Preparing for college is puzzling at best. These points can help your teen plan for a successful experience.
Two years ago, my husband and I sent our daughter off to college. The experience was one of mixed emotions, part tearful yet we were somewhat encouraged that at least one chapter of her teen years was behind us. The months leading up to this transition were fraught with the many tasks college preparation requires. From applications and financial aid forms to college visits and orientations, the entire process seemed daunting.
Now it’s time to prepare our second child for the world of higher education. Because this can be a stressful time, we talked to experts and gathered the following tips to help parents and teens successfully prepare for the college experience.
Selecting a College
- This seems obvious, but for many parents it’s not: You should talk to your teen about here interests. Suggest that she take some interest surveys available at high school or online. Note what subjects she excels in at school, as well as extracurricular activities that hold her interest. While it’s not yet necessary to determine a major, it’s time to get your child thinking about her likes and dislikes. Then she can determine which schools offer programs that suit her needs and match her interests.
- There’s not just one school. Start with the assumption that a number of schools will meet your teen’s criteria, then narrow the list down later.
- Help your teen get a sense of what kind of environment she enjoys. Does she like being in a big city or a rural area? Is she happy being around all kinds of people? Would she feel comfortable being miles away from friends and family?
- Request information from the colleges and universities that match your teen’s interests and goals, then access their Web sites for additional information. When your child registers for the PSAT and PLAN tests, she should choose the option that permits schools to have access to her information. “That allows universities to specify characteristics of students that are desirable to them,” says Candace Boeninger, assistant director of communications and technical support at Ohio University. Your daughter will then get mail from universities that are of interest to her.
- Use an online automated search guide to find schools that match your teen’s interests (petersons.com, aicuo.edu and collegeboard.org). By selecting various interests, the guides generate a list of schools that seem to be a good fit for students. Your teen can go to each school’s individual Web site for more specific information.
- Family vacations are a good time to drive around college campuses since they provide a low-key way to approach early visits.
- Most college visits should begin around the second semester of your teen’s junior year and continue during the senior year. Since the national date to let colleges know you want to attend is May 1, it is OK to visit colleges after your child has been accepted – as late as March or April. The timetable varies with each student.
- Don’t let the first visit be your teen’s top choice. It’s likely she won’t know what questions to ask. As a result, it probably won’t be the best visit. Take notes to be prepared for subsequent visits.
- Be sure your teen takes time to speak one-on-one with an admissions person or at least participates in a formal admissions presentation. “If there is a certain academic area she is interested in, ask to meet with a professor from that area,” says College Admissions Director Kim Ebbrecht. “It’s important to let the college know what it is you want to experience during the visit.”
- Attend specific college visit days. Colleges and universities host visitation days that feature a particular area of study, such as math and science day or nursing day.
- Arrange for a walking tour with a current student. This gives your teen the firsthand scoop about what’s happening on campus.
- The two biggest factors in the admissions decision process are how well your teen performs on the high school college prep curriculum and her SAT and ACT test scores. A combination of both is the best indicator. “Following that, the student who has taken the most math, science and foreign language is an indicator of the student who tends to do best during the first year of college,” says Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions at Ohio State University. “They have the highest correlation with success in college.”
- Your teen should pursue the most rigorous curriculum offered at her high school. “If a school offers honors and advanced placement (AP) courses and the student appears to be eligible but did not take them, they will create a giant question mark,” says Freeman. “We are looking for evidence of motivation.”
- The time to begin planning with your teen is during eighth grade when she registers for her ninth-grade classes. Talk to a guidance counselor to make sure your teen is getting all the necessary requirements.
- Make sure extracurricular activities are balanced. “For admission, we are looking more at academic courses, test scores, GPA and recommendations from teachers and counselors,” says Ebbrecht. “However, when it comes to scholarship competitions, that’s where extracurriculars become important. These students tend to be more articulate and better prepared for scholarship competition.”
