College Goals Presentations in London and Paris – March 2019

It’s that time of year again! College Goals’ university admission counsellor Andrea van Niekerk will travel to London and Paris in March to offer presentations about the American university admission process, with special attention to how to develop a strong US university application.

Given the demands of the American university application process, students interested in pursuing higher education in the US are well advised to begin preparing early in their high school career, even before completing GCSEs or before the final two years of study toward the French bac or IB. What do families need to know for their students to be successful and satisfied by the university search and application process? How do students produce a strong and interesting US university application? We will address questions about applications to colleges and universities in the US, UK, and Canada.

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Andrea van Niekerk served for a decade as Associate Director of Admission, with a focus on international applicants, and as Freshman Academic Adviser at Brown University, and as Residential Fellow in a dorm at Stanford. Still based in Silicon Valley, she now works with both American and international families as part of College Goals. Andrea has had 20 years of experience in college admission and academic advising. She is a member of NACAC, HECA and WACAC.

Given how late international students frequently approach the American application process, we particularly urge families with students in Years 10 or 11, Troisième or Seconde, or Grades 9 or 10 to attend one of these sessions and to begin thoughtful and informed consideration of their higher education options now, prior to when their student starts A-Levels, Pre-Us, French BAC or IB coursework.

Sophomores: PSAT, Pre-ACT and Subject Tests

Sophomores —

Fall is time for you to test the waters of standardized testing. Many of you have just taken the PSAT and/or Pre-ACT at school. I hope you treated this as an opportunity and not something to dread. It has given you your first “feel” of the standardized testing that may influence your college admission options. You may come away with a preference between the SAT and ACT formats; one test may feel easier than the other. Compare the scores you receive on each. If your school does not offer the chance to take both testing formats, ask your guidance counselor if he or she would consider administering the other test to interested students.

Use your PSAT/Pre-ACT performance to help you choose whether to take the SAT or ACT as your official standardized exam. The PSAT and Pre-ACT score reports will also help you determine the areas in which you’ll need to improve for the SAT and ACT.

https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-admissions-playbook/articles/2017-02-27/use-your-preact-psat-performance-to-choose-a-college-entrance-exam

The end of your first quarter of school is also a good time to think about the courses you are taking and, if any are subjects you excel in, whether you should take that SAT Subject Test in May or June of your sophomore year, while the material is still fresh in your mind. If you take any Honors or AP classes during your sophomore year, for example, then you’ll want to take the Subject Tests in those areas right away.

Should you decide to take a Subject Test at the end of your sophomore year, be sure to prepare for it. In addition to your in-school studies in each subject, you should definitely order a dedicated commercial prep book for each SAT subject you will test in and work through each book. Our students have reported good results from using Barrons, The Princeton Review, Peterson’s and other commercial ‘cram’ books. Read user reviews to decide which prep book is best for you. Each prep book includes several full practice tests.

Beginning to think about standardized testing during your sophomore year will reduce your stress levels during junior year, when “it really matters!”

High School Course Selection

It is the time of year when high school students in the US and elsewhere in the world are required to choose their courses for the next year. Many sophomore students might choose to dive into AP courses; others might want to opt for the International Baccalaureate or choose subjects for A Levels or their section of the French Bac.

Looming over their choices is the knowledge that American colleges care not only about your results but also how you achieved those results. Admission officers know well that for many students getting a great grade in the AP Government or the IB Mathematical Studies course is likely not quite as tough as doing so in the AP US History or IB Mathematics HL one.

College admission is not supposed to be a contest for martyrdom, though, so why would colleges care which of these courses you take? For one thing, they want to see that you take your education seriously, that you are not just going through the required motions. After all, your mode in high school is likely to remain thus in college! They want to see that you are willing to extend yourself intellectually for the sake of learning; that you have the ability to stretch yourself academically; and that you have the preparation to do well in college.

That does not mean always choosing the toughest courses available to you, though. If you choose the most demanding curriculum to impress colleges but you grades suffer, you will hurt yourself in the application process. If you jump into AP Physics C, for example, without a prior AP Physics class, you risk being overwhelmed and your results will show it. So choose the most rigorous course for which you are well prepared enough that you can, with hard work, do well. If you sacrifice sleep and good health to do well, it was definitely not the right choice for you either!

The trickier question is whether your interest in a subject – or lack thereof – should affect your choices. Students might want to take AP Environmental Science because they are interested in environmentalism or the French Bac L because they love literature. They might opt for a second year of Physics rather than Biology because the subject fascinates them.

