Select an Issue:
COLLEGEinsight January 2008
In This Issue
The Great College Hunt
Should you trust college rankings?
Apply Yourself
Eleventh hour application tips
Show Me the Money
It's financial aid time!
Expert advice from real admissions officers and college counselors
What if students and parents disagree about college?

More colleges take steps to eliminate or reduce student debt

As tuitions rise faster than inflation, many colleges are giving families some financial relief. Recent announcements from Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Swarthmore, and most recently Dartmouth reflect this trend. All five colleges are eliminating loans from all financial aid packages beginning with the 2008-2009 school year. Other schools, such as Yale, Wesleyan, and Columbia, have announced their intention reduce loans and increase grants. Some colleges may be responding to pressure from Congress to spend more of their endowments on financial aid. But whatever the impetus, the news is good for students and their families needing help to pay for college.


Should you trust college rankings?

When researching colleges, it's natural to "comparison shop" using college rankings. But what makes one college rank more highly than another? Does a high ranking mean that college is a good fit for you? Here is a four-point reality check to help you decide where rankings fit into your college search.

What's behind the ranking? It's smart to look "under the hood" so you understand what drives the ranking. For example, the most influential factor in the U.S. News and World Report rankings is an annual survey of college presidents that asks their opinions of other colleges. Every year, Newsweek names 25 "hottest" colleges based on opinions from a range of experts, particularly high-school counselors.

Food for thought... Look at a ranking as input — not final judgment. What college experts think is a great college is not necessarily a great college for YOU. In fact, 65 college presidents are so concerned that rankings do not serve the interests of students that they recently signed a letter promising not to participate in the U.S. News survey and to consider not participating in other college rankings.

Do they value what you value? Each ranking has its own bias about desirable college qualities. For example, the Washington Monthly rankings consider how well a college encourages social mobility, research, and public service. Other rankings focus on factors such as academics, environmentalism, cost, ethnicity, technology, or location.

Food for thought... A ranking might be useful to you if it measures a college quality important to you or educates you about qualities you had not considered. It's important to understand the qualities that lead to high and low rankings in the ranking method.

What about student opinions? It's always interesting to learn how students rate their own college. The Princeton Review publishes rankings based on student opinion surveys. You can see lists with headings such as "Professors Get High Marks" or "Stone Cold Sober Schools." The Fiske Guide, College Prowler, and Campus Dirt also offer student opinions and ratings.

Food for thought... Take student opinions with a dose of common sense. Students rating their own college usually don't have another college experience to compare with their own. And who's to say your opinions would be the same once you are on campus? The level of student satisfaction, however, is something to pay attention to. A school with high numbers of unhappy students may not have an atmosphere you would thrive in.

What ranking can you really trust? The most meaningful college ranking is based on qualities that make a college a good fit for you. The colleges you put on your list should be ranked highly — by you!

Food for thought... Start by identifying the college qualities that appeal to you and will help you meet your goals. If you need a place to begin your search or help narrowing the field, a ranking that uses qualities you value might be one useful tool. Just be sure to validate the results using another reliable source and your own impressions. (To see a range of rankings try the comprehensive list of undergraduate college rankings from University of Illinois.)

So What's  National Survey on Student Engagement?

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSEE) conducts an annual survey of effective instructional practices at U.S. colleges. Colleges are measured against five benchmarks: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.

About 250 colleges participate and publish their individual survey results. NSEE offers A Pocket Guide to Choosing a College, which tells you more about these practices and how to determine if a college is using them.


Eleventh hour application tips

If you have been working hard on applications due soon, it may be tempting to put an end to your stress and just send them off. But do yourself a favor and give each application a final once-over. Here are some pointers.

