Finding the Right College (Part One)

Is it a Pizza Kind of Day?
Or salad. Or tacos. Sometimes that all-you-can-eat-buffet sounds amazing but maybe the single dish of ice cream does the trick.

We’re really sorry if you’re reading this right before lunch hour. Besides getting your stomach’s attention, what we’d like to like to point out is that colleges are like a kind of smorgasbord. A smorgasbord of some 5,300 different dishes and it’s not very likely that you’ll need to sample all of them. (Even if we did happen to make you really hungry just now.) You’ve got one plate, one appetite, so you’re going to think about what you want on that plate. What’s going to really hit the spot and not break the budget?

The point is, there are A LOT of colleges and universities in the U.S. — yes, really like 5,300 of them — and they’re not all the same. If you’re a junior or a senior in high school, you’re probably hearing from a lot of them right now. Quick! How many different KINDS can you name?


How many did you name? What did we leave out? OK, we couldn’t resist a little trivia, but let’s move on.

We could write through next Monday’s dinner hour about all the majors, the programs, the certificates, the degrees. [Promise, we won’t do that, but here’s the official list if you want to go down that rabbit hole.]

Yep, there is absolutely this monster variety of colleges out there. Luckily, the best way to find the right college doesn’t start with that list, it starts with YOU. Shiny brochures aside, not every college is going to be equally amazing for you. So the first step in creating a college list is making a list of your interests and your priorities for life after high school.

Are you determined to live at home during college or are you itching to experience an entirely new area of the country? Those packed college football games can be loads of fun, but that might mean 100+ students in your Intro Bio class. What sports, clubs, work opportunities matter to you outside the classroom?

The point is to start the college search with your priority list in mind. Colleges come in different sizes, locations, and with different vibes and strengths. And you should know that some colleges do a much better job than others of connecting with their students and getting them to graduation. Don’t let some college ranking tell YOU what your dream college is.

College cost and your budget has to be part of this process. We’ll unpack what you need to know in an upcoming newsletter.

Action step: Take a look at chapter two in The Guide, where we outline some really good ways to think about what you want to find in a college. Watch our short video below and you’ll nail it.

Fair Opp Faves: Tools We Like

We’re going low-tech on our Fair Opp Fave. Take out the ole’ pen and paper and write your personal responses to the college checklist that we outlined on pages 8-9 in the latest edition of The Guide. [Hint: this checklist asks what you care about. Think and write about the Academics; the Location; the College Size; Public/Private; Housing; Social Life; Food; Athletics; Extracurriculars; Finances.] Hang onto this sheet because you’re going to need it to build that college list! [Stay tuned for our next issue, when we walk you through how to build that list.]

And now in the financial aid corner….

Who knows what the FAFSA is? [Bonus points if you know what all the letters stand for.]

Who loves the FAFSA? [crickets]

The FAFSA is an application for aid. It’s THE single most important thing you can do if you want to receive financial aid for college. And yet, two million students who could have—and should have—tackled the FAFSA just didn’t do it last year. $24 BILLION unclaimed college dollars. That’s crazy when you think about it.

We’re not asking you to love the FAFSA. We ARE asking you not to leave college money on the table.

The FAFSA had a special occasion this week, because it opened up on October 1st for students who are looking for financial aid for next school year: 2019-20. [That’s your cue.] Help FAFSA celebrate this special occasion and knock this one off your college to-do list right now. Seriously, lots of college money goes to students who are first in line for it.

Here are some things that you CAN love about the FAFSA:

It’s the first step for getting a Pell Grant (doesn’t need to be repaid), and this can be a good chunk of money: the annual Maximum Award for a Pell Grant in the 2018-19 school year= $6,095

It’s free to complete [DON’T pay to submit this]

There’s a nifty mobile app now that you can use (see our Sept. 4 newsletter)

Dodge the most common mistakes with this list.

In many states, you can find free workshops with knowledgeable volunteers who can help you fill out the form. Ask your counselor or try searching “College Goal [your state]”

Action step:

Set up your FSA ID on the FAFSA website and then keep it in a safe (and memorable) place—you will need this ID every year that you fill out the FAFSA. You can watch this video with really rousing music on how to create the FSA ID, or you can quietly read this tip sheet.

What’s Your Question?

Send us your questions and we’ll respond to them here!

“I’m just feeling overwhelmed by how many colleges there are. Where do I start?”-Zoe Y.

Yes, go ahead and start with an UGH. Seriously. This college application process seems WAY too complicated and stressful. Your news feed is probably highlighting all kinds of ominous tales of what can go wrong. The good news? The more you plan, the better this is going to go. You’re reading this newsletter, you’ve got all kinds of information and resources on our website: solid approach for a solid plan. Take a deep breath and read our article above on how to tackle this. You don’t roll out of bed and just run a marathon, right?  That would be crazy overwhelming. Not a healthy approach. We’ve got examples in our Guide of a much saner approach. A written, detailed, reasonable timeline with specific steps. You can do this!

