Gone are the days of high school students waiting until their Junior Year to consider college. Nowadays, students and families that wait until eleventh grade to have a discussion about higher education options (and costs) are behind. In this episode of The Agent of Wealth Podcast, host Marc Bautis and John Williams are joined by Shellee Howard, founder and CEO of College Ready and CR Tutoring and Test Strategies. Howard is a college graduate, a Certified Independent College Strategist, and the best-selling author of How to Send Your Student to College Without Losing Your Mind or Your Money. Together, they discuss why organizing your family’s financial house needs to begin as soon as your child enters their Sophomore year. Plus, how a student can build a better list of colleges, stand out amongst other applicants, and negotiate a financial aid award letter.
In this episode, you will learn:
- When to start financially planning for college, and when to start academically planning for college.
- How a student can stand out when applying for colleges.
- The seven factors that make up a strong college application, and which ones have the most impact.
- Common misconceptions about applying for college and scholarships.
- And more!
College Ready | CR Tutoring and Test Strategies | Claim your free copy of How to Send Your Student to College Without Losing Your Mind or Your Money: freebook.collegereadyplan.com | Schedule an Introductory Call | Bautis Financial: 7 N Mountain Ave Montclair, New Jersey 07042 (862) 205-5000
Disclosure: The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and content. It is not a direct transcription of the full conversation, which can be listened to above.
Welcome back to the Agent of Wealth Podcast, this is your host Marc Bautis. On today’s show, my colleague John Williams, Wealth Advisor at Bautis Financial, is joining me. John, how’s it going?
Hello, Marc. Very well.
We also brought on a special guest, Shellee Howard. Shellee is the founder and CEO of College Ready and CR Tutoring and Test Strategies. She’s a college graduate, a certified independent college strategist, a bestselling author, and a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association and Society of Financial Awareness.
Shellee has traveled around the world helping students create their “Stand out Strategy.” She knows what it takes to compete in the top-tier schools as well as finding the best-fit college for all students. Shellee believes that no two students are the same and each student must have their own strategy and plan to be successful. Shellee, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
Now that kids are back in school, college planning is on a lot of people’s minds. Plus, a student loan forgiveness program was just announced last week. So I’m looking forward to today’s topic – how to go to college and graduate debt-free. Shellee, how did you get started in college consulting, helping students and families through college planning?
So it hit me hard as a parent. Like most parents, it was my first born. He came home from school one day, in eighth grade, and said, “Mom, I know exactly what I want to do.” And I said, “Really?” I was surprised, because I still sometimes doubt what I should be doing. But he said, “Yeah, I want to be a brain surgeon. And I want to go to a top-tier school.” I was like, “Hmm, great!” And by the time he turned around, I panicked. I was thinking, ‘There’s no medicine in our family. Where is this coming from?’
I was the first to go to college on both sides of my family. So this was a massive leap, but I knew I would help him make that happen. Long story short, by the time he graduated from high school, he did everything I recommended – not all kids do, but he did – and he had seven top-tier schools and three Fulbright offers. He ended up going to Harvard pre-med and graduated in four years debt-free. College Ready started after that point.
Oh wow, that’s great. As financial advisors, we sometimes see people get hung up on certain planning element because they feel overwhelmed. And college planning is one of those areas. Then, what happens is, some people stick their head in the sand and say, “Hopefully it works itself out…” When should someone start planning for college, and what are the first steps?
When to Start Financially Preparing for College
First, I help families get very clear on what is most important to them. Are they looking for an academic fit, a social fit, or a financial fit? If a student really needs scholarships to afford to go to college, we will follow one strategy. If a student, or their family, can pay for college but prefers not to, we may go a different route. And then there are the parents who say, “Just get them into college and I’m happy to write a check.” In that case, we’d follow a different strategy.
Depending on the strategy, we can tell you when you should start planning for college. If somebody is looking for a full or partial scholarship – but still, a big merit scholarship – the sooner the better, because the FAFSA looks at the second semester of the sophomore year and the first semester of the junior year.