But every counselor has also heard students say, “I am not going to study STEM, so why should I do a tough math course?” or, “I want to study physics so why bother with history?” This is not an attitude for which admission officers at selective liberal arts colleges (including the Arts and Sciences college within larger universities) will have much tolerance. At these colleges you are probably not being admitted to a specific field (in the UK, students do apply directly to a specific course of study). So admission officers do not want to see that you specialized and narrowed your intellectual vision early. After all, at college you will not only have to do required general education courses in some of those subjects, but hopefully you will also discover new ideas and subjects you do not yet know to exist!

Moreover, the world is rapidly changing and you might well not really know what it is you need to know. Think, for example, how an earlier generation who studied Political Science might be really surprised at how many of our political debates now revolve around the use of computers – social media platforms and algorithms – and require a certain scientific literacy! An earlier president of Brown University called the liberal arts – from History and Economics to Mathematics and Physics – an education “for appointments not yet made.” Don’t make short-term choices in high school that will shape the kind of appointments for which you are prepared as an adult!

By Andrea van Niekerk, College Goals’ Counselor

Going Off to College

With no test preparation, college applications or school schedules to worry about, the summer after senior year is a wonderful moment of liberation! Thinking about the adventure ahead fills students – and their parents – with excitement and joy, but also more than a twinge of anxiety! What follows, therefore, are a few pointers to help smooth your way to college:

  • You need not take your whole bedroom with you to campus! Frankly, most college rooms lack space for multiple appliances and game systems, so check with your future roommate about who will bring what. Assess what you need after you arrive, and remember that when you go home for the holidays, you can always return with that special pillow your mom made you and your online game console.
  • Begin to plan your pathway through your education by knowing when you have to declare a major, what your distribution and concentration requirements are, and when these classes are offered. But don’t let your planning close you off to new possibilities – after all, college is about expanding your intellectual horizons and your academic skills. Explore the course catalog to get a taste of what those possibilities may be.
  • Attend the first class of every course you consider taking, even during any “shopping” period. Professors hand out material, set out their expectations, and may even start teaching, and you do not want to miss it.
  • Attend class even when you don’t feel like it because you stayed out late the night before or the weather is cold and your bed comfortable. Professors will cover material, explain concepts and sketch the bigger picture in ways textbooks won’t.
  • Resist procrastination and, instead, design a study and work schedule. Stick to it! College success comes mostly through a combination of hard work and organization.
  • You may have the time to purchase required textbooks more cheaply online, but make sure you have them when needed for assignments. Buy the edition the reading list specifies.
  • Commit yourself to getting to know at least one of your professors each semester. Your intellectual experience at college comes in part from talking about ideas with others who share the same interests, and that includes both fellow students and teachers. Professors are also invaluable later if you need a letter of recommendation or information about research and internship opportunities. Other residential and academic advisers are equally important resources.
  • Living successfully with a new roommate requires mastering the art of diplomacy and compromise, especially for students who have never had to share their bedroom before. Make use of your residential advisers, and work actively to become part of your dorm community. Avoid the temptation to stick only with the people you knew before you arrived, or those with whom you share a hometown or a language or a religion.
  • Get to know the campus and all the resources it has to offer – libraries, music performances, visiting speakers, sports facilities, and Career, Disability and Study Abroad counselors. Resist the freshman temptation to stick only to the safe bubble of campus – after all, when you chose your college, you also chose your environment. If you are on new terrain, use common sense and at first explore in the company of friends, but don’t let unfamiliarity deprive you of the pleasures your new home has to offer. Get to know the local public transport system – being able to get around a city cheaply and easily is very freeing!
  • Take responsibility for managing your money and your day-to-day life. Learn to do your laundry before you leave home. Open a bank account, manage a monthly budget, and learn to deal with the Accounts and the Financial Aid Offices. And find yourself a job! At most colleges you need not be on financial aid to get a campus job, and these are wonderful opportunities for earning extra money, adding to resumes, and extending your knowledge of your college.
  • Be kind to your parents as both their child and an adult. If you have a problem, they may not know the context well enough to judge whether this is a genuine crisis that requires intervention, or whether you just had a bad day. They will always be ready to support you, so help them make that judgment.

