11 Mar

3 Things to Discuss When Your College Student Comes Home

After a semester or two away from home, your child may be feeling more adult now than ever before, but many parents have a hard time bridging the gap between the teen that left home in summertime and the independent one who comes home during breaks. If your child is planning to come home for winter, spring, and summer breaks, use that time together not only to ensure that you both understand your new roles, but also to check in with your student. Here are three items you may wish to discuss.

House Rules

One of the biggest battles parents have with a newly independent college student is how many rules they should have to follow–after all, students living away from home have, for the most part, had free reign of their lives. That said, the free food, free rent, and other support you give your student is more than enough reason to expect them to follow the “house rules.” (After all, even dorms have quiet hours and rules about guests, and the cafeteria has a closing time–so your kitchen can, too.)

Have the house rules conversation as soon as possible, and let your student know what has and hasn’t changed from your perspective, then listen to your child’s. Washing his or her own dinner dishes may be non-negotiable, but an extension of your student’s high school curfew might be reasonable now that he or she has been living away from home. Try to make this an open, calm, and rational conversation for both of you–and be clear when decisions are finalized.

Money Matters

Your student has been away long enough now to have his or her feet on the ground, so you should be able to get a feel for his or her spending practices away from home. This face-to-face at-home break is the perfect time to help your child revise his or her budget and to talk about savings tips, credit cards, and any other financial concerns.

Checking In

Living away from home is a big step, and every student deals with it differently. You don’t need to have a formal conversation, but you may wish to encourage your student to voice his or her concerns about the transition and how it is going so far. If your student is a little more withdrawn, simply pay attention to the comments he or she makes about school.

Your student’s concerns may be related to money, the academic rigor, time management, a difficult roommate or any number of other issues. Your encouragement, feedback, and listening ear can help your student manage a problem and result in both of you coming up with ideas on how to alleviate them.

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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02 Feb

How to Get Step-By-Step FAFSA Help for Free

It’s a brand new year, and that means it’s time for a brand new financial aid application–the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (more commonly known as the FAFSA) is online and ready for you to fill out. Remember, every family should submit a FAFSA (see below). And this year, I can offer you some assistance so the job isn’t as daunting.

Free Help from My FAFSA Assistant

If you’re one of the thousands of parents who finds filing the FAFSA just as intimidating as completing your tax return, I have good news! For the past several years I’ve offered help with the FAFSA through a video tutorial series called My FAFSA Assistant–and it is available to you absolutely FREE.

I’ve included a step-by-step video tutorial for each page of the FAFSA, and I offer you some little known tips as well as answers to some of the most frequently asked questions to help you finish quickly and efficiently. I want to assist you in securing the maximum financial aid award for your family.

Should I Even Bother to File the FAFSA?

Absolutely. Every single family with a college-bound high school student or child in college should file the FAFSA. It is potentially your child’s opportunity to qualify for free grants and scholarship funds for college, and it is also the only way to get access to federal student loans. (Still doubtful? Learn more about the FAFSA here.)

How Will My FAFSA Assistant Help?

I’ve been working with families on their college funding plans for over 12 years, and have become very familiar with the ins and outs of the FAFSA filing process–including which questions parents and students find the most difficult and confusing. The video tutorial at MyFAFSAAssistant.org walks you through the entire FAFSA filing process, of course, also covers the latest information on this year’s new redesigned FAFSA application. It will help your family move through the form as quickly as possible–and that’s important, because filing deadlines are fast approaching. Most “free” money (scholarships and grants, which don’t need to be repaid) are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

What’s the Catch?

There is no catch (Really!). I’ve set up the site and tutorials as a community outreach project; it is an opportunity for me to “pay forward” the knowledge I’ve been privileged to obtain over the past several years working with my clients. So you won’t have to pay a thing, and we won’t contact you or try to sell you any services. There truly are no strings attached.

I hope you will take advantage of this wonderful tool, and feel free to share it with friends and family who are facing the challenge of filing the FAFSA as well. So check out www.MyFAFSAAssistant.org. Enjoy!

