Here are a few simple, but critical summer to-do’s for all families with college-bound students

But first there’s some good news to share: as Peter predicted, after many rounds of ‘reconsideration’, there are quite a few kids coming off college waitlists and/or receiving revised offers – including a game-changer for one student who received an additional $38,000!.

The less good news is that as a result, Pete’s more swamped than usual this week.

So it’s me (Jill) ‘manning’ the College Pete desk. Which is kind of perfect actually. Because we’re just days away from Memorial Day, and Memorial Day is and always has been how I mark the official beginning of summer (after all, you can take an exit 145 Jersey girl out of NJ, but you can’t take the Jersey out of this girl.)

For the past 9 years, however, Memorial Day is also how Peter and I officially mark the beginning of our next college season. Many highly coveted colleges will begin ‘reading’ applications from the Class of 2016 on August 1st, when the 2015-16 Common Application officially ‘opens’.  Some schools will begin ‘reading’ even earlier, and a handfull say they’re already reading (mostly the applications of highly recruited Division 1 football or basketball players).

For our 11th (soon to be 12th graders), it’s time to get really serious about applying to college.  For soon to be 11th graders, it’s time to do some critical college pre-planning – so that when next Memorial Day rolls around – you’re informed, prepared and not in angst-inducing, catch-up mode.  And for families with college-bound high schools students in any grade, summer presents a perfect opportunity to investigate the college process, sans stress, and before the ‘heavy academic lifting’ of the upper grades restricts time.

In fact, colleges are increasingly looking both to gauge students and engage (read: hook) them earlier and earlier in their high school years.  If you have a child in any grade in high school, you probably already know this by the small, but steady flow of college-related ‘literature’ you’re seeing in your mailbox.   It’s a nuisance now, but if you haven’t taken control of the process before your student gets closer to 12th grade, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the growing piles of paper, not to mention the constant influx of information and misinformation from every source imaginable.

That said, here are a few things that you can do this summer to get ahead of the college process now, so your child gets a head start and you stay sane when school starts next Fall.

  • Involve Your Child in The Conversation –  With fewer external pressures, summer is a good time to really engage your child in the college process.  Help them understand that college is not intended to be 13th grade by having them take account of their academic interests and achievements, test scores (see below), future career aspirations and expectations.  Afterwards, you can work together to identify colleges that will provide the right environment in the near-term and offer the appropriate programs for them to achieve their goals in the long-term (and will have the financial wherewithal and incentive to meet your financial needs).

  • Help Your Child Research, Build and/or Narrow Their College List –Though application inflation is rampant, and many students now reflexively apply to as many as 20 schools, an ideal list is a focused one!   You’ll want to include a balance of reach, target, and safe schools (financially and academically) – with a particular emphasis on schools where your child is likely to fall into the top 25% of the applicant pool. Remember, with admit rates at record lows, it’s best to include schools that might not be household names (yet), but will fill your child’s academic and aspirational objectives and can/will meet your financial needs.
  •  Visit Colleges – With fewer students on campus, summer is not necessarily the optimal time to visit colleges, but it is certainly a convenient one for most families.  Not surprisingly, colleges expect many visitors during summer months, so there will be frequent tours and info sessions.  Visiting is the best way to express interest in a college, which absolutely matters when trying to secure the Thick Envelope, the one that comes with a ‘yes’ and hopefully, a ‘discount’ offer.   Summer is a great time to introduce your student to campus life and help him gain a sense of what a college campus could look like and how it might vary from school to school.  And it’s a great way to identify and engage on-campus advocates who might be able to lobby for your child come application time.  Check out Pete’s college visit tips to help you get the most out of each campus visit.
  •  Prepare/Practice for Fall Admissions Tests – This year, more so than ever, the summer has to play a critical role in your child’s test prep strategy and practice.  Why? Well, it’s gonna be a bit of a testing mess this year, especially for current 10th graders (including our daughter).  You can go here for the long version and our recommendations regarding the major changes in Admissions Testing.  For the short version: the PSAT is going to be the completely overhauled brand-new version this October. The completely overhauled brand-new SAT will debut in March, but we haven’t yet seen a full-length practice test from the College Board. Rising 12th graders or 11th graders who plan to take the SAT  in Oct, Nov, Dec or Jan (say to boost their scores a bit or to validate the Fall PSAT score for National Merit) will get the OLD version of the SAT.  And just for kicks, the ACT is getting some minor tweaks as well.  The concern is that as of this writing, I’m only aware of two full-length PSAT practice tests that have been released and not one full-length new SAT practice test. (Practice questions are available on the College Board site and at Khan Academy).  Because of these unique circumstances, we recommend that all 10th grade students (and many 9th graders as well) use this summer to at least familiarize themselves with the new version of the PSAT/SAT.  You’d be surprised — at some schools, even a few points can mean the difference in both admissions and funding.  You can go to the College Board site, Khan Academy, consider a tutor or private class (call us for a recommendation), or try ePrep a great, innovative and affordable tool that we provide, and is currently prepping students with the new PSAT practice tests.
  •  Put your finances in order. If your student is going into 12th grade, make sure that you look up the priority financial aid deadlines and make sure that you’re financial house is in order to meet those deadlines.  At a minimum, and this is for all parents of high school students, find out what your current expected family contribution (EFC) is.  This is the amount of money that the government (based on a formula derived in regulations set forth by Department of Education) will tell the colleges on your list that you can afford to pay for college for one student for one year.  It’s often the number that many schools start with when it comes to doling out need-based grants as well as some merit-based scholarships.  For our practice, the EFC represents the discounted net price (as opposed to the sticker price) of college; and for many families, there are legitimate, ethical and practical ways within the Department of Education regulations to manage the EFC, especially if identified before finalizing your child’s admissions strategy and certainly before finalizing your child’s college list.   Why?  Because not all schools will meet the gap between your EFC and the school’s total cost of attendance and those that do, meet them for different reasons and in different ways.  Becoming armed with this information in advance helps ensure that your child will be applying to, positioned to get into and able to afford the colleges that will meet their educational goals, graduate them in 4 (not 6 years) with a degree they can use for the next 40 years… all without them becoming saddled with student loans or you having to sacrifice your own retirement.  Which leads me to the last thing on our college planning summer to-do list.
  • If you’re in South Florida, join Peter (and me) at his upcoming college planning workshop on June 25 at The Sagemont School in Weston.  It’s a great program for parents of high-school aged children (with kids absolutely welcome as well).  And, it’s a great opportunity to learn exactly how to calculate your own EFC, or how much your Pre-paid Plan will cover in-state or out, whether and how much your and your child’s savings will be ‘penalized’ by the Dept of Education formulas, or what Admissions officers have told us (in private) they really care about… and a whole lot more about how to fine tune your child’s admissions strategy, improve their prospects and make a great college education affordable.  And, best of all, unlike college, Pete’s class is100% free — and pitch-free.  You can go here to learn more or to reserve your seat. 

I hope to see you there. And in the interim, enjoy your long weekend – please don’t drink, text or re-read this post while driving.

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