Get College Ready Podcast: What changed about the FAFSA?

Wells Fargo’s annual Get College Ready national campaign and accompanying interactive website, which includes advice and guidance articles, calculators, and videos, was created to help students and parents financially prepare for college, and make informed decisions around credit, insurance needs, budgeting, and money management.

This special Get College Ready podcast miniseries, which is hosted by Wells Fargo spokesperson Jason Vasquez, welcomes subject matter experts to discuss in 10 minutes or less the topics and questions that are on the minds of students, parents, and families as they look to plan and prepare for college.

In the second installment of this podcast miniseries, listeners will gain a better understanding of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), learn about changes to the program, what to expect, and how to prepare.

In addition to visiting the Get College Ready website, we invite you to search and share on social media using the hashtag #GetCollegeReady.

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Thanking those that made it all possible

Congratulations on graduating high school! You’re about to enter one of the most exciting and challenging periods in your life, so it’s definitely time to take a victory lap. But with all of the commotion, celebration, and change happening around you, it’s important to thank those that helped make this moment possible.

By now, you have probably already thanked the usual suspects—mom, dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and anyone else who gave you a gift. Now, make sure you don’t leave anyone equally important off of your graduation thank you list, such as those who helped you during your college search and application processes.

Your teachers
You don’t have to thank every teacher since kindergarten, but be sure to write letters to the ones that went the extra mile for you—those who proofread application essays, wrote recommendation letters, or cared enough to stay late and help you after class when you struggled.

Your school counselors
You’ve likely been in close contact with your school counselors over the past two years, so let them know the time they spent helping you has paid off. A little appreciation goes a long way and they love to hear success stories, because that’s what you are.

Your bosses
Whether they wrote recommendation letters for you or employed you over the summer, maintaining professional connections is critical at every stage of life, starting now. You might want to pick up a few extra shifts over upcoming breaks or need a job recommendation next summer—it’s good to have these kinds of options.

­­­­Other support
Think about where you turned during hard times or who took an active role in your life over the past three to four years. Community leaders, religious groups, club advisors, coaches, librarians, organizations you’ve been a part of—reach out and thank them all, while letting them know your current and future plans.

A future to think about
While the main goal of these thank you letters is to show how much you appreciate the support, advice, and help you’ve received, there are also some potential benefits to consider. By including these people in your celebration, letting them know what school you’ve chosen, what majors and minors interest you, etc., you’re also opening the door for more help and support down the line.

The more involved people feel in your life, the more likely it is that they’ll continue to be there for you or introduce you to their connections. Plus, it’s important to leave a positive legacy behind—not every person who helps gets thanked. Your graduation thank you letter helps ensure that the students coming up behind you—maybe even your own brothers and sisters—get the same help that you did.

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It’s time to celebrate!

Your student’s high school graduation is a special time, and a huge milestone to celebrate. No doubt, this is a busy time for both seniors and their families, full of ceremonies and parties and end-of-year activities. But so much hard work and dedication has led up to this moment, it’s important to take a moment to sit back and enjoy it.

As a parent, graduation is an accomplishment for you, too. All the time, effort and support you’ve given over the years is something to celebrate as well. So savor your student’s walk across the stage, take the time to honor this moment together. And enjoy the young adult you’ve raised who is about to embark on their next adventure.

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Parents: what’s your role during campus visits?

You know college is getting closer when it’s time to start making campus visits with your student. Campus visits are a great way for your student to really get the feel of both a school and its campus. It’s a time to decide what school they want to call home for the next few years. To do that they need something important that only you can give them: space.

Evaluating colleges is an important task for your student to take on—it’s another step they are taking toward independence. And it’s important they have the opportunity to soak in the atmosphere, the people, and the academic programs on their own.

So, as a parent, what’s your role in all of this? How can you help, without unintentionally getting too involved? Following are some tips that can help you navigate the process with your student:

Prepare together ahead of time. Before orientation, talk with your student about what they want to learn on their visit and who they want to meet with. Discuss what questions they might want to ask, what particular buildings on campus they want to see, etc.

Hang back, let them lead. If you’ve done the preparation ahead of time, then once you get on campus it’s time for you to take a step back and let your student lead the way. It might be a good idea to let your student know ahead of time that they’re in charge on this trip. Have your student review the itinerary, and take charge of getting themselves to the right place at the right time.

Go to the parent sessions, if the school offers them. If the school offers parent sessions during the campus visit, definitely go. Attending these meetings allows you to get your own questions answered and gives students time on their own to ask questions and explore.