All the best,
Deborah Fox

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31 Jan

4 Get-Ready-for-College New Years Resolutions

1. I will not be intimidated by the college planning process.

Students aren’t the only ones who feel overwhelmed by applying to college, obtaining financial aid, and all the steps in between: many parents are intimidated by the lengthy and confusing process as well.

This year, resolve not to be intimidated. Instead, lay out a plan for how you and your child will tackle the process. Make time for research, college visits, applications, financial aid prep (especially applying for the FAFSA), and discussions about the final big decision. Then break it down and take on only one project at a time–remember inch by inch it’s a cinch!

2. I will file the FAFSA–ASAP.

The FAFSA–or Free Application for Federal Student Aid–becomes available on January 1st of each year. Many federal and school funds are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, so the sooner you and your student apply, potentially the greater his or her chances of getting a good aid package.

(Hint: This will be even easier if you’ve already prepared for the FAFSA in advance.)

3. I will teach my child about money.

The time to teach your child about finances is now–no matter how your old child is. Even if your child is young, you can start teaching the basics of budgeting, so he or she will be prepared to take on more and more financial responsibility.

As your child gets the hang of the basics, you can start teaching him or her about more complex issues like choosing and using a credit card, maintaining a good credit score, and how to tackle bills and help contribute to college costs.

4. I will stay positive.

The path to–and through–your student’s college years will be filled with ups and downs. From overwhelming application requirements to disappointing college rejections, better-than-anticipated aid awards to that first “A” (or “D”) grade in a college course, you and your student will go through a lot together.

One of your most important jobs as a parent during these next few years will be to stay positive. Making the transition from high school to college (and onward) will be emotional and at times frightening for your student, but having a confidant (you) with a positive, realistic and reassuring attitude will help make the road to adulthood seem a little less treacherous. Your role as a parent may be shifting, but it is still critically important. Whether or not your child will admit it, you will still play a big role in your child’s life during the college years.

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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30 Dec

Four Productive Ways to Spend Winter Break

Its not often that your student gets a solid two to four weeks with no academic obligations. Here are a few ways your child can take advantage of that free time.

1. Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships are NOT just for high school seniors, so all high school and college students should take advantage of winter break to apply for private scholarships. Your child should begin by compiling a list of mainly local and regional (and a few carefully selected national) scholarships targeted to his or her characteristics (leadership, volunteering), hobbies (art, cooking, sports, music, etc.) and other unique characteristics (does he/she have a twin, a unique medical condition, a diverse ethnic background, is a family member part of a company or organization that offers a scholarship ?). Taking the time to compile your own list will usually increase your child’s chances of winning than using an online scholarship search database such as FastWeb since you will be more likely to identify more regional scholarships that have less competition.

Once students have a list–which should be organized by due date so they don’t miss a deadline–they can begin filling out applications. Oftentimes a single essay can be used for several scholarships if students make only minor edits, so be sure your student spends time reading through each application’s essay prompts before starting–it could be a big time saver.

2. Get a Jump on SAT/ACT Prep

With no homework to occupy their time, high school sophomores and junior can use some of winter break to prepare for the all important SAT or ACT test. There are dozens of inexpensive ways to get started, from iPhone apps to free online practice tests. SAT prep books can also be a great resource if your student has the discipline to consistently work through the material.  Repeatedly taking practice tests has consistently proven to be one of the best ways to prepare.

Winter break is also the perfect time to take an SAT preparatory course. You may want to compare prices and courses among the national providers such as Kaplan, Sylvan and Princeton Review along with your local study centers and individual tutors.

3. Make College Visits

If local colleges similar to your student’s top choice colleges are still in session, winter break could be a great opportunity to take a look around. As I’ve mentioned before, looking at college campuses similar to far-away potential choices can give your child a sense of what that type of school (large/small, public/private, etc.) is like, without having to shell out big travel fees or spend days in a car or on a plane. If you have the time, you may want to make a quick trip to one of the schools your child has applied to.

