Study Skills for Better Grades with Less Stress

Study Skills Better Grade Less Stress

In the process of advising teens and families on how to best prepare for college admission, I often suggest a student work to improve his or her grades. Sometimes better grades simply require getting serious or devoting a little more time and effort. However, in many cases students don’t know what to do. That’s where study skills enter the picture.

I’m familiar with a variety of strategies and organizational techniques, but I’m not an expert. But I do work with someone who specializes in these areas—Gretchen Wegner. The greatest compliment I can pay my podcast co-host Gretchen is that she helps me learn new study strategies, even if I’m initially doubtful.

I’m a “just the facts” person when it comes to studying. I was always good at school and test taking was a skill that came easily, so I didn’t want to waste time on “creative” study solutions. I could read the chapter, complete the assignment, and get top grades without too much effort. Gretchen has spent her career working with students who need another approach.

If you have ever struggled in a subject or studied only to find it wasn’t enough, you know that some of the “old school” approaches to education aren’t sufficient. Gretchen combines the latest research in brain science and learning with an understanding of teens to present strategies that really work.

Here are some of my favorites. (Click on the titles to access that episode on The College Prep Podcast website.)

 

080: The Right & Wrong Ways to Study with Flashcards

I’m a big fan of flashcards— specifically the paper ones you can shuffle and sort which have some functionality that apps like Quizlet can’t replace. When Gretchen introduced me to some of the strategies listed in this episode, I was skeptical. (I’m not a personal fan of “fun” activities; I’d rather just study the cards.) Why should we add in “silly” activities to regular study? Because it works. Well. Since this podcast aired a year ago, I have encouraged my students, and even my own daughter, to incorporate these techniques.

In Gretchen’s academic coaching practice, she notices students mindlessly use flashcards. This makes studying take longer and results in less effective learning.

In this interactive podcast, Gretchen walks listeners step by step through her favorite technique for using flashcards to turn your brain ALL the way on. Come with a few blank index cards (or a torn sheet of paper) and follow along. You’ll discover:

  • The less effective ways students use flashcards
  • How to use categories and grouping to turn your brain to “on” while you learn
  • How to infuse silliness while still learning effectively, and
  • Ways to invite family and friend to play with flashcards, in order to make info stick longer

If you’d like more practice with this creative technique, or want to learn 10+ additional techniques for taking the boredom out of studying, check out the Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying.

 

143: How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours

One of the most time consuming activities for students is reading! And most students don’t effectively read most assignments. (Eyes moving over the pages won’t help if the information never enters their brains.)

In this episode discover simple tips for reading faster and more effectively than you ever thought possible. Learn:

  • The section of the book readers usually skip (but shouldn’t)
  • How to skim for the structure of the information so you remember the main points
  • How to find secret clues inside the chapter that will allow you to quickly identify main ideas
  • How to use your hand while you read to help you read faster
  • How to annotate a nonfiction text (it’s not what your teacher taught you!)

 

130: How to Get Homework Started Painlessly with the Pomodoro Method

As a parent I’m pretty fortunate when it comes to the task of refereeing homework. My fourth grader comes home and immediately starts his work and my high schooler may grumble some days, but has always been self-motivated. I know not all parents are as lucky.

Initiating homework is a hard task for students! Especially students with executive function challenges (planning, organization, self-monitoring, prioritization, task initialization, etc.)

Tune in to this episode to learn about why the Pomodoro technique is such a good antidote to getting work started, and how to set yourself up for success with this technique, including:

  • What the Pomodoro Technique is, and why it’s so helpful for students
  • 4 tips to get your work space set up so that you make the most of the Pomodoro Technique
  • How to adjust it for your unique work style
  • How to take breaks that refresh you, so that you’re ready to come back for more

This is another example of one of Gretchen’s techniques I doubted when I first heard of it, but that I have started using at home.

 

Here are some other great episodes to help you build your study skills arsenal:

014: How to Study So Well You are 100% Ready for Every Test

128: How to Help Teens Get Control of Their Schedules

029: How Parents Can Raise Teens Who Manage Time Well with Leslie Josel

010: How to Take Powerful Notes That Make Key Points Stick

100: The Key to Inspiring Students to Study Strategically

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Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking

 

Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?

 

Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!

 

Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.

 

 

 

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Strategies for Your First College Visit

University of Houston College Visit

The entire college admissions process has accelerated over the past ten years. Now you will find some state university applications due November or December 1 and a general push to complete the process before January 1. This means families can’t wait until the fall of a student’s senior year to start researching schools. And this is what drives families to start campus visits during a student’s junior (or even sophomore or freshman) year.

