I am incredibly excited to share this blog with you. Linda Dennis is a college application expert and owner of iCollege Consulting. She has helped many parents and kids navigate through the college application process. During our interview, Linda shared all the kinds of great tips, including how many applications to fill out, what colleges look for, and what extracurriculars your child should be doing. I learned so much from Linda, and I hope you will too. You can listen to the interview by clicking the audio link or read the full transcript below.

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Laurie: Welcome everyone to My Ideal College. And our blog this week is something a little different. I actually am doing what is a recorded interview. I guess similar to a podcast. And I’m excited because this week we’re … Or in this blog we’re going talk about the college application process. And as my guest, I have an expert who I’ve known for quite a few months now. Her name is Linda Dennis. Hi Linda.

Linda: Hi. How are you?

Laurie: I’m doing good. I’m doing good. And Linda is actually based out of California, but helps students all over the country with the college application process, which I know as a parent can be very daunting and confusing to help guide your kids through. Linda, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about your business and how you work with students and parents.

Linda: Okay. Great. Well first of all Laurie, thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your podcast. A little bit about me, I’ve been doing this for nine years. I have a consulting certificate in education from the University of California Irvine. My background, I’m also a licensed marriage and family therapist and have done research for a variety of companies. And this is … All of those things put together spelled independent college consulting for me. And since that happened nine years ago, I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of helping many students and their families apply to colleges, which give them what they’re looking for in terms of affordability, academic majors, desirability, because it’s really important that the student like it there, and also applying to colleges where they can have a reasonable chance of getting in. So I help with all of that. We compile the college list.

Linda: The application file, we look at all the various factors and criteria that colleges use when they’re evaluating a student. And really try to showcase and emphasize those things where the student has a personal interest and passion. And ultimately, I help the student and follow up and make sure that the application file is complete, that all the components are received, that the college has 100 percent of the information, and ultimately, I help the parents of the student figure out what the financial aid award letters really mean, and picking the best place for the student and for the family in terms of affordability. That’s a little bit of an overview.

Laurie: Wow. It sounds like you basically handle the whole application process from front to end and even make sure that the student does what they’re supposed to do.

Linda: Absolutely. Absolutely. I take on the role of third parent. Or I like to say I take on the role of “nag” so that the parents don’t have to. So basically they can keep their relationship really solid and not have any additional stress and I’ll take the heat for staying on top of the process and the timelines.

Laurie: I like that. We nag our kids enough already. If we can have someone take on the nagging … Of course kids also, sometimes, will take it better from someone else than their own parents.

Linda: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Laurie: Well good. I actually reached out to my email and Facebook base to say, “Hey, I’ll be talking to an expert. What do you want to hear? What are your biggest questions?” And I have a lot of great questions here for you in regards to it. So let me ask you. I guess this is a good question to start. When should kids be applying for colleges?

Linda: Okay. In my mind, the actual process of starting to think about applying for college should start in ninth grade.

Laurie: Wow.

Linda: Because depending on … There are some students that I swear since the day they were born, the knew what they wanted to major in, they knew what career they want. Okay. And so for those kids, you’ve got to make sure that they’re taking the right classes that are going give them the best opportunities to pursue those types of careers or majors. So that’s really important. The actual application process, as much as we would like to start it earlier, you really can’t start it the summer before senior year. Because applications are not available. They’re constantly changing. Not just the apps, but the essays. So sometimes you can get a jumpstart. For example, common application. Sometimes they don’t change the prompts. But the individual schools can change what they ask for. So that’s really it. The process of starting to think about it, the process of looking at schools, all of that can start, in my mind, as early as ninth grade.

Laurie: And what are some of the basic things you see in college applications? Like what are they asking, what are colleges asking on their applications?

Linda: Well, most applications are pretty much, they’re similar. So they’re going be looking at academic record. They’re going be looking at the courses you’re taking senior year. They’re going be looking at your extracurriculars, which are pretty significant and probably not in the way that your audience might think. But they’re significant in the sense that they can tell the story of what your essays are going be about and also what major you’re going be applying to, if you know. So it’s a little bit different in that regard. Applications have personal information, just contact information, things of that nature. On occasion, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to any of your students, there’ll be something about were you ever convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony. Some schools don’t ask that anymore. But that’s an opportunity to explain. It’s an opportunity to overcome some problems for kids who’ve had problems in the past.

Linda: There’s going be sections for you just to write in your SAT, ACT scores, subject test scores, AP scores, things of that nature. So they’re all basically the same. And then the major differences would be the types of essay questions that are required or asked. And I might also add that many schools out there still don’t have an essay section. So I know a lot of parents and children get really nervous about that. But it may turn out that some of the schools that they apply to don’t even have that.