4. Earn Extra Money for College

Time off from school is a great opportunity for your child to earn a few extra dollars for college costs–and a traditional job is definitely not the only option for winter break money-making. Aside from applying for scholarships, students can work for mom and dad or grandparents, house-sit for traveling neighbors, or take on a temporary job with a retailer hiring for the holiday rush. For more details and ideas about how your child can get to work, take a look at this article on 5 ways for students to earn money over winter break.

All the best,
Deborah Fox

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27 Dec

FAFSA Time is (Almost) Here Again

It’s time to prepare for financial aid season because the online Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) becomes available to fill out on January 1st.  Due to the fact that many colleges award federal and school-specific aid on a first-come, first-served basis, you’ll want to be prepared ahead of time so you can get your FAFSA filed within the first couple weeks of January.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is exactly what name its acronym represents–a free application for federal student aid. You simply fill out the online application and submit it.  Subsequently the government and your child’s college will use the information to determine what your family’s financial aid award (made up of one or more scholarships, grants, work-study and/or loans) will be. The FAFSA is administrated by the U.S. Department of Education.

Should We Apply?

No matter what your family’s income may be, you should apply for the FAFSA if you have a student who:

  1. Will be starting or continuing an undergraduate degree in college this coming fall, or
  2. Will be starting or continuing any type of graduate degree in college (including business, law, medical, etc.) this coming fall.

As I’ve mentioned before, many colleges and universities, state and federal governments, and private scholarships sponsors require your child to have submitted the FAFSA to qualify for their financial aid monies.

Equally as important, filing the FAFSA is the only way for students to get access to federal student loans, which are much more consumer friendly (and tend to have better loan terms) than private student loans. All families of college students, regardless of income, should file the FAFSA.

Where Do We Begin?

As I mentioned above, having the FAFSA completed as soon after January 1st as possible may increase your child’s chances of getting the best financial aid award for the upcoming college year. That means you should spend some time this month getting prepared. To get started you should:

  1. Apply for a PIN (your electronic signature) for both yourself and your student (or retrieve an old one if you have applied for the FAFSA before).  One parent and the student needs to have a PIN to electronically sign the FAFSA.
  2. Look over the official FAFSA on the Web Worksheet to become familiar with what this year’s FAFSA entails.
  3. Prepare income estimates (for both you and your child) for 2010’s earnings (don’ wait until your 2010 tax return is prepared–it will be much too late!).
  4. Gather personal information (SS cards, drivers’ licenses, bank statements, etc.) for both you and your student beforehand so you have it all in one place.

For details, helpful websites, and specifics, I suggest you look at last year’s article about how to get a jump on the FAFSA.

Where Do We Apply?

The only official portal for the FAFSA is http://www.fafsa.ed.gov.  The FAFSA is free to file.

(Note: There are some for-profit companies that have set up FAFSA-filing websites where you will be charged for the service.  You will still need to provide these sites with the same information you need to gather to file it yourself on the official FAFSA website.  I don’t recommend you pay for a filing service.)

Want to learn more? Read last year’s article about the 5 W’s of the FAFSA (note that the specific calendar years referred to should be increased by one year to be applicable for this year).  You can also learn the answers to common questions about the application.

All the best,
Deborah Fox

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28 Nov

10 Surprising Extra College Costs

I don’t need to tell any of my blog readers that college is expensive. Tuition costs alone can be overwhelming, but what many parents don’t expect is that there are many more hidden costs and fees when it comes to paying that college bill. Smart Money recently published a wonderful article about college fees you may not have planned for. I want to share some of their top items with you, as well as a few of my own.

1. Parking ($400 to $600)

Whether your student commutes to school or just wants to have a car while he or she lives on campus, you’ll quickly discover that parking isn’t free. Most colleges charge a parking fee, require you to have proof that you’ve paid it (like a tag), and often collect again at the beginning of each quarter or semester. Skipping out on the $400+ parking permit can be costly, too–students can be fined for parking violations, and according to Smart Money, some schools will even withhold your child’s diploma until those fines are paid.

2. Health Insurance ($30 to over $2000)

Most schools automatically sign students up for their health insurance plans (you usually have to opt out to use your family insurance coverage), and annual fees can vary from nothing at all to over $2,000. The quality of the coverage also varies school to school.

