Season 3: Episode 1 Transcript
Overture: Your College Search Begins
From Hanover, New Hampshire, I'm Lee Coffin, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College. Welcome back to the Admissions Beat. Hello everyone. Happy New Year. And as we come into the new year, I am always aware of the change in audience as we move from the fall to the winter and then to the spring. In the fall, the seniors were really top of mind as application deadlines loomed, and it was our mission to help you prepare applications that presented your best self to the colleges on your list. Now we're in January and February, and the juniors in high school have stepped up to the starting line of a college search. So season three will rewind to the beginning, and we're going to tell the story of college admissions from an admissions 101 perspective, if you will, where we will give you the toolkit episode by episode to make your way through an impactful college search that begins now in the junior winter, spring continues through the summer and really ignites after Labor Day as the fall of senior year begins.
But for the juniors, it's important to help you think about what your interests are, what are the beginnings of your discovery, and how do you do that? So each episode will be a "news you can use" agenda, where we will give you as much guidance as we can—myself, from my seat at Dartmouth, and my guests from college counseling and from college admissions. And occasionally from the media to help you think about what's going on in this noisy rite of passage. And I say it's noisy because there are lots of opinions, there's lots of coverage, you're jittery, and I'm here to reassure you in the best way I can. And I want to say again something I say at the start of every season. If this is a podcast hosted by Dartmouth, it is not a podcast about Dartmouth, although I will pull from my resources here and my colleagues to tell the story in about selective admission in the best way I can. So when we come back, we're going to meet our two guests and start season three with a bang.
So episode one of our junior-focused conversation sees Jacques Steinberg return to Admission Beat. Jack is an award-winning journalist from the New York Times and a bestselling author of both The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education, which is now published in paperback by Penguin Random House, and for those of you with longer memories, Jack wrote what I still see as the seminal book about college admissions, The Gatekeepers, which he published in the early 2000s after spending a year in the Wesleyan admission office. So Jack, great to see you as always. Thanks for joining us again on Admission Beat.
So glad to be here.
And we also welcome back a longtime friend of the pod, Meredith Reynolds, associate director of college guidance at Roxbury Latin School in Boston, and more personally for me, a longtime colleague in the admission office at Tufts. So Meredith, great to see you. Happy New Year.
Happy New Year. Thanks so much for having me.
Of course. And so this week as we start the season, I'm going to turn the microphone over to Jack. And Jack is going to interview Mere and me about the landscape of college admissions as the high school class of 2024 steps up to the beginning of the admission process. And Mere from the school side and me from the college side will answer his questions sometimes in sync, and my guess is…sometimes not, as we start to give you the advice and guidance you need to have a successful college search launch. So Jack, take it away.
Thanks so much. So a pleasure to be with you both on behalf of our audience. And I see this discussion that we're about to have over this next hour or so as something like the overture of a Broadway musical, that the curtain comes up and it's a sampler of all the different songs and storylines you're about to hear. And so for our audience, this is really the overture on an experience on a story that's going to play out over the next 18 months for them. But also as Lee said, it's a little bit of a sampler about what's to come in this next season of Admissions Beat. And every musical needs an audience of course. And for our audience, I want you to imagine, as Lee talked about, high school juniors across the country and around the world, particularly those who are the first in their families to go through this process.
Let's also imagine in our audience, their parents, again, across the country and around the world, but particularly those who themselves didn't go to college. Or those who went to college so long ago that maybe things have changed a little bit or they need a bit of a refresher. And then, let's think about their counselors, people like you, Mere, but particularly counselors who may be relatively new to the profession. As you imagine that audience, you know firsthand, Mere, in the work you do every day, that this can be an overwhelming moment. For those who look out and feel intimidated, daunted, more than 2004 year colleges, just as many community colleges, what's the note on which we want to begin to set the scene and also to reassure?
We all need to breathe first and foremost. I think there is a lot of making this process more complicated than it needs to be. And some of that comes from just the general angst of hearing about it all the time, getting questions about it at Thanksgiving of your freshman year of high school of, "Where do you think you're going to apply to college?" Of hearing your classmates and their parents talk about this process and all that it requires. It can drum up a lot of unnecessary angst. And this process is anxiety-inducing and it is complicated, it's unnecessarily complicated, and it's hard and it's stressful, and there's a lot that's out of your control, but rely on resources that you do have. Maybe it's your counselor at your school, maybe it's a parent who's been through this, maybe it's this podcast, or maybe it's a book that you pick up. And trust yourself through this process, because you're going to know if a place resonates with you.
