College Pete

What She Said! 22 Minutes of college talk with Asst. Dir of Admissions & Financial Aid from Northwestern

What She Said!  22 Minutes of college talk with Asst. Dir of Admissions & Financial Aid from Northwestern

Since the Grateful Dead were kind enough to host their 3-day ‘Fare Thee Well’ Retirement party in Chicago on the same weekend as our (as in mine and Pete’s) 21st Wedding Anniversary, we not only got to visit with the Admissions and Financial Aid team at Northwestern University (which was planned), but we also got to spend a long and very nostalgic weekend in Chicago talking college with some great friends from our own college days (which was an unplanned bonus).  More on that later, but first a few words on what’s important (and what’s not) from Christy Callahan, Northwestern University Assistant Director of Admissions & Financial Aid…

Northwestern University is one of the most selective schools in the country (Admit rate just under 13%) and certainly in the Big 10ish (comprised now of 15 Big 10 schools – I blame the new ‘new’ college math). It’s also the conference’s only private university, with a student:faculty ratio of 7:1, a four-year graduation rate that is more than 30 points better than the average, and a ‘purple mafia’ (Ms. Callahan’s words) of engaged alums helping undergrads and graduates find internships and contextually relevant work after college.  It’s a gem for the highly competitive student who wants to combine the benefits of a small school education with the full Division I campus experience.   Something about it reminded both Peter and me of Johns Hopkins University (if Johns Hopkins had a Division I football team).

It’s also ideally situated – literally, on Lake Michigan (with a beachfront that rivals that of Eckerd College), in a suburban setting within a great college town (Evanston) in close proximity to a very cool, diverse and cosmopolitan city (just a few miles north of Chicago).  It’s also very expensive – at least on paper.  But as Ms. Callahan pointed out to us, Northwestern is one of the few schools that offers the following:

– need-based grants to International Students (anywhere from 5k – $50k) as well as US students.

– a truly need-blind admissions policy for US Students and a financial aid budget that meets 100% of its applicants’ demonstrated financial needs with limited or no loans.  Only 24 schools make both of these claims, according to Northwestern.

– There are a few scholarships for athletic or artistic talent, but there are no merit scholarships offered (which is true of many highly selective colleges).

There’s a reason for this:  90% of all of Northwestern’s applicants (not just those who are admitted, but those who apply) have the academic creds to be admitted… which brings me to the important stuff and the reason that Peter and I take the time every summer to visit schools and to meet with the school’s officials personally.  It’s the best way for us to get the real skinny so we can then pass it along to you.

And, just as we have found at nearly every school we’ve visited, the staff at Northwestern, and in particular Ms. Callahan, are/were very generous with their time and their information. Here’s what they’re saying:

Across the board, we’re hearing from our on-campus colleagues how important the little things have become as Admissions teams wrestle with decisions about essentially equally qualified applicants. They’re also reading more applications than ever (about 200/week per reader – that’s 40 per day and equates to about 12 minutes per applicant if you assume a 40 hour-work week). The applicants who stand out are those who are truly authentic and passionate about their life and the school to which they’re applying – consider that Northwestern’s sole supplemental essay is simply ‘Why Northwestern?’. Quoting Christy, “Tell them to stop thinking about what they think we want to hear!”  And Luis Santiago (Dir. of Admissions at Marist College in NY) said what what we’ve heard everywhere,  “We like  true passion, both for our school, and for whatever it is that they’re doing.  And we want them to be themselves, so it’s OK to answer a question with a simple ‘I’m not sure’ so long as it’s a genuine response and one that I can see is genuinely demonstrated in the student’s activities outside of the classroom!”

