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Hiding Between the Lines in the Award Letter

award letter

It’s financial aid award season. Students and parents have either received or will soon receive the award from the colleges that offered admission. How will this aid factor in to your student’s final decision?

But lurking between the lines in these award letters are some practices colleges use when offering admission and financial aid. Colleges will either lure students to accept their offer of admission, or discourage those students who were only offered admission to fill their quotas and inflate their numbers.

Front Loading

Front loading happens when colleges make their most generous financial aid award offers to applicants as a lure to attend. When students return the following year they may find their school has dropped their previously awarded grants and scholarships. Thousands of dollars may have been lost to the common practice of front loading, so ask these 5 questions:

  • Is the grant/scholarship renewable and if so for how many years? What you want is the money to continue until the student graduates. Bear in mind it is taking longer, four to six years, for those who graduate to do so. Find out the maximum number of times the award will be made.
  • What are the strings attached to keeping the grant/scholarship? It’s important to understand the terms of receiving free money awards before acceptance to make sure the student can and will perform them. He may have to keep his grades up, play an instrument, or be a member on a team. Find out the eligibility requirements each year including any additional paperwork necessary to keep them.
  • If the grant/scholarship is lost, what will replace it? Often student loans are the college’s substitution plan. However, there may be other grants/scholarships available. Ask about them and the application process. Be prepared to continue searching for these and have a college finance Plan B.
  • Will the college bill increase in following years and if so, by how much? Those renewable grants/scholarships may no longer cover the same portion of college costs if tuition rises. See what if any cost components like tuition/fees and room/board are capped or held at the freshmen level.
  • Will the grant/scholarship be increased to keep pace with any raised college costs? Be aware most colleges will not match tuition increases or increase free money aid when tuition rates increase. However, the college bill must continue to be paid.


In admissions, college gapping is a term used in reference to colleges and financial aid awards. The gap between what you can afford to pay (your EFC) and what colleges offer in aid creates this gap. Gapping happens when a college makes an offer of admission and doesn’t back it up with financial aid. Quite simply, the college doesn’t offer enough aid to cover the difference between the cost of the college attendance and your expected family contribution.

Gapping is a serious business. Colleges use the tactic to “weed out” the good applicants from the average applicants. Quite simply, if your student is at the top of their applicant pool, they will receive the aid required to attend. If not, your student will be gapped, in the hopes they will reject the offer of admission.

It’s a numbers game. Colleges offer admission to more students than they can possibly accommodate. Gapping helps them lessen the number of students who accept those offers of admission.

Padding the Award

Colleges will pad the EFC numbers with federal student loans, federal parent loans and work-study. These should NOT be considered when determining if the college is gapping your student. All students qualify for federal student loans. College aid should only be in the form of merit scholarships and grants. If the difference between what you can afford and what the college offers is padded with loans, the college is gapping your student.

The lesson for parents and their college-bound students is to carefully scrutinize, analyze and question each item in their financial aid awards before bothering to compare one college’s offer to another. It may turn out that freshman year is a best deal at one place but if the total years until graduation are tallied, another choice may be the better bargain. 

If the college is gapping your student it’s you and your student’s decision on whether or not to accept the offer of admission. If you want my advice–move on to the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th choice college with the good financial aid package. You will not only save a bundle, but your student will most likely be happier at a college that values his or her contribution.

A New Approach to College Funding to Pay for College

With the season of acceptance letters upon us, it’s nerve-racking enough wondering where students are going to be spending the next several years of their lives. Worrying about how to pay for college shouldn’t have to be a part of it. This is where steps in. As a new and innovative college funding website, TakesaVillage provides a platform where students can securely crowdfund for their education, ensuring both students and donors alike that the money will go directly to pay for tuition.

Founded by the guidance of the African proverb that “It takes a village to educate a child,” students can utilize the platform to build a virtual village and connect with friends, family, organizations, and anybody who is interested in the student’s education via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

TakesaVillage’s tool is different from other various crowd funding websites. Instead of funds being used at the discretion of the fundraiser, TakesaVillage sends the money to the student’s college and deposits it into the school account. The company only takes 4% commission, which is paid by the donor, and not subtracted from the student’s total value raised. Additionally, at the end of each quarter, if TakesaVillage makes a profit, one lucky student will be randomly selected and awarded a part of that profit.