If it doesn't, you're going to know if an essay is in your voice or if it's not. If it's meaningful to you or if it's not. So there's a lot of learning to come back to yourself in this process that I think is important. We do a lot of searching for outside information to make ourselves feel less anxious and really all that's doing is drumming up more worry in my mind. So I don't know if that's reassuring or not. I hope so. I also think breaking this down into bite-size pieces can be really helpful.
That just needs to happen.
Yes. When you say there are thousands of colleges out there, you don't need to tour all of them. You can start with going to a big school. It doesn't need to be the big school that you ultimately will attend or want to attend. It's just a big school and you see what your reaction is afterwards. Did I like how big it felt or was I overwhelmed? You can go see an urban school or a rural school depending on where you are in the world and ask yourself, how did that feel? That can inform a lot of future decisions about where you might apply or schools that you might think about.
There are actually search engines out there that say, "If you liked this place, what other colleges might be interesting to you?" So you don't need to have a counselor that can sit with you for an hour and talk about, "Well, if you like this school, why don't you consider these?" You can find resources like that online. So I think that's a helpful big first step is get on a college campus that maybe is nearby and just think about it in terms of type. That's the first bite that you can take, and each new thing after that is just another bite.
If I can tag onto what you were just saying, I mentioned in my intro that there's a lot of noise in the college admission landscape, and by noise I mean opinions. As you just said, people asking all the time of high school students, "Where are you going to college?" No one knows where you're going to college until it's the spring of your senior year. But I think the idea that there's one perfect place nags at people, I think the idea that telling your story is somehow harder than it is, is something I want to reassure people that you have agency to introduce yourself. But the metaphor Jack used about Broadway and about this being the opening a musical…Ironically, I was doing Peloton last night and I listened to a Broadway ride as I was doing it… So it's ironic that Jack started with a musical metaphor for the pod because I think that's right.
We're in the opening swell of instrumental listening, we're not clapping yet. It's too soon to get to that part of the search, but this is the beginning. And I think part of the thing that makes everybody so worried is they feel like there has to be an immediate clear answer as things get going. And you haven't discovered anything yet, you might have opinions, certainly parents have opinions, but the discovery phase is the aha that plays out over the next several months. And I was looking through some notes the other day and I found, I jotted down something I heard on another media outlet, where someone talking about college admission referred to this. I think the line was, "You just need to get through it." And I thought, "No. It's not something to get through, it's something to enjoy," if that doesn't sound preposterous.
As the discovery informs some thoughtfulness about, what is this thing called college? Why do I want to do it? Why are we going to pay for it? And what does it mean? And that all takes time. So good news is it's mid-January, and if you're a senior listening to this, now that's a different story when you get to April and you need to make some decisions, and we'll come back to that in a future episode. But for juniors and the parents take comfort in the idea that there is a lot of time in front of you right now.
I think the other thing that folks can take comfort in while acknowledging that this process is daunting and anxiety-producing and intimidating is Meredith's point, Lee, that there are things within your control. Surely there are things outside your control. We can't control, Lee, how decision makers like you and your colleagues are going to decide on an application, and that feels uncomfortable. And yet there are so many parts of this process that are within control of students and parents. And I think if we can shift our conversation a bit there right now. And thinking particularly about these next six months, we talked about an 18-month time horizon. Let's come back to our Broadway analogy.
This is the first act, the time that will take us from now until the end of the junior year and perhaps a bit into the summer. And Lee, you mentioned discovery, self-discovery, this notion that you probably can't look outward at what colleges might be a fit for you. Before you know yourself a little bit better, or parents before you help your child understand themselves a little bit better. So let's introduce this concept of discovery and self-discovery, and how it fits into the college process for a high school junior.
decision-makersYeah. To borrow a term from the phone that's in all the Gen Z hands, you're taking a selfie, you need to focus on you before you focus on us.
