Cyndy McDonald

Posts by Cyndy McDonald

A Novel Idea: A Gap Year!

marie_schwartzGuest Blog:  Marie Schwartz, CEO and founder of TeenLife.  Visit the TeenLife website to find “the web’s most comprehensive directory of STEM, gap year, pre-college, overnight summer and community service programs for students in grades 7-12.” Learn more about Gap year opportunities.

A Novel Idea

It’s high season for college applications. Students are polishing off college essays, waiting on final test scores, pushing for that last GPA point. Meanwhile, parents are biting their nails and wrestling with financial aid forms.

So let’s talk about postponing college.

What? Is that insane?! Not at all. This is the perfect moment to take a deep breath and consider taking a break from school before plunging into the next pressurized step. Now is the time to think about a gap year or semester that allows time and opportunity to refocus, polish skills, explore an interest, or simply re-energize.

Gap years still are more common in places like the United Kingdom where up to 25 percent of students who go to college take a year off. In the United States, that number is closer to 1 percent, according to the nonprofit Higher Education Research Institute. The statistics don’t tell why students take off a year, but the American Gap Association (AGA) reports increasing interest and attendance at the gap year fairs it holds around the country to familiarize students with gap programs.

Why even consider a gap? For starters, researchers in Australia found that taking time out from school helped with motivation once students got to college. category-gap-yearGap benefits even outweighed other variables for college success, such as gender and socio-economic status. Researchers even argued that their 2007 survey of 338 gap year students showed that taking a break helped students focus on what they were going to do after college.

And more than 90 percent of 600 gap students responding to a 2015 AGA survey said their time off from school increased confidence, maturity, communication skills, or the ability to get along with people with backgrounds different from their own.

A gap gives teenagers that important chance to be independent outside of the structure of school and athletics and away from the watchful eyes of the usual mentors – parents, teachers, and coaches. It can help develop the grit that students need to be independent and resilient once they get to college.

Gaps have become so acceptable that some colleges, such as Princeton, have set up their own fully-funded programs to encourage students to explore the world and themselves before entering college.

Don’t be swayed by some of the myths about “gap years.” For example:

Myth: A gap lasts a year.

Fact: A gap can be whatever length works with your plan. It could be just a semester or quarter of work and travel, interning, or participation in a political campaign or community service program. Many colleges offer January start dates.

Myth: A gap is exotic.

Fact: Of the students surveyed by AGA, the largest percentage spent their gaps in the United States. A teenager could work on language skills, for example, tutoring in a local immigrant center.

Myth: A gap is out of reach financially.

Fact: A student might work part of a year or semester and use that money to travel or pay for a structured gap program. Some programs or schools offer financial aid or fellowships. And crowdfunding gives students more options to raise money to support time off from school.

Myth: A gap is just for kids who are unmotivated or unsure about college.

Fact: All students can benefit from a break to learn problem-solving, dealing with conflict, understanding their own limits, managing time, and being responsible for themselves in ways that are so very, very important freshman year.

If you’re considering taking a “pause” from your studies, go through the college application process but ask about deferral policies both for academics and financial aid. Thinking about those things now provides time to decide if a gap is a practical option. In the meantime start exploring gap programs and options. Do you want something structured or freewheeling? Do you want to climb a mountain or work with children? Is this a time to work in a lab or volunteer at an animal hospital? Would you like to become fluent in a language, understand the inner workings of health care, or meet decision makers in Washington, D.C.? You can do all those and more on a gap.

College application season is a stressful time but it’s also the moment to be expanding your world and thinking about what you want out of life. Isn’t it worth some time to explore?

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Applying for Financial Aid: Get Ready Now!


college-financial-aidThe first step to getting financial aid is to be sure you apply for as much as possible. What are the forms you need to look for? When can you start submitting the forms?

Oct. 1, 2015      PROFILE
Jan. 1, 2016      FAFSA


What is the CSS Profile?  The  College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE   is an online application which collects financial information used by many colleges and scholarship programs to award financial aid or scholarships.
Who Uses the CSS Profile? Many private colleges, scholarship programs and some public colleges require the Profile. Check the list of colleges and programs

What money is covered by the Profile? This is financial aid from sources managed by the college itself. It does not include financial aid money from the federal government.

