A Crash Course in Admissions and Financial Aid

As you fill out financial aid forms and compare financial aid packages, you’ll probably see some unfamiliar terminology. While most terminology is universal across US colleges, some terms are unique to specific colleges. Don’t be afraid to ask your high school or admissions counselor about acronyms or processes. They want you to be as informed as possible throughout the process.

Financial Aid Terminology

Cost of Attendance (COA)

COA is more than just your tuition. It’s a combination of tuition and an estimate of the extras, including room and board, books, laptop, transportation, and other personal costs.

CSS Profile

CSS Profile is a form some schools require you to fill out to be considered for scholarships.

Entrance Loan Counseling (ELC)

ELC is an online training module that goes over the terms of the loan, origination fees, interest rates, repayment options, and more. ELC is mandatory when you take out both student and PLUS loans.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The EFC is the total out-of-pocket amount your family could reasonably contribute towards your college expenses. It is determined by your family size, the number of family members already enrolled in college (if any), and both taxable and non-taxable family income and assets. The EFC is calculated using the information you fill out on your FAFSA.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

You must fill out the FAFSA every year you attend college to be considered for need-based aid and if you want to take out federal student loans to fund your education. The FAFSA typically opens on October 1st for the following school year. If you are unmarried and under the age of 24, have your tax info and your parents’ tax info from two years ago handy. You can read more about the FAFSA here.

Gift Aid

Gift aid is the best kind of aid because you don’t have to pay it back. Gift aid is usually in the form of grants and scholarships. Ideally, you want all your aid to fall into the gift aid category.

Master Promissory Note (MPN)

This is your loan contract that states that you agree to pay back all of the money you have borrowed, including interest.


Need is the difference between the cost of attendance and how much your family can afford to pay based on your FAFSA application.

Need-Based Aid

Need-based aid is determined based on the needs of your family. Your grades, community involvement, and athletic prowess do not come into play. The amount of need-based aid is generated by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution from the Cost of Attendance.


When a university is need-blind, it does not consider your financial need/status when making admissions decisions. Need-blind schools never deny you because of your inability to pay full tuition. Fortunately, many schools are need-blind.


Need-aware is the opposite of need-blind. Need-aware colleges take your ability to pay tuition into consideration when they are making admissions decisions.

Origination Fee

An origination fee is paid to the bank to compensate them for administering a loan. The fees are usually 3% of the amount disbursed. A portion of the money is paid to the federal government to help offset its administrative costs.

Pell Grants

These are federally funded need-based grants awarded based on your FAFSA application. You do not pay these back.

Parent Loans for Undergraduate Study (PLUS Loans)

Parents can apply for a PLUS loan up to the Cost of Attendance minus any other aid. Qualification for this loan is based on a positive credit history. Parents must begin repayment on the PLUS loan once the loan is disbursed. However, they can request a deferment while the student is enrolled at least half-time in school. PLUS loans begin accruing interest as soon as they disburse.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

Public Service Loan Forgiveness is a program where your remaining direct federal student loan debt can be forgiven after 120 payments under a qualifying repayment plan and while employed by a qualifying governmental agency or non-profit organization.

Renewable Scholarship

A renewable scholarship is awarded for more than one aid year. Renewable scholarships typically require a recipient to maintain specific academic standards. Some require students to reapply every year.

Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP)

To continue to receive aid, you must meet specific benchmarks, such as credit completion or a certain GPA. Make sure you understand the specific requirements for your aid.

Student Aid Report (SAR)

You’ll receive this report via email after submitting the FAFSA. The SAR is your opportunity to review submitted information to ensure everything is accurate.

Subsidized Loans

Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while you are still enrolled at least half-time status and for the following grace period. Repayment begins six months after either graduation or dropping below half-time status.

Unsubsidized Loans

Unsubsidized student loans from the government begin accruing interest immediately upon disbursement. Repayment begins six months after either graduation or dropping below half-time status. If you can, consider making interest-only payments while in school so the interest doesn’t capitalize.


