September College Guy Rant: Your fall 'to do' list, and Information about FAFSA and "The Grid"

Hey seniors - Gary the College guy back again to brighten your day (hey, the sun’s out, right?) and pull your coat concerning important college related stuff.

Take some time to read this newsletter carefully. It’s long, but a careful review is likely to answer some questions and put you hip to some useful information. If you try reading this on your cell phone you’re going to miss important stuff.

Okay, you’ve been advised. Read on for a summary of early senior year ’to-do’s’:


#1. Prep smart for the ACT and SAT tests - try not to make yourself crazy.

If you’re retaking the SAT Reasoning Test on October 1st you should be four weeks in to the prep system I’ve previously recommended to you, or else dropping serious money on tutors or a course (neither of which you need to do to improve your score, IMHO). The free, on-line Khan Academy SAT Prep system ( is your ticket to improving your score, and if you’ve taken my advice of spending 45 minutes a pop, three times a week for eight weeks, you’ll have every chance to do as well as you can hope on the test. If you’ve been malingering or just downright procrastinating, pay the $23 test date change fee and register for the November 5th test date, and START YOUR KHAN ACADEMY SAT PREP THIS WEEK. Because it’s eight weeks till the 5th of November!

I know many of you have been planning to take the test on November 5th from the start, so for you ladies and gentlemen, start your engines and begin your KA prep regimen this week!

There’s an ACT test being given on October 22 (register at by September 18th), and another on December 10th. For many students it could be worth trying the ACT - particularly those of you who are strong in math and sciences. All colleges will accept either sets of scores (SAT or ACT), so you’re giving yourself another chance to score well on these very imperfect, non-reliable tests of questionable validity. To put it in layman’s terms, these are bad tests, but they’re “necessary evils” which can help you get accepted and, in many cases, help you get money for college. So hitch up your pants and take a deep breath and wade once more in to the breach - try again!

BTW, don’t take my word for the psychometric shortcomings of the ACT and SAT - check out this web site: You can also get a list there of the 870 colleges and universities that are ’test optional’ and don’t require standardized tests at all.

And then there are the SAT Subject tests. These are offered at the same time/place as the SAT Reasoning Test: on 10/1, 11/5, 12/3 and 1/21/17 (despite what you may hear/think, those last two dates are not too late for the vast majority of applicants).  I’ve described subject tests in a previous Rant, which I’m happy to send along to anyone who’s not up to speed on what these tests are, who takes them and why. Suffice it to say that a handful of the most selective colleges require them so if you’re applying to any of those that do, you need to take two or three subject tests. Also, if you’re a strong test taker (600s or better on the SAT sections, 26/27+ on ACT) you might try taking them - high scores will impress college admissions folks whether they ask for them or not.

I’m happy to field questions about any of the above. (207) 772-9711. 


#2. Get working on your college applications. 

Think of your applications as “one size fits all” - with some specific variations required by certain schools. Plan to get all your applications out by December 1st, if not earlier for Early Decision or Early Action. (Note that the eight University of California schools have November 30th deadlines, as do most of the California State Universities.)

Complete the common application. Add all your potential colleges to your “dashboard” and take note of the ones which ask additional short answer questions and writing supplements. The common app has been live since August 1st. If you’ve still not started yours, what are you waiting for?

For your colleges and universities which DO NOT accept the common application, get started on each of their applications. Register and begin filling each one out. 

Plan to include an extra essay, one or two extra letters of recommendation, an annotated resume and some sort of “show and tell” piece with each application. College admissions teams operate from a dearth of information about you - they’re working hard and fast and are just as likely to overlook some positive aspect of your application as they are to take note of it, so it’s your job to catch their interest and attention. Don’t be afraid to “color outside the lines” as you prepare your application packages.

Remember that your essays, letters of recommendation, resume and whatever additional items you include should go to all colleges, regardless of the application requirements and formats. Check in with me for reminders and advice on how to do that. 


#3. Schedule a meeting with your school’s guidance counselor.

In fact, plan to meet several times throughout the fall and winter with her. The letter of recommendation he writes for you will be important, and you want her to know you and your interests and motivation. This is the time to be the proverbial ’squeaky wheel’. At your initial meeting, do the following:

1. Give him your resume

2. Give her your current list of colleges (that would be your ‘Top 10 list’ if you’ve been working with me), and ask for his feedback on your list, as well as for additional recommendations

3. Share your timetable: December 1 planning to have all apps sent. If you’re considering ED or EA, say so!

4. Share/review any future SAT, ACT and Subject Test you have scheduled, and request fee waivers if you qualify.

5. Before the meeting, ask the guidance secretary for a current copy of your transcript and review it carefully. At the meeting review your transcript 
with your gc. Make sure it's accurate - that all grades seem right, credits and courses are accounted for, and all honors and advanced classes are 
designated as such.

