College Planning: Where to Begin

March 22nd, 2013 @

If you are a high school student, sometimes the process of preparing for college can seem overwhelming. You’ve got to keep your grades up. There are extra-curricular activities to focus on. You must prepare for standardized tests like the SAT. Not to mention all of the decisions that must be made when it comes to actually applying to colleges.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to simplify things. And one of the best ways to simplify is to just… make a list. Identify your priorities and get to work. To that end, a recent article in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel offers three helpful places to begin preparing for the college application process:

Begin the search. Students and their parents should compile a list of colleges in which they might be interested. The College Board’s BigFuture.org, which houses data on thousands of colleges as well as financial aid options and other important information, is a good place to start.

Decide when to take the SAT. There are three opportunities to take the SAT this spring: March 9, May 4 and June 1. Many students choose to take the SAT during their junior year, so they have the opportunity to get their applications in earlier as seniors. Students who think that the SAT and college applications are beyond their reach financially should talk to their guidance counselor about applying for an SAT Fee Waiver, which covers the cost of two SAT administrations, two SAT Subject Test administrations, extra score sends and college application fees at participating colleges.

Create a study plan. There is no shortcut to performing well on the SAT. Students who perform best on the exam are those who take rigorous courses and complete a core curriculum in school. But there is value in becoming familiar with question format and practicing. The College Board provides free and low-cost resources on the SAT website, including practice questions, detailed answer explanations, a full-length exam, SAT Online Course and the Official SAT Study Guide. Students will also find recommendations on test strategy, personalized study plans and tips for test day.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that—but these steps are a good starting point for a high school student. If you’d like to learn more, or if you’d like some help preparing your own plan for choosing (and paying for) your college, please get in touch with us today!

College Planning 101: Four Keys to a Stronger Financial Aid Appeals Letter

February 20th, 2013 @

Paying for college is difficult—and it grows more expensive each year. For that reason, it’s critical that families and students do everything they can to lower their costs. Unfortunately, many families don’t realize how many opportunities actually exist to keep costs down, and as a result end up paying much more for college than they should.

One of these key principles which many people don’t recognize is that the process of securing financial aid is a negotiation. Colleges don’t want you to know this, of course. They want you to think that whatever they offer you in their award letter is final—their best offer. The truth is that, with the right strategy, you can often earn tens of thousands of dollars in additional financial aid beyond the original offer.

Today, we’re going to take a few moments to discuss the process of appealing your financial aid award. It’s a process that can save you a significant amount of money, so pay attention! Below are four principles to keep in mind while writing your letter of appeal:

Start by following directions. College financial aid departments are like any other organization—they have a process and a procedure that must be followed. The school will provide instructions for appealing your award amount, so make sure you follow them closely. Otherwise your appeal may never be seriously considered.

Provide a “rationale” for increased aid. One of the best ways to receive additional aid is to demonstrate something that you’ve done to earn additional aid. For instance, if your grades have improved since your original application, or if you re-took the SAT and got a higher score, emphasize these details. If you can show that you’re now a better fit for the school, there’s a great chance you’ll receive a higher award amount.

Create competition. If you’re considering several different possible schools, let each of them know it. Tell them that the amount of aid you receive may be a determining factor. This bit of “encouragement” is often enough to prompt a better offer.

Stay engaged. Don’t mail the letter and then forget about it. Call after a few days to follow up. If you don’t get an answer, continue to stay on top of your aid counselor to ensure that your appeal isn’t overlooked.

The right financial aid appeals strategy can literally save you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your college career. If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch with us today!

College Planning 101: How the “Fiscal Cliff” Legislation Impacts Education Tax Credits and Deduction

January 22nd, 2013 @

Last month, it was virtually impossible to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without seeing a screaming headline detailing the latest developments in the “fiscal cliff” debate. As you probably know, that debate ultimately ended with an agreement which kept the nation from going “over the cliff”, at least temporarily.

What you may not realize is that the legislation also contains provisions which benefit most students and their families.

Specifically, deductions for most tuition expenses will once again be allowed. Known as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, this legislation provides a tax break for most middle class families as they attempt to pay for higher education.