One of the many great joys of university life is that you get to occupy, for an extended period, a lovely space between being an empowered adult and a dependent child. This is a great privilege, but not an excuse for idling in a state of perpetual childhood! Use your privilege and your freedom well. Have fun but be sensible; enjoy the freedom but grow up; and revel in your freedom but phone home!

Planning Your Summer with College in Mind

Are you a high school student (or the parent of one) who is wondering how best to spend your summer? What do colleges expect high school students to do during their school holidays? While summer is a great time to relax and recharge, it’s also an excellent opportunity for teenagers to show commitment, responsibility, passion, leadership and reflection – all characteristics that can really boost your chance of getting into a good college!

Summer Job
Having a summer job is a great way to get work experience and demonstrate commitment and responsibility. Colleges understand financial realities and are impressed by students who work, especially if they are saving money for college or helping to pay some of their own bills. According to an article by Jenny Anderson in Quartz magazine (6-19-16), “Any way you turn it, holding a job is one of the most important things an adolescent can do…. They have to get up in the morning, manage their time and money, pay taxes, and be responsible to a schedule that neither kid nor parent designed.”

See: Quartz “Teens should have summer jobs, the less glamorous the better
(June 19, 2016)

Internship
Like a job, internships involve working for a company or organization, preferably one related to your career interests; but, unlike a job, they are often unpaid. Internships provide an opportunity to ‘test the waters’ and see if you really are interested in that career path. They also help students develop strong teamwork skills balanced with individual responsibility, build specific job skills, and network with people in their field of interest.

See: PrepScholar “Complete Guide to Internships for High School Students
(December 4, 2015)

Volunteer Work
Volunteering is when you do unpaid work that benefits others. Ideally, you are doing work that you enjoy, that supports a cause you care about, and that allows you to explore a career interest. There are many places where you can volunteer locally, such as libraries, animal shelters, schools, community theatres, food pantries, or other local non-profits. My daughter, for example, volunteered at the Emergency Room of our local hospital, as a way to explore her interest in medicine. If you’re passionate about national or local politics, or environmental issues, get involved! Work for a candidate whose values best meet yours, learn about the issues that matter to you, to your community… read, write and talk about them.

See: OnlineSchools.org’s “Student Volunteering Guide

See: PrepScholar “The 9 Best Places to Do Community Service” (September 21, 2015)

Summer Classes
Summer classes can be taken in a variety of ways, either through your high school, at a community college, through an academic program at a college, or even online. Take a course in something that really interests you, but is not offered in your school, or community. Did you know that you can take online courses from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, the U of Texas and other great institutions online, for FREE, through www.edX.org? And there are many other similar options through other institutions, including and beyond www.khanacademy.org. If you need to stay on track with high school courses in order to prepare for college, see what’s available in summer school or at your local community college. If you are interested in pursuing theater, dance or visual arts, see what kinds of workshops are available both locally or as a residential program elsewhere. There are also many ‘pay to play’ opportunities on college campuses, where you study interesting subjects with students from around the world, while living on a college campus. While doing such a program will not improve your chances of admission at that college, it is a great opportunity to explore subjects not available at your high school, meet new people, demonstrate leadership, explore the college experience and expand the horizons of your world!

See: Forbes “College Summer Programs for High Schoolers: Are They Worth It?
(July 1, 2015)

See: Fastweb! Summer Programs for High School Students (March 1, 2016)

Pursue Hobbies or Talents
Summer is the time to pursue hobbies and talents, informally or formally. Perhaps you want to cook your way through one of Julia Child’s legendary cookbooks! It could result in a great college application essay! Are you an athletic, hoping to pursue your sport in college? Summer is an opportunity to focus intensively on your sport, by training or attending camps. Maybe you love to sit around playing guitar, writing your own songs, singing… great! Work on them, polish them, record them, maybe even YouTube them!

See: Psychology Today “Six Reasons to Get a Hobby” (September 15, 2015)

Your summer activities are more important than you imagine… NOT because you can rack up an impressive list to report on your college applications of the activities you attended, participated in, witnessed or accomplished. More important is that you are exploring the things that really mean something to you, and you’re investing your energy in excelling in them! With many opportunities available, choose ones that interest you and will communicate your passion to colleges. Colleges want to see that you committed to activities that are meaningful to you, in which you displayed responsibility and leadership, and where you both affected and were affected by the people and community around you.

See: Huffington Post’s “What College Admissions Office Look for in Extracurricular Activities” (April 11, 2013)

And don’t forget – bagging groceries, flipping burgers, doing construction work or restoring trails will be at least as respected by admission officers as attending a 2-week campus-based program.