So, by the second semester of the sophomore year, the family will need to get their financial house in order. What I mean by that is, having their assets in the right categories to lower their expected family contribution.
If a family waits until the student’s senior year to review their assets, financial merit and big time scholarships will very rarely be awarded to the prospective student.
We started strategizing our financial assets when my son was in eighth grade. Again, our goal was to strategize how we could lower our expected family contribution, which would put him in the best position come time to fill out the FAFSA.
Here’s an example: funding a 529 plan for your child can turn into an awful situation if you are an entrepreneur. Believe it or not, it can actually cause more harm than good – and a lot of people don’t realize that. I found out the hard way. At one point, Harvard wanted to take my son’s scholarship away because I did such a great job saving for him in a 529 plan. They didn’t feel I needed their money. So I changed the 529 beneficiary to my second child and, all of a sudden, the scholarship came back. It was $63,000 a year.
Families need to understand how to best position themself financially. If they just “wait and see,” their child could have no choice by take a loan, leaving them in debt when they graduate.
You mentioned that your family started getting your financial house in order when your son was in eighth grade. But what about academically? What’s the right time to approach topics like possible majors or the goal of going to school – academic fit, social fit, financial fit – like you spoke about earlier?
When to Start Academically Preparing for College
It really depends on your child. I think that the majority of students are ready to start as soon as they complete eighth grade. The summer before ninth grade counts for college, and it’s the most underutilized time. Students could be doing community service, leadership or extracurriculars in that summer and really start to build their resume. When students start working with me later, I’m usually saying things like, “I’m sorry you didn’t know…”
Maturity plays a big part in it, too. I don’t ask them in eighth grade, “What college do you want to go to?” Or, “What do you want to major in?” Instead, I ask them what they are passionate about, I look at their talents and core values, and then we can set a plan to start exploring with some internships, research or service. That’s how we do it with the younger children.
You mentioned community service, leadership and extracurricular activities. Are those the most important things for a student to focus on, or how do those aspects compare to test scores and GPA?
The Importance of a Strong GPA in College Admissions
The number one thing is always the GPA. There is nothing else that’s more important in the college admissions process, because there are schools that won’t even consider an applicant under a certain GPA. But it’s just as important that the prospective student demonstrates rigor. For example, a student with a 4.0 GPA who took all easy classes will never stand up against a student with a 4.0 GPA who took six AP classes. So rigor and GPA will always be the most important.
Now, the quickest way to “free money” is through strong test scores.
I guess that’s because test scores are a good way to compare students?
Yes, it’s a very easy way to compare if a student is excelling, and colleges/universities want to give prospective students money for their hard work. Now, getting a perfect 36 on the ACT is not easy, but with the right amount of effort it can be done.
And, how does what you’ve mentioned so far compare to what the top-tier schools look for? Do they approach the admissions process any differently than the other schools?
How a Student Can Stand Out When Applying to Top-Tier Colleges
So, to get into a top-tier school, you have to do what you would at a regular school plus some. Schools like Harvard, Yale and even Stanford look at things a bit different. For example, they’re less impressed with the types of community service where you sign up and show up – like feeding the homeless and tutoring. That type of community service is not going to get you into a top-tier school. Top-tier schools are looking for that next level… like when a student figures out what they are passionate about, what they want to advocate for, and then they lead others to change the world.
I tell families to think of it as a business. Imagine you’re the owner of a business – any business – and you’re reviewing applications for a job opening. When you review a resume and you see that it’s the individuals first job, you might hire them and pay them minimum wage. But if you review a resume that highlights more experience with lots of examples of success, you will probably hire them and pay them a lot more money. That’s similar to the college admissions process and the process of being awarded money/scholarships.
Now, it’s my understanding that a lot of the top-tier schools don’t give any merit-based scholarships. Can you speak to our listeners as to how that works? And how can you compare schools that may have a stronger merit based award program versus a top-tier school like Harvard?
