Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Web has Changed While You Were Away

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Counselors aren’t the only ones coming back to school with a new outlook.  While we’ve been away at the beach, some hard-working supporters have been producing and updating online college counseling tools—some good, some not so much.

The most prominent of the good updates comes from the Federal government, which has consolidated 16 different financial aid Web sites into one clean link. now contains all information on applying for aid, including the FAFSA application and the FAFSA 4Caster to estimate aid; it also has a direct link to the incredibly useful (but not well known) College Navigator program, a college search engine that rivals that of any private company; another link offers advice on avoiding scholarship scams, and there’s an expanded section on paying back loans that includes a link to contact the government if you need to talk to someone about the loans you owe.  With fresh photographs and a Q and A approach that’s written in simple English, this is the first site to add to your tool bar—be sure to pass it along to your families.

Common Application has also been busy this summer.  While over 200,000 students have created Common App profiles in the first 15 days the 2012-13 portal has been open (note to students:  it’s still summer!), Common App has created  a series of online seminars designed to help counselors understand more about this special tool.  With more public colleges joining Common App this year, many counselors will be interacting with Common App for the first time; these introductory sessions will make you a helpful expert in no time.  The programs begin in September, and will be archived if you can’t participate during their scheduled time; you can get more information at  .  Counselors with Facebook accounts would be wise to join the Common App page, which offers Common App updates to all subscribers on a regular basis.

While these updates are welcome news to counselors and students, other changes require college advocates to beware and be wary.  Counselors new to Common App need to be sure to tell students to go to commonapp.ORG to begin their applications, not commonapp.COM-- .COM offers students a host of college resources, but none of them lead back to the Common Application.  Just like families that go to to complete their free financial aid application, this is a wrong turn to take, so be sure to steer them clear of it.
Other changes that require discretion can be found on college applications, where some schools are now asking for students’ social media information.  At first blush, this may seem innocent enough, but students need to know that giving out their Facebook, Twitter, and Skype addresses gives colleges permission to view their pages, as well as many more opportunities to market students with information about their college.  Some students thrive on this information; others seem to obsess on it, and some are wondering how to turn it off once it becomes too much information to handle.

Counselors can do their students a huge favor by letting them know in advance that disclosure of social media information is largely optional; while most applications require a phone number and a mailing address, most other contact information is theirs to share or keep to themselves. Keeping cell phone numbers private also makes sure students aren’t distracted in class with texts from colleges during US History; with some advanced notice, they can take comfort in knowing they don’t have to share this information, and can focus on learning instead.