Facebook Chat with @AnneHolmdahl First-in-Family College Questions Pt. 1

On February 17, 2014, I was grateful to host a Facebook chat with independent college counselor, Anne Holmdahl. Anne answered specific questions regarding first-in-family or first generation college bound students. We had a great audience of parents and educators and others interested in helping prepare students for the college admission process. I’m making the transcript available in 3 parts. ~ ges

Let’s begin our focus on the decision and preparation. My first question is why a chat for first-in-family or first generation college bound students? Is it because they have special considerations to make in the decision to attend college?

First generation students often have more of an uphill climb than other students, and colleges more and more are honoring that. Often, these students don’t know what they need to do to prepare for college, and don’t know what to expect when they get there. If we can overcome these obstacles, first generation students can achieve at the highest levels.

When should students and parents start thinking about college?

I always say that it is never too early to begin planning for college. Parent should not ask IF their children will go to college, but where they will go. Children, especially young children, want to live up to the expectations we set for them. Having said that, middle school is the ideal time to start thinking seriously about college – but it is never too late!

What are some of the things a parent and student can do to make sure a student is well-prepared for applying to colleges?

There are three pieces of the puzzle that students and families need to be aware of – academics, extra curriculars, and tests. Take the most rigorous curriculum available to you that you can manage. Get involved outside of the classroom. And plan, prepare for, and take the standardized tests that you need for college admission.

What kind of activities should a student participate in during school? Should they get a job? Do volunteer work?

There really isn’t a “right” answer here. Students absolutely need to do something – and ideally several “somethings” – outside of academic work. Some combination of sports, clubs, paid work, internships, community service or a “passion project” is vital for everyone. But which combination is right for your student is a very personal choice. Some students are very well-focused, choosing to spend large amounts of time on a particular interest – for example, a student may choose to play the violin in the school orchestra, in the local youth symphony, and in the pit for a local theater group. Or a student may play a sport at an elite level and put in 20 hours or more per week for 40 or 50 weeks a year. Other students may choose to dabble in many different areas. My biggest piece of advice here is to find things that you really enjoy, and look for leadership roles in those activities. Colleges love leadership!

Leadership as in being the president of a club or some role that demonstrates the ability to be self-motivated and to motivate others?

Leadership as in taking initiative. It’s great to be the president of the honor society. It’s great to be the captain of the tennis team. It’s great to start your own club or group at school. It’s great to start a new project at the old folks home. Be a leader, however it works for you.

How early should a student take the ACT and/or the SAT? Just how important are those tests to the college admissions process? Are there other tests to take too?

This is very dependent on the student and the area in which they live. Many schools offer the PSAT or PLAN test for students as early as sophomore year. Most schools offer one or the other (or both) for juniors. Always take advantage of these preliminary tests as they cannot hurt you and will help prepare you for the “real” tests – the SAT or the ACT. In my opinion, the ideal time to take the SAT or ACT is in the middle of the junior year, but it may make sense for some students to take it earlier or later. Almost all colleges now require one test or the other, and the scores absolutely factor in to acceptance. Some colleges also require SAT Subject Tests.

What are PSAT and PLAN? Explain please.

PSAT is a preliminary SAT exam that is offered once per year at the high schools. PLAN is a preliminary ACT exam, also offered once per year at high schools. The PSAT is also the qualifier exam for the National Merit Scholarship program. National Merit qualifiers can earn up to full-ride scholarships for college.

This is a great place to switch the topic a bit. Anne, is there a difference between high school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements? How do a parent and student find this out?

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see families make. Just because a student meets the high school graduation requirements absolutely does NOT mean they have met a particular college’s admission requirements. Virtually every college has their own admission requirements. Public (state) schools typically have the same requirements across the system, but the state schools in Texas have very different requirements from the state schools in California, both in terms of coursework and minimum grades, and every private school can have their own requirements. Unfortunately, the only way to determine this is to check each college’s admissions website, find the admissions page, and look for the requirements. Do this as early as possible so that you can ensure that the student has the opportunity to complete the coursework necessary. High school counselors are often very well-versed in their own state’s requirements, but don’t always know private school or other states’ requirements.

Sounds like a full-time job. lol Essentially, you’re saying that it takes a parent or guardian’s guidance and assistance to help.

Truly, it takes a village. Gather anyone and everyone who can help and use them all!

What are college applications like these days? If a family is on a tight budget or facing hardship, then is there a way to have the application fee waived?

There are two primary types of application. One is the old standard application that is specific to each school. Most public schools and some private schools have their own application. The other is the Common Application (or Universal Application). This is a standardized application that can be sent to any of the schools that subscribe to the app. It includes all of the general information and one 650 word essay; colleges have the option to ask supplemental questions as well.

Many colleges will waive application fees. The best way to work on this is with your high school counselor. They can also assist with fee waivers for standardized tests.

The Common App is the ONLY way to apply to many colleges now. It is simply a way for students and families to fill out less of the basic information (just do it once for all schools), but the application itself is comprehensive and considered completely.

Should a parent discourage their child from applying to private and elite schools because of tuition?

Absolutely not! We find very often that the net cost for a student is LOWER at a private school than a public school! The most elite schools now offer loan-free financial aid that meets 100% of a student’s demonstrated need. You can use the FAFSA “4caster” to see what the federal government says your Expected Family Contribution will be, then go to different colleges’ Net Price Calculator tool (on every college’s website) to see what they estimate your costs will be. Please please please, though, do not eliminate a school because you think you cannot afford it. You will NOT know what your financial aid offer will look like until after you are admitted. Be honest with your students about what you as a family are prepared to pay toward college, but between need-based and merit aid, almost anything is possible. Not every school will meet full need or offer merit scholarships, and some schools will offer loans that are just too much for you to consider, but again, you won’t know until you try!

Just my case from a zillion years ago – it cost less for me to attend Stanford than it would have cost for me to attend UC Berkeley as an in-state student. Private colleges often have huge endowments that they use to assist students.

Claudine Turner
Good evening. What are your thoughts regarding AP, IB, AICE, and dual enrollment as means of earning credit for college? Do you see instances where qualified scores or grades are not accepted by colleges and, if so, are any of these better than the others on which to focus my student’s efforts?

Anne Mallon Holmdahl
Ok, that’s a lot of questions! AP and IB are great programs. Students should try to take advantage of these opportunities to the best of their ability. I don’t know a ton about the Cambridge program, other than the colleges feel similarly about it to the IB program.

One of the questions I get all of the time is this: “should I take the AP class and get a B, or take the regular class and get an A”. The answer, said with a smile, is “take the AP class and get an A”.
But the colleges don’t want kids burning themselves out. More on the dual enrollment and college acceptances later. . . .

ok, back to your questions, Claudine. Dual enrollment can be a fantastic option for students who are planning to stay in-state and attend a public college. (DE is when students take classes at or through a local community college and get both high school and college credit). If you plan to go out of state or to a private school, however, it can actually be detrimental. Applying as a transfer student is much more difficult than applying as a freshman.

And, unfortunately, not all colleges accept AP/IB/AICE transfer credits. Another personal anecdote – my older son is a sophomore at Stanford. he was able to transfer 15 AP credits – 10 in math and 5 in chemistry. If he had chosen to attend UC Berkeley, he would have transferred 45 credits. If he had attended our in-state school, the University of Washington, he would have transferred 65 credits.

[Part 2 will be posted on Thursday, March 6. In the meantime, visit Anne’s site for more information – Common Sense College Counseling – and if you’d like to join the first-in-family Facebook group go HERE.]

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