Read This If You’re Lost in the Modern College Application Quagmire

Crosspost Featured GeekMom

My friends, I have made mistakes going all the way back to the beginning of my first pregnancy. No, not mistakes, plural. Mistake, singular. Because I have learned no lessons from the past.

First, many years ago, I joined the Babycenter message boards’ “birth club” group for my growing alien’s expected arrival month. At some point I lost the ability to read the word “prego” without being able to suppress the desire to ask if they were expecting a pomodoro or a basil pesto, and I quit reading. Then came the mommy groups. I’m sure you know the mommy groups. Everything that goes wrong can probably be solved by rubbing breastmilk on it or drinking some elderberry. (Unless they’re selling essential oils. DM for details! #bossbabe)

Mostly I’d long since left all of this behind, which is probably why I didn’t foresee the next disaster. I was googling for thoughts on colleges for my senior and stumbled on a subreddit one day about the topic. From there, someone recommended a couple of Facebook groups. And just like the mommy groups, they’re all the same. In case you haven’t yet… enjoyed… this experience, let me summarize the breastmilk and elderberry needs of the college-bound set:

– “You really should have engaged with a college consultant in middle school.”
Please note: this may cost you as much as a year of college.

– “DD has a 1500 SAT, 4.8 GPA, is captain of a varsity sport team and recently cured cancer. I’m worried about her chances.”
Only the curing cancer part here is an exaggeration, and not by much. I highly recommend this Holderness family video. 

– “DS has a 1450 superscored SAT. Should we even bother to submit such a low score?”
The answer offered is usually no, which blows my mind.

– “I made 40k, and my husband makes 250k. DD lives with us, but his mother pays us child support monthly. She says she makes 73k, but I’m pretty sure she’s lying. There’s a train coming at 4 a.m. with six bags of money, and a horse coming from the other direction with a sack of gold. If we hijack the horse and steal the gold to pay for college, does DD’s third cousin’s rental house count on the FAFSA? Or only if the train is going more than 88 mph?”
OK, that one is entirely made up, but I have seen some wildly elaborate family financial situations described in more detail than their accountants know while these parents trying to figure out how to pay for college. And at least one case where the responses strongly recommended solving all of the problems involved by getting a divorce—it would lower the EFC too!

And I can’t neglect my favorite:
– For the love of Pete, does anyone here just have a normal kid?
Yes, they just aren’t the ones posting the most.

But unlike the baby group mommies wanting to know if their crying newborn was normal (nope, nope, babies don’t usually cry, you should really see somebody about that… have you tried essential oils?), navigating the college experience has changed dramatically since the previous generation did it. So let me reassure you of two things: first, your kid who wants to go to college will almost certainly find a good fit somewhere. It might not be an Ivy. It might not even be their top choice. But they can go to college. More than half of schools accept 2/3 of their applicants, and they’re not schools you’ve never heard of.

Second, it is harder than when you went to college. Many of our generation took the SAT once some Saturday it was offered with no advance prep, applied to a few schools, and chose one. The end. Today, especially if you’re looking at selective schools, there are debates about things like the quality of the research your high schooler has done and how to show it most effectively on the application. You have to decide whether to submit test scores, which in an era of test-optional admissions, is its own exercise in advanced mathematics. You can look up a school’s average scores for incoming freshmen (see “CDS” below), but since they’re often test-optional, only the highest scorers are submitting scores, which means those averages may be extremely skewed. So then the chat group will advise you on submitting—do your child’s UW GPA and ECs stand well on their own? What’s the COA and your EFC—will that school even be in reach if your kid doesn’t qualify for automatic merit?

Oh, apologies. I’ve now gone diving into the foreign language of the college parent boards. Many of the acronyms are holdovers you remember from the mommy boards, like DD and DS for your dear daughter and dear son. Others you probably remember from your own college experience, like the SAT and ACT, or filling out the FAFSA to get federal aid. Others are newer. Here’s my translation guide:

CDS – Common Data Set. Serious answer first. This is your magic key to figuring out an intended college’s profile for accepted students. Google “[school name] CDS” and you will almost certainly find it on the university’s website. It’s a uniform set of questions about things like demographics, how many were applied and how many were admitted, what their GPAs and test scores were, and a wealth of other information about the school.
Less serious answer: An eye test, because I swear to you, there is a competition to see who can publish their CDS in the smallest, most unreadable font.

COA – Cost of Attendance. Includes tuition, room and board, fees, books, and the whole enchilada. (Assuming the school’s cafeteria offers enchiladas, of course.) Generally available on each college’s website.

CSS – College Scholarship Service. You know that dream about showing up somewhere important naked? Prepare to get real naked with every detail of your financial life if your kid wants to go to one of these ~400 schools. In addition to the FAFASA, you’ll need to fill out a CSS profile. You will most often see questions about this in the form of, “Do I have to list my [insert weird and or attempted-to-hide asset] on the CSS?” (The answer is yes, followed by some warnings about fraud.)

