January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school.
Now is the time because the first semester or second term is ending and some students have practice SAT or ACT test scores back. With a current GPA in hand and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on standardized testing, students have a general idea of the academic level of the schools that might be a good fit for them. That makes it a little easier to narrow down the list from the thousands of potential colleges to which your child might be interested in applying.
Your child probably doesn’t need to be reminded that this is the year that colleges will examine most critically to see that a student is challenging him or herself academically. Your student should make extra effort to participate in class discussions, as junior year teachers are typically the ones asked to write recommendation letters. This participation can also take the form of asking for extra help or attending review sessions – skills that will be needed in college as well!
Hopefully, your student has been able to participate in activities this year outside of class (sports, clubs, jobs, etc.). There need not be a lot of activities, but it is beneficial to participate in something in addition to academics. Also, all students need a social outlet and something to look forward to so that they can buckle down to the academics of junior year.
Many students are involved in test prep to prepare for the taking of the SAT or ACT this spring. Test scores can add to the strength of an application if this is an area where your child excels. Most colleges have said that they will continue to be “Test Optional” for the Class of 2024, so some students may opt out of testing altogether if they really struggle in this area. Make sure your child has asked the counseling department to help with obtaining testing accommodations if they use them for tests at school.
Finally, some extra sleep, eating well, and regular exercise will go a long way and plant the seeds to continue these habits in college (easier said than done, I know). Overall, Job One remains doing the best they can academically to keep grades up.
Beginning the College Exploration Process
For starters, I recommend setting up a family meeting to talk about college in general and to share expectations of both you and your child. The first question should always be: Does your child want to go to college and do all those involved consider this a good plan for immediately after high school?
Keep in mind that there are students who are not yet ready, and it has become much more common (and acceptable) for students to take a “gap year” to travel, volunteer, work, etc., with plans to enter college when they are a bit more mature and college-minded.
Some students may benefit by pursuing a “transition to college” program that will provide more support with academic and social independence. It may also make sense to think about a community college, with plans to pursue an associate degree or a certificate program first and then (if desired) transfer to a four-year school upon completion.
Step two, for most families, is to have a frank discussion regarding the family’s financial situation as it relates to paying for college. It’s best to have this discussion early in the process, even before your student puts together a list of schools. This will save much disappointment later, in case your student does not receive the financial aid package they had hoped for and you are not in a position to make it work at their “dream” school.
Step three is to consider general college characteristics that will make a school a good fit for your child. These include distance from home; city vs rural/suburban; size of school; size of classes; level of academic rigor; amount of academic support offered; availability of a particular major if known; and make up of student body.
It’s a lot to think about, I know. And while it’s easy to think that there is plenty of time to start this process much later (and there is), take it from me that the time can get away from you, too. Particularly if your student will have a busy senior fall (they usually do!) due to a sport, work, or extracurricular activity and/or if they want to start applying to colleges mid-fall (many do these days), it is a good idea to start this process of exploring schools soon.
Ideally, your child will start to form opinions of the type of schools that feel right this winter and you can fit in some local window shopping or drive-through visits to see what is out there. I also recommend that students attend virtual tours and information sessions offered on the admissions pages for each college in which they are interested, especially if the school is farther away and visiting will be challenging. Encourage your child to take notes!
Later on, over winter or spring breaks, school vacation days or on a weekend, you can make more focused college visits. The summer is an option too (although students will not be on campus). Your student should also sign up to be on the school’s mailing list and make sure to open emails that are sent. Colleges can track this activity and it shows the college that he/she is interested – that counts!
Remember that this search is about finding a good fit for your child, regardless of whether the school is a household name. I often remind parents not to voice their opinions until their child has had a chance to explore what is out there.
Overall, try to enjoy this exploration process with your teen and keep things light. Junior year is stressful – your child can use lots of support and encouragement!