Five study tips for the SAT and ACT

You’ve already worked hard to lock down the skills and information you need to do well in your daily studies. So with a study plan and a few tips, you’ll have that knowledge polished up and ready for test day. Let’s get started.

Take the practice tests — Whenever you begin studying (sooner is better), take a practice test, and if you have PSAT scores, sign in on CollegeBoard to get those results, too. Together you’ll have a baseline on where you are, so you can better set goals for where you want to go. You can find practice tests in lots of places: through the official test site, your library, or in new or lightly used materials online.

It’s recommended that you take four to five practice tests before the big day. This achieves two things: 1) It will help chart your progress and strengthen your skill set. 2) It will help you master the test’s structure. By knowing what’s next and getting into a good timing groove, you’ll be a pro by test day.

Tip — Remember, these exams are long. When drilling with practice tests, you’ll need to budget four-hour chunks of time where you’ll have no distractions.

Make flashcards — While some math equations are provided on the exams, many are not. If you have theorems, proofs, or other mathematical formulas that just won’t stick in your head, make flash cards. Review them in between other activities and master them — this way, you’ll feel maximum confidence on test day.

As a student you know that you can use flash cards for everything from vocab to science, so if you’ve already made them for your existing classes, run through those too. You’ve already learned that material, this helps you reinforce it.

Tip — The best flash cards are homemade, not store bought. The act of writing helps reinforce the information.

Study each day — With your classes, extra-curriculars, scholarship hunting, and other activities, you’re probably wondering where to find this time. But in the months/weeks leading up to the big exam, you’ll want to work in at least an hour of prep each day.

By doing this, you’ll be better prepared for the test and its different sections, and you’ll be unshakable on test day.

Tip — Use an app like CollegeBoard’s free question of the day, so the SAT or ACT stays front-of-mind and you stay sharp.

Master the essay — Write four to five practice essays before the test, because this is an area wherein you are in complete control — after all, there’s no wrong answer in an essay.

Start with a thorough read, underlining any applicable text you might use in your response. Next, figure out your thesis, and don’t assume it’s understood by your supporting arguments. Spell it out and give it top billing. Next, flow out a rough outline — this will help you prioritize and plug in ideas that back up your thesis. End with a strong closer, then go back through and review it all again.

Twenty-five minutes will go fast, but if you can 1) make an argument, 2) back it up, and 3) tell it in a cohesive, compelling way, you will nail this. So do those practice essays and have a parent or teacher review them.

Tip — You can use whatever knowledge you have to support your thesis, and it doesn’t have to be academic. It’s your ability to tell the story that matters.

Take the right test for you — Some students have an advantage with one test over the other. If you’re a strong writer with a great vocab, you might prefer the SAT. If you’re logic-driven and naturally analytical, you might prefer the ACT. Take our quiz to see which test could better play to your strengths, but make sure that you check which tests your college will accept.

Tip — Starting in March, there will be changes to the SAT that may affect which test is right for you, and will make the ACT and SAT more similar than in the past. Check them out here.

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Upcoming steps after the FAFSA

By now, your student has probably started filling out their FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is the first step in applying for federal financial aid. After that, you and your student will be able to see the financial aid available.

The award letter
After your student has completed the FAFSA, the next step is reviewing the award letters from potential colleges. An award letter is prepared by the school’s financial aid office and details the financial aid package the school is offering. This can be a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and Work-Study aid.

Compare financial aid packages
Once your student has received award letters from all of their potential schools, sit down together to compare them side-by-side. Note how much of the Cost of Attendance, or COA, is covered by an aid package at each school. Be sure to consider the whole financial aid package a school is offering in its award letter. Compare how much of your student’s financial aid package is money that won’t have to be repaid, like grants and scholarships, and how much is money your student will be responsible for paying back, like loans.

If you or your student have questions about a financial aid package, have your student get in touch with the school. A financial aid counselor can walk them through the award letter and answer questions about the types of aid the school has offered.

If your student hasn’t filed their FAFSA
There is still time to complete the FAFSA, but encourage your student to fill one out soon. Check with the colleges your student has applied to for any financial aid deadlines they may have. They can get a FAFSA from their high school guidance counselor, a college financial aid office, or online at fafsa.ed.gov. Your student can also call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) if they need help completing their FAFSA.

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Intro to FAFSA: Who, what, when, where, and how

It’s time again to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. So how do you help your students and their families who may be filling out the form for the first time? We’ve put together a list of questions that will likely come up:

Q: Who should fill out a FAFSA form?