Yes. One of the things that I find so cool about this process and why I want to work in the field that I work in is that here is a moment, I really think it's the first moment in your life that you are preparing for all future decision making moments in your life. You are going to learn all about how you make decisions. One of the things that I encourage boys to do (I work with only boys, so students, I'll say students), students to do is take a moment to ask themselves, what am I going to value in this process? Some of those are going to be really concrete things. I'm going to value my financial situation and I need to figure out which college is going to be affordable for my family. I'm going to value the opportunity to have an engineering education or a business education, whatever it is that's a concrete academic area that you need to be or want to be focusing on.
But some of them are going to be a little bit more up in the clouds. I'm going to value my happiness for the next four years over what my parents are saying is the right return on investment in terms of a pre-med program. I'm going to value the people around me, and if I feel comfortable and at home around those people. Or I am going to value career outcomes at a certain institution. Those are two value sets and neither is right and neither is wrong, but you're going to want to land on one as your set of values because it's going to help you make each decision along the way.
So I think that's a really important first question to ask yourself. And then, along the way you can check in with those values and say, "Am I making this decision based on the value that I set at the beginning of this process? Or is it because my mom made that comment and it really nudged me, and I'm now feeling defensive and so I'm making a decision in reaction to that comment?" It's a touchstone that you can come back to over and over again. That's an important step to take before you do the discovery, as Lee mentioned, outside, you have to take a look in.
Yeah. And I advise students to think about things like engineering in Meredith's example, or liberal arts. Or do you like words? Do you like numbers? Do you like images? Are you a concrete thinker? Are you more abstract? What kind of classroom makes you do your best work? Are you someone who is very discussion oriented? Are you more of a listener? Would you be comfortable in a lecture hall with four or five, 200 people, 2,000 people? I mean, some universities are huge and you are one little speck in a big auditorium with a professor giving a lecture, or there are places that are tiny. I represent a college where the average class size is 14, and for some that might be too small. It's like this Goldilocks dynamic between how large or small is too large or too small or just right. And I don't know the answer to that question about you. That's one of these selfie moments of what things matter.
And being happy that Meredith's other really important question. What kind of environment makes you happy? It could be geographic, you might be someone who's really outdoorsy and you need a campus that gives you access to that space you might need. I had a student years ago who said to me, "Wherever I go, there has to be a dynamic jazz scene as part of that environment." And I thought, "Okay. That's really specific and we will narrow your options profoundly, but purposefully because if jazz doesn't exist and you're not happy, that's a problem." So these questions, and I think for the juniors, you may not yet know anything I'm laying out there. Mere?
Yeah. And that I think it can feel like an intimidating question if I pose the question, what does your future environment have to have in order for you to be happy? That can feel paralyzing for 16, 17-year- olds. I do think there is an opportunity to switch, just change the way that question is worded to remember list all of the times in the last five years that you were happiest and what was happening in that environment. Were you at a jazz concert? Were you playing music? If there is a common thread, you can start to say, "How can I choose a place that is going to put me in these opportunities in these positions more often? Because that's means I'm going to be happy."
You already have all the data for this. This isn't like you have to make up out of thin air, what's going to make you happy? You have the data because you've been gravitating towards things that you like, and moving away from things that don't fit you so well already for the past 17 years. And those things might change and that's okay. All you can do is make a decision right now based on the information you already have.
Mere, when you have this conversation with a parent or a student, where do they get stuck in this early moment? I mean, you say this is a hard question. Where do you see them disagreeing? And how do we help parents help their kids without getting in the way?
Oh goodness. I think to your first question of where they get stuck, I think this can feel like they are putting a stake in the ground and they are saying, "This is who I am." And that can feel really intimidating, because it's like they're making a decision that's going to dictate the rest of their lives. It's not, right? But it can feel very big and as if they are saying, "This is who I am and it's not going to change. I'm going to be this way forever." So that I think can feel really intimidating. If you look instead back and you say, "What has been fulfilling and meaningful to you so far?" And everything I hear back has to do with their friends or family connecting with people. Then I say, "Okay. So it's going to be really important that we go visit a campus and pay attention to who the people are around us. And maybe you hang back on the tour just to watch how people are interacting. You maybe try to ask for directions from someone and see how that conversation goes."
