2022 Hawai‘i College Guide: Ready, Set, College!

HONOLULU Magazine’s guide to navigating the road to college.



Photo: Courtesy of Chaminade University



Time flies when you’re parenting, and it seems we go from talking about the Tooth Fairy one minute to having serious conversations about college the next. The opportunities provided by higher education—economic, social and psychological—are enormous, but the task of finding the right school can seem just as huge. Soaring tuition costs have raised the stakes, and there’s a lot more college pressure on young people than there was just a few decades ago. But, with research, patience and organization, you can definitely come up with a strategy that works for your family.


“Start early,” says Kāhala resident Denise Wheeler, who has completed the college search process for her two kids. “Start thinking about where your child envisions themselves: Is region important? Is a certain area of interest, or size of school a major point?”


Her daughter, Cassidy Wheeler, graduated from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee in 2021 and her son, Samuel Wheeler, is starting his junior year at Santa Clara University. “Cass liked Vanderbilt from the first presentation that they did one evening in the fall of her sophomore year,” says Denise Wheeler. For Sam, Santa Clara was not his first choice, but “he has fallen in love with it because he has made good friends through rugby and the Hawai‘i Club,” she says. “I think it’s a good fit for Sam, who fits the California casual vibe.”


Wheeler says it is important to “manage expectations as there are so many qualified students applying. Don’t get stuck on rankings when considering a school.”


According to Malia Kau, a college and career counselor at Radford High School, students are applying to an average of seven schools. “Have two ‘reach’ schools, schools they’ve always dreamt of attending. Have two ‘guaranteed I’m going to get in’ schools, and then three in that middle range,” she says. “We aren’t just talking about the academic range, but also looking at cost.”


The key is to start early with your strategy, around the freshman year of high school. “Encourage your child to do what they love, but to also give back with that talent or gift,” says Donna Finley, founder of a private college counseling practice in San Diego. “Maybe your child is great at soccer and she or he can give classes to underprivileged kids. It’s not always about the résumé. It’s about being a good human being. And, hopefully, the side effect is finding a good school and something they want to study.”


Financial Aid

The parents and education experts we talked to agree on one thing: It’s critical to involve teens in the financial conversation early on. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and not look at the financial realities. “Start planning early—very early,” says Kelly Berganio, whose daughter, Alexis Berganio, is a freshman at Chapman University. “When it comes time to start talking about money, it has to be a very open, honest conversation. Start talking about it from the beginning of high school so everyone knows where the family stands. It can’t be a last-minute discussion.”


The biggest provider of student aid in the country is the office of Federal Student Aid, which handles loans, grants and work-study programs to the tune of more than $150 billion each year. Other sources include state aid, aid from colleges and aid from nonprofits and private organizations, like Rotary or Lions clubs.


All students should start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which takes about half an hour to fill out online once you gather tax returns and other pertinent documents. The application will also be shared with the financial-aid offices of the colleges listed on the application, so the colleges can figure out what aid they want to offer. Colleges look at the cost of attending the school, subtract the expected family contribution, and that indicates the financial need. Applications are available each year on Oct. 1 for the following year at fafsa.gov. Important note: FAFSA applications need to be filled out each year a student is in college.


Anywhere from three days to three weeks after filing, the office of Federal Student Aid sends you a Student Aid Report. Look this over closely to make sure everything is correct. From there, a college can send you an aid offer, either on paper or electronically.


Don’t discount the possibility of independent scholarships. ‘Iolani graduate Shane Severino landed the Regents Scholarship at UH Mānoa that not only paid for his entire undergraduate tuition, but also a $4,000 a year stipend and a one-time $2,000 travel grant. “I was already leaning toward UH, but the scholarship sealed the deal. With the cost of tuition these days, applying to scholarships was always a part of my college plans. I didn’t want to burden myself or my mom with student loans,” says Severino. “There are plenty of opportunities out there, all it takes is a little bit of searching.”


It’s important to note that scholarship money is available even if you’re not at the top of your class. “There’s no harm in applying to scholarships,” says Alexis Berganio. “You have a shot just like everyone else.”



Photo: Getty Images




Nearly 400 colleges, universities and scholarship programs use the College Board Scholarship Service application, called CSS/PROFILE, to determine to whom they’ll grant aid. The application is different from the FAFSA and takes between 45 minutes and two hours to complete. There is a fee to file this application, so only do so if the school(s) or scholarship programs of your choice are asking for it. It’s $25 for one college or program; additional reports are $16.


