The Summer Vacation Question

“What should I do this summer?” This is a question that I hear often. Students and parents want to know about the best camps, the best volunteer opportunities, the best jobs for the summer. Really what they’re asking though is, “what is the best way to pad my resume”. My response is generally the same- don’t. I’m not saying that you should sit at home all summer, eat cereal out of the box, and do nothing productive. Instead, I’m saying you should spend your summer pursuing your passion.  After all, what colleges really want are people who genuinely care, who will be active on campus, who will achieve great new things. You’re not going to do any of that if you are filling your free time with things you think will look good that you don’t really care about.

A second danger in not following your passion during your free time is that you’ll be showing colleges a false picture of yourself. If you spend every free moment volunteering (but really aren’t that into it) you may get into that college that values community service. Then, you’ll spend four years there, surrounded by people who are really into something that you don’t really care about. Your passions reflect who you are and they’ll help you get into a school where you fit in- but only if you’re honest.

Another concern that students have is about working over the summer or during the school year. They’re worried that having a job that takes up most of their time will make their applications look empty. Students should always include any job they’ve had on applications. Schools understand that many students need to work in order to help their families, or to provide spending, saving, and car money for themselves. Being able to have a job while balancing school and family as well as anything else shows colleges that students are responsible, dependable, and hard- working. Putting necessity before passion does not harm your application. Admission reps are humans; they understand.

In short, stop thinking so much about what you should do to get into college. Instead, do what you want to do or what you have to do. In doing so you’ll be able to show colleges the true you and if they don’t accept the true you then maybe you wouldn’t have been that happy at that college anyway.

What Colleges Want

College application season is well underway. Juniors are starting to put together lists and seniors are filling out the common app, getting letters of recommendation, and writing essays. Often it seems that all students do during the first half of senior year is think about what colleges want and how to give them what they want. However, by senior year it’s often too late to really change much.  They should have started thinking about it Freshman year! So here are some of the main things that colleges are looking for. Keep in mind that every college is different but in general here are the top three things that colleges consider in making admissions decisions.

  1. High GPA
    Yes, colleges like to see a high GPA. In fact, it’s the number one thing most colleges look at. What students often don’t realize though is that colleges want to see good grades in challenging classes. What does this mean? It means that a 4.0 without a single honors or AP course isn’t going to mean the same as a 3.8 on a loaded schedule. Start challenging yourself a little each year so that by senior year you have courses that college like to see! After all, they don’t want people who take the easy way out! If you go to a school that doesn’t offer many challenging courses don’t panic. I grew up in a tiny town in a school that offered no honors courses and only three AP classes. Colleges get this information about your school along with your application. They will take into account the fact that you may not have had the same resources that other students had! You may also be able to take college classes online or through a local community college during high school! Such programs also show initiative and prove to colleges that you aren’t scared of hard work.
  2. Standardized test scores
    Who isn’t worried about standardized tests (besides the kids who got perfect scores)? Standardized test scores don’t mean as much as you think they do. They are a solid second priority to most colleges. In fact, there are almost 1000 colleges in the U.S. that don’t require students to send in scores at all! (Check out  Keep in mind though that if you choose not to send in your scores everything else becomes more important! If you are sending in scores remember that the national average on the ACT was just 20.8 in 2016. That probably seems terribly low. Remember that only people who get really good scores brag about their scores. There are way more 20s out there than 30s! Look at the averages for the schools you want to go to. You might be surprised! Also, keep in mind that 50 percent of students are below the average ACT at any given college. The averages are not set cut off points.
  3. Everything else
    Extra-curricular activities, letters of recommendation, and essays all fall into this category. Different colleges weigh them differently. This is where you get to show the schools who you really are. The key here is not to be a Jack of all trades but rather to actually care and commit to a few things throughout your high school career. Having 50 activities that you attend once a month is not impressive. Having 5 activities that you truly dedicate yourself to and have leadership positions in is much more attractive. Remember, colleges are looking for students who will bring dedication to campus! In the same way, letters of recommendation should come from people who can show your best traits. Ten generic letters from people who barely know you would not be as impressive as one genuine letter from a teacher who has been actively engaged in your education and knows you as a person!

Most of all don’t wait until your senior year to start thinking about college! Whatever grade you’re in in high school set forth a deliberate plan to put yourself into a good position when you find yourself filling out those applications.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful! Please feel free to share!

Extra Curricular Activities: Quality Over Quantity

“Wake Up To Politics is on hiatus while the Editor is at summer camp. The newsletter will return in August!” reads the header on a popular news blog. However, the Editor isn’t a summer camp counselor, nor is he away at one of the ever more popular adult summer getaway camps. The editor of Wake Up to Politics- a blog that has an ever increasing fan base- just finished 8th grade. That’s right, an 8th grader is writing a daily newsletter. The newsletter is sent out every week day morning before Gabe Fleisher, the sole editor, heads out to school. It’s been in publication since 2011 and, if you do the math, that means Gabe has been writing it since he was about eight years old. Granted, his only subscriber at first was his mom but still, it’s quite impressive.