This provision allows families to deduct up to $2,500 per year, per student, for tuition, fees, and other course materials (such as lab fees). If your income is less than $160,000 as a married couple, or $80,000 as a single taxpayer, you should be able to receive this credit for each student, during each of his or her first four years.

The bill provides a credit, dollar for dollar, on the first $2,000 you spend on qualified college costs. It provides a 25% credit for the next $2,000, which gives you a possible total of $2,500. As an added benefit, up to $1,000 of this credit is refundable—which means you’ll get a check if you don’t owe taxes at the end of the year.

This has repercussions on student loans, as well. Interest paid on student loans may be deductible as well, depending on your circumstances. If your adjusted gross income is under $130,000 (if filing as a couple) or under $65,000 (if you’re single), you may be able to deduct up to $2,500 annually.

So while very few of us enjoyed the partisan bickering that plagued Washington DC during the holiday season, the eventual outcome provides some good news for families and students who face rapidly increasing education costs. If you’d like to learn more about these opportunities, or if you’d like advice specific to your situation, please get in touch with us today!

College Planning 101: Plan Ahead and Save Money!

December 14th, 2012 @

We spend most of our time on this blog discussing college planning strategies that are relatively short-term, often intended for high school juniors and seniors, or current college students.

But every once in a while, we get questions from families that have students preparing for or just entering high school. They typically want to know if there is anything they can do at this juncture in order to help make college more affordable. The answer is a definite yes—and a recent article in the LA Times provides two such ideas:

AP classes: Advanced Placement classes taken in high school can count as college units, if the student both passes the class and the requisite AP test following it. Although schools differ on how they accept the AP units, good grades in these classes almost always boost a child’s grade-point average and make the student more attractive as a college prospect. The more attractive the child is to the college, the more accommodating officials are to the need for aid, said Chany, who runs Campus Consultants in New York. Better yet, schools that accept AP units allow the student to take fewer college units, and that usually means lower college bills.

PSATs: High school sophomores and juniors should focus on studying for PSATs. The PSAT results are not provided to colleges. But the student’s score determines eligibility for National Merit Scholarships. These generous awards are given only to those who score within the top 1% of their state’s graduates, and who have both excellent grades and excellent recommendations from teachers. That makes the awards rare. Of the roughly 1.4 million students who take the PSAT each year, only about 8,000 win the $2,500 grant from the National Merit Corp.

But becoming a National Merit finalist can trigger eligibility for generous school-based merit scholarships that can range from several thousand dollars off tuition costs to a full ride. So studying hard for this test can reap many rewards. Roughly 34,000 students each year receive commendations from National Merit Corp., recognition that improves the college application and often leads to bigger helpings of college-based aid.

These two strategies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to long-term strategies for reducing the cost of college. If you’d like more information, please get in touch with us today!

College Admissions 101: What You Need to Know About the SAT

November 20th, 2012 @

As the school year moves along, high school students spend more and more time thinking and hearing about the SAT. This attention is a good thing, considering the important role that the SAT and other standardized tests have in the college admissions process. Many students and parents don’t realize that these standardized tests also play a huge role in determining the amount of financial aid that a student can qualify for—so there’s even more reason to take it seriously.

However, in many cases we have found that students hear so much about the SAT that it becomes “bigger and scarier” than it needs to be. So in an effort to help you put it in context, we’re going to spend some time today separating fact and fiction as we share the most important information that you need to know about the SAT.

First, let’s talk about what the SAT is. It’s a standardized test, published by a non-profit organization known as College Board, which many colleges and universities use during their admissions process.

Some believe that you “can’t study” for the SAT. And while it is true that you can’t simply memorize facts like you would for a history test, you can and should spend time preparing.

The SAT consists of three sections, each of which evaluates a different element of your education. The first is critical reading. Second is math. And third is the writing section. Each section of the test is worth 800 points—meaning that a perfect score would be 2400.

Well over 3 million students take the SAT each year—both in the United States and around the world. Each year, the SAT is offered 7 times. While the exact dates vary from year to year, current schedules are readily available online.

The SAT is a test—nothing more, nothing less. Granted, it’s an important test. But the fact that you can take it more than once means that, as long as you plan ahead, you don’t have to view it as “one shot” to get into a great school. Take your time preparing, and make sure you start early enough in your high school career that you can re-take the SAT if necessary. If you’d like to learn more about the SAT, or if you’d like help preparing, please get in touch with us today!

