Financial Aid

Juniors: Questions to Ask when Visiting Campus

In the official group information sessions colleges offer, an admission officer will usually provide an overview of the college -- the school’s history, academic programs, undergraduate life, athletics, the application process, and financial aid-- followed by a question and answer session for students and parents. (Quick tip: let students lead with their questions first!)

During this Q&A, the admission officer will be able to provide you with answers about most aspects of daily life on campus— academics, housing, any special programs such as study- abroad opportunities. But don’t be afraid to have them address broader queries about the who, what, and why of the campus -- and the application process. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

• What impresses you the most in a student’s application?

• What are you looking for when you read students’ essays?

• What are some of the things you hate to see in an application?

• Is demonstrated interest a factor in your admission decision?

• Are admission decisions need- blind?

• What kind of student does well here? What kind of student doesn’t do well here?

• Did you attend this college? What has changed since you’ve been here?

• What changes do you see taking place on campus in the next five years?

Carolynn Laurenza, Uncommon Charter School

Carolynn Laurenza grew up in a farm town in the middle of western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, also known as the "Five Colleges" corridor because it's home to Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This might have presaged her choice of profession in life.

Today, Laurenza is the College Placement Coordinator for Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Swarthmore College, she earned a Masters in Education from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Laurenza spent three years as a guidance counselor at a regional public high school in the "Five Colleges" area before joining Uncommon Charter in the summer of 2011.

"It's a different reality," says Laurenza, who was named a "Counselor that Changes Lives" earlier this year. "As a public high school guidance counselor, you're juggling many types of social/emotional issues, the administrative needs of the school, trying to help kids in all grades and doing college counseling. At Uncommon, I get to focus on college counseling."  

Seniors: Treat your financial aid officer well...

Right now and in the coming months, you and your family will have a lot of questions about financial aid. It's important to understand how financial aid offices work so that you can foster the best relationship with their representatives.

Financial aid offices are not set up like admission offices. They are often less well staffed, and they have the college’s existing student body to care for, as well as applicants and their families. So financial aid officers walk many tightropes simultaneously. They are charged with meeting the demonstrated need of each family in a way that is consistent with their college's guidelines. Typically they have an institutional aid budget they must stay within, and the pressures related to this can be significant. They must also disburse federal and state funds in accordance with law so must keep up with an ever- changing array of rules and regulations. What's more, they are audited annually, and the stakes are high— if they have not done their jobs well and kept excellent records, their college can lose a great deal of money that will then not be available for students who need aid.

What does this mean for you? You cannot ask a financial aid officer to hold your hand. You need to do as much as you can to master the process, and call him or her with specific and informed questions. That is how you will obtain the best guidance.

Deadlines: Parents, it's your turn!

Hello, second semester, senior year. After the last few months discussing college applications, the focus now shifts to financial aid applications.

Parents often ask whether these applications are worth the time and trouble. My short answer:  Yes. These applications offer the possibility of funding a college education -- grants, loans, and scholarships. (A number of colleges use the FAFSA and CSS College Profile along with the student’s file to determine merit awards or scholarships.)

As Michelle Obama recently said to northern Virginia high school students and their parents, “Don’t leave money on the table.”

The applications

FAFSA—Every college, from a local community college to a very selective private college, requires the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for any federal aid, whether grants, subsidized loans, or work-study funds. The application is free; the 2014-15 school year version became available January 1, 2014.

Maureen McRae Goldberg of Occidental College Answers 8 Questions

February is Financial Aid Awareness month. As students and families research financial aid, fill out the FAFSA, and assess their options this month, we asked Occidental College's Director of Financial Aid Maureen McRae Goldberg "5 Questions." And she graciously answered eight for us.

