Jan 30, 2012

Local FAFSA Deadlines are Fast Approaching

Nearly every college and university has a clearly posted priority financial aid deadline by which the FAFSA should be filed for students to have the best possible chance of receiving both institutional and federal aid.

Because most of these deadlines are either on or before March 1st, students and their parents must act early in the New Year—often before tax returns are filed with the federal government.

To underscore the importance of beginning the FAFSA sooner rather than later, even if it means estimating income and taxes to be paid, the following is a list of local priority financial aid (FA) deadlines:

You can research individual deadlines by simply going to a college or university website and entering “FAFSA” or “FAFSA deadline” in the search function. Only the most poorly constructed websites will fail to pop up a link to either an admissions or a financial aid web page clearly stating the priority deadline by which you should file your FAFSA. Some will even give you a few good reasons why this is so important.

Many states also have FAFSA deadlines that are entirely separate from but usually after institutional dates. A handy tool for researching individual state deadlines is provided on the FAFSA website. Locally, the State of Maryland has posted March 1st as its deadline, and the District of Columbia uses June 30th. Virginia is noncommittal and refers applicants to individual financial aid administrators (Hint: you may notice a pattern of March 1st as a deadline for the Virginia public colleges and universities listed above).

Filing the FAFSA by the priority deadlines and promptly responding to any requests for additional documentation helps ensure you’ll receive your financial aid letters at about the same time you receive admissions decisions.

Note that it takes the FAFSA processor 1 to 2 weeks to get information to individual colleges and universities—if the FAFSA is filed electronically. If you use the paper application, the turnaround can take from 3 to 4 weeks. And delays could be longer if your application is randomly selected for a more in depth review.

Remember you do NOT have to be admitted to a college or university before submitting your FAFSA. You CAN file using last year’s tax return to estimate income and taxes. If you have any questions or need additional assistance, contact the FAFSA on the Web Consumer Service either online or by calling 1-800-433-3243 (1-800-4-FED-AID).

Jan 28, 2012

The Common Application announces 2012-13 Essay Topics

In case you’re sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for notification of next year’s essay topics for Common Application member colleges and universities, I have great news—the topics will remain the same as they have been for the past several years.

For juniors who are waiting “on deck” to begin the college application process, this means you will be asked to write an essay (approximately 250-500 words) on one of several broad options, including:

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  • Topic of your choice.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Not if it ends there. But unfortunately, many colleges aren’t content with the basic Common Application requirement. They ask for “supplements,” which can be devilishly time-consuming and tedious.

For example, this year George Washington University asked for an essay of approximately 500 words that responded to one of two topics (your choice):

  • The nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill once wrote that "one person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests." Tell us about one of your beliefs - how you came to it, why you hold on to it, what has challenged it, and what you imagine its influence will be on your education or pursuits.
  • "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." - A. Einstein. Describe your most interesting mistake.

Obviously, the last option begs the question “Does this application count?”

Taking a more straightforward approach, Johns Hopkins asked applicants to discuss why they chose specific majors. American University wants to know why you’re a good fit for their community, and the University of Mary Washington zeroed in on the college honor system and asked related questions.

In their Common Application supplements, the College of William & Mary wanted to know (in 500 words or less) “what makes you unique and colorful,” and the University of Virginia asked applicants to UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences, “What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, or challenged you, and in what way?”

If you were interested in the honors program at Christopher Newport University, you needed to think into the future and reflect on the “highlights” of your life in 250 words or less. And UMBC’s honors college wanted to know about “a problem you have studied or know about that needs an interdisciplinary solution.”

For the Johnson Scholarship at Washington & Lee University, applicants were asked to react to one of five complicated prompts including:

"'Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one.' (Robert E. Lee, President of then-Washington College, 1865-1870) Discuss a time when you were tempted to do a wrong thing or when you actually did a wrong thing. What was your motivation? What lessons did you draw from this experience? Do you believe that there is always dishonor in doing a wrong thing? Why or why not?"

While it’s reassuring to know that the Common App will stick with a group of essay topics that virtually covers the entire range of human experience, the bigger question remains as to what colleges will cook up in the way of supplementary essays for next year. I can hardly wait.

Jan 27, 2012

NIH Offers Amazing Summer Opportunities for High School Students

Summer programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer hundreds of exciting opportunities for high school students to work side-by-side with some of the world's leading scientists in “an environment devoted exclusively to biomedical research.”

As one of the premiere research facilities in the world, NIH consists of the 240-bed Hatfield Clinical Research Center and more than 1200 laboratories/research projects located on the main campus in Bethesda, as well as in Frederick and Baltimore, MD; Research Triangle Park, NC; Phoenix, AZ; Hamilton, MT; Framingham, MA; and Detroit, MI.

Program stipends cover a minimum of eight weeks, with students generally arriving at the NIH in May or June. And stipends are adjusted yearly with the amount depending on prior experience and educational level.

Note that this is not a commuter program; NIH does not provide housing to student interns. Every year, however, out-of-area students apply and make their own living arrangements for the summer. Nevertheless, students living in the DC metropolitan area or near one of the other locations have a clear advantage for many of the internships.

To support the program, the NIH Institutes and Office of Intramural Training & Education sponsor a wide range of summer activities including lectures featuring distinguished NIH investigators, career/professional development workshops, and Summer Poster Day. These are incomparable opportunities which can provide the basis for independent research and related science competitions such as the JSHS, Intel STS, Siemens, and ISEF.

Summer internships are available for students who will be 16 years of age or older at the time they begin the program and who are currently enrolled at least half-time in high school or an accredited US college or university. Students who have already been accepted to college may also apply.

