From organizing college campus tours and completing applications to applying for financial aid, the admissions process can be arduous for both parents and students. How do you know what to do when? Use this month-by-month guide to know what questions to ask when and stay organized leading up to the first day of freshman year.
According to Stefanie Niles, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, “the real work occurs during junior year.” High school students should form an idea of preferences by perusing college websites, having informal conversations with admissions staff and visiting campuses. According to Niles, this last step is really critical.
Benjamin Johnson, director, media and public relations at Ohio State University, agrees, noting that college classes are in session this time of year. “This gives you a chance to see students in action, discover how the campus community operates and imagine yourself there as a student,” Johnson says.
Once students have a feel for schools they like, determining where (and to how many) to apply is an individual decision. Silvia Marquez, interim assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California-Berkeley, says: “It is important to think about applying to multiple campuses so that you will have choices after decisions are released.”
Joe DePaulo, co-founder, chairman and CEO of College Ave Student Loans, suggests students apply to at least one school where they score better than the average applicant, to increase their chances of earning merit aid. He urges applying to one or two in-state schools as well, to reap the potential benefits of reduced tuition.
Lastly, DePaulo encourages applying to one or two dream schools that might seem beyond your budget to compare financial aid packages. According to a recent study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, freshmen entering private nonprofit colleges for the 2017-2018 school year received an average of $18,798 in institutional grants.
It’s best to start requesting recommendation letters at the beginning of senior year, according to Niles, so teachers and coaches have time to do them justice. She also urges students who have access to a college counseling office to use it and follow their guidelines closely.
While it’s a good idea to give the ACT or SAT a test run toward the end of junior year, Niles says students should complete one or both tests early in senior year. As Johnson notes, students should take them at least six weeks in advance of application deadlines.
Some institutions’ early-decision and early-action applications may be due as early as Oct. 15, so that’s another reason to get a head start. However, Niles says students should only apply to the former if they’re certain a school is their top choice, as it also will require an early commitment. Regular decision deadlines run from early January into early April.
Oct. 1 is a key date to remember, says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid (NASFA). That’s when the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) becomes available.
“We encourage students to fill it out as soon as possible,” Coval says, given that many colleges as well as state aid programs use it to evaluate eligibility for grants and loans. As its name suggests, the FAFSA is completely free, and financial aid counselors are happy to help students and parents complete it. Apply early – Coval says some federal funding is limited.
“Ohio State’s priority FAFSA filing date is Feb. 1 for maximum aid consideration,” Johnson says. “We strongly encourage every student to file the FAFSA to be considered for the most financial aid for which they are eligible, including scholarships, grants, loans and federal work study.”
Marquez agrees. “At Berkeley, we encourage applicants to submit their FAFSA and/or California Dream Act Application as early as possible,” she says. “We release financial aid offers at the time of admission in the spring.”
This is also the time to begin looking for non-school-affiliated scholarship opportunities. For instance, College Ave Student Loans has a monthly scholarship award and chooses a new student recipient each month.
Complete that last semester of high school strong. Johnson reminds students and parents that most colleges make final admission contingent upon receipt of the final high school transcript at the end of senior year.
The dates when colleges send letters of acceptance or declination varies widely. Niles says they might be within as little as two weeks of submitting one’s application. Some letters arrive, however, in mid to late March. Usually students receive offers of financial aid packages at the same time.
May 1 is National Decision Day, when most institutions require confirmation of planned attendance. “Deciding which college to choose is often the most difficult decision a 17- or 18-year-old makes in his or her life up to that point,” Niles says, adding that there isn’t just one right school for most students.
To make that decision, Marquez advises considering the school’s location, environment and campus size, plus its academic reputation, support for the student’s intended major and academic resources.
Also weigh your financial options. If you’re considering private student loans you can use the College Ave Student Loans’ calculator to find your best repayment options.
Parents and students should also prepare to pay deposits to the school of choice at this time. Those can range from $100 to $500 and typically apply to the fall semester’s tuition.
During the summer prior to freshman year, colleges will contact students and parents with a variety of preparation materials, including housing applications, request for payment of the first semester’s tuition, registration for classes and invitations to participate in a variety of college life activities. Niles says to make sure to keep up with all these communications and deadlines and attend orientation activities if they’re available.
Harlan Cohen, best-selling author and college lifestyle expert, also recommends plugging into the school’s social channels. Start with the school’s main channels – such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – but you can also encourage your student to search for specific campus departments, the student newspaper, athletics, clubs, office of student life, even leaders at the school.
In addition, Cohen recommends having an honest conversation about the upcoming school year.What are your expectations when it comes to calling home? Grades? Who is paying the phone bill? By having these discussions before school starts, it sets the path for a smoother transition the first year.
This is also a good time to prepare a budget, not just to cover tuition, room and board but also the expenses of daily living. Working up an estimate of the student’s monthly cost of living can help parents and students see if they need to arrange necessary, additional funding before the school year begins.