Christy also confirmed, or really re-confirmed, a few more things that we have been saying for years which were corroborated by Mr. Santiago at Marist and the folks at Eckerd and Southern Cal (the two other stops we’ve made on our 2015 summer college tour so far).  Here’s a sampling:

1. The entire process continues to become more and more nuanced with identifyable points of leverage that can work for or against an applicant, both in Admissions and in the large pool of Institutionally awarded, Financial Aid/Merit Scholarships.  But you definitely need to know where to look (hint: it’s different for every student).   Take the ‘Early Decision’ decision, as an example.  Early Decision can inflate a school’s yield  (an important metric in the US News Rankings) and maximize its revenue (it’s a binding agreement that doesn’t leave a lot of room for price negotiation).  Schools tend to like it, and we get asked about ED a lot.  So, is early decision — which often does have a much higher admit rate — the right decision for you?  Maybe – but only if you know in advance whether you can afford what your family will be expected to contribute (your EFC), whether your financial needs will be considered, whether/how the school you’re considering will meet any gap between your EFC and the school’s price tag — and whether you can afford to attend if they don’t.  If you can – go for it; if not, don’t.  By the way, Christy made a point to emphasize that she wished all students would consider affordability before applying… and that the tools out there like the various net cost calculators are often misleading.   Which brings us to another point.

2. While some schools remain need-blind, there is a recognized and increased convergence of admissions, merit scholarships (where offered) AND need-based financial aid.  The latter two are used at least in part by every university intentionally and strategically to help the Admissions office build the best class.  There is a sticker price – the published cost of attendance-  but that is rarely what you should expect to pay, so don’t fixate on it.  Instead, learn what % of that cost you should expect to bear at each and every school that you are considering, so that you don’t accidentally or reflexively rule out options that you can afford or include options you can’t.  Note that the average discount rate is about 46%, but it differs at every single school and for every single applicant – kind of like the price of a plane ticket or a Fare Thee Well ticket.

3. Finally, a focused strategy is a good one.  Your passion and interest matter.  Your application will get about 15 minutes of reading time (8-10 from a seasoned reader). If you want it to stand out, be sure that your reader can ‘see’ your face/’hear’ your voice when they get to it.  Your application should not be another recitation of your accomplishments. Recommendations matter.  Essays matter. And…by the time you’re applying, you want to be able to demonstrate why you want to attend that particular school (the Admissions offices keep notes about how often you’ve called, whether you stopped by their booth at the college fair, visited, interviewed if offered – etc.).  That means the process starts well before (years even) you open your first application in 12th grade.

There are so many more details that I’d like to share with you, but this email is already WAY LONGER than the 140 characters most of us have gotten used to reading.  So, if you’d like to learn more, and more importantly find out how you can apply what you learn throughout high school in a way that will make the college process much easier and your outcomes much more gratifying (not to mention affordable), please join us on July 28th at 6:30 pm at the SW Regional Library in Pembroke Pines for a special pre-Back-To-School live College planning event.  The program is free and open to the public, but we do ask that you reserve your seat in advance so we have enough materials and chairs for everyone.  You can do that here.

And, if you’re not in South Florida or cannot ‘see’ us live, we’re holding a LIVE ‘Back To School’ College Planning training via the web on August 11th at 6:30 pm EST.  The teleclass is called ‘How To Take Control of the College Admissions and Funding Process’ and during the program, you’ll learn exactly what you can be doing in high school to make sure you (and your child(ren) are on the right path to finding, getting into and affording a great college education… without losing your sanity or your family’s life savings.  

Specifically, we’ll be covering: 

  •  more about what college admissions officers have told us (in private) really counts and what is urban legend
  • where you should be looking (and shouldn’t be looking) for scholarships and grants

  • a grade by grade execution plan of what you should be doing if you’re a student (or parent of one) who is entering 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade

  • exactly how need-based financial aid is calculated

  • whether your assets will count against you in those formulas; how much you can rely on your 529s and other pre-paid savings plans

  • what’s changing in Admissions testing and how it could affect your child’s admissions and funding prospects

  • More about the startling state of college counseling in high school – and what it you can do about it

  • Why it’s routinely taking students 5, even 6, years to get through college and what you can be doing about it NOW to buck this trend

  • and much more

And unlike college, our class is free and exceedingly stress-free. You can register for it here. 

I hope to ‘see’ you soon.

-Jill (and Peter)

P.S.Believe it or not, colleges are already beginning to read applications.  If you have or are a student in high school, especially an 11th or 12th grader, I highly suggest that you join us on July 28th or August 11th for these special live events.

P.P.S. Share this post to a friend with high school age children, they’ll thank you for it!

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