Do College Recommendation Letters Have to be from Teachers?

College admissions counselors want to learn more about you through recommendation letters. Typically, you send in two recommendation letters with your application. I’m often asked by students if those letters must be from teachers. Ideally, yes, the first two recommendation letters should be from teachers from 10th or 11th grade from your core courses, with at least one being from 11th grade, if possible.

What If You Can’t Ask Two Teachers from those Grades?

Sometimes it is not possible to obtain two letters from teachers from your sophomore and junior year. Each student’s circumstances are unique. What’s important is that you ask teachers who know you and can write about you as a student. The whole point is for these letters to shed light on how you are as a student and person. College admissions officers want to get a feel as to whether you would be a good fit for their school.

Can You Submit Recommendation Letters from Non-Teachers?

You can definitely submit additional recommendation letters from people who were not your teacher in school. For example, if you are applying for a fine arts major, you may want to (And may be required to) also submit letters from your art teacher, voice teacher or piano teacher. If you are involved in scouts, you may want to submit a letter from your scout leader, or if you are active in your church’s youth group you may want to submit a recommendation from that leader. Just keep in mind that recommendations from these individuals should be in addition to the two letters you are getting from your core teachers, they should not replace either or both of them, and they should be from someone who knows you well and over the course of time.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.


Related Topics

What Is a Teacher Evaluation for College
Read What to Do as a Junior to Prepare for College to learn when to ask for Letters of Recommendation

What Is the Deadline for FAFSA?

All FAFSA forms/applications must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. central time on June 30th of the academic year for which you are applying. For example, if you are applying for aid for the 2021-2022 academic year, you must file the form/application by 11:59 p.m. central time on June 30th, 2022. If you need to make any corrections or updates to your application, you must submit them by 11:59 p.m. central time on Sept. 10th of that academic year, i.e., September 10, 2022. Filing so late, however, will impact the aid you receive as you would receive it after the academic year.

Note: Each College Has its Own FAFSA Deadline

While the federal government has its own deadline, that is not the only date you need to take note of. You need to pay attention to the FAFSA deadline for the schools to which you are applying. It’s really important that you understand the list of schools that you or your child will be applying to and what their financial aid deadlines are – and those deadlines are much earlier than the federal government’s deadline.

FAFSA Deadlines Also Differ by How You Apply to the School

Not only do FAFSA deadlines differ by school, they can also differ by how you apply to that school, meaning whether you are applying early action or early decision (remember early decision is binding, early action is not). Sometimes if you’re applying early action, and most of the time when you’re applying early decision, schools want you to submit your financial aid forms sooner than if you’re applying regular decision.

Estimated School FAFSA Deadlines

The short answer to what is the FAFSA deadline is that it can vary. Usually, the school FAFSA deadlines fall anywhere between November 1st to sometime in February. Be sure to go to the Financial Aid section of the website for each school to find that school’s specific financial aid and FAFSA deadlines. You must adhere to those deadlines, not the later federal government deadline, if you want to be considered for aid from that school. If you miss the school’s deadline, you may get no money. I recommend creating a spreadsheet that lists each school and their financial aid and FAFSA deadlines so you don’t miss out on any funding opportunities as these applications also are tied to scholarship opportunities.

State Financial Aid Deadlines
In addition to the above deadlines, if you are applying to colleges within your state of residence, you need to keep track of your state’s financial aid deadline. Click here to see a list of the state deadlines.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

How Long Should a College Application Essay Be?

We work with so many students each year on the college application process. One of the most popular and frequently asked questions is: “How long should my college application essay be?” This is a great question. After all, you want it long enough to tell your story, but not too long so that the reader’s mind starts to wander. You also don’t want it too short, as you want to convey that you put serious thought into your work. So where does that leave you? What is that middle sweet spot number?

Note Fixed Word Counts

From a logistical standpoint, college applications will typically tell you the maximum number of words, characters or pages your essay can be. For example, some may say between 200 and 250 words is acceptable. If you are using the Common App, which is the application that most colleges use, the primary essay is referred to as the Personal Statement. The maximum number of words for the Common App Personal Statement is 650. These word counts don’t mean that you need to write 650 words. The limit merely means that your essay cannot exceed that amount. If the application states a certain figure, make sure you follow those guidelines and don’t exceed the allowed limit. That said, you never have to aim to reach the maximum word count.

