Winter break gives students time to prepare for college
BY CASEY SMITH World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 02, 2012
12/02/12 at 7:33 AM
Find resources on scholarships and tips for obtaining college financial assistance.
Holiday breaks give teenagers an opportunity to relax with friends and family, but some of that free time can be used to prepare for the future.
Whether searching for grants and scholarships, perfecting college application essays, or volunteering, students who put in the extra time and effort improve their chances of nabbing their top choice school.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an important upcoming piece of paperwork for every high school senior and college student, said Angela Caddell, director for communications, financial education and outreach services at the Oklahoma College Assistance Program.
The form determines a student's eligibility for federal financial aid and some state programs, including grants, scholarships, work-study programs and federal student loans.
"Financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's important for students to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after Jan. 1 of the senior year of high school and every year financial aid is needed," Caddell said.
Students should complete the form even if they believe they won't qualify for aid, she said.
"Nearly every applicant qualifies for some form of aid, so by not completing the FAFSA, they could miss out on their share of the billions of financial aid dollars awarded each year."
Students searching for grants and scholarships should check with community organizations, as well as universities themselves, said Ronda Cooper, in her sixth year as a college counselor at Holland Hall. Before that, Cooper spent 20 years as a counselor at Jenks High School. American Indian students should also check with their tribal offices, she said.
Scouring scholarship websites is one strategy Tulsa Public Schools counselor Kimberly Thompson recommends students use to find grants and scholarships.
"It's effort; it's like a part-time job," said Thompson, in her fifth year as a high school counselor at Thomas A. Edison Preparatory School. "You've got to invest some time in this thing."
Fastweb.com and Cappex.com are some of the online resources Thompson recommends students use.
The website and print material for UCanGo2, part of the Oklahoma College Assistance Program, is a key resource for all college-related topics, Thompson said.
The Oklahoma College Assistance Program encourages students to embrace scholarship essays, Caddell said.
"A lot of scholarships require an essay, which discourages many students," she said.
Essays give students the opportunity to write about interesting topics, including personal goals or a favorite service project, she said. Scholarships that require essays also usually have fewer applicants, meaning students who compete have a greater chance of winning.
If students receive a grant or scholarship, they "definitely want to write a thank-you note," Thompson said.
Thompson knows of one case where a student wrote a thank-you note to her university for a $500 scholarship that was supposed to be for one semester only. Because of the note, the university renewed the money each fall and spring until the student graduated.
The personal statement
The personal statement is probably the most difficult part of college applications for students, Cooper said.
"Probably the most challenging is their writing," Cooper said. "It's hard for a 17-, 18-year-old to talk about themselves."
Students Cooper works with have no problem writing academically, but making their personal statements come alive is still a challenge, she said.
Some counselors urge students to listen to the NPR program "This I Believe" for inspiration and then think about three things in which they believe.
"If kids are very stuck, we've been known to bring a best friend in to brainstorm with them," Cooper said.
Shortchanging themselves is one mistake that students make on college applications, said Langston Ross, in his first year as a college counselor at Holland Hall and a former admissions counselor at Rice University.
"Students may leave an activity out because they don't think it's a big deal," Ross said.
One Rice applicant neglected to mention attending high school while working 30 hours a week. Ross learned about the student's schedule from a letter of recommendation.
"I think students sell themselves short, whether it's involvement with organizations in school or the community," he said.
Students should ask someone close to them to read their essays to determine what the essay shows about them and if anything key was left out, experts say.
Cooper and Ross cautioned against writing about overused topics.
Holland Hall students are forbidden from writing the "jock essay" that describe to university admissions counselors events such as scoring the winning goal, instead of making the applicant come alive, Cooper said.
One university cautions about writing essays on the "Three D's," Cooper said - death, drugs and disease.
"Students don't necessarily use it as an excuse, but colleges don't want to see it as a crutch," Ross said.
If students write about one of these topics, they should describe overcoming the challenge and then discuss themselves, he said.
Colleges are looking at the whole person, not just the test scores, Thompson said. Students should volunteer in fields in which they are interested to learn if they really want the job.
Thompson said students who do so are getting "hands-on experience and networking, which is huge for kids."
1. Deadlines are incredibly
important. Track grant,
scholarship and application
deadlines by recording them
on a prominently placed
calendar, in cellphone updates
or with another effective
method. Aim to submit
applications at least three
weeks before the deadline.
systems may crash.
2. Start early. Don’t wait
until senior year to work toward
college admission and
finance. Eligible students
can enroll in Oklahoma’s
Promise as early as eighth
grade. Grades and difficulty
of course loads are important
throughout high school.
3. Be prepared. Consider
starting a “my future” file
for important college planning
materials, such as
documentation of community
service projects and
Documents will help with
applications and tracking
4. Practice for college
interviews. Students should
have someone ask practice
questions and work on
details such as eye contact
and handshakes. Don’t forget
to ask the interviewer
questions, and dress at
least business casual.
5. Show consistency with
recommendation letters. Students
should ask teachers
they had in junior or senior
year who instructed them
in the area they’re interested
in pursuing to write
letters. At Holland Hall this
is called congruency, or
“weaving the thread.” Give
teachers plenty of time to
write letters and provide
them with addressed,
6. Beware of financial aid
and scholarship scams. No
student should pay to complete
the FAFSA — all help
is available free at financial
aid offices and through the
U.S. Department of Education.
programs need to know
only about the students’
hobbies, academic record,
or other demographic
information — never bank
account or credit card numbers.
No service organization
or scholarship search
firm can “guarantee” aid
dollars or scholarships.
7. Be specific. To admissions
officers and scholarship
or grant committees,
students are a piece of
paper or a computer
screen. Be specific to stand
out from the applicant pool.
Details about passions,
beliefs or involvement with
be applicable to any other
student. Details students
say make them interested
in a university shouldn’t
be interchangeable across
Sources: Angela Caddell, Oklahoma
College Assistance Program; Ronda
Cooper and Langston Ross, Holland
Hall; Kimberly Thompson, Thomas A.
Edison Preparatory School
Original Print Headline: Winter break is good time to prepare for college
Casey Smith 918-732-8106
Holland Hall Upper School College Counselor Langston Ross (center) assists student athletes Amaris Taylor (left), who was applying for colleges, and Aubrey Downing, who was signing up for the SAT. CORY YOUNG / Tulsa World