If all of them, all of the moments that they are bringing up when I ask them about times that they've been happy are super intellectual…It's times when they've been challenged…It's times when they're reading new books about topics that they are discovering for the first time…Then we really need to be spending time on the academic websites, reaching out to professors maybe and just being like, "Your research is really cool. Do you ever work with undergraduates? This is really amazing." Maybe picking up some books by professors that are at these colleges to see like, "I could take a class with this human being. Is that what's exciting to me?" So it helps frame the search by looking backwards as opposed to forwards.
Where I see parents and students disagreeing is everywhere.
I think so often parents have lots of ideas and expectations because they're humans. And students have lots of ideas and expectations, and no one can expect that everyone's ideas and expectations are going to be the same, but they bring them all to the same process. And so it's just a mess of expectations in a big bowl. And part of life is learning how to come into a situation with your expectations. But then know how to react and learn how to breathe through it when those expectations don't get met. And I think my role is sometimes to advocate for the student's expectations, because the parents are used to having a younger child where their expectations are really the thing that matters most.
And we're transitioning into this moment where it's the students expectations and choices that are going to take them moving forward in life as adults. But we are in that messy middle where it's unclear whose expectations matter the most and whose wants matter the most. So part of my job is helping everyone decide when do the parents get to say, "No. This is actually our choice." And I would argue that has to do with finances a lot of the time. And when does the student get to say, "Actually, this is a place that makes my heart sing and I really want to prioritize that."
I love the idea as was said a few moments ago, that there is a place for happy and for even joy in this process, at least as an objective. Not that college is going to be Disney World, but that there certainly is room for passion and letting your heart sing as you say. I also love the reminder particularly to parents and students going through this for the first time in their families. That this is going to be messy, particularly at the outset and to just embrace the messiness as challenging as that might feel as opposed to expecting it to very quickly be tied together with a bow.
Mere, on the Admissions Beat podcast, we periodically remind ourselves not to assume knowledge among our audience. And I think this is a good moment to pause and help us imagine a listener who wonders, why college? Perhaps a parent or a student who needs some help in making the case of why college. So imagine if Lee and I were sitting in your office, Mere, at Roxbury Latin and put that question to you, why is going to college important? Let's not assume that that answer is readily available. What are some of the things you provide in that answer?
I think there is a practical answer, and then there is the answer that has to do with more with experience and growth, and spiritual and personal information acquisition. So the practical answer I think is increasingly having an associates or bachelor's degree is an important piece to your resume when you're coming to apply for really any job. A student may have an idea of something that they're interested in doing next that doesn't require an associates or a bachelor's degree. And to that I would say that is excellent and if that is something that you're grow from and learn from and find fulfilling, I think that's an excellent step. But we shouldn't just be thinking about the very next step, just the next few years. And if ever your idea of what your future is might change, having that degree is going to be a really helpful and sometimes necessary item in your toolkit for if you're going to be pursuing something else.
So that's the practical answer. I think that knowing many 17-year-olds, I also think you are at a moment in your life where you are expected to be an adult. But in terms of your growth and maturity and development, you're not there yet and that's normal and good. And there's still more time where you're going to be, your brain is going to be developing, you're going to be gaining a more full understanding of yourself. And I think college can offer a really safe space to do that, to discover new things about yourself, to meet new people. You've been in your high school for the last four years and that means you're surrounded by people who have lived very similar experiences to yourself. And college gives you an opportunity to really expand your horizons in lots of different ways. So those are my two answers coming from different angles. I think there's wonderful opportunity in terms of growth, but there's also the practical piece of having that degree in hand when you're looking for a job.
So Lee, you're somebody who currently leads an admissions office at a university. You, like Meredith, at one time also worked in a high school setting and you're somebody who was among the first in your family to go to college. So using those three lenses among others, if a parent or a student were to say to you, "Why college?" What would your response be?
I had this conversation with my mother this weekend about my nephew who enrolled at college and dropped out, enrolled at college and dropped out. And finally never went back and he just got promoted to be the assistant manager at a supermarket, and is really excited about that. And I said, "This was the right path for him." He left high school thinking, "I have to go to college," and it just wasn't his jam. He tried, he couldn't focus, he's happy, back to that word. And I use him as my example, because it sounds counterintuitive that a college dean would be saying, "Yeah. My nephew didn't go to college and it's been great for him." It's true. And I think college is a really important prerequisite to so many careers, particularly in the 21st century. And there's no question that the value add for so many of us, and I look at my own life and think, the path I've been on in the many years since I graduated has been really different than the one I think I would've been on had I not gone to college.