6. Ask your gc about the letter of recommendation he’s going to write for you. Ask "do you have all the information you need to write a letter which will help me with my candidacy? Is there anything else you need from me?” This is delicate and thus requires finesse, but if you have specific ‘talking points' you would like your guidance counselor to emphasize, such as your very rigorous schedule, or some exemplary feat you've achieved, let her know that you hope it will be reflected in his letter. (This is another reason why you want to give your guidance counselor a copy of your resume)

7. If your school uses Naviance or some other college application management software, get clear on the mechanics you must use to request your transcript to be sent to each of your schools, and to upload letters of recommendation to your applications. 

8. If you qualify for application fee waivers, request them and get clear how it works. If you have legitimate financial need you should be able to get one for every college you're applying to.


#4. Continue to research colleges. 

I advise students to have a “top 10” list of schools at any given time. When the time comes to make final choices (which I suggest will be in early November) you’ll pick the 5 - 7 you’re going to apply to. Strive for a blend of ‘reach’ and ’safety’ schools, also taking in to account financial safety schools. 


#5. Arrange for visits if you’ve got the time and resources to travel over Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Schedule interviews at colleges which offer them (many interviews can be done locally by alumni or by skype or FaceTime). 


#6. Do “THE GRID” (see attached). Here's how it works:

Each of your schools require you to fill out an application, be it the common application or their own (or, in the case of the SUNY system in New York State, or the U. Cal schools, a group application shared by all the schools within that system). Almost every application will ask you to do the following:

* respond to a whole lot of questions about your family, your school, your demographics, etc. These are not hard. Ask for help if you don’t understand how you’re supposed to respond!

* list your activities (the common application asks for ten, in order of importance, with a chance to include two brief descriptions for each one)

* write an essay (the common application gives you 5 prompts to choose from, with a maximum length of 650 words)

* the common application also has a section called “Additional Information” which many leave blank. I suggest that you make include a second essay here. Send this extra essay to all your non-common application schools as well, through the mail if necessary 

What THE GRID does is allow you to capture any ADDITIONAL things you need to do to apply to EACH PARTICULAR COLLEGE on your list. For some
schools there's NOTHING extra to do. For others there may be extra writing required (see the ‘questions’ and ‘writing supplement’ sections on your common app’s dashboard). For some colleges there may be specific things you must do in order to be considered for one of the following three things:

1. an interview
2. an honors program
3. a merit scholarship

THE GRID is a tool on which you record the above details. As such, it becomes your actual “to do” list once it’s filled out.

Extra writing requirements are clearly stated on the common application, and should also be easily found on the applications of non-common application schools. 

For information about specific requirements to do or know regarding interviews, honors programs or special scholarships you need to search the
college’s web site. Read the fine print under “how to apply”. 

I’ve attached a copy of “The Grid”  below with a second ‘instructions’ page to remind you of what you’re looking for. 

Now that you understand THE GRID, do it!


#7. (PARENTS AND STUDENTS): prepare to complete the FAFSA and (where required) the CSS PROFILE in October.

Unlike in years past, the 2017/18 FAFSA will become available on October 1st at It will require parents and students to report tax year information for 2015 (NOT to estimate 2016!). This is new, and makes the process a whole lot easier.

Go to the above web site now and get an “FSA ID number” - both the student and one parent needs their own (in cases of divorce, the parent who will fill out the FAFSA should get the ID number).

Attend your high school’s financial aid information night. It should be happening soon. If you don’t see announcements for it, call the guidance office and ask when it will be.


#8. RELAX!!!

I know this sounds somewhat insincere after throwing such a long to do list at you, but take it from the College Guy: this stuff isn’t rocket science, and you can figure it out. Your worst enemy is procrastination - putting it off till some time in the future what you should tackle today. There’s still plenty of time to get stuff done, but dive in and begin NOW! Write your essays, fill out applications, create some extra “show and tell” piece which will remind each colleges’ admissions team what total nincompoops they will be if they have the temerity to reject you! 

And remember that there are literally thousands of great schools out there, most of which will accept you with open arms (and give you money if you’re an honors student!)

If you’re stuck or unsure of what to do, ask for help. I’m in the business of answering student and parent questions, so call or email me - my contact information is below.

From your deadline doyenne, your ecstatic essayist, your friendly financial aid finagler, your college major majordomo, your testing taskmaster, ah you get the idea,

Gary the College Guy

Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711 

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.

P.S. If you find my rants useful and know others who may like to receive them, feel free to forward them on to friends and neighbors, or send me their email addresses and I’ll see that they get them. College Placement Services is currently accepting members of the class of 2018 and 2019 for consultation and other fee-based services. Call for information. 

P.P.S. If you cannot open the word document above and would like to have a copy of THE GRID in Pages or Google Docs, contact me and I will send it to you in a format you prefer

P.P.P.S. If you'd rather not get these occasional missives, kindly let me know...and you won't.