Usc Application Essay 2012

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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.

Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.

Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:

1. Be yourself

The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.

Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.

2. Show diversity

Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.

“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”

Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.

He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.

“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”

3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly

Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.

“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”

4. Be concise and follow directions

Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.

Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.

5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores

Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.

For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.

6. Tell a story

“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”

One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.

With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!

Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.

Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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College admissions in the United States refers to the process of applying for entrance to institutions of higher education for undergraduate study at one of the nation's 2,675 schools.[2][3] Generally, the college search begins in the student's eleventh grade of high school with most activity taking place during the twelfth grade, although students at top high schools often begin the process during their tenth grade or earlier. In addition, there are considerable numbers of students who transfer from one college to another, as well as adults older than high school age who apply to college.

Overview[edit]

Millions of high school students apply to college each year. While the number of graduates from high school peaked temporarily at 3.3 million in 2008, then to 3.4 million in 2014,[5] numbers have been forecast to decline through 2015 and then rebound thereafter.[6] Still, the number of students enrolled in college is expected to increase through 2020 when there will be approximately 23 million students in college.[6] About a quarter of twelfth graders apply to seven or more schools, paying an average of $40 per application.[6] Fewer than half of all students entering college graduate in four years[7] and slightly over half graduate from college during their lifetimes.[7]

The application process takes considerable time and planning since it involves multiple steps, with choices to be made and deadlines to be met. Students file separate applications to each school, although the Common Application expedites the process in many instances. Most undergraduate institutions admit students to the entire college and not to a particular department or major, unlike many European universities and American graduate schools, although some undergraduate programs such as architecture or engineering may require a separate application at some universities. As a general rule, applying to two-year county and community colleges is much easier than to a four-year school, often requiring only a high school transcript or minimum test score.

New developments in college admissions include increased numbers of applications, increased interest by students in foreign countries in applying to American universities,[8] more students applying by an early method,[5] applications submitted by Internet-based methods including the Common Application,[9] increased use of consultants, guidebooks, and rankings, and increased use by colleges of waitlists.[5] One estimate was that 80 percent of applications were submitted online in 2009.[5]

Participants[edit]

Students[edit]

Applying to colleges can be stressful. The outcome of the admission process may affect a student's future career trajectory considerably. Entrance into top colleges is increasingly competitive,[9][10][11] and many students feel pressure during their high school years.[12]

Private and affluent public primary education, test-prep courses, 'enrichment' programmes, volunteer service projects, international travel, music lessons, sports activities – all the high-cost building blocks of the perfect college application – put crushing pressure on the upper middle class and their offspring.

— Yale professor William Deresiewicz, quoted in the BBC about his article in The New Republic, 2014[12]

Parents[edit]

The college applications process can be stressful for parents of teenagers, according to journalist Andrew Ferguson, since it exposes "our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children".[13]

High school counselors[edit]

Some high schools have one or more teachers experienced in offering counseling to college-bound eleventh and twelfth graders. They usually work in conjunction with the guidance department who assist students in planning their high school academic path. Counselors handle many students and schools and generally do not have a role of overseeing or managing a student's college applications.[15] Advisors recommend that students get to know their school counselor. Counselors do not complete interviews, write essays, or arrange college visits. Parents often meet with the school counselor during the eleventh grade. Most counselors have responsibility for helping many students and, as a result, it is difficult for them to provide individual help to a particular student; one estimate was that the average ratio for all high schools of counselors to students was 460 to 1.[6] Only about a quarter of public high schools have a counselor devoted to college counseling issues full-time, while almost three quarters of private schools have a dedicated college counselor.[6] A report suggested that private school counselors have substantially more contact with university admissions staff than public school counselors.[19]

Consultants[edit]

Fee-based consultants, some available entirely online, can be hired to help a student gain admission to the so-called right schools, although there are some free programs to help underprivileged youth learn how to fill out applications, write essays, get ready for tests, and work on interviews.[21][22] Consultants can help a student select schools to apply to, counsel them on test taking strategies, review scores, help with essay preparation (but not writing), review applications, conduct mock interviews, provide logistical planning, and collaborate with others such as athletic coaches. Consultants try to keep a low profile; however, one admissions dean explained that she can "sniff out when there has been some adult involved in the process".[25] Assistance by consultants or other adults can go to extremes, particularly with hard-to-check variables such as the college essays; according to one view, plagiarism on admissions essays has been a "serious problem", particularly on applications to private universities and colleges.[26] There is the possibility that hiring a professional admissions consultant can make an application appear artificial; for example, admissions personnel may suspect adult coaching when one part of an application is polished, while other parts aren't, such as varying quality regarding writing samples. Another risk in hiring a consultant, which can happen if parents become too involved in the process, is what Mamlet and VanDeVelde term overpackaging: the applicant appears so smooth and perfect that admissions officers suspect the person is not real but a marketing creation. Generally, when hiring a college admissions counselor, parents and students try to understand the counselor's philosophy, learn what services are provided, and whether any help will be offered regarding advice about financial aid or scholarships. Mamlet and VanDeVelde suggest that it is improper for an admissions counselor to tamper with a student's "authentic self". According to their view, ideal counselors have experience with college admissions, meet regularly with college admissions officers, visit campuses regularly, and belong to professional affiliations.