And so the act of going to college… I was a history major. All these years later, I am in no way a historian, but I retain my interest in the story of people and the way history does seem to repeat itself. And that's been interesting. But I go back to that conversation with my dad about, "Why would I study history?" I said, "Because I love it." And what it did for me was it taught me how to think. It taught me how to process information. It taught me how to be an informed person who could see multiple issues concurrently and assess them. And that's a very abstract answer, Jack. But for me, it was a type of training about how to think. As a first gen college student, it exposed me to people and ideas and places that I never imagined seeing, thinking about doing. And it's not hyperbole to say college changed my life.
So that's a dramatic exclamation point on this question where for a lot of us, college changes the arc of your life. And I think that's especially true for people from lower income backgrounds, from families where nobody goes to college. I think the sticky thing that swirls back into the beginning of a search is the crisscross of prestige. And there are a lot of ways to go to college that don't end on my doorstep here in Hanover. Not that they don't want people to come say hi to us. But there are wonderful state universities and local options and smaller regional campuses that "nobody's ever heard of" that are wonderful undergraduate experiences that do all the things Meredith and I are saying. So I think part of this discovery and this response to the question you're asking is also taking a step back and not getting so nodded up around the prestige of the ultimate outcome. I think that's what drives a lot of the angsty worry is that there's only a few places that really represent a win when in fact going to college is a win.
lower-incomeI made the point earlier that some of our listeners may be parents who themselves went through this process a few years back and may need a refresher. And as I listen to the two of you, I think one of the things that's changed perhaps since their day, certainly since my day, are the many pathways, post-high school. And that those pathways may not necessarily be a straight line as is the case with your nephew, Lee. It may start with a year off. It may start in community college with a transfer for a four-year college. It may start in a four-year college with a pause or a transfer. It may start with a career credential.
If that sounds daunting, listeners, in all likelihood you've got a resource right there in your high school who you can turn to first for a roadmap along these various pathways, and that's the college counselor at your high school. That person may have a caseload of a few dozen students, or they may have a caseload of close to a thousand students. Regardless, if you are captivated by some of these questions we're asking here, one of the first places to take them for guidance is to the college counseling office. Meredith, that's what you do. And what advice would you give for approaching the college counseling office at your high school?
I'm trying to put myself in my own high school brain, because I went to a public school where my counselor had 200 kids on her caseload, and I was not a student that liked inconveniencing people. And so I think this question was probably really important to me when I was 16, 17 years old. Ultimately, I think this is practice for self-advocacy in all of your life, approaching a boss and asking about your salary or time off, approaching a partner to bring up something that is bothering you, approaching a friend about something that has happened. These are all really important skills that you are practicing right now, and it's scary. And just knowing that it's not just scary for you, it's scary for other people, I think can be sometimes helpful. Reminding yourself that, I feel nervous about approaching this person and in 10 minutes it's going to be over. And then I can look back and feel really proud of the fact that I did something even though it made me nervous.
When you have a free period or when you have 10 minutes in after school before you have to run to practice. If you can get to school five, 10 minutes before homeroom, these individuals, this is their job is to help support you. And the reason they got into it is because they like teenagers, and they find this type of conversation fun and interesting and engaging. Simply walking into that office and saying, "I have a couple questions. Can you help me?" Is all it takes. If they can't, in that very moment, like I might be on this. I've had a kid since this Zoom meeting come to my door and go like "Hi. Can you talk?"If they can't help you in that exact moment, they will find a time for you to come back. I'm going to go find that kid during lunch and say, "Hey, sorry, I was on a meeting. Do you have the next period free?" They will take it from there. You just have to do the really hard step of saying, "Hi. I need help."
