Ask the Grumpies: College advice

Sasha asks:

I am interested in majoring in [awesome social science] with a specialty of criminology.  I’ve been looking at schools like [state flagship with top awesome social science program] and [overpriced NYC school with a reputation for poor financial aid] and other schools but I haven’t grown attached to any so some help would be fantastic.

    I have some regulations about school and stuff and here is list the I have come up with:
                          1) I want to go to a big school with many opportunities. I realize that I will probably change my mind about my major and I want to make sure that if I do I have a lot of options to choose from.
                          2) I’d like to go to a school that does not require the SAT. I need to work my ACT score up (since it is only a 26 so far) and I don’t have time to study for that and have a job and school. I realize that already cancels out some schools but I’d rather work on ACT than SAT.
                         3) Out of state is totally a possibility. In fact I would really like to leave the state if I can.
Are these reasonable guidelines?  What other advice do you have for me?
First off, the redacted state flagship school just happens to be one of the best places in the country for your proposed major.  It may be your best option.
The emphasis in criminology limits your options considerably, but as that emphasis is generally is only taught in graduate programs or outside the major in interdisciplinary criminology courses, you may want to consider waiting to take those classes until after college, or perhaps over the summer at a different school.  We don’t think you should apply only to programs that allow you to take a course in that emphasis.
In addition to big universities, you may want to look into smaller schools that are part of consortia.  These often combine the best features of large universities and smaller schools.  Some of the better known consortia schools are also generous with the financial aid.
We think that not taking the SAT is a big mistake for several reasons.  The first is that your ACT score is good, but not great.  It’s probably not going to earn you big money from schools desperate to have you– that may conflict with your regulation 4.  #2 and I both did way better on the SAT than we did on the ACT (I don’t think I broke 28 on the ACT but got in the upper 700s on the SAT).  Some people do better on one test vs. the other.   The second reason is that reg 2 conflicts with reg 3.  The ACT limits you geographically– it is much more popular in the midwest than in other regions.   Third, you don’t have to send your scores to schools until after you’ve seen how you did if you’re worried about getting a low score.  Fourth, if money for testing is a problem talk to your guidance counselor about getting financial help to take the test. Finally, remember that colleges will count your savings from job earnings at a higher rate than they will count your parents’ earnings.  It may be a better use of time to study for the SAT than to have a job that first semester if it translates to more money for college.  (Second semester you will have already turned in your FAFSA… senioritis ho!)

The actual cost of tuition may not be what is actually important if you are eligible for need-based aid.  If your parents truly do not make a lot of money, you should be eligible for a lot of need-based financial aid.  This aid often comes from the schools in the form of grants.  Some schools have more resources to give this aid than others.  As you are applying, find out how generous these schools, especially private schools, are.  One of us went to a pricey private school and it cost her less than going to the state flagship because her parents made very little money and she got huge grants from the private school but only moderate grants from the cash-strapped state school.  Her sister, otoh, went to a less generous private school and it cost more than the state flagship would have (said sister makes like a bazillion dollars now and loved college and didn’t drop out of her major like every female we know who went to the flagship in that major did, so it was probably a good choice… however, your proposed major is warm and fuzzy at the flagship).

So those are our thoughts on your guidelines.  We’d like to open it up to the readers now– what advice would you give Sasha?
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28 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: College advice”

  1. feMOMhist Says:

    ditto on taking both standardized tests. FWIW back in the day no one I knew studies for SAT or ACT. You went out Friday night, partied, and then dragged your sorry ass in to the school for the 8AM test time. I did way better on ACT than on SAT

  2. First Gen American Says:

    Definitely take the SAT. I took mine twice and the first time I didn’t study at all and the second time I studied my ass off and my score was only 10 points higher. I was livid and some kids who weren’t the greatest students did awesome on the test, so you never can tell how you’ll do until you try.

    Try to understand what you will qualify for from a financial aid standpoint. I applied to both pricey schools and cheaper public ones. I ended up going pricey because I received more need based scholarships to the private schools than the public, so it’s really hard to screen them out before you know what they’ll throw your way.

    Spend the money on SAT’s and application fees to as many schools as you can afford. You may be surprised by the outcome. I’m all about keeping the options open.

