When it comes to getting into college, the process can be quite daunting. Between applications, selection, deciding which colleges to apply to, financial aid, scholarships, deadlines and testing, everything can feel beyond overwhelming. If your first child is starting their journey to college, odds are your journey was far different from what is being asked of them. The nice thing is getting into college is a definite doable. And just like the old adage, you can eat the college elephant one bite at a time. If you take each milestone step by step you will find this process isn’t as difficult as you imagine. And if you take it step by step, it definitely won’t be as daunting as waiting until the last minute.
Below is the timeline I have assemble using my own personal experience, the expertise knowledge from professional college admissions advisors I have had the privilege of working with and hearing lecture as well as the seminars my stepson’s school has graciously put on featuring keynote speakers from Azusa Pacific University Financial Aid, Princeton Review, and Collegewise. Its my hope that this will save you and your children some heartache. A quick housekeeping item, I am assuming that your child is following a regular admission schedule for this timeline. If your child wants to do early admission, then the timeline is accelerated. I’m going to warn you now. I’m taking you through 4 years of high school. Its going to be a long post…just like those four years with a teenager but hopefully less drama.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, my stepson is now a high school senior. His father and I are very proud of him. And yes what comes next is a parent’s prerogative to brag. He has gotten 5s and 4s (top marks) on his AP calculus, physics, US history and European history tests. He scored a phenomenal 32 on his ACT, with a perfect 36 on the math section. Besides just plain parental pride and bragging, I mentioned this so you know my stepson is a smart kid. He’s a great kid. But he suffers from what most teenagers suffer from – know-it-all-itis and procrastination disease. (Every mother of a teen is so shaking her head and say um-hm.) What can I say, its a teenager thing. It’s so amazing what parents learn between a kid’s 16th and 22nd years. (sarcasm intended) As I said he is a great kid, a smart kid. BUT, he didn’t heed my advice or that of his father about taking this college stuff in bites. Now, as a senior, what could have been spread out over 3 1/2 years has now been pretty much condensed into about 6 months. Needless to say, he is feeling a little stressed.
This timeline is a way to mitigate that stress for them…and you, trust me, and you. Its a what to do when so you (and them) don’t stress…and consider teenager-cide on a few occasions – I’m not sure. It might be justifiable. Just kidding.
As I have discussed college with quite a few parents recently, I have found that there are two diametrically opposing viewpoints when it comes to college. The first takes the standpoint of children having a clear, distinct view of what they want as a career, at very least the field. They want their children to take advantage of every opportunity to get them where they want them to go. The second wants their child to go to college, but takes an approach of enjoy high school, do your best, and we will figure all that college stuff out as you get closer to your senior year. After all, what can they possibly do as freshman and how are they supposed to know what they want to be or do. There are obviously parents that fall anywhere on this spectrum but its fairly polar in its extremes.
The challenge – they are both right and they are both wrong. There are definitely things as a freshman that your children can and should be doing.
Take the Most Rigorous Course You Can Succeed In
It’s a total misnomer that college admissions only look at your grades. Far from it. Yes they look at grades but they also look at what course you got them in. If you got all A’s but your course load was all basic level courses that doesn’t necessarily look as good as the student who took Honors and AP classes and got As and Bs. Colleges like to see students that challenge themselves. So starting as freshman, take the course load that is the most rigorous that you can succeed in. After all, the student who takes all APs and gets only Cs isn’t so stellar either. If your child can handle it, have them throw in an Honors or two starting as freshman.
Find What Their Passion Is
I have met very few people, including myself, that had an educated knowledge of what career or career area they wanted to go into as early children and less who followed through on that path once outside of college. That’s not to say there are not exceptions. BUT even if your child says, “I want to go into medicine, law enforcement, sports, etc.” their summer of their freshman year is the perfect time to start exploring what they are good at, what they enjoy, where those collided as possible career paths, to get educated on what those careers actually are and hopefully find something they are passionate about and can rally behind. If someone isn’t vested or is just doing it because that’s what they have been told they should do, they don’t necessarily have the passion to follow through.
A really good example as to why you should take the time to do this even if they say they know what they want to do would be my stepson. (I’m really not picking on him. We just happen to be living it right now.) For all the time that I have known Andrew, he and his father have always said he was going to be an engineer. Not sure if it was because his dad and grand-dude are architects or if he was somewhat pushed or how he got there. But he did. Totally fine. Other than a professional bass fishing champion, that’s what he wanted to do. (Another brag moment – he really is a good fisherman for his age and where we live. He has a few trophies to show for it too.) Then he took physics. He was good at it but didn’t like the class. Then he was asked to do a project that required engineering and totally hated it. Didn’t have the drive to figure out how to make it work. Engineering is probably not the best for him. Probably would have been a good idea to find that out before his junior year. Lesson learned. My math man is heading in to finance. He is really good at spending our money.
