We asked parents from our Paying for College 101 Facebook community to tell us one thing they’ve learned about the college application and college financing process that they didn’t know at the start of their journey.
Their responses touched on topics ranging from finding the right school and navigating the application process, to the woes of unexpected costs—along with words of advice, comfort, and wisdom.
Here are some of the highlights, edited for clarity and flow.
When it comes to cutting college costs, parents say some of the savings can happen before your student ever sets foot on campus.
“My daughter took a bunch of AP classes in high school, assuming she would have the rigor but that her scores wouldn’t go toward anything…but the selective liberal arts college she chose did accept her scores, so she started in her major classes right away and will be able to double major easily.” — Shannon
“Look into whether your school accepts CLEP for credit. AP was a mess due to COVID. CLEP saved the day.” — Erin
“Look at community college options as a way to lessen the financial impact and ease into things.” — Danielle
“Housing is a huge expense and not a great option for everyone… Kids are super connected these days. The dorm is not necessary for them to make friends and find their people.” — Erin
Little Things Add Up
You can achieve big savings from little changes. Here are some examples:
“Rent books instead of buying them. It’s much more cost effective.” — Lina
“Don’t buy books based on the bookstore’s list of class book requirements—wait until the teacher puts out the syllabus or until the first day of class.” — Melanie
“No one ever seems to use all their meal swipes, so don’t go overboard picking a meal plan (when possible)!” — Karen
“Start putting away like $25 a week or two towards college dorm things. It’s amazing how fast it adds up, especially when you have tuition and books at the same time!” — Lisa
From need-based aid to merit-based aid, the consensus is: do your research.
“I didn’t know that we had to fill out the FAFSA to qualify for aid.” — Debbi
“We had no idea that national merit scholarships existed, and you have to take the PSAT your junior year of high school to be eligible.” — Christy
“Apply for outside scholarships! Every bit helps. Just because a school ‘meets needs’ doesn’t mean they meet all that you need! What they think you can pay and what you can pay could be very different.” — Kimberly
“Any scholarships past tuition and fees count as student income on taxes.” — Lisa
“Some schools deduct outside scholarships from aid, others will ‘stack’ them or add them on. Don’t assume you’ll be able to add on any outside scholarships on top of school-awarded aid—often you can not stack. Make sure to ask the financial aid office!” — Kim
“My daughter wrote a letter asking for more aid and she went from $21,000 to $30,000, always ask!” — Christine
How to Choose a College
Every child is unique, but the desire to help students find the perfect school is universal. Our parents shared their tips on what to consider and methods for getting to know schools better.
“Don’t be afraid to look at smaller schools that may not have as much ‘name recognition.’ It’s okay to be a big fish in a small pond, especially when that small school gives you a full-ride.” — Leslie
“Talk about the basic environment they want for their campus. ‘Do you want to be in a city campus environment or more of a closed campus in a smaller community? Do you want to be close to home or move away? Do you want a public or private school? What type of climate are you looking for?’ Once you have the answer to these questions, you can narrow down your search.” — Jodie
“It seems many people have a school in mind, apply, get in, and then figure out how they can afford it. It’s not the best financial strategy. Instead, do lots of research on places where your kid is in the top half of applicants and check out the common data set to see how much merit they really give.” — Jessica
“Do not let your child develop a dream school obsession. Chase merit. Chase majors. But don’t chase a name brand.” — Lori
“Virtual tours and webinars provide more information than the in-person student-guided tours. Students and parents can attend the webinars or Zooms and ask questions. You can also get great tours, especially of dorms, on YouTube. Even self-guided tours are fine.” — Melissa
A shared tip among parents was making sure you and your student read through applications and their requirements long before your student needs to fill them out. Here’s more of what they said in their own words.
