Ideally, preparation for the college search process will start years beforehand. There are several things you can do as a parent to be in a better position for helping your child determine what his or her college choice should be. I learned some of these the hard way so I am writing this with the hope that you can learn from my mistakes.
- Know what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be as early as possible – as parents going through the college search process with the first child, most of us don’t have a clue what college is going to cost. When viewing college brochures or websites for the first time, this often leads to sticker shock. The college fund we started when our child was a baby has grown nicely over the years, but probably not nearly enough to pay for four years of school outright. Then there’s this whole concept of EFC. If your child picks a school that costs more than that amount per year, he or she may get some scholarships or grants to cover the amount over the EFC, or somewhere in that ballpark, but if your child picks a less expensive state school, you may need to come up with the whole amount for four years of tuition, room and board. My recommendation is to get an estimate of your EFC when your child starts his or her freshman year in high school. Then start looking at how much you have saved and how much you can afford to provide out of your current cash flow to make up the difference. If you are lucky, there will be merit money available to lower the cost, but that will depend on how your child does with the other four items below.
- Steer your child towards leadership positions as early as possible – Colleges love to see leadership positions. They are looking for kids who can step up and take charge of something. It doesn’t have to be student government or holding an office in the service club at school. It could be tutoring younger students, duties at an after-school job, becoming an Eagle scout, a volunteer position in the community, or just about anything that shows an ability to lead. The thing you don’t want to do is wait for junior year to try to pursue leadership. What if your student runs for an office for senior year and doesn’t get it? Is he or she going to spend a lot of time stressing out over not having any leadership experience?
- Start prep work for SAT/ACT tests early – Learning the test-taking strategy for these tests can go a long way towards increasing a student’s score. Both study guides and test prep courses will help with this and give the child practice with full-length tests. The PSAT is a good precursor to the SAT test, but if you think your child has a shot at the national merit scholarship or corporate-sponsored scholarships that utilize PSAT results, I recommend getting a PSAT study guide or finding a test prep course first. They only get one shot at this opportunity, and you want it to be a good one. As far as SAT/ACT prep, I recommend shooting for prep work over the summer and scheduling the September test dates in both junior and senior years. What we found out was that in the thick of the school year, there wasn’t adequate time to do test prep with all the homework, sports and other activities to focus on.
- Emphasize quality over quantity of extra-curricular activities – I always figured that the more activities my child could list on the college app, the better, until I read numerous articles about quality being more important. This goes along with #2 above. A leadership position held in an activity is much more impressive than random participation. If your child participates in two school activities or sports per year and is an officer or captain in one, that should be enough coupled with other outside activities like community service, a job and maybe a church or community organization. According to a 2011 survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, extracurricular activities only carried limited to moderate importance in the college admissions decision.
- Emphasize the importance of getting top grades starting with freshman year – Speaking of that 2011 survey, grades were the most important factor in the college admissions decision. All four years of high school count. A school will understand an upward trend over the years, but students often don’t realize what a slow start freshman year can do to their GPA. A 3.5 unweighted GPA or better is the usual expectation to compete for merit aid and acceptances at moderately to highly selective schools. Additionally, grades in honors classes, AP classes and core subjects like English, Math, Science and History will carry the most weight. Very solid ACT/SAT scores can help counteract a lower GPA, but there are no guarantees. The best approach is to keep a close watch on your student’s grades, talk often about how important grades are for getting into college and talk to the teacher as soon as you notice something that could indicate your child is struggling in a class.