Use as Many Words as You Need to Tell Your Story Without Going Over Set Limits

When it comes to writing your college application essay, it isn’t a matter of using up the word count allotted to tell your story. Rather, it’s about the impact of your story on the reader. Focus on reaching the reader rather than reaching the word count.

Our Best Advice on Length of College Application Essays

Make sure you’re mindful of the maximum number of words, characters, and/or pages that a college may state for your essay – and don’t exceed them.
Don’t be over wordy.

Tell your story in the space provided to make the most impact – that doesn’t mean that you need to use up all the space allotted.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

Can You Put Middle School Achievements on College Application?

When it comes to college applications, it is so important to put your best face forward. And part of that involves highlighting your achievements. So often we are asked by our students if you can, and should, include your middle school awards and activities on your college applications. The short answer is no, you should not. Pre-high school accomplishments are really not relevant to the college admissions process. Admissions officers are focusing on what you did in 9th through 12th grade. In general, they do not care to see what you did before you started high school. There are, however, two qualifiers to this: participating in long-standing activities and playing high school sports.

Long-Standing Activities

If you have been involved in a specific activity over a long period of time that extended into high school, then you should include those early dates on your college application. For example, if you were involved with the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts starting at a young age, then you should include the date of the beginning of that involvement, whether you started in middle school or prior, on the activities section of the application. The same holds true for things like gymnastics, playing a musical instrument, or other interests or volunteer work – provided your involvement started prior to, and continued into, high school. Colleges will want to see that you are passionate about an activity and that you committed to sticking with it for a long time. It is also acceptable to include any awards you received for these activities during those pre-high school years.

Playing on a High School Team While in Middle School

Quite often talented athletes “play up” while in middle school, meaning that they are brought up to play on the high school teams. If this is your situation, you should definitely indicate this middle school activity on your college application. It is an honor that can help you stand out in a pool of applicants.

In summary, if your middle school activities and achievements don’t fall within the above two qualifiers, don’t put them on your college applications.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

How to Accept a College Admission

The college acceptances have arrived. You’ve narrowed down the options and made your decision. You know which school you want to attend. Now you just need to let them know you accept! But, just how do you go about accepting their offer of admission? While it may seem overwhelming, accepting an admissions offer is pretty simple. Let us break it down for you.

Log Into the College’s Student Portal

You likely set up an applicant portal with a school once you submitted your application. You can often accept admission within the portal.

Follow the Instructions Outlined in the Acceptance Letter

You will typically receive an admissions offer in the mail or, more frequently by email directing you to your applicant portal to view it. That letter, whether it be paper or electronic, will provide you with how to accept the offer. Simply follow those instructions. We recommend putting a checkmark next to each item listed in the letter to make sure you didn’t miss any acceptance requirements (Print it out if the letter is electronic).

Put Down Your Deposit

Part of accepting admission to a college is putting down your deposit, often referred to as the housing deposit. This cost can range anywhere from $100 to $500+ and is typically non-refundable. Paying this deposit secures your spot in the incoming class. You should be able to do this through your applicant portal as well.

Don’t Miss the Acceptance Deadline!

May 1st is known as National College Decision Day. This is the deadline colleges set for student replies to admissions offers. Ideally, you want to notify the college of your acceptance prior to this date. If you submit your deposit prior to the May 1 deadline, it would be appropriate to send an email to the other colleges admissions offices letting them know that you are declining their offer, since there are other students who will want to attend those institutions that have been put on a waitlist that may then receive an offer from that school.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

How to Turn Down a College Coach

You’ve worked hard, put in the time and commitment, and now it’s paid off. You have a group of college coaches wanting you to come play for them. They have all expressed interest in you being part of their team. Congratulations! This is what you have been dreaming of and striving for. While all the interest is surely exciting, you can only commit to one team.

So how do you turn down the offers from the other coaches? Politely.

You are probably feeling a bit awkward rejecting a coach’s offer. Having to reach out to this authority figure can be quite intimidating. But there is really no need to feel that way. College athletics recruiting is a business. Coaches are used to having players tell them they have chosen to attend another school. The important thing is for you to politely communicate with them and to do so in a timely fashion.

These coaches have spent time meeting and connecting with you. They have taken time out to watch you play, either in person or through film. The courteous thing to do is to:

Let them know how much you appreciate their interest
Thank them for their help through the process
Decline the offer by explaining why you are going in another direction
Wish them all the best.

