“Keep Your Eyes on the Road”

By Peter Van Buskirk

The “rush” associated with college application deadlines has almost passed. Except for students applying to colleges with February 1 deadlines or those with “rolling admission” processes, the “heavy lifting” is over. And with that realization comes a huge sigh of relief. All that is left now is the wait for final admission decisions. Sound familiar?

If so, you (and your parents) might be tempted to downshift from the frenetic pace that got you this far. Be careful, though, not take your “eyes off the road” to college. Otherwise, you might miss important opportunities to put yourself in the best position to gain admission and secure the financial assistance you need at the schools of your choice. You have traveled too far in this process to leave things to chance. For example:

1.  File the FAFSA—now! If you find college price tags to be even the least bit daunting, you need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Wherever you are looking, need-based financial aid starts with it. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for grants and loans from the federal government and from most states. Moreover, state universities and many private colleges also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for institutional funds. If you think you need assistance, you can’t afford not to file the FAFSA

2.  Don’t wait for the “admit” letter to apply for financial aid. This may seem redundant, but it bears repeating: if you think you need assistance, complete the financial aid application process now! That means completing the FAFSA and all other required forms. In particular, watch out for the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE, a highly complex form required by many private institutions.

It is not uncommon for families to put off financial aid applications because they are either uncomfortable with the process itself or they are don’t want to jeopardize the student’s status through the admission process. The assumption: “Let’s see where you get in and then we can apply for financial aid” or “This form is worse than the 1040 tax return. Let’s wait until our accountant can work on it.”

Frankly, “waiting” is a bad strategy. The reason—financial aid is awarded (or allocated) to students as soon as they are admitted. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand before beginning to address financial aid applications and you demonstrate that you need assistance, it is likely you will receive a message from the admitting institution that the financial aid “well” has gone dry. Despite the “need,” the money is gone. In such cases, any financial aid that might come your way “after the fact” will likely involve heavy doses of loans and campus work-study.

3.  Stick with your list.
It will be tempting to second-guess yourself with regard to the number and “quality” of schools to which you have applied—especially if you think “it can’t hurt to pick up a ‘true’ safety school” or “I’ll never know if I could get in if I don’t try.” While you are “in the moment,” these thoughts might seem very reasonable. The fact is you are likely to put yourself into competitive situations where your lack of history with the institution will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest. Such seemingly whimsical interest can lead to the conclusion that you are a “ghost applicant.” When that happens, even prospective “safety” schools will be inclined to put you on the Wait List.

The bottom line: Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by last minute flings. It is much better to remain focused on maintaining productive relationships with schools on your short list.

4.  Stay engaged with the colleges to which you have applied. This mantra is probably getting old, but don’t under-estimate the importance many institutions attach to having some degree of confidence in the sincerity of your interest. When the hair-splitting is finished in the credential review process, the following question is often raised about compelling candidates, “If we admit this student, what is the likelihood that he will enroll?”

So, what can you do? If you haven’t visited, make plans to do so now. Once on campus, make sure you check in at the admission office. Interview if you can. Some schools will offer alumni interviews. If so, make an appointment. It will be the fact, not the substance, of the interview that can make a difference.

Pay attention to your inbox—don’t ignore seemingly casual emails from representatives of the schools to which you have applied. There is a good chance they are “pinging” to see if you are paying attention—to see if you are interested. Don’t give them a reason to question the strength of your interest. In sincere and appropriate ways, stay on their radar screens. An institution’s lack of confidence in the sincerity of a student’s interest is the unseen reason behind countless decisions to move highly qualified students from the admit list to the Wait List.

5.  Stay focused. The work you do in the classroom in the coming weeks could well make the difference in your admission outcome. This might be the most straightforward—and common sense—bit of advice I can offer, but it is also the most easily overlooked. The rule of thumb when it comes to the senior year is this: “The more selective the college of interest, the more important the senior year performance will be as the number one factor.”

Think about it. It is precisely at that moment when you think the pressure is off—that no one is looking—that admission officers at selective institutions make their most difficult decisions. Even students who have been admitted Early Decision or Early Action will be expected to show that the performance that gained them admission is continued through graduation. Don’t give admission officers a reason to say “no” or to reconsider their offers of admission.





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