If your FAFSA was selected for verification, don’t panic. About one-third of applications get selected, some at random, and some because they found mismatching information on the application that requires further explanation. Each institution lets you know what paperwork is required to complete this process. Complete the paperwork immediately because your financial aid package can’t be finalized until it’s completed.


Work-study is a program that allows you to earn money by applying for on-campus jobs. You typically have to apply for these positions just like any other job. The salary helps offset a portion of your Cost of Attendance. Most work-study jobs are generally no more than 20 hours per week.

Academic Terminology

Bursar’s Office

The office where you pay your tuition bill.

Class Standing

Freshman (0-30 credit hours earned), Sophomore (31-59 credit hours earned), Junior (60-89 credits earned), Senior (90+ credit hours earned).


CLEP stands for College Level Exam Program. CLEP tests can be taken in many subjects to demonstrate college-level proficiency and award you college credit for a specific course. If you are interested in taking a CLEP test, check with your college regarding CLEP acceptance policies, scores needed, etc.

Credit Hours

Most college courses will be three credit hours. In a typical 16-week semester, you will spend three hours in the classroom per week learning academic material. Your work for that class doesn’t end after those three hours, so set aside additional time to complete your homework. You typically complete 120 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Degree Audit

This is a report showing your progress toward your college degree completion. If you took any dual credit courses, AP courses, or CLEP tests, including the necessary documentation to your college to ensure these courses are reflected on your degree audit.


Electives are courses outside of your degree plan. Some degrees have room for electives, and you can take any college course to meet your total credit hour requirement. Other times, you can choose electives within a specific subject area.


FERPA stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA is designed to protect the privacy of your educational records and allows you the right to review your records. Once you turn 18 or attend a postsecondary institution, you’re the only person who sees the information unless you sign a release form authorizing others. This means your parents will not be given your academic transcript, disciplinary records, or GPA without your permission.

Transient Enrollment

This is enrollment at an institution other than your own college that you attend. For example, it’s considered transient enrollment if you go home for the summer and take a course at a college or university in your hometown.

Should You Consider a GAP Year?

You’ve probably heard about students taking a year off before starting college or even in the middle of their college journey. If you’re curious about a gap year, what it means, its benefits, and how to do it, we’ve got you covered! 

Pros of a Gap Year

A gap year is a period (often a year or two) after high school dedicated to experiential learning. High school is tough, and the academic and social pressures can cause severe burnout. That’s why many high school graduates take a gap year to travel, find paid work, intern, and make connections outside the classroom. A gap year can reset your practical, professional, and personal awareness, helping you gain confidence, become independent, and clarify your college and career goals.

Cons of a Gap Year

Taking a gap year isn’t for everyone. Think about the last time you took a vacation. When you returned from your trip, was your motivation to do homework or clean your room low? Some students fear losing momentum or falling behind. They struggle with the transition back to school. If you choose to move forward with a gap year, go into it with a clear plan and specific goals. If you don’t focus on your goals, you may miss out on the positive advantages of a gap year.

Should You Take a Gap Year?

Don’t take this decision lightly. You are the only person who truly knows the answer to this question. Consider the pros and cons and weigh all your options. A gap year has the potential to be the most amazing adventure of your life. Taking some time off can benefit your mental health and help you discover yourself, your interests, and your passions.

But, as always, go with your gut and remember that no matter which direction you take, Encourage is here to cheer you on and prepare you for your next steps! 

Taking some time off can benefit your mental health and help you discover yourself, your interests, and your passions.

10 Study Hacks

Ready to step up your study game? We’ve got 10 study hacks that will help you study smarter, not harder! 

1. Use voice-to-text to take notes.

Use the voice-to-text feature on your phone as a study tool! Instead of typing notes as you read, summarize your thoughts in your own words, and let your phone do all the typing. This feature is a huge time saver when you have tons of reading to do.