Is this the only form I should complete? No.  You should also fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

What financial aid can I apply for using the FAFSA?  You can use the FAFSA to apply for all federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, work-study and student loans.

Do I need to fill out a state form too? Maybe. Check with your school counselor. Many states use the FAFSA to check for your eligibility for the state grant.  

What is the deadline for filing the Profile?  The PROFILE may be filed any time after October 1. The colleges typically want the profile completed at least two weeks before posted “priority” filing deadlines.

What information do I need to fill out financial aid forms? It depends on the form:

  • The PROFILE and FAFSA can be completed with estimates of income and expenses for 2015.
  • The PROFILE can be completed with parent/student tax information from 2013 & 2014.

Where can I learn more? Check out these websites for more information.

Your Edge

GuidedPath has you covered!  Learn which colleges on your list require the Profile, and what their deadlines are.

  1. Log into your GuidedPath account.
  2. Click on Reports in the left column.
  3. Select Financial Aid Form Report.
  4. View Financial Aid forms (both FAFSA and the Profile) required.
  5. View Priority and Closing Dates for each form.
  6. View other financial aid data required (if any) for schools on your college lists!

Can I see all the colleges which require the Profile in Edge?  YES!  There is a “CSS Profile Required” list updated and ready for you in the Guided Search section.

  • From your dashboard, click on Colleges in the top menu bar.
  • Select Guided Search from the drop down menu.
  • Click on the Financial Aid Tab in the list of options
  • Go to the last dropdown list, Financial Tagged Lists.
  • Scroll to the bottom. Select the checkbox next to CSS Profile Required and click Search.

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Should I do an early application to get an edge in admissions?

The purpose of submitting an application to a college early is to indicate your top preference for that college or a small group of colleges.  Colleges appreciate knowing you are likely to enroll if admitted. You benefit because you hear early from your “dream” school if you are admitted or not.

The key to managing your college applications is knowing the difference between the three early application types, and when to use them. Most early admission application due dates are in November, with a notification date in December.

Think of early action as chips in your college admissions game. You can spend your chips in different ways.

Early Action

A plan offered by colleges allowing students to apply early and receive an admissions decision earlier than the regular decision dates. You can spend multiple chips to apply Early Action. Students can often submit early action applications to more than one school. You can apply regular admissions to any other colleges. Students have until May 1 to confirm enrollment, and are not required to commit if accepted.

Restrictive Early Action

You only have one chip (early application). You have to decide which one college is at the top of your “dream” list and place your chip there. You are restricted from applying EA or ED to any other college.  You can apply regular admissions to any other colleges.

Early Decision

Another one chip choice, students are restricted to choosing one college to apply to Early Decision. If a student is admitted Early Decision, you are committed to attend the college.  No other applications can be submitted.  All other submitted college applications must be withdrawn.  The up side to Early Decision is you hear early. The downside can be in terms of financial aid options offered.

Why Apply Early?

There is a lot of debate the advantages or disadvantages of applying early. The following table shows the difference in admissions rates between Early Decision and Regular Decision at some of the top universities in the country. This data quells any question about how beneficial applying Early Decision can be.


College Early Decision Acceptance Rate Regular Admissions Rate
Brown 19% 9%
Cornell 30% 16%
Dartmouth 29% 10%
University of Pennsylvania 25% 12%
Vanderbilt University 22% 13%


Your Edge

Edge is designed to help you maximize early applications.  To manage Early applications:

  1. Set up application plans. Select decision type…..

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What are the three steps to outstanding recommendations?

Edge Tip:

The buzz around school right now is all about recommendations.  How do you get the best recommendations for your college applications?  Here are 3 steps to outstanding recommendations:

1.  Get Ready.

Before you start asking teachers, counselor or others for a letter of recommendation, do your homework. It will pay off for you in the end with outstanding recommendations.