  3. Kellen Says:

    I don’t think the SAT requires much study time. My friends and I got together for one evening, the weekend before our test, and we each took a different practice test, and we each announced when we ran into a vocabulary word we didn’t know. Since most of us already were very comfortable with 80 – 90% of the vocab tested, this was a much more efficient way to learn from the practice tests, since they all had different sets of words. In addition, a few hours of study time now will net you 4 – 5 years of additional financial aid while at college.

  4. Linda Says:

    I had to look up consortia because I wasn’t sure what it meant. I’m still not sure what it means from a practical perspective. :-/

    Anyway, I took the SAT, too, because I thought I would be going to a school that required SAT scores and not ACT scores. I took the year off between high school and first year uni, so I didn’t need to get the application for that university in hand until a few months after graduation. That’s when I saw that the school required not just the SAT but also two of the friggin’ SAT supplemental tests. Since the only way to get those supplemental test scores was to repeat the experience of an SAT test (and I had sweated through the SAT once already, nor was it was cheap to re-do) I basically abandoned the app to that school with much cursing and submitted to one that didn’t require the damn tests (shove it University of Toronto! Hello, York University!).

    The lesson: make sure you research thoroughly the tests you’ll need for any of the schools to which you may want to apply!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      A consortia is a group of small colleges that allow you to cross-register. So classes are offered more frequently and they can offer more advanced classes than single colleges their size. (As in, as much as I love Oxy, I understand why Obama needed to transfer.) Unlike a university, they tend to have a lot more duplication of services and administration and each individual school has its own identity.

  5. graduateliving Says:

    Don’t forget to look at housing costs when looking at your total debt cost over the course of your study. Some schools, particularly those that appeal to out-of-towners, will have reasonable tuition rates and then sky-high housing rates (especially in high-cost urban areas).

    Also, I second everything everyone said about the SAT. I ended up doing way better on the ACT, but I was glad to have the SAT in case I ended up applying to east-coast schools.

  6. Spanish Prof Says:

    I am a big fan of flagship state universities as a place to study. The options you have, if you are a curious student, are infinite. Besides that, I have nothing else to add because I’m still trying to understand the admissions system for undergraduate education in the United States.

  7. Cloud Says:

    I can’t really comment on your particular interest area, but I want to point a couple of things out:
    1. Interests can change, particularly when you get to college and are exposed to new fields.
    2. A lot of hiring managers care less about your major and more about your raw intellectual ability, particularly for junior positions. If I am hiring someone straight out of undergraduate, I do not expect them to KNOW anything useful, so I mostly just want them to have the basic skills: ability to reason, ability to communicate well (written and spoken), at least the beginnings of good time-management skills, ability to learn quickly.

    Both of those points support @Nicoleandmaggie’s advice to not limit yourself only to schools that offer a criminology focus.

    Good luck!

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I’m trying to guess why she prefers the ACT over the SAT. My guess is she hates math (1/2 of the SAT but only 1/4 of the ACT). If so, they mostly only test math through the 8th grade on that test, so it’s not so crazy to think you can catch up on the learning of it. Many people fear and hate math because they missed one or two concepts early on, and then nothing after that made any sense. A thorough review with a book and a friend and a calm, open mind could make a big difference, not only for the SAT, but also for the statistics class that will inevitably be required and for math needs/uses in adult life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We just assumed it’s because she’s in the midwest and that’s what all the midwestern schools prefer.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We totes agree with you on the math and the stats!

      khanacademy is also useful

    • Linda Says:

      I had a lot of problems with math in high school. Some of that was due to insufficient background in key concepts I needed for success, and some was due to a**hole teachers. (I feel justified calling a guy who made many sexual comments to a 14-year old as an a**hole.) This made the math parts of ACT and SAT pretty intense for me. The statistics class I took in undergrad was awesome though, and I aced it. That’s because I had a very good instructor who explained when and why to use the various formulas. Oh, and it also helped that I didn’t need to memorize the damn things and could bring in a study sheet to the exams. Why did they make math such a trial in high school? Grrr!