Ideally, you should pick up the phone and call each coach. But, if that isn’t possible, send them each an email.

Don’t Drag Out Declining a Coach’s Offer

As you know, there are only so many open slots on a team roster. There could be other athletes waiting for offers to join those teams. You want to give the coach an opportunity to reach out to those athletes and fill your spot. Turning down a coach in a timely manner allows them to update their recruitment list.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

How to Prepare for College as a Sophomore

The college search and application process is incredibly important. The sooner you start preparing, the more successful and enjoyable this journey will be. There are plenty of things sophomores can be doing. Here are some tips on how to be proactive throughout 10th grade.

1. Cataloging Your Activities

When it comes time to fill out your college applications, you will need to provide a list of the activities in which you participated throughout high school. When you get to senior year, you may not remember everything you did in freshman and sophomore year and when you did it. To make completing the activities section of the application easier and less stressful, you should start informally cataloging your activities during your sophomore year, if you have not already started doing so. Be sure to include the name of the organization, a brief description of the activity you performed, the date, and the amount of time spent on the activity (Average hours per week and weeks per year). Keeping a running journal of these activities in a notebook or on a computer works just fine. Wondering what types of activities are important? Read What Do Colleges Look for in Extracurricular Activities.

2. Start Drafting Your Student Resume

Once you start tracking those activities, you should take it one step further and start drafting your resume. What is that? Well, it is a more formal document that highlights all of your activities and accomplishments – from honors and sports to leadership and volunteering to hobbies and jobs. As mentioned above, you will need to include this information on your college applications. And, if you do it as you go along, you may be able to copy and paste the information into the Common App, or other applications, when the time comes. Our article How to Make an Activities Resume for College Applications has some great advice to help you prepare for application time.

3. Begin to Research Colleges

You will want to start making a list of colleges that interest you. You can start by searching for colleges that have the major or interests you want to pursue. If you don’t know what you want to do, move on to location, size, demographics, activities, school personality, etc. Read What to Look for When Searching for Colleges for more detailed information. Once you have compiled a list, then take a deeper dive into each school. The goal is to find your SAFE schools – schools that match you Socially, Academically, Financially and Emotionally. Our article How to Find the Best College for Me takes a closer look at this concept.

4. If Possible, Go on College Visits

The best way to get a feel for a school is to step foot on its campus and to ask the right questions. Sophomore year is the ideal time to start visiting schools. Junior year will be a busy one and time will get away from you faster than you think! So take advantage of your free time during sophomore year and visit college campuses. If a school is too far to visit, or the pandemic is halting tours, virtual tours and information sessions are a great way to start to get a feel for the school. Our College Visit Planner, College Visit Checklist and Good Questions to Ask on a College Tour will help prepare you for your visit or virtual information session.

5. Focus on Your Grades

It is important that you keep up with your studies. The transcript is the first thing that a college will look at because it is the best trend of who you are a student. Don’t forget, you’re going to college because you’re going to be getting a degree. So admissions officers will be placing a strong emphasis on your grades.

These are just some of the main things you can do as a sophomore to prepare for the college search and application process.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

When Should You Start Visiting Colleges?

Visiting colleges is a really important piece of your college journey. You want to get a true feel for the school’s personality, and stepping foot on campus will help you do just that. There is no hard and fast answer as to when you should start visiting colleges. You can start as early as your freshman year of high school and continue visits into your senior year. Because junior year is such a busy year, we recommend that if you haven’t already started, that you begin visiting colleges at the end of sophomore year or the summer before junior year.

When It Comes to Campus Tours, the Earlier You Start, the Less Stressed You Will Be

In junior year, time quickly gets away from you – especially if you play sports. So start your research, make your list of schools, and schedule those college visits early. Research colleges online and make a list of schools that interest you based on majors, size, location, school spirit and more. Our article What to Look for When Searching for Colleges can help you get started.

In 9th grade you can certainly dabble in college visits. In 10th grade, you should definitely jump in and start taking tours and signing up for information sessions. It is important to get a flavor for what it is like to be on a college campus and what to look for – and the earlier the better. This will give you an opportunity to really cast a wide net, then narrow down your college search so you can find schools that fit you best.

And, by getting this head start early, you will be less stressed when it comes time for completing those college applications. You will have an idea of what you like and don’t like about the schools you were interested in. And, you may even have more time available to visit those on the top of your list a second time.