Once they have an idea of what they are passionate about, your child can then tailor their elective courses, their extra-curricular activities, etc. around that area. Not only will this truly help your children determine if the path they are on is right for them but will also look good to admissions as its passion focused – not “do everything” focused.
Your child should continue to take the most rigorous course load they can succeed in as well as pursue activities that align with their passion and possible career field.
PSAT/Practice SAT & Practice ACT
Now it’s time to get into the testing of it all. If your student is an honors or AP student, its not a bad idea to have them take the formal PSAT. Its a prep for taking it as a junior but also gives them the formal testing experience. Its also a good time, say summer or winter break, to have your child take practice ACT and practice SAT to get a feel for what they are, how each is different and which they perform best on. These test basically tell colleges the same thing but they test as very different styles.
SAT Subject Tests
If your sophomore took any honors or AP classes that align with their intended career path, then its a good idea to take the SAT Subject test in June right after they finish the course. This is true for their junior year as well.
Colleges, Colleges, and More Colleges
The summer of your child’s sophomore year is the best time to start researching potential colleges and to do a first and second round of elimination of potential colleges. Plus, its the perfect opportunity to start visiting local campuses and taking virtual tours of out-of-state or long distance campuses. There is nothing like experiencing it for yourself to know if its right for you. College campuses and surrounding communities are a huge factor in deciding on a school.
Its also a really good idea to attend college fairs. You can get exposed to a lot of colleges, some you have never heard of, in one session. Plus, their recruiters are fairly captured and your child and you can quiz them on anything. Just a small note, don’t be desperate with your questions. By that I mean, don’t ask – what are you looking for? what kind of essays do you like? what activities or student are you looking for? and so on. It reads too interested and looking to do only what pleases them.
Money, Money, Mon-ey
Scholarships and grants have so many varied deadlines and requirements and there are THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of them. Waiting until your senior to start looking for them is going to be way to overwhelming. By having your child look now, they can hone in on the specific ones they want to target during their senior year.
This is probably the biggest part of the junior year. Your child will take a crap load of tests this year. Its important that they focus on not burning out but properly prepping and planning for them.
PSAT – October, especially important if they are shooting for National Merit Scholar.
SAT and ACT prep – starting in the fall, its important that they start if they already haven’t, and the increase focused study if they have on the SAT and ACT. There are plenty of online resources such as those through Collegeboard as well as books that can be checkout from the library or purchased (looking for a deal Amazon and half.com are great resources). NOTE: The SAT is changing as of March 2016 so it is important that you get the current edition of SAT guides if your child will be taking the test in 2016 or later.
A good strategy for testing is to have your child take the SAT, then the ACT and whichever they did better in, use focused study for retaking it.
SAT – take either in January or March
ACT – take either in February or April
SAT Subject – June
During the summer before their senior year, your child should really number down colleges he or she has been researching to the 10-ish he or she will be applying to. Doing so will help focus their efforts during their senior year. They can hit the ground running, requesting applications and starting on essays at a steady but manageable pace.
Mo Money Mo Money Mo Money
Using the research they did in their sophomore year, their pre-senior summer is ideal for starting to make a timeline for what scholarship needs what and by when. As I said, there are so many and all have different requirements and deadline.
Speaking of Timelines
At the same time they are mapping out deadlines and requirements for scholarships, they should map out their senior year in their calendar. Set reminders. Make it an appointment in their iPhone. There is so much going on in a senior’s life – senior portraits, senior registration, graduation announcements (I cannot believe how early these things have to be ordered!), their classes and homework, reference letters, essays, admissions applications, odds are a job, a social life, financial aid deadlines, and so much more. Planning out blocks of time and setting reminders for deadlines is so imperative.
Now is not the time to slack off. It may be senior year and they legitimately have a lot on their plates. It might be tempting to reduce the rigor in their academics but don’t. If they have been taking all APs, then its okay to drop down to two or three. But don’t drop them all. Keep to the level of rigor you have been taking since you were a freshman is my advice to seniors. It doesn’t mean they have to be killer honors or AP classes. For example, my stepson is taking AP Economics/Government, AP Environmental Sciences and AP English Literature along with AP Statistics, Sociology, Speech and Debate. English Lit and Econ/Gov are definitely going to be in depth and demanding courses but his stats and environmental sciences are lighter APs and feed into both his Sociology and Econ/Gov as well as each other. Its lighter than previous years based on the courses themselves, despite the four APs.
Applications, Essays and Recommendations…Oh My!
Starting in late August/early September, your child should start gathering the applications for the colleges to which he or she will be applying. Most can be accessed online and some are using the Common Application, which is one application for multiple schools.
