May 1 marks a rite of passage for many high school seniors across America: National College Decision Day, where students who have been accepted to multiple colleges make a decision about which school they will attend in the fall. It’s the end of a stressful, months-long process of filling out applications, writing numerous essays, scouring for scholarships and making hard financial decisions all while still completing the last year of high school. May 1 is their chance to breathe and to reflect on how far they’ve come.
The struggle was real, but the wait is finally over. The way that I navigated the college application process was by organizing dates on my dry erase board. I prioritized the many dates on my calendar and made marks signifying how many days I had left to complete certain college and scholarship applications. I compared schools and became very selective. For me and my family, the decision maker was money. I eliminated many schools that did not offer me the best financial award. Then, I looked into the campus and made sure there were enough trees and resting areas where I could possibly see myself studying for exams. Once FAFSA opened, I was eager to complete it. I finished it January 2 with my parents’ 2013 taxes. Fortunately, my sister then helped me with the important dates that come after completing FAFSA, and she gave me a heads up about estimated financial aid from when she filed FAFSA. Then, after my parents completed their 2014 taxes, I had to wait a few weeks to verify them. Using my dry erase board, I counted down the days from the last time I tried to verify my parents’ 2014 tax returns. The day finally came they were verified and I made sure I had my parents’ tax copies, then finally filled everything out. Something I learned about myself through the process was that I exaggerate and blow things out of proportion. I tend to take something very simple and make it a big deal. At some point, my parents had to tell me to relax because I can’t think straight like that. Often, I found myself practicing breathing because it calmed me down when times got stressful. In the end, I was disappointed in how many schools did not offer me a good enough deal to make things work for my family’s finances. When I learned what EFC (expected family contribution) meant and how much my family would have to contribute to my education, the results made me sad. I realized that financial aid depends on how the government interprets my parents’ income, not necessarily the reality of our financial situation.
Emily Sandoval is a senior at Amundsen High School and plans to attend University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in the fall. An earlier version of her story on the financial hurdles of selecting the right college appeared on the Mikva Challenge Blog.