College Lessons for High School Parents

The days, months, and years leading up to sending your child to college are fraught with all types of fears and questions. In a seemingly short amount of time, you and your child will make decisions regarding where they want to study, what career they want to pursue, and what the next stage of their life will look like. This process will be both exciting and terrifying for you both.

It seems like there’s a never-ending checklist of tasks to complete and dates to set, but the good thing is that you’re far from the first parent to confront these anxieties, and you’re not alone. These thoughts have lingered in the minds of many parents who’ve seen their children embark on this exciting next step.

Tips for Parents of College-Bound Students

While the process can be both exhausting and overwhelming, especially when reading countless advice columns about sending your kids to college, some parents who’ve already done the work have shared their greatest insights on how to make applying a bit easier. Parents in our Paying For College 101 Facebook Group shared the advice they wish they’d received before their kids went to college.

Get a Head Start on Applications, Essays, and Planning

“What I did not anticipate, though, was how long the essays would take to write and how many revisions I would need to iterate through before I would finally be happy with a version,” “Teachers, parents, friends – these are all great sources for advice, yet be weary of getting too much advice.” Alison 

A college essay is a rare point in the application process where your student gets to express themselves using their own words but this may not always be easy for them. Admissions officers will read countless essays each year, so your student needs to start brainstorming essay topics early so they can refine and develop their idea into a compelling essay.

This is a student’s chance to stand out from the crowd and explain to colleges what THEY can bring to the table. GPAs, class ranks, and SAT scores, are all important, but this is also a time for a student to express their individuality through a personal essay. This isn’t the time to be shy; encourage your child to brag about themselves!

While you can guide your student in helping them write their essay and help them manage the overall admissions process, this is also a time for them to learn the importance of timelines and deadlines.

“We didn’t realize it could take over a week for schools to receive my son’s SAT scores after we submitted them.  We thought submitting them electronically a week and a half before the deadline would be ok. We paid the extra fee to expedite the process to be safe,”- Debbie

Families approach to managing the admissions process differently. Some who are more techy use project management software that parents use at work, like Asana and Trello. Others create visual reminders with large Gantt charts, placed in locations where students can’t avoid, like the kitchen, family room, and bedrooms. Spreadsheets are always a good fallback for creating a list of what needs to get done, deadlines, and who is responsible for it.

Deadlines in the admissions process are not forgiving and once a deadline is missed, students can’t get a redo. This applies to things like early deadlines for school-specific scholarships, deadlines for financial aid forms, and deadlines for requesting high school documents like transcripts and teacher recommendations. It’s easy to say, but it does make a big difference in the long-term, that the earlier a family gets organized for the admissions process, the better.

Start Polishing the Resume

“I have a piece of advice for rising seniors…get your resume done now! The resume is used for a variety of things and I found it to be the most useful and most important thing my son had in applying to colleges and outside scholarship.”- Tamara’

Your student will likely spend a lot of time stressing over a detailed application and heartfelt personal essay, and while it may seem daunting to have them fill out another long document, having a great resume is important.

Their resume will help them find great opportunities both within and outside of their chosen college. It’s something they can use when applying for jobs, internships, and any selective social groups they’re interested in. These opportunities won’t just look great on an application, they will provide your child with fulfillment and positive experiences that will help them as they transition to the next stage of their life.

A great resume will identify academic highs like SAT and ACT scores, class rank, and GPA, but also personal experiences like any job experience, volunteer work, or extracurricular activities. Give specific dates, and also have your student network and have a list of contacts they can use as personal references. The goal is to make a detailed and well-rounded document that will help your child leave a great first impression.

Put Your Financial Situation Under Scrutiny

Finances can be the most confusing and daunting aspects of preparing for college, and it’s important, to be honest with your child about the financial side of paying for college, and what you can and cannot afford.

“Please, don’t bank on your actual, real, legitimate need resulting in ANY need-money from colleges. Please. Consequently, before you apply, before you even visit or get your heart set on any college, run the net price calculator FIRST,”- Sabrina

There are a plethora of online resources, like College Board, that can help you and your student prioritize their search and look at schools that are an academic and social fit for your student.