Over Thanksgiving week my family did our first “official” campus visit for our daughter, a current sophomore. Of course, she has tagged along on a few of my college visits over the years, but this was the first stop directed towards helping her make decisions for her college list.

We are approaching this process strategically and I’m going to share my rationale with you.

Tip 1: Make Your First Visit to a Campus Nearby

This is not the time to travel across country to see the big schools on a student’s wish list. Your goal with this visit is to start making college a reality. Start with an easy trip.

Also, high school students are often dazzled by features that are commonplace, so you want to get the wonderment out at a place you can easily revisit. It is not uncommon for students to fall in love with one of the first colleges they see and if this happens at nearby campus, you can revisit multiple times before sending applications.

We toured the University of Houston Main Campus. We brought the entire family, so this was the first college visit for my 10-year-old son. After the introductory talk where he heard there was an all-you-can-eat cafeteria that served dessert daily and multiple Pokemon gyms on campus, he was ready to enroll. Typically it takes a little more to impress high school students, but Starbucks in the library, lazy rivers in the fitness center, and redesigned dorms are big selling points and can distract students from finding out more about the university. (Features sell, so I reminded the family that we are investing in an education not a social club, or in my son’s case, a 24-hour gaming paradise.)

Tip 2: Visit a State University (In Your State)

There is a reason car sales people like to have you test drive the high end models first: first impressions matter. If your college visits begin at a school where you qualify for in-state tuition, you are setting expectations at the most affordable end of the shopping spectrum. Don’t worry, you can always look at pricier or more prestigious options later.

As I mentioned above, students often fall in love with schools they see early in the search process. Walking around campus, your student may picture him or herself studying in the quad, attending football games, and taking part in campus traditions. The next campus you visit will be compared to this first visit. Don’t drive the high-end luxury vehicle first then expect your student to want the in-state tuition model.

You do not need to visit the top or flagship university in your state either. The goal is to visit an affordable school that can serve as the basis for future comparison. We did not visit our local community college because we don’t see that as part of the college plan. We also didn’t wait until we could make a trip to the higher ranked state universities (University of Texas, Austin and Texas A&M). We started at a nearby state university that may or may not be our first choice, but is definitely worth consideration.

Tip 3: Visit a School Where Your Student Will Likely Be Accepted

This continues the theme from the first two tips– make this visit something realistically attainable. I’ve never had a client tell me they regretted keeping schools on the list where their child was likely to be admitted. These schools represent options.

Every year I have clients tell me they wish they had spent more time looking at schools that were more realistic choices. Last year I had a client take a 10-day college tour to visit most of the Ivy League universities and other top schools on the east coast. They visited all the big-name high-profile schools, most with admission rates under 20%. The student applied to two of these colleges, but after an early decision rejection, decided she needed to add more schools where she had more than a long-shot chance at admission. The rest of these big-name schools quickly fell off the list as the family scrambled to see schools with more attainable admissions standards.

Before our family visit we looked up the admissions statistics for University of Houston. Our daughter doesn’t have class rank data yet, but we are guessing she will be in the top 10%. Until we have more data from her school, we will look at top 10% and top 25%. At University of Houston, all top 10% graduates are automatically admitted; top 25% graduates need an SAT score of 1080 or ACT score of 21. Based on PSAT results, our daughter would be accepted.

You may not find the admissions guidelines as clear cut at universities near you, but take time to do some research. There are four-year schools out there for motivated and academically able students– even students who graduate in the fourth quarter of their classes. If you have a student with low grades and low test scores, you may have to do a little more work to find those schools were acceptance is likely, but this will be part of your college search process anyway.

It is easy to look past the impossibly low acceptance rates and dream when visiting campuses early on, but when it comes to crafting a well-balanced college list with plenty of opportunity for admission, visiting more realistic options is a smart way to start the process.

Tip 4: Focus on Positive Features

Every school has positives. Start the process by setting this tone and avoiding ideas like “its just a backup school.” When your family looks to highlight the good in each school, you can develop a balanced list of schools without setting your student up for later disappointment with “lesser schools” he or she had to “settle for”.

I find most students are willing to list the strengths of any school they visit. Most negatives are things they have heard from peers or family members. The sooner you set the tone for the college search in your family, the better.

