be connected with a current student or alumnus. Explain that you’d like to chat with them in order to get a better sense of what sorts of students attend the school, and what your experience might e like if you choose to attend.

Finally, start planning your campus visits!

The Coalition: Is It Truly a Better Alternative to the Common App?

shutterstock_242098309When it debuted in 1975, the Common Application—or “Common App”—started a process that would ultimately revolutionize the college application. No more filling in repetitive fields over and over and over. No more writing entirely separate personal statements. Granted, not all schools accepted this application, and many required customized essays in addition to those included in the Common App, but students could now submit more applications to more schools, more easily.

This year, for the 2016-2017 application season, there’s a new game in town. A game that offers an alternative to the Common App. A game that claims to make elite and prestigious colleges more accessible. A game that has a long, extremely descriptive name. This year, the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success—“the Coalition”—has stepped up to challenge the Common App.

The Coalition developed out of two key frustrations with the Common App. The first is the riskiness of “putting all the application [eggs] in one basket,” so to speak. In 2013, the Common Application performed an update that resulted in major glitches, causing major delays and setbacks for admissions offices nationwide. The second is the fact that students must scramble to gather their application materials within a compressed time period, often leading to an incomplete picture of applicants’ strengths and accomplishments.

The Coalition offers two solutions to these frustrations: first, it simply provides another choice, outside the Common App, for applying to multiple schools at once. Second, it not only permits, but encourages students to begin thinking about and assembling college admissions materials as early as freshman year.

As with anything in higher education, there are supporters and critics of the Coalition. Supporters applaud the program’s mission to make the college application process more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Critics, however, worry that the Coalition will merely increase the number of applications submitted to its members—elite schools with already low acceptance rates—and lower their acceptance rates even further.

Below are a few basic facts about this brand new college application program, along with arguments from each side of the debate. Whoever is right or wrong may not matter right away, however, since only 60 of the 90+ Coalition member institutions will be using the application for the 2016-2017 application cycle (many of which will also accept the Common App).

Fact: students can begin the process of applying to college in 9th grade.

Supporters say: Opening the application process early on can make the process more manageable and give students a better shot at developing a complete, well-rounded application. By thinking about college admissions (where they might want to go, what they might want to study) and taking preliminary steps toward developing their application already in 9th grade, students can avoid a sudden panic attack come junior year. Additionally, encouraging students to think about college early on can make them more mindful of their academic and extracurricular record over a longer period of time—which is precisely what colleges will be looking at.

Critics say: The Coalition pushes students to start thinking about college admissions already at age 14. These are students who have just gotten to high school, and already they are expected to be thinking about college. This draws out the stress of the application process—which can begin already in 10th grade, with the PSATs—yet another year.

Fact: More nontraditional items (i.e., items other than prescribed essays or letters of recommendation) will be permitted in the application

Supporters say: Permitting alternative application materials enables students to highlight their strengths, no matter what those strengths are. For instance, a student might be an incredible actress but a mediocre writer. Using the Coalition, she can submit a video that better represents her talents and passions than an essay ever could.

Critics say: Now that students can submit a whole array of materials, expectations are higher than ever before. To be a competitive applicant, you now not only need to write a stellar essay and score well on a standardized test, but you probably also need to make a video, or draw a picture, or include a recording of yourself singing the national anthem with a mouth full of marshmallows. Anything to stand out. And who is going to guide students to generate these top-notch portfolios? Likely, a whole new industry will be born, and better-off students will once again have the advantage, because they’ll have the resources to put together a sleek, refined package with the help and guidance of paid professionals.

Fact: Students can invite parents, counselors, recommenders, and others to collaborate on the materials in their Locker and application.

Supporters say: A student’s asking for and receiving help from mentors is right in line with how we collaborate in this digital era. Collaborative applications such as Dropbox or Google Drive are already standard practice, so by participating in this collaborative process, students tap into a familiar skillset that will be useful (and necessary) later in their lives.

Critics say: Once again, the upper class wins out. Wealthier students can afford better collaborators, who will help them to assemble better portfolios. Yet, even for students at large, there is the risk of “too many hands on deck.” This can result in a student’s feeling even more overwhelmed by the already-stressful application process, or worse: the application may essentially not be student’s own.


