January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. This year, because of the pandemic, it is especially hard for students to feel any sense of urgency to get started on the college admissions process.
I want to remind your child that although some things are temporarily different, the timeline of applying to college has not changed and there are still the same time-consuming steps that need to be taken. I encourage students to get a jump start on the process now so they will have more time to do all the things they have been missing once restrictions are lifted.
The timing is right 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.
Junior year is also very busy. Your child probably doesn’t need to be reminded that this is the year that colleges will look at most critically to see that a student is challenging him or herself academically. Your student should also make extra effort to participate in class discussions as junior year teachers are usually asked to write their recommendation letters. It is more challenging this year with the COVID classroom conditions, but students still want to find ways to contribute to the class and let their teachers get to know them. This can also take the form of asking for extra help or attending review sessions – skills that will be needed in college as well!
This year, and although there may be fewer in-person extracurricular activities or jobs, students are likely to feel more scattered with the combination of in-person, hybrid and virtual classes and events. If your student’s regular activities are not happening, encourage them to find a new activity or hobby during this period. All students need a social outlet (even if virtual) 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. Those testing opportunities are stressful enough without the added COVID complications and cancellations. Most colleges understand that many students will run into challenges with testing in certain areas of the country, and there are many more schools that are continuing to be Test Optional for the Class of 2022. Make sure your child has asked the guidance department to help with obtaining testing accommodations if they use them for tests at school.
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.
It is helpful to calculate your “Estimated Family Contribution” (EFC) early in the process, to determine the possibility of need-based aid. To access the specifics of a given school’s fees and related expenses, visit the “Net Price Calculator,” found on the web site of every college.
For those who determine they are not eligible for financial aid, keep in mind that many schools offer “merit aid” (scholarships) based on a talent, grades, test scores, community service, leadership, etc. These are not based on financial need. However, for those schools that do offer merit aid, they typically offer it only to the top 20-25% of their applicant pool. In other words, they are unlikely to offer it to your student if he or she is an average or below average applicant for that 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. This year, I also recommend that students attend virtual tours and information sessions offered on the admissions pages for each college they are interested in. Take notes!
Then you can make more focused college visits over spring break (check COVID restrictions) or on school vacation days. The summer is an option too (students will not be on campus), and this year there may be more seniors visiting campuses for the first time in the fall.
Your student should sign up to be on the school's mailing list and then open emails that are sent. This 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, and your child can use lots of support and encouragement!