Each year, millions of students across the U.S. apply to colleges and universities. It’s a stressful and exciting process. But this year, due to the pandemic, the college admissions process looks and feels different than in years past. As high school juniors and seniors start to plan for and apply to schools, there are two big questions on the minds of students and parents: what are college admissions officers looking for in this new reality, and how do we increase the chances of getting into (and paying for) college? Vinay Bhaskara has your family covered. He's the co-founder of CollegeVine, an online platform that offers free and personalized college guidance to high schoolers and their parents. Vinay explains the biggest changes to the college admissions process since the pandemic, and he shares valuable tips, strategies, and resources for students and parents on everything from securing the biggest financial aid package to writing the perfect stand-out essay.
Listen to this episode to learn:
For more information, visit https://www.collegevine.com/
College admissions 101 for students and families
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. If you have a high schooler who's navigating the college application process right now, you know how stressful it can be for them and for you. My guest today is here to answer some of your most pressing questions. Vinay Bhaskara is the Co-founder of CollegeVine, an online platform that offers free and personalized college guidance to high schoolers and their parents. A little disclaimer here, Care has just created a partnership with CollegeVine to make it accessible to our clients and their employees. Vinay's advice is priceless. He tells us how the college admissions process has changed since the pandemic, and he shares tips for parents and students on everything from securing financial aid to writing the perfect essay, and so much more. Have a listen. Vinay, welcome. Thank you so much for being here today.
Vinay Bhaskara: Thank you very much for having me.
Emily Paisner: You're the co-founder of a company called CollegeVine. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about what you do and how you help students and their families throughout the college admissions process?
Vinay Bhaskara: You can really think of CollegeVine as a one-stop-shop for helping you with pretty much everything in the college admissions process. That's everything from helping you find the schools that are going to be right for you, understand what your chances of admission are by entering into our admissions calculator. Understanding what you're going to pay for college. Finding a community of other students and families that are going through the admissions process, through our communities and through our forums. Getting guidance via our live streams and our blog. There are just tools to help you with every single part of the admissions process. It's all entirely free for families.
Emily Paisner: Even though it's Summer, there are a lot of teenagers who are thinking about the Fall and college applications. Parents are probably on edge as well, thinking about these processes. It can be very overwhelming. How can parents help their high schoolers to really make this process as smooth and stress-free as possible?
Vinay Bhaskara: I would say there are really three key areas that a parent can be helpful in. The first is in helping their student find the resources and tools that they need to succeed. Sometimes, if a student is in the middle of studying for an exam, or they're in summer, and they're trying to hang out with their friends, as a parent, you can do some of that behind-the-scenes legwork to identify, hey, here are some tools, here are some resources, here are some things we need to do. That way, your kid doesn't have to go through that first layer of work. Ultimately, you still want them to be driving, or at least participating in their college search, but you can do some of that legwork for them, especially if they're in a busy period, or they're not as oriented towards college initially.
Really think through what you are able to afford, what you're able to do financially, and have that statement in your head clearly, but make sure you communicate that to your kid. One of the biggest areas of butting heads that we see between parents and students is the student go off to the races, they say, "I want to go to this school, this school, do this and do that." Then mom and dad look at that and, either they have to turn around and say "No, you can't do that because we can't afford it," or they feel guilted into taking out really bad student loans at the parent level or even having their kid do that. I think it's really important to be transparent about the financial constraints if those exist.
Now, if you're lucky enough that those don't exist, or your kid is interested in schools that are going to be affordable for you because they're in-state or they're public universities, that's great, but you want to actually be transparent about that conversation. If it's possible, and you're comfortable doing it, even give them a little bit of insight into your household income and into the amount of money you have saved for college. The reason that's valuable is that when they go to tools like CollegeVine or to university websites, that information can really help them understand their own cost limitations so that you don't have to come in over the top and do all that. I think the third thing is, just as parents, remembering that this is your kid's life journey, and you should be there as an advisor, and you should be there as a guide.