Navigating the Endless Possibilities of a Gap Year

A college degree can be the stepping-stone to wider, more satisfying career choices and higher earning potential. At least, that’s the parental party line these days, backed by data from the US Census Bureau. The message is that going to college is mandatory in American culture. Everyone is suppose to go to college, right?

But what if you aren’t ready? What of you need to take a breath between your senior year of high school and your freshman year of college? What if you just need time to figure things out?

That’s where the Gap Year comes into play.

But First, Defer Enrollment

online-classesWhile a gap year can do a lot of good things for you, it can also be an easy way to fall off track if your eventual goal is to earn a college degree. You can avoid the “what now?” situation many gappers find themselves in by applying to college just as you normally would if you had no intention of “gapping.” Then, once you’ve received your acceptance letter, confirm that you will attend, and then send a letter to the college’s director of admissions and outline what you plan to do on your gap year. Your letter will be evaluated by the admissions committee and ultimately granted or denied. This general process varies by school, so be sure to get specific details ahead of time. (And also details about financial aid! Because even if you’re offered financial assistance with your initial acceptance, you aren’t necessarily guaranteed that same package when you return a year later.)

Now, in order to write that letter to the director of admissions, you need to determine what you will do (and why) during your gap here. Here are some ideas:

Adulting 101

Get a job, get an apartment, pay bills, feed yourself. Sounds simple, but you will be surprised what you can learn from taking twelve months to act as a non-student grown-up. You will learn to recognize the value of a paycheck, negotiate the murky waters of landlord/tenant relations, and feel the power of shopping with a grocery list in hand. Plus, learning how to live within a budget and how credit scores work will help you not only in your post-college life but also during those college years. You’ll be the one suggesting that maybe you and your roommates don’t need to order a third pizza that week, and perhaps that three-day weekend in Tampa isn’t the smartest financial choice.

In fact, a Gap Year is a great time to educate yourself on financial information and skills you will need for years to come. A quick Google search will cough up a plethora of websites such as Mint.com that offer advice on budgeting, wealth building, and ways to improve your credit scores. Adulting 101 for your 365 can put you ahead of your peers financially, and make that potentially crushing amount of school debt feel manageable when it’s time to graduate.

Be a Do-Gooder

While America graduates more than 60% of high school students straight into college, the Gap Year has become more common—common enough that an industry has sprung up around it to help Gappers figure out what to do with their 365 days sans lectures, homework, or quad life. Gap year fairs and organizations such as GO Overseas link students with travel and volunteer programs across the world, making what to do with the next year of your life a click away. But beware: although many of these programs are both exciting and enriching, they can also cost thousands of dollars. Therefore, you may not only wind up volunteering your time for free, but you’ll also be paying the program to participate.

Fortunately, you can also work for free for free. If altruism is your Gap Year goal, the American Red Cross, United Way, and Volunteer Match can hook you up for volunteer opportunities in your community. And if your are politically minded, several organizations would gladly sign you on to help spread their messages.

A year of volunteering can bolster your resume and give you real world experience for a variety of skills. Whether you are volunteering at a retirement home, working with special needs adults, or volunteering for a cause, you will gain all sorts of valuable experiences, from event planning to community organizing.

Learn a Skill . . . or Five

A year away from writing term papers and pulling all-nighters for exams offers a nice chunk of time to hone a skill or throw yourself into a hobby. You could opt to indulge completely in fun stuff like racking up experience points in League of Legends or learning all of the dance routines in Beyoncé videos by heart. In the long run, however, you’re probably better off developing a skill or hobby that will upgrade your life.

In self-teaching, online learning is your friend—your free friend. Khan Academy offers courses in everything from algebra to art history, giving you a chance to “try out” a major before you declare one. Coursera.org, OpenCulture.com, and AcademicEarth.org also offer free courses from top-tier universities, so why not learn Python or the nuances of digital photography? Learn a new language, start a blog, or build a robot. A hobby might turn into a passion, and that passion can ultimately direct your college career—and the rest of your life.

No matter what your reasons are for taking a break from the rigors of school, be sure to use your time wisely and set realistic goals. And make sure you have a roadmap for where you’re headed when that Gap Year is over, because the last thing you want is for Gap Year to turn into Gap Decade.