My husband and I both graduated from Rice University and his family has a long history at Texas A&M. It would have been easy for us to talk down University of Houston by saying it is a fallback or safe school. We could have tainted the process early on by bad-mouthing rival schools. But we didn’t. We went into that campus tour ready to sell the experience at University of Houston just as we might talk up our own alma matter.

Be on the lookout for positive stories from friends, neighbors, and co-workers. (Really once people hear you are looking at colleges they will give you unsolicited advice just as people did when they found you were expecting a baby.) I have the benefit of working with lots of students.

On our drive to University of Houston I talked about our neighbor who is a freshman in UH’s Honors College. She had been admitted to a variety of prestigious schools and had spent most of her senior year anticipating attending UT Austin (until she found she would receive a full scholarship and a place in the UH Honors College.) We talked about all the wonderful opportunities our neighbor will be able to experience because her college education is paid for. We are already planting the idea that seeking out scholarship opportunities is a good plan.

Look for the selling points at any school you visit and take the opportunity to promote any features of importance to your family.

Tip 5: Take Notes to Refine Your Search

After your visit make a list of likes and dislikes. Try to do this as soon after your visit as possible. We worked on our list during our car ride home, taking turns mentioning things we liked about University of Houston then listing things we aren’t sure about. We did discuss the fact that UH is a large school and some classes might be large, but we didn’t have a lot of dislikes because it was our first visit. Use the feedback from your first college visit to guide future plans.

I will keep you posted on our family’s college search. Right now our plan is to visit one or two more Texas universities this spring. We are also looking to add a couple college visits onto a trip we are taking to New York in June. I’m sure after a couple more visits we will have a better list of likes and dislikes to help guide the process.

 

 

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The Good and Bad of the PSAT for the Average Test Taker

(If you missed the article on the PSAT for National Merit Scholarships, you can find it here.)

Most students will take the PSAT this October with no expectation of earning National Merit recognition for high scores. For the average test taker the PSAT presents an opportunity to practice testing, identify strengths and weaknesses, and begin incorporating standardized test results into the college search process—all positive outcomes. But the PSAT can include some negative consequences that students and parents should understand.

The PSAT or Preliminary SAT is given each October. For the highest scoring students, the PSAT offers prospects of National Merit recognition, but for the other 90-95% of test takers, it is just a practice test. This is both good and bad.

The Good

There are a lot of good things students and families can gain by participating in the PSAT.

Good: Colleges never use PSAT scores to make admissions decisions. This means a student can get an honest snapshot of his or her anticipated SAT scores without worry that those scores will be sent to colleges later in the admissions process.

Good: PSAT results show students’ strengths and weaknesses in testing and offer suggestions for improvement.

Good: PSAT scores are now on a similar scale to the SAT scores so families can compare results with the averages at colleges they consider. Remember the new SAT is back to two sections: reading / writing and math. Scores range from 200 to 800 per section, so the new perfect score is 1600.

Because the PSAT is just a little shorter (15 minutes) and a little easier (couple fewer questions and not quite as many really hard ones) the scores are scaled downward. Students can score between 160 and 760 on the PSAT. The missing 40 points per section are intended to show students there is still some work to be done between the PSAT and the SAT.

Students can use PSAT scores for comparison as they learn more about college admissions requirements. A 10th grader who scored a 720 in reading / writing (R/W) and a 460 in math can compare those results to the average scores at schools on her list:

  • Elon University (NC): 610-690 (R/W) & 580-670 Math
  • William & Mary (VA): 680-750 (R/W) & 650-760 Math
  • Stanford (CA): 730-790 (R/W) & 730-800 Math
  • Elizabethtown College (PA): 540-660 (R/W) & 530-640 Math
  • Texas State: 500-600 (R/W) & 510-580 Math

This student can quickly conclude that her math score needs work. Obviously, a student in 9th or 10th grade who has not completed Algebra I and Geometry will improve simply by gaining the basic concepts taught in class. Some families will conclude that high quality test prep is appropriate. Having actual numbers from the PSAT gives significance to college admissions statistics for many families and allows for timely planning if improvements are needed.

Good: Around the country more high schools are administering the PSAT during the school day, making it a convenient time for all students to practice. Schools and districts have the choice of a Saturday or Wednesday administration of the test. By giving the PSAT during school more students are included.

By contrast, fifteen years ago many districts in my area gave the PSAT on a Saturday morning. This meant participation was limited to those students who had transportation and the initiative to show up at school at 8:00 a.m. on the weekend.