Occidental College is a private liberal arts school located in the oak and eucalyptus covered hills of Los Angeles' Eagle Rock neighborhood. Designed by Rose Bowl architect Myron Hunt, the campus' stucco and red tile roofed Spanish Colonial architecture covers 120 acres. No surprise then that Occidental has been the setting for more than 80 movies and television shows -- from the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers to Star Trek III, as well as Glee, Parenthood and Arrested Development. It has also been a feature film stand-in for the real-life college campuses of Stanford and Princeton.

Fred Hargadon on College Admission and the Dodecahedron

Last week Fred Hargadon passed away. Hargadon worked in admissions at Swarthmore, Stanford and Princeton. In any room where college admissions people meet, there will be Fred Hargadon anecdotes. (We have several in our book!) He was a great communicator, with a dead aim for the college application process, conveyed with compassion and a wry sense of humor.  His acceptance letters from Princeton famously began with the single word "YES!," a phrase now carved in stone in front of Princeton's Hargadon Hall, the dormitory named in his honor.

Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, recently shared a letter Hargadon wrote to prospective students and we'd like to share it with you. You have to love a letter that citesThe Phantom Tollbooth, Harry Potter's sorting hat, SAT scores and becoming bilingual. 

Here's one of our favorite pieces of advice:

January Financial Aid Checklist

College advisor Alice Kleeman is back with advice for seniors on what you should be doing to pay for college. Remember it is you, the student, who applies for aid. But families need to work together to obtain the best result. Here are this month's financial aid reminders:

*             Check with your high school counselor about financial aid evening workshops scheduled at your school or in the community and attend with your parents!  

*             Complete the FAFSA, reading all instructions CAREFULLY! You do NOT have to wait until you and your parents have filed your income tax returns; you may use estimates on the FAFSA and then update the information once you have filed your income tax forms. It is better to file on time with estimates than to file late!

*             Submit your FAFSA electronically as soon as possible! Once submitted, the colleges you have listed and coded will receive your information electronically.

*             Each state also has its own FAFSA deadline, which in many cases is different from the federal submission deadline each year.  Make sure to submit your FAFSA by your state's deadline or as soon as possible after the first of the year to get the most financial aid possible. Deadline information can be found here

Seniors: Apply, apply, apply… for financial aid!

The single biggest mistake families make in the college application process is failing to apply for financial aid. So, apply! Even if you think you won't qualify, apply. You may be pleasantly surprised. And sometimes you need to apply for federal aid to receive state aid or merit scholarships.

How do you apply? The FAFSA is required for any student seeking federal and state financial aid, including grants and loans at all colleges in the country.   It can seem complicated, but there is help available -- and it's free.  One of the best resources is College Goal Sunday, an information program that brings together financial aid professionals from colleges and universities along with other volunteers to assist college-bound students and their families complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  Calendars for their national programs, as well as state-by-state events can be found at their website here.

Juniors: Let Them Show You the Money

Juniors, part of researching colleges is understanding the cost of a college education. It's not too soon to start investigating what your family may be asked to pay for college. To do that, start with the net price calculators (also called financial aid calculators) that every college and university are required to have on their website. (Calculators can also be found through the College Board at and on the Federal Student Aid website at

This online tool will give you a preliminary understanding of the amount you may be expected to pay out of pocket, as well as aid you may be eligible to receive from the federal government and the colleges themselves. Over the coming weeks, sit down with your parents and take a look at the net price calculators on the websites of some of the colleges in which you're interested.

In 2012-13, $238.5 billion in financial aid was distributed to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of grants, Federal Work-Study, federal loans, and federal tax credits and deductions, according to the College Board's Trends in Student Aid. There is money out there to help you finance a college education. But you have to apply for it. 


College Admission on College Smart Radio

Christine VanDeVelde will be talking all things college admission with host Beatrice Schultz on College Smart Radio, 1220 AM KDOW, the Wall Street Business Network, this Saturday. Tune in at 3 p.m. PT to learn more about the biggest mistake families make in the college application process, creating a list of colleges, and college visits -- and find out if it's really true that "It's impossible to get into college today!" Never fear, it's not, though that's not what most headlines would have you believe...