‘Safety schools’ and ‘merit aid’ — the ABCs of applying to college
Applying to college can be a very exciting time in a high schooler's life, but also a confusing and overwhelming one for both students and their families.
High school students should start visiting colleges in their junior year, said Dave Bergman, director of Content for College Transitions.
He said spring break is actually the perfect time to see a few schools at once. But if a student can't visit, it is still recommended to find ways to demonstrate interest to colleges. Connect with admissions officers via phone, email or social media just to let them know that you're interested.
Bergman suggested applying to as many as 10 schools and be sure to have a healthy mix of schools geared safety, target, reach and financial safety schools.
A "safety school" is a college where a student's credentials are better than the average applicant. So a student is 95% to 99% percent sure of acceptance.
A "target school" is a 50/50 proposition. A student's academic profile — standardized test scores, GPA, the rigor of a high schooler's course load — is in the average range.
When it comes to "reach schools," a student's grades and test scores are lower than the typical admitted student. A student is not counting on these schools but still feels he or she has a more than microscopic chance of gaining admission.
The fourth category is the "financial safety" school. Always have a school on the list that no matter what happens with the unpredictable financial aid process, a student and their families are still comfortable covering 100% of the cost of attendance, said Bergman.
When it comes to taking a standardized test, Bergman said the SAT and ACT tests are equal in the eyes of colleges. But the way the tests are weighted depends on the school. There are more than 1,000 test optional colleges across the country. Many elite, prestigious schools weigh the SAT and ACT tests heavily in the admissions process.
While the tests are accepted equally among schools, there are differences. Bergman said the SAT gives a student more time per question. The ACT has a science reasoning section while the SAT does not. If math is a student's strength, the SAT may be the better test to take because that math score counts for 50% of the grade while on the ACT it's only worth a quarter.
Bergman suggested taking the SAT or ACT more than once, roughly three times. Spring of junior year is a good time to take the tests for the first time, or even early summer. That gives a student ample time to drill down and do some honed-in study on the areas of weakness. Then take it again in the fall, and if necessary, in the early winter.
Even if a student's desire is to attend school out-of-state, Bergman said it's still a great idea to apply to at least one New Jersey school.
"Yes. Absolutely, still apply to at least one New Jersey school where you're both sure you're going to get in and sure you're going to be able to cover 100% of the tuition, even if that's with loans," said Bergman.
As far as scholarships are concerned, Bergman said look online for private scholarships. But be aware that private scholarship money only makes up about 7% of the almost $200 billion of financial aid awarded each year. So yes, you can gather up private scholarships, accumulating money here and there, but Bergman recommends a student is better off targeting money from the schools themselves in "merit aid."
He added that if a student presents certain SAT/ACT scores, certain GPAs, certain class ranks, there are incredible opportunities to save tens of thousands of dollars a year. Bergman stressed that families spend time targeting merit aid over private scholarships. But if a family still wants to pursue the private scholarship road, google college scholarships and there will be a plethora of opportunities. Start looking in junior year and start applying for those private scholarships in fall of senior year, at the earliest.
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