One family’s story of getting their child into college
Tom Petty once sang that
the waiting is the hardest part. He must have applied to college at some point. Whether you’re a student or the parent of one, all that difficulty in applying to colleges pales in comparison to waiting to hear from those chosen schools. College acceptance is a big deal, and when you have a dream school in mind, that patient wait can be excruciating.
Staff member Dan Edelen and his son, Ethan, a soon-to-be 2019 high school graduate, return to discuss their personal journey of preparing Ethan for college. Dan shares his view from the parent side, while Ethan gives insights into the student experience. For a look at where we've been on our journey, check out the previous entries in our series:
Do This Right After You Apply to College
ETHAN: As each day passes, my college enrollment inches closer and closer. At the beginning of the year, college seemed so far off, and the preparations that my family and I made didn’t feel vital. Now, I’m acutely aware of how much time has passed — and is passing — and I know that as soon as late summer rolls around, college will change my life forever. But before I get too dramatic, I should take a step back and talk about the longest event that I went through on my journey to college: waiting to hear from the colleges. Most of the time, waiting is an uneventful process, but this wait defied that. A lot happened once I set the ball in motion.
DAN: Since Ethan wanted to be considered for merit scholarships, and most of those required applications be complete by December 1, we were done with most of the formal application paperwork by then. Your timing will be different. As I noted before, it is crucial to have deadlines marked on a master calendar with required paperwork noted. (You hear stories about students who apply to more than two dozen schools, and you wonder how anyone keeps track of it all. )
A few things we needed to oversee and consider post-Common App:
- Any classes taken in high school that qualify as college credit courses may need to be managed with the partnering schools and the college applied to. You want to know if this kind of
college class taken while in high schoolwill be accepted by the target colleges. In our case, Ethan took dual-credit classes that were partnerships between his high school and a regional community college. Sadly, not every college he applied to accepted those credits. Good to know before making a final decision. The same goes for AP or any other classes that might exempt a student from a subsequent college course. Don’t assume; get a yes or no on all possible course exemptions.
- If you don’t already know your student’s high school counselor, connect with him or her soon after completing the Common App. The school counselor may need to manage some of the communication between the high school and colleges.
- Many colleges will not accept the electronic ACT scores forwarded with the Common App or transcript and will require originals be sent to them from the College Board, which administers the ACT. This must be requested from the College Board. Each request cost us $13.
- Once the college has received the application, follow up ASAP with the admissions counselor assigned by the college. Get the name, email, phone number, and typical office hours of the person assigned to you and drop an email to let him or her know who you are. Since admissions personnel travel a lot (see Prepare for College — College Fairs), email is your best means of connecting.
- Make sure that any applications that are NOT Early Decision but meet Early Decision deadlines are not mistaken for Early Decision applications. Doublecheck this as soon as the application is recognized by the college.
- The high school and the college will likely handle all the information regarding grades and transcript between themselves, but you may need to lean on both parties.
- Assume that all correspondence with the college will take a day or more to process or for anyone to even acknowledge. Never leave anything until the last moment. Turnaround on questions might take most of a business week.
- Every college will likely have a temporary student account setup where compliance can be checked for all requested forms and submissions. Check these religiously to ensure everything has been received and approved.
Yes, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, so it’s easy to miss a critical one if you’re not on top of the process. This takes us to a different kind of paperwork.
Apply for Scholarships Offered by a College
ETHAN: After a month of relaxing post-applications, I moved to the next step: scholarship applications. Scholarships are the closest thing you can get to free money, provided you use it for your education. Some schools had their own scholarships that you could apply for and merit-based honors programs as well, so I started there. For the most part, they all required essays, but I had already written plenty of essays before. After that, I decided to search for the demographic scholarships. I may not be a Native American, part of a secret society, a first-generation college student, or play tennis, but I expected to find some demographic that fit me. Using a scholarship lead generation site, I found a couple of demographic scholarships that I qualified for, but to my dismay they were all for specific schools, none of which I considered attending. That was a bust.
Topics I encountered in these scholarships included my thoughts on what a college’s founder wrote, the positives I would bring to the college’s community, and how I might use a college’s special programs to advance my future career. College-specific scholarship questions required research into the college to make sure I showed some insider knowledge.
DAN: Applying for scholarships must be thought of as part of the college application process and as a job in itself. Why? Because a couple solid scholarships earned may provide more cash than a summer job—or two. Got a field of study in mind? Then check with that department at target schools to see what scholarships may be available. The school may do this for you, or it may not. Be diligent and always do the work yourself. In my own college experience, I managed — with some research — to turn up an alumnus-endowed, full-tuition scholarship for an older transfer student in my field. How fortunate was that?