College admissions staff[edit]

A typical admission staff at a college includes a dean or vice president for admission or enrollment management, middle-level managers or assistant directors, admission officers, and administrative support staff.[30] The chief enrollment management officer is sometimes the highest-paid position in the department, earning $121,000 on average in 2010, while admissions officers average only $35,000, according to one estimate.[30][31] Admissions officers tend to be in the 30-to-40 age demographic.[32] They are chosen for their experience in admissions, aptitude for statistics and data analysis, experience in administration and marketing and public relations.[30] They serve dual roles as counselors and recruiters, and do not see themselves as marketers or salespeople, according to one view.[31] They are evaluated on how well they "represent their college, manage their office, recruit staff members, and work with other administrators".[31] Michele Hernandez suggested there were basically two types of officers: a first group of personable, sharp, people-oriented go-getter types who were often recent college grads; a second group was somewhat out-of-touch "lifers" who often did not graduate from a highly selective college.[33] Officers are generally paid an annual salary, although there have been reports of some recruiters paid on the basis of how many students they bring to a college, such as recruiters working abroad to recruit foreign students to U.S. universities.[31]

Many colleges and universities work hard to market themselves, trying to attract the best students and maintain a reputation for academic quality. Colleges spent an average of $585 to recruit each applicant during the 2010 year.[6][30] There are efforts to make increased use of social media sites such as Facebook to promote their colleges.[34] Marketing brochures and other promotional mailings often arrive daily in the hope of persuading high school students to apply to a college. According to Joanne Levy-Prewitt, colleges send "view books" not because they intend to admit them, but "because they want multitudes of students to apply" to improve the college's selectivity ranking and to make sure that they have as many well-qualified applicants as possible from whom to choose the strongest class.[35] Colleges get access to names and addresses after students give permission to them after taking the PSAT or SAT exams.[35]

Information sources[edit]

US News compiles a directory of colleges and universities and has made a ranking of them, although the rankings are controversial, some colleges refuse to cooperate, and high school guidance counselors sometimes have major problems with the rankings.[36] Other sources rank colleges according to various measures, sell guidebooks, and use their rankings as an entry into college admissions consulting services. College Board launched a website called BigFuture in 2012 with tools to help the admissions process.[37] There are services to help expedite the college admissions process, including a web-based service that sells copies of applications that gained the applicant admission to Ivy League colleges.[38]

Test preparation firms[edit]

Companies such as the College Board have offered services to help students prepare for their tests and provide other services, usually web-based, to help students compare schools. Some firms work with schools to provide test preparation advisors who teach students how to take the SAT and ACT entrance exams.

Planning[edit]

Timing[edit]

Timeline
Ninth/tenth grade
Grades count towards GPA
Good study habits
Course selection
Read, read, read
Extracurricular activities
Eleventh grade
Fall: PSAT test
Meet guidance counselor
Build lists of colleges
Begin meeting college reps
College fairs
Research, visit schools
Tests: SAT/ACT, SAT Subject Tests, AP/IB exams
Summer: write essays
Twelfth grade
Know admissions deadlines
Teacher recommendations
Apply to schools
Ask high school to send transcripts
Winter: FAFSA/CSS forms
Check if colleges received materials
April: acceptances and rejections
Revisit accepting schools
May: deposit is due

The admissions process usually begins during a student's eleventh grade when a student meets with a guidance counselor, selects some colleges, and perhaps visits a few campuses. The summer before twelfth grade is a time when many students finalize application plans and perhaps begin writing essays. Further, they decide whether to apply by early or regular decision. International students may need to take tests showing English-language proficiency such as the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE Academic.[39] The twelfth grade is when applications are submitted. The CSS can be submitted by October first of the student's twelfth grade, while the FAFSA becomes available on the web after January first.[40]

Selection of colleges[edit]

Rankings[edit]

Main article: Rankings of universities in the United States

There are several college and university rankings guides published, and they include the U.S. News and World Report,[41]Business Insider,[43]Money Magazine,[44]The Washington Monthly's "College Rankings" issue,[45] and Forbes "America's Top Colleges" ranking,[46] as well as a variety of other groups and organizations that publish rankings based on different factors and using different methodology. For a more comprehensive and detailed look at U.S. university rankings, with top-ranked schools identified, see Rankings of universities in the United States.