Laurie: Hm. Do you know why? That’s sort of interesting. Do you know why?

Linda: If it’s going be private schools, they’re always going have that. But if you’re looking at your larger public institutions, most times it’s really just because the vast number of applications that are received, they’re really going be focused in on GPA, standardized test scores, rigor of school curriculum, things of that nature.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: They just don’t have the bodies or the staff to actually read the essays.

Laurie: That was actually one of my later questions for you is how could they possibly read all those essays? I almost wonder if they scan it and look for certain words or something.

Linda: Well, actually a number of institutions, believe it or not, they hire readers during application season.

Laurie: Wow.

Linda: Yeah. These are people who otherwise are not affiliated with the university. And they do a training for them. And they read applications all day long.

Laurie: Wow.

Linda: There’s always inside things that you always wondered about. And then when you find out the answer, you’re not sure if you’re disappointed if you’re [crosstalk 00:08:29].

Laurie: Actually what I was thinking is that’s a job I’ve never heard of before. Essay application reader. There’s another job someone could aspire to if they wanted to.

Linda: Honestly, I wish that before I got into this, because obviously I’m not affiliated with any school or university, I would’ve loved to have had that job just to get an inside view into how things really happen.

Laurie: Hm. Absolutely. Absolutely. Now you said the essay questions can vary. Like what are some examples of essay questions you normally see on applications?

Linda: Okay. This is one that’s always out there. Why our school and not the others? The reason they ask that is because I really believe that they want to know that a student has taken the time to look over their website. And I get it that most kids cannot tour every school. Okay. But if you have toured the school, it gives you an opportunity in that moment to write about that. But what they’re really looking for is, did this student sit down and look at the department they’re interested in or look at all the majors that are available or look at anything from size, location, anything that that school has to offer, research opportunities, highlights of professors. They want to know, and you can do that in the essay, that you have taken the time to really look at the school. And it’s a hard question to answer. I have to tell you. It really is.

Linda: You’ll get that. You’ll get things like oriented also towards your career and aspirations, which is really why what you do is so, I’m my mind, important and critical. Half the kids still apply undecided. There’s no question about that. But if you have an orientation towards an academic major or maybe a career, then you really have the opportunity to talk about that and write to that and to really show them that you’re passionate about something.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: So they ask things like that. Sometimes they’ll ask short answer like what’s your favorite book and why? Questions like that. Some will ask for a reading list of books. Some will ask about questions such as did you have something that potentially blocked your academic achievement? How did you overcome it? What was the greatest obstacle of your life? What’s your greatest passion? How are you going contribute to the community? That’s a big issue by the way. I always have students find a way in the essays to talk about the importance of community in their lives and how whatever they did up until they were 18 years old, how they might transfer that to the campus community and help to strengthen that or make it more unique.

Laurie: So yeah. It’s about helping … So sort of showing a passion for the college and why you want to go there and such?

Linda: Exactly. And even if you don’t … I want to reemphasize that. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to physically go there and take a tour, the websites are great now. And the virtual tours, obviously not 100 percent as good, but they’re good enough to be able to write something that’s really significant and powerful in your essays. I think just for the essays for one second … I just want to say this. It is the bane of many students – – just angst. Because most kids don’t leave enough time to write them. And they write a first draft and they’re not sure about it. And they write a second draft. Then they become less sure. And they don’t know the process of who to ask and how to get help. And most importantly, they don’t leave enough time to do it. So with my students, I always set that deadline two weeks before the application is actually due because I really think you need to write it, you need to perfect it, and you need to walk away from it for a few days and then come back and reread it again.

Laurie: So you think a good solid two weeks just to get the essay done?

Linda: At least. More if possible. And if students are really, really astute, depending on where they’re applying, the types of answers they write can be used for more than one college. Okay? If they’re careful. But I have to tell you, you always hear the horror stories …honestly talk about highlighting key words. It’s never happened to one of my students. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud. But a student will submit the same essay to a couple of schools and forget to change the name of the college.

Laurie: Oh yeah.

Linda: Yeah. I mean, that would just be … And that’s not to say that honestly, they’re not going get in because of that. But it definitely … Not what you want to be doing.

Laurie: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. You know, and that’s actually one of the things when I work with students with the reports they get. There’s a Your Greatest Strengths report, which talks about what you bring to the table basically. So I think data from that could definitely help a child with their college essay because writing is not my greatest thing to do. And have to start with a blank piece of paper, which drives me nuts. If I had something to give me some guidance, that is very helpful.

