A high school student’s road to college may seem challenging. Parents and children don’t always agree on a college, plus they must meet deadlines and make tough financial choices. If that isn’t stressful enough, students should be checking off their to-do list of tasks each year.

How do parents help them navigate all the details? Here is some advice from the pros – a parent who’s been through the process, a high school academic and college counselor and a college admissions counselor.

Starting the Conversation

It all starts with a conversation between parent and child. But often the question that starts the conversation is the wrong one, according to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech.

“Parents ask ‘Where do you want to go to college?’ “Clark says. The biggest question that parents don’t ask or lose sight of is, ‘Why do you want to go to college?’”

That “why” is important, and should be followed up with questions like “What do you hope to get out of this? What do you want to study? What do you want to do long-term?” Clark says.

Freshman Year: Academics Are Important

Rachael Fain, a mom of three who lives in Kennesaw, stresses the importance of the GPA during freshman year. Fain’s daughter, Hannah, graduated from the University of Georgia in 2017. Fain’s son, Matthew, is a sophomore at Kennesaw State University.

“My children started taking high school classes in eighth grade,” Fain says. “A GPA is harder to bring up in junior and senior year, so our goal their eighth- and ninth-grade years was to keep their GPA high.”

Erin McCubbin, Upper School Head of Academic and College Counseling at The Mount Vernon School, specializes in helping students prepare for college.

“The highest potential to insulate a student’s GPA for the future is during freshman year,” McCubbin says.
The freshman year is also important for getting on a challenging track of classes. “Math in particular is something students need to pay attention to,” Clark says.

Taking challenging classes in high school helped Fain’s son make his college decision. After Matthew took dual credit classes at KSU, he decided to pursue his degree there.

Sophomore Year: Getting to Know You

At The Mount Vernon School, McCubbin says the counselors guide students through self-reflection during their tenth-grade year.

“We prompt students to name their strengths, to say, ‘Hey, I’m good at this!” We ask what are they interested in? What type of school are they interested in – big, small, liberal arts?”

Students at Mount Vernon also take personality assessments like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to help them find their best college and career paths.

Taking the PSAT is another good way to figure out their testing strengths and weaknesses and allow students to prepare for the ACT and SAT when they are juniors and seniors.

“We have the entire sophomore class take the PSAT,” says McCubbin. “It’s great practice as long as students think of it as practice. They shouldn’t do test prep for it.”

Junior Year: Balancing Grades and Activities

Grades are crucial during the junior year. Junior year also involves more challenging classes and leadership roles in clubs and activities. It’s hard to do it all, so how important are the extracurricular activities?

“It depends on the student,” McCubbin says. “It depends on the school they are interested in.” McCubbin suggests letting your student find his own balance of activities and academics and then look for colleges that match.

McCubbin also advises that colleges that emphasize activities want students that are involved in a complex way. “Don’t just be a swimmer. Ask how you can be more. Can you coach or teach swimming lessons to younger kids?”

McCubbin also stresses how important it is for high school students to contribute to the world around them. “Help your student think about what they love to do and then how they can use that to create something that wouldn’t exist without them,” says McCubbin.

At Georgia Tech, Clark says, one out of every four students who apply are accepted.

“Most students that apply have good test scores, good grades and good courses. Then the review committee asks, ‘Is this kid a good fit for us?’”

Clark says they look for students who are innovative or who are entrepreneurs, and they ask, “How does this student use their time?”

“If they are a good student who goes home and plays video games, what will they contribute to the school?” Clark says.

Students stand out if they are responsible, if they work a job or if they make an impact some way.

Senior Year: Find Your Fit

Clark says the most important thing about making a college decision is finding a good fit.

“Fit doesn’t really mean can the student do the work, but are they aligned well to the school.” For example, Clark says Brown University and Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology) look the same on paper. A student will apply to each with the same grades and same test scores and get accepted to one and not the other.

“That is what fit is,” Clark says. “How a student fits with a school, not just from an academic standpoint.”
McCubbin says finding the right fit is the most difficult part of the process.

“At the beginning, be up front with your child about your boundaries, such as financial boundaries, and then help them find their fit,” McCubbin says. “Your fit may not be your child’s fit.”

If this is the case, Clark says how you approach the topic may resolve a lot of conflict over the situation.

“Continue to tell your kids you love them, and that no matter where they go to college, it will be great.”

The good news is that there are many schools across the country and probably more than one of them will match your student’s personality and academic standing.

“If you or your child feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember there is a school for every student,” Fain says.

By Janeen Lewis. Lewis is a writer, teacher and mom who lives in Kennesaw.

Year-by-Year Checklist:

Preparing for college can be overwhelming because of the many steps it takes to get an acceptance letter. But breaking the college to-do list into manageable steps for each year of high school makes the process less stressful and teaches students responsibility, the very thing they will need for what they want to achieve – a college education.

Follow this step-by-step guide for students.

Freshman Year

  • Talk to your parents and guidance counselor at the beginning of the year to set goals.
  • Take the most challenging courses available to you.
  • Make good grades.
  • Try a variety of activities.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to visit college campuses when you travel.

Sophomore Year

  • Visit college and career fairs.
  • Build your resume. Make a list of awards, accomplishments, and activities.
  • Take the PSAT for practice (you can take it your sophomore and junior year, but it won’t count until you are a junior).
  • Start studying for the ACT and SAT. There are many test prep guides available online and in book form.
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses and take a personality inventory.
  • Research possible careers.
  • During the summer begin researching colleges that might be a good fit.

Junior Year

  • Take the PSAT.
  • Accept leadership roles in the activities that suit you best.
  • Narrow your list of possible careers.
  • Narrow your list of possible colleges.
  • Take the ACT and SAT.
  • During the summer, volunteer or find an internship or job related to your future career.
  • Write a college entrance essay draft. Have it critiqued by a guidance counselor or teacher.

Senior Year

  • Narrow your college search to six to eight schools.
  • Post all important deadline dates on a wall calendar.
  • Retake the ACT or SAT if needed.
  • Polish your resume.
  • Ask for teacher recommendations.
  • Visit the colleges you are applying to.
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that is required to receive federal student aid, including federal grants and federal loans.
  • Send out all your college applications.
  • After you receive your acceptance letters, compare scholarship and financial aid packages and make your final decision.
  • Notify all the schools you were accepted to of your decision.

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