Good: Because the PSAT if often given during school, students grades 9-11 are encouraged to take the exam. This means more students have an idea of what the SAT will look like before they reach that crucial testing time junior year. High scoring students can be identified in 9th or 10th grade in time to prepare for the PSAT in 11th grade. And families can begin using scores sooner—both for test prep and college planning. If your high school does not encourage participation for 10th graders, don’t worry; there are suggestions at the end of this article to help you get these same benefits without having to take the official PSAT.

The Bad

Taking the PSAT is not all good. There are some potential drawbacks families should understand.

Bad: More testing (or practice) is not always better. Some students are further ingraining bad test taking habits. Many parents believe that if there student can just take enough practice tests, he or she will improve, but this isn’t the case. Students who continue to approach the PSAT (SAT or ACT) the same way are proven to earn similar scores. In my experience, students are often “perfecting” bad habits rather than learning from mistakes.

Bad: For students with test anxiety, the PSAT can be terrifying. In these cases, the potential risks of having a bad experience on the PSAT may not be worth any of the benefits. Obviously we want students to feel prepared when they take the SAT as juniors, but taking the PSAT with a group at school may not be the best way to help a student who has already demonstrated issues with test anxiety.

Bad: PSAT scores are not available for months. In 2015 students received their scores in January. This means that by the time results are available, students have completely forgotten what they did on test day, undermining potential to learn from one’s mistakes.

Bad: (This is a big one!) In the past few years College Board has gotten much stricter about cheating. (Headline worthy scandals prompted some of these changes.) Currently students who show “too much” improvement from one test to the next may have their improved scores referred to the office of testing integrity (in other words, the office of “we think you cheated.”) Once scores are called into question, students have little recourse other than taking anther SAT under supervised conditions to prove the better score was genuine.

How does this relate to the PSAT? College Board has used PSAT results as points of comparison. The problem I have with this is that too many students don’t take the PSAT seriously. They don’t take any steps to prepare and show up to school with the idea that “It’s just practice and it doesn’t count toward anything.” In fact, some students are only taking the PSAT because it gets them out of classes for the morning. Unfortunately these “practice scores” could be used against a student later when his or her SAT score shows improvement so significant that the College Board questions the validity of those SAT results.

Ideas & Alternatives

First, talk with your high school student about the PSAT. Make sure he or she understands that scores are for practice, but should be taken seriously.

My daughter is in 10th grade and we have discussed how the PSAT can help us see her strengths and weaknesses and decide if it is worth preparing for next year’s exam in hopes of qualifying for National Merit recognition. She understands this isn’t a test for which she needs to stress-out or spend hours preparing. (Hopefully she will have time to work some practice questions after the speech and debate tournament this weekend.) But she understands that on October 19, she needs to give the PSAT her full attention.

If your student is going to experience undue anxiety about testing, speak to your school counselor about an alternative. Or keep your child home from school that morning. As a parent, you know what is best in this case and if the stress of one more standardized test outweighs the benefits, don’t take the PSAT.

If your high school isn’t offering the PSAT or your child is unable to take it due to schedule conflicts or illness, you have other ways to obtain the benefits of PSAT practice. Take the practice PSAT at home under timed conditions. Hopefully you have received PSAT Practice Test #2 from your school’s guidance counselor. If not, ask for it. If the school doesn’t have one, you can use the PSAT Practice Test #1.

The benefits of taking an official College Board practice test some Saturday morning at your kitchen table are

  • It is free. You might have the cost of printing out the pages, but the test won’t cost you anything.
  • You can get your scores the same day. This is huge for the learning and improvement aspect of the test. When a student scores his or her own test then looks over the problems missed, he or she will gain more from the experience than taking a test in October and months later getting some number from College Board.
  • You can participate in the process. I’ve encouraged some parents to get a second copy of the test and take it alongside their student. Even if you don’t test your own abilities, you can participate in an active discussion on what to do to improve and how these results compare to the average scores at colleges in your area.

Of course, these alternatives are intended for the 95% of students who are not attempting to qualify for National Merit Scholarships by taking the PSAT. If you have a junior who is an ultra-high scoring test taker who may miss the PSAT due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances, you need to contact your high school guidance counselor an get in touch with National Merit ASAP to request an alternate method of consideration.

The PSAT is generally a good experience for average test takers. Take time to discuss the importance of taking the test seriously and spend time over the remainder of the school year using the results to maximize improvement and further your college research.

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FAFSA Change: October 1 = Financial Aid for 2017

 

Today I want to list some actions you can take now that will make life easier throughout the rest of this school year improve your financial aid awards. This information is immediately relevant to families with high school seniors or current college students. If your child is younger, you may want to get ahead by understanding the process now.