I think the resources today, not just the pathways, but the resources are so profoundly different than when I was a high school senior in 1980. I had things that showed up in my mailbox and I did not have a guidance counselor in my high school who had any time for me. I've said in other episodes, when they did go stand in his doorway, he looked at my transcript as one of the top kids in that class and said, "Oh, I don't have time for the smart ones. Go back to class, you'll figure it out." That was college counseling for me. And I think had that happened to me today as a 17-year-old, and if that sounds like any of your high school environments. Put your fingers on your keyboard and go to Google and type in, college resources in my town, in my city, in my area.
Because there are community-based organizations. There are programs affiliated with churches, there are civic groups all for free that you can get yourself in a peer group that will help guide you. And I think that's awesome, and especially for the first gens, I think finding if your high school does not have the resource and there's no criticism in saying that sentence. I came to learn many years later that my guidance counselor had a huge caseload and when he said, "I don't have time for the smart ones," it's because he was dealing with lots of other issues. And "the smart one" he was trusting had the self-advocacy skills to figure it out, and I did. And I will keep repeating episode by episode because we're talking to juniors. You don't need to decide today. The chronology of this process begins with discovery. It is the longest part of the process.
It starts now-ish and it keeps going all the way till September. Just keep exploring, listening, feeling. And when I say feeling, I'll use a different example. For any of you who've gone on out on a date, there's sometimes you go out on a date and you're like, "This just isn't working. This person and I don't have a lot in common," and it doesn't continue, hopefully. Sometimes you, it's like click, "Oh my goodness, look at the chemistry, look at the energy here," that happens in this process too. Types of places will pop unexpectedly. Types of places that have great brand recognition may present as flat or vice versa. And that experience is the point of what we're doing right now. And as you wander forward, I like to use the phrase wander and wonder. You're wandering and looking around and you're wondering, how does this feel? Can I imagine myself here? Do I want to study what they might require me to study?
I mean, that's a very different version of what we've been talking about. But there are campuses that will require a whole set of courses that might make you go. And then there are other places where you wander and wonder on your own terms to really, really different examples of an undergraduate experience neither one, good or bad. Different as that faculty has constructed the curriculum and the undergraduate experience. Your opportunity is to try it all along and say, "Yeah. I can imagine being required to take foreign language and calculus and chemistry." I mean, when Mere and I worked at Tufts, one of the requirements that always made kids eyeballs pop was a sixth semester foreign language requirement. And some students would say to me, "Oh my God, that sounds like overwhelming."
And I think this place has a global signature and proficiency in the language other than English is one of the goals of the undergraduate experience. If that doesn't sync with what you want, this is not your campus. But if you can imagine marrying Spanish and chemistry in a way that allows you to be a chemist in a Spanish speaking country, ding, this is a magic combination for you. And those are the things that you're going to listen for on a campus tour, on an info session, on a website. And don't ignore the discovery, when something doesn't sit well, probe that. What is it about this new piece of information that's making me say, "I don't know?"
And sometimes it's very abstract, you might be following along with one of your options and realize, "I'm just not into this." Stop. Well, I mean, you have permission to go stop, explore, dig as often as you need to. And I think what starts to happen as you get deeper into this is a pattern starts to emerge and you realize, "My tail wags every time I'm on a campus that fill in the blank." And the answer to that, Jack and Meredith and Lee might have to that fill in the blank, could be different having experienced the exact same set of conversations.
Spanish-speakingSo I think in the spirit of our initial analogy of an overture of a show. We really provided, the two of you have provided our listeners with a preview of what's to come over the next 18 months, the next six months. And Lee has made clear that in the coming weeks the Admissions Beat is going to go deep on a lot of these themes and issues and others, you don't have to pick it all up now. This is not a one and done. But there are two topics that I want to touch on just very, very briefly being conscious of our listeners' time before we sign off on our opening episode.
The first is cost of college. Meredith, imagine a family at the outset of this process, they're juniors and maybe they've never talked about money as a family before. It's probably likely. Again, we'll have a whole episode, I suspect devoted to this subject in season three. But for somebody sitting in your office, Mere, and wonders to what extent cost should be an aid and ability to pay and how to pay should be part of this process from the outset. What do you tell them in that opening conversation?