Listen to the story here:

Setting up a campaign only takes a few simple steps:

  • Sign up on the website with your email or Facebook

  • Login and build your profile and campaign page

  • Share the campaign with your village and watch donations come in

TakesaVillage believes that together we can go a long way in supporting students through college and that students should graduate without debt. Students will graduate, they will remember their village, and pour back into the lives of future students to come.”

Beyond Brilliance: The Secrets To Better Learning


beyond brilliance

I am so excited to introduce Beyond Brilliance, a new book by four UC Berkeley students about how we learn and how we can do it better. You can get the ebook free or purchase a hard copy and receive a full refund if you read it and write an honest review proving you read the book. That’s a win/win for all students. Parents will love the book too! 

I sat down with Lucas Miller, the ambitious author behind the project, to learn more. Here’s a short excerpt from our conversation.

Q. Can you briefly explain the premise of Beyond Brilliance?

Lucas: Sure, the basic idea is that we were all lied to in school. We were taught harmful myths about intelligence and how our brains work that limit many of us from accessing our full potential. We were taught what to learn, but never how. The truth is, getting top grades and becoming an efficient learner is a skill that anyone can cultivate. You don’t need to be naturally “brilliant”, or pull all-nighters, or sacrifice your social life, or even give up the gym to do well in school. What you really need to do is learn how learning actually works. Then, you can use that skill to get better at anything you like.

Q. There are so many books out there. Why should someone read yours?

Lucas: Most books for students give you the same old advice: work hard, take detailed notes, use a planner, yadda yadda. Beyond Brilliance takes a brand-new approach. Chapters are 1-3 pages, illustrated, and filled with clear takeaways backed by neuroscience. In a weekend, you’ll be able to glean the main insights from about fifty books and even more papers and distill them into a body of knowledge that will change how you learn forever.

Q. Who do you want reading it?

Lucas: Engineering majors at MIT, C students, victims of tracking and standardized testing, graduate students who don’t want to starve anymore, workers taking online classes on the side, and parents whose children are either falling behind or trying to skyrocket to the top of the class. Really anyone who likes learning and wants to get better at it.

Q. What are five things students can do to immediately become better learners?


  1. Ditch rereading in favor of self-testing (familiarity with the material is not the same as actual understanding)
  2. Study concepts by explaining them out loud
  3. Learn throughout the semester, not just when exams hit (spacing out your review builds a much stronger foundation)
  4. Exercise a little every day (this is massively underemphasized)
  5. Get nine hours of sleep (all the magic happens at night)

Q. What is the biggest difference you see between excellent learners and average ones?

Lucas: The best students stick to their word. When they say they are going to study, they actually study. When they show up to do a problem set, they actually do the problem set. And when they sit down with a cup of coffee to write, they actually write. No email, no Buzzfeed, just work. And then when they’re done, they’re done.

Q. What are some tools you recommend for studying and scheduling?

Lucas: Evernote for taking and storing notes. Google Docs for team projects. Google Calendar and Trello for planning appointments and tasks. The Pomodoro technique for building rewards into your study schedule.


Lucas Miller is a Phi Beta Kappa, Leadership Scholar, and senior in the top 1.5% of students at the University of California, Berkeley. After spending three semesters in engineering, he now studies cognitive science and entrepreneurship and has served as a mentor for multiple undergraduate courses. He also conducts research in memory and performance psychology. Learning, teaching, and sharing ideas are by far his greatest passions. Check out the Beyond Brilliance website here.

How Technology Hurts (and Helps) Our Students


If you’re a parent, you might be behind the curve when it comes to using technology. My three year old grandson knows more about apps than I do. My six year old grandson is constantly saying things like, “Let’s google it”, or when I get lost, he asks, “Why didn’t you use Waze?”. There’s no question that technology is woven throughout the fabric of our lives.