Linda: Let me also share with you that what you do in enabling them to figure out their strengths, that’s something that I actually do with kids. Not in the same way. I just say before we start the essay process, I want you to write me a list of your greatest strengths because that is a really good place to jump off from to go into the essays.

Laurie: Absolutely. How many schools should a student apply to?

Linda: When I work with a student, I like to have them apply to 10 to 12 schools. Okay. And that is much more than the average. because the average is actually somewhere between three and six. And the reason I say that is because … And by the way, depending on the state that you’re in, for example, I’ll just use California for a second … But there are eight UCs for undergrads. And it’s one application for all schools.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: The only thing you’re doing is paying the fee for the application. So that’s … If you want to apply to all of those, that’s eight already. So in addition to that, I would say, “Okay, pick ten more.” Okay.

Laurie: Let me … Did you say UCs? I’m a little …

Linda: I’m sorry. University of California. Like UCLA, Berkeley.

Laurie: Got it.

Linda: Schools like that. So within each state, there’s usually a public state university system.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: And it’s often times just one application. And you just check the boxes for where you want that sent. And you just pay the fee. So you’ve knocked out eight schools you’re applying to. But it’s one application. But I always want, in addition to that, students, depending on what their goals are, to apply probably to ten more. And I say that because when you build that college list, I like kids to get into about 70 percent of their list.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: The worst case scenario are students who apply to schools that are highly selective and that’s all they apply to. Because you really run the risk … And I can’t emphasize this enough … Of not getting in anywhere, even if you are the stellar student. Because you cannot count on getting into a highly selective school. So you have to pick other great schools.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: Really great schools that are out there that are not quite so selective.

Laurie: How tough is the process? Is it getting tougher and tougher to get into colleges?

Linda: Yes. Yeah.

Laurie: Yeah?

Linda: Part of that is because … Honestly, and I understand this. But parents and students are focused on the schools that are most often highlighted as being quote unquote the best schools by US News and World Report. Or some other Forbes Magazine or you name it. And so what you get is, you get … There’s 2,800 four year colleges. And there’s only 262 that are considered the most selective or very selective. And yet, the bulk of everyone wants to apply to those 262 schools. And most of them are really small anyways. And so the chances of getting in when you’re talking about five percent selectivity, that means that five out of 100 students are offered admission. That’s what that means. So selectivity numbers.

Laurie: Wow.

Linda: So if you’re applying to school 50 percent, that means that one out of two kids are offered admission.

Laurie: Hm.

Linda: So there are wonderful schools that are not the most, most selective. And so it’s also turning people’s attention to that in the college application process.

Laurie: Right. I want to go, this sort of applies to the college application process and maybe in how you stand out. One question one of my mom’ asked is how many … What is the recommended number of extracurricular activities for a well-rounded application?

Linda: Okay. So this is my take on that. Okay? The phrase that everyone uses is depth versus breadth. It used to be that people thought they needed in school activities, out of school activities, volunteer activities, and work experience. Okay? And so people used to run around trying to get three hours here in outside things and six hours there and two hours there. But that is not good. Okay? So I like to see two or three things where the kid goes really deep. And what do I mean by that? I mean activity starting in ninth grade that is going run through senior year. Okay? And in that process, by 11th grade or 12th grade, you might see that student assuming a leadership role.

Linda: So for example, if you’re … If you join cross country in ninth grade and you stay with it through 12th grade, that’s very admirable. And maybe you become co-captain in 12th grade. Okay? That makes for a really good extracurricular activity. And that also leads to the ability to talk about leadership in your essays.

Linda: You can say the same thing about band. You can say the same thing about Model UN. I don’t really care what it is, as long as the student sticks with it all four years. Okay? I’d rather have a student stick with something two or three things all the way through than have a year of this and six weeks of that and I cleaned the beach for two weeks and that type of thing. So drips and drabs and a little bit of this and a little bit of that, that’s not really impressive to an admissions officer. But somebody who was passionate about something and stuck to it, that’s what they’re going be looking for.

Laurie: So it could just be one thing like band. They did it through …

Linda: Not one thing. Two or three things. So if you’re doing band … Okay. Let’s say band is your thing in high school. I would like to see them maybe get involved in a volunteer something outside for two or three years. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. Let’s say your commitment from ninth grade is that twice a week you’re going go help at the food bank. But you have done that consistently. And the other thing too is … And again, this leads back to you, Laurie, like identifying for our kids or helping kids to understand what they’re passionate or interested in. Because they can tie their passion to an extracurricular activity.

