Prepare for College — FAFSA & The Common App

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One family’s story of getting their child into college

Everyone who prepares for college has to do two very important things: tell colleges how much money you have and then actually apply to become a student. In other words, you’ve got some paperwork to do. Today, this paperwork most often involves two forms: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and The Common Application (or, as per it’s AKA everywhere, the Common App — not to be confused with a smartphone app).

Almost all higher education institutions require students to submit a FAFSA application, regardless of whether financial aid is sought or not. A handful of Christian schools shun the FAFSA because they don’t accept any federal money, but they will instead substitute their own version of a FAFSA, asking similar questions. To complicate things, some colleges & universities, mostly long-established schools in the East, also require applicants to submit the College Board’s CSS Profile, a financial aid form similar to the FAFSA. Still, the FAFSA has more or less become a de facto standard for financial aid application.

Similarly, The Common Application has become a sort of “one ring to rule them all,” with more than 800 colleges now using this universal college application form. And why not? How many times do you really need to fill in your address, high school information, test scores, and teacher contact names? The Common App makes a lot of sense.

Ultimately, though, what does any of this mean to real human beings just trying to get into a college?

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.

This marks the third installment in our ongoing series following Dan and Ethan as they navigate the transition from high school to college.

Check out our first two installments in the Prepare for College Series:

Or read on…

Filling Out the FAFSA Application

DAN: Ethan applied to nine schools — and yes, we managed to hit the financial aid form trifecta, filling out a FAFSA application, the CSS Profile, and an independent financial aid survey. Argh.

If you, like me, are a person whose left eye starts twitching at the thought of paperwork, well, I have a sad story to tell you. You’ll feel like April 15 came twice this year. Or, in our case, four times. And as long as you have a student actively taking classes, filling out the FAFSA annually is a process that will linger. Steel yourself for the trial.

After that initial FAFSA login, get ready to supply a stream of financial information. Literally, every liquid source of money — and a few non-liquid — will need to be accounted for. I would advise this course of action:

Remember, some schools will not consider an application until they have received completed financial aid forms. Better to get that FAFSA done as soon after the October 1 opening date as you can!

ETHAN: I didn’t spend much time with the FAFSA myself, seeing as I don’t have a consistent source of taxable income, but letting it sit uncompleted would be a grave mistake. If you want your college to give you any kind of financial help, you need to give them your FAFSA, and there are even some cases where you need a part or piece of information from the FAFSA by itself for your application. Keep the FAFSA nearby, even if you don’t think you need it. You never know who’s going to ask for it. It shouldn’t be hard to fill out the FAFSA in the first place; if you and your parents have taxes and keep track of your financial records, the information should be available. Take a day to fill it out, and you should be right as rain.

DAN: Ethan exaggerates about taking a day to complete the FAFSA, but not by much. If you have gathered all the financials ahead of time, the process will be faster, maybe two hours. But if you run into online banking passwords you forgot, esoteric mortgage info requested but not on any of your forms, or you realize you forgot to include a particular investment, you may have to pause to find what you need, and that slows everything down. It took me about six hours of work to gather everything, do the calculations, fill in the form, and submit it.

[To learn more about filing your FAFSA, getting financial aid, and everything in between, check out Financial Aid for Online College: Everything You Need to Know and Do.]

With the financial aid forms out of the way, now comes the meat of the process: applying to schools. Here’s where another reality of the college application process will make you crazy: application deadlines. These will vary from school to school, and each may call its early application deadlines by various names that may mean something to the college, but mean nothing to you.

About College Application Deadlines

Commonly encountered college application deadlines:

It is critical to note that the dates above, while common, are not universal! Each school’s deadlines will be different. ABSOLUTELY make the effort to get the exact application deadlines for each of your target colleges into some kind of calendar that will remind you of what you need to submit and by when. I cannot stress this enough. You do not want to lose out on getting into your dream school because you missed a critical deadline. Get the right submission dates for each of the colleges in consideration and get them into a calendar!

Other important dates in the process:

Students who apply and declare Early Decision boost their acceptance rate chances a fraction higher, but they are required (as in “sign a contract” required) to stop looking at any other colleges or universities if accepted and must commit earlier. Students may receive an acceptance letter within a couple months of applying Early Decision. Check with the school for commitment deadlines.

Students who apply Early Action are like Early Decision but without the contract. It’s the school’s attempt to get more of its applications in before Regular Decision crunch time. A student who applies Early Action may receive an acceptance letter before year’s end, but that’s up to the school. Early Action students typically need to commit by May 1, but that will vary with the school.

Merit Scholarship Consideration may also have a deadline earlier than the Regular Decision deadline. In short, if you want to be considered for specific kinds of merit scholarships (academic, art, music, sports, etc.), you may have to apply earlier than Regular Decision. As always, check with the school.

As for costs, using the Common App is free; each college you apply to determines its own application fee. Application fees start at free and go up. Most of ours cost nothing. The most expensive was $75.

I’ve said enough on the subject. I’m going to turn the conversation over to Ethan now. While I did all of the FAFSA application, he filled out all of the Common App college applications.