I can’t even imagine what my grandchildren’s lives will be like in high school and college as technology becomes more and more available and user-friendly as a tool for education. But at what price? Adults growing up in a non-technology world notice a few key elements in education that might be missing with the introduction of technology:

  • The written word on paper is becoming extinct. Perhaps this is an out of date method of communication but the computer has replaced hand-written papers and essays. What does this mean? If a student can’t read cursive, how will she be able to read historical documents? Since everything is stored online or in the cloud, what happens to history when these things are compromised or crashed?
  • No need to learn or remember simple math skills. Most children today have no idea how to solve problems without a calculator. They can’t count change without the cash register telling them how to do it. Basic math skills and techniques aren’t being absorbed by students because they have the fallback of technology.
  • It negates real social interaction and communication. Just observe a group of students. Every one of them is on a smartphone or some sort of electronic device. They even text one another in the group. Eye contact is not met. There is no real-life social interaction or communication. Take away the device and they don’t know how to communicate.
  • It discourages problem solving. Every answer to every question can be found online. There’s no need to find a creative way to solve a problem. Someone else has done it and posted it on YouTube.
  • It causes distractions. Technology can be distracting. For instance, you are working on your homework, doing a Google search and something catches your eye. It takes you down a rabbit hole and 30 minutes later you still haven’t completed your homework.

But in spite of all of these negative factors, technology is here to stay. It’s a part of our lives and is working its way into the classroom. Educators are looking for ways to integrate technology with education. In a recent article on Studypool, experts, including myself, weighed in on Technology in the Classroom:

“Technology and education don’t have to be at odds with one another. In fact, technology can enhance lessons and classroom experiences, engaging students with the materials and instilling a passion for learning that will carry through long after they have moved on to the next stage in their lives. That doesn’t have to mean integrating every single “new and improved” tool that crosses your path, but it does mean that educators need to be students themselves, always learning more about the tools being introduced so thoughtful, meaningful technological tools that enhance today’s experience can be used appropriately at every grade level.”

The Unspoken Word Among Students: Plagiarism



We always use the word “ethical” if we want to describe something what is right, made or done according to rules and involves some moral values. Why then should we refer plagiarism to ethical issues too? Let us specify what plagiarism is. There are several activities that are referred to the notion: substantial copy-paste, intentional paraphrasing, use of one’s ideas representing them as your own ones, avoidance of crediting the source etc. All these actions are immoral and can be considered to be a violation of widely accepted ethical rules, consequently, plagiarism is one of the main ethical issues nowadays. At the same time, there are such cases that can’t be called unethical. Think only about self-plagiarism or accidental one: these issues can be hardly called intentional, so plagiarism remains a rather controversial term.

Gray areas or inability to give a definite answer

Is it always possible to answer the question: is it plagiarized? Despite the number of various software like Plagiarism Checker, for example, it is always difficult to give the only right answer to this question. The standards of plagiarism depend on many different points: this might be a genre of writing, the field of writing (lawyers are allowed to copy some pieces into their speeches, while politicians are not), a person, who has written the text (a school graduate or an experienced philologist) etc. Many people will admit that some of these cases can’t be called unethical, but in reality, everything must be decided only in the court. And if the situation is recognized to be a fraud or even a crime, the punishment will be rather severe. On the other side, plagiarism does not belong to the list of crimes and copyright does not cover all the misdeeds that are regarded to be this illegal activity. That is why it is extremely important to draw a line between what plagiarism is and where its ethical boundaries are located. Let us look at the gray areas of this notion that despite being extremely controversial are not considered to be plagiarized:


  • Self-plagiarism: a situation, when a writer uses his thought or statement, which has already been published in the different source, in his next text. It is impossible to convict the writer as it is his own idea, but it is always advisable to recycle the content.
  • Patchwriting: composing a text of passages from various sources. It can be called a unique style of writing, though it can’t be called an original piece of writing.
  • Paraphrasing: rewriting some piece using your own words. Though this point has some connection with stealing ideas or viewpoints, all of us are taught to paraphrase at schools, so consequently, it might be called a criminal activity.
  • Allusion: offering another source as an example is a very tricky thing, but it is also a good way to clear off the accusations of plagiarism.
  • Ghostwriting: the process of creating some content under the another author’s name can’t be called plagiarism too as you still create something new even calling yourself a different person.
  • Collaborative writing: if a book or article has several authors, it does not mean that all of them are credited the same and each of these representatives can pull a suitable part from other works.