Laurie: Right.

Linda: That’s the sweet spot that someone like me is always looking for.

Laurie: Yeah. because you inspired, as you know, a blog post I wrote. because I was surprised myself to learn this is that your child can have actually maybe a competitive advantage by picking a major in the application process versus marking as undecided. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Linda: Yes. Especially in majors that are highly, highly sought after. And so let’s just choose engineering for a minute. Or really any other STEM subjects. Computer science too is a really hot major. If you … Some schools offer you the opportunity to apply to that major as an incoming freshman. Okay? So what that really means is that if you get in as an incoming freshman and you do the work and you do well enough in the curriculum that they set up for you as a freshman, then you don’t have to apply to that major at the end of sophomore year. And for many, many programs, they just don’t … They’re so popular and so competitive that there aren’t a lot of spaces necessarily available in certain majors at the end of sophomore year. So it is a true advantage if you know what you want to do, if you can get in as a freshman. It’s called direct admission.

Linda: And so did I … I’m sorry. Did I answer that question?

Laurie: You did. Go ahead.

Linda: Yeah. And I also want to say though … Because half of the student do apply as undecided. And that is completely fine. It’s just that when you’re writing your essays, I think you have to speak to the fact that you are such a well-rounded student and you have multiple interests in multiple different areas. That you’re really looking forward to going into college and being able to sort of explore these areas a little more in-depth before you make up your decision, but that you love learning. That’s a big thing. You love learning and you’re just not sure of your direct focus right now.

Laurie: Right. Now let me ask you. What if someone hearing this says, “Alright, well, I’ll just tell my child to pick a major and they can just change once they get in there.” Do you suggest they do that at least or no?

Linda: Well, okay, here’s the thing. If you … Okay. If your resume … I’ll give you a classic example. This one is easy to understand. So sometimes parents and kids want to game the system a little bit and they think that, “Okay, I’m going pick Spanish as my major because I think it’ll be easier to get into.” But they only took two years of Spanish in high school. So their resume or their transcript betrays what they’re saying is their passionate interest. Okay? So you have to be really careful when picking a major that your transcript and the way you write your essays supports each other. Does that make sense?

Laurie: It does.

Linda: Yeah. So for the student, look, most kids, they have … In the ideal world, if you’re capable, I like to see students do … Obviously they’re going do four years of English. But I like to see four years of math and four years of science. Okay? Unless that’s really not their thing. Okay? And maybe they’re going be a history major or something else. But the stronger the academic curriculum, the better it is for you when you’re applying to school.

Laurie: How important [inaudible 00:25:35] how important are honors classes versus AP classes? I want to say I heard from a guidance counselor once that it’s better to have a low grade in an honors class versus a high grade in a non honors class. What are your thoughts around that?

Linda: I don’t actually agree with that. Here’s the situation also. Every high school in the United States offers different advantages and disadvantages to their students. So some high schools offer an enormous amount of AP classes and honors classes. And others offer very few. Okay? So when an admissions person … That’s why they ask for … The school counselor is going basically send along with the application a list of classes that that particular high school offered. So in the ideal world, if you take an AP class and you get an A in it, that’s the gold standard. If you get a B in it, I’d still rather have you get a B in an AP class than an A in a regular class because what it shows is your drive and your determination to go after that higher level class. However, that’s where it ends with a B. If you are a student who wants to take AP and they’re going let you at your school, but you’re going get C’s, that’s no good.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: That’s no good. And so that’s kind of how I view it. If you can get an A or a B in an AP, then I say take it. If you’re really going struggle and you’re going get C’s or less, it’s not worth it. And really you should maybe take honors if the have it in the same subject or take the regular class and get an A.

Laurie: Got it. Good to know. Good to know for my own kids too. You know, I’m sitting here looking through different questions. And when we were talking about the different schools you should apply to, you know, you said ten. Does that mean they should tour all ten schools or what do you think in regards to that?

Linda: What I think is that … Which kind of leads into this issue of level of applicant interest, which some schools consider in the application process.

Laurie: What is that?

Linda: Level of applicant interest or demonstrated interest means to the university, how serious are you really about coming to this school. Okay? So for example, schools like Harvard and Stanford, they don’t consider that at all because they think if they offer you admission, you’re automatically going take it. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: But if it’s a smaller private school, maybe in a rural area with a really small number of students, they may consider level of applicant interest very important. And what that means is they want that student to call them up and say, “I’m interested in your school. Please send me information.” Maybe the student can join the university Facebook group. Maybe tour the university if possible or seek out a representative that might come to your area from that university and so you can have an interview or something like that. I guess what it is, is touring … No school expects you to travel across the country to tour that school. They don’t expect that. However, if you’re applying to a school which is an hour from your house and they consider level of applicant interest important and you don’t bother to drive that hour and take that tour, that’s … You’re not going be automatically excluded or they’re going say denied. But what they can say is, “Oh, this student was interested enough. So let’s give them an extra look.”

