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Josefine's 3 Main Takeaways from IECA 2021

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

The Annual IECA Conference is always informative, but after more than a year of COVID-related test disruptions, admissions policy changes, and non-traditional education modifications, our counselors were especially anxious to hear from college representatives and colleagues around the globe. Although the conference is not open to parents or non-counselors, we made sure to take careful notes, internalizing the new and relevant information that could help our students excel and brush off the anxiety of a high-stress college application season. Read on for Josefine's three main takeaways from the conference for all prospective college applicants and their parents!


Lesson #1: The power that letters of recommendation have

College reps always want to explain how they look at a college application. Most processes are relatively holistic, and many schools accept letters of recommendation (although there are some exceptions, like the UC system). Most moderately selective universities do require letters of rec. In a session with Swarthmore and University of Chicago, I heard a lot about how it’s a misconception that students have no power over the letter of rec.

It might feel like this area of your application is not within your power, because you waive your right to see the letter both before and after it’s sent, and you’re not writing it. The thing is, it is actually within your power - you’re the one who can build meaningful, in-depth relationships with your teachers that cause them to write stellar recommendations. Especially in junior year, nearing the college applications season, really connecting with those teachers is key. That they get to see you work hard, struggle, and pick yourself up, is really important. These colleges are looking for that “string of successes”: do you pick yourself up when you’re down, or do you get frustrated and give up? That’s the power that letters of recommendation have, they can give that context to your grades. Was that an easy A? Or a C that you worked hard for and can be proud of? Universities care about that context. Especially because the letters reflect how someone else sees your outward expression of your values.

In one session, Swarthmore and U of Chicago gave a few sample student profiles with very high grades and great activities, with the only difference being one student had earned an excellent recommendation. Showing an extensive and passionate letter of recommendation really tipped the scales for a specific applicant. When you’re asking your teachers to write a letter for you, be sure to add, “what do you need in order to write me a positive letter of recommendation?” Provide them with a resume, a little questionnaire, examples of your past work, etc. Some teachers might prefer a face-to-face interview. They’re trying to get to know you amongst perhaps fifty other students for whom they are writing letters.

Some people think that only top-of-the-class students get good letters of rec, which isn't true. If you’re really struggling in a class, don’t hide away from your teacher or tutor. Many students get intimidated by that, thinking their teacher doesn't like them, or resents their performance. Don't give up - talk to them, show them that you care. Meet at lunch or after class, shoot them an email, and prove to them that while you may not have a handle on the material, you are committed to working through the challenge. That’s something a teacher can relate in a letter of rec in order to show your resiliency.

Lesson #2: Changes in the FAFSA

This update is more technical, but still worth understanding - it will affect a lot (if not all) college applicants and their families beginning in 2023. Starting in October 2023, the FAFSA will be shortened to 36 questions.

The good news? This means it will be much easier to fill out, with streamlined processes and automatic uploads of much of a family's financial information. However, there will also be a huge overhaul of families getting a reduction in their Estimate Family Contribution (EFC) due to having multiple children in college.

Right now, if you have two kids in school, you get a 40% reduction in EFC, which is good -that’s how FAFSA determines how much a family can spend on college per student. Families with twins get a 50% reduction. FAFSA has decided to remove those reductions, so there will be no more reduction for having two kids in college at the same time.

This presents a really tough reality for many families who may be asking, "how do we afford to put two kids through college without need based aid we should be eligible for?" The rationale is that if a family has two kids staggered (not in college at the same time) then they do not get financial aid that a family with two kids in college overlapping would get, which FAFSA has decided is not equitable. One family would pay much more money to send the same number of kids to college.

This change means that families which previously would have qualified for financial aid at specific colleges may not, and should look into other forms of aid, as well as colleges that offer merit scholarships. If a family does not have kids that would be concurrent (in college at the same time), then there is no change. So, families have to consider: is it sustainable for you to put a child through 4 years of college, then 2 years later, put another one through college at the same cost? If not, it's time to plan for applications to other scholarships, schools, and lower-cost options like trade school or community college.

Lesson #3: The power of supplemental essays

College applicants write many essays, and the star of the show is often the personal statement. The personal statement goes to many universities after months of editing and rewrites, and students work hard to make it "perfect." After working so hard on one essay, its easy to overlook the other essay requirements or two write them off as unimportant, when in reality, they can make or break your application. Supplemental essays are university specific, and ask questions like, "why do you want to come to our school? Why are you a good fit for our community? What makes you want to be a [fill in the blank school mascot]?" Essentially, a school is offering you a chance to prove that you are the missing piece in their community puzzle.

Many students miss out on this opportunity by maybe writing a draft or two, or just putting a couple sentences. The supplemental essays are real essays! They need to be given as much craft, insight, personality, and vulnerability as is in your personal statement. You need to prove to the university that you care about them, specifically. Schools want to know you understand the culture, and you really get it. Any student can write “I’ve always wanted to go to New York, you’re in an awesome city…” They know that. Talk about why why the school is important to you.

If you think about it, a "why us" essay is more of a “why are we made for each other” essay. Don’t just talk about the school or about you - intertwine both. You could research a specific course you want to take, professors you admire, or traditions you want to be a part of. Virtual visits are a great way to begin familiarizing yourself with the school, and then you can use what you’ve learned.

Consistency is important, overall. Admissions reps aren’t looking for “the diverse student,” they’re looking to build a diverse student body. You, as one person, don’t need to be all things - you just need to show that you contribute valuable and unique insight, personality, opinions, etc. to their campus. Obviously your values can be evident in the classes you chose in high school, or the letters of rec from your teachers, but expressing them in the supplemental essays can go a long way toward making you an appealing candidate.


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