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Posted at 9:59 AM ET, 11/25/2010

Five Thanksgiving thoughts for the college-bound

By Craig Powell

Today's guest blogger is Craig Powell, a Brown graduate and CEO of ConnectEDU, a Boston firm chiefly known for helping high schools send application materials to colleges electronically.

As we reflect on the Thanksgiving holiday, those of us in the education field know that it is a week of thanks. We also know that with college deadlines looming in early December, many students are scrambling to get their applications in on time. Or, worse, they have already thrown in the towel on higher education, at least for the time being.


Of those students who did get their applications in on time, in all likelihood there were varying degrees of success. There are those who applied to schools that are truly right for them and those who didn't, those who received the guidance needed - including the financial aid and scholarship applications on time - and those who didn't. Those who received early admission in and had all the right support early on, and those who didn't. With all of this in mind, here are five key things that parents, guidance counselors and college-bound students need to be thinking about:

1) Effective completion and transmission of the student's application documents.

What many families are unaware of is the massive processing debacle that takes place at the college and university level, once the student has completed and submitted his or her application and mailed it in the old-fashioned way. Will the college lose their information? Is their information being stored securely? Will all of their documents get matched to their application appropriately? Will the college mis-key some of the student's information when they retype it into their database? Statistics from an Ivy League school shows that 10 percent of all entries have errors after re-keying occurs and a good portion of transcripts don't arrive on time or make it at all. Electronic applications require no re-keying and arrive via a secure system, with a feedback mechanism that allows the student to know their materials have been received. However, picking the right platform and having the counselor support can make all of the difference in the world!

2) How long will colleges spend reviewing my application?

Contrary to the perception that colleges pour over each application to give it a holistic review, the reality is that most college applications - even to the most selective colleges - are only reviewed for 10 to 15 minutes by two independent admissions representatives. That's 20 to 30 minutes of total evaluation time on the application.

So, against this backdrop, how does a student stand out? Is "making the cut," all about the numbers (test scores, GPA, , etc.), in the end? When a student's grades or SAT/ACT scores don't measure up, he or she is likely to realize how invaluable it would have been to have received the proper guidance and college preparation insight starting in the 10th grade. This would have enabled the student to have mapped the course load they needed to take and the GPA they needed to maintain to gain admission to their dream school. Regardless you are at that critical moment when your grades matter and you need to step it up to stand out from the tons of students that may have the same GPA and test scores.

3) How many colleges should I apply to?

The national average for today's college senior is to apply to 8 colleges. The reality is that a student can apply to as many colleges as they like. However, there is some question as to how focused or thorough a process the student has run in their selection process if they are applying to that many colleges. The counter argument, however, is that these colleges are mostly the same with very little differentiating characteristics between them. So, why not apply to as many as you like and see how it turns out? Students should not divulge, at any point in the application process, how many colleges they are applying to. And, if requested to indicate colleges of interest, the student should indicate the slightly better colleges with which the college they are applying to may compete. ConnectEDU's recommendation is that every student have at least two "safety" college applications (colleges where the student's test scores and GPA are above the average), two to four "good fit" colleges (colleges where the student's test scores and GPA are right at the average) and two or so "reach" colleges (colleges where the student's test scores and GPA are below the average).

4) How much does attending a "name" college really matter?

While many families are drawn into rankings and the elitist marketing efforts of the colleges themselves (including the exorbitant pricing strategies), the research-supported reality is that the college a student attends will have almost nothing to do with the student's long-term career success. Rather, the student's engagement level in things like their school work, college community and internships will have a lot more to do with their long-term success. Families should confidently select a college where their child can thrive, regardless of the institutional reputation or what the "neighbors" might perceive of the college. The reality is that college will ultimately be what the student makes of it and not what the institution makes of the student.

5) How will I pay for this college if I am accepted & does it make sense?

Perhaps of greatest importance is for families to first understand their estimated family contribution (EFC) and the net price (using net price calculators) to understand if they can even afford the college they are applying to, prior to applying to the school. If you are a "full pay" student, then you should think about applying to high quality, out-of-state universities where they fund themselves on the backs of full pay out-of-state students. If you are looking at expensive public or private colleges, first check to understand the financial feasibility of the institution prior to even completing the application. Be sure to ask the college about their retention and six year graduation rates. These tend to be strong indicators of the institution's ability to provide financial aid for the duration of the student's tenure on campus. Indeed, the number one reason students drop-out or transfer schools is financial. Finally, remember that the average duration to graduation is 5.4 years, so make sure that you factor this in when putting together your financial plan.

Again, this is truly a week for giving thanks. But it's also a week of high anxiety for many.
High school counselors are concerned about their students and their students' future.
School districts want to see the percentages of students applying to colleges increase. (One high school we know of mandated that its seniors apply to at least one college and saw their students' college acceptance rates go from 30 percent to 50 percent in one year!)

Students are stressed out because they often need more assistance and planning than they're receiving. They are often more caught up in feeling the pressures around them than focusing on their strengths and what schools will truly be the best fit for them.
Parents have stresses that range from will my child get into their dream college and, if they do, will we be able to afford it? Will my child be able to manage school and a part-time job on the side to help pay for college?

If we are to expand the number of students attending college, then we MUST re-think the manner in which we advise students and connect them to post-secondary educational opportunities. More efficient than counselors, parents and educators attempting to work with each and every student one-on-one would be an online database in which students could present their characteristics and then colleges could compete for them. This would provide students with the ability to turn "off" or "on" colleges that are of interest.

Perhaps the greatest irony in the college admissions game is that we forget that the colleges need the students more than the students need the colleges. There are many institutions of higher learning for motivated students to attend and receive post-secondary educations. An environment in which the higher education market paradigm is more in line with reality and students' empowerment would dramatically benefit students and their families as well as, ultimately, counselors and colleges.

It's time to learn from the generations past and jump-start the process early, demand the guidance needed early in the education process, get access to the tools that are necessary and not wait till the last minute. After all, Thanksgiving should be a peaceful time with family, free of worry regarding college education deadlines and selections. So let's pass the turkey, the cranberry chutney, the green-bean casserole and the sweet potatoes with marshmallows while we toast to a plan for a fresh year, a fresh approach.

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By Craig Powell  | November 25, 2010; 9:59 AM ET
Categories:  Admissions, Aid, Finance, Students  | Tags:  ConnectEDU, college admissions, college aid, college finance  
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Next: Early admission here to stay at local universities


As a college consultant, you have made some excellent comments to bring some sanity to the college admissions process. The more informed students and their parents are, the better their college decisions will be. Beginning your college planning early can make a big difference.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | November 28, 2010 12:58 AM | Report abuse

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