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PBS: 'Ten Steps to College with the Greenes'

With Howard and Matthew Greene
College Consultants and Hosts
Monday, September 22, 2003; 12:00 PM

Ten Steps to College with the Greenes is a PBS series hosted by college consultants and Knight Ridder columnists Howard and Matthew Greene. The father and son team provide expert advice and how-to strategies for preparing for college. Today's discussion focuses on the importance of extra curricular activities, preparing for admissions interviews and campus visits and how to select the college that best fits your interests and strengths.

The Greenes were online Monday, Sept. 22 at noon ET, to discuss tips on finding the right college and the admissions process.

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The Greenes are authors of the Harper Collins book series "Greenes Guides to Educational Planning." Check your local listings for the PBS series airdates.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Howard and Matthew Greene: We would like to welcome everyone to today's chat about college planning, and encourage you to submit questions on any aspect of educational or financial planning of interest.


Del Ray, Alexandria, Va.: Not a question but a comment. While helping our daughter choose a college, we were struck by how many parents and children waited until the last minute and did so little to inform themselves. I think one of the biggest and most common mistakes is the "Five schools in three days" campus tour. The picture is always the same by day three- grim parents, bored teens, whiny younger siblings, and the end result is a blur of admissions offices and red brick. Parents and students need to research each school, take notes and photos, arrange for faculty interviews and an overnight dorm stay, and not just rely on the admissions office info session. Aside from their informational value, these interactions with the college administration will give you a feel for how helpful and responsive (or not) they can be. You've got to be very realistic about what you want (and can afford!) and what the schools want in a student to find the right fit.

Howard and Matthew Greene: Thanks for a very instructive comment. Visiting college campuses is not just about having personal interviews - the key point is that it is important to get to campus for tours and information sessions. Don't let interviewing control the process. You have far greater flexibility this way than you might have imagined. Additionally, the point about getting overwhelmed with too many visits in one day or during one trip is very important. Families should try to begin visiting campuses during junior year if possible, slowly but surely seeing different campus models, taking careful notes about visits, and starting to establish preferences about types of appropriate colleges, and differences between individual schools early on. If you are a varsity athlete, or starring in a major play, or participating in a similar time-consuming activity you will need to plan time for visits well in advance.


Zurich, Switzerland: We moved from Florida to Zurich, Switzerland in the middle of the school year. Our daughter, (who is a junior this year)had some difficulties adjusting to the methods used by her new school, in a couple of subjects . She ended up the school year with A's, B's, C's and one D. Not very impressive if you read her transcript. How can she offset the low grades in this past year? Or how can she approach them during her college application process?
Thank you for your advice. Sincerely,

Howard and Matthew Greene: Several things can be done. She might consider summer school courses to improve her record, or retake courses where she might have missed a lot of material. Overall, such a move should be explained in eventual college applications, and, in fact, having come from Europe and transitioning to school here can be a real plus in terms of her distinguishing herself and being seen as a "different" kind of applicant. Reassure your daughter that doing well in the fall semester of senior year can confirm that she is a good student and has now made the transition successfully.


Silver Spring, Md.: My son has a 3.4 GPA and 1310 on the SATs plus he is captain of his school academic team and an associate newspaper editor. He is interested in small liberal arts colleges. We've picked several "hard" schools (Grinell, Kenyon, Hamilton, Colorado College, Oberlin) but he needs some "safe" schools. Can you recommend any in the northeast or midwest that we should consider?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Good school selection and initial choices. Some ideas, based on his profile and interests are the following. It seems there are dozens of quality, private liberal arts colleges for him. Some good examples in different regions are: Lawrence, Beloit, Denison, Hobart, St. Lawrence, Franklin and Marshall, Dickinson, Gettysburg. These fit the model of what he's considering. Some will be more competitive than others. It will be important for him and you to consider particular academic programs of interest, social/personal life on these different campuses, and activities he might want to pursue in college. That will help to distinguish the schools beyond their basic characteristics.


Burke, Va.: When should a parent start orienting the extra-curricular activities of a child for college. What happens if the child is a pedestrian in out door sports etc.?