It absolutely needs to be part of the conversation from the outset. It is important to understand that when you ask what the tuition of a certain college is, that you might be getting very different answers from different places. And most of them probably don't include lots of things that would contribute to the total cost. And so when you are researching colleges and thinking about cost, it is important to be looking for total cost. Sometimes they'll say things like tuition, room and board, and fees. But when you just talk about tuition, the number that you get is actually going to be much lower than what the total cost of that college is. So that's the first thing that I think families should just be looking at and getting a lay of the land. Many private colleges now cost into the 80s, $80,000 range per year. There are private institutions that are in the 30s. So that's a really big difference.
If you go to a Canadian college, you're looking at something in the 40s and 50s often, just because of the way their education system works and the way it's subsidized by the government. There are many different options in terms of finances for you to be thinking about and it starts with total cost. Then you need to be thinking about financial aid options, and how that might factor into what the eventual cost is going to be or the net cost. Once you take financial aid into account, what would your family be responsible for every year? So if you're looking at that total cost and it looks like UMass Amherst is going to be a whole lot more affordable than Tufts. Then you ask yourself, okay, might I qualify for financial aid at Tufts. Tufts is a place that meets 100% of my demonstrated need, meaning I fill out some forms that are complicated and long, but I fill them out. And that tells me what my family can afford, what they think my family can afford to pay, and whatever the gap between that and the total cost of Tufts is, Tufts will cover.
So what does my contribution look like? What will they think I can pay? And what does that mean? I'm going to pay at Tufts versus UMass Amherst is not going to cover my demonstrated need. But I might get some loans through one of the forms that I fill out. So what might the net price be?
So the advice is don't rule places out at the beginning based on the cost of attendance alone. Do it in combination with a net price calculator because places that seem affordable to Mere's point about net price may be less affordable than a place with a very high price tag that meets full need, and it turns out to be a more reusable option. And then, for parents, I think the other thing to start to keep track of if financial aid is part of your non-negotiables in a college search. How is need met? To what degree are loans student or parent, federal or not, part of this institution's financial aid program? Add that all up. How much might we be borrowing over a four-year window? For the student. And for parents, if you have two, three, my dad had five kids, do the math over your family. Your age. How close are you to retirement? Does this seem possible?
So more to come listeners on that subject and so many others. Last question for you both, on a parallel path to everything we've been talking about today. Students need to be students. They're engaged in extracurricular activities for the joy and passion of those activities. They're in class, they're taking tests, they're reading, they're writing papers, they have community service projects they're involved in, they are working. How do you, Meredith, keep a balance to make sure that some of those things that I just mentioned don't get swallowed up by the college process?
I would say that all of those things are the college process. Your application to college is the culmination of all of those things. The application is meant to document and record what those things are. Your transcript is a record of the time that you've spent working in class, the time you've spent reading and doing all of that homework and studying for those tests. The activities list is a record of all that time you've spent doing community service and playing basketball and leading the Spanish club, and all of that. And your essay is a record of the time that you've spent with, I don't know, family, friends, or in some environment, maybe it's the classroom or outside of the classroom that has spoken to you in some particular way.
And your recommendation letters are a record of the work that you've put into your classes again. So I would say focusing on all of that stuff is applying to college. And putting more time into the application itself than you are to living your life, your high school life is against the whole point. Let it be the organic record of what you've been doing, and that's all it has to be. We don't need to make this more complicated than it is.
So I want to thank you both for your patience with my questions on behalf of our audience. And I guess to bring our curtain down, I'm going to hand the conductor's baton to you, Lee, for our final word.
Yeah. Thanks, Jack. And thanks, Mere, for helping kick off season three of Admission Beat. As Jack has said many times during this episode, each one will dig into something we've touched on, some things we haven't touched on. We'll help you think about testing and whether an SAT, ACT score should be or should not be part of your planning for seniors. How do we read the file? How do we help you make a decision in April after you get into some places and have to do a whole new discovery period? How do you go on a campus visit and make sense of what that tour guide walking backwards is talking to you about? And what are you seeing? And what are you experiencing? We'll bring some student voices in to help you think about that selfie I keep talking about.
So if you like what you heard on this week's conversation, please subscribe wherever you find your podcast. We will post weekly episodes every Tuesday from now through the early spring. Admission Beat is a production of Dartmouth College, but it is not about Dartmouth College, is produced by Charlotte Albright and Jack Steinberg with marketing and technical assistance from Kevin Ramos-Glew and Sara Morin. Until next week, this is Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. See you soon.