Here’s the big news for 2016—the FAFSA application will open on Friday, October 1 this year. In the past families began the FAFSA in January while they tried to estimate their past year’s income tax information. Now you will use your already completed (hopefully!) 2015 tax return.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the first step in the process of obtaining need-based aid from colleges and universities. The FAFSA is a means of evaluation. Completing the FAFSA is like being let in the front door. It doesn’t award you any aid but it’s your first step in the right direction.

Who gets financial aid? Should we apply?

Lots of people. Even middle-class and upper-middle-class families receive financial aid.

Financial aid is based in part on your family income / assets. The other factor in determining financial aid is the cost the college or university your child ultimately attends.

Financial aid is intended to cover the gap between the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the cost of a year’s education at a particular institution. A family with an EFC of $30,000 may not qualify for financial aid at a state university with an expected annual cost of $26,000. However, that same family would qualify for financial aid at the private university that costs $60,000 a year to attend.

How do we know if we qualify?

(Or, do we make too much money to apply?)

There are some online tools to help you estimate cost and financial aid. A good resource is the FAFSA4caster Of course, a lot of the equation depends on your family’s final college choice which may not be determined for months. So the first step in the application process is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

How can you submit the FAFSA?

You can save time and frustration by completing the FAFSA online at https://fafsa.ed.gov

There is an option to complete a paper copy of the FAFSA, but you are more likely to experience delays and data entry errors if you send in a paper application. In this day and age, even for people who don’t have regular Internet access at home, it is well worth completing the online FAFSA even if you need to use a computer at the local library, university, or high school.

How do you apply?

Step 1. You need to get a FSA ID which takes the place of the old pin number. This ID allows you to electronically access and sign your FAFSA application. The process should take less than 5 minutes and can be completed online at https://fsaid.ed.gov/npas/index.htm

Once you have a FSA ID put it somewhere where you will be able to safeguard it, but where you won’t forget or lose it before it’s time to file.

Step 2. Complete the FAFSA application. The window for submitting the FAFSA opens October 1st of a student’s senior year of high school. You will want to have these details handy:

  • Social Security Number (or Alien Registration Number)
  • 2015 federal income tax returns
  • Bank and investment statements
  • Records of any other income that may not be included on your tax return (untaxed income)

The FAFSA looks at student and parent finances, so have these documents handy for you and your student.

Step 3. Submit and wait. Once your data is processed, you will receive an SAR or Student Aid Report. The SAR is essentially a summary of the information you submitted in your FAFSA.

Verify the accuracy of the data and pay careful attention to your EFC– your Expected Family Contribution. This is the amount your family is expected to pay for college next year.

Step 4. Send your FAFSA results to all of the colleges on your list, complete any school specific aid forms, and wait. The FAFSA is the tool to start the process, but it does not award funds; individual schools do. Think of the FAFSA as one part of your application, like the SAT. Make sure you have completed all other required paperwork for financial aid at every college you are still considering. Contact financial aid departments if you have questions or special circumstances. Colleges should contact you with financial aid offers in the spring (and possibly in the fall once your are officially admitted.)

Do you need help completing the FAFSA?

If you can copy numbers from your bank statements and tax return, you can complete the FAFSA without paying someone to help. FAFSA questions about income will prompt you with the exact line numbers from your tax return, so you aren’t left guessing. Take a look at the FAFSA worksheet to see for yourself: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/sites/default/files/2017-18-fafsa-worksheet.pdf If you want to pay for help, you can, but they can’t “find” you extra money; they will just enter your numbers and hit the submit button. You can do this.

Do it now!

The FAFSA starts holding your place in the financial aid line. If you submit it now (in October) you will be in the front of the line when colleges start distributing the “good” aid like grants, which do not need to be paid back. If you forget to fill out the FAFSA or wait until April when you find your son actually was admitted to that really expensive Ivy League school (yes, this happened to a former student of mine), you will find the only aid remaining is student loans.

Ask if you need help.

I’m not a financial guru or a CPA. When I have questions, I pick up the phone and ask for advice. I’ve gotten plenty of free help from college financial aid officers. Additionally, you will find a live chat feature on the FAFSA site to help with questions and most area community colleges offer sessions to help parents and students complete the FAFSA. If you need help, ask.

I’m glad to see the FAFSA timetable start earlier this year. I think it puts the financial process in line with the college application process and helps families with the reality of selecting schools that will ultimately be affordable.

 

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