Bite your tongue, just a little. While you’re touring the campus, try to hold back a bit on giving your opinion about the school or the campus. It’s important to let your student absorb the atmosphere and formulate their own ideas about it. Give them time to consider what they’ve experienced and talk it over in the coming days.

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Summer activities that can help you get into college

Use this summer to take advantage of your down time and find fun, productive activities that can help you get into college. You have many options—here are a few of the more effective ones.

Getting a job
College admission boards look for students who show initiative and commitment. One way to display both—while also earning some extra cash—is to land a summer job. Whether you’re pitching in for household costs or saving up for college, the money you earn is a good reminder of why you’re going to college in the first place: to start a career and be successful when you graduate. Plus, a summer job looks great on your resume and college applications.

Finding work that aligns with your passions and interests turns an ordinary job into a real opportunity—so does the way you approach it. Use this time to develop solid relationships with your boss and coworkers. Talk to them and let them know why you’re working during the summer. Fill them in on your collegiate goals. Doing so can open up doors for a position next summer, a part-time job during college, or even a paid internship down the road.

Plus, having a boss you’re on good terms with gives you a go-to college recommendation—or even a job recommendation—when the time comes. This isn’t just a summer job, it’s the beginning of a long-term investment in your future. Take the job seriously, especially if you’re lucky enough to get hired by a company that shares your passions. Who knows—you could be an executive there one day.

Volunteering in your community
While it doesn’t have the paid benefits of employment, volunteering is rewarding in many other ways. First, it’s a great way to follow your passions and interests, something college boards really like to see. Second, you’ll feel good about yourself by giving back to the community and helping others. Third, your high school may offer academic credits for volunteering, so be sure to check with your school counselor for any suggestions they might have.

But more than that, volunteer work builds character and skill sets that you will use in college and beyond. Leadership, compassion, drive—these are all verifiable traits volunteers can list in their college application essays. Look for opportunities with organizations and causes that you feel passionate about, maybe even enough to make your career one day. You can also use this time to practice a foreign language or develop people skills, depending on where you choose to lend your time. And the people you work with? You guessed it—great college recommendation opportunities.

Attending summer learning programs
College prep courses—commonly called summer learning programs—are traditionally offered for high school juniors and seniors with GPAs of 2.0 or higher, though different colleges might have additional requirements. These programs can give you a taste of the college experience, and some will even offer college credits upon completion.

Summer learning programs can range anywhere from one week to two months, and some offer on-campus housing options. There are summer learning programs for a wide variety of concentrations—from art to zoology—so this is the good way to get a feel for whatever major you’ve been contemplating.

Some programs can be a bit expensive, but financial aid and scholarships may be available, and there are also federally funded summer learning programs that are typically more affordable or even free. Check to see if your state is one of the 21 to offer Governor’s School programs, or—if you are the first in your family to attend college or meet certain income requirements—Upward Bound may be a good option.

No matter which of these options you choose, if you focus on being productive this summer you’ll find yourself in a better position come time for college admissions.

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Creating your college short list

As you look forward to college applications next fall, this summer is a great time to work on finalizing your college short list—the list of schools you’ll apply to next year. One of the best ways to narrow down your list of possible schools is to visit the campuses of the top choices you are considering. That way you’ll feel confident that each college on your short list will be a good match for you.

Think of these as the nuts-and-bolts questions to consider while creating your list:

Is this school too far from (or close to) home?

Depending on what type of person you are, college might look even better with the freedom of distance from or the comfort of nearness to home. Consider that as you travel to each school. Is it close enough for a road trip home if you miss your family, or will you need a plane ticket?

Do you like a small room or a big room?

Classroom size might not be the first thing you think about, but it can actually be, well … huge. Call ahead before your visit to set up some classroom visits relevant to your academic path. You may enjoy sitting in a massive recitation hall packed with hundreds of other students, or you could crave the close relationship that comes from consistently smaller rooms. Ask the students in the class which they get more out of, if it’s a mix, or if larger classes are primarily reserved for freshman core prerequisites.

Have you spoken with an advisor?

When you plan your visit, make an appointment to sit down with an academic advisor — and don’t forget to grab a business card. You will want to contact them again after you leave, at least to send a thank-you note. During your time with the advisor, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions, such as:

  • What are the housing requirements/options?
  • What’s the student-to-teacher ratio and how many classes are taught by student assistants?
  • Are there alternative or accelerated programs in my field of study that I should know about?
  • If I’m on a research path, what kind of exciting work has come out of that program? If I’m studying literature, what have the professors written?
  • What kinds of internship opportunities does the school partner with?