Rankings have been the subject of much criticism. Since much of the data is provided by colleges themselves, there are opportunities for schools to manipulate the rankings to enhance prestige. There have been instances in which school officials deliberately misreported statistics, such as an admissions dean at Claremont McKenna who falsified average SAT statistics,[47] and a report that Emory University falsely reported student data for "more than a decade,"[48] as well as reports of false data from the United States Naval Academy and Baylor University.[49] Writer Andrew Ferguson noted considerable hypocrisy surrounding rankings: some colleges pretend to loathe the guidebooks that rank them, yet if they get a good write-up, they "wave it around like a bride's garter belt."[13] Lynn O'Shaughnessy criticized the "mindless pursuit of better numbers" by colleges to boost their college rankings as destructive and wrote that families place too much emphasis on the rankings as a way to select colleges.[50] Further, she criticized the US News rankings for failing to take a college's affordability into account[51] or factor in the average student indebtedness after college[49] as well as failing to measure how well colleges actually educated their students.[49] She noted how the US News algorithm "favors schools that spurn more students."[49] College admissions counselors criticized rankings as misleading, and criticized the rankings inputs of peer assessments, student selectivity and alumni giving as being poor predictors of a college's overall quality.[52] The rankings title "America's Best Colleges", prompted counselors to ask "best for whom"?[52]

In 2007, members of the Annapolis Group discussed a letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the US News "reputation survey".[53] A majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting agreed not to participate,[54] although the statements were not binding.[55] Members pledged to develop alternative web-based information formats[55] in conjunction with several collegiate associations.[56]US News responded that their peer assessment survey helps them measure a college's "intangibles" such as the ability of a college's reputation to help a graduate win a first job or entrance into graduate school.[57] An article by Nicholas Thompson in Washington Monthly criticized the U.S. News rankings as "confirming the prejudices of the meritocracy" by tuning their statistical algorithms to entrench the reputations of a handful of schools, while failing to measure how much students learn.[58] Thompson described the algorithms as being "opaque enough that no one outside the magazine can figure out exactly how they work, yet clear enough to imply legitimacy."[58]

Further information: Criticism of college and university rankings (2007 United States)

Choosing schools by selectivity[edit]

Advisors typically ask students to begin to see potential colleges in terms of four types:

  • Reach schools provide a slim chance of acceptance, such as a 5% or slimmer chance.
  • Possibles (or high matches) have greater chance of rejection than acceptance.
  • Probables (or low matches) have greater chance of acceptance than rejection.
  • Solid or safety schools seldom reject candidates with similar academic credentials. High school counselors recommend that a safety school be one that a student would like to attend if rejected everywhere else. Mark Kantrowitz advised having at least one financial aid safety school that is affordable even without financial aid.[60] Another classification is "unlikelies" (5% chance of acceptance), "reach schools" (25% chance), "possibles" (50% chance), and "likelies" (80% chance).

Typically counselors will suggest an applicant apply to a mix of the different types of schools, usually having at least one safety school, but the numbers of the others are up to students and families. Andover's counseling director recommends that a student apply to a minimum of two "solid" schools and two "probable" schools.[61] Many high schools subscribe to an online service called Naviance, which, among other things, can help a student gauge the likelihood of admission to a particular college. It is based on a student's grades and test scores in comparison to the admissions results from students from previous years applying to that particular college (see diagram). Naviance uses a scattergram to graphically illustrate the chances for a student from a particular high school being admitted into a particular college or university. In addition, counselors can help a student consider different types of colleges, such as liberal arts colleges, research universities, and specialty schools. A report in Time magazine in 2013 suggested that it was almost impossible for poor students to gain admission to elite universities,[64] and that the percentage of students at 28 elite colleges coming from less affluent households was relatively constant at around 10% from 2001 to 2009, based on a study that included all eight Ivy League schools.[65] The difficulty of admissions to elite universities has sometimes prompted accusations:

The admissions system of the so-called best schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order.