Each application package is going to have the application, the essay(s) and one to multiple teacher and/or high school counselor recommendations. When they get them, they should:
- Calendar the application deadline
- Determine what SAT subject tests are needed, how many and if there are any specific subjects (also applies to any other testing)
- Determine if an admissions test is required – where and when to schedule; schedule
- Determine if an interview is required – where and when to schedule; schedule
- Determine number of recommendations and from whom
- Determine any other specific requirements – typically includes but not limited to high school transcripts, perhaps a mid-year grade report
Getting Busy and Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
I’ll be doing more on this in another post but as soon as possible, your child should requests their letters of recommendations from their teachers and counselors. Think about it. Seniors out number teachers and counselors easily 10 to 1 and often more than that. Most applications require two teacher and one counselor. That’s a lot of letters for a small amount of staff. Once they receive their letters or they have been submitted, that teacher or counselor really deserves a hand written and personalized thank you note from your kid. Note: The same goes for the interviewers – alumni and admissions.
They should request official transcripts be sent to the colleges they are applying to as well as the scores from their required tests. This includes the admissions test scores if required and obviously once they have taken it. Find out if the school super scores for the SAT or ACT and make sure your child sends in the appropriate scores. Super scores take your highest scores on each section of the ACT or SAT over multiple tests to give one big super score.
Getting the computer fired up and starting on their essays is truly one of the most important parts of the application process. Essays can make or break an application. Its the chance, along with the interview, for college admissions officers to get to know your child. Think about it. Scores and grades only tell you how someone performs. The essay conveys passions, drive, who they are as individuals and whether or not they “like” the applicant for their school. Starting in September, they should have an initial draft ready. Proofreading and refining should really get done in October and November so that they can have a couple people read and evaluate the essays. By December, any revisions should be done and they and you should proofread it for grammar and spelling errors.
Testing and Testing – I Bet It Is Testing Your Patience
They are almost through with testing…thank God! If they are taking a second ACT, then they should plan on taking it in September or October. If they are taking a second SAT, then October, if they are not taking SAT Subject tests, or November. December is their LAST CHANCE! And that’s pushing it.
If they still need SAT Subject tests, then they really should sign up for them in October. Not all subject tests are given during every SAT testing date. Math 1 & 2 typically are but as to others, they should check Collegeboard to verify. But by taking it in October, if they need to, they still have November and December should they need to improve their scores.
Wrapping It Up
Most applications are due in late December/early January. So by December, your child should be wrapping everything up with respect to their application. They need to have a completed application for each school, make copies of ALL materials being submitted, pay the application fees (paid when submitting, not requesting), and sign and send in once complete. They will want to confirm receipt of their application and also let their counselor know they have submitted their applications and to what schools.
Your child should also note when final transcripts are due if necessary.
It’s Sticker Price is not Really it’s Price
Most people see the price of college and come close to fainting. Reality is most students do not pay full price for college. But the student and parents need to do their parts to make sure that is the case. I’m going to do a more in-depth post on this but here is a quick overview.
- Calendar priority and regular deadlines for financial aid
- Submit your FAFSA application as soon as possible after January 1st but typically no later than March 1st. Ideally, February 15th and do not wait until you file your taxes. Estimate your previous year’s income if needed and correct later. If you are divorced, check out this article from CBSnews on how that effects your financial aid.
- Complete and submit the PROFILE if required. There are about 250 private colleges that require this supplementary financial aid form and can be accessed through Collegeboard. If you are divorced and you are the custodial parent, you fill out the FAFSA and your income is used on the FAFSA. However, for some private colleges, the non-custodial parents finances are considered as well and they must also submit a Non-custodial PROFILE. Note: State and federal funding sources for education grants and loans are based on the custodial parent.
- Complete and submit any college or state aid forms if needed.
I bet at this point you are going, “There’s MORE!” I know I did! But this is actually the fun part. The letters – acceptance and rejection – start rolling in. Some will let you know right away. Others, such as Duke, Columbia and Cornell, take up to the full three months – they have a lot of applicants and they really do give each application due consideration so it takes a long time. But come late March, your should have heard from all of your child’s prospective schools both on admissions and financial aid.
Now its just a matter of deciding on which one to attend. When your child AND you do, then typically by late April/early May, you’ll need to let the winning school know your decision and put down a deposit. Also, your child should let the schools that accepted their application but that they will not be attending, his or her decision to not attend.
Its a lot of information. I know. But as I started this post, by taking it one bite at a time, then your child (and you) can eat this college elephant.
I do want to leave you with one piece of advice. As parents, I feel confident in saying we all pretty much want the best for our children. We hate to see them learn hard lessons and we hate to see them hit stumbling blocks. And we give advice to help them learn without having to feel the pain of making hard mistakes themselves. That’s what this timeline is designed to do – give them a road map. Be encouraging, be involved, hear their thoughts, be a sounding board – don’t do it for them and let them make the decision on which colleges to apply, what major, and which to attend. They are the one’s going to college. They need to be comfortable with the choices they are making, rather than living with the one we make for them. Now going to college – that’s another story and not an option in this house.
Thanks for hanging in there with me through this long post. Until next post!