Another little-known fact many parents are surprised to learn is school health insurance often covers students only during the school year, leaving them uninsured during the summer months.

3. Greek Life ($2000 or more)

Fraternity and sorority fees can really empty out your pocketbook: your student joining a Greek organization can cost close to $2000 (or more). If your student plans to live in Greek housing and use the meal plan, you could be adding another $1000 per year to that tab.

4. Student Activities ($300)

Whether or not your student participates in the myriad of events and activities on campus, he or she is probably being charged for them. Most colleges charge a “student activity” fee every quarter or semester, which helps pay for things like having a campus-run newspaper, rec centers and gyms, and other on-campus clubs, dances and social events.

5. Text Books ($800)

Long-time readers will remember my previous mention of text book costs, which are nearly $800 per year for the average student. Renting, borrowing, and buying used can mean big savings when it comes to this particular college cost.

6. Lab and Supply Fees ($30 or more per class)

Most classes with required supplies will charge students a mandatory lab/supply fee. This can be anything from a few dollars for art course supplies to upwards of $50 or $100 for science or technology courses that have more expensive equipment to maintain or require extra supplies like a lab coat and eye protection.

7. Technology ($130 to $400 or more)

According to Smart Money, even computer labs come with a fee these days. Student fees pay to maintain equipment and cover the costs of printer ink and paper. Some schools even make students fund a printing account through which they pay by the page for anything they print on campus.

8. Dorm/Apartment Supplies ($200 or more)

Dorm room “must-haves” like the coveted mini-fridge or microwave don’t come with the space–students have to either purchase or rent them. Add to that the numerous other items your child wants to add to the space–artwork, new bedding (XL Twin sized, remember), and other creature comforts–and you could easily drop hundreds of dollars to furnish the space.

Students living off-campus will need to plan for any item not included in the rent, which can be anything from furniture to monthly utility bills.

9. Study Abroad Fees ($800)

In addition to tuition and the listed transportation, room and board costs, many schools charge an additional “maintenance fee” for a student to participate in a study abroad program – a fee used to help the college maintain a strong relationship with the host school. (This is more likely to be higher if the study abroad program is not already affiliated with your child’s school.)

10. Orientation Fees ($60 to $200)

Orientation–that few days or week your student spends on campus before the semester begins to bond with fellow freshman and learn about the lay of the land–is usually mandatory, and can cost upwards of $100 to attend. (Parents may have to pay an additional fee to attend as well.) Freshmen usually pay the largest fee, but even transfer students may have to foot a $50+ bill for orientation.

With all these unforeseen costs, it is no wonder students and parents can feel a little shell-shocked by the first college bill. I recommend you plan on setting aside a minimum of 10% of the tuition cost to help cover these additional costs.  Doing this will help you feel more prepared to meet the unknown.

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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24 Nov

Ivy Leagues Bid for Students With Increasing Scholarships

One of the first college funding “secrets” I discuss with my clients is how, with a scholarship award, a prestigious private school can actually cost about the same as a public college or university. With a sticker price difference in the tens of thousands of dollars, most of my clients have found this to be surprising–yet it’s true.

Playing the Game

Last December I wrote about Harvard’s impressive new financial aid rules, which changed their policy so that students whose families made $180,000 or less were guaranteed aid and only expected to contribute a total of 10% of their income to college costs.

Now a recent U.S. News article indicates that Cornell has announced a new policy of their own: they will match the financial aid offers of admitted students who also got into other Ivy League colleges and also “strive to match the parental contribution and loan levels” at their peer schools Duke, Stanford, and MIT. According to U.S. News, Dartmouth has agreed to follow a similar policy. With price tags upwards of $50,000 a year, any additional aid from these schools can make a big difference for students worried about how to pay for an Ivy League education.

The Secret is Out

For years I have helped students use competing financial aid offers to encourage the student’s first choice college to offer a higher scholarship bounty to entice the student to attend–and many students have ended up with higher financial aid packages than they would have otherwise.