Laurie: And how do you know which schools do look at levels of applicant … Like you said, I guess with the smaller schools? Or how can I know as a parent?

Linda: As a parent? Okay. So there’s two ways to know. On College Board itself, there’s a section on there for the university when you’re applying and it says, “What’s important.” And it lists out what’s important. So it lists out things that are very important, important, considered or not considered. Often times there’s also a note on there from the school itself. So you can look there. That’s one way. The other way is there is something … Not all schools fill this out. But a lot of them do and I would look at it. So in the URL, you just put the name of the university and then you write common data set. So it would be Emory, common data set. Okay? Or Georgia Tech, common data set.

Linda: So what that is, is sort of a survey form that all these colleges agree to fill out. And that’s actually where US News and World Report and all these other places take their information from. And also in that list of things that they report, you will see a section that talks about what they consider very important, important, considered or not. And level of applicant interest will be in there.

Laurie: Okay. Cool. So the two ways. One is College Board. And for those that may not know, is College Board a website?

Linda: Collegeboard.org. Yes. That is … I’m sure that … That’s the one website that all students know. That’s the one. That’s the go to one. And … But there are other ways too. Probably on the college website itself you can find out what’s important. And here’s the thing. If you ever have a question about a university, you just pick up the phone and you call the admissions office and the person that answers the phone, nine times out of ten is going be able to answer your question. They are not an admissions officer. They’re likely to be a student who’s doing work study and working in the admissions office.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: But it never hurts to call up and ask that question. And … Excuse me. One other thing.

Laurie: Yeah.

Linda: Students should always make the call to the college. Okay? Not parents. And only time I ever say parents can call as many times as they want is when they’re calling the financial aid office and they’re trying to figure out money.

Laurie: I know the answer is obvious, but why is it so important that the student do it?

Linda: It shows interest, it shows maturity, it shows drive. And more importantly, admissions officers are really hit up all the time by parents who are really overpowering and aggressive. And that does not help their child’s case.

Laurie: Got it. I even heard someone mention that students should … If the college admissions has a Twitter account or something, to follow it and comment and all that.

Linda: My philosophy is after a student has applied to the school and they know they’re going apply there, I don’t mind them finding out or figuring out who the admissions officer is for their case and that they can actually call, maybe once or twice with a legitimate question. But there’s a really fine line between being appropriately proactive and bugging these people. So you don’t ever want to cross over that line where you’re bugging the people.

Laurie: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. What are some of the biggest mistakes you see students make in their application? One we said is that they copy and paste and forget to change the college name. What are some other mistakes you see kids make?

Linda: Well, actually for whatever reason, kids before they sit down to fill out the application, they actually kind of need to look at it, or they should look at it first. And then they should ask their parents for all of the contact information that the parents actually want to provide or give. So that’s an important thing. because sometimes wrong phone numbers, wrong email addresses, wrong social security numbers, all of those things can trip up the application in the system.

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Linda: So that’s a significant thing. The other area is on the application itself. So all essays will have either a character limit or they’re going have a word limit. And students often times … They’re changing things at the last minute or they’re close to that maximum number of words. And they make one final change and it cuts off a word or two and then it goes into the application and they don’t notice it.

Laurie: Hm.

Linda: because they don’t … Everybody to the extent that the applications allow you when you finish it, you should print it out and really look at it. And look at it several times and maybe have your parents look at it too just to make sure that you don’t make those kind of mistakes. I think other mistakes kids make is that they … In terms of extracurriculars, often times it asks for what is the activity, what was your leadership role, give me a one sentence description of it, and how many years did you do it and all that type of thing. They don’t spend enough time crafting that one sentence of what they did. Because to the extent that you can make it stronger by saying instead of I fund raised for such and such, they should say, “I raised X thousands of dollars, hundreds of dollars” whatever it was. They should quantify whenever they can. Okay? They should make it as specific as they can. They should not be afraid to showcase their talent or what they did. But I don’t think that students … Because it’s short, they just blow through it and they don’t really take the time to really value every word that they have that they can put into it.

Laurie: And again, what you said. It’s important to take the time. Don’t wait ’til the last minute to do the essay.