Fit in Visits in Your Spare Time

Free weekends, school vacations and holidays are the perfect time to schedule a college visit. If there are colleges in your local area, start there. When taking a trip or heading to a sport tournament, see if there are any colleges on the way or in the area where you are staying and fit in a tour. Some families even like to schedule their vacation time around schools they want to visit.

By 10th grade and early into your junior year, visiting schools starts to get a lot more serious. So I would definitely suggest during your sophomore year, and certainly the second half of your sophomore year, to start visiting schools, continuing to do so into your junior and ultimately your senior year. I always say, don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today – and that applies to college visits.

Looking for help with the college search and application process?

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

Can You Appeal a College Rejection?

While you may be able to appeal a college rejection, the chances are incredibly slim that the school’s admission decision will change for the positive.

Every so often, I am asked by my students after all the admissions decisions are in, “Can I appeal a rejection from a school?” Honestly, if you have been declined from school, it is extremely rare that the rejection will ever turn into an acceptance, especially for those highly selective schools. To put it bluntly, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none.

I’m always a realist. I tell the students and families that I work with, in the beginning when they contract with me, that I’m very real with you. In fact, that’s part of what they hire me for. So the few times I am asked this question, I am completely upfront with them. I tell them the chances of successfully appealing a college admissions rejection are very, very slim.

In fact, there are some schools that will absolutely not even entertain an appeal.

If you choose to appeal to a school that will accept your request, you should have a compelling reason for doing so and be able to back it up. Meaning, you need to provide the school with pertinent information about why they should accept you AND that information should be information that the school did not already have in its possession. You can’t just highlight information in your application. If you ask the college admissions office to re-evaluate its decision, and request that they accept rather than decline you, you need to provide the school with new information it didn’t have in its hands to consider previously, such as an incredibly extenuating circumstance.

So, don’t hold out hope that a college will change its mind. In reality, if you have received a rejection, the chances are excellent that the rejection will be the college’s final decision – even if you appeal it.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone and by email.

How Does a 529 Plan Affect Financial Aid?

A 529 plan impacts financial aid as it is considered in the determination of whether you qualify for financial aid, and the amount of aid for which you qualify. Below we outline just how it affects the aid amount.

A 529 Plan Is Treated as a Parental Asset on the FAFSA

When filling out the FAFSA, be sure to have your 529 Plan information handy. Although the child may be the beneficiary of the 529 plan, if the parent is the owner of the account it is considered a parental asset, along with your non-retirement brokerage accounts as well as savings and checking, amongst others. As such, you must include it in the parental asset section of the FAFSA.

But it isn’t just that child’s 529 plan you must disclose. You must also list the 529 plans for any other of your children of which you are the owner. Yes, you read that correctly. All of the 529 plans that you own are considered parental assets and must be listed on the FAFSA. If you have multiple children, that asset amount can add up quickly! Let’s say you have four children and you own 529 accounts for each child, with each account holding $25,000. Your parental asset would be $100,000, not the $25,000 you may have been thinking when you went to fill out the financial aid form.

How Much of the Funds in the 529 Plan Are Included in the Aid Calculation

The financial aid formula notes the difference between parental assets and child assets. Each is assessed at a different level.

A parental asset is assessed at about a 5% rate. So if all of your 529 plan assets total $100,000 your assessed amount would be $5,000. That $5,000 is what is included in the financial aid calculation and the total for your Expected Family Contribution. The Expected Family Contribution is what the federal government and/or institution says you can pay for your child’s college education for one year. There are some changes to the Expected Family Contribution on the horizon that do involve assets that you should take note of, which you can read about in our recent article on the changes to the FAFSA.

In summary, a 529 plan does affect financial aid – both whether you qualify and if you qualify, how much you will receive. This is because any 529 plans that a parent owns, even if they are for their other children, are considered parental assets. These parent owned plans are assessed on the FAFSA at a rate of about five percent and included in the Expected Family Contribution calculation. So be sure to have all of your 529 plan information on hand when you are filling out the FAFSA.

Looking for help with the college search and application process? We help students and families through the entire college planning journey – from search, applications and essays to interview prep, financial aid consultation and final school selection.

Contact us at info@signaturecollegecounseling.com or by phone, 845.551.6946. We work with students in person, through Zoom, over the phone, and by email.

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