In Hawai‘i

In 2020, the University of Hawai‘i Foundation raised $80.7 million to support UH students, programs, research and faculty. “The bulk of our students are still first-generation kids or of minority/immigrant status, so the need for scholarships is particularly great,” says Donna Vuchinich, former president and CEO of the UH Foundation. She recommends using the organization’s database, found at uhfoundation.org, to “slice and dice it” to see what financial aid might be a good fit. She has two pieces of advice. First, if a student is enrolling in a community college, ensure she or he is taking at least 15 credits. “If kids don’t take that many credits, they don’t tend to do as well.” Second, apply early: “November and December for summer scholarships; February through May for fall. Don’t wait until you graduate to start looking.”


The Hawai‘i Community Foundation administers more than 280 scholarship funds and annually awards $6 million in student aid for students bound for college locally or on the mainland. “We begin the process in November, and encourage families to start early,” says Eric La‘a, a philanthropic adviser at HCF. “The application process is quite extensive.” The good news? The platform is set up so students can be matched with more than one scholarship. But the number of applicants has increased significantly in recent years, so apply as early as you can.


Students who are of Hawaiian ancestry may be eligible for scholarships through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). Visit oha.org/scholarships for information on the OHA programs.


Upcoming Dates

Oct. 1

FAFSA forms become available. The online FAFSA application must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. Central time on June 30, 2022.
However, many colleges will require this earlier. Complete the CSS/PROFILE to find more scholarship options.



Hawai‘i Community Foundation opens its scholarship application process. Check hawaiicommunityfoundation.org for updated deadlines.



The deadline for financial aid applications at most colleges.



Many colleges send out acceptance letters during this month.


May 1

Many colleges require that you reply with your intent to enroll by this date.





When it came time to find a college, Carla Stroh-Palalay let her daughter, Molly Palalay, who is a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, take the reins. “Molly’s a pretty independent kid so for the most part we let her decide, but I did ‘help’ eliminate a school I thought wouldn’t be a good choice based on location or program,” says Stroh-Palalay.


U.S. News & World Report and Forbes are helpful resources for comparing schools. Websites such as cappex.com can help inform you of what your chances are of getting in.


Of the 14 schools Palalay applied to, she was accepted into nine and waitlisted for four. “Once all the acceptance letters were in, we made a grid on a white board,” says Stroh-Palalay. “We labeled pros and cons for all programs as well as the school’s location and of course cost!” They also eliminated schools whose programs were not as important to Palalay.


“I think it’s important to know what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are when helping them decide on a college,” says Stroh-Palalay. “I also think it’s important that you need to put away your personal emotional feelings about them leaving. Our whole goal is to raise our children to be strong, independent adults and this is just the beginning of that! Let them mostly make the choice but with your guidance.”


Palalay advises students to “apply to a good number of schools so you have options. Try not to have a first-choice school in case you don’t get in, but instead have something like a top three.”


The Common Application

Nearly 900 colleges and universities, including some schools abroad, accept the Common Application. That’s a lot of schools, and can save you time on not having to fill out what feels like 413 applications. However, check with every college to which you’re applying to ensure they accept the Common Application. Find it at commonapp.org.



Crunching The Numbers At UH Mānoa
(2021–2022 School Year)



In-state tuition (average)



Nonresident tuition (average)



Western Undergraduate Exchange rate



Pacific Island Exemption rate




Photo: Getty Images



The Essay

Colleges and universities are most interested in grades and scores, but essays can be a tiebreaker. It’s similar to a job application: The résumé is like the application, and the essay is more like a job interview, a human connection. Here are some helpful tips:


  • Parents should not write their children’s essays for them, but should help proofread.
  • Skip the story about volunteering abroad. It’s become a cliché.
  • Google the school of interest, plus “essays that worked.”
  • The website inlikeme.com, which focuses on college applications, has a lot of resources on essay writing.


Should you hire a college counselor?

Derrick Kang, Director of College Counseling at Mid-Pacific Institute, suggests checking out the Hawai‘i Association for College Admission Counseling at hawaiiacac.org. “Almost all of Hawai‘i’s college counselors are part of the HACAC. I encourage you to take a look at the HACAC site to see events that will be coming up because there are going to be a number of programs that are going to be available to students and families,” says Kang. “Oftentimes if a specific high school is offering a program, we will make it open to the community. So, a lot of the programs that are happening in the state will be publicized there.”