You should have points of view on that journey but ultimately, you do need to let them make their own decisions and find the right school for them and the right educational journey for them. Sometimes, I think as parents, you want to protect your kids. You want to take them, almost cocoon them throughout their life but at some point, you have to let them go a little bit. This is one of those first periods where that really makes a lot of sense to do.
Emily Paisner: Speaking of that, just before we started recording, our producer, Christy, told me a story about how her dad made her start looking at colleges when she was in 8th grade. She said she's still haunted by it to this day, and I think it brings up an interesting question that's probably on the minds of a lot of parents out there. That is, when is the right time to start encouraging your children to think about college? What can we do to guide and support them to help them figure out what they want and don't want in a school?
Vinay Bhaskara: There's a different answer depending on who you are. If your kid is someone who's a really, really long-term planner, who's always thinking ahead, who's always two steps ahead, there's not as much danger in getting them involved in the college search process as early as like sophomore year. The second half of 10th grade, at that point, they'll have had two years of high school, they'll have a sense of what their grades are like, what they like, what they don't like. That might be the earliest I would say. I certainly would never probably have my kids start looking at colleges in 8th grade because you're just going to change so much between when you're 13 years old than when you're 17.
For most folks, I would say the first half of junior year is the right time to be looking at colleges. Spend the first half of junior year doing your research. Do your visits in the second half of junior year, and then apply in your senior year. That's the typical path and there's nothing wrong with that path. Then as far as helping students figure out what they do and don't want in a college campus, I think visiting plays a huge factor, but I also think talking to current students from that campus, and just doing your research and spending a little bit of time thinking through what that means. What does it mean if a school has big classes? Think back to your own classes and think about, "Okay, do I like how big my classes are or I don't?"
If you're in high school with 25 students per class, and you already feel like that class is difficult to deal with, then you probably are going to want a really small school. On the other hand, if you don't mind the 25 students, then you might be open to something different. I think the biggest thing with figuring out what you do and don't care about, there are obviously resources you can use, CollegeVine is one of those, visiting the school, the campus websites. YouTube videos, forums, all that stuff, but at the end of the day, it often comes down to just thinking about it, and actually just thinking through what you care about.
Emily Paisner: I love that CollegeVine enables students to talk to students who are currently at a specific school or are alumni of a specific school, and even talk to people in admissions at those schools. I think that's just an absolutely fantastic resource to have. By the way, I will tell Christy to let her dad know that he pressured her a little too early on that one. As I mentioned, when I was applying to college way back when everyone took the SAT and the ACT. It was a painful part, for me, at least, of the application process. Of course, you also had to submit your GPA, your essays, your teacher recommendations, and so on and so forth. I'm hearing now that standardized tests are becoming less and less important, especially since COVID came into our lives. Is that true? Do they matter anymore?
Vinay Bhaskara: Yes. The short answer is standardized tests do still matter, but they matter less than they used to. Basically, the background here is that, even before COVID-19, a bunch of colleges were switching to what are called test-optional policies. The theory behind that is that there's a lot of students for whom standardized tests are a useful judge because standardized tests are taken by a lot of students in the country. For some students, there's an argument that standardized tests are maybe not the best tool for judging certain student's academic abilities. Actually, even before the pandemic, a lot of schools had started to adopt these so-called test-optional policies, which say you can submit a test score if you have one, but you don't have to submit a test score to apply to the school.
The pandemic obviously accelerated that movement and made basically every college in the country switch to a test-optional policy because of how testing got disrupted by the pandemic. Now that testing has resumed, a lot of colleges are still continuing with those test-optional policies. The way to think about that is that if you apply without a test, the rest of your application has to be really, really solid. Getting rid of the test means that you're getting rid of a portion of your profile. If you're someone who has a really awesome GPA, you have a really awesome resume in terms of the kinds of things that you did, and the things you're interested in. You have wonderful glowing recommendation letters, and then your testing is not as good, that's an argument for applying test-optional.
