How is it possible that my boy is almost halfway through his senior year? Wasn’t he playing Little League just yesterday? Many people told me to enjoy my children’s childhood. “It goes so fast,” they would say. Yet, when you are in midst of daily life…school, homework, sports practice, music, etc., you don’t realize how quickly the time passes. Some of the days were long, but the years have gone quickly.
Last week my son marked a milestone in his life. His first college decision letter came. My boy is going to college. Fortunately, three more acceptance letters arrived later that week. Now he has a choice. My husband and I are so proud and thrilled for him, yet I can’t help but feel it’s a little bittersweet. While I am so excited for his opportunities, I selfishly will miss seeing him everyday. I can’t help but wonder if our family dynamics and relationships will change. When he comes home, I am sure he will have grown as a result of his college experiences and independence.
So, how did we get to this point? It’s been a long haul. I am no expert. I am just a mom, who at many points felt like a Kindergarten mom…going through this experience for the first time. I decided to share what I have learned about the college application and admissions process so far, since things have changed so much in the twenty five years since I had first applied to school. This is a compilation of what I have learned from friends who have older children, advice from counselors, various information sessions that I have attended, and my own personal experience. I hope you find this helpful!
1. Start Visiting Schools Early
There are so many different types of schools and campuses. By driving through, walking through, or touring campuses, your student will be able to see a variety of school settings. Does your student like an urban or suburban campus? What size campus is your student drawn to? At this point, we didn’t worry about the specific school. Instead, we just narrowed down what type of school my son was drawn to.
2. Location, Location, Location
Once you have the type of school narrowed down, is there an area that your student would like to explore? Will your student stay home and commute? Would he/she like to live on campus? I know several parents who have given their child a radius from their home that they would feel comfortable with. My husband and I wanted to be able to get to my child within a few hours…by car or by plane. We also have good friends that live within two hours from some of the schools to which my son applied. You need to decide what your family is comfortable with.
As teenagers, many students don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, many students know where their natural interests lie. If your student has a “dream” school, be sure that school offers majors that are aligned with his/her interests.
4. Standardized Testing
Your child will begin by taking the PSAT. This test can be taken both sophomore and junior year. This test is a practice for the SAT. One of the awards for doing well on the PSAT during junior year is that your child could become eligible for the National Merit Scholar Competition. The test is a diagnostic exam to determine strengths and weaknesses in Critical Reading and Mathematics.
The SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a standardized test that may be used as criteria in college admission. The SAT is created by College Board and they offer free preparation on their website from Khan Academy. All of my son’s schools “super scored” his SAT score, meaning that they took the best Critical Reading score and the best Math score to create his best SAT total score.
The ACT (originally American College Testing) is another standardized test that may be used as college entrance criteria. It is a test that consists of 4 sections: English, Reading Comprehension, Math, and Science.
Some advice that we were given regarding the standardized testing was to have our child take the test without any preparation during his junior year, as a baseline. Then, based on the results, practice the specific areas that needed improvement for retake.
5. Use the Internet
Many high schools use computer programs, such as Naviance, that allow students to search colleges and see how they compare to previous graduates from their school. Another great resource is College Board Big Future. To use this website, you will need to create a free account. College Board lets you search colleges based on a variety of criteria. College Board is the same organization that creates the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams. It is also home to the CSS profile, which many private academic institutions use to help determine financial aid.
6. Attend College Fairs and In-School Visits
Attending a college fair is a great way to get information and talk to a representative from a variety of institutions. Take this opportunity to ask specific questions about the school, the admissions criteria, and admissions process.
Check with your guidance office for information on when representatives are coming to visit your student’s high school. Encourage your student to attend and interact with the representative.
Some schools track the number of contacts you have with them. If there is a school of interest to your child, be sure that they make as many of these contacts with the school as possible.
7. Create Your List
We were advised that my son’s list consist of 8-10 schools. My son had two reach schools, five target schools, and three safety schools. I thought that this seemed like a lot of schools, but it was narrowed down from over 3,700 college options.
8. Take an Official Tour
Take an official tour of your schools of choice. Be sure to visit when school is in session and your student can see the campus during “real life”. It is important to actually see the campus and its surrounding area. Remember that professional photographers take the photos you see in the brochures. They can be cropped and edited. To get the real feel of the school, visit in person. The tour guides are usually students. Bring a list of questions to ask your tour guide. Ask if you can observe a class and see a typical dorm room. Visit the dining facility and the library. After your tour, take a walk across campus. Notice how students interact with each other. Is this a place where your student could see themselves?
We didn’t visit everywhere my son applied. For a few schools, we decided to apply and if he got in and it is an affordable option, we would then plan a visit.
9. The Application
Many schools use what is called the Common Application. It is one application that is completed and sent electronically to participating schools of your choice. In addition, schools may have required supplements that are specific to their school. Other schools have their own application and do not use the Common Application.
Most schools require an essay. My advice is to begin early. My husband and I asked my son to complete his essay before the end of the summer before senior year. We wanted it done early as we knew how busy his first semester was going to be. Less stress = happier household. 🙂
10. Keep in touch with your high school counselor
We are very fortunate that we have worked with an amazing guidance counselor. She has helped to make this a smooth process. When questions pop up, I encourage you to reach out and keep an open line of communication. Remember that this is your counselor’s job and that they do this everyday. Trust their expertise. They are so knowledgeable and aware of any changes that may occur in the process.
Where is my son going? We don’t know yet. We’re still waiting to hear back from all. Then we need to see where it makes the most sense financially for him to attend. As I said, it is a process and we’re still in the midst of it.
A friend of mine gave me some good advice:
“You don’t need to find a needle in a haystack. There will be a lot of right choices.”
Yes, there are many “right choices” and I do think that my son will be happy at any of the choices he has been given thus far.
Best wishes to you and your student on the college application process.
I hope that you have found our experience helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts and any insights you may have.