“Run the Net Price Calculator (NPC) for every potential college before you let your student apply. It will save your student and yourself much heartache down the road.” — Sian
“Research applications early, they are all different (Common, Coalition, UC). Also research what each school will accept for ‘extra’ letters of recommendation (this was a last-minute anxiety attack for us, which was totally unnecessary).” — Catherine
“Get commitments for teacher recommendations as early as possible. Teachers can only do so many and some of our teachers closed requests before the end of September.” — Dana
“Many colleges prefer recommendation letters that come from core subject teachers, though that is not absolute. For instance, if your student wants to major in music, it might be advantageous to have a music teacher that knows you well to write a letter.” — Angela
“Have your child create a separate email just for all college/scholarship stuff.” — Christina
“We learned the hard way to write down the passwords that your kid sets up with specific schools.” — Kerry
Early Action/Early Decision
When it comes to the application process, knowing the difference between early action (EA) and early decision (ED) is important. EA means the student learns early if they are accepted but doesn’t have to make a decision about whether they will attend that college until the normal reply deadline of around May 1. Meanwhile, an ED student must accept early and attend that college in the fall.
“Early action is great! If it works out, your kid can head into the winter break with a few acceptances and look ahead to a few more applications with less stress.” — Sarah
“I didn’t realize there are so many colleges that accept early action applications. These are typically due by November 1 and are non-binding (unlike early decision applications.) Students can apply to multiple schools EA which will help them hear back from multiple schools before the end of the year. This strategy can help your student have options and hear merit/scholarship details well before the standard decisions come out (usually) in March.” — Yael
“The impact of an early rolling admissions acceptance, even if it is not a top choice, is tremendous on a high school senior. It takes a lot of the pressure off and boosts confidence. Highly recommend having at least one or two rolling admissions applications in the mix and ready to roll in September.” — Wendy
“Set up an EA deadlines and requirements list/tracking system, start essays in the summer, finish with an editor in the fall, start campus visits at the end of summer/early fall, submit applications at least a week in advance for buffer room and follow up that all documents have been received.” — Ana
Parents could not emphasize enough how important it is to start the essay process early.
“Start working on personal statements in the summer. Depending on how many schools your student applies to, there will be a ton of writing and rewriting!” — Steffi
“Best thing we did was complete the essay the summer after junior year. Senior year is busy and Sept/Oct gets really busy with applications, sports, jobs, etc. Having the essay out of the way was a huge relief.” — Tricia
“Depending on where your student applies, they may have a lot of supplemental essays to write. Start early!” — Sarah
Soon-to-be college students will take on many new responsibilities and encounter challenges. Here are some suggestions on how you can help.
“Encourage your kids to go to office hours (even if they don’t think they need to). They want their professor to see them and get to know them as it can be helpful with getting the benefit of the doubt grade-wise when they are on the borderline.” — Beth
“Teach them the importance of balance and proper self-care while you have them at home, and how to find resources in their new location.” — Nichole
“Teach your children to take care of their own room in college dorms. Send them with a vacuum, teach them to clean, to take out the trash even if they didn’t fill it. Teach them their roommate might want to keep different hours and to be respectful.” — Robin
“Pay for tuition insurance just in case!” — Tracey
Getting Through the First Year of College, Together
Many parents gave advice on how to strike a balance between giving their child the time and space needed to settle into their new life on campus, and being there for them.
“The first semester is a roller coaster of emotions for both you and your student. They are learning their new normal and some days/weeks are just better than others.” — Gina
“Even the kids you think are going to smoothly adjust to college social life experience doubt and loneliness. Be prepared for that call when it comes.” — Rosaria
“Send them with a good supply of Cold medicine and a thermometer.” — Elena
“When your student calls with a problem or concern they are experiencing, ask them if they want you to listen or to give them your opinion. This allowed me to not overstep, and it allowed my son to call me when things were not going as smoothly as they had hoped, knowing it was a judgment-free zone.” — Carmichelle
The college application and financial aid process can be stressful. With so many steps and decisions to consider, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Remember to work together as a family to stay positive and focused on the future.
“Be proud of your child and patient through the process. Try not to only talk about college everyday!” — Cindy
“Enjoy the ride, it’s over too fast.” — Melissa