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College Planning - Get a Leg Up on Your Competition by Starting Early

MONEY TALKS - Planning for college can be an overwhelming and stressful experience for both parents and students alike due to the competitive nature of the application process and the large financial commitment. Following the appropriate college planning timelines, identifying benchmarks, and developing a checklist early on in the process can help to alleviate the situation by creating a roadmap for the future. Proper planning and knowledge of how the college selection process works may give your child a leg up on other students when it comes to college acceptance, financial aid, and scholarships. Here are a few basic college planning tips to keep both students and parents on track.

Pre-High School - Start researching 529 College Savings Plans and setup an account for the student ASAP. A 529 plan is an excellent way to help fund a child’s college education due to the flexibility of the plan. Assets within the account can be used at virtually all accredited colleges and universities in the United States and eligible foreign institutions. Furthermore, the assets are counted favorably for financial aid purposes and withdrawals are free from Federal income tax if they are used for qualified education expenses.

Freshman Year - College planning for high school students begins by choosing the appropriate classes to take. Most colleges and universities have core requirements including (but not limited to); 4 years of English, 3 years of social studies, 3 years of mathematics, 3 years of lab science, and 2 years of a foreign language. Tackling these course requirements early on may allow for a more relaxed schedule during junior and senior years of high school enabling the student to focus on academics while pursuing extracurricular activities. These activities (including non-school-sponsored) are an important part of high school and the college selection process.

Sophomore Year - Start the year by reviewing what core courses have already been taken and move onto the next level of classes in these core subject areas. Taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT) as a sophomore will help to determine a student’s aptitude in mathematics, reading, and writing/language. While the PSAT will not impact a student’s chance of college admission, it does serve as a useful tool to assess their readiness for the SAT and may even qualify students for the National Merit Scholarship or other financial aid awards. Working with an education consultant to improve standardized testing scores may prove helpful with the SAT’s around the corner. Remember to stay involved in extracurricular activities and work towards a leadership position (captain) if possible.  

Junior Year - Meet with a guidance counselor to determine what core classes have yet to be completed. Begin narrowing down college choices and determine specific entrance requirements. For example, most engineering schools require 4 years of mathematics. Enroll in the next level of these core classes and consider enrolling in advanced placement (AP) courses. Study and take the SAT and/or ACT and consider retaking them if necessary. Have a discussion about potential colleges and family resources available. Gather financial aid information and start identifying schools that fit socially, academically, and financially. Attend any high-school sponsored events focused on college selection or financial aid. Consider reaching out ahead of time to any teachers, guidance counselors, or coaches who may be writing a letter of recommendation. This will give them plenty of time to prepare before the fall when they are likely to get inundated with requests. 

Senior Year - Enroll in any core courses that have yet to be completed. Retake the SAT’s if necessary. Identify a list of “top schools” and schedule a time to visit these schools. Students should also schedule a meeting with their guidance counselor to make sure they are on track to meet the admission requirements of their targeted schools. Finish the application forms and essays and send them to the appropriate schools. Make sure the counselor knows which schools to send transcripts, test scores, and recommendation letters to. Apply for scholarships throughout the year being careful to note when the deadlines are approaching. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, if necessary, complete the College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS Profile). It should also be noted that states and individual colleges set their own deadlines; however, certain aid is awarded to the students who apply earliest. Generate a list of accepted schools and compare financial aid packages. Continue to maintain good grades and participate in extracurricular activities. Determine which college or university fits best and send back the commitment letter before the deadline.

More Financial Aid & Scholarships - Starting early in the college planning process affords students more flexibility because many of the core requirements can be completed prior to senior year of high school. This in turn allows students more time to focus on admission applications and essays as well as scholarships. Understanding the admission requirements and the scholarship parameters may lead to more financial aid and scholarship awards to help pay for college!