In Your Region

Here’s a very handy U.S. map of links to college aid programs in each state. Yes, most of this aid goes to students who are attending a college or university in the state where they live, but you’ll find exceptions. These state-by-state websites are a great resource for finding state-based scholarships and grants for specific fields (like education, medicine, or dentistry). You may find that you can qualify as a resident after just 12 months of living and working in that state but be sure to understand the requirements beforehand. Don’t forget about the tuition exchanges that we shared in our last newsletter!

Making the Most of High School

Are you Round or Pointy?

We’re not trying to be rude. We also don’t believe students fit only one of these dimensions. This is about the way you fill your days and how you might share that with a college. There’s that round side of you —as in well-rounded—doing all kinds of different things outside of classes. Basketball? Marching band? 4-H? Volunteering at your church? Bagging groceries on the weekend? Don’t hold back from sharing these things if they’re a key part of your hours outside of school. Colleges know that you have a lot of responsibilities and interests that don’t show up on your transcript. Let them know who you are and what’s important.

Then there’s that pointy approach. Maybe that kindergarten visit to the Humane Society is where it all started, and now you volunteer, coordinate a Dog Jog, break the Internet with your advocacy stories and shots. You’ve got a passion and it fires you up everyday.

“We just want students who live and die for homework” said no college admissions officer ever. Focus. Passion. Enthusiasm. Colleges want and need both the round and the pointy students—and students all along that amazing spectrum. We think you’ll like this framework for thinking about who you are and how you share that story.

About those hours in school….

No amount of roundness or pointiness will make up for a squishy class schedule or mediocre grades. Coasting through high school isn’t how you can coast into college. Challenge yourself (but don’t overwhelm yourself) and remember that what classes you need to graduate from high school may not be enough for getting into college.

Action step: Read The Guide’s detailed tips on how your extracurricular activities and academic performance play a role in the college admissions process. You need just a few minutes for our short student-to-student video modules that walk you through Making the Most of High School.

Fair Opp Faves: Tools We Like

Don’t you wish you could get beyond the glossy college campus photos? What is the campus vibe really like when you’re living the student life there? Campus visits are really important for knowing whether you fit in. We think that Campus Reel offers one affordable alternative. Students film short pieces on their dorm rooms, campus food, study spaces and so forth. Not every college is featured [yet].

Ten Things to Know about the PSAT/NMSQT

You don’t really need to know what all of those letters stand for.

Taking this standardized test is the only way to be eligible for 8,600 college scholarships offered through the National Merit Scholarship Program and other special scholarships. (Special exceptions for illness or emergencies.)

It’s offered one time a year, in October: this year, it’s October 10 for most schools but the alternate date is October 13. Confirm the date with your school.

It’s only offered through your high school and you will need to register before the test date. Check with your counselor (soon!) on how to register.

It’s a test you take in your junior year/11th grade, but 10th graders may be able to take it as a practice round. Check with your school.

Registering includes questions about your academic and college interests. You will be asked whether you want this information to be shared with the “Student Search Service.” This is how colleges and scholarships may find you—and contact you.

It’s a standardized test, and that means that not every student’s strengths are going to come shining through. Do not despair if this is you—there are many other ways to do that.

Taking the test doesn’t affect your school grades and is good practice for the SAT, a standardized test that many colleges require for admission.

The competition is stiff for becoming a finalist but it’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to call yourself a National Merit Scholar.

If you want to dig into the nitty gritty details, you can find them on the National Merit website at

Action step: You can only take the official PSAT once as a qualifying test for the competition, but you can get lots of practice and tips at no charge on the Khan Academy website. Answer a few questions and see how you do!

What’s Your Question?

Send us your questions and we’ll respond to them here!

“How do I apply for a scholarship?”-Clio M.

Hi Clio! This may sound like bad voting advice, but here’s what you need to do for scholarships: apply EARLY and OFTEN. You may not get every scholarship you apply for, but you definitely won’t get a scholarship that you DON’T apply for. Here’s what we recommend. First, make a resume: focus on the details, not the fancy layout. Next, your high school and the colleges you’re applying to will offer some of your best options for scholarships. Get the lists and the deadlines BEFORE your senior year, if possible. Deadlines for the most generous college scholarships may be earlier than college application deadlines! Stay organized. Set a realistic and steady goal—how many can you apply for every week? If you write an essay, save it and reuse it where you can. Be sure to check out the complete steps that we recommend in The Guide and catch some advice in this short video module on our website.

In Your Region

Colleges want your state’s students. The list of discounts and grants that are offered in one state to attract students in another state continues to grow. This means that public universities may offer out-of-state students the same, lower tuition as in-state residents. Private colleges don’t have in-state or out-of-state tuition pricing but many of them will match the tuition cost at their state’s public colleges. Here is a detailed listing from NASFAA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators) of some of the main tuition exchange and reciprocity discount programs offered by region. If you have a specific college in mind, contact their financial aid office for the most specific information.

