2018-03-15 / Front Page

Essays, tests and money part of college process

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff

IDALIE CUELLAR is wrapping up her senior year at Suttons Bay Schools. Unlike many other students, Cuellar knew what school she wanted to attend and only applied to study at one college. She leaves to study at Michigan Tech in the fall. IDALIE CUELLAR is wrapping up her senior year at Suttons Bay Schools. Unlike many other students, Cuellar knew what school she wanted to attend and only applied to study at one college. She leaves to study at Michigan Tech in the fall. Pressure’s off for three Leelanau County students. They’re in.

Suttons Bay seniors Idalie Cuellar, Thomas Hursey and Amelia Hall have taken the tests, completed the applications, received acceptance letters and made their decisions.

Following a walk across the graduation stage in a few short weeks, Cuellar hits the road for Houghton to study at Michigan Tech, Hursey heads to Big Rapids to attend Ferris State, and Hall packs her bags for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

For all three students, the road to college has been long, but worth the effort.

What’s involved in this process?

First, selecting which colleges are appropriate can prove to be a bit elusive if a student does not have a clear sense of where he or she would like to go. All colleges can start to look the same. That was the situation for Hursey at first.

For Hursey’s parents, Todd and Nichele, it’s not their first time sending a child to college and it won’t be their last. Thomas is the second of three children.

Todd said his son had a difficult time determining at which schools he should apply. “He had interest from a couple of schools because of golf, and they offered him a scholarship,” Todd said.

He also said it was helpful to visit potential colleges early. “The latest you should set up visits would be the summer before your senior year. You have to have an idea what that campus is like. It’s too late to go the fall or winter of your senior year.”

Margaret Hall said her daughter visited three schools. “(It) was valuable to hear the school’s official message, get a feel of the campus, classrooms, talk to instructors and current students, as well as have the opportunity for Amelia to ‘see herself’ in each of the schools.”

After selecting a field colleges, it’s time to write — standardized tests, applications and essays.

The process can be difficult, according to Cuellar. “Applying and writing essays felt very stressful, as a lot of your future potentially rides on your ability to communicate your skills and qualities in a clear and unique way. It pays off, though, and many of the essays have similar themes, so after the first couple essays you get a feeling for what you’re writing about,” she said.

Applying can be stressful for parents as well, even those in the education field.

Todd and Nichele are teachers. “We understood the processes and we’re able to give (Thomas) frequent reminders because we are both here at school,” Todd said. “Reminding is a polite word, maybe ‘hounding’ them to get their stuff in is more accurate.”

Margaret said she appreciated her daughter taking the lead to pursue applications, letters of recommendation and required essays.

“We would provide Amelia with gentle guidance, redirection and an occasional prompt — although she had her vision and goals. Occasionally she would ask us a question she could not answer,” Margaret said. “We offered support by asking about the process and specific details.”

For essay content, Margaret said her daughter drew heavily from life experiences, which included living as an exchange student in Japan for a year.

Todd commented that this step should not be rushed. “From what we’ve learned so far, you don’t just trip through an essay. It’s pretty critical, and you’ll be compared to others who have put more into it — it’s worth it,” he said.

And what about the numbers — test scores and financial aid?

Margaret said Hall studied with another student as well as working with a tutor to prepare for the SAT. “She met with a tutor for the SAT and they met maybe 4-5 time for an hour at a time. She received study material from the teacher and on her own she prepared,” Margaret said.

Cuellar took a similar approach. “I used Khan Academy to take practice tests and review subjects I was weaker on. I did this weekly, for about three months before the test,” she said.

Although both he and his wife are math teachers, Hursey felt an outside resource was important to help his son prepare for the test. “You can’t have much more of an ideal situation than two parents as high school math teachers, but it’s worth it at times to have a tutor despite the sometimes steep hourly rate… We thought it was a wise investment.”

In fact, if a student can raise test scores by just a fraction, more scholarship funds may become available.

Affording college can be a large hurdle for families. Several years ago, a student might have been able to work hard during a summer break and earn most or all of the money needed to cover expenses for the upcoming school year. But, as Todd asked, “Who can have a summer job where you can earn $20,000?”

“You can work really hard in the summertime but not come close to what it’s going to cost.”

Todd said that the Hurseys “laid some incentives” for their children. “We let them know that a college degree was important to us, but that starting after college with a major debt wasn’t something we wanted to happen…

Not that we would match a scholarship dollar for dollar, but we told our kids the more you receive, the more we will help you.

“We tried to be realistic with our kids that we have saved some money, but you need to do your part.”

He stressed the importance of seeking “small” scholarships. “Think about how many yours you need to work in summer to earn $1,000. Then think about just a couple of hours to dive into a (scholarship) application. It surprises me more people don’t think that way.”

Cuellar does. “I’ve sought many grants and scholarships, which is an involved process. I would use national scholarship databases, which help to pinpoint what you’re eligible for, and looking locally, as many of those scholarships are ignored,” she said.

Another money-saving option is completing some of the standard first year classes at a community college.

Cuellar would recommend this step. “If you aren’t sure about your career path, don’t go to a big university right away,” she said. “Community college is a more affordable way to get all your prerequisites done while you figure out your plans.”

Similarly, taking college-level classes while still attending high school can be a good option for some students. Todd said that’s exactly what both of his children did. As a result, his daughter will graduate from college with a double major in three-and-a-half years, and his son will begin his freshman year with 30 credits under his belt.

Glen Lake school counselor Ginna Woessner said she sees families with different types of college needs. “We also have a Financial Aid Night in the fall prior to the Oct 1 FAFSA start and a FAFSA event where NMC financial aid officers assist families in filling out their forms,” she said. “I meet with every family that requests the assistance, and strategize with families.”

Matt Peschel, school counselor at Suttons Bay Schools, said he tells families to stay away from private loans or loans from banks. “Use government money if you have to get loans. Grants also exist specifically for enrichment opportunities - think summer programs and study abroad, so look for those too,” he said.

Another tool Peschel recommends is searching online. He said he often refers parents and students to www.gtrcf.org, and scholarships.com and fastweb.com to research scholarship opportunities, as well as using tools on collegeboard.org.

Students of Northport Public School have a scholarship opportunity unique to them. The Northport Promise offers students grant funds up to $2,000 a year for four years. Awards are based on a sliding scale determined by the number of years a student has attended the school.

Some of the qualifications include having a 2.5 GPA, good citizenship and participation in college planning activities. Applications are completed online and are due by May 1.

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