2. Try Kahoot and Quizlet.

Kahoot and Quizlet are two apps that can help you quiz yourself and your friends in a productive and fun way! If you don’t love these apps, there are many other quizzing apps to try!

3. Grammarly and Hemingway Editor.

These websites help you keep your writing clear and concise. The Hemingway Editor focuses on limiting adverb use, passive voice, and unnecessary words. Grammarly corrects grammar, suggests synonyms, and strengthens your language skills.

4. Take a walk before your exam.

According to this study, students who exercise before their exams perform better than those who don’t exercise. Test this study hack by planning a workout before your next exam or presentation!

5. Change your study conditions.

Try switching up your study location, what you’re studying, and who you’re studying with. Your sense of smell is a powerful tool for triggering memory. Try spraying an unfamiliar scent the next time you study a specific subject. When you’re ready to take the test, spray that scent again to help you remember the material you studied.

6. Draw.

If you use lots of colors and visualize your study materials, you’ll have an easier time recalling information. Drawing also gives you an excuse to take out the crayons and doodle!

7. Switch your fonts

If you need to read material fast, switch the font on your study guides. Your brain processes serif fonts faster than Times New Roman, Palatino, Georgia, Courier, and Garamond fonts.

8. Use apps to block distracting sites.

If you’re a self-proclaimed procrastinator, limit your distractions to get work done. If you can’t block the entire internet, consider blocking your favorite social media and gaming sites.

9. Watch a documentary on the topic.

If you’re a visual learner or want to see information in a different form, consider watching documentaries and videos on the subject. Watching relevant videos is another way to help prepare you for tests.

10. Listen to study music.

Music affects your mood and maximizes concentration. Soothing instrumental music may even reduce stress while studying. Have you made your study playlist yet?

These small tips can make a huge difference in your study game. Give them a try! You may find studying can be productive and fun!

5 Tips to Rock Your First Internship

Congratulations! You’ve scored an internship. You’re about to begin laying the foundation for your future as a professional, get valuable hands-on experience, and increase your chances of finding a full-time job. If you’re feeling a little nervous, we’ve got some tips to help shake the first-day jitters and rock your internship.  

1. Be Prepared 

Do your research. Read up on the company’s purpose, history, and culture. Explore the industry and industry buzzwords. Ask your supervisor for any reading or work you should do before your first day.

2. Show Your Commitment 

Show up to work on time, and finish your work by the deadline. Ask questions if you have them, and express your interest and enthusiasm for your work. Don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for feedback on your projects. You’ll learn about which areas to focus on and improve so that you can make the most of your internship. 

3. Network 

Your internship offers a unique opportunity to interact with and learn from people of all ages and backgrounds. Introduce yourself and try to meet everyone in the office (or at least your department). You’ll get insight into the inner workings of your company, and you’ll probably pick up a few extra projects along the way. You may even find yourself a mentor! 

4. Seize Opportunities

Your internship is what you make of it. There will be times when you’re not working on a specific task. Instead of sitting around, ask your supervisor for additional work. By asking for more responsibilities, you may land a project you can highlight on your resume and promote in future job interviews. 

5. Give Your Best 

Internships help you understand a specific industry or position. They also help you determine if it’s a career or passion you want to pursue. So, why not give it your best? You’ll get the most out of it if you do your best at every task. 

When your internship is complete, thank your supervisor for the opportunity! If you loved the internship, consider asking about extending it or applying for a part-time position. These tips will help you walk away with a valuable experience that teaches you about the workplace and allows you to forge relationships with professionals.

5 Tips to Help You Make Your Final College Decision 

Congratulations, you got into college! If you got letters of admission from more than one college, you’ll need to choose one. It’s hard to know whether to go with your head or your heart. Here are a few tips to help you sift through the information overload and choose a school that’s perfect for you.

Focus on fit.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by opinions, college rankings, and information from each school. But remember, you’ve got this! Just break down fit into a few key elements:

  • Financial fit (Does the tuition/cost feel manageable?)
  • Social fit (Does the school offer the campus culture you’re looking for?) 
  • Academic fit (Can you study what you hope to/want to study?) 

