College Update. The Boring Stuff First.

You may have noticed that after talking about our early, more “exploratory” college visits, I went radio silent on the college application process. Back in September, I mentioned that M was doing more visits, but then I said that I’d “stay deliberately vague on the finer points of the college search” for a while.

Well, it’s time for an update! So, first, we’re effectively done with the whole college application process, and I have to say that it was. . . not terrible? It’s been more manageable than I expected, and much of that is because of the online Common Application, which makes things much more streamlined than it was back when I was applying to schools back in Ye Olden Tymes. It also helps that M is really extraordinarily self-motivated and organized. While 30-something years ago her mother had to be grounded by her parents in order to produce a list of possible colleges and her father barely bothered to apply, sending one application overnight the day before it was due, M was diligent and spearheading her search from the start.

We also met with Kelly Linehan, a teacher at M’s school who does college consulting. The first time we met, it was because we’d won a free hour of consulting, but we scheduled two more meetings with her. It was well worth paying her to keep our overall stress levels down, to have an expert to consult on random questions, and to set meetings into our calendar to keep us on track. I was most impressed with how she helped M with her college essay. Yes, I write and edit, but of course the college essay is pretty specialized, and it’s tough to offer up edits without just re-writing the damn thing. Kelly sat with M and managed to talk through her essay draft in a way that M never would have tolerated with me. She did a great job of prompting M to find her own words so that it really was M’s authentic voice saying what M wanted to say, but she helped her make it much more compelling and vivid by bringing details to the important stuff and dumping what was extraneous.

One of the tougher decisions was whether to apply ED. In the many years since I paid attention to this stuff, applying Early Decision has become much bigger in the application process. If you apply to a college ED, you’re basically saying that you’re committed to enrolling in that school if they let you in. The sacrifice, there, is that you can’t weigh the various financial aid packages for the best possible deal, but now it seems that many of the colleges will release you if you just can’t afford it, so for those, you could potentially wait to see how the money works out first, and then if another college offered a significantly better package, you could point to that. Plus, some schools will actually offer a merit scholarship specifically for ED students. Obviously you’d only apply ED to your favorite college, but there’s a huge incentive for the colleges to push ED in order to capture those committed students, and so they accept more of those students. Just two examples from among schools we visited (I got these numbers from Kelly Linehan, who got them from folks who called a bunch of schools): the Bates College admittance rate for ED was 48% and Regular Decision was down to 18% admittance rate; 71% of their class was filled by ED students. At Williams College, ED admittance was 35% compared to 13% for RD. So deciding whether she should apply ED somewhere became a big question for M.

As for the FAFSA, well, yes, it was a dreadful process. In particular, the online application was supposed to sync with the IRS online services so you could press a button to import your relevant tax records. Except when I tried it, the system kept telling me that it didn’t know who I was. After 45 minutes of failed syncs and me re-checking accounts and passwords, I called the help line and struggled to connect with a human willing to talk to me. When I finally did, she said, “Oh, yeah, that sync with the IRS doesn’t work.” And I was like, maybe it would be more helpful if the error message said that this function isn’t working instead of just offering up a completely unrelated error message. I am letting you know in case you’ll be doing this in the future. And also because I am still a little bitter about this. Anyway, along with the government FAFSA, there’s the College Board’s CSS Profile, which is supplemental information that some private colleges require. Linehan described it as something like, “They ask you to just check underneath all of your sofa cushions in case you have any loose change.” After filling out that big ol’ form, you have to upload a bunch of images of forms, and sometimes you can upload a bunch simultaneously and sometimes the system gets annoyed and you have to upload one at a time–which I am telling you so that you can save yet another 45 minutes followed by a helpline call that I wasted on this issue.

So, yes, the forms were a bit excruciating, but also, I guess, informative, because I usually don’t spend much time examining our entire financial life. More than that, I am so terrible with remembering numbers that if you ask me how much we paid for our house or how much I make in a year, I will have to go look it up. Just as well, really, because those are rude questions to ask–ha, ha. But it’s the same with dates. This is a running challenge in our family because if anyone starts talking about future plans I just have to go grab my calendar, because anything more than five days ahead is a blur without reference material. So in a way, it’s nice to have a handy financial summary of our lives printed out in a handy folder. I’m looking for the silver lining here, people!

Okay, that’s all the general information/context stuff. Next will be the juicier college sports tea followed by Dramatic Life Decisions!

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