College Admissions: Preparing for the SAT, ACT, and Other Standardized Tests

October 19th, 2012 @

For millions of high school students across the country, “testing season” is fast approaching. Whether it is the SAT, ACT, or other standardized tests, students will spend tens of millions of hours collectively preparing. And with good reason—after all, standardized test scores play a significant role both in gaining admission to a college, and in determining the amount of financial aid that will be awarded. For that reason, it is important that students take preparation for these tests very seriously. Below are several tips that will help with this process:

Test Preparation

  • Work through practice tests in the months and weeks leading up to your test. There are plenty of valuable resources and classes available out there, but nothing prepares you for the test as well as actually practicing… so take advantage!
  • Go over the rules of your exam in depth so that you can prepare your strategy—for instance, is there a “penalty” for choosing the wrong answer? If so, you’ll want to think twice before guessing at an answer, depending on how much you’ll be penalized.
  • Make sure you get a good night sleep before the exam… at this point, “cramming” won’t help you nearly as much as sleep.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast the morning of your test.
  • Bring a sweater or jacket in case the testing room is uncomfortably cool.
  • Arrive at the testing facility a few minutes early—and leave room for traffic and other delays.

During the Test

  • Read the instructions carefully to avoid mistakes.
  • Slow yourself down as you read each question to ensure that you don’t mis-read an important piece of information.
  • Pace yourself—don’t spend too much time on any particular section. Make sure you finish the test!
  • If you find yourself stuck on a particular question, don’t let it eat up all your time. Move on and come back to it at the end.
  • Don’t panic, even if you encounter a string of difficult questions. Have confidence in yourself and in your preparations.

Questions or comments? Would you like to learn more? Please don’t hesitate to contact us today!

College Planning 101: How to Pay Less for College

September 17th, 2012 @

As you know, college costs are continuing to skyrocket across the nation. This is a major problem for millions of American families who know that college holds the key to the career success of their children—but don’t want to take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt in pursuit of a degree. Unfortunately, there’s not much reason to expect this situation to get better. Politicians in both parties talk about the importance of affordable education… but they’ve talked that way for decades, and prices have continued to skyrocket.

But just because the cost of a college degree has continued to rise doesn’t mean that your family has to pay the price. There are a number of strategies that can help you get more money in the form of financial aid, greatly reducing the amount you are forced to pay out of your savings—or borrow.

It starts with determining your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Your EFC is essentially the amount of money you are expected to contribute to the cost of your (or your child’s) education. Your EFC is used by the college to determine how much financial aid to award. (The higher the EFC, the less need-based aid that will be awarded.) Unfortunately, many families find that their EFC is significantly higher than they can actually afford.

As you can see, lowering your EFC is a great way to receive more financial aid. And believe it or not, there are a number of completely legal ways to do this—including timing big purchases, avoiding capital gains, paying down debt, etc. (Note that this process can be very complicated—we highly recommend that you give us a call if you’d like to learn more!) It’s obviously important that you avoid dishonesty and misrepresentation of your financial picture, as these actions will come back to harm you at some point.

If you would like to learn more about minimizing your EFC in order to maximize the amount of financial aid you or your student receives, get in touch with us today. In today’s competitive economy, a college degree is more important than ever before—but also much more expensive. Let us help you ensure that your student receives the education he or she needs… without sacrificing your financial future!

Heading Off to College? Five Tips to Keep in Mind

August 22nd, 2012 @

If you’re a graduated high school senior getting ready to head off to college in the next few weeks, you’ve got a million thoughts running through your mind. From saying goodbye to friends and family at home to finalizing details for your first semester away, there is plenty to worry about. Today, I wanted to take a moment and share a few tips that should make the transition easier for you. (If you’re a parent, feel free to send these on to your student!)

1) Don’t panic if you don’t know what you want to study. Some students have had their career planned out since middle school, and they know exactly what they want to study in college. And that’s fine—but there is also nothing wrong with not knowing, especially early in one’s college career. You will have plenty of time to talk to people, seek advice, and discover your passion during your first couple of semesters. Don’t panic if you aren’t yet sure what to major in.