Just as important is making sure to pay close attention to a school’s financial fit for your family. There’s no point in devoting your time and energy obsessing about a school that won’t work for financial and logistical reasons. It’s important to understand how a college meets a student’s financial need and whether or not they also award merit scholarships. Consider trying  College Insights to quickly find colleges that can help meet your family’s financial need with need-based aid or can offer your student merit scholarships.

“Research costs, merit aid and run the net costs calculators before you plan college visits. Also sit down with your child and have a frank conversation about finances. I wish someone had told me that before I started the process with my oldest daughter. She went out of state and even with living off campus and a generous merit scholarship she is struggling with 58k of college loan debt.”- Jeanette

While doing all this research, remember you can reach out to a college’s financial aid office to pick their brain with your questions. Some schools are now offering to pre-read a student’s application to let them know before applying if they would be eligible for merit scholarships and how much. Even if a school doesn’t advertise this option, ASK! There’s no harm in sharing which schools are offering merit scholarship pre-reads and asking if a school will do the same.

Do Deep-Diving Loan Research

While there are opportunities for loans, scholarships, and need-based assistance, your child should be involved with making a lot of the important decisions regarding their financial future. They’re becoming adults, and it’s best, to be honest with them about what they’ll be responsible for, including how much you as parents can afford to pay towards college, what they’ll be provided with, and what they can do to help make their education more affordable. You should work with your child as they identify scholarship opportunities and fill out their applications, and together you can decide what loan plan is the best fit for your family.

A good way to familiarize you and your student with loans, the terminology, and how they work is to check out lenders’ websites. College Ave Student Loans’ site serves as an excellent primer, providing information on loan basics along with a calculator families can experiment with to show repayment options, interest rates, and expected monthly payment so there are no surprises. Sharing this information with your student can lead to them having strong insight about finances and paying for college.

The Empty Nest Awaits: Get Involved

Outside of the financial pressures and career anxieties you and your child have, there’s a sentimental aspect that can’t be forgotten. Your student will soon be on his/her own as they pursue their studies, and the separation will be challenging for both of you.

Thankfully there are a lot of parents in the same position, and it’s easy to get involved. There are many Facebook groups for parents at individual universities that help to share news about the school, answering common questions, and helping work through individual and collective struggles.

“It was very helpful over the summer in providing information to parents in preparation for enrollment. We still provide information and support to each other after classes have started,”- Latasha, who joined a Facebook group for her son’s university.

Keeping an Open Line of Communication

Every parent-child relationship is different. You know each other’s ticks, you share different in-jokes, and you have different ways of expressing yourselves. You will be preparing for the challenges of freshman year. Walking the line between giving your child needed advice and not being overprotective can be a challenging one but having an open line of communication is important.

Maybe it’s a text every night, a weekly phone call, or an occasional funny picture, but staying in contact in one way or another will benefit you both. They will be exploring new experiences and learning things for themselves, so while they won’t always need your help, it’s important that they know they can ask for it.

“He texts if he needs something in between or we need something but that is maybe every other week. We are trying to balance giving him space and feeling close and supportive.,”- Magna

Find a pace that you’re both comfortable with; they don’t want to have to constantly be checking in, but you want to avoid as many late-night panics as possible. Keep them updated on the important stuff and encourage them to keep in touch with family, but share fun moments as well. Even if you’re not talking or texting often, you can find ways to stay in each other’s lives.

“Text. They don’t want calls unless they need something, and I also don’t know if they’re in a class, study session, or interview. And heaven forbid they are out with friends and you should call,”- Jenny

You both are going through this together, and you will each have different responsibilities. You likely will approach things differently and come up with different solutions, but mutual respect and patience will go a long way.

A Few More Words of Wisdom…

“Buy tuition insurance!” — Regina (and many others)

“My daughter bought all the stuff she ascertained she needed (on her dime) after I dropped her off with a few basics. We’re not sending them to Siberia. They can figure it out.” — Joanna

“It is stressful, and they need to know we support them and have their back.” –Luci

“Prepare them for learning, for advocating for themselves, for managing their time well, how to stay safe and keep their friends (and others) safe, for managing their resources, how to bounce back when they screwed up (lost something, missed an assignment etc.).” –Julie

Both you and your child are bound to make mistakes as you enter this new stage. You will often learn and grow from missteps but keeping these tips in mind can make the path just a little bit easier. This is a new adventure- take the challenges in stride and prepare for an exciting and rewarding next chapter!


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