The truth of the matter is that the college admissions process is big business: colleges want to make the best investment to get the best return on their money. That means many schools will compete with each other for students with good grades or other merits, for students they see as potential future benefactors, or for students they feel might bring prestige or recognition to their institution. And, as demonstrated by Cornell’s and Dartmouth’s new aid policies, they will bid against each other to attract the students they want.

Not Just for Straight A Students

At highly competitive schools such as Cornell and Dartmouth, it is usually the students with the highest grades, test scores and most impressive resumes who get the scholarship rewards.  But even students with a less-than-perfect GPA may be able to get schools to bid for them.

To increase the chances of getting offered higher aid awards, it is important that students apply to schools at which they are competitive students (in the top 25% of the applicant pool), and that the schools they apply to compete with each other for the same type of students. (Keep this in mind as your student finalizes his or her college list.)

After your family has received all your financial aid award letters next spring, you can compare them and, if appropriate, attempt to get additional funding from your student’s top-choice school by leveraging larger awards from competing schools. Your student’s school of choice may or may not bite, but if your student is highly desirable to the college, your family may indeed be offered additional grant or scholarship money, or a tuition discount.  (Note: it is not appropriate to ask for additional financial aid from a college unless your student will definitely accept the offer of admission if the school grants the request.)

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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21 Nov

20-Somethings are Taking Longer to Grow Up

We all hope that once that glorious diploma is in our child’s hand, he or she has reached the next level of officially stepping out of childhood and into adulthood. While this may have been the case years ago (and true for some graduates in current times) a recent New York Times article explained that more and more students are delaying adulthood–sometimes all the way into their thirties!

Meaningful Milestones

A generation ago when current baby boomers were graduating college, it was expected that a college graduate would begin their life as an adult. In the 1970’s, it wasn’t unusual for people in their early twenties to be living on their own, supporting themselves financially, and even purchase their first home. In short, 20-somethings in the seventies often achieved the five milestones that traditional sociology marks as integral to the transition to adulthood:

  1. Leaving home,
  2. Completing school,
  3. Attaining financial independence,
  4. Getting married, and
  5. Becoming a parent.

While marriage and parenthood may not be considered requisites for adulthood in this day in age, I think most parents and children would agree that steps one through three–leaving home, completing a higher education, and becoming financially independent–are crucial steps on that path.

Slow and Unsteady

Many students now seem disinclined to rush toward independence and adulthood. In fact, one of my earliest posts on the Pay for College Blog was about “boomerang” children–those students who complete their 4 years of college and move right back home with mom and dad.

Today’s college graduates move at different paces towards adulthood–some will step out of the undergrad years right into independence, while others will delay adulthood by opting out of a career search in favor of more schooling, moving back into their parent’s home, or asking their parents for financial support.  (I remember like it was yesterday how I and my college friends felt after we graduated college back in the early 80s: we wouldn’t have been caught dead moving back in with our parents!  We were committed to doing whatever it took to be independent.  Times have sure changed since then…)

Encouraging Adulthood

One of our most important roles as parents is to help our children build the courage and faith to embrace adulthood when the time comes. I have addressed several ways we can help our children prepare for their truly independent years in previous articles–you may find them helpful in encouraging your child to take the reigns after graduation:

Remember, the earlier you start preparing your child, the more empowered–and less anxious–he or she will feel on graduation day.

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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19 Nov

5 Things Every Parent Should Know About College Applications

1. Most Students Despise College Applications

Don’t be surprised if your student suddenly catches a case of “senioritis” and begins to balk at the whole idea of applying for college in the thick of college application season. (And don’t think I was immune just because I have 12 years of experience in this field – my son still had a meltdown moment when it was his turn to fill out those applications!)

It doesn’t matter how excited a student is about the upcoming college years, for most of our children the application process can be simply overwhelming at some point along the way. After all, students feel they are – in a matter of months – making huge decisions about the next four years of their lives.  They know their lives will change dramatically as far as who their friends will be, what their learning environment will be, where they will be living and how competitive they will be in the post-grad job market. It certainly can be intimidating!

That said, offer your student advice and feedback when it is asked for.  Be encouraging and let your student know that you have faith in him or her to make the right decisions. You may even have a few good stories of your own to tell your student about when you were at the same cross road in your life.  Remind your student that the whole application process will be over in a couple of months – a small blip in the timeline of the high school and college years.