Apply for Scholarships Offered by Others
ETHAN: So, I found some general scholarships offered by companies and organizations using scholarship websites such as ScholarshipOwl and Scholarships.com and went to work. I wasn’t enthusiastic about dealing with more essays, but as I completed them, my confidence and energy grew.
Looking back, I can also see that these essays taught me a number of important skills. Due to the way the scholarship websites worked, I had to find and manage the scholarship requirements, deadlines, and contacts by myself, which gave me ways to practice handling details. I learned how to appeal to the scholarship givers in my writing, anticipating their wants and refining my writing to fit their focus, which is part of the art of marketing oneself. Finally, I learned how to adjust my writing to reduce negativity and portray my subjects confidently, which greatly strengthens the core composition of everything I write. I feel like a much better writer after applying for those scholarships, and I know I can use the skills they taught me in my future career.
Some of what I was asked to write for these scholarships included extolling a company’s products, keeping a relationship healthy, not driving while intoxicated, and analyzing an American war. Yes, they were all over the place.
DAN: As his dad, I will attest that Ethan’s writing did improve with each scholarship essay he completed. He’s also correct that most high schoolers don’t think of having to market themselves and sell Brand Me. The whole college application process, including selling why you are deserving of a scholarship, is a fine way to hone job and interview skills needed not only for a future career but also for a possible internship in college.
[For more tips on honing interview skills or landing a college internship, pay a visit to our Career Counselor.]
Expect Your Mailbox (and Inbox) to Overflow
ETHAN: Once I had submitted my college applications, then came the ads. When I picked up the mail from the mailbox one day, a glossy postcard extolling the benefits of visiting Case Western Reserve University accompanied the usual mail. It wasn’t long before college mailings were a constant presence, and they weren’t all for the colleges I applied to. It reached the point where I was also receiving email advertisements for a bunch of colleges I had never heard of before. How some of these tiny colleges got a hold of my email address, I had no idea.
DAN: We started getting a trickle of mailings from colleges soon after Ethan took his ACT test. But after submitting his Common Application, they started to roll in daily. To be honest, they were never overwhelming, and most were from his target schools. Still, a few smaller schools that were unfamiliar to us were pushing hard to get noticed. Just expect it. (After Ethan got accepted to his target schools, it seemed like they really wanted to continuously remind him to keep them in the running, and a few sent little gifts such as duffel bags, car stickers, and flashcards featuring highlights of campus life.)
Check Your Application Status Online
ETHAN: Eventually, I was reminded of the whole reason I was waiting in the first place when schools started contacting me back about my application. These contacts were similar to each other, and almost all of them followed the same basic pattern. First, I would receive an email instructing me to check the specific school’s online portal. Then, once I signed in to that portal, I would receive a link to an application update page. These application updates would either congratulate me on being accepted, usually with virtual confetti, or politely decline my application as tactfully as possible. A few days after the update, I would receive a formal confirmation letter by mail, usually with my financial aid package information included.
DAN: The seven schools that accepted Ethan let him know by early February. We had to wait almost until April to hear from the two Ivies. Those several weeks were almost unbearable, honestly. We had not had an opportunity to visit either campus since they were much farther away. Acceptance would mean arranging a visit before May 1, which meant a scramble. In the end, those two schools decided for us.
Still, because we couldn’t dismiss those two schools, options stayed open. But even then, time has a way of solidifying direction, and it was clear that over the last few months Ethan had moved away from one possible major — writing — and more toward the other — video game design and programming. This greatly narrowed his choices. It’s one reason why undecided students should anticipate applying to more schools.
[Interested in pursuing a video game design program like Ethan? Check out The 50 Best Video Game Design Schools or learn more about What You Can Do With a Degree in Video Game Design.]
Manage Expectations for Financial Aid
ETHAN: After all the talk about wanting me at their school and all the material they sent me, few of the colleges that accepted me were willing to offer me what we were hoping for in financial help.
DAN: At this point, a few acceptances may start rolling in. This is both a joy and a disappointment. It’s great to know your student is wanted, but that financial aid package noted in the acceptance letter speaks volumes about how much of that want is real.
As a parent, I had the task of deciphering financial aid, and some of the great packages offered got tempered once I realized that colleges may tack on a loan and treat it as a reward.
Congratulations! You are receiving $30,000 in financial aid from us! but then you notice $15,000 of that is a loan — not a grant, a merit scholarship, or some other reduction in total cost. Simply stated, it's money you must repay. Trust me, this has a way of
grinching up the joy of getting accepted.