Now, on the other hand, if some of those other areas are a little bit weaker, or maybe you're not a great writer, so you don't think you'll have great essays, then that's where having a good fan eyes test score will still help you stand out. It's not going to be 2020, where because of the pandemic test scores were really a secondary factor. Test scores are still a valuable thing to have on your profile in certain circumstances. My recommendation generally to families is, unless you're someone who gets a lot of anxiety or your actual emotional well-being is impacted substantially by testing, I would just take the test. I would prepare for the test, I'll still treat it as important.
Then depending on your score, you can always have the option to submit it to some of your colleges, submit it to all of your colleges, or submitted to none of your colleges. The last thing I'll say is some of this also depends on who's around you. If you're in a suburban upper-middle class, or middle-class town, where 70%, 80% of your high school graduating class is going to go to college, chances are a lot of the other students in your high school are going to be taking the test. Just naturally, colleges do compare students from local regions. That's part of how they approach the admissions process. If you're from one of those regions, chances are your not having a test is going to make you stand out more in a negative way than if you come from a different background. It also depends on who you are and what the students around you are doing.
Emily Paisner: That's great advice. Really, really helpful. Can you share what else parents and students need to know about how COVID may have shifted the college admissions process?
Vinay Bhaskara: A big thing, and it's actually a little bit of a trap, is that, for the last couple of years, so for last year and for this cycle, and presumably for the next cycle, there's going to be a question on the Common App about how COVID impacted your life. That question is actually a little bit of a tricky one because, obviously, COVID impacted every single person's life, but there are radical differences in just how that happened.
If you're someone where, for example, you lost a close family member, or you had a parent fall sick for an extended period of time, or your parents lost their job or had some sort of economic loss due to COVID, that's really what that question on the application is designed for.
For a lot of students where, luckily, thanks to good luck and interventions from the US government and a whole list of other factors, the majority of American families didn't necessarily suffer material, either health or financial, losses from COVID. For a lot of folks, a lot of kids last year, the temptation was to write this story about how COVID made me sit at home and it made me feel depressed and sad. To be clear, I think all those are genuinely true feelings and true emotions, but at the same time, A, that's just a shared experience that exists across every single student in the country, and B, it's just an order of magnitude less bad than the people who suffered the loss of a family member or a friend, or financial harm.
I think a trap that a lot of kids fell into last year that you want to really avoid this year is feeling like, "Oh, I have to respond to this question," which was "optional" on the Common App, and then they end up writing something that makes them almost look privileged, if that makes sense, by virtue of the impact that COVID had on them versus on some other folks. I think that's a big one. The other thing to keep in mind is that universities are a lot more flexible with timelines and with deadlines. In so far as things seem to be returning to normal in the US, we'll see how much of that carries over. That's a really big thing that was beneficial to families last year, I don't know how much it will continue this year, in terms of extending deposit deadlines and notification deadlines and stuff like that.
Another piece that is not directly COVID-related but has definitely changed and shifted admissions is the importance of racial justice, it's really there. There's almost like two parallel threats. The first one, obviously, is that if you have done work to support racial justice and you can write about it thoughtfully, that obviously is a plus to your application. A bigger slice for a lot of folks is if you're not someone who has done maybe that direct work in terms of racial justice, just combing through your writing a little bit and making sure that your essays and your application don't come off in the other direction, in terms of highlighting your privilege or speaking from a place of privilege.
The importance of that has gotten more salient to sponsors and to colleges in the wake of the pandemic, but also in the wake of obviously the tragedy of what happened to George Floyd and many others last year.
Emily Paisner: A lot of students took a gap year last year, and they're applying to college for the first time. How should they think about framing up their gap year in their admissions process now? Do you think it'll help them or hurt them or does it just really depend on what they did during that year?
Vinay Bhaskara: Even last year, because of test-optional admissions, things got way more competitive at top colleges and, really, at a lot of selective colleges The big thing to keep in mind is that they're just going to be in a much more competitive environment. Every piece of their application's going to have to be that much stronger. Now, by definition, your grades are something you can't really control once you've graduated and taken a gap year. It's going to really come down to writing really strong essays, to framing their resume in a really good way, and approaching every part of the application process with just that extra bit of care.