2. Gimmicks are a No-No

There are lots of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” when it comes to the college application process, but one of the biggest faux pas admissions officers complain about are gimmicky applications. Students should focus on their uniquenesses and strive to let their personality come out in the application.  They should also make sure they completely skip attention-getting schemes like writing the entire essay in crayon. Admissions officers want to get a real sense of who your student is – what makes him or her tick.  This makes it important for students to write in their own voice about something memorable.

3. You Don’t Need 20 Different Essays

Many students are intimidated by the “personal statement” or essay portion of a college application, especially if they are applying to a whole list of schools. Happily, there is no need for your child to craft a separate essay for each and every school. Instead, help your child look over the prompts for each and choose a topic or experience that can apply to most of them. It is much better to write a single, well-written essay and make a few key edits than to write dozens of so-so essays.  The topic of each essay should not only grab and hold the reader’s attention while they are reading the application, but also be remembered long after the application has been put down.  Telling a good story about a life experience can often be very effective in being remembered.

4. Be Yourself

It may sound cheesy, but students should try to be open and honest about themselves in their applications. This doesn’t mean students should write their personal statement without proper writing etiquette – proof reading is key, and internet or texting slang is a definite no-no!  Instead they should try to share some heartfelt details that communicate their core values.

Admissions officers are not looking for a flawless application–in fact, a perfect application can sometimes be a red flag. Instead, they are looking for a student who will likely succeed in their school’s environment and add an interesting dimension to the freshman class. If your child appears to be worried about how he or she will come across, or is clinging to the fear of getting rejected, remind him or her that sharing a realistic self-portrait will be a sure-fire way to help the college decide if it will be a good fit for your student, not the other way around.  If your student has truly taken the time to research various colleges and has narrowed the college list down to schools that would be a good fit both academically and otherwise, he or she needs to demonstrate to the admissions office in the application why that is the case.

5. Preparation is Important

The college application process can be competitive (that’s part of the reason so many students despise the process), but good preparation can take a lot of pressure off your student. Read through my article about how to get a head start on college applications to learn what you and your child can do together to make the process go more smoothly from start to finish.

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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16 Nov

High School Juniors and Seniors, Start Your Scholarship Searches!

Scholarships and financial aid are NOT just for high school students, but getting an early start means your student will have the opportunity to apply to scholarships throughout high school and college. A huge number of organizations offer scholarships only to high school seniors, which means your student should prepare early in senior year (or better yet, even sooner) to ensure he or she has the best range of options. Remember, when it comes to covering college costs, every little bit helps!

Go Local

It may be tempting to do a quick search at nationwide scholarship search engines like FastWeb or College Board, but students should really be focused on the more localized scholarship opportunities. Scholarships available only to state, county, or city residents naturally have a smaller eligibility base–which means your student already has a greater chance of winning.

Me, Me, Me

Another great way for students to find scholarships with smaller applicant pools is to focus on what is unique about them. Even national scholarships with specific criteria are worth looking into. Students can focus their scholarship searches on skills, sports, hobbies, experiences, medical issues, intended career or major, or other personalized characteristics. In the past we have seen students apply for scholarships based on left-handedness, having a twin, photography, cooking or dancing skills, having a sibling who battled cancer, and various majors.

Beyond the Internet

Running a Google search can be a great way to begin a scholarship list, but students need to go beyond simple internet queries. In general, the easier it is to locate a particular scholarship, the more applicants there will be to compete with. Do some extra leg work to find local and regional scholarships that aren’t included in the results from popular internet scholarship search sites.  At the very least, students should also discuss scholarship opportunities with:

  • Their high school counseling office,
  • Their (potential) college financial aid office,
  • Local service organizations (ex. Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions), and
  • Local or national organizations related to their interests or intended field of study.

Further Reading

I am a big believer in the helpfulness of scholarship funds in helping to meet the cost of college. You may want to take a look at these other scholarship-related articles for more information about how to help increase your child’s scholarship-winning potential:

All the best,
Deborah Fox


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