My older sons are high school juniors and with college looming in the not-too-distant future I've been panicked of late. It all seems so much more competitive, complicated and expensive than when I did this. So I turned to THE college planning guru, Becky Claster of Claster Educational Services, for the crib sheet of what parents of high schoolers need to know year-by-year to get this process under control.
Here's what she had to say:
As families with high schoolers settle into their new routines, college may be all your student is thinking about . . . or it may not have crossed his or her mind. Whether your student is in the Class of 2019 or 2022, some essential grade-by-grade tips can help you start the year off right from the college planning perspective.
You have a lot on your plate, which means time management is crucial. Your first priority is earning good grades in your core academic classes, so be sure to reserve enough time for study. Next priority: college applications. Create a detailed timeline for completing the Common App, Coalition App, all of your essays, and optional components like a resume or portfolio. Check in with your school counselor and other recommenders to make sure your letters are on track, and create your FSA ID so you can complete the FAFSA when it opens on October 1. (If your schools require it, the CSS Profile opens the same day.)
Fall is also the time to schedule any remaining college visits. Prioritize schools that consider demonstrated interest in the application process; those where a visit won’t improve your chances of admission can wait. If you can’t make it to campus, meeting with college reps locally counts too, so keep an eye on your school’s visit schedule. Also check to see which schools on your list are attending upcoming college fairs, then come prepared to their tables and make a great impression.
Planning ahead can ease the pressure of this busy time. As the PSAT approaches in October, take a practice ACT to figure out which test is better for you. Then put all your effort into that one. Look at possible test dates, keeping in mind what else you’re doing at those times—playing sports? The school play? AP exams in May? SAT Subject Tests, usually best taken in June? Once you have a testing plan, figure out your prep plan. Consider schedule, delivery method (online, in-person, group class, individual tutoring, etc.) and your budget, and sign up.
I recommend blocking out dates now for college tours throughout the year, even if you haven’t decided where to visit. Taking a few shorter trips is less stressful than a jam-packed spring break tour and allows more time to reflect. The best times are your school’s administrative days because you can see colleges when they’re in session without missing your own classes. You can also start with local visits to get a feel for big vs. small, university vs. liberal arts college, urban vs. suburban setting, etc. In addition to the admissions tour, arrange to attend a class in a subject that interests you to get a better sense of campus life.
Connect with your teachers and your school counselor, and set goals for the month or the grading period. Work on study and organizational skills. As school-based sports and clubs start up, consider which activities you’d like to get more involved in, keeping in mind that colleges value commitment to a few priorities over lots of dabbling. Doing these things this fall will kick off a strong start for the year.
It’s September of 9th grade, do we really need to be talking about college already? Well, not too specifically. Get to know your teachers and school counselor, who will support you along the way. Plan your routines thoughtfully and set goals for a month or so, then revisit them and recalibrate. And explore the new opportunities that are available to you now that you’re in high school, like sports, clubs, community service, internships, or simply the higher level of academic challenge. The most important thing right now is to have a smooth transition and lay the foundation for a successful high school experience.
Becky Claster, an independent educational consultant, is the founder of Claster Educational Services. She works with students throughout high school to help them prepare for and navigate the college admissions process.