Linda: Never wait ’til the last minute. And you know one other thing too I should share with you, Laurie, because I have this discussion with parents all the time. Whatever way your child has approached his academics to date … If they are the last minute person, if they are the stay up all night and finish it person, or the person that’s done two weeks ahead of time … Parents realistically cannot expect their child to change the way they do their work in the application process. I have never seen it happen. And parents, that is one huge area of frustration for parents. But the truth is, for 17 years, that’s the way their kid’s been doing things.

Laurie: Yeah.

Linda: And they’re not going change.

Laurie: Yeah. I’m glad you told me as a parent. I am listening. And hence why I’ll probably have you helping me because I don’t want to nag. I nag about enough stuff. I don’t need anything more to nag about.

Linda: Exactly.

Laurie: What … And actually, that brings up a good follow up question. As parents, how can we best support or children through the college application process?

Linda: Okay. To me, the best way to support the student is to have open and really honest conversations. And one of the biggest ones, which parents really don’t want to do, and they don’t want to talk about it, is what the family can afford. Okay? And quite frankly, that’s usually where I always start because you don’t want your child applying to colleges where maybe they can get in, but you can’t afford to send them there. And that is a huge area of concern that parents have. But honestly, if you have the conversation up front, the other thing too is that kids don’t understand anything about college debt. So they say, “Okay, yeah. I’m going be 20,000 dollars in debt.” They have no idea what that means. They have no idea how it impacts their ability to buy a car, buy a house, whatever, even afford rent. And so kind of having those conversations upfront and then helping that guide the types of schools that these kids apply to, is really something that parents should consider. The other thing I just want to share with you really quickly because I know there are a lot of parents who are divorced.

Linda: And in general, in terms of financial aid, there’s too many forms. One is the FAFSA, that’s the federal government money. So it is the parent that completes that, you only need one parent to complete that in divorced situations. And that’s the parent with whom either the child lives with the majority of the time, or the parent who supplies the most financial aid for the child. But beyond that, there’s another form, which is usually given for private schools, and it’s called the CSS Profile.

Linda: And the bottom line with that form, is even in divorce scenarios they often ask for the financial background of the non-custodial parent. And that creates a tremendous amount of drama in the family. Okay.

Laurie: How so?

Linda: And so the earlier, the earlier, earlier parents start thinking about that, and maybe they’re going to have to contact their ex. They need to start thinking about that early. And they should start thinking about that in eleventh grade frankly.

Laurie: Got it. Wow, I never would have thought. That’s interesting. I never would have thought of that kind of stuff. Now with the college application process, you have to turn in tax for … Turn out … Turn in copies of taxes, and stuff too, right? Let’s talk a little bit about that aspect of the college application process.

Linda: When President Obama was President, they made a change. And so this is the biggest change. So, it’s tax information that’s two years old. So what that means is that if your student is applying for fall 2019, then they’re going be looking at your 2017 tax records.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: That’s kind of an important thing. The FAFSA, which is the federal form, that one is pretty straight forward. And you have your tax return next to you, and you just fill out the form. Okay? It’s not that intrusive, and they don’t look at home equity. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: For your other smaller private schools that use both the FAFSA, and the CSS Profile, the biggest difference is, in addition to potentially asking for information about the non-custodial parent, and the divorce situation is they look at home equity. Okay? You might get offered a lot of money from one school, and little if any money from another school just based on that one factor. The CSS Profile is much, much more intrusive in terms of what they ask.

Linda: And again you know you have these families where maybe they have multiple kids, and they’re trying to balance, well how am I going afford multiple kids in college?

Laurie: Right.

Linda: It’s a big issue. And again the sooner that parents start thinking about it, and maybe having these conversations even though they’re really uncomfortable with their kids, maybe they need to start thinking about that.

Laurie: Yeah. And why for those that may not know, why are you having to turn in your tax records for the college application process? How is that affecting whether or not your child gets into that college?

Linda: Well, tax information is really related to whether or not you’re going get grants and loans from the federal government. And then tax records are also sort of tied to … Smaller private institutions have lots of institutional money, and they decide on the basis of who has need … In their opinion who has need, and who doesn’t.

Laurie: Another question from one of my fellow moms here is what’s the best way to get the most money to pay for college?

Linda: And my answer to that is it absolutely depends on the academic record and resume of the student. Okay? There are some colleges, not that many, but there are some colleges out there who will only give money to things that they determine have financial need. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: And there are other lists of colleges that are known for giving merit money. Merit money is given without regard to need. Okay? Some kids that have needs still get merit money, and some kids without need get merit money. And sometimes colleges use merit money to attract students to their institution. And so I mean for many, many schools, especially the smaller private liberal arts schools, if you look at the sticker price, and you go into shock, that’s not what you’re likely to pay. Okay?