Finally, remember that summers are probably the best time for you and your family to make the effort to visit a range of campuses, so you don’t waste time or money applying to colleges where you won’t be happy. Do NOT leave campus visits until after you get admitted… visiting campuses demonstrates your interest in each college, and that effort can significantly affect the outcome of your application.

Don’t wait! Summer opportunities need to be lined up NOW!

Is Early Decision Right For You?

Early applications were initially intended to help students signal their commitment to their top choice school. Over time though, the early application system began to reproduce all the stresses and strains of regular decision, only earlier and for an extended application period.  Now there are a variety of early application choices: Early Action (open choice and single choice), Early Decision, and second round Early Decision applications. Early Decision and Early Action application deadlines are usually in November, and students are typically notified of the admission decision in December.  Each early application option offers pros and cons.

This blog focuses on Early Decision (ED) applications.  An ED application is a binding commitment to one school. If accepted, you will be expected to attend, and thus you must withdraw any other applications.

Applying early can be an effective admissions strategy for many students. It is most appropriate for a student who:

  • Has researched colleges extensively
  • Is absolutely sure that the college is their first choice
  • Has found a college that is a strong match academically, socially and geographically
  • Meets or exceeds the admission profile for the college with respect to standardized test scores, GPA and class rank
  • Has an academic record that has been solid over time

Early Decision may be less appropriate for students who will absolutely need financial aid to attend college and will benefit from comparing financial aid offers from other colleges, unless your first choice college is one of the colleges that pledges to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need.  (See: http://www.thecollegesolution.com/schools-that-meet-100-of-financial-need-2/.)

More and more, colleges are accepting an increasing proportion of their incoming freshman class through Early Decision (ED) applications.  Click here (https://ogontz.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/2016-early-decision-vs-regular-decision-acceptance-rates-chart-8-21-16.pdf) for a document that compares ED acceptance rates to Regular Decision (RD) acceptance rates for over 200 American colleges and universities. The document also gives the percentage of each institution’s freshman class filled through ED.  You will note that many prominent colleges fill 1/3 to 1/2 or even more with ED applicants, which significantly reduces the number of spaces available for the much larger pool of students who apply Regular Decision.

It’s important to reiterate that you should apply early only if you are as ready to present your credentials to the college in October or November as you would be later in the fall. If you want to re-take the SAT or ACT you didn’t do so well on, or get your History grade up, you might want to forgo applying early in order to buy yourself some more time for improvement until the regular admissions deadline.

If you plan on applying early, you need to start all facets of your admissions process early. Make sure you have lined up your recommendations and completed all required testing before the deadlines. Be ready to present yourself as a solid candidate. Above all, make sure you indeed want to attend the school to which you are applying early.

For more information about Early Decision, see:

http://blog.prepscholar.com/what-is-early-decision-should-you-do-it

http://www.thecollegesolution.com/applying-to-college-early-decision/

By Carolyn Stewart

Start Your College Financial Aid Process NOW

As you are excitedly exploring college websites and imagining yourselves as incoming freshmen next year on the campuses of your choice, many of you (and your parents!) are probably also concerned about the rising cost of college attendance.

There are two options that can help families in facing the cost of college – merit scholarship aid and need-based financial aid. Students/families should consider applying for both. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on their talents and not on financial need. These talents may include athletics, academics, musical skills or commitment to service. Merit-based money is a measure of how much a college would like a student to attend and is unaffected by the wealth or the need of the student’s family. Many of the most selective private colleges, however, do not award any merit-based aid. Need-based aid is based on a calculation of a family’s demonstrated need. In other words, the cost of attending a college minus the estimated contribution a family can make to cover that cost (EFC) = demonstrated need.

If you think you will need financial assistance in order to attend the college of your choice, there are things you and your parents should do now to prepare for the process of applying for financial aid.

  1. Start gathering and organizing your financial documents and tax information now. Beginning in 2016 for aid applications for the 2017-2018 award year, families will use the prior prior year (PPY) income and tax return information. This is great news, since most families should have their 2015 tax returns already submitted. Use this 2015 income and tax return information on the Net Price Calculators described below and to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile in a timely manner.
  1. All colleges and universities are required to put a Net Price Calculator on their websites to help families calculate their estimated family contribution (EFC), given the specific costs of that institution. You can also find a general net price calculator on the College Board’s website at http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org/.
  1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the online application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from the U.S. federal and state governments. It is used by colleges and universities to distribute need-based financial aid. It is also used by many institutions to award scholarships and merit-based aid. It is important to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid! 