Filling Out The Common Application

ETHAN: In the beginning, it wasn’t hard to navigate The Common Application. When you first log in, you are presented with a series of tabs on a simple screen, and each tab represents a step in the process of filling out the Common App, save for the “Dashboard” tab, which gives you an overview of the process. It’s streamlined, and avoids unnecessary complexity, so I like it. From there, you can use the “College Search” tab to create a list of the colleges you want to apply to, and these colleges will show up under the “My Colleges” tab. Each college has its own requirements, so you should come back here once you complete the Common App proper. Speaking of the Common App proper, it appears under the “Common Application” tab, of course, and it’s divided into a number of subcategories. These subcategories cover as much material as they possibly can, asking who you are, who your parents are, what your previous education was, what your parents’ education was, how well you scored in school, and what you did outside of school. Most of the questions can be answered off the top of your head, but some require precise information, and a few questions may be oddly worded. If you have a record of family history, then get it ready. If you don’t use it now, you’ll use it later.

DAN: While many of the Common App schools have questions covered universally by the application, they have an option to ask for specifics to their program that might not be asked everywhere. Demographics, honors attained, veteran status — those and more may be specific to a school. One question we saw more than once was for legacy information, so if you have family members who attended a school you’re applying to, it pays to know when they attended or graduated. Expect other questions like that. One school asked Ethan a host of questions about what he liked and enjoyed. You may think you’ve thought of everything, but now and then comes a curveball. The worst for us was that one of the schools asked for a copy of a previously graded research paper with the teacher’s marks on it, all of which had been tossed by accident the previous summer. Once we waited for another to be assigned and graded, we had to have a scanner to scan it in. Again, it’s nice that you can save the application and walk away from it, because you may need to find minutia.

ETHAN: The final of the Common App prompts is to write an essay. According to the Common App, some colleges don’t require this essay for you to apply, but as far as I know, they’re a myth. If this is your first time writing an essay for college, get used to it; this Common App essay is only the first of many. As an essay, it’s flexible, averaging about 500 words and allowing you to choose which prompt you want to answer. After the Common App essay questions, you’re technically done with the Common App, but I recommend that you fill out as much optional and additional information as possible. Every little bit of information helps makes the case for you!

[For great tips on your college essay, whether you’re using the Common App, writing to a specific college, or just practicing, check out How to Write a College Application Essay.]

DAN: Typical essay topics: points of personal character, people admired and why, problems encountered and overcome, and questions that ask the applicant to pontificate on some noble aspect of the college applied to.

ETHAN: After the Common App is complete, things get much more complex. Each college has its own set of questions and conditions that need to be fulfilled before you can apply to it. This is in addition to what you filled out in the Common App tab. Most colleges will require access to family information; your high school records; multiple recommendation letters from a mix of teachers, counselors, other adults, or peers; and another essay. There are some cases of overlap between these requirements, but for the most part each college requires its own amount of work. If you fill out the Common App for your own set of colleges, you won’t go through the same process that I did. All I can say is that this is the trickiest and least straightforward part of applying via the Common App. It took me by surprise when I was first filling out everything, but if you keep going and knock your colleges out one by one, you should do fine.

DAN: The nice part about this section is that the Common App will reach out to your primary recommendation letter contacts for you. The bad part is that you need to get this information beforehand, so know who you want the app to email. And that’s the second rub: your contacts need to know that the app will be emailing them. Best to let them know in person ahead of time. This also becomes a waiting game, because they need to know what your deadlines may be, especially if you’re applying Early Decision.

ETHAN: Once each college’s individual requirements are met, you’re done! The process is over — or at least, the Common App is completed. Unfortunately, there is no way to view if you’ve been accepted or not, so you’ll have to go to each college’s website and create an account there. More often than not, these colleges also have even more information that must be filled out on their website, such as financial forms and the occasional unexpected essay. Why these aren’t included with the Common App, I don’t know.

DAN: Curveballs, Ethan. Curveballs. Just expect them and keep swinging. Each school will typically have a list of requirements included under the student account at its site and will auto-post when you complete each requirement. This is truly the only way to know that Admissions has everything. Don’t be afraid to call if items in that list are confusing or they don’t show up as submitted in a timely way.

ETHAN: Overall, I would say that the Common App works. It helps to gather all the necessary information in one place, guide applicants through the process of applying, and you don’t have to worry about repeating the same information ad nauseam. This makes the college application process less painful, but the Common App can’t streamline everything. As long as each college has its own set of rules, requirements, formatting, and additional steps on their own website, the process will have awkward portions. You can’t change those, so the Common App is the best it can be. If I’ve learned anything from my own application process, it’s this: persevere and follow through, no matter how much you’ve already done.

[To learn more about the Common App, check out The Common Application Guide or consult Common Application expert Meredith Lombardi.]

Final Thoughts

DAN: Now, as Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part. Depending on when and what decision deadlines you wanted to hit, you may be waiting a few weeks or several months to hear anything about acceptance. Because we wanted to ensure Ethan was considered for all merit scholarships, we had everything in by December 1, which was the deadline for academic merit consideration for every college on our list. Of course, YMMV. Ethan received acceptance letters and emails from most colleges by mid-January, a couple by February, and the Ivies held out almost until April … sheesh. If you applied to a college as a long shot and got accepted but had not yet visited, you may be planning a trip without much notice. Just be prepared for it.

ETHAN: Preparing for college is definitely an ongoing process. Even though it’s been several months since I made my first steps toward college readiness, I still have plenty of work to do. Scholarships aren’t going to apply for themselves! Since my formal college applications have been completed, scholarships are my main focus, at least for now. I don’t doubt that there will be more work for me in the future, especially once the time comes for me to actually begin college in earnest. Higher education is a lot of hard work, but the benefits speak for themselves.

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