Well, Ivy League schools don’t call them merit-based scholarships, that’s the bottom line. But they have very deep, deep pockets. If you can get into the school, they guarantee that you will afford it. So it doesn’t matter what you call it.
After my son was accepted to Harvard, the school flew us out to Cambridge, wined and dined us, and just took really good care of us. Because they wanted him to commit to their school. We just said, “Great, this is awesome.”
What’s interesting about Ivy League schools is that they have to have diversity, but not just in ethnicity. They have to have students from the West Coast, East Coast, Southwest, and so on. So based on geography – us coming from the West Coast – my son was considered diverse. Even though he was a white male, coming from across the US to go to a school was unique.
So to answer your question, there is a ton of money available if you can get in at those top-tier schools.
What are some of the extracurricular activities or community service involvement that could help a student stand out?
Things like receiving the Presidential Community Service Award or the Congressional Award… Students can earn eight gold, silver, and bronze awards, which are nationally ranked. When it comes to activities, honors and awards, international, national and regional are better than local or school.
I’m going to circle back on the topic of top-tier schools. I think it might be helpful to have some framework for our listeners to understand, what is considered a top-tier school?
People look at it very uniquely. If you’re looking at it by geography, some people would say Stanford is the best school on the West Coast. If you look at it nationally, Stanford is not the best school. So it depends on how you slice it and dice it.
I help students get clear on what a top-tier school is for each individual student. Picking the right colleges to apply to is the number one most important thing a prospective student does. Having some reach and top-tier schools on their list is great – I encourage students to dream big – but I don’t think everything should rest on those schools. That could be a dangerous situation.
We look at these seven factors to help a student see, based on who got in last year, what their chances of acceptance are:
- Test Scores
- Extracurricular Activities
- Letter of Recommendations
College Ready has a custom portal, with all of our intellectual property, that can show a student how they compare to others. Now, it’s still not perfect. The essay portion is very subjective, and it’s what we call “the icing on the cake.” Say two prospective students have all of the same statistics, the same major and diversity-wise they’re exactly the same, the essay could be the deal breaker.
It’s great that you have a portal for that purpose. How do you then correlate the probability of acceptance to the probability of a student receiving a financial aid package? I’m sure, in some cases, you see students focused on schools that aren’t a good financial fit, and you may be able to flag that before they apply. Do you then just flat out tell them that their likelihood of receiving money is slim?
The Reality of Applying to a Reach School
We are honest to the student and their parents. We can tell parents that a particular school is a reach, where their child would be very lucky to get in, but there likely will not be merit money.
Again, bringing it back to the comparison of owning a business… A big resume means big money. No resume means no money. So if you’re applying to a school that you’re under-qualified for and get in, the school is not going to give you merit scholarships.
We help students and families get clear on what is a good fit, which we base off of what the student brings to the table and what types of students got in the year prior. If they have a 50/50 chance of getting in, there should be some scholarships involved. But the prospective student has to be sure to apply with the right major and the right strategy.
Yeah, setting those expectations can be tough. As a parent, you want your kid to be happy, but you also have to be realistic.
Earlier on in the college planning process, it’s recommended that families look at net price calculators to get an idea of how much they may spend in tuition at a given college/university. I’m curious how you find them to be… because I know they’re not all created equal. Do you find net price calculators to be accurate?
Related: How to Use Net Price Calculators
I think net price calculators are good for a family to use in eighth or ninth grade, because they can provide a benchmark. If they understand the so-called “sticker shock” early enough, they can start working to get their assets in the right categories. This way, they will not be counted against them.
Besides having a 529 plan in the prospective student’s name, another mistake I see families make is they begin funneling money into their child’s name as they prepare to go off to college. Parents, grandparents and so on write checks, but the balance’s in the child’s accounts will be used against them come time to fill out the FAFSA.
Makes sense. Earlier, you mentioned how important the essay is. Do you have any tips on how a prospective student can stand out through the essay portion?
