January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. The first semester or 2nd term will soon draw to a close and PSAT scores are back.
With a current GPA in hand and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on the SAT’s (students can also arrange a practice ACT), 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.
The tricky part is that this time of junior year is also very busy. Most students are involved in test prep to prepare for the taking of the SAT or ACT this spring. And many are involved in extracurricular school activities and/or working. Some extra sleep, eating well and regular exercise will go a long way and plant the seeds to continue those 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 immediately after high school?
Keep in mind that there are students who are not yet ready and it has become much more prevalent (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. It may also make sense to think about a community college, with plans to pursue an associate’s 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 next 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 on, 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.
Is it helpful to get an estimate of your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) early in the process, to determine the possibility of need-based aid. Some private schools use an additional form (CSS Profile) to assess financial need. You can access institution specifics for a particular school at the “Net Price Calculator” on each college’s website.
It is important to know that many schools offer merit aid (scholarships) based on a talent, grades/test scores, community service, leadership, etc. Keep in mind, however, that if a school offers merit aid, they typically offer it to the top 20-25% of their applicant pool. They will likely not offer merit aid to your student if they are an average or below average applicant for that school.
Step three is to consider how far away from home you and your child hope they will be. If you think they are up to the transition, don’t be afraid to encourage your child to explore another part of the country. (Note that they may be more likely to be offered merit aid if they are outside of their geographic region, as schools like to draw from other areas of the country.)
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 all of you can make more focused college visits over spring break or on school vacation days. The summer is an option too, but the students are not on campus and so another visit will be necessary to get the feel of the student body (very important).
And as always, have fun with it! Before you know it, your child will be off to school and you will wonder how this time went so quickly.