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: They do major discounting. I never really understood why if they’re going discount, why they just don’t say that, that’s the cost, you know?

Laurie: Just like buying a car.

Linda: Exactly. Exactly. And so parents who see that a school is $72,000 a year need to look deeper, and there is something called net price calculators, and they’re on every website, and they need to go in, and they need to fill out the information, and see how much money that school based on the criteria that was entered, how much they might give that student in terms of scholarships or grants.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: So that they can get it down to a net price.

Laurie: All right. As an interested parent, is there NetPriceCalculator.com? How do I get to the Net Price Calculator?

Linda: I would take the name of the university, any university, and put it in the URL, and then put Net Price Calculator. Or you could any college website, and type in their search bar Net Price Calculator.

Laurie: Ah. Wow. I feel like that’s a goldmine for parents right there.

Linda: It is. Let me just say this, some Net Price Calculators, they’re not all created equal.

Laurie: Yeah.

Linda: And so basically how that came about is that the federal government said, “Hey, if we’re going give you money, then you’re going put this out there so that parents can have a better idea of how much the cost of college will be for one year.” Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: Some of them do a much better job than others. This is my rule of thumb, the longer the questionnaire, the more likely it will be an accurate estimate. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: If they only say how old is your kid, and when do they want to go to college, and then they give you a number. Okay? That’s not nearly as potentially accurate as the one that asks you significant questions.

Laurie: Got it. Got it. I had one parent say, “What should I as a parent, and my high school senior be focusing on?”

Linda: Right …

Laurie: What?

Linda: Right now as a high school senior?

Laurie: Yes. They just started senior year of high school. What should they be focusing on right now?

Linda: Okay. I would say that if they’re done with their SAT or ACT, and they’re happy with those scores, that’s one thing. If they’re not happy with their scores, or their scores don’t give them a very good shot at the schools that they’re looking at, they still have time to continue to study, and take additional SAT or ACT. Okay?

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: If they are happy with their scores, and they haven’t taken SAT Subject Tests, I might want to consider that because that’s one way to showcase your talent or skills. It’s actually hard to say, but a 700 or above on an SAT Subject Test indicates that you have a really good grasp of that subject. Okay? And so if you’re lucky enough to score 770 and above, and it’s in a subject that you say you want to major in, that is one way to highlight that you’re a unique student for that major. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: Let’s assume that they’re done with their SAT or ACT. Then what I would be doing right now depending on the schools that they want to apply to, they should be really narrowing down that list. Okay? And then those schools, if any of those schools are current application schools, they can be doing that. The main personal statement. They should be filling out that application, and really taking their time to fill it out, and / or any other applications that are up and running. Okay? There are still … Excuse me, one second.

Linda: Excuse me. There are still some colleges that don’t have their applications up and running, but the ones that do, and are available, they should be working out that. They should be working on any essays that they could be possibly working on. If they have not, and I always suggest at the end of eleventh grade they ask for their letters of recommendation. If they didn’t do that, they really need to get on that because there are some teachers who will cut it off, and say I’m not going write more than 10, or whatever.

Laurie: Oh.

Linda: And they want to make sure again, I always advise … Not every school wants letters of recommendation by the way. Okay?

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: The college counselor at the school, they’re going write one. Okay, that’s a given. But some schools still want one from the arts and sciences, and one in the … Well, actually let me think this through. Okay. By the arts I really mean like history, English, psychology, language, and then they want math and science. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: Lately, what I’ve been seeing honestly is that most want one teacher recommendation. Excuse me. But some of your more selective schools, they’re going want at least two teacher recommendations.

Laurie: Hm.

Linda: And if you’re going major in math in college, you want the letter of recommendation from the math teacher.

Laurie: Yes.

Linda: And in the ideal world, eleventh grade teachers.

Laurie: Oh.

Linda: And the older the letter of recommendation, or the older, the more distance between where the student is today, and they took something, you don’t want a letter of recommendation from a ninth grade teacher.

Laurie: Oh, yeah. That does make sense.

Linda: because you were not the same student.

Laurie: Yes. Exactly, exactly. The students do change quite a bit in their high school years.

Linda: They do. But those are the main things. I mean, right now … I can tell you the students I’m working with right now, they’re still trying to get that target score for the SAT or ACT. One other thing, you cannot take SAT Subject Tests on the same day that you take the SAT. That messes people up sometimes. Please be aware of that.