The package put together by the college becomes a Catch-22 you should know about in advance. The higher your student’s grades and admissions test scores compared to other students at the college, the better the likelihood of a merit scholarship. But when applying to a top-tier school, know that all the other students are top-tier too, and that hoped-for merit scholarship may not materialize. Or as the villain in The Incredibles intoned,
When everyone’s super, no one will be. The question then becomes one of
lower-ranked school, and much lower final costs, for your high-ranking student OR higher-ranked school and a lot of debt upon graduation?
Not an easy decision, I know. But then life has no guarantees.
Your final financial aid package may not include certain honors and specialty scholarships. Ethan applied for a special scholarship at one of the colleges that would not be decided until after the financial aid offering, but we never heard back as to whether he got it or not. Not hearing was the answer, but still, it would have been nice to have received acknowledgment either way.
ETHAN: In the end, seven out of nine schools accepted me. Only the Ivy League schools declined my application. I was pleased with what I had accomplished.
DAN: So were we, Ethan! Now came the hard part.
Choose a College
When we started comparing costs and fields of study, schools fell off the list quickly. Three schools best met all the requirements, but one was far more expensive, and while it had the best reputation, it was also lacking in some notable areas that we could not ignore.
So, it came down to two colleges, both offering the program Ethan wanted, while also, coincidentally, being the closest to our home. This meant he’d be less than two hours away, in-state, and around the kind of folks he grew up with. For us, these were all good things.
The cost difference between the two schools, while manageable, still demanded something of my wife and me. Because she had once worked in financial aid at the more expensive school, she connected with the head of the department in which Ethan was planning to study and asked him if he could doublecheck with financial aid: could they come a little closer in price to the other school to help us decide in their favor? Hey, a little playing one off the other works for buying a car, right? In the end, though, no one budged, so the decision continued to clarify.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a College
Our family mulled the following crucial elements during Ethan’s college decision:
- Rank of the school nationally for the intended field of study
- Importance of the field of study within the overall curriculum of the university, including money spent on the program
- Rigor, variety, and corporate appeal of classes offered by the school within his chosen field of study
- Alumni comments, both positive and negative, regarding the university, the field of study, and post-graduation opportunities
- Insights from current students and those who may have transferred into the program
- Ease of transferring credits, including those from high school dual-study and AP programs
- Number and quality of corporate interactions with the university in the field of study
- Location, distance from home, and travel options around holidays and breaks
- Data from the Chetty Mobility Study of student graduate upward mobility for various colleges around the country
- Student-Faculty ratio
- Safe, comfortable social environment that offers variety, yet isn’t overly competitive or too radically unfamiliar
- Overall size of the school and of the enrollment in the field of study
- Financial aid offered compared against the school’s perceived value and total costs
- Availability and quality of housing and food
- Impressions from visits and communications
- Personal touch and overall care exhibited by the college during interactions with its faculty and staff
I can’t stress enough how much that final factor influenced our decision. The college Ethan chose was by FAR the most personable, helpful, cheerful, engaging, and truly eager to have him as a student. Knowing he was really wanted and the school was excited to have him as a student went a long way toward impressing us all. Whereas some other schools left us to muddle through paperwork, the university Ethan chose also bent over backwards to do a lot of the most tedious paperwork for us. That showed all of us that this school and its staff would most likely continue to treat Ethan well throughout his college experience.
And the Winning University Is…
ETHAN: One university treated me well and acted like they truly wanted me to enroll. They provided me with a full-tuition scholarship, the president of the university invited me to a personal lunch with him, and the faculty and staff gave me a comprehensive rundown of what they were about. They have a good ranking when it comes to the program I am entering, and I can apply the existing college credits that I earned in high school, allowing me to potentially graduate a semester early. The college’s expenses are affordable, and I hope to graduate without any debt. I could then use the money I saved to make a head start when it comes to living on my own, and if I require more education I can always go back and apply the savings toward a master’s degree. At this point, I honestly believe that this university is my best choice. So, that’s why I’ve decided to attend Shawnee State University and pursue a BS in video game design and programming. Wish me luck!
DAN: Well, after 12 years of education, some of it homeschooled and most of it in public education, Ethan has a college direction for his future! We know his field of interest is tough to break into, but we have confidence that even if he doesn’t end up working for whatever video game companies are still standing come 2023, the skills he'll learn will have tangential applications elsewhere.
Stay tuned as the summer of preparing to attend college unfolds and Ethan becomes a Shawnee State University Bear.