This story was originally published in our Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) group. It has been edited for clarity and flow.
I joined the Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) group early in my daughter’s sophomore year of high school for tips on how to get into college. The education I received from others has been amazing.
Now that my daughter is a senior in high school and has committed to a college, here are my tips for parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
Stay in this group and follow the cyclical nature, from applications to acceptances to housing. Not all the information shared in this group will feel relevant, but it’s all good background to have about a process with lots of moving parts.
Read the books “Who Gets In and Why” by Jeff Selingo and “Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be” by Frank Bruni. Both provide great insight and perspectives on this ever-changing landscape, and will broaden the horizons of what success looks like for your student.
Start running net price calculators, and keep a spreadsheet. Use projected yearly income two years before your kid starts college, as that will be what is listed on the FAFSA.
Have your student create and hone their college list, and apply to as many schools as possible the summer before senior year.
Consider working with your child to make an email address that is for college information. Use it for all testing registrations so college marketing emails go to it, and use it for the college application and portal creation.
Use Google Drive for essays, organized by topics in folders so they can be repurposed for scholarship applications as needed.
Have your child start a resume that lists all honors, teams, volunteer hours and more so it is not overwhelming to create senior year. Make sure the list contains only schools your child would like to go to if admitted, and also some financial safeties. (The net price calculators will help you determine what those are.)
Keep Track of Deadlines
Ask teachers for recommendation commitments at the end of junior year, and figure out how that teacher wants information packaged from the student, such as a brag sheet or resume. Have your child provide it to the teachers as early as possible.
Learn the merit vs. admission deadlines. They sometimes look very different and vary by school, and you don’t want to miss them.
Learn About Schools
Each school has a “common data set” that has a high level of granular detail about that school and how it operates. It contains many facts that you won’t find in marketing materials. You can Google it for each school year and delve into it. It is very useful.
[Try the College Insights search tool for free. It saves you time from searching each school’s Common Data Set individually. You can also view “real” merit scholarship offers crowdsourced from families of students who received college acceptances, financial aid, and merit scholarship offers.]
Review Personal Finances
Determine your family’s targeted budget range – based on savings, cash flow and/or comfort with debt. Communicate it to your child. If possible, start putting away what you think you can cash flow for college now. This checks the reality of your budget presumptions, and may help you stack up even more cash reserves. I know this is a privilege that not all can do, but if you are telling yourself you can cash flow $25,000 a year, it’s a good way to see if that’s the case.
Help your child understand the different ways that schools award money. Some awards are based on merit, some are based on need.
Understand that in some cases, private schools that look expensive can wind up being close to in-state school tuition because of generous merit or meets-need policies.
But also understand that generous merit can still leave a big out-of-pocket cost. The number that matters is “cost of attendance” – if your child gets $30,000 in merit but the school still costs $45,000, it may not work for your family’s budget.
When you receive financial packages, they will talk about “direct” and “indirect” costs. Direct is what the school will bill you for. Indirect are things such as travel and books that you have some control over.
Take a hard look at the fine print of what GPA is required to keep merit offers. A student with a 4.0 in high school may struggle to keep a 3.5 in college or may need some wiggle room in a hard semester. If large amounts of money are tied to academic performance, it can put heavy pressure on a young student.
Talk to Your Student About What They Want
Ask how they picture college and what is important to them in an institution’s values, as opposed to just names of schools, reputations, and programs. We started those conversations sophomore year and my daughter hated it and didn’t want to talk about or visit colleges. I quietly made my nerdy spreadsheets, researched and waited for her to be ready. (It worked!)
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