Thinking About College

Labor Day 2018 is past. How did summer fly by so fast? We can’t help you with that one. But we can help you with what lies ahead in thinking about, planning, and applying to college. It’s a lot to think about. It's like having a huge term paper due and no clear instructions. Your friend tells you to do it one way. You've seen chats with other advice. Meanwhile the days are ticking by.

When we were high school students, there was just so much we didn't know about college. Not a good feeling. So this is our response: Fair Opportunity Project⟶or FOP, or Fair Opp. Pulling in as much as we find out there that's solid and straightforward. A to Z.

That’s why we started Fair Opportunity Project. We’re a nonprofit organization, started by students, so that everyone gets the detailed, comprehensive and straightforward information about college that offers a fair opportunity.

Resource Highlight from Fair Opportunity Project

The Fair Opportunity Project website is full of information on the college application process and we’re adding new information regularly. This issue, our focus is Thinking About College:

If you're thinking about whether college is for you, this is the place to start. We go through the benefits of college, why it matters for your future, and the wide range of students who have chosen to attend. If you're thinking about whether college is for you, this is the place to start.

Action step: Check out the website and see what’s there. You can download The Guide, watch any of the learning modules, enjoy the student music video. There’s a lot to explore.  

Fair Opp Faves: Tools We Like

Each issue of this newsletter we’ll highlight one cool tool or resource. Maybe it’s for finding the right college, covering college costs, or staying on top of the application process. We only share tools that we’ve checked out.

College aid? It starts with FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Yes, it is free & you can find it at Living life on your mobile? Now FAFSA works there too. New this fall is the FAFSA mobile app—accessible via a quick download of the myStudentAid app.

Action step: Download the myStudentAid app for your mobile phone.  Set up your profile. Don’t have all the answers? Hit save and come back to it later when you have the financial details it asks for. You don’t need to suffer through it alone⟶we’ll be sharing free resources that can help with that.

When “Aid” Isn’t So Helpful

College costs are on everyone’s minds and all over the media. That doesn’t mean that everything you hear is the whole story.

So with college in the future, how will you pay for it? Here’s some adulting advice. Think and plan now, before that tuition bill comes due.

Not all ways to pay for college are the same. Colleges where you’re accepted will get you all excited and THEN give you their “financial aid award” letters. It’s called a “package” and it will most likely include several different kinds of pots of money—funds. You’ll need to cover the cost of tuition, room, board, books and transportation.

Make sure you know the difference between the different kinds of funds. Go for the ones you don’t need to repay first. You might find more aid than you think! Here’s a list of the most common types of college aid.

Grants: Good to get! This is money for college costs that you don’t need to repay.

Scholarships: Good to get! This is also money for college costs that you don’t need to repay.

Work Study: Good to get, but remember that you need to work the hours in order to receive the money, so you may not actually receive the full amount that has been awarded to you.

Subsidized loans: This is money that you will need to pay back, so only borrow what you really need. A subsidized loan means that you don’t have to repay any of it while you’re at least a half-time college student. That takes some pressure off you.

Unsubsidized loans: This is money that you will need to start paying back as soon as you take out the loan. This should be your last choice for paying for college.

Action step: Do you already have a college in mind? Find their financial aid office webpage and search for “grants” and “scholarships”. Read up and make a list of the ones that might work for you.

Top Ten Reasons We Love Lists

OK, we don’t really have 10. But you’re still reading and that’s because lists hook all of us on the Internet. Colleges love to be on [most] lists. Best Campus Food. Prettiest Campus. Biggest Sport School….U.S. News and World Report. But are these lists more FOMO than what you’re really about? The most important college list is the one you create for yourself. What really matters to YOU in a college? We’ve made a short video about what to consider when you create your own, personal list.

We know, lists are still really tempting. One list we like comes from Washington Monthly. Want to know what colleges give the Best Bang for the Buck? You’ll find that list here, along with other ways to think about what colleges do the most for you, the student, instead of what college is fanciest or most prestigious.

What’s Your Question?

Send us your questions and we’ll respond to them here!

How do I know which college is going to be what I need for my career?” —Lizzie J.

Good question! A good way to approach this is by first thinking about what things you like to do or learn about, and why. There isn’t just one path to a career, but there is just one, unique you. [Insert warm fuzzies here.]

Here are some quick tips that can help guide you.

One. If you already have a strong interest in a particular career or profession, find out what kinds of preparation it requires. For example, if you want to be a nurse, you will want to look for a college that has a nursing program.

Two. More often, you don’t know exactly what you want to do for a career. This is OK! Start with finding a college where you think you fit in—this might be the location, or the size, or the people there. Cue up that “college list”  tip that we just shared above. The path for many careers can include many different majors and experiences. Colleges have career centers, and they can help you find an internship or work experience in a career that you want to learn more about.