Double-check your list.

As you were touring colleges or applying, there may have been some programs, experiences, or “must haves” that stuck with you. List them out. Maybe you loved the city location, access to Greek life, athletic programs, study abroad opportunities, or the support for your identity through LGBTQI or Black student union centers. Make sure the college you choose has everything on your “must have” list. 

Pulse-check the code of conduct.

No one wants to be surprised by housing rules, curfews, dress codes, or limits to guests or transportation in their first week of college. Do a little digging on each college’s website to make sure their student code of conduct aligns with your expectations. 

Weigh your financial investment.

Consider all outside and school-based scholarships, grants, and loans. What will your financial investment be yearly and after you graduate? Compare your financial aid award letters using one of the net price calculators available online. You can even find tools to calculate your monthly repayment if loans are on the table. 

Create your own rankings.

If you’re still struggling, pick three to five elements of college that are the most important to you. Then, rank each offer on a 1-10 scale according to how well that college meets your needs. Sit with your numbers and highest-ranking college to see how it feels. 

Remember, deadlines are essential. Colleges will want to know whether or not you’ve accepted their offer (many by May 1). Once you decide, inform your top college by following the directions in their admission letter. It’s a good idea to decline your other offers. It will also help you declutter your inbox!

Building Your College List

If you’re applying to college, you know there are a lot of options! It can be overwhelming to narrow down what you’re looking for in a college experience. Building a list of top colleges takes time, research, and patience.

The first thing you should remember is this is YOUR education and YOUR choice. As you begin to build your college list, consider the following suggestions.

Use your numbers to build your list.

Use your GPA and test scores to help you narrow down your college list. Some schools list their minimum grade/test requirements, while others give you a range. If you’re interested in a specific school, see if your numbers fit within the school’s unique criteria. If your numbers don’t match up, it’s probably not the school for you. Remember, your list can include one or two “reach” schools or ones where your numbers fall below the school’s range. But don’t forget to include “target” and “safety schools,” or ones you know you’ll have a higher chance of getting accepted.

Weigh your priorities.

Make a list of what you’re looking for in a college experience. What’s important to you? Location? Social scene? If you’re interested in a specific program, look for colleges that specialize in that program. If you don’t know what profession interests you, that’s OK! There are college programs that help you discover your interests. Once you make your list, number your priorities. Pick schools that have the top 3-5 things on your list.

Know yourself and your situation

Self-exploration and self-reflection are critical to knowing your unique personal situation. Start by owning your personal ambitions and build a roadmap for how to get there. What interests you? Which subject inspires you? What problem in the world do you want to help solve? If you don’t know what profession interests you, that is okay! There are college programs set up to help you explore that. Clarifying your career goals and interests will help you select schools that can support you the way you need.

Identify your support circle.

Don’t do this alone! Look around. People are cheering you on and ready to see you win. Look to your family, friends, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers for guidance, motivation, wisdom, and advice! But remember, this is your journey. A strong support system will serve as a sounding board as you unpack your priorities, make decisions, and plan for life after high school.

Take some time to reflect on where you are right now. What are your priorities, and where is your support? Use the Encourage app for even more support as you navigate high school, college, and a career. We can’t wait to help you reach your goals.

Cutting Costs in the College Search and Application Process

If you’re unsure how you’ll pay for the costs associated with the college search and application process, you’re not alone! Thankfully, there are ways to help offset these costs. We’ve highlighted some areas where you’ll see fees and some resources that will help offset the costs. Some of these resources can be utilized by all students regardless of family income level, and others are only for families demonstrating a certain level of financial need. 

Test Prep

If you want to earn a high SAT and/or ACT score, you’ll need to prep for these tests. Unfortunately, many test prep programs come with a hefty price tag. If you’re taking the SAT, a great free resource for all students is Khan Academy. For the ACT, we recommend ACT’s free resources!