— Essayist Neal Gabler in the Boston Globe, 2010[66]

Return on investment[edit]

Former US Education Secretary William Bennett suggested college should be seen as a long-term purchase with the return on investment (ROI) being the future earnings potential of a graduate.[67] Schools have been compared financially by examining average costs, student debt, and lifelong earnings, to yield an effective average ROI.[67] Bennett suggested that only 150 out of the nation's 3500 colleges provided positive returns.[67][68]

Better fit or prestige[edit]

Prestige of colleges correlates with age, such that the oldest east-coast schools tend to have accumulated the most prestige by virtue of their longevity. There is widespread consensus that the fit between a student and a school is an important factor. Several reports suggest that "fit should trump prestige every single time," and that it is better for a school to match a student in terms of social, cultural, and academic qualities and not be chosen simply because of a school's prestige.[69][70] Others see college admissions as essentially a choice between "price and prestige".[71] Elite colleges have been compared to designer labels, a valuable credential in the job market,[66] and an entryway into top graduate schools.[72] Some advisors specialize in helping students find a good fit—a suitable list of colleges—which helps students in the long run. They help students to explore their values and needs, and provide counseling to help both students and parents find a college or university program that helps students meet long-term goals. Questions include thinking about life goals, which activities a person likes best, and what style of learning works best for the student.[73] Evaluating personal preferences is important and can take time.[74] One advisor suggests it is important for a student to think through what is best, and choose on this basis, and "do not listen to your friends" since they have different needs and wants. "One of the worst ways to make a decision about where to go to college is to follow a friend because he or she is having a good time at that school," wrote one advisor.[73] Since "barely half" of students entering college as first-year students ever graduate from college later in their lives,[7] getting the right fit is important for parents and students to avoid wasting money.[7] What is a good fit:

The college that fits you best is one that will: (1) Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs (2) Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn (3) Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation (4) Offer a community that feels like home to you and (5) Value you for what you do well.

— report in US News[7]

A private admissions counselor elaborates:

A school has to fit – academically, socially, and economically ... Ask whether a college feels right ... rather than is it best ...

— Michael Szarek, 2011[76]

One admissions dean likens "fit" to a friendship:

I draw the analogy of friends to explain why fit is so important in considering a college. You like your good friends for some reason. It may not be an objective reason. It's often subjective. There's some sense of compatibility, a kind of intuition, a match, a common sense of values, what you like to do, how you think – those are the things that really bind people together. It's similar with college. You don't want to spend four years with a college who isn't really your friend.

— Jennifer Rickard, admissions dean at Bryn Mawr

In addition, counselors can help less academically astute students find good colleges to help them pursue careers, and can point out colleges that are "gems" but relatively unknown.[78] In some cases, choosing a college in a different part of the country can improve chances for admission, particularly if the college is seeking "geographical diversity."[78] One study suggests that the overall prestige of a person's college is less important, overall, in predicting how they would fare in later life, and that personal characteristics, such as aptitude, are more important.[11]

Costs[edit]

Sticker versus net price[edit]

SchoolCost
Princeton U.$62,919
New York U.$61,977
Harvey Mudd$61,760
Bard$61,446
Rensselaer$60,779
Sarah Lawrence$60,656
Wesleyan$60,214
Dartmouth$60,201
U. Chicago$60,039
Bard-Simon's Rk$60,003
Trinity$59,860

The general pattern is that most colleges and universities, particularly private ones, have an artificially high[80] and unreliable[80]sticker price while charging most students, by awarding grant and scholarship money, a "discounted price" that varies considerably.[81] Writer Lynn O'Shaughnessy in US News compared college prices with "airline tickets" since "everybody pays a different fare".[82] Another report agreed:

Sticker price is the full price colleges list in their brochures and on their websites. Net price is the price students actually pay. Net price accounts for the fact that many students receive grants or scholarships. So it can be considerably lower than sticker price.