I think, also, as students who took gap years, one thing to keep in mind is that, unlike in traditional years, they won't probably necessarily be able to go spend some time working somewhere or go on a mission trip or something like that. If they can show that they were productive during their gap year, that's going to be a plus. Now, it doesn't mean that if you weren't able to do that, it's going to be a minus, because colleges do realize and empathize with the fact that the world was shut down for large swaths of last year. If you were able to find something creative and productive to do from home, that is going to be a boost for you.
Emily Paisner: You touched on this earlier. Parents don't tend to talk to their kids about finances when it comes to college, and it's one of their biggest worries. The costs just keep going up. Applying for grants and scholarships and financial aid is such a huge and important part of this process. Can you talk about what the financial aid landscape really looks like right now and how parents and students can go about applying for federal aid and resources they can check out to apply for grants and scholarships?
Vinay Bhaskara: The Myth of scholarships and financial aid is that federal money and these external scholarships are going to get you there. Whereas in reality, in most of these cases, the money that's going to be most important relative to say a $6,000 price point or an $80,000 price point, or whatever, is going to be money that the college themselves gives you in the form of merit scholarships or financial aid. My biggest thing with applying for scholarships and applying for grants is yes, absolutely, you want to fill out your financial aid forms, but the Pell Grant is capped at $6,600 a year or $6,900 a year, some number in that range. There's a pretty big gap between that and Harvard's tuition of 60,000, yet students who make under $60,000 a year in their family's household income go to Harvard for free.
That's because Harvard is providing the vast majority of that money, and this is true at pretty much every college in the United States. The vast majority of aid that you're going to get to attend a university is going to come from universities themselves. People ask me, ''Okay, what are your biggest tips?'' Obviously, fill out your financial aid forms, but my biggest suggestion is instead of trying to apply for a bunch of scholarships that are given out by the local rotary club or the Kiwanis Union or whatever, focus on applying to more and different colleges. Applying to more colleges is valuable because you never know how different colleges are going to react to your application.
One college and one admissions officer on one day might give you money, whereas another college and another admission officer on another day might not. Just you increasing your chances in a process that does have some readiness. Beyond that, when you apply to more schools, you're also then able to turn around and negotiate with colleges for a better aid package. It's actually something a lot of families don't know, but you can actually work with colleges based on, "Hey, I got this much money from this school, is there any way you can match that or close some of that gap?" The more colleges you apply to, the more likely you are to have multiple financial aid offers which you can use as leverage in your negotiation.
The other thing is, in terms of applying to different schools. In general, you're more likely to receive aid money from schools where you are overqualified. What I mean by that is your application and your profile are much stronger than that of the typical accepted student. If you're someone who has a really strong, say, test score and GPA and you apply to a school where the typical student is weaker on both of those metrics, then you're more likely to receive money. Now, the caveat there is you do have to be picking schools that you'd be comfortable attending. You don't want to necessarily just apply to all 800 schools in the country or something like that, because there's no upside to that in that you wouldn't attend most of these schools.
If you can find some lower-ranked or some schools that have a weaker admissions profile, that have other factors that you really like, then that can be a super powerful way to walk out of the process with more money. I think, in general, the biggest mistakes that families make in this process is they don't understand that college money is the majority of financial aid money in this country if you exclude student loans.
Emily Paisner: That's great advice. Vinay, this has been such a helpful and insightful conversation. Thank you so much for making the college admissions process more accessible and approachable and helpful for people.
Vinay Bhaskara: Yes, absolutely. It's been my pleasure. There's advice like this, and much, much more that you can find at CollegeVine.com. We have live streams where you can actually come in and ask questions to an expert just like me, sometimes even me. So definitely check that out if you're looking for some help with your admission process.
Emily Paisner: Amazing. Thank you so much for joining us.
Vinay Bhaskara: Thank you.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.