Juniors, It All Starts NOW

January marks the official start of the “season” for juniors planning to attend college immediately after high school. The first semester or 2nd term is ending 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 these habits in college (easier said than done, I know). Overall, Job One remains doing the best they can academically to keep grades up.

Remind your child that this is the year that colleges will look at critically to see that a student is challenging herself academically. Your student should also make extra efforts to participate in class discussions as junior year teachers are usually asked to write their recommendation letters.

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 may assume 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 window-shopping visits to see what is out there. Then 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). Your student should sign up to be on the school's mailing list and then open emails that are sent as it shows the college that he/ she is interested and 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!

When Festive Feels Like Overwhelmed

December is festive for some, stressful for others, and a little bit of both for most students.

There is a ramp-up in tests, papers and projects due before the holidays. At the same time, sports, play practice, jobs and more, continue in full swing as before. Add to that the expectation that kids leave time for family holiday gatherings and gift shopping, as well as college applications for those seniors who are applying regular decision, and it’s understandable that our kids may be a bit fragile this time of year.

And who can blame them? There isn’t a lot of downtime for our high schoolers these days. Students say they are feeling the pressure of needing to do well in school while also excelling in extracurricular activities in order to be attractive to colleges.

Despite these very real pressures, as parents, there are things we can do to help our students keep things in perspective:

  • Emphasize the need for balance. Our students need to know that while we want them to work hard in school and engage in a meaningful activity or two, we also want them to enjoy their high school years (safely!).

    Remind them that they will still be able to go to college if their grades are not perfect and that they do not need to be involved in multiple activities just to pad their resumes. 
     

  • Encourage them to find something they love to do. That passion will be shared with colleges, many of which will be happy to hear about it, even if it is not a varsity sport, lead in the play or as a class officer.

    Not everyone is an academic superstar and there is a lot to be said for learning to find a balance between working to the best of your ability and leaving some room for other activities and downtime. There are certainly many adults who have not learned this; it often catches up at some point.

    Some of our kids need help in finding that activity that they love and may need a push to try something through a club, volunteering or a solo project that inspires them. Spending time in an activity they love will often give them the energy needed to hang in there with schoolwork that may be less enticing. And it will help them grow as a person and feel good about themselves.
     

  • Stay supportive. Keep in mind, as you get together with relatives and friends over the holidays, that some seniors will be beaming with pride having already been accepted to their dream school, while others still have months of uncertainty and angst ahead. 

    Still others have barely begun the process and are unsure if college is the right step for them at all. It’s good to remind these students that not everyone is ready to go off to a 4-year college right after high school. (That is okay – they just need another solid plan in place.)

    Juniors feel the stress of their older classmates and many are now getting back PSAT scores and ramping up on their own college planning process. Your child knows this year is very important and feels the pressure to do well in all areas – school, testing and extracurriculars.

    Try to find time when you and your child are both feeling relaxed to ask how they are doing and how you can help support them.
     

  • Encourage down time.  Plenty of sleep, along with time to relax, laugh and enjoy being a teen goes a long way toward making everything else fall into place. If your teen is too tightly scheduled, something may need to go.

Finally, do be on the lookout for more serious signs that your child is dealing with a level of anxiety or depression that may require professional help. Winter and its associated decrease in sunshine can sometimes be a contributing factor (consider a vitamin D supplement if your doctor agrees).

All the best for a wonderful holiday season for you and your family!
 

Conversations to Avoid at the Holiday Meal

For students, Thanksgiving and the upcoming December holidays can be a nice break and a time to relax with extended family.

But it can also be stressful for seniors, as they may have already applied to schools and are waiting to hear – or have not yet applied and have that hanging over them.

As some kids are starting to hear that they are accepted (or not) to their dream school, it can raise the stress level even higher. Keep that in mind as the relatives assemble. You may need to ask Uncle Fred to leave the subject of college out of his questions for your teen if the tension level is high.

It’s important to talk to your child and let them know that it will all work out fine, even if they don’t get into a school(s) that they had their heart set on. Try not to let yourself get too attached either to the idea of a particular school. That will come across to your child and will make it even harder if things do not go their way.

We need to encourage our kids to work as hard as they can in school, spend time on making decisions to apply to schools that are a good fit, and then know that it will all work out for the best.

It may be helpful (when the time is right) to share a story about yourself or another who didn’t get their first choice in buying a house, in landing a job, or getting accepted into the school of their choice, but … who looked back later, only to realize that their second was a better fit.

If your child gets disappointing news, it is good to empathize and let them have a chance to be sad. Then they may need some support to begin feeling good about Plan B. There are numerous great schools that will be a good fit for all our kids and it will be easier once your child begins to get excited about the next school on the list.

Most important, our kids should hear loud and clear that a rejection letter is not a commentary on them as a person. It is an opinion based on a paper record of their achievements. As wonderful as we all know our children to be, they simply may not have been what a particular school was looking for to round out its class in the coming year.

This is a good time to let our kids know that we think they are great, no matter where they go to college or whatever they choose to do after high school.

All the best for an enjoyable, healthy and relaxing break this week!