— Jacob Goldstein, NPR, 2012[83]

Discounting began in the 1970s and was dramatically expanded in the 1990s, according to one report.[84] Discrepancy between sticker and average net prices can vary substantially. Estimates vary, but show a consistent pattern of sticker prices being much greater than real costs, sometimes more than double, sometimes only one and a half times as high.[82][85][86][87] Estimates are that 88%[82][88] or 67%[89] get some form of discount. One estimate in 2015 was that at private nonprofit four-year colleges, the average first-year student pays 48% less than the sticker price.[90] Generally, the sticker-to-net price discrepancy is greater at private colleges than public universities.[86] For example, in 2011–2012, the average sticker price for tuition, fees and living expenses at private colleges, was $38,590 while the average actual cost was $23,060; at public colleges, the average sticker price was $17,130 and the average actual cost was $11,380.[80] Another estimate was that the average full-time undergraduate gets $6,500 in grant aid along with $1,000 in tax-based aid to offset tuition and fees.[89] There is widespread consensus that the most cost-effective college option is community colleges, which charge on average only $3,000 for full-time tuition.[88]

CollegeIndex
UC-Irvine1.90
UC-SantaBar1.61
UC-Davis1.60
UC-SanDiego1.58
UCLA1.52
U.Florida1.46
Amherst1.44
Pomona1.43
UC-Berkeley1.38
Harvard1.36
Vassar1.36
Williams1.35
Princeton1.34
Wellesley1.32
Stanford1.31
Knox1.30
UNC-Chapel1.30
Columbia1.26
Barnard1.25
Yale1.22
Westminster1.21
Wesleyan1.21
Davidson1.20
MIT1.20
Texas A&M1.19

Colleges use high sticker prices because it allows them wide latitude in how to use funds to attract the best students, as well as entice students with special skills or increase its overall racial or ethnic diversity.[84] The most sought-after students can be enticed by high discounts while marginal students can be charged full freight.[92][93] Further, the high sticker price is a marketing tool to suggest the overall worth of a college education, along the lines of encouraging people to think that "schools that cost more must provide a better education."[82] A report by the Pew Research Center found that while there was growing concern about escalating college prices, most Americans believed that their personal investment in higher education was sound.[94] But discounting adds complexity to decision-making, deterring some students from applying in some instances based on a false sense of unaffordability.[86] In recent years, there has been attention to the problem of bright students from low-income backgrounds not applying to top colleges, and attending less challenging colleges instead or skipping college entirely; this phenomenon has been called undermatching in the sense that these students are not properly paired or "matched" with academically challenging colleges; there have been efforts at some colleges such as Williams to actively seek out bright low-income students.[95] According to NBC reporter Nona Willis-Aronowitz, the financial makeup of the student body at elite colleges tends to be mostly affluent students, with some low-income students if the college actively seeks out bright low-income applicants, but few students from middle-class backgrounds.[95] As a result, middle-class applicants are increasingly faced with a tough choice: to either attend an elite school, paying close to the sticker price, and graduate with substantial debt, or to attend a publicly supported state school with less debt; Aronowitz described this as the "middle class squeeze".[95] In 2015, however, there were several instances of private colleges reducing their tuition by more than 40%.[90]

Further information: College tuition in the United States

Net price calculators[edit]

In the fall of 2011, colleges were required by federal law to post a net price calculator on their websites to give prospective students and families a rough estimate of likely college costs for their particular institution,[80][96] and to "demystify pricing."[10][80] A student or family could go online, find the calculator at a college's website, and enter the required financial and academic information, and the calculator should tell them an estimate of the likely cost of attending that college. The first online calculators were started by Williams College.[93] The online calculators look at financial need and academic merit to try to estimate the likely discounted price offered to a particular student from a particular college,[80] using information including details from tax returns, household income, grade point averages and test scores.[93] Schools vary in terms of their pricing formulas; some consider home equity as a factor while others disregard it.[97] Lynn O'Shaughnessy recommends that families shopping for colleges go to a college's website and use the net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of cost.[97]

SchoolSticker
price
Net
price
(avg)
Lafayette5302019800
Cornell5550127400
New York University5785840300
SUNY-Binghamton2002619400
U. Chicago5671628500
Reed5480029400
Berkeley2902724300
Swarthmore5440020000
Georgetown5511026400
Harvard5265210600

There are numerous potential problems with the calculators. Some are difficult to find on a college's website;[80][93] others require specific financial numbers, possibly leading to errors by parents or students; some are difficult to understand and use;[93] some may be manipulated by schools to increase applications or to make it seem as if a college is "more affordable" than it is.[93] Accuracy of calculator estimates may vary considerably from college to college.[80][93] Ultimately aid decisions will not be made by calculators, but by humans in the admissions offices.[80]

Types of financial aid[edit]

