Applying for College 101: A Guide for High School Students and Their Parents

A Guide for High School Students and Their Parents



We parents all know how fast time flies. In the blink of an eye our child has grown from a toddler to a teenager! Time seems to go faster and faster as kids approach the college years and begin navigating their college search. Helping your child prepare for college and keeping track of the admissions process can be confusing and overwhelming. When to apply? When to visit? How many schools to visit? Deadlines!! Here is a guide to highlight some of the major things you and your high school student should be doing each year to prepare for college and nail the admissions process.

Freshman Year

Admissions representatives agree that freshmen students should focus primarily on high school. Most importantly, students should work hard to get good grades. Susan Lutz, assistant director of admission for Rockhurst University, suggests students focus on academics and says, “The transcript that colleges review for admission has the freshman, sophomore and junior year. In addition to the GPA, colleges are paying attention to the courses students chose to take...Keep those grades up!” Freshmen should meet with their high school guidance counselors to make sure they have a plan to take the right mix of courses in order to get into and succeed in college.

In addition to grades, students should begin building a resume of extracurricular activities like volunteering, clubs, sports and other activities they enjoy. Also, make summers count in high school! Whether your teen saves money by working, dives into extracurriculars or volunteers, a high schooler should make some time for personal development during the summer months.

 

Sophomore Year

While continuing to study and stay involved, high school sophomores can begin to make a list of potential colleges by doing research online, attending college fairs and requesting information from schools. Courtney Hallenbeck, assistant director for recruitment programs of New Student Services at Kansas State University, suggests students begin with prioritizing schools based on the criteria that are important to them. “Students should think through what factors are important to them and begin to match up with institutions that fit their needs,” she says. “These factors could include, for example, academic programs, size, location, campus atmosphere, cost and available support resources, just to name a few!” Once your teen has a strong idea of what he is looking for in a potential school, you can start visiting campuses, even during the sophomore year. Some colleges offer specific programs for high school sophomores, or you can schedule personalized visits. By starting early, your child can start narrowing down what types of schools he likes or doesn’t like and get a feel for different options.

Students also should begin to plan for the ACT or SAT by developing a study plan for the summer between 10th and 11th grade or enrolling in a prep course. Study guides, practice exams and a variety of prep courses are available to help high schoolers, but even just targeted solo studying can help a student be ready.

 

Junior Year

The junior year is typically when a student should begin her formal college search in earnest. Juniors should attend college fairs, contact admissions offices and schedule campus visits for any schools they haven’t already checked out. Schedule campus visits during the school year so you and your student can get a feel for what the college looks and feels like when students are on campus. A magic number of colleges to visit doesn’t exist; some students will find “the one” after only a few visits, while other students will travel all over the nation to find the right fit. But it IS important to make those campus visits.

“A college visit is one of the most impactful experiences a student can have throughout their college search process,” Hallenbeck says. “Through a visit, you can truly get a feel for what life could be like as a student walking the halls at each institution.”

Another important task for high school juniors is to take either the ACT or SAT or both. Experts recommend students take their tests for the first time in the fall of their junior year, which gives them a couple of opportunities to retake the test if they want to improve their scores.

Juniors also should begin asking their teachers, coaches and supervisors for recommendation letters. Never wait until the last minute!  And, of course, they should be keeping an eye on their grades and continuing to stay involved in activities they enjoy.

   

Senior Year

By the beginning of their senior year, students already should have completed their campus visits and narrowed down their list of schools. Now it’s time to begin the application process!

During the summer before school starts, parents and teens should make a spreadsheet that includes all of the schools they plan on applying to, what paperwork is required and, most importantly, deadlines! Deadlines are myriad, and you should note all of them on the spreadsheet: main application, secondary applications for specific programs (if applicable), scholarships (both from the school and local organizations), federal financial aid, housing, enrollment and deposit deadlines. Each college is different and will have slightly different deadlines—which is why a spreadsheet or calendar is extremely helpful for keeping track of when everything needs to be completed.

Lutz suggests a helpful rule of thumb to seniors: Have all applications turned in by Halloween in order to meet the early application deadlines for schools, which are typically around Nov. 1.

Although your student should be able to take the lead on the application process, parent involvement is important. Help your student get organized, attend campus visits together (many schools have a program specifically for parents) and help with applications when it’s appropriate. Some forms, such as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), require financial information from parents, so be sure to keep an eye on your own deadlines!

Your student will appreciate having someone to help and guide him through the process and to bounce thoughts and ideas off of. However, Lutz shares some advice: “Don’t make this a dinner conversation every night—the process can be overwhelming for the students, and continuing to discuss it over and over could cause more stress and frustration for the student. They will get enough questions about college from people outside their house.”

So make sure your student knows you are there to help, but don’t pressure her to come to a decision. Most students will just “know” what the right school is once the admissions process is over, especially if they’ve gone into it prepared and organized!

 

Hot Tip:

My best piece of advice for high school students and their parents is to cast your college search net wide, and then begin to narrow the pool as you discover priorities and participate in college search activities like events, campus visits and conversations with campus representatives. Step outside of what is familiar or already known and do the research across a wide breadth of institutions—you may find a perfect match that was not on your original radar! --Courtney Hallenbeck, assistant director for recruitment programs, New Student Services, Kansas State University

 

Sara Keenan has worked in college admissions and advising, and currently works at Rockhurst University in the Aylward-Dunn Learning Center. 

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