All these issues can’t be evaluated only as completely right or completely wrong ones, so our relation to them is the only right answer for us personally.

How to spot plagiarizing

There are several indicators to help you to recognize a plagiarist:


  • Intentional omission of citations and references;
  • Figures of a completely different style than previous ones;
  • Very old researches and information according to which there have been no other ones conducted recently;
  • Sentences are not connected by content;


At the same time, the best thing that may help you to spot plagiarizing is a free online checker such as, for example. It will show you all the parts that were copied from other writers or intentionally paraphrased. By checking each your text your moral state will be always perfect and you will never suffer from self-reproach.

Plagiarism: ethics of stealing

In any case, if you make intentional efforts to use one’s work, idea or statement and avoid citing it, this action can be considered a literary theft. You commit an immoral illegal crime, which is known to everyone as a theft. Each original work is protected by copyright laws and violating intellectual property you commit a crime. As a result, if to speak about ethics, you must realize that plagiarism is the ethics of stealing and it may result in not very good consequences both for a plagiarist and the author of the original text.


Today’s guest post is from Lesia Kovtun. Lesia is an ex English teacher who helps parents/students and organizations with educational planning. I am a tech savvy, who loves education and technology, that makes studying process more convenient and collaborative. Currently working with team as a consultant.

10 Tips for Writing College Admissions Worthy Essays



The average American student attends school 180 days each year. Multiply that by 12 years and, by the time you graduate, you get 2,160 compulsory school days. You would think after all that reading, writing, studying, test-taking, and amassing of extracurricular and civic engagements that writing a college admissions essay would be a breeze. For many, however, that could not be further from the truth.

Somewhere around seventh grade, American schools tend to shift from an emphasis on narrative and descriptive writing to expository and persuasive writing.   As the vast majority of college/university admissions departments favor narrative and descriptive essays, this creates an unfortunate situation for many college applicants.  Even advanced high school writers may find the college admissions essay difficult to write.

Here are the 10 most important writing tips I’ve gained from my years of experience helping students write admission-worthy essay. Follow them and you will be well on your way to writing the kind of essays that transport admissions officers to a time and place showered in such detail it is as if they have been personally invited into the past to experience your life first hand.

1. Write in the Right Style

The first writing tip I want to share is to select the right writing style for your admissions essay. The vast majority of college admissions essays are personal narrative and memoir. Both draw upon real-life experiences to tell true stories in a fictionalized style that includes characters, plot, conflict, setting, and theme.

Personal narrative relays the storyteller’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences on a certain event. Memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments, centered around a theme and usually drawing certain conclusions. In personal narrative and memoir, you are both the storyteller and the main character.

2. Know Your Voice, Use Your Voice

When we talk about voice as it relates to writing, we are talking about a combination of word choice, syntax, diction, character development, dialogue, etc. Given the importance of the college admissions essay, students tend to look for a different, more desirable voice. Don’t do this. Admissions essays are not about how smart, funny, or distinguished you sound. They are an invitation for you to authentically bear witness to who you used to be and to how you got to be who you are now.

Whatever voice you have been using up to this point is your authentic voice. Use it. Also be mindful that, unlike the spoken word, the written word is unable to convey inflection, body language, facial expressions, etc. This awareness is critical; for most of us, the college admissions essay is our first experience writing for someone completely unknown to us.

3. First Write How You Speak, Then Edit

Often our speaking, texting, and social media “voice” differs from our academic or traditional writing style. We use this voice more than we write, so this voice tends to be our dominate, authentic, more honest, and less censored representation of ourselves. The first step of personal narrative and memoir style writing is to get your thoughts –in your authentic voice– on paper without edits from your internal academic writer. In other words, let your speaking, texting, and social media voice share your story.

This is just the first step since, for most of us, this voice in written form often presents as scattered, repetitive, fragmentary, and long-winded, qualities which can easily tank an admissions essay, even one with a highly compelling subject. The best way to showcase your authentic voice while avoiding these pitfalls is to begin by writing at least two drafts long-hand with little emphasis on punctuation and grammar.

