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5 hacks for prepping a college application on all budgets

There are costly services to help kids get into college - and there are others that are more affordable or even free. 

College Board, the organization that administers the SAT,

College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, has partnered with a website to provide a range of free tools, including testing tips and strategies, online or through a mobile app. Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto / PeopleImages

The college admissions race is about to get real: The Common Application, or Common App, an online form students can use to apply to hundreds of colleges, will open Aug. 1 for students seeking admission in the fall of 2019. But you don’t have to wait to take a peek — you can set up a practice account, or even start filling out your real application now. Much of what you input will roll over for the new admissions season.

Rising seniors who have put off taking their first serious look at the application may be dismayed to learn that some of their competitors have been preparing for this moment since freshman year — if not earlier — sometimes with pricey professional guidance, tutoring and coaching every step of the way. If you’re in the former group, don’t panic: Even though you can’t turn back the clock, there are key pieces of the application process that are still in play for you — such as exam scores, this summer’s activities, demonstrated interest and the all-important college essay.

No matter where you are in your school career, it’s worth knowing what your options are, what will be expected of you and what your competition is doing to prepare to apply for college, say education experts. Read on for the inside scoop — and expert tips on how to become the best applicant you can be on any budget.

Test prep

Making the cut on the SAT or the ACT, the two main college entrance exams, can mean the difference between whether your application gets read or relegated to the reject pile unseen. That’s why some families shell out big bucks for test prep. For example, private instruction at test prep firm Kaplan starts at $2,599 for 12 hours and group classes at locations across Long Island start at $899.

Do it for less:  Use technology to maximize the value you're getting out of test prep. Chase Mudd of Varsity Tutors says students who use the firm's online service can cover the same amount of material in about half as many paid hours as traditional test prep —  live sessions are recorded and cataloged for easy reference, for instance. “It’s more effective for the students and more cost effective for the parents,” he says. The base rate at the St. Louis, Missouri-based company is $110 per hour; the hourly rate goes down as the number of hours goes up. A 24- to 36-hour package ranges from $80 to $85 per hour on Long Island.

Free resources: College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, has partnered with khanacademy.org, a nonprofit educational organization, to provide a range of free online tools, including testing tips and strategies, full-length practice exams and daily practice, online or through a mobile app. “A lot of the schools are using Khan Academy. Their SAT prep is fabulous,” says Carol Dahir, a professor and chair of the School Counseling Department at New York Institute of Technology in Westbury and Manhattan.

College advising

A private college consultant can help a student set long-term goals and create a detailed plan to achieve them, overseeing everything from high school course and activity selections to the college search and application process. For those who can afford the initial investment, a college consultant’s insights may even save money in the long run, says Fern Gold, a partner in Setauket-based CollegeMastersNY, a college consulting firm. For instance, families may be surprised to find that a favorite private university could offer a better value than a state school with a lower sticker price, because “private colleges are offering incredible merit money, and people don’t know about that,” Gold says.

But the average fee U.S. college consulting firms were charging was $200 per hour in 2017, and comprehensive packages ranged from $850 to $10,000, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a professional association that publishes reports on the state of the profession.

Do it for less: Some college advisers offer more affordable options, such as webinars and online workshops. For instance, on Sept. 18 and 20, CollegeStarter.org, a college admissions counseling firm, will hold a live online program, totaling four hours of guidance over two evenings, for $97. Topics will include creating a college list, perfecting your activities list, writing a supplemental essay and understanding the nuances of the Common App. The first 10 students who sign up will receive a free 20-minute, one-on-one virtual college counseling session.

Free resources: New York State created a system called CareerZone, a free tool for career and college planning that is "an excellent tool" for middle and high school kids, says Dahir. Students can access CareerZone online at home or through their school counseling office to explore their options with tools such as interest inventory, career search and occupational outlook. And some high schools subscribe to Naviance, an online system which has college matching tools, admissions data and other valuable resources. Students whose schools have Naviance can receive login credentials to use the service at home.

Essay coaching

A well-crafted essay may be a student’s best shot to stand out from similarly qualified applicants. That’s why Lisa Landsberg, 51, of Jericho has enlisted essay coach Stacey Brook twice so far, to guide two of her three kids through the essay process — the only part of the application the family sought help with. “The essay is really the one opportunity the admissions board has to get a sense of identifying with your child beyond the numbers and the grades,” so it’s worth the extra attention, Landsberg says. One child now attends Duke University and the other will start University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in the fall; both graduated from Jericho High School.