Can you sleep over?

A night in the dorms can tell you a lot, so try to set one up through an academic advisor before you arrive. By getting a firsthand look at campus life, you’ll get a better understanding for the campus dining halls, the student vibe (are they close-knit or competitive?), and the diversity of available social activities.

And remember, if you’ll be using public transportation at college, you’ll want to make sure your school has a great system in place, so hop on the bus and check it out.

Does this school match your passions?

Whether you’re going for arts and humanities, mathematics, engineering, chemistry, or some other program, you’ll want to make sure this school’s passion matches your own. For instance, you may be interested in the school because of its Ivy League status or a family alumni connection, but it may not offer the most interesting program in your field of study. You might make better connections or work with more esteemed professors at another program. Ask students enrolled in your field of study about their experience — both what they love and what they’d change.

Can you afford this school?

While it would be great if money weren’t an issue, for nearly all college-bound students, it plays a big role. Grab whatever financial information you can while you’re on campus and reach out to other students to learn more about their experiences paying for college. Does this school have a lot of grants and scholarship opportunities? What about work study programs? If you can, stop by the financial aid office to talk directly with them about your situation.

Are your options flexible?

Once you’ve taken your college tours, you should know which schools you see yourself attending. Keep that in mind as you craft your short list. Aim high for a dream school or two, along with several great match and backup choices, but make sure you feel good about each that you’re applying for. By limiting your applications to a handful of schools, you have your bases covered while still staying focused on options that work well for you.

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Teaching your student to network

Networking may sound like a pretty grown up word to use with a high school junior, but it is key for your student to build a network of adults they can rely on as they enter college and working world.

As you explain the concept of networking to your student, let them know that it’s not an artificial thing—it’s all about talking with the people they already know about college and their careers.

For your student, this might mean asking friends who’ve gone off to college about their experience. Do they like their school? Why? What are they majoring in? These simple exchanges are a simple way to practice networking with peers and to gain information about college and build connections along the way.

Talking with adults is another facet of networking for your students to master. It may sound intimidating to them, but it’s really easier than they might think—have them start with relatives and family friends that they know well. Almost everyone will ask a high school junior what they want to do after high school – where they want to go to college, what they want to major in. After they answer, have them simply turn those questions around—ask the adults in their world where they went to school and what they majored in, and how it led them to their current career.

Let them know that people generally like being asked about themselves, and it’s a great way to learn more about different career paths people take. As they continue to have these conversations, they’ll begin building that network of people they can turn to with questions or to get advice. Some of these relationships may turn into mentorships, or may help them make connections to colleges or jobs in the future.

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Crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s

As you ready yourself for your first year in college, there are a few very important things to do before packing up the car, planning your dorm room décor, or selecting classes. You’ve worked hard these past four years to set yourself up for an exciting academic future, and you’re almost to the finish line.

After your initial college acceptance letter, you will receive a variety of information related to course scheduling, housing, orientation sessions, etc. Be sure to keep this information front and center at home so that you stay organized for the final steps before heading to school.

This is the perfect time to ensure you are taking responsibility for your future, as it is now your job to stay organized and get the right forms back to your college by the right dates. This will help you get the best housing, schedule and college experience possible.

Below, we have listed a few things to remember when dotting your i’s, crossing your t’s, and readying yourself for the next few years of your life!

  1. Send your final transcript – Colleges are most interested in this because they want to ensure that you have passed all of your classes and are properly preparing yourself for the next big step in higher education. Be sure to finish strong so your final transcript is filled with grades that reflect your hard work and responsibility. To acquire your final transcript, set up a meeting with your school counselor to have your grades sent to the college of your choice.
  2. Housing deposit – If you’ve decided to move away from home and have decided on the living quarters that best fit your academic and social desires, you’ll want to send your school a housing deposit so you ensure a spot at your favorite on campus housing option. Doing so early will give you a better chance of getting the dorm room of your choice. Be conscious of housing deadlines as every school is different.
  3. Financial deposit – Once you’ve decided which school you would like to attend, notify that school of your commitment and submit any required financial deposit. This will let the school know that you’re actually coming in the fall. If you don’t know when this is due, inquire more details from your schools admissions office.
  4. Choosing classes – Do so as early as possible to get the classes at the times that best fit your schedule and daily rhythm. Waiting to register for classes may land you in a time slot that might not fit very well with your schedule.
  5. Review your financial aid checklist – Back when you were accepted, your school should have provided a financial aid checklist to help you with staying organized for school. At this point in the college journey you will want to review this checklist to make sure all deposits and payments have been made for the fall.