2) Be ready for a busy first week or two. There are few experiences in life that are more intense than your first few weeks at school. You’re adjusting to life away from home. You’re missing friends and family. You’re meeting new friends. You’re adjusting to a new academic environment. It’s intense, to say the least. Be ready!

3) Designate specific time for studying. On most college campuses, there is always something to do. Dedicate sufficient time each day to study, and stick to it.

4) Be open to new relationships and new opportunities. Every college is full of diverse individuals with a wide variety of life experiences. Take advantage of the opportunity this represents!

5) Talk to your roommates ahead of time. Finally, a practical note. If you haven’t already done so, have a conversation with your roommate or roommates. Get to know each other a bit. Talk about who is bringing what—there is no sense in both of you bringing a Playstation, for instance. You’ll be glad you took the time to do this.

As always, if you have any specific questions or comments, please contact us today!

Manage College Costs by Maximizing Grants, Scholarships, and Other Aid

July 20th, 2012 @

College is expensive, and growing more so every day. And while a small percentage of families can simply pull out the checkbook and pay the bill without sacrificing other priorities, for most the skyrocketing cost of college means taking out additional loans, postponing vacations, or pulling money out of retirement accounts.

At US College Planning, our goal is to make college as affordable as we can for families so that their children can obtain a world-class education without sacrificing their financial future. And one of the most important ways that we do this is by maximizing the aid each student is awarded from their school.

Below are three ways to accomplish this:

1) Apply to five or more schools. The laws of supply and demand apply as much to the college admissions game as they do anywhere else. If you or your student is admitted to only one university, you are at the mercy of that school when it comes to your aid award. Conversely, if you apply to six or seven and are accepted to three or four of them, you have dramatically increased your leverage. Many students have their heart set on a single college, and that’s fine—but understand that zeroing in on a single school dramatically reduces your ability to negotiate a great aid package.

2) Skip early decision. For the same reason that you should apply to a variety of schools, we recommend avoiding the early decision process. Sure, it increases your chances of admission—but if you are accepted, you are at the mercy of that single financial aid department, as we discussed above. Keep your options open and you’ll have a better chance of negotiating a great package.

3) Adjust your assets to maximize aid eligibility. The process of determining financial aid eligibility is exceptionally complicated, and in almost every case the financial circumstances of the family comes in to play. At times, short term asset allocation changes can make a big difference—contact us for more specific information.

Don’t pay more for college than you must—give us a call today if you’d like to learn more!

Six Steps for a Stronger SAT Essay

June 22nd, 2012 @

The essay section of the SAT is a recent addition to the test—and as a result, many parents and students aren’t sure what to expect. Today, I’m going to share six steps that will help you as you prepare for the test—and as you write your essay on test day.

1) Relax and understand that the essay section is only worth 10% of your total score. Of course, 10% isn’t insignificant—but many students spend more time and energy worrying about the essay than they do about the rest of the test. Keep the essay in perspective!

2) Don’t aim for perfection. The SAT graders understand that you are hand-writing your essay, and that you have a very limited time to do so. They aren’t expecting a flawless, finely polished document. Concentrate on communicating your ideas and don’t worry about getting every single detail right.

3) Read the essay prompt more than once. It’s not uncommon for a student to misread an essay prompt, and, as a result, write their entire essay on the wrong premise. Take your time reading the prompt, and re-read it at least once just to be sure.

4) Be concise. Quantity does not equal quality—at least not on the SAT. Concentrate on the quality of your ideas and make your points as concisely as possible. 4-5 well thought-out paragraphs is usually plenty!

5) Start with an outline. Don’t just dive right in—take a few moments before you start writing to sketch out a brief outline. This will ensure that you have enough information to support your thesis, and will also help you to budget your time.

6) Remember to proofread. Budget a few moments at the end of the essay section to proofread your work. As discussed above, minor mistakes are not going to hurt you much—but any obvious misspellings or grammatical errors should be corrected. It’s important to take at least one practice test so that you know how much time you’ll need to proofread.

The SAT Essay section is intimidating for many students—but it doesn’t have to be. Contact us today if you’d like to learn more!