While prices vary, it’s not uncommon for families to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for a highly qualified private essay coach who can be responsive on students’ schedules and provide individualized attention, insights and communication skills, says Brook, a Melville native and the founder and chief adviser of Manhattan-based College Essay Advisors.

Do it for less: Try a group setting: Best College Fit, a Lancaster, Pa.-based provider of college planning solutions, recently offered a four-hour essay workshop for $300 at Holiday Inn Express Stony Brook. Or look online for guidance; College Essay Academy, an on-demand virtual boot camp, offers a range of online packages starting at $9.99 per lesson, covering subjects ranging from understanding the essay prompts to choosing a topic to the final polish.

Free resources: BigFuture, a free site run by The College Board, offers sample essays, writing tips and videos of admissions professionals explaining what they like — and don’t like — to see in an essay. A free essay workshop at a library or college fair can go a long way to demystify the essay process. If you see one, register early — spots fill up quickly.

Demonstrated interest

Some colleges state that a student’s demonstrated interest in the school will be considered in admissions decisions. The ultimate way to show you’re serious about a school is to apply through its Early Decision plan if it has one. You’d be making a binding agreement to attend that school if accepted — a potentially costly choice, because it would preclude you from waiting to compare financial aid packages from other schools.

Do it for less: Rather than risk locking yourself into a higher-than-necessary annual tuition bill for the next four years by committing to ED, show your interest with a one-time expense: Pay a visit to the campus for a tour. Be sure to check in, so they’ll know you were there. Also, you can apply early through a nonbinding Early Action plan where available; meeting the earlier deadline will show you’re motivated, while still leaving you the wiggle room to accept a more affordable offer.

Free resource: If a campus visit is beyond your budget, try to set up an interview with a representative at a free college fair, or via phone or video chat. You can call or email an admissions office, but do your research before making a habit of it; while some schools may appreciate frequent contact, others may not, cautions educational strategist Elizabeth Wissner-Gross of Great Neck. If you do call, “Don’t ask trivial questions,” she says.

Extracurricular activities

There are entire industries that market themselves as a way for students to make their applications stand out through summer programs, such as enrichment camps, pre-college programs and far-flung service trips. For instance, adventure tour operator GoBeyond invites teens to earn service hours tagging sea turtles in the Caribbean on an upcoming 17-day trip — for $4,870. Pre-college programs at Adelphi University range from $1,200 for a one-week, non-credit commuter course to $3,500 for a two-week residential course for college credit.

Do it for less: Be judicious. A strategic splurge on a particular course or experience for a middle schooler or high school freshman can help a budding interest blossom into a passion. But in the summers that follow, colleges would rather see students apply what they’ve learned to make real contributions or discoveries. “They don’t want kids to spend their summers taking courses,” says Wissner-Gross. “They want field work experience, research experience, volunteering at something worthwhile.”

Free: Go out and make a real impact with meaningful service — no pricey tours required. “It’s not about manufacturing experiences,” says Wissner-Gross. “The world is filled with need, and people who can respond to those needs are the kinds of people that colleges want.”

College application timeline

Each college sets its own deadlines. Some accept applications on a rolling basis, while others may have several plans with different deadlines, such as Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA) and Regular Decision (RD). A comprehensive list of requirements, deadlines and fees will be released Aug. 1 when The Common Application opens and updated regularly as colleges add information. Students can also use the Common App onTrack mobile app to stay on top of deadlines. The following timeline is based on 2017 deadlines:

Aug. 1: The Common Application opens for fall 2019 admissions.

Oct.-Nov.: Most ED and EA application deadlines

Dec.-Jan: Most RD application deadlines; ED and EA decision notifications

Mar.-April: RD decision notifications

May 1: National Decision Day; students must send a deposit to their chosen school

Source: The Common Application

Can’t visit a campus? Attend a college fair. Representatives from hundreds of colleges will be on hand at the Long Island National College Fair from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 23, at Nassau Coliseum. Free.

New rules

There’s good news for students who are not quite ready to apply for college: Preparation will soon begin to be built into their school day. Updates to New York State regulations will go into effect Sept. 1, 2019 requiring all school counseling/guidance programs to begin to address college and career readiness as part of the core curriculum -- starting as early as elementary school.

“That K-12 core curriculum is going to be critical to instilling that college and career readiness mindset into our kids, especially starting at the high school level, if not sooner,” says Dahir, of the School Counseling Department at New York Institute of Technology in Westbury and Manhattan. “Things are going to change dramatically.”

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