- Activities for the sake of activities don’t really matter. Instead, make sure extracurricular activities are focused on an end result. “To see that a student is the captain of a sports team will not get him into engineering,” says Freeman. However, a potential nursing student who volunteers at the local hospital will get noticed.
- Your teen should take any preparatory tests that she can. The PSAT and PLAN are a good first exposure. Early in your teen’s junior year, she should take the SAT and the ACT. By doing so, she has time to retake and raise her scores if needed. “ACT and College Board offer fee waivers for students who don’t have the ability to pay testing fees,” says Boeninger. In addition, the SAT now includes a writing test, and the ACT includes an optional writing test. Determine if the university your teen is interested in will accept one or the other and see if they require the writing portion on the ACT. Have her take it if she can; most universities are moving in that direction.
Paying for College
- Think in thirds. If at all possible, save a third before your child reaches college. Assume that while she is in college, parents and student will have to pay for a third in current dollars, and plan to borrow the remaining third. “It’s much too daunting to think about paying the full cost,” says Freeman. “If the student gets grants or scholarships, then that is part of the money you don’t have to borrow.”
- In order to receive any need-based financial aid, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form must be filed early the same year that your child plans to attend college. Each school has its own deadline for completion of the form. Families who feel pressed by that deadline should submit the FAFSA as an estimate and then return at a later date to make any necessary corrections.
- Look beyond institutional scholarships. Community organizations, corporations and other non-profits fund scholarships that your teen may be able to acquire. “As far as institutional scholarships are concerned, get involved early in the year so no details are missed along the way,” says Boeninger. A good site to research scholarships can be found at goodcall.com/scholarships/search.
- Don’t pay a fee for the completion of the FAFSA or for scholarship search engines. Instead, solicit help from the college financial aid staff.
- Consider your teen spending the first two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution. This can result in a substantial savings in tuition costs.
- Always look at the bottom line of what a school is offering financially. “One school may offer a scholarship of $15,000, but you need to determine what the total cost is,” says Freeman. “Another school that offers only $5,000 in scholarships could be a better bottom-line choice.”
- Remember that private colleges are not always more pricey, and they are contributing a lot of money to the financial packages. In the fall of 2004, 75 percent of the freshmen entering AICUO (Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Ohio) member campuses received a financial aid package that averaged $17,400 (tuition and fees). Of that, institutional grants made up 76.3 percent of the average financial aid package.
Adjusting to College
- Your teen should be aware of all campus support systems. This includes everything from academic support to mental health support. “The three reasons students leave college are academic problems, financial problems and social affiliation,” says Freeman. “We try to put those resources in front of them in the beginning.”
- Time management is critical. Many students try to work too many hours to be successful. “If the student is going to work (and 73 percent do), the research shows that students who work 10 to 15 hours get better grades than students who don’t work at all,” says Freeman. “More than 20 hours a week doesn’t usually mean good grades.”
- Financial management is equally important. Programs are available at most schools to help your teen understand budgeting and the difference between loans and grants. Check with the school’s financial aid office for assistance in this area.
- Mental health issues need to be identified. These can range from eating disorders to homesickness. “The first four to six weeks of the freshman year is when students make the decision as to whether the school will work or not,” says Freeman. “They are looking for proof that there will be people on campus they can be friends with and who will help them when they have a problem.”
While you’ll most likely have mixed emotions about your “baby” growing up and leaving the nest, try to make the most of it and give your teen all the support and encouragement she needs as she embarks on her quest for higher education.
Lori Murray is a mother and freelance writer.
Getting Prepped Online
ACT : act.org
The College Board : collegeboard.org
College Is Possible : collegeispossible.org
Free Application for Federal Student Aid : fafsa.ed.gov
The Financial Aid Information Page : finaid.org
Peterson’s Planner : petersons.com
Scholarship Search : fastweb.com
U.S. Department of Education : ed.gov