#AdmissionsPros: Understanding Affordability With College Advisor Dean Skarlis

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

Dean Skarlis is the president and founder of The College Advisor of New York, and has spent nearly three decades working with students. His New York and Long Island-based company provides admissions and affordability counseling services, and demystifies the school search and the crucial questions of cost and financial aid. Read on for his advice regarding building a school list, understanding college finances, and keeping your options open.

What service does your company, The College Advisor of New York, provide?

We help students and their parents with everything from career counseling to creating a customized list of schools. We help students with their essays and their applications, keeping them on on pace throughout the process. We also do affordability counseling; we make sure that parents understand whether they’re going to qualify for need-based aid, find what the bottom line cost is, and find out how they’re going to get there financially. In so doing, we also help students and parents strategize ways to get more need based aid or more scholarships, so that they can ultimately pay less. Then we get them through to the final decision!

What’s your personal educational background?

I have a bachelor’s in psychology from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, a master’s in psychology from Duquesne University, and a doctoral degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh.

What kinds of students do you usually work with?

It runs the gamut. I’d say the majority of students fall between 90 and 93 in terms of GPA, though some are lower. And then we also have some really high performing students. We certainly have our share of kids going to Harvard and Yale and Stanford and so on, but we also have lots of students going to other great colleges you might not have heard of before — and every school in between. Our goal is to help every student find a school that’s a good fit socially, academically, and financially.

What are three questions that you often ask at your first meeting with students?

I like to see the student’s high school transcript early on, because that’s the principal factor on which they’re being evaluated — and it shows us whether they’ve taken rigorous courses or whether they haven’t. 

Another question I always ask is, what is their biggest concern with the process? Oftentimes the family will say it’s money. Other times they’ll say it’s getting into prestigious school. Some students and parents say they just don’t know the process at all, and they really need help with that. So I want to know what it is that they’re most concerned with.

And then oftentimes I ask about a student’s aspirations: “What is it that you really want to do? Why do you want to go to college?” Some students haven’t ever thought about that critically, and most 16 and 17 year olds don’t really know, but it gives us a sense of where all of this is going.

What is your perspective on parental involvement? Should parents have a say in the college selection process? When should parents not be involved?

I do a two-hour parent workshop for all of our new clients where I talk about the process of college admissions and how we’re going to help. The second half of the workshop amounts to two words I love to say, and they are “back off.” That’s a little too strong — I do want parents involved because this is a huge investment on their part — but the student has to drive the process. In a year and a half or so, students are going to be on their own having to navigate a whole college scene. Parents are not going to be able to talk to their son or daughter’s professors, or advisers. Parents have to begin to let go, but they can’t fully walk away, so it is a complicated kind of dance. And that’s where we come in — we can be that buffer between student and parent.

When it comes to finances and understanding how to pay for college, is that a conversation that includes the student most of the time?

We usually talk about that in the first meeting, and the students are aware that this is an expensive proposition. After the first meeting I don’t really talk about finances with most students (though I do suggest that Mom and Dad talk to them about it). What I usually tell students is “I don’t want you to worry about cost initially.” I don’t want them to not look at a college, like NYU is a great example, 75k for undergraduate tuition (that’s a whole different issue. I won’t go there!) — I don’t want students to not look at NYU if they think it might be a good fit. But at the end of the process, when they have received their acceptances, I want them to take that cost as one factor in their decision making. Because and if I’ve done my job correctly, what I’ve done is present, “OK. Here’s NYU: You got in. Congratulations! But here’s Hofstra, where you got 20k in scholarship money. And now, you guys have a decision to make. Hofstra is 65k, minus 20k in scholarships, and NYU is 75k.” That conversation will help students make an informed decision either way. With parents, it’s very detailed; we go into depth about what their expected family contribution will be, and then how they’re going to pay for it. I usually factor those variables into the list — in other words, I create a list where students are going to get either scholarship money or need based aid, based on what their parents and I have talked about.

What are your thoughts on focusing on standardized testing in general, and particularly in relation to scholarships?

I highly recommend test prep; in fact, I wrote a blog post for Noodle Pros in which I called test prep the financial aid for the upper middle class! And that’s really what it is, I have no bones about it. I recommend test prep to pretty much all of my clients, unless they walk in the door and they have a 1500 on the PSAT. I recommend doing some kind of test prep program — a formal structured program — where you have accountability and a tutor, or class, whatever the case is. It leads to more admissions options, but also to more scholarships. So I strongly recommend it.

We’re with you there! What is one misstep you often see students and parents making in the admissions process?

Not understanding affordability early on. Sometimes families get to a situation where a student is choosing between NYU and Skidmore, which are both over 70k per year, and then realize “Oh no, I don’t think we can pay for that.” That’s one misstep. Another is not visiting enough schools and really understanding if the student fits at those places or not.

You mentioned that you help students craft their application essays. Are there any subjects you tell students to avoid?

Yes. Boyfriend girlfriend essays are generally really bad. Other than that, it depends on how well they’re written. Oftentimes the athletic essays — “I was running cross-country and I fell down 200 yards from the finish line, when I got back up and my mom was leaving and I finished the race…” come off as very cliche, at least in the eyes of admissions, but even those can be okay if the student is a really good writer.

How much editing help do you think students should be getting from parents, tutors, or advisors?

Very little from parents. In terms of help from us, it’s always a very fine line. Our main goal is to help students come up with a really good topic that’s authentic and unique to them and meaningful and compelling, and to share something about themselves that the admissions people wouldn’t otherwise know. We edit for topic development and message development, and of course we do some grammar and that sort of thing, but it’s it’s mostly about getting the students to show their own voices.

Last question: what is your top piece of advice for students who are applying to highly selective programs?

Some of these schools have gotten so competitive, especially for students who live here in the Northeast. So of course students should identify and really shoot for those competitive schools if they believe they are a good fit, but they also have to have what I call selective schools — as well as a couple of “safe schools” that they really like — in order to give themselves lots of options.


Interested in working with Dean Skarlis? Contact him via his website for more information.

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