Essays are another huge component of your college application. The good news is you probably have free resources available already! If you’re looking for people to review your essays, your English teacher or an older friend who was admitted to their dream school are both great resources. Remember to be respectful of their time and give them a draft of your essay well before the due date.

Test Fee Waivers

The ACT and SAT both cost money. However, you may qualify for fee waivers based on your family’s income. Here is more information about ACT and SAT test waivers.

Application Fees

Application fees can get expensive, especially if you’re applying to many schools. These fees typically range from $25-$90 per application. Colleges want to ensure the application fee doesn’t stop you from applying, so there are several ways to have your application fee potentially waived.

  1. If you qualify for the SAT fee waiver, you also qualify for four application fee waivers (at participating colleges).
  2. If you qualify for the ACT fee waiver, your counselor can fill out the application fee waiver request form on your behalf and submit it to the colleges you are applying to. It is at the discretion of each college to approve the fee waiver.
  3. If you are applying through the Common App, here is more information on waiving application fees.
  4. Some college admissions counselors have a limited number of fee waivers they can give out at their discretion. There is no harm in politely asking for a fee waiver, although you must be able to explain why you need the waiver. Even though your request may not be granted, there’s no harm in asking.

Campus Visit Vouchers/Fly-In Programs

An in-person campus visit will help you decide which school best fits you. Some schools offer campus visit vouchers and fly-in programs to help reduce these costs. These programs are typically reserved for admitted students and usually only cover a portion of the costs associated with your campus visit.

Even if a college doesn’t offer these programs, there are ways to visit at a low cost. See if there is an admitted student event that offers free on-campus lodging. You won’t have to pay for a place to stay, and you get to experience dorm living. Talk to your friends and see if they want to visit the same campuses. You can split the costs and take a fun road trip!

Don’t forget to fill out the FAFSA (each year you are in college) and apply for scholarships. There are lots of ways to save money on college applications and visits. Don’t let the costs associated with college be a deterrent to pursuing your college dreams!

5 Tips For When You’re Struggling in Class

Classes don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you fall behind in your reading or get stuck on a tough math concept. If you’re struggling with any of your classes, here are some tips to help you turn your grade around!

1. Ask for help

Meet with your teacher and let them know you are struggling in class. Since they give the exams, they likely have some helpful insight you can use on test day. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t know what to ask, here are some ideas. 

  • How can I prepare for future tests? 
  • Do you offer extra help outside of class? 
  • Do you have any recommendations for tutoring? 

Show your professor your class notes. They can tell you if you’re focusing on the relevant information or if you’re stuck in the details.

Get help from your classmates. Start a study group or ask if they can spend a couple of minutes explaining a specific concept to you. If your class has a teacher’s assistant, ask them for help. Check around. Most schools offer extra support when you’re struggling in a class.

2. Evaluate your priorities

If school isn’t a priority, consider moving it higher on the list of priorities. We understand life happens and schedules get busy, but you shouldn’t ditch your schoolwork. Remind yourself of your future goals and why prioritizing school now will help you reach them.

3. Learn from your failures

Review the mistakes you made on your last exam. Read the comments on your graded essays. Identifying where you made mistakes will help you understand the material better the next time you take a test. Reviewing what you did wrong feel disheartening, but look at it as a learning experience! Instead of dwelling on the mistakes, use them as a way to improve.

4. Put in the extra effort

Not all teachers offer extra credit, but if they do, take advantage of it! Not only will the points combat a bad grade on a major test or assignment, but your teacher will see that you are serious about succeeding in their class.

5. Don’t give up

Abandoning hope will keep you from succeeding. Continue working hard, and don’t give up! Even if you don’t get the grade you wanted, you will know you did your very best. If a professor sees your extra effort, they might even give you the boost you need to pass the class.

While it’s completely normal to struggle in your classes, help is available. If you’re having a hard time in more than one class, you may need to drop an extracurricular activity or evaluate your priorities. Try not to stress. Eventually, you’ll find a balance that is right for you!