    International students are not eligible for the U.S. government aid programs. However, many schools will ask international students to submit a FAFSA so that they may use the data for assessing financial need. See eduPASS (http://www.edupass.org/finaid/fafsa.phtml) for more information.Beginning in 2016, the FAFSA will be available starting October 1. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete. The switch to PPY data will allow most American families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA, thereby simplifying the application process. Information from the parents’ PPY tax return (normally already submitted to the IRS – 2015 return in this case) would be downloaded and automatically populate the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED), you will likely need to submit the FAFSA at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.

  1. Check to see if the institutions on your list require the CSS Profile, in addition to the FAFSA. There are about 200 colleges (mostly highly-selective private colleges) that use this form, which is longer and more complex than the FAFSA. Both U.S. and international students may complete the CSS Profile. We recommend printing out the CSS Profile worksheet (accessible once you establish a CSS Profile account) and filling it in by hand, before transferring the data to the online application. The CSS Profile is also available starting October 1 and will use PPY income and tax information like the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED) to one of the institutions requiring the CSS Profile, you will likely need to submit the CSS Profile at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.
  1. If you think you will need assistance with FAFSA or CSS Profile preparation, contact a financial aid expert EARLY, preferably in the Fall and definitely not last minute!
  1. Start exploring scholarship opportunities, both locally and nationally. These are sources of funding that are not administered by colleges but rather by other private organizations, each with its own application process and eligibility criteria. Families should not pay for any of these, nor pay anyone to search them out! Check out this website: http://www.college-scholarships.com/free-scholarship-searches/. Before you spend lots of time applying for scholarships, check with the colleges on your list. Many schools will deduct your scholarships from your awarded financial aid package.

This process can feel overwhelming….. I know, because I have completed the process for both my children! But by starting the process now, getting organized, and having a frank discussion with your family about expectations and financial realities, you will be ready to complete all the relevant forms when the time comes. And, when you have completed the paperwork, reward yourself for your accomplishment!

Written by Carolyn Stewart, Director of Communications

Summer Reading Suggestions

Every year, College Goals suggests interesting books for you – both students and parents – to consider for your weekend and holiday reading! This year, our counselors have been reading a wide variety of genres, encompassing many topics, eras and styles. Their recommendations are included below.

So, look for these titles and grab a book to take with you on vacation!

Andrea van Niekerk’s Recommendations

Mary Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris worked for decades in The New Yorker’s copy department, and this is both a memoir of her time there and a very funny look at language and the ways we use it.

Janna Levin, Black Hole Blues, and other Songs from Outer Space. Levin’s timing was either very terrible or really prescient! Earlier this year scientists for the first time recorded the sound of black holes colliding, confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This books chronicles the search for those sounds and came out right as scientists announced that they had recorded them. (If you want to read a great lay article about the actual discovery, have a look at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gravitational-waves-discovered-from-colliding-black-holes1/)

We have lots of conversations about the ways in which knowledge intersects across subject – the intersection, for example, between politics, economics and technological change. Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik’s book, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to Present Third Edition) uses trade as one way to understand the way our world has come about. Feels a bit like a textbook, but it is an easy read and every chapter is almost its own little book.

Finally, summer is a great time to pick up a page-turner and remind yourself why reading is fabulous and fun! So over the last few months my husband and I have, at our son’s recommendation, consumed James Corey’s Expanse series, from Leviathan Awakes to Nemesis Games. Obviously it helps if you like science fiction, but this does so well in creating a future world – one in which spaceships take us far beyond our home world, but the experience is dangerous, cramped, and has a big impact on the socio-economic life on Earth.

Frans de Waal is a Dutch primatologist who studies animal intelligence. His book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a great book for anyone interested in the science of cognition, and a wonderful read for all of us who love to read great stories about animals doing weirdly smart things on the internet.

Jilly Warner’s Recommendations, including some from her students!

In Emily Henry’s debut effort, The Love That Split the World weaves Native American folktales into this time-traveling, gripping, and beautifully-written love story.

Paper Hearts by Meg Viviott: Amid the brutality of Auschwitz during the Holocaust, a forbidden gift helps two teenage girls find hope, friendship, and the will to live in this novel in verse that’s based on a true story.

In Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Etta, a talented teenage violinist in New York City, goes, in a matter of moments, from making her concert soloist debut to finding herself prisoner aboard a ship in the distant past. It turns out she is descended from one of a dwindling number of time-traveling families who manipulate history in an ongoing fight for power and influence. The captain of the ship, Nicholas Carter, was hired to retrieve Etta and bring her to the head of the most powerful family.

North Face by Matt Dickinson: An earthquake, a climber trapped on Everest and an epic rescue attempt.

The Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount is a sweeping history of the British in India, seen through the experiences of a single Scottish family. This was a period in which my grandparents lived in India, and I found this fascinating read both beautiful and horrific.

Joyce Reed’s Recommendations

In Revolution in Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable, Richard A. DeMillo tells the behind-the-scenes story of the pioneering efforts to transform higher education and introduce new ways to disseminate knowledge.

Educator Salman Khan founded the Khan Academy with the aim of providing a “free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” In The One World Schoolhouse, he presents his radical vision for the future of education, as well as his own remarkable story.

How many introverts do you know? The real answer will probably surprise you! In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain explores introversion through psychological research old and new, personal experiences, and even brain chemistry, in an engaging and highly-readable fashion.

In Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, bestselling author and columnist Frank Bruni provides a new perspective on the flawed and competitive process of college admissions and a path out of the anxiety that it provokes.

Gail Lewis’ Recommendations

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Somehow this WWII novel captures something special about the time and terror of this major world event, blending the experiences of a young, scientifically-oriented German boy and a young French girl who happens to be blind. It’s amazingly successful and well worth reading. A book that one finds oneself thinking about a lot after completing it . . . one of the markers of a great book, in my opinion. A straight-forward yet engaging read.

In his non-fiction bestseller The Big Short, Michael Lewis describes the build-up of the U.S. housing bubble during the 2000s that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, telling the story with dark humor.

With exclusive access to Musk, his family and friends, journalist Ashlee Vance provides the first inside look into the extraordinary life and times of Silicon Valley’s most audacious entrepreneur in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

Improv Wisdom: don’t prepare, just show up by Patricia Madsen: In an irresistible invitation to lighten up, look around, and live an unscripted life, a master of the art of improvisation explains how to adopt the attitudes and techniques used by generations of musicians and actors.

With their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame take us inside their thought process and teach us all how to think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally. In Think Like A Freak, they offer a blueprint for an entirely new way to solve problems, whether your interest lies in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.

David Prutow’s Recommendations
The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins: In this engrossing anthropological study of the cult of overachieving that is prevalent in many middle- and upper-class schools, journalist Robbins follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they balanced intense academic pressure, parental expectations, personal interests, social life, and their own drive to succeed.

Author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson spent decades defending the poor and disadvantaged within the U.S. criminal justice system. A memoir of sorts, Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption contains stories from children, teen and adults who have been in the prison system. This is a book for anyone interested in social justice, the law, and the death penalty.

In Freedom, author Jonathan Franzen paints a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family. When Patty and Walter Berglund’s teenage son moves in with their conservative neighbors and their perfect life in St. Paul begins to unravel, out spill family secrets–clandestine loves, lies, compromises, and failures.

Carolyn Stewart’s Recommendations

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: Full of heart and humor, Simsion’s debut novel about a fussy, socially-challenged man’s search for the perfect wife is smart, breezy, quirky, and fun. Genetics professor Don Tillman’s ordered, predictable life is thrown into chaos when love enters the equation in this immensely enjoyable novel.

In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a love letter to the joys of books, reading and booksellers.  The protagonist, bookstore owner A.J. Fikry has seen everything he loves disappear. This novel, in its humor and sadness, shows how he rebuilds with the help of an endearing family.

In Jumpha Lahiri’s eloquent debut collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, the characters navigate between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, seeking love beyond the barriers of culture and generations.

As a former college rower, I really enjoyed reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. It’s the true story of the working-class men who formed the University of Washington’s crew team and their unlikely journey to defeat not only the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, but also the German rowing team of Hitler’s Olympics.

My Tips for Surviving the College Application Process

By Emily I. from Berlin, Germany
Guest Blogger and College Goals’ student of Jilly Warner

The idea of applying to colleges can seem exciting, daunting, maybe even scary, but most of all, stressful. Although it should actually only be exciting, as we begin this amazing new chapter in our lives, I feel that it is hard to get around the stressful part of applying. The only way to make it easier is to take each step of the process as it comes and just get it done. To get started early is important, in order to have enough time to dissect each step of the process and work on it thoroughly.