Gabe writes Wake Up to Politics because following the news is something he genuinely enjoys. However, he will definitely be reaping the rewards of his hard work in just a few years when he is applying to colleges. Gabe’s extracurricular passion is something that will shine on his resume. Gone are the days where dabbling in every activity offered guaranteed college acceptance. Colleges no longer want well-rounded students: they want a well-rounded class.

What this means for students like Gabe and you is that focusing deeply on two or three extracurricular events (sports, hobbies, and volunteer opportunities) is better than briefly working on a dozen. In short quality reigns over quantity. After all, who cares if you spent a day or two working on a Habitat for Humanity project if you never did any other volunteer work? That day or two doesn’t really say much about who you are as a person. Maybe your parents dragged you there; maybe you volunteered because you had a crush on someone and wanted to impress them; maybe you really do care but you don’t have the drive to follow up.  Those two days don’t reveal a sterling character because it’s impossible to know why you were there. True commitment and character shines when you commit whole heartedly to something. For Gabe, that something is his newsletter. For you it could be anything: just show that you care by diving deep and colleges will be impressed.

If you want to check out Gabe’s newsletter follow the link below!

Harvard Acceptance Revoked After Offensive Posts: The Internet is Never Private

For many students, receiving college admission letters means the end of a long process. They have toured, interviewed, written, called, begged, tested, and just generally stressed for so long that being accepted into a prestigious college seems like admission to heaven itself. What many students don’t realize, however, is that this is not the end of the road. Guidance counselors have long warned seniors not to let their second semester grades plummet: colleges do take notice and may reconsider! However, a more recent issue that students have to be careful to avoid after acceptance is having a negative online presence.

As can be seen at the link below a good handful of students are seriously regretting their online postings. Several recent high school graduates who had been accepted to Harvard had their acceptances rescinded due to their online posts. These posts were made to a Facebook group for upcoming Harvard freshman. The students, who were told they would not be reporting to Harvard in the fall, reportedly posted memes that were racist and sexist; they also joked around about child abuse. These students, who probably never thought anyone at Harvard would see their memes, are now living a nightmare.
So what happens when it’s already June and you don’t have a college to go to? Most of these students probably had great backup schools. However, with commitment day long past those other top notch schools are most likely full. If one does have space for someone kicked out of Harvard it is doubtful that there will be any federal financial aid dollars left for that school to give out. In short, these students are looking at a local school that has open admission or (at least) a semester off.

This should serve as a serious warning to both students and adults alike. The internet is public and forever. Even in a private chat your conversation is only one screen shot away from the whole world. The person you portray on the internet should be the person you would show to your recruiter, admissions officer, or boss.  Don’t let a foolish decision today chance your life forever.–426393131.html

Pros and cons of doing a gap year before college

This year’s Junior are soon going to get very tired of the question “where are you going to go to college?” As soon as Junior year is over and Senior year begins that will be the question on everyone’s lips. However, there is no rule saying that you have to go to college immediately after high school.  We often do things simply because they are “the next thing” to do.  You may want to think about doing a Gap Year – take a year off between high school graduation and college to do a whole host of things.  Here are several reasons to do a gap year.

  1. You want to see what different careers are like.  The best way to see what a career actually entails is to do some job shadowing.  If you are coming out of high school and you feel torn among several career options, taking the time to do some internships or apprenticeships may be a great way to spend a year.
  2. You want to build work skills. With as competitive as it has become to find jobs after college graduation, having a year of real world work experience may set you apart from other applicants.  If you are in a financial position to be able to do unpaid internships, you’ll have no trouble finding opportunities to build great work skills.  If you must work part time, try to fit in at least one day a week of job shadowing in areas about which you are more passionate.
  3. You know that you need to build your independence and self-discipline. Freshman year is a time when many students “go nuts” since they are out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.  If you know that you are not prepared to handle yourself in a totally free environment, take a bit of time to get yourself together before having a terrible freshman year experience.
  4. You want to travel.  The year before college is a fantastic time to see the world.  Even if you have little spending money, you could find a job teaching English in another country, being a tour guide, or house sitting for a wealthy family.  Travel may help you clarify your thoughts about what you want to do with your life before you invest tens of thousands of dollars in your education.
  5. You want to improve your college applications. Perhaps you’ve already been accepted to a school, but you would really like to go to a more selective institution.  You can potentially use a gap year to improve your college application.  You can focus on improving your AP, ACT and SAT test scores, and more importantly, having some in-depth extracurricular involvement that will distinguish you from other applicants.
  6. You are already in, but you need a break before starting.  Many colleges will allow you to defer admission for a year if you would like to spend some time working or travelling prior to matriculation.