DE – Dual Enrollment. Taking college classes during high school. I want to crack on the overachiever implications here, but a)I did this in the 90s, and b)can’t mock saving money for college.

DRN – Data Release Number. When you fill out your FAFSA, you’ll get this four-digit number. You’ll need it to change anything on your FAFSA later. It’s on your SAR (see below).

EA – Early Action. Applying early, but you can do early action at as many schools as you want. Sometimes this increases your chances of admission or receiving aid. (Also there’s some fascinating math in some people’s jobs about trying to get just the right number of applicants to fill the number of seats they have in a freshman class while trying to optimize the profile of that class and all of the money involved. That’s really what this is about.) At some schools, a pretty significant percentage of admitted freshmen come from the EA pile.

ED – Early Decision. Applying early, but if they say yes, you have to accept, so you can only do it at one. Personally I can never remember which is which and have taken to referring to them jointly as “early decisaction,” or if necessary to distinguish, “the binding one” and “the you don’t have to go one.” On the college groups, you’ll find endless discussions about, “yes, but is it reaaaaally binding?” and advice on what to do if the aid package offered is insufficient.

ECs – extracurriculars. Yeah, I know that’s out of alphabetical order, but I just told you, I can’t take apart “early decisaction.” You can list up to ten in the Common App. It’s a fascinating subset of categories for what you could have spent the last three years of your teenage life doing with the copious spare time left over after the several hours of homework you’ve done for all your AP classes.

EFC – Expected Family Contribution. The (quite likely wildly hilarious) number that the federal government thinks you should be able to contribute to your child’s education based on your FAFSA and tax info. It will be listed on the SAR you get after you fill out the FAFSA. It will also soon be renamed SAI for Student Aid Index. Advice from on how to keep your EFC as low as possible includes—I am perfectly serious here—”Wait to remarry to avoid having to list your new spouse’s income/assets on the FAFSA.”

FERPA – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This is the law that protects privacy of your educational records. On the Common App, you’ll encounter some questions about whether you want to waive this right. Doing so makes it so you can’t read your recommendations, which makes your Astronomy teacher’s glowing recommendation about your discovery of a new star system seem maybe a little more plausible. No, really, you should waive it. Some folks won’t even write a recommendation if you don’t. You’ll also be asked to give permission from the high school to release records, which is a no-brainer.

FSA ID – Federal Student Aid ID, or FAFSA ID. This is your login for the FAFSA website. That’s all.

LAC – Liberal Arts College. How you feel about these depends on you and your kid. If it’s the right school, it’s the right school. They’re generally small and sometimes have unusual approaches to the education program. (I remember getting a brochure for one in high school where you did nothing but read books for four years. The photos were all of students lying in the grass under beautiful trees, blissfully lost in their assigned tomes.) But if your kid might decide halfway through that they’d rather have an aeronautical engineering degree… that may have been a bad choice.

NPC – These are the non-player characters that will take a background role for the next 4 years or so. You see that same dude every day on the way to class and yet somehow never learn his name? NPC. OK, actually it’s a net price calculator, a tool that most school’s websites have to help you figure out how much it will cost to attend. But I never stop reading it the other way.

OOS – Out-of-state, or, “multiply that tuition price by 3.”

RA – Probably rolling admission unless you’re already talking about resident advisors. These applications are evaluated on a first come, first serve policy. If you’re too late, all the spots might be filled.

RD – Regular Decision. You know that person who says, “Early is on-time, on-time is late, and late is unacceptable?” Regular decision is on-time for college applications. Again, many schools have higher acceptance rates for early applicants. On the other hand, if your kid needs an extra semester to boost that GPA or retake a test, regular decision might be the way to go.

REA – Restrictive Early Action, which is similar to Early Action, except the restriction is that a student can apply to only one REA school. They can still apply regular EA to other schools. Applying REA shows a specific interest in a school.


SAR – Student Aid Report. After you fill out the FAFSA, you will either quickly (via email) or much more slowly (via snail mail) get this report that shows all of your FAFSA answers and resulting eligibility for federal student aid.

SRAR or SSAR – Self-Reported Academic Record or Self-reported Student Academic Record. Some schools accept this tool for submission of your high school grades instead of getting a transcript from the school. Basically the student gets the work of retyping their whole transcript. This demonstrates typing skills!

UW – Unweighted, or the kid’s GPA before the school started adding in multipliers so that they have an eleventy billion GPA on a scale of 4. There I go exaggerating again. I just meant an 11 GPA, which is, in fact, possible on some schools’ GPA scales.

When it comes down to it, I hope you like Settlers of Catan, because as Jeff Selingo, author of Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions put it, “It’s turned it into a strategic game.” And according to the parent boards, you should have rolled for initiative back in about 7th grade. But again, it’s not too late, even if high school graduation is eight months away. There’s a school for your kid. Don’t let the mommy boards get you down, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekMom and GeekDad on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!