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Criminology is pretty hot right now huh? I know a ton of high schoolers with their eyes on that later. Weird.
    Do BOTH tests. Options, options, options. I did alright on the SAT but got a 29 on the ACT and that score is what kicked a crapload of grants into play for me. So yeah I second the suggestion to not work until after you get those two things taken care of. And if not, eh just take it anyways. I don’t think I really studied for the SAT either.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We didn’t study for the SAT but at this point #1 can’t remember what scores I got so, grain of salt I guess. I wonder if the recent trend of criminology is related to shows like CSI? Dunno, just a guess.

      • MutantSupermodel Says:

        That’s a good guess. My boyfriend’s daughter is a high school freshman and loves all the crime shows. Sure enough she’s considering criminology.

      • Linda Says:

        Another possible reason for criminology to be “hot” is that I’ve heard bachelor degrees are good for some law enforcement jobs. My niece was considering a criminology degree at one time for this reason.

  10. bogart Says:

    My one quick addition to what others have said, basically seconding Cloud’s point #2, is that what you do at school (and here I really mean what skills you acquire and not what your major is) is much more important than where you go. An argument against paying extra, as long as your comparison points are, you know, both (or all) decent schools. I agree with others on the value of having a range of opportunities (fields, etc.) available.

    Perhaps beyond your focus right now, but also may be worth considering what study abroad options the schools offer (again looking for scope, not specifics), and what those cost. Some schools offer options approximately the same cost as attending them, and have credits that gransfer, and others, don’t.

  11. Lili@creativesavv Says:

    My two daughters were terrified of taking any of the standardized tests. So I suggested that they just take the SAT at the end of their sophomore year, and cancel their scores immediately afterwards. This was just so they could familiarize themselves with the testing procedure, new environment, and the timing alloted for each portion of the test, without even having to think about scores. They then took the SAT at the end of their junior year and did well enough. They only wanted to “take it for real” once, and that’s what they’ve done. They have excellent GPAs and we’re hoping that will be what earns them the scholarships they’re pursuing for the pricier university. But they’re also applying to the state University in case we just can’t swing the cost of the tuition at the private one.

    In the end, your career is made on the work you put into it. Your university work will help get a foot in the door for interviews, but you’ve got to do the work to make a career. I’ve seen people who went to average universities and go on to brilliant careers, and I’ve seen people go to fabulous (and pricey) universities but really slouched in their careers. Too much emphasis is placed on getting into the “best” college/university.

  12. rented life Says:

    I didn’t take the ACT, but I took the SAT twice and I doubt I studied–I was much more involved in school activities and that and my GPA helped with the schools I looked at.
    It’s already been stated that interests change. Just keep that in mind–I was ver specific about a major when I went to school and then not only left that major but trasnferred to a different school altogether. So don’t worry about finding the “perfect” match for everything and be ok with changing your mind down the road.

  13. becca Says:

    Math is 1/3 of the SAT these days, right? It would appear the writing section scores correlate well with length and factual errors do not matter.
    I liked the ACT better in many respects, but I did fine on both. I was really annoyed basically no school would average the best subtest score from multiple testing times with the ACT though.

    Anyway, drill for the tests. My scores on the SAT and GRE went up hundreds of points based on simply getting faster with arithmetic and being able to cram in more words in my easily-accessible memory space. Check for review courses offered through the community, they are much more reasonable in cost than the Kaplan/Princeton Review deal. If you can’t swing that, at least get three different books for each exam and drill the heck out of it.

    If overpriced NYC school is NYU, don’t go. It may be the worst academically rigorous place to go if you want to avoid debt. With that sole exception, look at schools with a range of tuition sticker prices. The goal is to find one that uses a financial aid formula that minimizes your loans, but it can be very tricky to tell which one that will be ahead of time. Ask lots of questions. If it ends up that you’ve got it narrowed down to two schools and you really want the more expensive one, call up the financial aid office and see if any adjustments are possible.

  14. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    How are we supposed to comment without knowing what the proposed major is?

  15. frugalscholar Says:

    If your parents make under a certain amount (maybe even 80-100,000, depending on school), you will be eligible for need aid. Definitely if family income is under 60000. Then, all you need to do is get into the school.

    If your parents make over that threshold, then you need to go for merit aid, which generally goes to people with the highest test scores. An ACT 26 would not get you into the honors colleges at most flagship state schools.