Now, here are some reasons not to do a gap year.

  1. You don’t want to lose academic skills.  It is said that the first two months of school after summer break are spent reviewing material from the previous year.  If you know that you are going to have a difficult time getting back in the academic groove, you may as well go to college right after high school.
  2. You feel ready and eager for the independence of college.  Many students, more frequently female ones in my observation, find that they are ready to move on from the confines of high school and living with their parents. If you are ready to spread your wings, taking a gap year and living at home may be an absolute nightmare!  If you are particularly ready to move on to the next level, you may consider graduating a year early!  I know many students who have done this.
  3. You are planning on lots of education after college. If you are planning on becoming a doctor, earning a Ph.D. or doing post-doctoral research, you probably don’t want to add another year to when you will be able to begin your career.   (Then again, if you want to avoid burn-out and the fear of regretting that you have only been in school you entire life, taking a gap year may in fact be a good idea!)

Thanks for reading.  If you found this helpful, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  –Brian Stewart


Guest Blog Post: Updates to the FAFSA

This post is by Joe Messinger,  a CFP® in Dublin, Ohio.  His website is: .  

What did Washington do this time?  New FAFSA rules, what it means to you, & our 3 proactive points

When it rains, it pours! This week the Obama administration announced not only a new College Scorecard website but also revisions to FAFSA—both with the aim of making college more accessible to everyone. What is important for YOU to know to be an informed consumer of higher education?

First the College Scorecard…

The Department of Education’s new College Scorecard website should provide families with increased transparency: true costs for each college, college’s success/graduation rate, and post-graduation salary. You can search by program, location, size, and specific name as well as other categories. Here’s an example from Ohio State’s Main Campus:


Some points to be aware of:

  • All three categories displayed are the numbers for financial aid students. These numbers will be different for a family who does NOT qualify for need-based aid.
  • The “graduation rate” is after 6 years—not 4.
  • The “salary after attending” is 10 years after graduation.

Click on the “view more details” link to find helpful information including:

  • Costs for families in all salary ranges
  • Typical total student loan debt after graduation
  • Diversity and number of students
  • ACT/SAT test scores ranges
  • Most popular programs

The website is a good starting point for general data about your favorite colleges but proceed with caution.  They are reporting average figures to give you a ball park cost of attendance, salary, etc. from those students who were awarded federal aid.  Your scholastic achievement, family finances, and choice of major will dramatically impact what your “net cost” will be to attend each institution as well as your future earning potential.  Dig deeper into each school you are interested in by going to the school’s Net Cost Estimator and research your future career earning potential on sites like and organizations like the National Association of Colleges & Employers ( for a complete picture.

Now the FAFSA…

The changes to the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) are not as easy to understand. Currently seniors are applying to college in the fall and applying for the FAFSA starting in January AFTER they have already submitted college applications. The biggest change starting in October 2016 is students can file the FAFSA starting October 1st using the tax returns from the previous year.  (Note this change does not affect the current seniors, the 2016 high school graduating class. This change impacts the high school graduating class of 2017 and anyone applying for financial aid for the 2017-18 school year and beyond.)

The changes will look like this…

Seniors NOW 2015/2016 Seniors 2016/2017
College Applications Fall 2015 Fall 2016
FAFSA Available January 2016 October 2016
Tax Year Figures Used 2015 (prior year) 2015 (prior, prior year)


Making this change is meant to make it easier for families. Theoretically by moving up the date, you can have a clearer financial picture when selecting colleges to apply to. Also when families complete the FAFSA now they commonly have to use estimated tax numbers and then revise the FAFSA with actual numbers afterwards. The 2016 plan will eliminate the need to revise your numbers.  You will use the actual returns you have already submitted for the prior year.

At Capstone, we are all about proactive planning to create an ideal outcome for you and your students! Don’t wait until fall of your student’s senior year.  It will be too late!

Our 3 proactive points:

  1. Financial aid and tax aid planning for college need to begin freshmen year of high school. The most important planning year will now be the spring of your sophomore year and the fall of your junior year. This period will be the tax year used on the FAFSA as your “base year”.  Why is that year so important?  Your financial aid filing for your college freshmen year is what we call your “base year”.  Your base year is critical as colleges frequently award the most aid to incoming freshmen, and often the aid is in 4-year renewable scholarships.  You still need to fill out the FAFSA each year, but you want to look as poor as possible in your freshmen year, as it forms the basis of your financial aid package for all four years.
  2. Use an EFC estimator and the Net Cost Calculator on each college’s website in your high school junior year at the latest so parents and students can have a conversation about realistically affordable colleges.
  3. Create a comprehensive 4-year college funding strategy incorporating college selection, financial aid, asset and income tax strategies, and a plan to minimize your student’s debt.