Howard and Matthew Greene: We're not sure what you mean by "pedestrian", but your overall question gets to something important about working with our children as they develop. You can't steer your child to particular activities, but you can encourage them and support their efforts in what starts to show up as areas of genuine interests and talent. There is no one key activity to "get into college" or achieve success. What is important is finding one's passion and a child's finding success and excelling in one or a couple of areas. We've worked with students doing major level mountain bike competitions who worried about not playing a team sport - they needed reassurance about their path. We've encouraged Eagle Scouts to stay with their program to achieve that major status through meaningful projects of their choosing, even though it meant not getting as involved in school as they would have liked. Stamp collecting...Coin collecting...Dance...Each student is different, and exposing children to different opportunities will help them find the ones they like. Probably the best application essays for college are those where the student writes with enthusiasm about their favorite activity.


Arlington, Va.: What are you application tips/recommendations for a high school senior with an outstanding junior year, accepatable but not stellar freshamn and sophomore years, good boards (1400) and no consistent extra curricular activities except a part-time job, who is anxious to go to Cornell, UVA, or other high-end school?

Howard and Matthew Greene: It's never too late. Colleges put the greatest focus in their admissions reading on the junior year and senior fall transcript and performance. Those semester grades matter. And, we're seeing many students going into April admission decisions with waiting list opportunities into May and June (believe it or not!). Then, senior spring grades also will come into play, and those who are persistent and do well, will often have additional choices down the line. High test scores will help in selective admissions if and when a student starts to really turn on the jets during the final semesters of high school. A Cornell or UVA is certainly a difficult admission option. They are highly competitive, and will look for most applicants to have basically everything - grades, test scores, and meaningful activity involvement in at least one area - but they do look at upward trends of applicants and read admissions folders carefully. In any event, make sure to have an appropriate and balanced list of colleges.


Bethesda, Md.: Love your show/web site.
I'm an SAT tutor. I always end with a pep talk and say that whatever happens, the SAT is only one part of the application. There are grades (emphasizing that 4 years of grades is more important than one Saturday morning), extracurriculars, essays, letters of recommendation, after-school jobs, leadership activities, etc. However, I can't help but thinking that if you're applying to a school whose average SAT score is quite a jump above yours, there's not much that the rest of your resume, no matter how impressive, is going to do for you. Example - UMD College Park has a 25-75% SAT range of 1170-1370. I believe a kid with 1100s just doesn't have much of a chance of getting in even with a great GPA (which most kids have because they seem to be giving more As for effort than ever before). Should a kid who has everything but the SAT score still apply and realistically consider his chances of getting in to be decent? I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks!

Howard and Matthew Greene: Curriculum and grades are indeed more important than standardized tests in all selective college admission decisions. The supporting materials you mention, such as recommendation letters, activities, essays, and so on (perhaps an additional portfolio of accomplishments?) also serve to round out an application and represent the "real student" behind the numbers. Good for you as a tutor for recognizing the key factors in admissions and encouraging students not to be dejected about low scores. Sometimes SATs or ACTs very far below a college's averages can be a factor that leads to a rejection letter, so it is important to be realistic. Be sure to check with the colleges of interest about median scores or the score ranges, which keep changing, and also look for application opportunities to particular colleges within a larger university such as UMD, which, if they fit a student's interests and transcript, could be less demanding on the SAT range.


Somewhere, USA: When (not IF) my 14 year old granddaughter graduates from college, she'll be the first in the family to have a degree. We are poor. She enrolled in ROTC at her highschool, not because of any interest in the military, but because of the scholarship advantages and the community services they provide to the disadvantaged. Where else should we look for financial advice or opportunities? I will have $50,000.00 available toward her education. Will this be sufficient for medical school? She wants to be a pediatric nephrologist.

Howard and Matthew Greene: We find more and more grandparents taking an essential role in planning and saving for their grandchildren's college (and graduate school!) education. Kudos to you for your support and direction of your granddaughter, and recognizing some of these important issues. If she will be the first to attend college in her family, the odds are very high that she will qualify for scholarship support if she is a good student. If she qualifies for an ROTC scholarship, it will pay all or most of her college tuition, and thus you can save your money for medical school. Don't let anyone tell her that she is not going to go college or be a doctor! There are innumerable opportunities available to her. Her main job will be to get good grades in a strong college prep curriculum, fulfill testing requirements, and apply to a broad list of schools. Check the ROTC Web sites for a listing of all the colleges and universities that offer ROTC scholarships, and also the U.S. Dept. of Education's site, with much information about overall financial aid opportunities. Also be aware that many of the most expensive colleges offer significant need- and merit-based financial awards, so don't let cost deter your daughter from applying to these schools.