Stay organized so that when fall semester comes around, all of your chips fall exactly where they belong.

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Focus on finishing senior year strong

Your student’s senior year is drawing to a close, and they may be already thinking about graduation, summer vacation, and college. As a parent, you can help your student focus on today to stay on track through graduation with a little perspective and practical advice.

Give your student a gentle reminder that colleges do look at final transcripts and that it’s important to finish strong. A dramatic drop in grades can not only impact college acceptance, but by not attending to schoolwork or regressing on good study habits, your student isn’t really doing the job of preparing for college in the fall.

After all, high school graduation isn’t so much an end as a transition into college. School work still  matters, right up until finals are completed. This is a good opportunity for your student to learn this skill, as there will be many such transitions in life ahead, like when they go from college to career, one job to the next, etc.

These tips may help your student stay focused at the end of their senior year:

Stay healthy. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep are three important steps that can help your student perform well. The end of the senior year is a notoriously busy time, but remind your student that there will always be busy times in life, and it’s important to take care of their health.

Take study breaks. With end of the year projects, regular tests, and finals looming, your senior likely has plenty of studying to do. Encourage your student to focus for a set period of time (say 45 minutes) then take a quick 15 minute break. Alternatively, they can complete a chapter of reading or a specific task before taking a break and moving on to the next thing. This approach can help an evening of studying seem a little less daunting when it’s broken down into shorter intervals.

Build in rewards. In addition to study breaks, it’s helpful for students to build rewards into their study plan. Once they finish a goal or task, they treat themselves to a reward. For example, once they finish a paper they go to a movie with friends.

Students do need to pace themselves at the end of senior year, and the rewards and breaks can help with that. As your student works through this last month of school, remind them that summer vacation is just around the corner.

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See how far they’ve come

As you watch your students develop and move into the college level, you prepare them with as much information as possible. But also make sure that you step back to track their successes and opportunities as a whole — this will allow you to see the patterns, trends, and results you observe year after year.

By taking this deeper dive into enrollment management, you can spot outlier issues more quickly and efficiently, as well as have a fast reference on hand for future students.

Create an exit interview

The school year’s end is a busy time, and with as much effort as your students put into their college advancement, you’re working even harder behind the scenes as their silent partner in success. To help you plan better for next year, take the time to compile a quick exit interview for your graduating seniors.

By asking students to share their high school experiences and plans for college or vocational school (college enrollment, 2-year vs. 4-year program, how many scholarships were applied for vs. received, and so on), you have a pool of data to help you work more efficiently down the road.

Track scholarship opportunities

A running list of which scholarships your students have applied for and which they have been awarded will allow you to better recognize patterns and opportunities. Then when you have other students with similar interests, goals, or backgrounds, you can guide them directly toward scholarships that proved fruitful.

Run the numbers

Once you know how many scholarships your students have applied for, how many they received, and the monetary value of the awards won, you’ll have a nice batch of data to use. With the help of a spreadsheet, you can start watching those numbers annually and notice their fluctuations.

For example, if fewer students are granted scholarships — or if they’re getting the same number of scholarships but in smaller denominations, that could be a motivator for change. You might use that information to help raise funds for a larger student scholarship education campaign or a weekend workshop program. If by checking your data, you see that more students are getting the money they need for college, you’ll know what approaches have been working well. Then you can reallocate resources, and energy, to refining those methods.

Encourage your colleagues within the school or local district to collect the same data to compare notes on a broader scale. This will help your whole district identify what is working as you and other school counselors test out new workshops or programs.

Set personal goals

You can’t control your students’ work or test scores, but you can gauge the patterns of those you work with. And that can give you strategic knowledge into your own role in their successes.

Once you start tracking this information, you can make a commitment to seeing scholarship winnings gain traction within a specific section of the student body. Or, if you’ve noticed a gap in those who have been accepted into college upon graduation but fail to show up for classes in the fall, you can start a personal goal to reach students likely to fall into that gap phenomenon known as summer melt.

As you see what is working for your school and what needs improvement, then you’ll be better able to address the issues you do find, some of which come with solutions that are not expensive or time-consuming, but just need implementation. For example, a recent government study showed that eight simple text message deadline reminders sent to low-income students between the end of high school and the start of college had a strong, positive impact on how many arrived the first day and lessened the summer melt.

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