College Planning: Are You Ready For It?

You can see college on the horizon, and your child is approaching it more quickly than you would like. Whether your teen is in ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade, you need to be thinking about planning for college. This next step is not a one day event that happens when senior year arrives. It is a process that should begin when high school does. Though it can be overwhelming, planning for college can be a positive experience for both you and your teen. 

No Time Like the Present
Start the conversation. Ellen Frazier, College Advisor at St. Joseph’s Academy, advises that “conversations about college can begin early, especially if it is an expectation within the family. Talk with your child about what she’s interested in for college and a career, but understand that what she is looking for may change frequently.” Maintain an open dialogue with your teenager about her interests and goals while encouraging focus on the day-to-day tasks at hand. Frazier adds that engaged parents should be continually encouraging their student to be active on campus and to keep up their academic work. 

“If quality education is a priority in your family, don’t ignore the present because you’re spending too much time planning for the future. The present is the most important time period. Making good grades and building a strong resume now will pay off later,” Allison Bruton, College Advisor at St. Joseph’s Academy, shares. 

Just as you start the conversation early, begin saving early as well. Joni M. Leggio, Assistant Vice President of Lela FAFSA Completion & College Access, reminds parents, “It is never too early to start saving for college.”

Know What Colleges Are Looking For 
No matter what colleges specifically require, there are a few wise guidelines for your students to follow in order to have a good shot at getting into the school they want. When it comes to academics, a strong GPA is where it’s at, but be sure to schedule challenging classes carefully. “Admissions reps want to see that students have challenged themselves with honors and AP courses, but students have to find a balance because GPA really speaks toward work ethic. If you are involved in a challenging curriculum, but your GPA suffers, you have to find a balance. Challenge yourself if the ability is there,” Bruton advises. If your teen excels in maths and sciences, but struggles in English, they may want to take advanced courses in biology and physics, but avoid an English AP. Frazier adds, “Good grades in the core academic subjects provides evidence of strong work ethic and time management skills,” two key traits all colleges look for in their prospective students. 

Extracurricular activities are also extremely important for your student. And, like most things in life, quality rises above quantity. Schools are looking for “ongoing commitment,” Frazier shares. There needs to be “evidence of more than being on the roll. Did the student serve in a leadership position (organize a project, serve on a committee, hold office)?” She suggests that freshmen explore some activities and then focus on one or two clubs, organizations, sports, and participate fully.

Ongoing commitment can be applied to volunteering also. Encourage your student to find an organization that is a good fit, and serve in a committed way. “Short-lived opportunities that arise can certainly be used, but flitting about for four years from one volunteer area to another is not commitment,” says Frazier. College admissions reps are looking for a committed effort. 

Do Your Research 
Once your teen has an idea of a few schools she is interested in, it’s time to do some research. You have to know what is required and what that education will cost. Researching will enable you to help your teen narrow down her favorites and give her an idea of what she needs to do on her end.

Plan a Road Trip
When your student has an idea of where they want to spend their university years, it’s time to plan their college visits. The importance of these trips cannot be stressed enough. Frazier recommends, “Students should not apply to schools that they have not visited when classes are in session. A student won’t know if the school is a good ‘fit’ if she has never been on campus.”

“College visits can begin the summer between sophomore and junior years and should include a range of schools, i.e. in-state public, out-of-state public, and private, both large and small, city and smaller city/town. At sophomore level, visits should be about exposure to options rather than making definitive choices. Between junior and senior years, the focus should be more on narrowing down the choices,” Frazier recommends.

The Role of the Parent and the Student
Sometimes there can be some confusion as to what the student is responsible for and what the parent’s job is during the college process. In an effort to assure their child is in the best place possible, parents may overstep their bounds and actually prohibit their child from gaining experience and independence. 

“The student has to take responsibility and ownership of what they’re interested in. It’s really on them,” Frazier explains. “He should be responsible for researching school websites relative to possible majors, visiting with college representatives on the high school campus and at college fairs, discussing plans with a school counselor and college advisor, and filling out applications.” 

Parents have the role of supervising their student’s progress, but not taking the helm. “Sometimes parents who are overly involved take all that ownership away from the student so it’s like the student is passively applying, and it may be to things they don’t even want. The parent should facilitate visits whenever possible, be aware of deadlines, be supportive, but not take over the student’s role in the application process,” shares Frazier. 

You can be their cheerleader and expert during the process, but not their employee. You are there to check in and support, not do for your teen. 

Get Your Finances in Order 
“Parents should make every effort to be realistic about the financial implications on college choice as well as avoid pressuring the student to follow in the parents’ footsteps or attend a school that is the parental choice. This must be a family decision, based on realistic expectations for travel, housing, tuition expenses, and personal expenses,” Frazier emphasizes. 

Take a deep breath because this can be the scary part. The cost for college has risen exponentially over the last decade. You may have in mind how much it cost when you went to college, but your student’s tuition will far surpass that, so be sure to research accordingly. Bruton contributes, “Parents most definitely can educate themselves early about the cost of college. One of the things we find is that the cost of public and private education has increased dramatically, much more than what inflation provides.” Forbes recommends that the best way to determine the total price of a school is to use a net price calculator on colleges and universities’ websites. These calculators can help you estimate the actual price of attending the school after factoring in financial aid and merit awards.  Despite the overwhelming financial burden of college, you do not have to panic. Through scholarships, grants, and loans, your family can do it. 

When it comes to scholarships, understanding the connection between academic performance and merit scholarships is critical. Frazier explains, “While there are hundreds of private scholarships available on a national level, some are quite specific in eligibility, and finding ones that may be worth the application time takes time. The application pool is large and the competition for a single scholarship is often nationwide. There is not a giant pot of scholarship money ready for the grabbing! Merit scholarships based on strong GPAs and ACT/SAT scores are the most common scholarships, and the money usually increases with greater excellence in those areas.” 

You may qualify for federal and state financial aid, though, so don’t despair. “A huge myth regarding Financial Aid is that the family assumes they will not qualify for any type of aid. The fact is that you will never know unless you submit the FAFSA. We have seen students who are more or less living on their own thinking that a college education is not in the cards for them and then they file a FAFSA and qualify for a full Pell Grant,” says Leggio.

Let Them Spread Their Wings 
While this article may provide information, it doesn’t help you let your baby leave the nest. This is a step you have to take on your own. Supporting your child through this journey can bring you closer together emotionally before she leaves the house. This process can be a positive bonding experience for the family. Remember that your student is establishing new confidence and independence throughout this journey. “A senior will be a college freshman in a very short time and must learn to be assertive, prepared, and independent,” Frazier reminds us. ■


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