  • Focus on familiarity. Make of list of teachers who know you well to ask to write recommendations. Teachers you had in math, science or other core academic subjects more than once make ideal people to ask for letters of recommendations.
  • Check in with your school.  Many schools have deadlines and requirements for submitting letters of recommendations. Put dates in your calendar and stick to them.
  • Go for the maximum.  The Common App and other systems list how many letters of recommendation are required.  They also give you a number of how many recommendations are allowed.  Plan to request the maximum number.
  • Create a Recommendation Calendar. Check the dates your college applications are due, and work backwards. Add all dates to your calendar.
      • Ask a teacher at least 4-6 weeks before your applications are due for a recommendation.  
      • Plan for the recommendations to be done 2-4 weeks before your application is due.
      • If you are doing early applications, you need to be doing recommendations in September or October.
  • Update your resume. Give teachers/counselors your resume or brag sheet.  This gives them information to use when writing about yourself.
  • Role of Recommendations. Download this document  to give to teachers/counselors. It explains what colleges are looking for in recommendations and what to write in a letter of recommendation.


2. Take Action.

Use this checklist to organize your recommendation requests to your teachers. Put the following items together in a large 10X13 envelope and hand to each teacher/counselor you are requesting a letter from:

  • Cover letter.  Personal letter explaining the purpose of the recommendation (for scholarships, admissions or special programs).  Include dates you need recommendations completed by. Be sure to sign the letter.
  • Resume.  List of all your activities through high school.
  • Role of Recommendations.  Provide the copies of The Role of Recommendations to teachers/counselors.


3. Follow up.

 Follow this recommendation checklist after you have requested letters of recommendation:

  • Check progress.  The Common Application, Universal College App and others allow you to track the progress of your application, including recommendations. Use this to view when recommendations are uploaded.
  • Gently remind. Teachers often appreciate a gentle reminder about upcoming due dates. You want to be sure your recommendations are submitted on time.
  • Write a thank you.  Make a teachers/counselors day with a personalized, handwritten note thanking them for their assistance.

You will receive strong and substantial recommendations if, when requesting a letter of recommendation you follow these steps!

Your Edge:

Guidedpath Edge provides several tools to help you obtain outstanding recommendations.

  • Update activities list in GuidedPath.
  • Use the Recommendations Survey to list your recommenders
  • Use application dates in your Plans to determine due dates of recommendations.
  • View Additional information on school profile to see how many letters of recommendation are required.

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Common App Quick Start Tips

The 2015-16 College Application season officially launches on August 1,2015.  This has become an initiation rite for seniors! Don’t get left behind.  Take time nowcommonapp to prepare and get your application launched.  Starting the Common Application is like going to a baseball game; you can get it started, and it will roll along for a long time.  Give yourself time to work on the Common Application over time by quick starting in August.

GuidedPath Edge has you covered!  Each week for the next 4 weeks, we will give you quick start tips. Follow these tips and you will have a stress free quick start  to your senior year.

Quick Start Tip 1:  Get prepped!

  1. Prep Yourself: Gather all your personal information in one place. You will need it for all applications. Enter into your profile in GuidedPath Edge.  Then it becomes easy to cut and paste into the Common App.
  2. Prep Parents: Ask your parents for all their information. Where do they work?  What contacts numbers do they want you to use?  Gather all this now to save lots of texting to parents later. Invite parents to set up profiles in Edge. Use Additional Information in GP Edge to record their information.
  3. Prep Teachers: Decide which teachers you want to invite to do recommendations for you. Get their email address ready. This will make sending invitations from the Common Application a snap. Create a private note in your Edge account titled “College Recommendations”.  List each person
  4. Prep Counselor: Check in with your counselor. Ask for contact information: name, title, phone number, email address to be used on the Common App.  Add your counselor as a connection in Edge, and record all this information.  This gives you an added bonus of inviting your counselor to use Edge with you!
  5. Prep Others: Include people that know you from the community. Athletic coaches, student body advisors, youth leaders, or anyone at school or in your community that can share good things about you can be a potential recommender. Get their contact information. Add this information to your “College Recommendations” private note in Edge.

Next week:  Got Activities?  Quick start tips.

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