Answer: All families who have a student planning to attend college in the upcoming academic year.

There’s a misconception that if a family’s income is above average they shouldn’t bother turning in a FAFSA, but that isn’t true. Sure, those students might not be given need-based grants, but they’ll still want to try for scholarships, merit-based aid, federal loans, or work-study. To do those things, they’ll need to have first completed a FAFSA.

Q: What are some common FAFSA mistakes?

Answer: The name.

Making sure the name and basic information are entered correctly, in full, and matching what’s on the student’s social security card can avoid the most common mistake that will slow down an application.

Remember, accidentally transposing a couple of numbers or letters could cause a FAFSA application to be rejected, right out of the gate. Financial aid offices can fix these mistakes, but that could slow down the process. And that could cause the student to miss out on funds. So encourage students to give their forms a thorough “typo review” before submitting.

Q: When should the FAFSA get turned in?

Answer: As soon as possible after January 1.

Students applying for the 2016-2017 school year should start the FAFSA as early as January 1, 2016. This can get a little sticky, since many families will not have filed their taxes at that time, but they can use estimates and link the application with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool later.

Some states, grants, and programs have early decision deadlines, which means some money is distributed quickly. Students who turn their FAFSA in sooner can apply for those funds earlier, which could lead to more access to aid.

Q: Where do students and their families find the documents they’ll need?

Answer: Students and families can find what documents they’ll need by visiting: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out#documents

The FAFSA requires a good amount of information to complete successfully, but by gathering the documents in advance, they’ll be prepared for all questions asked. Students and parents can make a checklist or folder ahead of time, so they won’t have to scramble while filing. Follow the link for a list of papers and expense information that’s good to have on-hand.

Q: How can students and parents find extra help?

Answer: Here are several resources.

The first time filling out any financial paperwork can bring up questions, but there are resources available to help anyone going through the process. From in-person education programs like College Goal Sundays, sponsored by the YMCA, to more in-depth Q&A through the FAFSA website and hotline, applicants can get the help they need to complete the application.

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Get a read on your student’s path to college

You have a helpful guide on your Junior’s path to college: the school counselor.

If you haven’t already gotten to know your student’s school counselor, now is the perfect time to start! Working together will help ensure your student’s college plans stay on track. Your student’s counselor can also be a valuable source of information about selecting the right school and finding ways to pay for it.

Help set your student up for success by starting an ongoing conversation with their school counselor or academic advisor. They can help answer your questions, suggest helpful resources, and help assure that your student is covering all their bases. There are so many topics to cover, we’ve compiled the following guide to help you make the most of your discussions.

School counselors may have great insight into a student’s potential, so make sure you understand how to help your student prepare for their future. Start by asking:

  • What types of schools do you think might be a good fit for my student? This should be based on scholarship opportunities, career interests or other factors that are important to you and your student.
  • How do you evaluate schools? Is there set factors to keep in mind (perhaps a checklist)?
  • What type of extracurricular or outside activities do you recommend for my student?

For college preparation, it’s never too early, or too late, to prepare for college. If you’re unsure about what’s available, here are some things to think about:

  • Does the school offer information on college planning sessions or fairs?
  • How do you normally prepare students for college?
  • What resources should students use to stay on track?
  • What’s the best way my student can prepare for standardized testing?
  • Does the school offer any resources for studying/test prep?

The school counselor may even have insight into college application process and financial aid. They may be able to answer questions like:

  • Is it more important to have a well-rounded experience or to focus on the things that my student is passionate about?
  • Where should I go to find out more about paying for college?
  • Where do private loans, parent loans, or grants fit in?
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FAFSA like a pro

The time for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is here. By applying this year, you start down the financial aid journey for not just Federal student aid, but also possible private and merit-based aid, grants, and work-study opportunities. Here’s what you need to know to FAFSA like a pro:

Find the FAFSA
You can get a FAFSA from your high school guidance counselor, a college financial aid office, or online at fafsa.ed.gov. You can also call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) if you need help completing your FAFSA.

Set calendar reminders for deadlines
The FAFSA became available on January 1. Filling it out as soon as possible is beneficial for a few reasons: you know your funding is secure; you’ll be sure to meet your school’s deadline; and you can apply for grants sooner.

A little planning goes a long way
Here’s a tip on how to knock the FAFSA out quickly: Gather all needed documents before you start. By doing this, you’ll avoid scrambling and feel more confident in the process.