    Rich schools have more to give than poor schools, but they are also the hardest to get into!

  16. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    Criminology *is* hot right now, partly because of CSI, Bones, etc., and partly because the Labor Department has flagged it as a “growth” field in terms of jobs. The thing I worry about is that some of those jobs may turn out to be along the lines of prison guard/supervisor (prisons are, sadly, a growth industry), or TSA supervisor, or something along those lines — not, perhaps, quite what the student was thinking of.

    I went to a pretty fancy (though not particularly selective) east coast prep school several decades ago, and our SAT “prep” was simply taking the test three times (plus the pre-test — PSAT, I think? — once). That seemed to work as well as many prep classes, but admittedly I’m a) generally pretty good at standardized tests (but unsure of/skeptical about what they actually measure) and b) a very, very late boomer (which means there was some excess capacity in the higher ed system by the time I was applying to college, and the whole thing was much less scary than it is these days). Still, I don’t think that “studying,” beyond perhaps working one’s way through a practice test or two, is productive. Familiarizing oneself with the kinds of questions, and the kinds of distractors (test-speak for wrong answers) one is likely to encounter is probably worth the time, as is understanding at what point one should guess, move on, etc. (this may have changed a bit now that the tests are computerized, but I’m sure there are still solid guidelines out there). At least in my day, the Princeton Review (classes and books) were known for taking a more strategic approach to the tests, with a focus on understanding the kinds of questions and strategies for approaching them. Even getting into the mindset that a certain amount of gamesmanship is involved in test-taking might provide a different, more confident perspective.

    And yes, within reasonable limits imposed by application fees, do apply to a variety of kinds of schools. I come from a family with a lot of Ivy League degrees (though only in the last two generations; 3 of my grandparents had what would be called an AA today, plus professional certification; the 4th had no college), and one of the things it’s clear that Ivy League/other wealthy private school graduates know, and many others apparently do not, is that the wealthiest schools often offer the most generous financial aid. I don’t have kids, but in the circles that one of my siblings and hir spouse move, the pressure on kids to get into the Ivy League has as much to do with saving money as with prestige, even in states with near-Ivy state flagships. An Ivy (or one of a handful of SLACs) might actually be cheaper. A little further down the prestige/endowment scale, it’s more hit or miss, but both need and merit scholarships are still there for the right person (which can mean the person who rounds out the class in some way as well as the one who is otherwise a “good fit” for the school). Sometimes going out of area can help with that; schools like to have some geographical diversity.

    Finally, as someone else pointed out, you have to look at the whole package of costs: not just tuition, but also housing and any required food contracts. It’s also worth thinking about how all of the above will affect not just your experience, but the extent to which you interact with fellow students of varying backgrounds. My undergrad school had a single price for housing, food, and other fees that everybody paid (and, if necessary, received financial help in paying). Although students from less-affluent backgrounds still struggled in ways that those of us from middle-class or above families didn’t, it was a significant social leveler. I know choices are popular these days, but there’s something to be said for the one-base-price-for-all model.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a thoughtful and helpful reply. Thanks!

    • becca Says:

      “Still, I don’t think that “studying,” beyond perhaps working one’s way through a practice test or two, is productive.”
      This is what I heard from all the boomers I knew. It’s was incorrect, at least for me. Though in fairness, I had a totally bizarre background, so I was probably the exception (ETS keeps track, and people who improve their scores by hundreds of points upon retesting are not the most common; but most people do improve upon retesting; I presume ACT is similar). Nonetheless, I think applying a growth mindset is reasonable here. I’d argue that anyone who scores a 26 could probably, with enough studying and practice, score a 36. Whether it’s worth putting in the kind of effort that would be required is a whole other question, but everyone should go into those tests thinking “achievement test” NOT “aptitude test” (boomers took the SAT under the old, and terribly misleading, name, and I think it not only reflected how people thought about it at the time, but shaped how people viewed their performance on the test to an unhealthy degree).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Empirical research does show that studying for these standardized tests helps, though so does simply practicing them in a timed environment, or just retaking them. (At least that’s what I remember from a decade or two ago– not gonna look up citations.)


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