January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. The first semester will soon draw to a close and PSAT scores are back.
With a current GPA and at least some sense of how they are likely to score on the SAT’s, students have a general idea of the academic level of the school that might be a good fit for them. That makes it a little easier to narrow down the list from the thousands of potential schools to which your child might be interested in applying.
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. Or, it may make sense to think about a community college and then transfer to a four year school after completing an associate’s degree.
For many of you reading this newsletter, however, your child will be planning to attend college immediately after high school.
Step two, for most families, is to then 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.” (By the way, check out this interesting book on paying for college,Debt Free U by Zac Bissonette. )
Next it’s time to start planning some visits to local schools over the upcoming February vacation. This is a good time to show your child a wide variety of schools – kind of like window shopping. This will allow them to form some opinions of where they see themselves feeling comfortable. Some things to think about:
- Big or small?
- City or rural/ suburban?
- Small classes or big lectures?
- Career-oriented or liberal arts focus?
- Level of academic rigor?
- Level of school spirit? Greek life?
- Importance of academic support offered?
This is also a time for you and your child to start discussing how far away from home they hope to be. Don’t be afraid to encourage your child to explore another part of the country, if you think they can make that transition. Keep in mind 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 (of course, they have to also be attractive academically to any given school).
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), then 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.