Kang also encourages students to get to know their college counseling staff. “We are here to support students and help guide them through the process. There’s no reason anyone should do this all on their own,” says Kang. “I can’t think of any school locally that doesn’t have a college counselor or a counselor that is not willing to help or support a student and family.”


But some counselors are simply overwhelmed. “Nationally the average is 400 students per counselor; that’s why people turn to independent educational consultants,” says Finley, the private college consultant. She works with students as early as freshman and sophomore year, helping with course selection, extracurricular activities and developing career interests. “Kids used to think they had to be well-rounded. Now, it’s go deeper, instead of wider.” She works with juniors on applications, essays, college selection and financial aid options.


Some consultants charge hourly, others have a package price. Visit the Independent Educational Consultants Association at iecaonline.com to find a consultant.


Western Undergraduate Exchange Program

Hey, neighbor! Can I get a kama‘āina discount? Actually, you can. The Western Undergraduate Exchange Program allows students from 16 western states, plus the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, to attend colleges and universities at 150% of the school’s in-state tuition, rather than at an out-of-state rate. There are more than 160 institutions participating; check the database at wiche.edu/wue/students. But there are loopholes, too. Some colleges require a certain ACT or SAT test score, others limit the number of program participants each year, and still others only feature it for certain majors. There is no separate application process; it’s part of the regular process and you check off the WUE box. Our advice? Apply early and check with the admissions office for the institution you want to attend for more details.


Making the Most of Your College Visits

Since road trips from Hawai‘i can’t happen, it can be challenging for families to tour mainland colleges. But if you can afford a trip, there are two schools of thought: Go before the application process, to narrow down choices, or go after acceptance, to aid in the final decision-making. The costs of college tours are not tax deductible, but, if parents can piggyback a legitimate work trip onto the college visit, that may be a way to cut down the costs of airfare, hotels and a rental car.


Viewpoint: Go Before

“If a family takes a trip to Los Angeles for a family vacation freshman year, I would definitely tell them to take a look at a couple of campuses where they’re at,” says Radford’s Kau. “Even if it’s just to get a feel for what colleges have to offer.” 


The feel of the college was huge for the Berganios. “It sounds cliché, but when you get on to campus you get a feeling,” says Kelly Berganio. “It’s really important to visit urban, suburban, rural, small, medium, large. You don’t know what you don’t know until you go to visit.” 


Alexis Berganio explains that she originally thought she wanted to go to an urban campus, but when she visited, she knew it wasn’t right for her. “I thought all urban areas looked like New York, and I was wrong,” she says. 


“I think it’s always good to visit colleges as early as possible to get a feel for what a college campus is like,” says Kau. If you can’t make it for a tour, take advantage of the opportunities to meet with college representatives when they visit the Islands, and contact the school to see if you can talk with current students, ideally those who came from Hawai‘i. 


For visits to local colleges such as UH, Chaminade, HPU and the community colleges, work with the admissions office prior to a visit. Sometimes there are open house days; other times, you can set up a tour of campus and housing. Feel free to ask to meet with someone from the department you’re interested in to get a feel for the program and faculty. 


Viewpoint: Go After Acceptance

“Why would I spend $1,000 going to a school that my kid might not even get into?” says Lillian Klein, a mother of three children who have gotten into college. “This is a strategic mission. You can wait and do your visit when you have choices, once you have acceptance.” In the meantime, she and her daughters researched schools online. “Look at the message boards, communicate with parents whose kids are at the school. You can get a sense of the flavor of the student body.”


For Sierra Hamamoto, visiting schools after being accepted was the deciding factor for where she would spend the next four years. She first visited the University of California, Davis, but found it wasn’t the atmosphere she was looking for. “When I visited the University of British Columbia it was a much better experience because there was a whole mix of people from all around the world on the tour with me,” says Hamamoto. “The campus was like a little city with each building built in a different style. It was really fun to walk around, visit the bookstore, check out what kind of food you could eat there, and to get an idea of the student body and the people you’d be around.” She is now a junior at the University of British Columbia studying natural resource conservation.


For many, however, visiting schools is not feasible. The website campustours.com has stats on more than 1,700 schools, with links directly to each school’s virtual tours and campus maps.



