We learn about intellectual vitality from both the student and the recommendations. And we are looking to see how all the pieces fit together. Does the way the student describes himself fit the portrait painted by the recommendations? Do we have a whole person or fragments? Obviously, honesty, sincerity, and insight play major roles in writing a convincing set of essays. Gimmicks, trying to figure out what we want, usually result in bland, uninvolving, boring applications.

Colleges are interested, like the Greeks, in the "examined life." We don't expect an 18 year-old to have all the answers. Which adults among us have all those answers, by the way? We want to see what your questions are, what your passions are, what you care about enough to invest yourself in, what you are moved by. At some point, it is too late to do much about your grades and your test scores. They take on permanence like your genotype. But it's never too late to start leading a reflective life. It always astonishes me that more applicants and their families do not understand this.

Q: How do I pay for college?

A: Editor, Homeschool.com: Are you aware of the real costs of higher education? Unless your child is a star athlete or you started that invest-early-and-often college savings plan at their birth, the following estimates may hurt.

The average price tag for a diploma from a four-year private college is $102,000, and that is just tuition! Things like food, room and transportation are not included. You can expect that even at your local State U you will invest approximately $38,000. But, there is help.

Below, we have listed several suggestions that can help you financially prepare for your child's outstanding college experience, without the six-digit price tag.

Community college isn't what it used to be:

Attending a junior college or community college was once considered a second-rate option, but with the rising cost of higher education, community colleges have become a smart way to go. Attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year university, not only cuts the price of a four-year degree in half, it gives students a chance to improve their GPA. In some states, community college transfer students are given first priority for admission into universities.

What about a virtual education?

There is nothing virtual about the B.A. you can get online. Virtual colleges and distance learning programs are relatively new and a viable option in today's world of technological advances.

Excelsior College Examinations (http://www.excelsior.edu), the oldest correspondence school in the world and America's first virtual college, is a great place to earn a B.A. for about $2,000 without leaving the comfort of your home! With billions of dollars being poured into online learning, millions of students will have degrees from virtual colleges. Although virtual colleges will not replace their brick and mortar counterparts, they are a very attractive option for working adults and students that don't think an on-campus college experience is essential.

Financial Aid can be found, if you look for it:

There are two general categories of aid, outright gifts and inexpensive loans. Sources for these come from federal and state governments, private industry and fraternal and religious organizations. Because this is such a huge subject, it pays (literally) to read several books, and delve into researching on the web. The books and web sites listed below are a great place to start:

"Don't Miss Out: The Ambitious Student's Guide to Financial Aid," by Robert and Anna Lieder. (25th Edition) Today, nearly everyone is eligible for some sort of assistance when it comes to paying for college. With clear prose and irreverent humor, "Don't Miss Out" explores grants, loans, scholarships, and tax credits.