Laurie: Okay, so say that again. That’s probably really important. Can you say that again?

Linda: Yes, you cannot take SAT Subject Tests on the same day that you take the SAT.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: And if you are applying early to any college, it’s likely that the October SAT will be the last one that they accept. But you need to check with each school that you’re applying to regarding the last test date that they will take.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: And by the way there is no September SAT.

Laurie: Okay. Good to know. because when are applications usually due by?

Linda: Early applications are due sometime in the month of November, often November 1st. Okay? But regular decision applications, I would say in general … This is the general rule, you always have to check that. Like, January 1st.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: Okay? Now one other thing too.

Laurie: Sure.

Linda: Early decision, I never ever advise anyone apply early decision unless they are 1,000% sure they want to go to that school, and that they can afford it.

Laurie: How come?

Linda: Because it’s binding. Okay? And what that means is, if for whatever reason you get in, but they don’t give you enough money. Okay? That is probably the only reason that you can walk away from the school, but it is very, very difficult to do that. And other schools to which you applied will know that you did that, and I’m not in a position to say whether it affects what they say about you or not, or whether they accept you or not-

Laurie: Right.

Linda: But we don’t know. We just know that they don’t like it. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: And that kind of a code of out there with admission officers. But the other thing too is that if you apply early decision, or early restricted action, or any of those things, you really need to check to see if it’s okay if you apply early somewhere else.

Laurie: Okay.

Linda: Because often times early restricted action, for example, okay, so if Stanford has that, so that means with early restricted action that’s not binding, but they say you cannot apply early anywhere else, and they have one caveat about scholarships. Okay?

Laurie: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Linda: But short of that, it really sort of limits what you can do. But beyond that … And the positive side, why should you apply early decision? Because they tend to take more students in the early decision round than in the regular decision round. The other factor is the best of the best students apply early decision.

Laurie: Got it.

Linda: If you’re not cream of the crop, you might want to consider applying regular decision to that school. Or even early action because that’s not binding.

Laurie: Great. Well, as we wrap up here, are there any other last tips for either parents or students that you have for them in regards to the college application process?

Linda: I would say if you are currently the parent of a senior, stay calm, stay focused, try to help make sure that your students quite frankly are eating, and sleeping, and exercising, and getting some relaxation. And try to put them on a calendar, on a schedule, and help them with their calendaring if you can. Help them … If you haven’t had the conversation about money, try to … Maybe you want to work with that. Just have that conversation. Give them lots of … How should I say this? Give them lots of love and support with minimal nagging, but don’t exclude the nagging all together. Okay? because you may need to nag. That’s what I would say to them.

Linda: For parents of juniors and sophomores, you’re really in a great position right now. I would say work with Laurie. Figure out what your students interests are, what their passions are. Start writing your extracurriculars and resumes today. Okay, start focusing on your strengths. Start making sure that you’re taking the right classes. Take an aggressive curriculum, but one that you know that you can do well in. And you really have the opportunity, start looking at schools. You know what, you can even look at schools just for size. Even if they have no interest whatsoever, but if there is a large university 20 miles away, go look at it. See what it’s like to walk around on a large campus versus a small one. Those are the kinds of things.

Linda: Have your kids start looking at websites.

Laurie: That’s great. I even like the idea of just walking around a school that’s bigger and just getting a feel. That’s awesome.

Linda: Exactly. And maybe if you’re planning any family trips for whatever reason, and you can squeeze in a two hour tour of another college that’s nearby, do it. I think starting the kids transitioning in their process between being so focused on high school, and starting to focus a little further down the road, that’s a really good thing you can do for your kids.

Laurie: Great. Well, I’m sure parents listening might want to reach out to you. What is the best way? What is the best contact information for them to reach out to you?

Linda: Well, I appreciate that. I have a website, which is www.ICollegeConsulting.com. And you can always call me, and I’ll give you my phone number because one of the things that I do is, I always give a complimentary session to parents and students, because I like to know a little bit about someone, and they like to know about me. And so that number is 818-419-4966.

Laurie: Well, that’s great. Well, Linda this has truly been a pleasure, and you’ve just been a wealth of information. And I won’t be surprised if we do this again. I bet there is so many follow-up questions that we need to do another recording session, but this has really been great talking with you, and I appreciate your time.

Linda: Thank you, Laurie. And I would love to do future webcasts.

Laurie: Awesome. And again if you need to help your child even figure out what they want to do, what they want to major in, reach out to us at MyIdealCollege.org. That’s MyIdealCollege.org. Thank you, and have a great day.

Linda: Thank you.