Upcoming ACT Test Dates

Oct. 23
Register by Sept. 17; late registration until Oct. 1


Dec. 11
Register by Nov. 5


Feb. 12
Register by Jan. 7


April 2
Register by Feb. 25


June 11
Register by May 6


July 16
Register by June 17




Photo: Courtesy of Hawai‘i Pacific University



Helpful Websites

Come up with a big-picture plan at the nonprofit College Board’s website, bigfuture.collegeboard.org, or knowhow2go.org, which helps middle and high school students prep for the college route.


College Navigator is a resource provided by the U.S. Department of Education. It has the scoop on every college in the country, with data on admissions, retention, graduation rates and financial aid. Narrow down choices, build a list of favorites for side-by-side comparisons and create your own interactive maps and spreadsheets. nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator


U.S. News & World Report has a College Compass service ($39.95/year) that has profiles of more than 1,900 schools, including data on campus life, sports and financial aid. usnews.com/usnews/store/college_compass.htm


The forums on College Confidential are renowned for providing information on what’s really happening on U.S. campuses. collegeconfidential.com


The National Association for College Admission Counseling has an extensive offering of resources for students and parents, including schedules of college fairs and plenty of resources in the Knowledge Center. nacacnet.org


If obstacles feel insurmountable, visit youcango.collegeboard.org, with success stories for students who overcame challenges getting into college—and resources to help others to do the same.



Timeline to Success

Finding and getting accepted to the right college or university is actually a four-year process. That may sound daunting, but take each step one at a time and stay organized, and you’ll be fine. Here’s how to manage the road to college admission:


9th Grade

  • Enroll in challenging classes.
  • Keep grades up.
  • Get involved in extra-curricular activities.
  • Explore potential career paths.
  • Set up a college savings plan.
  • Develop good time-management skills.


10th Grade

  • Try some AP classes.
  • Take a practice Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) in October (this year, it’s Oct. 13, 16 and 26). Juniors qualify to compete for the National Merit Scholarship Program, but younger students can take it for practice. collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt
  • Consider volunteering during the summer.
  • Visit campuses while traveling, just to get a sense of what type of college appeals to you. Small? Big? Public? Private?


11th Grade

  • In October or early November, take the PSAT/NMSQT.
  • Sign up to take the ACT or SAT. Colleges usually accept either one, but check with where you’re interested. Many students will take the test once as a junior and again as a senior. Is it worth taking it twice? According to ACT, 57% of students increased their Composite score on the retest.
  • Visit campuses if possible.
  • Attend college fairs and network with the college representatives.


12th Grade

  • In the fall, repeat the ACT/SAT tests. Sign up for the SAT Subject Tests, if appropriate. Send in scores.
  • Gather teacher and other personal recommendations. Send thank yous afterward!
  • Narrow down the list, but have at least four to eight schools to apply to.
  • Draft your essay. Leave enough time for at least two people to read it and comment.
  • Check all due dates at the colleges you want to attend; they vary by institution and you don’t want to miss anything.




Photos: Getty Images



Standardized Tests

SAT/SAT Subject Tests

The nationally administered SAT tests reading, writing and math and is used to test how ready a student is for college. The SAT Subject Tests are also used by many colleges for admission consideration, particularly for certain majors, and to help with course placement. For bilingual students, the Subject Tests are also an excellent opportunity to show off mastery in another language, like Mandarin, Japanese or Korean. For more, go to sat.collegeboard.org/home.


Registration deadlines are typically a month ahead of the test. Test dates are as follows: Oct. 2, Nov. 6, Dec. 4, March 12, May 7, June 4. collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/register/dates-deadlines


If you have been tested for dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or believe you may qualify for accommodations such as extra time, visit accommodations.collegeboard.org or act.org to learn more.



The ACT is a national college admissions exam that includes English, math, reading and science questions. The ACT Plus Writing includes a 30-minute writing test, which is required by some colleges and not others. In Hawai‘i, the state picks up the cost of taking the ACT for all public school juniors. To register, visit act.org.


DO bring a current photo ID issued by a city/state/federal government agency or the high school, as well as printed test ticket and calculator.

DON’T bring a cell phone to an SAT test; they are prohibited. ACT test sites allow cell phones if they are turned off and placed out of reach.


Additional reporting by Cassidy Keola, Ashley Mizuo, Shinae Lee and Eve Huddleston


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