Bristow, Va.: When is best time to start searching for schools?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Fundamentally, it is when a student is ready. Usually, that is in junior year. Sometimes even in sophomore year, it is helpful to drop by different kinds of colleges to see the distinctions between contrasting environments. You might be on a family vacation somewhere, and drive through a campus, or walk around and have lunch. Or, you can check out a big public university near home, as well as a smaller private one, with the students on campus, to start to get a handle on major differences. It is important to see some schools by the end of junior year in order to enter 12th grade with somewhat of a sense of appropriate fit. Be aware that the college Web sites are a great place to begin searching for schools "virtually", before you ever get in a car or plane.


Reston, VA: Do you have some suggestions about how to prepare for and present yourself at an admissions interview?

Howard and Matthew Greene: 1. Get to know the college as well as you can. Spend time on the college web site and with their materials to explore academic environment, social factors, extracurricular activities, and special programs or interests.
2. Get to know yourself and what you are looking for in college and what you would want to convey about yourself to an admissions officer (or alumni interviewer). Know in particular what you are looking for at a particular college.
3. Practice makes perfect. Work through the logical fit between you and a college with a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a parent - not to come up with canned answers, but to prod reflection about who you are and why this particular college works well for you.
We have more extensive information on this at our web site.


Vienna, Va.: We have a question about helping our son write the personal essays. How involved should a parent be and also, how can we help him write the best essay? Writing is not our strength either.

Howard and Matthew Greene: Parents, in fact, do play a very key role in helping their students present themselves. That, as above, includes the interview process. Essays are more important than interviews these days, by the way. Parents should be involved, but not be intrusive. Colleges are looking for essays written by students in their voice which relate something personally important to the student. As a parent, you can brainstorm with your child about their accomplishments, special interests and talents, and then let them do the writing. Students should share their work with you, and/or others, such as teachers, friends, coaches, or counselors, to get some honest feedback about how their writing is presenting them, but ultimately, the essay should be the students work. Trained admission officers usually can tell the difference.


Washington D.C.: I have a child (senior year in HS), excellent grads and SAT. While filling out the college applications, I have encouraged him to check the minority box. We are a Hispanic family, the problem is he does not want his admission to be based on his minority backgroud. My spin on it, it will not hurt you and it can only help you. Suggestion?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Many students, to their credit, respond the same way. They want to be admitted by a college based on their own merits, and who can argue with this? What they should understand is that they help the admissions committee by indicating their additional special traits or qualities they can bring to the campus community. They won't be admitted because of their ethnicity if they are not qualified. So, take advantage of the fact that colleges are looking to diversify their communities with motivated and talented students.


Silver Spring, Md.: How can we help our daughter get a scholarship? She is looking for the best school which are private because most of her friends are looking at the same schools as well. But honestly, we can't afford the private school and would like to encourage her to look at state schools.

Howard and Matthew Greene: It's not about the sticker price with most of those private colleges with high tuitions. Estimates are that fewer than 25% of students nationally are paying the full price of their tuition. A good student will often secure merit-based awards, in addition to any need-based aid. Check the colleges of interest to your daughter, and you will find out what percentage of students receive aid, and in what form, and how much on average. Applying to colleges doesn't commit her to going there, so she could apply to a mix of public and private, less and more expensive, and compare aid awards (if any) and real total costs, once decisions are made by April. Be very certain to complete the FAFSA form on time and the CSS from the College Board, as appropriate, in order to get into the financial aid pool. There are a number of private scholarships out there, and doing a search on-line (beware of "pay per scholarship offer" services) for free can help point you in the right direction (see Peterson's, College Board, Princeton Review). Talk to your high school guidance office about local area scholarships that may have been won in the past. Talking to particular college financial aid offices (yes, they'll talk to you!) can also lead you to money you were not aware of.


Frederick, Md.: A comment and then a shameless plug. Talk to kids and their parents who are one or two years ahead of you, especially those attending colleges you're thinking of. The perspective from a peer who has a year experience is great. And for Silver Spring let's not forget Loyola in Balto - great small liberal arts college!