Absolutely. Really, a student needs to realize that they’re going to have to write between four and 18 essays per college. I know 18 sounds like a lot, but there is one school on the East Coast that has that many essays per application. Knowing that, you cannot write about the same topic 18 times. Instead, you need 18 experiences.
You can start by strategizing with your essays on the Common App. For it, a student needs to answer four out of the seven common prompts, and those prompts are accessible right now. If a student can’t answer four, we have to go out and create four experiences to write about.
Then you take all the essay prompts, all of the students’ experiences, core values, passions and advocacy, and start matching up which topics could go with which prompts.
I’ll give you an example of a poor essay response versus a strong one.
Prompt: Tell me about a time you did something for somebody else that did not benefit yourself.
Poor Response: I mowed the lawn of my neighbor’s yard.
Strong Response: I became very passionate about the kids who have no clothing in Africa. So what did I do? I learned how to sew. And after I learned how to sew, I taught my friends how to sew. And then we got gently used pillow cases and we turned them into little dresses, and then we attached it to Doctors Without Borders who delivered it to all these little children.
Do you see the difference? It really comes down to good, better, and best.
Is there a right number of schools to apply to? I know there are safety schools, target schools and reach schools… but how many schools do you typically recommend applying to?
If a family is concerned about finances and they are looking for financial packages and scholarships for their child, the student needs to apply to at least 12 schools. From that amount, I usually see families get strong offers from at least three to four of the schools.
At College Ready, we had 51 seniors get $17.6 million in scholarships last year. If you do the math, that beats the stock market. So it really comes down to strategy. I talked about the reach schools, but make sure that the list of schools include safety and target schools that are historically generous. Because there are plenty of schools that students will not get a dime at.
Related: The Nation’s Most Generous Colleges
Is there any room for negotiation with schools, after they send the acceptance letter and award package?
How to Negotiate for More Financial Aid
Absolutely. There are what’s called financial reconsiderations. It’s definitely a strategy we use for the students at College Ready when building their lists. If we know money is important to a family and that they want the best deal possible, then we will advise that the student applies to schools that are similar, but more generous. When accepted to the schools, we will ask for a financial reconsideration, providing a reason why. You can’t just say, “I want more money.” The reason has to be valid, like the student has just become an AP Scholar.
Again, you can’t just randomly ask a school for more money. There has to be a reason. It’s like getting off a college’s waitlist. You can’t just say, “But I really want to go there.” You have to give them a better test score. You have to give them something.
Is there a resource out there that shows students and families how colleges have awarded applicants in the past?
We’ve built one internally at College Ready. I have not personally seen one outside of the company, but I’m sure it’s got to be in place somewhere.
That’s great. Shellee, you’ve given some great advice to our listeners. Before we wrap up, are there any additional tips or common mistakes you see parents and students making that they should avoid?
Starting college planning too late is the biggest problem. Back in the day, students could start thinking about college their junior year, and they’d still have time to figure it out. But since college has become so complex and so expensive, the sooner a family has a conversation and begins to plan, the better.
And another important tip is to be careful not to advise your child to do what your best friend’s son or neighbor’s daughter is doing. That is not going to help your child. Being the same is not good in the college planning process. Being genuinely, uniquely yourself is truly going to benefit you much more.
Okay, thank you. Well we’re just about out of time. Shellee, I’d like to thank you for being on The Agent of Wealth Podcast today. How best can someone find out more about what you do?
First, I’d like to give your listeners a free copy of my best-selling book, How to Send Your Student to College Without Losing Your Mind or Your Money. For anyone who would like a copy of it, go to freebook.collegereadyplan.com. That will get you started on the road to success for college planning. You can also learn more about what I do at College Ready and CR Tutoring and Test Strategies on our website: collegereadyplan.com.
Perfect, we’ll link to that in the show notes. Thank you for offering that to our listeners. And thank you to everyone who tuned into today’s episode. Don’t forget to follow The Agent of Wealth on the platform you listen from and leave us a review of the show. We are currently accepting new clients, if you’d like to schedule a 1-on-1 consultation with our advisors, please do so below.