  • Need-based aid is offered according to the financial need of a student. Generally colleges at the "top of the pecking order" dispense aid solely in terms of need using "fairly predictable formulas", according to one source.[80]The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that elite colleges had made little progress in helping poor students get need-based aid, and that less than 15% of undergraduates at the nation's 50 wealthiest colleges received Pell Grants in 2008–2009, which are offered on the basis of need to promising yet less affluent students.[99] According to one source, about 30 elite universities have "coffers deep enough to meet all student need" and consequently only offer need-based aid.[84]
  • Merit-based aid is scholarships and grants awarded to top academic performers or others with special talents. One report suggested that academic scholarships tended to be few, and were usually awarded by the admissions office and are "highly competitive".[60] Another report suggested that most colleges use merit scholarships, based on high scores or grades or other accomplishments, to lure students away from a competing college.[100]

One view is that most colleges award aid using a mix of both.[80] Further, student loans can lessen the immediate difficulty of large tuition bills but can saddle a student with debt after graduation; in contrast, grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back.[101]

According to Lynn O'Shaughnessy, schools trying to climb the prestige ladder use merit-based scholarships to attract top students to boost their rankings in the US News guidebook.[50] She elaborated that as a school's "stock" rises, high-performing students start attending in greater numbers, and consequently the college can "ratchet back on the merit aid to wealthy students" and shift funds towards "need-based financial aid".[50] Elite schools such as the Ivies don't give merit scholarships, according to two reports.[50][100] Another tool is to use the College Board's expected family contribution calculator that can give families an idea of how much college will cost, but not for any particular college.[102] According to US News, 62 out of 1,137 colleges, which responded to a survey, claimed to meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of students.[103] "Demonstrated financial need" is the gap between the "expected family contribution" (based on tax information, family size and assets) and the cost of attendance (tuition and fees, dormitory, food expenses, and so forth.)[103]

Further information: Student financial aid in the United States

Applying for financial aid[edit]

There are many reports that many applicants fail to apply for financial aid when they are qualified for it; one estimate was that 1.8 million students in 2006 who would have qualified for aid did not apply for it.[105] Applying for financial aid is recommended by almost all college admissions advisers, even for middle- and upper-class families applying to private colleges.[10] Each college has its own criteria for determining financial need and loans.[70] One advisor counseled against letting the sticker price of a college dissuade a student from applying, since many of the top colleges have strong endowments allowing them to subsidize expenses, such that the colleges are less expensive than so-called "second tier" or state colleges.[10]

College advisers suggest that parents keep financial records, including tax forms, business records, to use when applying for financial aid, and complete the FAFSA online, using income and tax estimates (usually based on previous years), early in January of their college-bound student's twelfth grade.[96] Admissions officers can see the names of up to nine other colleges a student has applied to. According to several reports, some colleges may deny admission or reduce aid based on their interpretation of the order of colleges on the FAFSA;[107][108][109] accordingly, several sources recommend that colleges be listed alphabetically on the FAFSA to obscure any preferences.[110][111] The earliest that the FAFSA form can be filled out is January first of twelfth grade; in contrast, the CSS Profile can be filled out earlier during the preceding fall.[112] There are reports that many parents make mistakes when filling out the FAFSA information, and mistakes include failing to hit the "submit" button, visiting an incorrect FAFSA website, such as the deceptively-named fafsa.com,[113] leaving some fields blank instead of properly entering a zero, spelling names or entering social security numbers or estimating tax data incorrectly.[96] Since FAFSA formulas assume 20% of a student's assets can be used for college expenses as opposed to 6% of a parent's assets, advisors recommend moving funds from student to parent accounts before filing the FAFSA, including moving funds to a parent-controlled 529 plan tax-advantaged account.[114] Filing taxes early is recommended, but using estimates for FAFSA from previous years is possible provided the numbers are updated later after taxes are filed.[114] There are no fees for applying on the FAFSA site. According to one source, the best time to begin searching for scholarships is before the twelfth grade, to guarantee meeting deadlines.[96] Several reports confirm that it is important to file aid forms such as the CSS Profile early in the school year.[112]

High school advisors can help parents understand aspects of the college admissions process.
Elite and other universities send admissions officers to high schools and college fairs to encourage high school students to apply. While the chance of admission to highly selective colleges is typically under 10%, increased numbers of applications helps maintain and improve colleges' rankings.
The US News ranking has generated much controversy; this map shows locations of its assessment of the top 40 universities in the US in 2007, with many located in the Northeast.
rA Naviance scattergram for a hypothetical student, John Doe, applying to a particular hypothetical university. Grades and test scores can be compared with those of past applicants to that university from that high school. The method helps students see whether a school is a reach, possible, probable or solid school.
The FAFSA website is www.fafsa.ed.gov and is free. Other websites look like the official FAFSA website, but are deliberately misleading.

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