Countdown to College Tips

The high school road to college may seem like four of the most challenging years families face. There are deadlines, tough financial choices and parents and children don’t always agree on colleges. If that isn’t stressful enough, every year there are tasks that high school students should be checking off their to-do list. How do parents help their high school students navigate all the details and decisions they must make during their countdown to college? Here is some advice from the pros — a parent who’s been through the process and a college admissions counselor.

Starting the Conversation.

It all starts with a conversation between parent and child. But often the question that starts the conversation is the wrong one, according to Rick Clark, an undergraduate admissions counselor.
“Parents ask ‘Where do you want to go to college?’ “Clark says. The biggest question that parents don’t ask or lose sight of is ‘Why do you want to go to college?’ ”
That why is important, and should be followed up with questions like “What do you hope to get out of this? What do you want to study? What do you want to do long-term?” says Clark.

Freshman Year: The Importance of Academics.

Rachael Fain, a mom of three, stresses the importance of the GPA during freshman year. Fain’s daughter, Hannah, graduated from college in 2017. Fain also has two sons, Matthew, who graduated from college in 2020, and Andrew, a college senior. “My children started taking high school classes in eighth grade,” Fain says. “A GPA is harder to bring up in junior and senior year, so our goal their eighth and ninth grade years was to keep their GPAs high. “The freshman year is also important for getting on a challenging track of classes.
“Course choice is important,” Clark says. “Math in particular is something students need to pay attention to.”
Taking challenging classes in high school helped Fain’s son Matthew make his college decision. He decided to pursue his degree at the University where he took dual credit courses when he was in high school. Andrew also took dual credit courses in high school to lighten his load once he got to college. That worked out well when Covid hit and Andrew took a semester off but did not fall behind in his course work.

Sophomore Year: Getting to Know You

Tenth grade is a good year for self-reflection. Students can take personality tests and the PSAT to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. They can also start thinking about the kind and size of school they want to attend.
Understanding what they are good at will help high school students be realistic about the school that is the best fit for them.

Junior Year: Balancing Grades and Activities.

Grades are crucial during the junior year. Junior year also involves a more challenging track of classes and leadership roles in clubs and activities. It’s hard to do it all, so how important are the extracurricular activities? It depends on the student and the college.
“At one of my children’s colleges, extracurricular activities were really important,” Fain said. “At the other one, they didn’t’ matter as much.”

Clark says one out of every four students who apply to the school where he works are accepted.
“Most students that apply have good test scores, good grades and good courses. Then the review committee asks ‘Is this kid a good fit for us?'”
Clark says they look for students who are innovative or who are entrepreneurs, and they ask “How does this student use their time?”
“If they are a good student who goes home and plays video games, what will they contribute to the school?” Clark says.
But it stands out if students are responsible, if they work a job or if they make an impact some way.

Senior Year: Find Your Fit

Clark says the most important thing about making a college decision is finding a good fit.
“Fit doesn’t really mean can the student do the work, but are they aligned well to the school.” For example, Clark says two universities can look the same on paper. A student will apply to each with the same grades and same test scores and get accepted to one and not the other.
“That is what fit is,” Clark says. “How a student fits with a school, not just from an academic standpoint.”
If you and your child do not agree on the same school, Clark says how you approach the topic may resolve a lot of conflict over the situation. “Continue to tell your kids you love them, and that no matter where they go to college, it will be great.”
The good news is that there are many schools across the country and probably more than one of them will match your student’s personality and academic standing.
“If you or your child feels overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember there is a school for every student,” says Fain.

Janeen Lewis is a writer, teacher and mom to Andrew and Gracie. She is a nationally published writer.

Countdown to College Checklist:  A Timeline That Will Take You Places

Preparing for college can be overwhelming for high school students and their parents because of the many steps it takes to get an acceptance letter. But breaking the college to-do list into manageable steps for each year of high school makes the process less stressful and teaches students responsibility, the very thing they will need for what they want to achieve — a college education. Follow this step-by-step guide for a smoother countdown to college.


Freshman Year

Talk to your parents and guidance counselor at the beginning of the year to set goals.
Take the most challenging courses available to you.
Make good grades.
Try a variety of activities.
Take advantage of opportunities to visit college campuses when you travel.

Sophomore Year

Visit college and career fairs. If you are social distancing, schedule virtual tours of colleges of interest or consider self-guided tours on campuses. Check out updated health and masking guidance at schools you visit in person.
Build your resume. Make a list of awards, accomplishments, and activities.
Take the PSAT for practice (you can take it your sophomore and junior year, but it won’t count until you are a junior).
Start studying for the ACT and SAT. There are many test prep guides available online and in book form.
Assess your strengths and weaknesses and take a personality inventory.
Research possible careers.
During the summer begin researching colleges that might be a good fit.


Junior Year

Take the PSAT.
Accept leadership roles in the activities that suit you best.
Narrow your list of possible careers.
Narrow your list of possible colleges.
Take the ACT and SAT.
During the summer volunteer or find an internship or job related to your future career.
Write a college entrance essay draft. Have it critiqued by a guidance counselor or teacher.


Senior Year

Narrow your college search to six to eight schools.
Post all important deadline dates on a wall calendar.
Retake the ACT or SAT if needed.
Polish your resume.
Ask for teacher recommendations.
Visit the colleges you are applying to.
Send out all your college applications.
After you receive your acceptance letters, compare scholarship and financial aid packages and make your final decision.
Notify all the schools you were accepted to of your decision.
Celebrate the beginning of a new timeline at college!

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