4. Make Every Word Count

Not all words have to make a reader’s hair stand on end. Each word should contribute, not distract. Words and phrases that rarely contribute include:  like, really, just, you know, and, actually, I guess, also, that, I mean, a lot, kind of. Not sure whether a word or phrase contributes or distracts?  Read the sentence aloud without the word. Avoid five-dollar words when a fifty cent one will do.

If admissions officers are reading your essays, you have already passed the smart enough test. Personal narrative and memoir style writing uses words to create images in the reader’s mind and to engage them. To achieve this, use descriptive words and sensory imagery when describing your characters and setting. Try replacing emotional qualifiers, such as angry, overjoyed, fearless, tender, devastated, etc., with brief action-reaction event descriptions that create the context for that emotion.

Remember, your goal here is to transport the admissions officers to a time and place showered in such vivid detail that it is as if you have personally invited them into your past to experience, to experience your life first hand.

5. Don’t Forget the Middle

Everyone knows strong openings and closings are critical when constructing admission-worthy essays. Far too many people forget the middle is just as important. Unlike your high school English teacher, admissions officers are under no obligation to finish reading your essay.

Considering admissions officers’ hectic travel schedules and the sheer volume of essays to be read, there is a good chance that, if read, your essay will be read piecemeal over multiple sittings. If you are writing a 650-word essay, something compelling enough to keep the reader’s attention –or to make them want to return– needs to happen between 250 and 320 words.

6. Backstory

To effectively craft a personal narrative admissions essay you will need to provide a back story. In addition to offering setting and context, the backstory plays a critical role in determining the degree to which the reader feels invested in you and your narrative.

The problem arises when the back story becomes the story. If you find yourself unable to tell the story you want to tell absent a significant and overtaking back story, then tell a different story. While not the easiest method, a seamless way to introduce a backstory is to weave it into the story you are trying to tell. It is worth noting some of the most informative and compelling backstories have been told in one sentence.

7. Stay On Topic, Be Specific   

Admissions essays are not autobiographies, streams of consciousness, resumes, or opportunities to further address and/or explain that which can be contained in your application. They are also not invitations to reimagine what is being asked of you.

Most admissions essays ask you to describe, recount, explain, identify, or discuss an event, experience, time, or life lesson. Whichever you choose, begin by focusing on the specific details surrounding your story. Look for the stories within the story. If you find one, consider telling that story. Be specific, not only in the story you tell but how you tell it. Readers expect you to be as specific as you can usefully be. Watch out for generalities.

8. Don’t Oversell, Don’t Undersell

While admissions essays are the perfect place to brag about your accomplishments, don’t oversell. Only brag if it’s worth bragging about. Nobody cares if you served Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. They care if you started a take home food pantry at your school, so kids didn’t have to go hungry over the weekend.

Admissions essays are also not the place to undersell. If it took two years and a sit-in to start a Gay/Straight Alliance at your school, make sure that you include that detail, not simply that you started a GSA.

9. Tell on Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes students make is to try and craft essays which show only their best qualities. Colleges and universities are not looking for perfect people. They are looking for authentic people. Authentic people are flawed people. Some of our most compelling stories are the ones that open with showing us in less than favorable light.

Throw in your lessons learned or what you have done to repair past wrongs and redeem yourself, and you have the makings of a compelling redemption story. Admissions officers have read hundreds of stories from kids who were bullied. They are dying to read the reformed bully’s story.

10. Writing About Difficult Experiences

This last writing tip is a tough one. We’ve all had painful of experiences. Many of these experiences are difficult to talk about, let alone write about. However, sometimes, if there is time, distance, and healing between you and the experience, you can not only revisit the experience but also articulate it as an example of how even the most painful of experiences can be reclaimed, transformed, and accepted for what they are, the building blocks of our unique identities.

If you can do this, go for it. When done well, these types of narratives are the most impactful. Do remember you are seeking admission into a community for which the admissions officer is the gatekeeper. They need to know that, if admitted, not only will you be okay but your fellow students will be okay as well.


Today’s guest post is from Chad Goller-Sojourner. Chad is a Seattle-based memoir and personal narrative essayist, solo-performer and founder of Bearing Witness: College Admissions Essay Writing Coaching he can be reached at