Advice For College Applicants And Their Families

As thousands prepare recommendation letters, essays and financial aid forms, guest host Tony Cox gets advice on how parents and students can succeed in navigating the college admissions process. Cox speaks with Joy St. John, director of admission at Wellesley College.

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TONY COX, HOST:

Now we turn to an issue that many high school seniors and their parents will be spending their holidays fretting over. College admissions. It can be a daunting process, getting all those essays, recommendations and financial aid forms ready in time for December and January deadlines, and getting into college can be especially tough for students who are the first in their families to walk that path.

We wanted to spend some time talking about how parents and teens can navigate the complicated college admissions process, so we have called on an expert to help us out. Joy St. John is the director of admissions at Wellesley College, a liberal arts college outside of Boston. Joy, nice to have you.

JOY ST. JOHN: Thank you for having me, Tony.

COX: There are so many areas to approach. Let's begin with this one because you are already reading some early decision applications and I understand that the most common questions that you are getting from parents and students right now, about money, which is a no-brainer, I would think - what is your advice for helping families figure out what they can and cannot afford?

JOHN: Well, yes. Certainly over the last several years, families have been increasingly concerned about cost and their ability to finance a college education for their child, and we very much focus on talking to parents about looking at real costs versus the sticker price.

So sometimes what can happen with families is that they can focus just on - well, what is the published tuition cost to attend an institution, not thinking about the full cost of attendance and financial aid options that are available to them.

So a great example is at a school like Wellesley, our total cost of attendance is about $54,000 when you include - not just tuition, but also books and expenses. And - but if you look at the students who are enrolled at Wellesley, about 58 percent of those students are receiving financial aid and the average grant or scholarship portion of those financial aid awards is over $36,000.

So although our cost is high, because we are able to offer generous need-based financial aid, our real cost to families can often be lower than they expect.

COX: Now, you mentioned student loans. I want to get to that some more with you. We're talking with Joy St. John, director of admissions at Wellesley College.

You mentioned, as I said, student loan. There are a lot of issues with that. So how do you figure out what is safe and what is affordable with regard to student loans?

JOHN: Well, the way that student loans are packaged in financial aid awards very much differs from institution to institution. So at a place like Wellesley, we've really been conscious about keeping our loan costs – our loan levels low for students and managing student indebtedness in a way that we think serves students well. And so we've done things, for instance, like eliminate the student loan component of a financial aid award for students from families with incomes of $60,000 or less. And we've also created a cap on the maximum loan amount that can be packaged for an individual student so that no student should graduate with more than – with any, any more than about $12,800 in student loan debt.

But it very much differs from institution...

COX: Well, let me stop you there. You said no one should graduate with more than $12,000 in student loan debt. Is that correct? Did I hear you correctly?

JOHN: This is from Wellesley.

COX: From Wellesley.

JOHN: Yeah. So at about $12,800, so about $3,200 per year, so this very much differs from the national average, where students on average are graduating with debt of over about $25,000.

COX: Right. That was why I was going to ask you that, because how realistic that is for students going to most universities, state or private, these days.

JOHN: Right. Well, so I'm just using that as an example to explain why it's really important for families to do research to figure out what the loan policies are for the institutions that they're considering. So a great way to do that - most colleges now have a financial aid calculator on their websites, and actually it's a federal requirement for colleges and universities administering federal aid funds.

So families can go to college websites and take their - the family's W2 and tax return information and input it into these calculators and the calculators will not only help families figure out how much aid they might qualify for at that institution, but it will also help families figure out, you know, if they're eligible for $20,000 worth of need-based financial aid, let's say.

It will also break down for them how that aid will be awarded, so how much student loan would be in that aid award. And these are – there are limitations to these calculators. They are just estimates. They're only as good and accurate as the information the families put into them and they only really demonstrate first year aid. So for schools that perhaps change their loan amounts from after the first year, there may be some differences. But it's at least a good starting point.

COX: To get information, right?

JOHN: To get information about schools' loan policies. And it would be great if, you know, if there was some across-the-board policy that was very easy to understand, but different institutions have different resources for financial aid and they decide to use those resources in different ways. So a calculator...

COX: (Unintelligible) absolutely.

JOHN: Yeah. Is a way to get the specific information.

COX: If you're just joining us - let me just let the audience know who and what we're doing. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin and we are talking about how parents and students can navigate the college admissions process. And we are speaking with Joy St. John, the director of admissions at Wellesley College.

Joy, I want to come back for a second off of the issue of finances, which obviously is a very important one, perhaps the most important one. But you've got to get into the school first. And let's talk about that process for a moment, in terms of applying to schools. What is the most important thing that people should know about what should or should not go into your application?

JOHN: Well, I think most students would benefit from understanding that you need to take care and attention, to think about how all of the pieces of your application sort of reflect upon you. So obviously one of the things that matters most is really something that in some ways is already a done deal by the time you're applying to college, and that's your high school transcripts. Right? So the courses that you've selected and the grades that you've received in those courses.

But then there are also pieces of the application that you have some influence over. Your essay is one and even, to some extent, your letters of recommendation. And so those are the things that students, I think, need to pay particular care and attention in figure - in creating and submitting.

So a great example is in the personal essay, is to think about, you know, what is the question that the school is asking you to answer and what information are you trying to convey? And sometimes students get wrapped up in maybe being very literal about interpreting the essay question. So the essay question may be, describe a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence on you. And they may have to answer that question in 500 words. So it's very easy for a student to get focused on the person who's of significance to them and not focus on how that person has influenced who they are.

COX: Influenced them. Right.

JOHN: Yeah.

COX: You know, our time is running short and there are many, many questions, as I said, I had for you. Here's one and I'd like for you, if you can, to answer it as briefly as possible. What happens if you're a first timer and you don't have anybody in your family or in your immediate circle to turn to? Where do you go for advice? Really quickly.

JOHN: I really think that students should look often for community-based organizations that provide some college guidance and college counseling and there are sometimes resources within a school. If a school doesn't have a very strong college counseling program, there are often teachers who teach more advanced courses who may be of assistance to students as they're trying to sort of navigate all of these pieces of the process.

COX: That helps very much and I'm sure you would agree that you have to make your deadlines as well.

JOHN: And you have to make your deadline.

COX: Joy St. John is the director of admissions at Wellesley College and she joined us from a studio on that campus. Joy, thank you very much. It was helpful.

JOHN: You're welcome.

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