What’s in a Name? Names and College Documents

This article is written by Heather McCowen, Ph.D., CIT Consultant.

There are many reasons why students may not have all their naming ducks in a row. While working in both public schools and in independent consulting, I’ve encountered countless situations in which the sort of name issues have arisen that can cause the college admissions process to derail. Here are some best practices and ideas to ensure all name issues run smoothly.

Standardized Testing- Many times students are filling out testing paperwork at school for a practice SAT or Pre-ACT. They are bubbling in scantron sheets and filling out paperwork the same way they fill out any other school piece of paper. They may put their nickname on the scantron and think nothing of it. That name is now associated with their testing record and possibly student testing ID. During subsequent testing administrations, they must use this name, or their testing record isn’t all in one place. I’ve seen this happen in several instances – students using nicknames, changing their last name when a step-parent adopts them, or transgender students. Changing a name with the standardized testing agencies can be a long process and usually requires a letter from the High School counselor and possibly documentation (a birth certificate). Also, the name needs to match their transcripts so that their test scores are attached to the right admissions file if submitted by the testing agency.

Transcripts- Transcripts are the proof of graduation and fulfillment of graduation requirements that college use to verify the student is clear to start college. The name on the transcript needs to match the name on the college application so that all documents will land in the correct admission file.  In working with transgender students, the student often goes by a different name at school, but legally they have not changed their name. It can be difficult for students who no longer associate themselves with the name given at birth to use it on college applications. The problem comes when two different names are used during the admission process, as the college needs to make sure they have the right person’s documents in the correct file. As a High School counselor, I could place a notation on the official transcript that worked for most colleges but not all. Also, not every counselor has the ability to do that. If a student is going to legally change their name, they should aim to complete this process by the end of their 11th-grade year or wait until after the college admission process is complete and change it directly with the college they will be attending. I found that having an honest conversation about names and documents helps students understand this process. It’s not that we don’t want to call them by their preferred name; it is just that the names have to match.

Financial Aid- This is usually the place where names matter most. When students and their families fill out the FAFSA, they create an FSA ID using their name, date of birth, and social security number. The FAFSA account then verifies that the name, date of birth, and social security number all match what the social security administration has in the official records. If these don’t match, it will hold up the FAFSA filing process. The best practice here is the same with transcripts. Either has the official name change done by the end of the junior year, before filing the FAFSA in October of senior year or wait and change the name (and associated social security number record) after being admitted to college.

Changing your name at the college- This process is pretty straightforward. I did this during graduate school after my divorce. All that was required was a trip to the registrar’s office and documentation that I had changed my name. It’s similar to any other name-change situation. There will be required documentation needed and a form filled out. The registrar will help you easily.

Names are important, and we want everyone called by the name they want to go by. My son uses a nickname for his long given name, and I always pause when filling out paperwork to think through which one to use. If you anticipate that your student has strong feelings about the name they use and their legal name, and a name change is not something that is going to happen, talking through why legal names need to be used on documents is a good practice before the college application season starts in August before 12th grade. If you find that standardized testing has occurred under a name that isn’t their legal name, I suggest reaching out to your HS counselor to get everything on the same page. 

Names have power, and getting them right is important.