Interested students must apply online by no later than March 1, 2012, and all letters of recommendation are due by March 15, 2012. The application requires

a resume
a list of coursework and grades
a cover letter describing research interests and career goals, and
the names and contact information for two references.

Candidates are welcome to specify the scientific methodologies or disease/organ systems that are of particular interest to them.

Because applications are reviewed on a rolling basis from November through April by NIH scientists, students are encouraged to submit their applications as soon as possible.

For more information as well as some tips on how to increase your chances of winning an internship, visit the NIH website.

Jan 25, 2012

Don't Fall Victim to Fear of FAFSA

Fear of FAFSA is a known, but treatable disease. Often it begins with math phobia or chronic avoidance of anything related to personal finances. Individuals who have never balanced a checkbook or filed their own taxes are particularly susceptible.

But help is available! If you’re still procrastinating or have come up against the proverbial FAFSA “wall,” local associations of financial aid professionals are organizing a series of FREE FAFSA filing clinics scheduled to take place in virtually every corner of the country over the next two months.

In the DC metropolitan area, students and their families can choose among Super Saturday events, sponsored by the Virginia Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (VASFAA), College Access Fairfax, or College Goal Sunday, sponsored by independently-funded organizations in Maryland and DC.

There are no residency requirements for any of these programs. Maryland or DC students are welcome to attend Virginia events, and Virginians are welcome to cross the river to attend events in Maryland or the District. Just find a convenient date and location. But considering institutional “priority” FAFSA filing deadlines, you may want to target some of the earlier dates.

Super Saturday, Virginia
This year, the VASFAA will host more than 60 Super Saturday events across the Commonwealth on January 28, February 4, and February 11, 2012. Each Super Saturday site will offer two financial aid workshops designed to explain the federal financial aid process, followed by a Q & A period.

The host sites will have computers available for students/parents to begin or complete their FAFSA’s, with one-on-one assistance provided by volunteer financial aid experts. And to sweeten the deal, a $100 Book Scholarship will be awarded to one student at each Super Saturday site to be used at the winner’s college of choice during the 2012-13 academic year.

Participants should bring personal FAFSA PIN numbers (it's best to register in advance), Social Security numbers, driver’s license, income and tax records, bank and investment statements, and residency documents for noncitizens. More information is provided on the VASFAA website as well as on several location-specific web pages.

College Access Fairfax
College Access Fairfax, in conjunction with the Fairfax County Public Schools, scheduled 12 events in various locations around the county. All workshops are free and open to students and families from any high school, and most will provide on-site Spanish translation services.

College Goal Sundays, Maryland
In Maryland, nine College Goal Sundays, beginning on January 28 at Sojourner-Douglas College in Salisbury, have been scheduled in locations across the state. At each site, FREE professional assistance will be available to help students and their families begin and hopefully complete the FAFSA filing process. In addition, there will be information on state-wide student services, admission requirements, and other financial aid resources. Although not required, participants are strongly encouraged to register in advance as computers, translators, and volunteers are limited.

To complete the FAFSA process on-site, you will need to have your Social Security number, driver’s license, income and tax records, investment and bank statements, and your alien registration card if you are not a US citizen. Details are provided on the College Goal website.

DC College Goal Sunday
The DC College Goal Sunday program has scheduled an event scheduled for Sunday, January 29, at the Martin Luther King Jr Library. In addition to identification information such as Social Security numbers and driver’s license, parents and students should bring their latest tax information and/or last pay stub to complete the form.

If you’re suffering from Fear of FAFSA, you’re not alone. Get help. It’s FREE, professional, and confidential.

Jan 24, 2012

What Really Makes College So Expensive

According to a report released by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, tuition isn’t necessarily the culprit behind increases in the overall cost of attending college. In fact, the pain in the pocket may be attributable to an increase in the cost of non-tuition expenses such as textbooks and housing.

While costs associated with attending a four-year college rose about $3000 per student since the 1999-2000 school year, the report found that only about $1000 of that may blamed on increased net tuition. Financial aid has contributed to keeping the increase in per student net prices to about $1000, as sticker prices (published rates of tuition) went up by about $3000.

“To the extent that students and their families are concerned about what costs they will need to pay to cover tuition charges, the relevant measure is ‘net tuition,’ which is the ‘sticker price’ less any grant aid students receive.”

The report also points out that four-year colleges have increased per student revenues over the past 10 years. In other words, persistent arguments that tuition increases are more than offset by increases in financial aid don’t necessarily hold water.

“At the four-year level, the significant increase in tuition revenue undermines the common argument that colleges are pursuing a high-tuition/high-aid model,” the report states.

If you’re really interested in why college is so expensive, here is a list of some of the pricier room and board plans found by US News & World Report and Cappex.

  1. Howard University, DC
    Average room and board costs: $15,341

  2. University of California-Berkeley, CA
    Average room and board costs:

  3. The New School, NY
    Average room and board costs: $15,260

  4. Dominican University of California
    Average room and board costs: $14,460

  5. Suffolk University, MA
    Average room and board costs: $14,904

  6. Ringling College of Art and Design, FL
    Average room and board costs: $14,840

  7. Fordham University, NY
    Average room and board costs: $14,491

  8. University of California-Santa Cruz, CA
    Average room and board costs: $14,171

  9. Manhattanville College, NY
    Average room and board costs: $13,920

  10. St. John’s University-New York
    Average room and board costs: $13,900

  11. University of California-Los Angeles, CA
    Average room and board costs: $13,743

  12. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, NY
    Average room and board costs $13,700

  13. New York University, NY
    Average room and board costs: $13,510

  14. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, MA
    Average room and board costs: $13,500

  15. American University, DC
    Average room and board costs: $13,648