  • Review instructions. Re-read all application directions and make sure you responded to them correctly, leaving nothing blank.
  • Check your essay. Did you address the essay topic you were asked to write about? Did you clearly express your reasons for wanting to attend the college, if asked? Read it carefully to be sure there are no errors. Do NOT rely on spell check!
  • Is your application complete? Have you included (or arranged for) all required components of your application? Most colleges require you to submit (or arrange for others to submit) materials in addition to your application form, such as supplemental forms, high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores.
  • Proofread. Read your application from beginning to end, looking for errors. Ask a parent or teacher to read your application as well. Believe it or not, some students who cut and paste material from different apps accidentally include the wrong college name! Did you use any text message or IM lingo, abbreviations, or acronyms that may not be understood? Replace them with spelled out text.
  • Submit carefully. If applying online, submit at least a day ahead of the deadline to avoid online application gridlock. Make sure you get confirmation of submission and print a copy. If sending by mail, sign and date the application and keep a copy. Make sure the address is correct, your fee is included, and you get a receipt at the post office.
So What's  a Certificate of Mailing?

A Certificate of Mailing is a receipt from the U.S. Postal Service that provides evidence of the date that you handed your application to a U.S. post office for mailing. It can only be purchased at the time of mailing and costs about one dollar.


It's financial aid time!

Once admissions applications are in, it's time to focus on applying for financial aid. Here is an introduction to the application forms most commonly required by colleges.

  • The FAFSA. (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is used to apply for need-based federal aid. It's also used by some state aid programs and some colleges to award their own financial aid funds. A new FAFSA is available to submit each January 1.
  • The PROFILE. (CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE) is used by some colleges in addition to or instead of the FAFSA to allocate the college's own aid. A new PROFILE is available each October.
  • Other documents. Some state programs and colleges have their own financial aid applications and may require supporting documents such as tax returns. To find out what's necessary, ask your counselor about state programs and check college websites for details.
  • Scholarships. Some colleges consider you for all available scholarships based on your admissions application, some have separate scholarship applications, and some do both. Check the college website for details.

Getting started

  • Tax returns. Filling out your aid applications will be easier and more accurate if you have completed 2007 tax returns in front of you, even if they are not finalized. Otherwise refer to your 2006 returns and 2007 financial records. You can estimate now and make corrections later.
  • Preparing for the FAFSA. Take a look at the list of documents you should have on hand. Print and fill out the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet, which allows you to read and complete the questions before entering information online.
  • Preparing for the PROFILE. A student guide is available on the PROFILE home page that explains the process you will be following and answers common questions. Once you register, you can print a pre-application worksheet and instructions.
  • Free professional help. During January and February, many states hold special programs like College Goal Sunday that provide free professional assistance with your FAFSA and information about financial aid.

Cost and submission

  • The FAFSA is free. Submitting online is far and away the quicker and most preferred option. PDF and paper copies are available for submission by mail.
  • The PROFILE is not. It costs $25 for your initial college plus $16 for each college selected. You must file it online.


  • College deadlines. Colleges typically set financial aid paperwork deadlines in January or February so they can complete preliminary aid packages in time for admission notifications. For early admission, a college may have a fall deadline for the PROFILE or its own form. Colleges also have deadlines for supporting documents and forms, some of which are required only if you decide to enroll.
  • Other deadlines. Some state and federal aid program deadlines may be later than college deadlines, but it's best to get everything in prior to the earliest deadline of the colleges you are applying to.
So What's  the way to correct your FAFSA or PROFILE?

After your FAFSA is processed, you receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which shows your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the answers you provided, and the colleges you want to receive your data. Check to make sure this information was correct when signed the FAFSA. (You can't update information that changed afterwards.) Make corrections online at or on a printed SAR you mail to the address provided.

After you submit your PROFILE you receive an online Acknowledgment report that contains your college list and your answers. You can add more colleges online. To change your answers, you must print the Acknowledgement, write the corrections on it, and mail it directly to the colleges.



Many scholarship deadlines fall between January and April. Use our free Scholarship Finder to find scholarships that are available to students with your qualifications. Each Scholarship Profile lists application requirements and deadlines. Save the Scholarship Profiles to your Data Locker for easy reference.

Power User Tip: Use the keyword search to find more awards! Use it alone and in combination with the pull-down menus. See the keyword instructions for suggestions.



Chenoa was sure that Harvard was her ideal college — until she went for a visit. While the campus was beautiful, she just did not feel at home. Her top choice turned out to be a campus at which she had already spent a summer. Read Chenoa's Student Story about how she picked Tufts!

What's New at COLLEGEdata?

Preview your FAFSA results now!