Howard and Matthew Greene: Yes. We often encourage students to talk with students from a class or two ahead of them, and even to stay with them on campus if possible. The perspective they have is usually reflective of what really is important in having a successful college experience. What is important a year or two in is often far different than what students thought was most important during high school. Go Loyola!


Howard and Matthew Greene: We would like to make a point about the important high school courses most students should have prior to applying to colleges. Here's what most colleges want to see:
English: 4 years (courses that concentrate on or emphasize writing and critical analysis especially)
Math: 4 years (and at least through Algebra II)
Science: 2-3 years (and at least 2 lab sciences)
Foreign Language: 3 years (and hopefully four, of the same h.s. language)
History: 2-3 years (including U.S. history, and usually a world history).
Arts/Music/other electives: 2-3 years (can express particular interests/talents)
By senior year students usually have the freedom to explore their curriculum a bit and stretch themselves in key areas of interest. They can consider advanced work throughout their time in high school in those subjects of strong interest and ability. Often, selective college admission and entrance requirements are more demanding than many high school graduation requirements.


Somewhere, USA: I want my child to apply to as many colleges and universities as she can but the application fees are so expensive? What's the best and cheapest (better yet, cost-free) way for her to pick a college? Do campus tours cost anything?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Many college applications are expensive (40-65 dollars in many cases). However, many colleges are waiving fees for those with financial need, or those who are academically talented, or those willing to apply on-line. That's a key recent development on college Web sites. Check with individual colleges of interest to request a fee waiver or explore on-line free options. This will not affect their chances for admission. A list of 8-10 selective colleges is a reasonable length. Campus tours are free, and can help narrow the list at the outset. Many state universities only require one application for consideration for a number of their campuses, which is very cost-effective.


Ashton, Md.: I have a 16 year old daughter who is interested in NYU, or GW. Her father (my ex-husband) has an income of over $250,000/year but is only willing to pay half of whatever it would cost for our child to go to a state university. I am a registered nurse and earn far less. I have some money put aside for my daughter's college, but am wondering if financial aid will be based on both of our incomes or just mine?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Again, we want to emphasize that you should feel free to call the financial aid offices at the colleges in question, and ask them how they would assess your expected contribution to your daughter's education. In most instances, both parents are expected to contribute. In similar cases we have worked with over the years, we have encouraged the student to speak to the other parent about her heart's desire and ask for all the help she can get.


Washington, D.C.: I received a B.A. in political science in 2002, but I'm interested in going back for a B.S. in mathematics. However, I find that admission procedures generally group people into two categories (new student and transfer) that I don't fit into. Is there a way to get a second undergrad degree? Are there scholarships for this sort of thing?

Howard and Matthew Greene: More than fifty percent of college students today are so-called "non-traditional" or adult learners. You can absolutely get a second degree, and you may need to start from scratch. While you will have to meet graduation requirements, you may find you can get credit for many of your previous general education courses, and possibly even work experience or life experience. Check with colleges of interest to you about scholarships and credit transfer possibilities and how generous or flexible they would be. You can always take courses part-time as a non-matriculated student, or find a post-baccalaureate certificate program is sufficient to meet your needs as well.


Nashville, Tenn.: A magazine article recently said that in order to get more financial aid, you should not have savings in your children's name (i.e., custodial accounts), but that you should save in high interest earning accounts in your own name.

What difference would this make in getting financial aid?

Howard and Matthew Greene: The financial aid formulas do count savings in students' names to a greater degree than savings in parents' names. You should talk to your accountant or financial planner about whether it makes sense to transfer funds from custodial type accounts (UGMA, e.g.) to 529 plans, for example. Savings are good, by the way, and we don't encourage too much strategizing to try to hide money from colleges. Colleges like to see that families have prioritized college as a goal, and that they are prepared to pay some of the way. They are more likely in many cases to get aid from colleges. Also, if you save now, you, or your children, will pay less in interest payments on loans down the line. Finally, you will have more control over the money, if it is in some of the accounts in parents' names.


Howard and Matthew Greene: Thank you all for your great questions. Sorry we couldn't get to them all today. We will be back in October for a third chat and looking forward to hearing from more of you then.


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