To me, the most important part of the application process is having motivation and excitement. You have to be excited to go to college, and to start the wonderful experience of life after high school. If you are not, it may be very hard to find motivation to write essays, look into different kinds of schools, and keep up with your studies at the same time. Motivation and excitement came easy for me, as I have always dreamed of going to college in the US.

It helped to look at the websites of individual schools, and find one thing for each school that I was completely passionate about. This also helped when comparing different choices, as I could weigh the aspects I had found amazing about one school to the highlights of another.

During the process of deciding where to apply, I began writing my Common App essay. Again, the most important things to have are motivation and passion. Choose a prompt that you are interested in and brainstorm about what information you find important to share about yourself. This will help a great deal, as it will not be a burden to write and you may even find the process enjoyable. Going over it repeatedly will get boring, so I tried to always keep in mind why I initially felt inclined to write an essay in response to that specific prompt and why I was excited about it. If you simply can’t get motivated, think about your dream school. Imagine their admissions team reading your essay and what impressions they will gather from it. You want it to stand out, right?

Once I had made my final choice of colleges, I began writing the individual essays for each school. Again, if you get a choice of prompts, choose one that you are passionate about. Many of the essays took a lot of thinking and mulling over in my mind until I was able to decide what I wanted to write about. The University of Richmond, for example, has a prompt that simply says: Spiders. I felt completely clueless about how to respond, as I felt that such a creative prompt deserved a very creative answer. I was really happy that I had started early, because I had enough time to take a week to just think about it. I tried to think about it at least once a day, and if any good ideas popped into my head, I immediately wrote them down on my phone. This is a good thing to do with any prompts that seem tricky. It is a lot easier to have a whole bunch of ideas and then weed out the good ones, instead of staring at a blank computer screen with no ideas to consider.

Once I had finished writing all the individual essays, everything else seemed like a piece of cake. The best advice I can give to anyone about to go through the process of applying to colleges is to get on it early and stay focused, and most importantly, be motivated and get excited. It is the first time for most of us to be independent from our families and to make all of our own decisions. No matter where you end up going to college, you should be excited about the unknown, and use that anticipation for a boost of energy and motivation.

Important Changes to the Financial Aid Process

For many families, one of the most stressful aspects of the college application process is filling out financial aid forms.  Recent changes to both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and CSS Profile should make the process somewhat easier starting October 2016, but if your student is a current high school senior, college freshman or college sophomore, there are some things to consider before the end of 2015.

Currently, the CSS Profile becomes available on October 1 and the FAFSA goes live on January 1. Parents must complete these online forms using prior year financial data. (So, for students beginning college in the 2016-2017 academic year, this would be 2015 data.)  This has meant that parents of college applicants have had to estimate tax income information in order to meet the financial aid application deadlines.

This autumn, changes were announced for both the FAFSA and CSS Profile.  Beginning in 2016 for aid applications for the 2017-2018 award year, families will use the prior prior year (PPY) income and tax return information, and both forms will be available on October 1, 2016.  This means that parents of students who will be in college in the fall of 2017, for example, will use their 2015 federal tax return to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile.

This will make the financial aid application process easier for the following reasons:

  • PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA and CSS Profile much earlier and align more closely with traditional application process deadlines.
  • PPY will allow most American families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA, thereby eliminating the need for parents to estimate income and tax information and decreasing the need for additional documentation. Information from the parents’ PPY tax return (already submitted to the IRS) would be downloaded and automatically populate the FAFSA.
  • PPY may enable families to receive notification of financial aid packages earlier, which will provide more time for students and families to assess and compare packages and determine how they will pay their Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

So why is this change important now, when it doesn’t take effect until October 2016?

Because of the timing of the change, parents with current high school seniors, college freshmen, and college sophomores will complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile using 2015 financial data TWO YEARS IN A ROW.  This means now is the time to look at your 2015 data carefully and see what steps you can take to lower your expected family contribution by reducing parental income and/or assets or deferring decisions that would inflate your income and/or assets.  Consider the timing of a bonus, distributions from your retirement plans, realization of capital gains from selling assets, and purchase of large item for which you have been accumulating funds.

Here are some articles to read for further information:

Get Ready for FAFSA

The new FAFSA process and college costs