Want an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and financial aid eligibility for 2008-09? Use our EFC Calculator, which is based on the same formula the government uses when processing your FAFSA. The EFC Calculator is simple to use, with lots of help at every step.

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What advice would you give students and parents whose goals and expectations about college seem to be at odds?

Choosing a post-secondary path is one of the first big decisions young adults make, and they can benefit from discussing the pros and cons of different ideas with their parents. It is important for parents to provide guidance, yet allow their children to lead the college search process and make the final decision. Making big life decisions helps to develop the maturity and independence that causes a student to thrive when they leave home. In the end, if students and parents share information and truly listen to each other's ideas, they may find that their ultimate goals are very similar!

Erin Hays
Associate Dean of Admission
Gonzaga University
Spokane, WA

The truth is that you can have a wonderful experience, make fantastic friends, and increase your chances of success at pretty much any school that feels like good match to you - if you get excited about it and make a solid effort. And mom and dad should know it's the same for them. They will find things to brag about no matter where you go.

Andrew Flagel
Dean of Admissions
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

I suggest that both parent and student independently list the student's strengths, weaknesses, requirements for academic success and what makes him or her happy. Almost always, the lists are very similar. Then they should talk about potential goals and expectations.

Susan Hanflik
Certified Educational Planner
Cranston, RI

COLLEGEword: Expert advice from real admissions officers and college counselors to help you choose, prepare, apply, and pay for college.

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What if your application goes missing?

In a busy admissions office, it's not unusual for there to be a delay between the arrival of application materials and when they are logged and placed into individual applicant files. Don't panic if you receive a notice that something you know you submitted is missing. Chances are it's there, but has not yet made it into your file. Let the admissions office know when you submitted it and ask whether they would like you to resubmit it. If anything is truly missing, try not to worry. In nearly all cases the admissions office will give you the opportunity to resubmit it and your application will not be penalized.


Plan your test taking schedule

Now's the time to plan your spring SAT and/or ACT testing schedule. Spring testing will give you time to retake the tests if you want to improve your scores. You can plan your SAT preparation based on the strengths and weaknesses revealed by your PSAT results. If you are taking any of the SAT Subject Tests, plan to take them as soon as possible after your class in that subject is complete. Check Upcoming Dates below for test registration deadlines.


Now begins the waiting

Once the applications are in, it's good to get back to "normal". Focusing on regular family and school activities can help reassure an anxious student. Also focus on simply enjoying your time with your child. In a very short time, he or she may be living in a world far from your doorstep. For more thoughts on the waiting period, take a look at our article How to Survive Before Decisions Arrive.



Have you received admission results?

Update your Admissions Profile now to add your latest results to the Admissions Tracker database! Don't have a Profile yet? Join the excitement by starting one! See who got in where and how you compare. The Admissions Tracker is one of the most popular destinations on COLLEGEdata. Find out why!



1/26SAT & Subject Tests test date
1/29Reg. deadline for 3/1 SAT & Subject Tests
2/9ACT test date


Optimist International Essay Contest

The Optimist International Foundation offers scholarships ranging from $6,000 to $650 to students writing on the topic "Today's Choices Shape My Future". Students should be under 19 years of age as of December 31. Essays should be submitted to your local Optimist Club. Deadlines vary by club, but are usually in early February. Email to find your local club.



Which college has Roadkill Buffet on the menu? Click here to find out!



Find out the answers to these questions in the current issue of our Paying for College Q&A newsletter:

Current Issue

Q: What happens if I get a lot of financial aid and then a big scholarship? Will the college reduce my aid?

Q: I am thinking of opening a 529 account to save for my child's college education. Is it true that the earnings will be entirely tax free?

Next Issue

Q: How is financial need calculated for children with divorced parents?

Q: I think my family income is too high to get any financial aid. Why should I bother to go through the hassle of applying for aid?

Just for Fun Answer
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers over 330 clubs and organizations, including the Assassins' Guild, which runs "real-time real-space" role playing games on campus; the Solar Electric Vehicle Team, which is dedicated to building and promoting alternatively powered vehicles; and the Roadkill Buffet, which explores "the limits of known thought in order to deliver completely unprepared improvisational comedy to MIT".