Future changes meant to simplify the questions asked by the FAFSA and streamline the process are constantly under discussion.  In the meantime take matters into your own hands and become an informed consumer of a college education.

Joe Messinger, CFP®


Choosing a college major: The case against online assessments and the trouble with passion

We are pleased to feature this Guest Blog Post from Getting at the Core.

As parents of today’s college-bound kids, we can feel….behind.  We have so much to do.  SAT/ACT, summer experiences, jobs, extra-curriculars, homework, tests, and more.  Every step moves your child closer to the choices ahead: career, major, and college. Maybe your child has a clear picture of their dream college.  Usually, the more challenging task for our students is choosing a major/career. How will they decide? What might they be good at or enjoy doing in the future?

If you Google “how to choose a college major,” you’ll get some dangerous advice. US News suggests waiting until college to try out classes and see what your student likes. Why is this risky? With the cost of college today, most families cannot afford to pay for a 5th or 6th year for the students who change their majors repeatedly.  Only between 19 to 36% graduate in 4 years! In addition, how can you select a college excelling in the program your student will eventually choose? When your student has a strong sense of their ideal major, the choice of college becomes much easier.

Photo: “Four Year Myth”, Complete College America, 2014

In the US News article, a dean of student affairs says “name … one 18 year-old that can say, ‘For the rest of my life, I want to do this.'” No one has the magic wand to give your child this answer.  However, At The Core knows that with guidance, students can discover their interests, preferences, values, and enjoyment level—the knowledge needed to make the best choice in career, major, and college.

So don’t online assessments help with this? Your student has probably been exposed to these assessments as a tool to identify an ideal career. We’ve heard story after story of frustrating, confusing, or just plain humorous results. Online assessments have pitfalls—they can’t see the whole picture (no face-to-face contact), they force an answer from a limited set of choices and they are limited by the quality of the software behind them.  Students can answer “aspirationally,” which isn’t helpful for such tools, and often, no one helps them interpret the results.  Frustrating, for sure!

Finally, why on earth would we have trouble with passion?! Back to that web search, you can find advice to “follow your passion.” Yes, having a passion leading you to a fulfilling career is wonderful. But many students may never find one and feel they have failed.  Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You that most passionate professionals did not start out passionate about their career field.  Interesting to ponder, isn’t it?

What can we do to help our students? See if At The Core’s Guided Self Assessment is right for you. Students who complete the process discuss their experiences with a trusted facilitator, yielding key foundational insights about their strongest personal traits.  We analyze the student’s input and create a custom report filled with suggestions, next steps, and careers to explore.  When the next decisions arise, they will evaluate the options with this new information at the top of their mind, guiding them to work they love, a perfect fit college, and situations playing to their strengths.  Families tell us it’s an incredible gift to give their child.

No matter how they do it, we highly recommend your child invests the time in self assessment.  If you would like to learn more about At The Core’s Guided Self Assessment program, call us at 614-404-0646 or visit

Early Decision is Worth Considering

I recently had a meeting with a friend of mine who works in college admissions counseling. He shared that it has never been more important to consider doing Early Admission to universities. I asked him to estimate just how significant a difference it might make, and he said that a student who has a 32 ACT, 4.0 GPA and good extracurricular activities applying to a school like Northwestern would have about a 50% chance of admission with Early Decision, but only a 10-20% chance of admission with regular decision.
Why do colleges like Early Decision? Here are two ideas:

1. It enables them to have students apply who do not need financial assistance. A student who would need to weigh competing financial aid offers from universities would not be able to limit herself to Early Decision.

2. It allows them to reject far more students in the regular application pool. Since they will have about half of their classes set early, colleges will be able to be more selective in the regular pool because they will not need to worry about filling up their class spots. More selectivity=higher rankings and more prestige.

The downside, of course, of early decision is that you will be committing to attending that school should you be accepted. That means even if the financial aid they offer you isn’t enough, or will put you greatly in debt you’re legally obligated to attend. You must pull your applications from other schools.

What does this mean for you? If you are considering a top-tier school, consider before applying early. Think very carefully,  about which college to which you will apply. You need to consider how risky you are comfortable being. If you apply to a school like Harvard or Yale early and get rejected, then you may not have as solid a chance at schools like University of Chicago, Duke or Northwestern in the regular decision pool. It may be in your interest to apply early to the school where you have the most realistic chance of being admitted. Quite a bit to consider. I look forward to your comments and questions.