BCF Readers’ Forum XV

Dear Peter,
My mom is completely set on me needing to figure out what my major (and future career) will be RIGHT NOW. She doesn’t think it’s responsible or sensible to go to college without having one picked out. I’m so scared of this, I’m only sixteen and can’t decide what I want to do forever. I have some ideas, but which route I will go is still unclear. I’m looking at colleges that offer the classes I would need to start going in either direction, so why would I need to settle on one right now? If you have any advice on this situation, it would be much appreciated.

Dear Lisa,
Your college years are all about self-discovery—learning how to learn, becoming a critical thinker, finding those things about which you are most passionate. That’s why most college students change their minds about their majors at least once—half of them twice—as they become exposed to new ideas. Moreover, surveys of people who graduated from college 25 years ago show that approximately 90% are now in careers that didn’t exist when they graduated from college. There is something to be said, then, for choosing an education that will prepare you for, not just your first job, but your second, third and fourth as the world continues to change around you.

Rather than resisting your parents, let them know that you are keeping your eyes and ears open to career possibilities. Share with them the information you are finding so they can experience your discovery process with you.

Your plan to look at colleges that might have academic areas that could be interesting to you, but that won’t force you to declare a major immediately or won’t penalize you for changing your major once you are enrolled makes sense. They will enable you to try out some of your ideas before having to commit to any of them. You’ll find this to be true of liberal arts colleges and many general studies programs at universities.

Finally, try not to let the stress you are feeling overwhelm you. Just remember that, once enrolled, you will have the opportunity to refine your thinking as you take different classes. Think of it as the “smile and nod” approach to your parents. It is far less contentious and will give you the space you need to make decisions for yourself.

Dear Peter,
My daughter wants to try applying Early Decision to an Ivy League school. Our financial situation will put her in desperate need of “need-based” financial aid. If she does apply ED to the school and we find out she is not offered enough Financial Aid to make attendance possible, can we decline the offer and be released from the commitment?

Dear Marla,
Your daughter should not apply ED anywhere until you have fully resolved any contingent factors, including those related to cost and affordability. While it is possible to abandon an ED commitment due to unresolved financial aid considerations, that process is complicated and can have severe implications for your daughter’s applications to other schools as well as future applicants from her high school to the college in question.

In order to resolve questions about financial aid, I strongly recommend that you ask the school for an “early estimate” of your expected family contribution. If you provide your 2016 IRS tax return, the college can do a need analysis on the spot and give you a sense of your EFC. When they give you a number (your EFC), be sure to follow up with the question, “Since this amount won’t cover the total cost of attendance at your college, what might we expect in a financial aid award?” They can tell you this as well.

While colleges might not volunteer early estimates (not the same as information provided by their web-based Net Price Calculators), they are obligated to provide them upon request. I suggest presenting your financials in person, if possible. IF you are not completely comfortable with the conversation and your likely out-of-pocket exposure, your daughter should NOT apply ED—the financial aid response will not get better later.

Dear Peter,
My Sophomore is currently choosing classes for next year. He’s an advanced student taking his first AP class (US History) this year and doing pretty well in that. His school is just starting their International Baccalaureate program next year. While they are touting the IB Diploma route, it’s can be pretty restrictive with regard to the classes he’d be able to take.

The question is whether the IB Diploma is valuable enough, from a college admissions point of view, to outweigh the restrictions? The alternative is for him to just take a mixture of AP & IB classes, which would be rigorous in their own right.

Dear Erik,
I am a real fan of the IB as it is one of the premier academic programs in the world. Not only will your son learn about “things,” he’ll learn how to think critically about things in the process. If there is any way he can see his way through the perceived restrictiveness of the IB curriculum, he should find that he is well-served by it as a college applicant and, subsequently, as a college student. That said, he needs to choose the curricular direction with which he feels most comfortable. That could be an orientation to either the IB or AP—or a combination of both.

Dear Peter,
I received a decent scholarship offer from a university’s Honors Program, but would like to try to appeal my scholarship. Whereas other schools have a specific slot on the Portal to do so, this university does not have any specific structure. I have researched a little and found some students had success in appealing their scholarships, but I cannot find the process to do so. Should my letter go to admissions directly or to the financial officer listed on my portal? I am visiting the university in a couple weeks, would it be best to bring it in then?

Dear Evan,
You should appeal a performance-based scholarship award at the admission office and I suggest you communicate the appeal directly to the staff person who recruits in your area. Appeals of need-based financial aid awards should go directly to the financial aid office. Regardless, I would start the appeal now (phone, email) and indicate that you look forward to following up, if necessary, during your upcoming visit.

Dear Peter,
In the Common Application, there is a section for listing up to five academic awards. Does a visual art award belong to the academic award category? For example, is an individual national visual art award more impressive than a state robotics team competition award? By the way, my child does not plan to pursue a visual art major in college.

Dear Sharon,
Both awards are very impressive and worthy of being listed among the five academic awards on the Common Application. That said, the state robotics team competition will probably fit more logically with your student’s extracurricular activities as it is an extension of involvement there. The visual art award should be listed with the academic awards.

Dear Peter,
How can we keep personal data private? Between College Board, Naviance, ACT, FAFSA, Common App, and all the tech companies that colleges and universities use, these companies have more info than Homeland Security and can create personal profiles using personality tests etc. How can a student be guaranteed cyber privacy?

Dear Ken,
Colleges are indeed working diligently to profile potential candidates and it is hard for students to keep personal data private when they are eager to make good impressions on colleges and avail themselves of informational opportunities. Keep in mind, though, that personal information cannot go anywhere via the College Board, ACT, Naviance, FAFSA, or the Common App without the student’s authorization.

Information sent to colleges is confidential and should be secure. Most “breaches” of cyber privacy occur when students forget to decline the option to have their information shared when registering for tests, scholarships or summer enrichment programs or, more likely, when they register to participate on college/admission related websites or forums.

Dear Peter,
We just received a financial aid award package from a college that lists a deadline to accept the financial aid by the end of March. Our daughter is not very interested in attending that school, but wants to keep the option open. I thought we could wait until May to formally accept their offer of admission. If we accept the financial aid award, does that obligate her to enroll?

Dear Jordan,
Your daughter should not be expected to make an enrollment commitment until the Candidate’s Reply Date which is May 1. Schools that require a commitment to financial aid, scholarships or preferred housing prior to May 1 are operating outside of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice as articulated by the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

My guess is that the acceptance of the financial aid award involves an enrollment deposit indicative of your daughter’s plans to enroll. If the school seems to be insisting on a non-refundable enrollment deposit, you might ask for an extension until May 1. If is not granted, and your daughter is not inclined to make an enrollment commitment, then she will have no choice but to pass on this particular financial aid offer.

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