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!