Every trip goes more smoothly when you use a road map -– whether it is on your GPS, your smart phone, or the old-fashioned paper kind that you fold out to trace your route. The path through high school is no different. Both parents and students want to enjoy the journey, learn things along the way, and get to the destination -– college -– ready to succeed. For families that have faced bumps in the road, such as learning or related challenges that make school more difficult, having a good road map is even more important.
Whether your student is a rising high school freshman or is heading into her senior year, there are steps both students and parents should take to help make the transition to college easier and more successful for everyone involved.
Here is a year-by-year guide to smoothing the way to college for your student and family:
This is a time for students to concentrate on getting the most out of their high school experience. One way to do that is to explore the numerous activities, clubs, and sports available in high school and to select a few on which to concentrate your time and energy. Freshmen don't start out as editor of their high school newspaper or as captain of a varsity sports team, but by becoming involved early on in those extra-curricular activities that appeal to you, you can build on your interests and skills throughout your high school career. You will get the satisfaction of your participation in something meaningful to you as well as building your resume for college.
This is also the year to realize that your grades really do count. It is a time to think about how you study and whether you are getting the academic supports you need to maximize your learning. If you have an IEP or 504 Plan, make sure you have read it and understand it and use the accommodations you are provided, such as extended time or a quiet location for exams. This will make a difference when you apply for accommodations for the SAT or ACT exams. If you are struggling with your schoolwork, don't wait to fail. Let your parents know as soon as you realize there is a problem so they can work with you and your teachers to identify the difficulties and help find solutions.
If you haven't already done so, it's time to sit down and see how you and your child are going to pay for college. Explore the website of FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to understand how the Expected Family Contribution to your student's college costs is calculated. Research some of the savings vehicles for college costs, such as 529 Plans.
It's also a good time to review your child's IEP or 504 Plan, if he has one, and make sure that it is sufficient to allow him to do his best work in high school. Be aware that one consideration in extending accommodations such as extra time on the SAT and ACT exams is whether your child has such accommodations for his school exams and whether he uses his accommodations regularly.
If you haven't already done so, make sure that this year you are taking the most advanced courses that you can handle successfully. Everyone learns differently and not every student will be able to succeed in honors or advanced placement classes but, if you are able to, you should not shy away from these classes, which are looked on favorably by colleges. This is also the year to make sure you are on track to meet all graduation requirements, including a foreign language (unless you have an exemption because of a learning issue).
Put some careful thought into your summer plans for the months between 10th and 11th grades. If you will be traveling, stop by and visit college campuses. If your school offers trips to colleges (and more and more public and private high schools do so) take advantage of these. It's way too early to decide what colleges you want to apply to, but getting a sense of what colleges look like and feel like (and they do have different "vibes") is an important step in your decision process.
This is also a good year to have a frank conversation with your parents about what kind of financial contribution they can make towards your college education, if you haven't already done so. Limited financial resources need not put top colleges out of reach, since these schools often have larger endowments and "full need" policies that enable them to offer aid packages that can put the cost of attendance even lower than at a state-funded college. However, as a young adult you need to understand that money is a real factor in the college decision process for many families and you need to be aware of your family situation and what that means for your college education. Especially in a difficult economy, graduating with significant student loans can create an enormous burden on young adults.
It's time to take your student on the road to begin visiting schools in which they may be interested. If your student has a learning or other disability, make sure to make an appointment in advance with the Office of Disability Services (every school has one, as required by law). They can give you an overview of the supports available for students and you can get a good sense of whether they are well run and helpful or if they might not provide the level of support your student will need.
Monitor your student's work to the extent you can, so that you can help them to turn around any problem subjects before they get out of hand.
This is your last full year of high school before you submit college applications. It's also the year most students take the PSAT exam (given in the fall of each year; you can take it in 10th grade but only an exam taken in 11th grade will count towards the National Merit Scholarship program associated with the PSATs) and possibly SAT or ACT exams in the spring. Make sure that if you require extended time or other accommodations for standardized tests, that you allow plenty of time to apply for and receive your accommodations before the test date.
Make use of the websites of the College Board (for the SAT) and the ACT. These sites have an enormous amount of information, including test dates, how to arrange accommodations, and test prep materials. Discuss with your parents whether you need to take a formal prep course, or if you may want to simply review prep materials online or in review books. Plan when you will be taking your SAT exams, keeping in mind that you may also be taking Advanced Placement exams in the spring this year and next.
This is the year to start thinking seriously about what you want in a college. Do you have a particular academic interest you want to explore -- marine biology? economics? mathematics? Would you be miserable if you could not ski, or surf, or play in the marching band in college? A good way to begin your exploration of where you might want to apply is with an online college search engine. Some high schools make proprietary programs available to their students. Other programs, including those available through The College Board, include individual search features. By entering your preferences and interests you can find a list of schools to consider. Use it as one of several starting points, but recognize its limitations. Probably the best resource available to most students is their guidance counselor. A good counselor will know you, know colleges that have accepted students from your high school before, and can come up with places you might not have otherwise considered. You should make a point of getting to know your counselor –- if you don't already -– so he or she can best help you in the college process and act as your advocate when preparing recommendations.
If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan check to make sure that her disability documentation is complete and up to date. The SAT and ACT websites both have sections on what they require for disability documentation, as does the Office of Disability Services for each college. Note that most colleges follow the guidelines of AHEAD, the Association on Higher Education and Disability, and therefore their requirements for documentation are very similar; they generally require a full educational and neuropsychological evaluation not more than three years old to receive accommodations for learning or attention difficulties.
Be sure to check with any colleges your student is considering for their specific documentation requirements.
This is it. It's time to pull together all your hard work, standardized exams, extracurricular activities, and research about colleges and actually submit your applications. Give careful consideration to whether you want to apply early decision to a particular school, keeping in mind the binding nature of such a decision and the fact that you won't know what kind of financial aid you will be receiving until after you are committed to attend. Make sure your applications are error free and do not press "send" on any online submissions until you have read, re-read, and then had someone else read your submission. Remember that you don't need to disclose if you have a disability (and usually shouldn't), but you should consider doing so if it helps explain a problem with your high school record.
You should be applying to a range of colleges –- some "safety", some "maybe/probable", and some "reach" schools. Ideally, you should have visited each of them but don't fret if this has not been possible. There is still time to visit after you have been accepted and before you make your final decision.
This year requires a difficult balancing act: you need to be available to help your student with her application but keep enough distance so that the application clearly reflects her skills and personality. Don't write the essay, but you can help edit it. Read the online application before it is submitted and help check for errors. Help set up a system of folders –- paper or computer based -– so that there is a place for all the materials related to each application. Help your student monitor deadlines but make sure he knows that this is his responsibility.
What if you don't think your student is ready for college, either academically or emotionally? There are a number of programs that can be a good next step for some students, providing a "gap year", a transitional year, or a certificate program. Discuss these possibilities with your student to see if they may be the right "next step" for him.
Celebrate acceptances and assure your student that most students end up happy even at their less-than-first-choice school.
And, for students and parents alike, try to relax as this process unfolds!
Copyright Susan Yellin, Esq. This article is reprinted with permission from The Yellin Center.Susan Yellin, Esq. of The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education is the author of the book Life After High School: A Guide for Students With Disabilities and Their Families.