Be sure you’ve completed all required fields
Saying “make sure you’ve completed the FAFSA” sounds basic, but remember: tiny errors can be costly. Enter your name on the form exactly as it appears on your Social Security card, for starters. Leaving fields blank could cause your form to get kicked back for closer review, and that could cost you grant money. Filling out your forms online helps reduce the risk by forcing you to enter required fields.

Not sure you’ll need aid? File anyway.
It’s always better to be prepared — especially with financial aid. Even if your forecast says you have enough funding for next year, go ahead and apply. By making a little safety net, you’ll be ready for any financial changes that may come your way.

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Eight tips for starting the college search

Determining which colleges make your application list is a process that may take time from your already busy schedule. While the options are wide open, it is worthwhile to really explore your choices, look at what interests you and to find which school can best match your needs and expectations. Here are eight tips to get you started.

Try a college search site
When your friends are choosing from a handful of schools, it’s easy to lose track of how many options are truly available to you. With roughly 4,000 colleges in the United States, you may find your best choice is new to you.

These free sites let you enter your interests, needs, and financial options, then they generate a list of schools that match. Who knows? Maybe your perfect university is hiding 1,000 miles to the left.

Ask around
Remember, infinite Googling can’t replace real-time conversations. If you’re considering a handful of schools, find alumni and other people who are invested in your future and ask about their experiences. Don’t be bashful — get down to brass tacks.

Ask about their favorite and least favorite moments, and what they would do differently if they were to try it all again. You might be surprised by their answers.

Don’t let your finances limit you
Many colleges offer different financial paths for students because they want classroom thinking that comes from unique backgrounds and experiences. If you know you want to go to a particular school, but think your budget may not allow it, contact them. Find out if special programs are available to help you reach your goal. And if they aren’t, another school will welcome you with open arms.

Get realistic with your finances
Sit down with your family, and talk about where you are financially. By gaining a realistic understanding of where you stand, you’ll know how much to supplement through loans, grants, and scholarships.

Be flexible
It may seem far away now, but someday you’ll take everything you learn in college and use it to build your own part of the world. One of the most important things you’ll learn along the way is that being flexible with your decisions is extremely valuable — and often rewarding.

If there’s a college you really want to get into, great. But keep your options open. If your top choice doesn’t work out, some other school will be lucky to pick you up. And being somewhere that really wants you? That can truly help you flourish.

Visit
You can whittle down your school selections online, but you can’t feel the true personality of the place until you visit the campus. If you can, arrange to stay overnight at your top picks, or at least sit in on a class. Check out the housing and food available, campus walkability, and overall culture of the school. Once you know what feels right, you’ll know you’ve made the correct choice for you.

Consider junior college as an option
Here’s a secret: very few students know their major coming out of high school. And of those who think they do, most will still switch academic paths. College is a time to discover what you’re really good at and what you love studying — and that may not be anything you’ve had the opportunity to experience yet.

Community colleges can be an excellent, low-risk, way of testing the academic waters. You can try several topics for a fraction of the cost of a four-year school, and you can find your study/life balance groove before adding the stress of a new environment.

Be good to yourself
It’s natural to self-reflect while you’re shopping for your perfect school, but don’t start viewing yourself as just the sum of your grades and test scores. Remember: You’re you, and nobody else can say that.

By the end of the college hunt, it’s your confidence and determination, history and drive, intelligence and sense of humor that will give you leverage. So treat yourself well. Some school is going to be very lucky to have you.

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How much does college really cost?

As you begin the college search with your high school student, determining cost of a school isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem.

You can easily determine a college’s listed price, but what you’re probably more interested in is the cost after grants and scholarships are accounted for, so you know more precisely what you’ll need to pay.

That’s where the Net Price Calculator comes in. The Net Price Calculator is a tool to help you estimate what college costs might look like for your student, and it can be found on the school’s website. The net price is the difference between the listed price (including tuition, fees, room and board, plus books, supplies, transportation and personal expenses) minus any grants and scholarships for which your student is eligible.

What information do you need?

You’ll need to provide some financial information to get the information that you want. Have your income and tax statements handy before you get started. Some calculators are very quick and easy to use, but you might want to plan on more time if your school has a more in-depth calculator.

Remember

While Net Price Calculators don’t give an exact reflection of the aid your student will receive, using it can definitely give you a better estimate of what the cost might look like.

If you have not yet decided on a list of specific schools for the personalized estimates of the Net Price Calculator, you may be able to create a list by starting at the new College Scorecard site from the U.S. Department of Education. Check out our article on the site to see how you can apply filters to find a list of schools that are right for you.

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